A few of my friends are sharing this excellent piece on Christianity, music, doctrine and other things, by the Dean of St Paul’s over at Via Media. I really like it, and think it gets to the heart of some important things about what it means to believe, how we treat our religious ideas, how statements relate to experience, and how jazz can help us make sense of the Bible. It’s well worth a read in full, but I’m going to pick out a particular element of the piece here, and riff on it, to borrow the Very Rev Dr. Ison’s metaphor. He suggests that jazz is a useful way of thinking about Christian doctrine and God because “Ordinary music is interpreted by the performer; jazz music is created by the performer – even though its form is similar, its reality every time is a bit different.” He expands:
God’s enduring theme, throughout the changing rhythms of history, is the saving love of God for the world he’s made. But the way God plays that theme changes according to circumstances. God hasn’t written down the whole history of the world from beginning to end, like the script of a play in which all of us have our predetermined parts. God improvises, God creates, God has infinite variations on a theme; and the way God plays this theme as Father, Son and Spirit will be different in your life from how it’s played in mine – but the theme will still be recognisable.
He goes on quote a particularly striking passage from the Encyclopaedia Britannica, which suggests that:
A customer unable to get hold of the recording of Brahms’s Fourth Symphony conducted by Herbert von Karajan would probably settle for someone else’s recording of that work. But the buyer thwarted in his attempt to buy the jazz musician Duke Ellington’s version of “Caravan” might well accept as a substitute anything else played by Ellington.
The Dean’s argument is much more sophisticated and thoughtful than I’m making it sound, and – as I said – well worth reading. But becaue I’ve been thinking and writing recently about musical and theatrical metaphors in dealing with the Bible, this part made me want to focus in and extend it. I think it’s a particularly useful idea, because it allows for both diversity and creativity in our conception of Christian life, in a way which doesn’t suggest we should be looking for the final answer or for everyone’s experience of God to be the same.
It insists, as Rowan Williams has done elsewhere, on the value of artistic metaphors to convey a sense of “rightness”, that choosing the “right” word for a poem or the “right” mode for a solo isn’t a matter of momentary personal preference, nor simply a question of irrelevant prettiness. God help, Williams has written somewhat acerbically, people who think considering doctrine as a poem means you can just write whatever you like if it sounds nice: the poet is frequently under a much stricter set of constraints than her counterpart over in philosophy if she needs the next line to be “right”. It doesn’t just have to sound nice, it has to integrate the literal meaning with the physical act of saying it, the intellectual implications of believing, the emotional resonances of asserting it, and much more.
I’d like to riff on the jazz metaphor, as I mentioned above, and extend it into blues and rock because I think it points to the difficulty as well as the beauty and the dynamic life of Christian doctrine and the Bible. The Dean mentions that considering it as jazz reminds us that God cannot be recorded, cannot be captured and put on a shelf to be referred to later. It also means that God, and God’s meanings, cannot necessarily be recognised immediately. Anyone who’s listened to earlyish Rolling Stones records will know that the interplay because the guitars, the voice, the bass and the drums can be intoxicating, and also totally obscure the formal structure of the song.
It wasn’t until I’d heard ‘Gimme Shelter” on a couple of live albums that I actually knew how the song went – not the words, but the relationship between the melody, the bass, the timing of the riffs, etc. I knew the first recording almost off by heart, but I couldn’t hear what were the momentary flourishes by Keith Richards – a man famously described as “so late on the beat he’s early for the next one” – and what were the notes keeping the song together. Hearing it played again on another occasion clarified which were the notes he repeated every time: the difference between riffs and licks in blues guitar playing, or between necessary and contingent elements in philosophical terms.
Crucially, this did not mean that I could then extract those notes and have ‘Gimme Shelter’: if I only took those the result would be mean, sparse and meaningless. The song only had life when that basic pattern was fleshed out in a performance which included variations, solos, licks, etc. I couldn’t even lay down a minimum requirement for a performance of the song, which had to include those notes if it was to be considered as ‘Gimme Shelter’, since a vast range of songs could include those notes and not be ‘Gimme Shelter’. (This is a problem tackled fascinatingly in musicology by Karl Dalhaus and Lydia Goehr, and in Shakespeare studies by Margaret Kidnie.)
To strip it back to a required minimum would be to totally distort the song’s meaning, and to be left with something which didn’t remotely refer to the same experience. This was why – as I later understood – the lead guitarist of the band I hung out with didn’t like buying tablature transcriptions of albums. For him, the only way to really play Metallica, or Red Hot Chilli Peppers, or Jimi Hendrix, was to make your own transcriptions, which meant listening again and again and again to the song (on various recordings if possible) and then try to play it yourself. You might write down some tablature to remind yourself how you did it, but the aim was to end up with what you’d play if you wanted to produce what you were hearing. You might not be playing the song note for note, but it would be you playing it.
The idea of theme and variations within improvisation can be taken a stage further, perhaps, without over-stretching the idea, by my later experience of listening to Coleman Hawkins. There’s a recording of “Oh, Lady Be Good” (which I can no longer find), in which he improvises so brilliantly and stylishly on the old show-tune, but begins without stating the theme. Instead of playing the tune at the beginning, like a lot of saxophonists (as he does himself on another recording of the song), and then letting the audience hear how he’s extending and riffing on it, he simply goes in with the elaborations and improvisations from the start. It’s only from listening to what he’s doing, and knowing that they’re all variations on some tune hovering in the background, always referred to but never stated, that you can tell that this is a version of “Oh, Lady Be Good”.
That string of notes, which constitute the tune, make sense of what Hawkins is doing, and until something like them is grasped by the listener, he might sound as if he is simply indulging in irrelevant prettiness, or inane stylistic posturing. (Though even to a listener who doesn’t know or recognise the tune, his performance can still sound beautiful and moving, if obscure.) But when they are grasped, as the origin of what he is doing, the performance becomes much more comprehensible intellectually, and even emotionally. It would be nonsense that say that he is “actually” playing that tune, or that he would get his “message” across better if he stopped improvising and just played the tune. Nor does his improvisation mean he thinks he’s too good to play the song, or that he thinks it’s too simple. After all, the meaning of what he does is underpinned by that tune, and made possible by his and his audience’s love of it, and intimate familiarity with it, on a physical and emotional level as well as a cerebral knowing of the notes.
These two examples – of music which is moving and delightful and mysterious, but which only gradually becomes comprehensible in more abstract terms – seem to me to sit alongside the attitude to doctrine and to the Bible which comes out of the Dean’s image of jazz. I hope I haven’t riffed unfairly or too abstrusely on his theme – though I have certainly given myself away quite badly, as any improviser has to…