06 October 2012

Sproul on Art #5

Sproul on the Arts Report #5
R. C. Sproul: Recovering the Beauty of the Arts
Music: The Handmaiden of Theology”

In our adult Sunday school class, we are watching a series of lectures by R. C. Sproul on the Christian and the arts. I'm summarizing them and writing my responses. Here is an index to these posts. Today's post is a summary.

As a follow-up to his talk about music's influence in the previous talk, Sproul began with a long, fascinating discussion of jazz. In order to lay the foundation for explaining the beauty of jazz, he gave a fairly detailed music theory lesson about major and minor scales, intervals, and chords. His point was to show how jazz operates rationally, within structure, that it is highly complex, and that it follows a definitive mathematical pattern. The essence of jazz, then, is freedom within form.

His next move was, I thought, smooth and sophisticated. He took that background about harmony and used it to evaluate “pop” music. He pointed out that pop music restricts itself to 3 chords, and that is has a lack of complexity. Classical music, on the other hand, is far more complicated. It has a richness, a depth of content, and has endured the test of time. Sure, there are simple compositions within the Classical tradition, but intentionally so: artful, sophisticated. Pop music tends to be simplistic: unintentionally so, simple out of ignorance and lack of training, and ends up being boring. Unlike pop music, the more I listen to it, the richer it becomes.

This led him to an excellent line: Eat meat, not milk—in music!

This is not to say that there is never a place for very simple music in worship. Sproul pointed out two: he thinks we should use very simple music with children, and with “primitive people” out on the mission field.

Then he made a very strong point: he asked, What should be enhanced by our growth in the knowledge of God? Our understanding of music! We should always keep enriching the music we use in our worship.

Coming back around to concepts of classical standards for evaluating music, he brought in Jonathan Edwards' ideas about the “sweetness” and “excellence” of worship, the idea of Religious Affections: Edwards thought that conversion itself was an aesthetic experience.

Then he summed up the “Worship Wars” with a sweet one-liner: The Worship Wars are not about good music vs. bad music; they're about good music vs. mediocre music. Um-hm. (Although he didn't mention BAD music!)

Finally, he finished by explaining the title of this talk: Martin Luther said that music is the “handmaiden of theology” because music can teach Biblical truth.


jfutral said...

He must be unaware that Miles Davis's _All Blues_ is based on standard I-IV-V blues progression.

Chord count is a poor measure for sophistication of music.

Again, he needs to stop talking about things he doesn't know anything about.

People like that always make me angry. That's why I stopped listening to what Christians had to say about art for almost 20 years. It just wasn't worth the time and aggravation as most were so wrong as to be parody if they weren't so serious and didn't actually believe what they had to say.


jfutral said...

"Pop music tends to be simplistic: unintentionally so, simple out of ignorance and lack of training, and ends up being boring."

I couldn't disagree with this more. The "pop" artists I know and have worked with are very intentional in their musical choices. The notion of some self-taught garage band or a simple waitress with no formal who is magically discovered really is rare, else shows like X-Factor and American Idol, et. al., wouldn't be able to make such a big deal out of looking for such raw talent. Makes for a good story.

The reality is most of the musicians you hear on the radio are very well trained from some of the best music institutions around. It takes a great deal of intentionality, education, experience, and sophistication to create something simple.


jfutral said...

A far more interesting, relevant, and educated take on what makes _some_ music great can be found from Rob Kapilow:

Worth every minute of time invested and from an artist who knows what he is talking about, no less. What a concept!


Curt Day said...

There are many things that one can say on how Jazz beats to death pop music. But that is like needing to write on how Godzilla can beat Bambi in a large enough steel-cage winner survives battle.

The problem with Sproul's comments on Jazz is the same problem he has in analyzing the arts in the first place; he makes art a high end otc drug. That is not what Jazz is nor

First, Jazz is not the best term for this kind of music. American Classical music is. And we can distinguish American Classical music from what normally call Classical music by calling the latter European Classical music or Classical Music for the rhythmically impaired.

And what Sproul praises in Jazz is its form, not its heart. Its heart is how it expresses the human experience. And though pop does this to a limited sense, it never challenges us to grow because it will forever be cookie-cutter music that is design to stunt the human experience.

In addition, at what point does the dissonance that exists in Jazz become disorder to Sproul. Would Sproul say that the piano solo in the link below lacks order:

Or has Sproul listened cool jazz which strays, sometimes randomly away from 32 bar music? Or what would Sproul say about Ornette Coleman's music?

As said below, the arts are a mirror of society as well as subversive prophetic voice. All of this is missing in Sproul's analysis of both pop music and American Classical music because Sproul makes some of the tools of music its goal in his analysis of Jazz and misses the heart of the arts altogether. And in this, Sproul isn't a fan of Jazz in and of itself. Rather, he analyzes and appreciates American Classical music from a stuffy European Classical music perspective.

jfutral said...

Thought provoking, as always, Curt. I also thought about Ornette Coleman (and free jazz in general), but saw only futility in bringing him up.

I would say about "pop" some of the things you have said about jazz. First, pop is a very broad range of styles these days. But even the classic pop from the 50s, 60s, and 70s really is a lens on culture and less an acute study of music technique and theory (but no less interesting).

But even into the 80s one could easily categorize some music as pop, less so today, unless you simply want to take the top most popular songs and artists from each of the many styles being explored today and bundle those into "pop".

I really find any dismissive attitude toward pop music to be mostly out of ignorance. There is no "jazz beats pop music to death" because jazz is not at war with pop. (Mostly jazz is at war with itself: )

Any art form—pop music, jazz, painting, literary, theatre, _any_ art form—struggles with the idea of being entertaining. Entertainment does not automatically equal non-art or bad art, but, as with any art, if entertainment is sought above all else, it will be risk lack of depth.

But even the entertainment value can overshadow the actual depth. There is a lot of craft involved in entertainment, if not necessarily "art". I never would have thought to look at Donna Summers' work in this manner:

Dismissing "pop" is too easy. And I say this in the most dismissive manner as the critics of pop music dismiss pop. Finding value is hard. But finding value is worth it. There is much to learn about art and music in studying pop music. I wish many artists were as committed to their craft and art as many pop artists are. We might have a world more filled with better art.


jfutral said...

Curt says, "And what Sproul praises in Jazz is its form, not its heart."

I keep thinking about this and you nailed it. To the rationalist, the only thing of beauty is the rational. Which, ironically, is irrational.