The white is the paper. The black is the notes. Now, sing! ~ Dr. James Erb
The man who taught me to sing has died. Word came through social media last night. A beautiful obituary or two are circulating around. I've posted a link to my Facebook thread below. I'm still searching for the words to express my grief and gratitude. Jim was an astonishing musician and a singular personality. I will miss him.
To say he taught me to sing is not an exaggeration. I was encouraged by a friend during my Freshman year to audition for the University Choir. I knew nothing. I had not sung in a choir since seventh grade. There was a brief stint on stage in a High School production of "Grease," but we try not to discuss such things in public.
I arrived that first evening of rehearsal the second semester of school in 1989. Erb sat me in the bass section (I didn't know I was a bass; I knew that little) between two veterans and I held on for dear life. I could not read the music in front of me.
My audition with Erb consisted of mimicing everything he did...rhythmic patterns and pitches. He took a chance on me in spite of my ignorance cursing my lack of musical education all the while.
I spent the remainder of my college career singing in the University Choir, had a stint or two with the Schola Cantorum, the chapel choir, the a cappela group on campus, and the occasional impromptu gathering. He took us to a competition in Toronto, Canada where we won the gold, apparently impressing the judges with the maturity of sound. This was not a choir of music majors, but it was a choir of intelligent, passionate, choristers.
After graduation, I sang for him in the Symphony Chorus. I also found my way into professional choral gigs in Richmond and later Chicago.
The rest is history and I owe him everything. Everything. He was insane, an occasional tyrant, incredibly playful, and so very talented. He held nothing back.
It was "Mr. Erb" or "Jim" and not "Doctor Erb" or anything of the sort. Why? "Any idiot can get a PhD." He would preach on the virtues of memorizing the score. He would say time and again that he could, if we were ready, simply walk off the stage and we would finish the piece. He would make us sing without his immediate direction to compell us to listen to one another. He would not hesitate to call you out if you were off pitch or not blending. He wanted us to be fearless. Fearless.
There are few people on this planet that I have ever wished to emulate. Erb was one of them. I will miss him greatly. He shaped the lives of countless students. He made the world a better place and, as my college roommate Rich Miller said, "spread all the beauty he could on to a coarse world."
Filed Under: hymns
Tags: Jim, James Erb, choir, music, eulogy, love, passion, mandodoxy, mandoguru
It's really rather simple despite all the eventual complexities that emerge. The Bible is a bound collection of texts, a book of books if you will, and there is more than one way to read it. Let me explain.
We can dive into the middle of it, say, by reading that first collection of liturgical "greatest hits," The Psalms. Or maybe you are the kind of reader who likes to know the ending before they begin. So, you start with Revelation. Of course, now you are really confused and in turning to the beginning (Genesis) you wonder what the hell it is you have gotten yourself into because Genesis is no comfort at all. Strangeness abounds as well as fratricide.
Maybe you open the Bible looking for your favorite verse. There's that way of reading it, too. There's this devotional thing going on for some people that's potent. People find answers and comfort in the face of some of life's greatest challenges.
Some people read the Bible to find rules. Lots of rules. Governmental kinds of rules. And sitting there next to Hammurabi's Law Code in the great histoy of Legal Stuff is Leviticus. Have at it, counselor.
Maybe you are a historan, a linguistic historian and you want to know if there really are Sumerian roots to some of the Psalms. So, pulling out your various ancient texts and your favorite English translations, you sit down and get to work. Linear A, Linear B, how is your Ugaritic? Let's find out!
Or, maybe, like me you first open the book because you hear tell of some powerful stores and a powerful story lights you up like no other thing. So you read about Eve and Adam or Sarah and Abraham. Or, even more fun, you start reading the various tales about the notorious King David and his warlike fascination with his neighbor's wife. Good grief, but there are some stories. And if all that's not enough, John of Patomos has a vision of a new heaven and a new earth that puts anything that Marvel Productions has imagined to shame. You can keep "Ultron." Give me The Lamb That Was Slain. That's serious heavy lifting. Dude has a sword for a tongue and fights dragons and stuff. Insane!
There are lots of ways to read the Bible and the new book Disquiet Time edited by Cathleen Falsani and Jennifer Grant is a great collection of primers for how you might want to take a crack at reading it. Candid, creative, and quirky, this collection has much to offer. I have an essay in it about feet and angelic netherbits. Again, more good stories abound than I can share with you here. But if you like a good story and are looking for a collection of stories about a collection of stories, Disquiet Time is the book for you.
Buy it online at Barnes and Noble or Amazon or pick it up at your local book monger. And, if you are in the Bay Area, stop by American Baptist Semiary of The West Saturday, November 8 at 7:00pm for a conversation with Jennifer, Cathleen, myself and some amazing readers of the Bible.
Filed Under: scripture
Tags: Disquiet Time
Surprising no one who reads this blog, I listen to a lot of old time and bluegrass music. I also listen to their parent and sibling styles as well such as English ballads and Irish folk music. Artists such as Yo-Yo Ma, Chris Thile, Mark O'Connor, Aiofe O'Donnovan, and The String Dusters frequent my playlists. Americana in all its forms intrigues me sonically and lyrically. There's something of a historical accretion at work in these musics that I just cannot let go.
It may surprise you to know, however, that I feel similarly about 15th and 16th century polyphony. I could listen to and sing Gibbons and Byrd all day. And, as things go, I'd rather explore earlier forms of the art rather than the later. The baroque forms lose me for some reason. I've never been able to connect to Bach, for example, as I do to Tallis.
I share all this in the continued effort to get my own head around how I listen to music. What are for forms, the artists, the communities that attract my attention? Why do these attract my attention and not others? Where are the commonalities and where are the juxtapositions?
I am only just beginning to get a handle on all of this.
As I do, however, it occurs to me how much wealth this reflects. I'm not talking about cash money, though that's part of it, and I'm not criticizing the weath, per se. I'm simply noticing it. There is an affluence here that needs to be addressed as well. I have access to a great deal of music. I have access, if one believes the great proponents of YouTube and Spotify, to all the world's music if I wish it. A grandiose statement or not, it's worth considering.
How is a musical consciousness formed in the vast plurality of expression available to one? What is the identifying musical practice of a person who has such access? Is it the accessing of said music itself that is the identifying musical expression? Rather than learning close harmony singing, does one learn how to navigate search engines? Is this the identity practice that needs my researcher's eye?
I don't know. None of these practices or expressions are exclusive of one another. Hardly. If I want to know a bluegrass tune, I google it. If I want to know more about an artist, I search it. If I'm having trouble with the fingering of a complicated run on my mandolin, I can often find a lesson online. Then I can slip on by my favorite Senegalese hip-hop artist's web page for a distraction.
So, Tallis, Byrd, O'Donnovan, Thile...where do I reside? How do I reside everywhere at once?
It was unavoidable now that I think about it. I arose this morning and turned on the tablet computer. Opening my Facebook app, I was very quickly sucked into a conversation about politics. Oh. No.
I really should have seen that coming. Let's blame the recent illness on such shortsightedness, shall we? Indeed. Let us.
It is enough to drive me to superstition.
O God, listen to my prayer,
Let my earnest petition come to you,
for I know that you are hearing me
As surely as though I saw you with mine eyes.
I am placing a lock upon my heart,
I am placing a lock upon my thoughts,
I am placing a lock upon my lips
And double-knitting them.
Aught that is amiss for my soul
In the pulsing of my death,
May you, O God, sweep it from me
And may you shield me in the blood of your love.
Let no thought come to my heart,
let no sound come to my ear,
Let no temptation come to my eye,
Let no fragrance come to my nose,
Let no fancy come to my mind,
Let no ruffle come to my spirit,
That is hurtful to my poor body this day,
Nor ill for my soul at the hour of my death;
But may you yourself, O God of life,
Be at my breast, be at my back,
You to me as a star, you to me as a guide,
From my life's beginning to my life's closing.
The above is from Carmichael's Celtic Prayers. I like these little prayer because so many of them could be paraphrased, "please don't let the universe $%@& with me today." It's a sentiment I can get behind.
The people who offered these prayers understood how tenuous our lives really are, how vulnerable we are at all times no matter what our estate. Other people, strange spirits, ideologies, and wild beasts are all in the world with us and our interactions with them are risky without exception.
Today is election day in the United States and I am aware of this truth about life. It is more apparent on this day than others. We are messing with things, interacting with ideas, spirits, if you will. We are tinkering with things we barely understand, that is, one another.
Today we all need wards of protection, locks upon our hearts, thoughts, lips, double-knitting from the dangers that abound.
Where did my prayer life go again? It just slipped away a little over a year ago. Somewhere. The little rituals, the words, and the music all just slipped away. Sundays are, occasionally, an opportunity to pray, but more often I simply observe others as a guest in a nice hotel might observe others passing through the lobby. I wonder. I'm curious.
Where are they headed? Why are they here?
Prayer, it seems, has once again become untenable. Mixed with a healthy portion of unbelief, my motivation dwindles.
I'm not picking a fight. And I'm not offering a detraction. I am, however, suggesting that my so-called spiritual life is a shambles.
Why pray? I can find no reason.
Let's see...a post about theological education and UNCO is the first thing I need to write. And then there's a post about music and faith and the "semiotic snowballing" of old hymns. How does music take on meaning and for whom? Then, what the hell is a pastor to do when the same hymn offends one person and consoles another?
It's not the lyrics that offend or console. It's is the associations that do this work.
So, there's stuff to write.
Also, Catherine Bell, the ritual theorist, is haunting me.
Abba Moses asked Abba Sylvanus, "Can a person lay a new foundation every day?" The old man said, "If they work hard, a person can lay a new foundation every moment."
I'm sitting in my kitchen. Quebecois artists are featured in this morning's edition of the Putumayo World Music Hour on KFOG. Mike keeps following me around the apartment. One would think this is an endearing quality, but first thing in the morning it only serves to irritate me. I wish I found it cute, but I don't. He's just there. Under foot. At every moment.
Unless I pick him up. So you see where this is going, right?
I walk around the apartment in the predawn light of Berkeley, CA listening to Quebecois singer-songwriters with a cat in my arms.
What the hell has happened to me?
This morning, I find my mind spinning. The anxiety I experience while trying to prepare for my exams overwhelms me. So, in the attempt to return to something comforting, I opened my little volume of "Sayings" from the desert mothers and fathers. The book is tattered and is held together with a paperclip. I cradled the book in my hand as it fell open to the section on discipleship.
"I don't want to be a disciple," I said. "I want to be a student." Synonyms are curious beasts, no?
I feel the weight of religious discipleship, the tasks that are laid at one's feet. I've never felt ready for such responsibilities. They offend me in some way that I cannot explain. Or perhaps it is what we have done with them. I want to paraphrase the entirety of Jesus' teaching: "Please, in the name of God, try not to be an asshole. And when you are one, please apologize and try to make amends. Okay?"
It lacks a certain gravitas, I admit, but there it is. I want to leave the cosmological mojo to the Orthodox, Catholics, Neo-Calvinists, Quakers, and anyone else who has made such a claim. My previous desire to bathe in the mystical waters of my baptismal identity and Jesus' reconciliation of all Creation with its Creator has vanished.
Abba John said, "A monk is toil. The monk toils in all that they do. That is what a monk is." On the heels of this good news about laying new foundations, it it an important message. Laying a foundation is work. It is hard work.
Discipleship, student-hood (student-ing?); according to Abba Sylvanus, we can start over any time we need to which, to my mind, is a good thing. I need to start over all the time. Every day. Every moment. Abba John reminds me that it is hard work. Not in that Smyth-and-Helwys-protobaptist-workaholism fashion, but in that wake-up-and-smell-the-delusional-habits way. We never get it right. That's the point. Smyth and Helwys were on the quest for a new perfection, a puritanical end game, a rightness in the Lord.
There is no "rightness" to be found. There is only toil. There is only this strange paraphrase of Jesus' teaching.
This. This is it. No glory. No glamor. No satisfaction. "Don't be an asshole" is the sum total of it.
My attempt to find something comforting has failed entirely. All I can do is start over, the eternal beginner, the eternal student. This is discipleship.
I am still an asshole.
Have you ever worn a sweater, not because it was cold, but simply because the sweater comforted you? Today is one of those days. The sky is overcast. I am wearing an orange cardigan.
Matthew Gunnels has died. I wonder when wearing my orange cardigan became a way to grieve.
Pray for the Chicago theater community. They have lost another bright shining star.
I miss school. I know it must seem absurd, but there it is. I miss sitting around with people and discussing what we are reading together or on our own. I miss discussing the Big Ideas. I miss those friendships and collegial relationships. I got a little taste of it today for the first time in quite a while.
A friend presented a paper at the Liturgy Area meeting. It was a great paper. She is a gifted scholar. There's a lot more I could say about that. The title is also great: “Ritualizing Hegemonic Masculinity and Homosocial Theology Through Music Ministry at Mars Hill Church.” In it, Maren Haynes analyzes localized musical and theological practices and asks, in a literal sense, what kind of voice...has voice in the liturgical life of the congregation. The notion of authenticity came up more than once. The implications for theology and spirituality are rather astonishing.
I live for this stuff. Truly.
And I miss the day to day work. I like what I do a great deal, but the day in/day out liturgio-musicological nerdistry is what I love more than anything.
uaranteed to cause some kind of doobly doo on social media, I am hereby announcing my intention to do my comprehensive exams by February 27. This means, I know you will be shocked and amazed, a lessening of my time on Ye Olde Facebook. Yes, the land of Gen X digi-angst will be less a focus for me than it has been of late.
Now, I make this rather grandiose announcement to fulfill the apparent social norm that all digital communications decisions be Grandiose Announcements. So.
There you go.
I love you, Facebookistan, but I have to do my homework. So, I am moving my attention over to the blog here on the outside chance that I'll get some things done this way.
So, call it old school if you like. I'm blogging.
My mind is not yet ready for caffeine. I know. Scandalous. But here I sit still jetlagged and wondering why my mind is spinning like it is. There are, as most know, multiple answers, all correct and all understandable. Still, I tire of the spinning - right round, like a record. It is excruciating.
Excruciating? Yes. It hurts.
The first thing I do every morning is wrestle my brain to the ground. Some mornings are more difficult than others.
I arise overstimulated. I'm trying to wean myself from my various news feeds again. Sometimes they contribute to the chaos between my ears. Too much stimulation, you know. "Someone is wrong on the internet!" I read the news feeds because it give my mind something to latch on to first thing. Otherwise it just spins and invents stuff for me to obsess about. At least with the news feeds I have something "real" to obsess about like ISIS or someone "coming out" humanist in the evangelical world.
Some day someone will have to atone for convincing so many that evangelicalism is the sum total of The Church.
At any rate, as I said, today is more difficult than most days. I have some serious external motivation to get my comprehensive exams done or take a leave of absence from the program. This is the real obsession, this is the real white noise behind all the flailing on my AP News app.
I need to decide.
And I can't.
Good morning, O Fair Intertubes. It's Tuesday and I'm crazy.
We spent the day visiting Chartres. The building is under extensive rennovation. Centuries of grime and pollution are beung removed and old color schemes are being restored. I posted several images on Facebook and I'll be certain to post some here as well when we return to the US.
This was my second time visiting. The first time was twenty years ago. Malcolm Miller is still a force to be reconed with. His tours are legendary. He still inspires me.
I wa struck by the beauty and ethical ambiguity that is the cathedral. Notre Dame de Chartres is perhaps the fifth cathedral on that hilltop (there are records of bishops in that town from the fourth century). It took more than thirty years to construct. An exonomy was fueled by its construction. Schools were errected in its shadow. A town flourished.
It is beautiful. No question. It is a work of religious art, of didactic devotion.
And next to it is the bishop's palais and another building that has the honor of hosting Henri IV and Napoleon.
So much ostentatious wealth. So much power in the church. So much beauty.
Egads, it was a good day.