After writing my first blog post about the phenomenon of loneliness, I was inspired to use those thoughts in my final project for a Modern/Postmodernism class that I was in this semester. We had the option to use an imaginative approach to our understanding of modernism - particularly the issues of autonomy and alienation.
Ludwig Van Beethoven once said, “Music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy.” When approaching the final project for this class, the creative option seemed appropriate. Music allowed me to infuse the cultural issues discussed in the class forums with a widely accepted form of expression that I have studied and crafted as a personal passion. From the conception of lyrics, to performing each instrumental track, to the final mixing process, I was able to intimately engage with the material and the medium in which it manifested. In his book, Faith, Hope and Poetry, Malcolm Guite says, “If part of the Imago Dei is itself our creative imagination then we should expect the action of the Word, indwelling and redeeming fallen humanity, to begin in, and work outward through, the human imagination.”(1) Throughout the last few weeks of the course, I encountered the truth of the Word through the songwriting process, tossing around the ideas of autonomy and alienation in our current world. The way to speak into culture with timeless truths is through art that evolves within time. My final song, “Islands,” aims to capture my learned philosophy, emotion, and unique perspective on the truth of alienation in a postmodern world.
The song starts out with a low pad and a single echoing guitar. The pad serves as the foundation – the setting for the rest of the composition. It doesn't carry melodic significance; it's merely the musical landscape while the guitar moves the energy forward. I chose an electric guitar as a solitary instrument because typically, it's heard in the context of a full band. When heard alone, there is a loneliness to it. It can't live up to its potential as an electric instrument, just as we can't live up to our potential as communal beings if we are autonomous instruments. In his book, Earthen Vessels, Matthew Lee Anderson says, “The good news of our salvation sets us free, but our freedom as Christians cannot be separated from our presence within the community of believers, the body of Christ of which we are members and which the Spirit knits together with ‘the bond of peace’ (Ephesians 4:1–6).”(2) From the very start, the song gives a picture of life as a believer without community – with other believers and with the Trinitarian God.
After the initial instrumentation comes in, the lyrics introduce the idea of autonomy. The first verse says, “I’m standing still with my eyes shut wide/ Shedding the skin colored with new life/ Peeling away layers and layers of pride/ I cut the corners with my own knife.” These lyrics imply that the character is intentionally disregarding the will of God and trading uncertainty for a self-governed lifestyle. The “new life” refers to the gospel, which is being exchanged for self-rule. The next verse talks about being anchored to an island that was man-made and disconnected from the rest of the world. This is metaphorical of the character withdrawing from community as well as God.
The chorus is just an ambient “ooh,” accompanied by high and low harmonies drenched in reverb. These voices represent the Body of Christ, calling out from the distance to the wanderer as a reminder of constant grace. However, the character still isn't ready to return. The story continues with, “My sunburned skin aches for the promise/ The promise of power wrapped in the harvest/ The crop that woke the Earth from her sonnet/ Transforms me from the art to the Artist.” ‘Sunburned’ reminds the listener of the first verse, where the skin was being colored by the gospel. Just as any good can be corrupted, so can the grace of the gospel in the hands of a sinner. The flesh aches for the promise made to Adam and Eve in the garden – power. That power was “wrapped” in the fruit, which is the harvest and the crop that woke the Earth from her peaceful rest with God. When we take control of the power, we are no longer embracing our identity as God’s created art, but we're demanding to be seated on His throne, the Artist.
At this point, the music has picked up, adding a bass guitar, drums, and another electric rhythm guitar. This is the portion of the story where the enemy tries convincing the character to be confident and content with autonomous power rather than weak in surrender. This is also the point in the song where the character begins to notice the consequences of autonomy – alienation. The next verse says, “A prisoner in my own land/ Should have known better than to build with sand/ My castle’s tall and it’s all mine/ But every night she yields to the tide.” The castles we build by our own autonomous power are still subject to God’s glory, the tide. While we have ownership of our choices, we often forget that the world and everything in it is God’s.(3) The chorus revisits and this time, with tension. There is a decision to be made between isolation and surrender.
Finally, the song hits its breaking point and crashes into an anthemic instrumental. This is the moment where the character falls on his face in overwhelming anguish. The chord progression is designed to make space for emotion – it moves from the six (C# minor), to the four (A suspended 2), and resolves to the one (E Major). In a basic chord, it's the 3rd that determines its quality as major or minor, happy or sad. By suspending that 3rd scale degree and replacing it with a 2 or a 4, the ear has more options to consider. The emotions are more complex than just a happy major or a sad minor. That is the benefit of using suspended chords in the progression. Similarly, the order of the chords mirrors this same effect. The progression is free, much like the process of anguish in the character. It's not a hopeless anguish, but the transformative type that ushers one back into sync with God’s sovereignty.
Finally, the song ends back where it begins, with a solitary guitar that can stand-alone now because it has been used in context with a full band. We are much more likely to succeed in our individuality when we first identify ourselves as a piece of God’s creation and his image. “Being held captive by the sea/ Is never what I thought of being free/ Ships pass by and then they sink/ At least the ocean offers them a drink// I’ll give it back, please take it all/ Just to have you, anchor of my soul.” While submitting to the will of God feels like a sacrifice of freedom, it is in fact the only way that our souls can be quenched, fulfilled, and truly free.
In his book, Leisure the Basis of Culture, Josef Pieper includes The Philosophical Act, in which he says, “The act of philosophizing, genuine poetry, any aesthetic encounter, in fact, as well as prayer, springs from some shock. And when such a shock is experienced, man senses the non-finality of this world of daily care; he transcends it, takes a step beyond it.”(4) Songwriting is unique in that the songwriter not only encounters the shock that Pieper is referring to, but he also has the opportunity to articulate that shock to an audience. The possibilities are endless and the truth transcends genre, tempo, and even our personal taste. In Earthen Vessels, Anderson says, “What appears to one person as giving Christianity over to false ideologies may appear to someone else as the contextualization of Christianity to the culture around it.”(5) The beauty of music is its ability to speak into both minds, so long as each remain open to its beauty and direct connection to God’s goodness.