Sunday, February 05, 2012

Music, Metaphor, and Meaning: a sermon

 by the Rev. Kit Ketcham, Feb. 5, 2012

    Let me try to give words to the power of music in my life by recounting the stages by which music came into it.  I invite you to take your own musical life’s journey by reflecting on how you came to have your personal sense of musical expression, whether it’s positive or not so positive.

    As I offer each of my stages, I invite you to reflect on how you might have experienced this stage, IF you experienced it.  And if you share any of these songs, please sing along!
(Offer these slowly, with pauses.)

    The first memory I have of anything musical was a lullaby:  “Mama’s darling, Daddy’s sweetheart, Jesus’ precious little lamb,”
    Piano lessons:   (pound out/hum “Mary had a little lamb”)
    Sunday School songs: “Jesus loves me, this I know…”
    Children’s record sets:  “Oh, the Lord is good to me and so I thank the Lord for giving me the things I need, the sun and the rain and the appleseed, the Lord is good to me.”
    School music classes: “Stodola, stodola, stodola pumpa, stodola pumpa pumpumpum”
    Camp songs:   “John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt”.
    Spirituals:  “Swing low, sweet chariot, comin’ for to carry me home”
    Hymns:  “For the beauty of the earth, for the glory of the skies”
    College choir tours:  “OKLAHOMA, where the wind comes sweepin’ down the plain…”
    Folk Songs:  “If I had a hammer, I’d hammer in the morning…”
    The Beatles:  “Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away…”
    Lullabies for my son:  “Mama’s darling, Daddy’s sweetheart, Jesus’ precious little lamb”.

    And as a young adult, the pop music of the 60’s and 70’s, ----until Tchaikovsky’s  1812 Overture played at an outdoor concert in Denver’s City Park----with cannons ----woke me up to an appreciation of the classics.  Before that time, all my music had words.

   Words helped me find meaning in the chords and rhythms of the work, whether they were sentimental, humorous, inspiring, exciting, bold, sad, or quietly serene.  I loved words!   Poetic or thrilling words expressed something I myself did not yet have an ability to voice.  And the tune and harmonies carried that meaning into my heart.

   But to find meaning in a wordless musical experience---that was new for me.  I’d had brief moments of it in some of the Sousa marches as I grew up.  Their stirring notes and rhythms made me want to do something energetic---throw my arms skyward, march---though it was years before the doggerel words of “be kind to your webfooted friends” were mostly expunged from my automatic responses.

    Some of us have not had easy or pleasant experiences with music.  Some of us were told not to sing but to mouth the words during Glee club.  Some of us were advised not to try out for the choir or the upcoming school musical because we couldn’t read music.  Some of us were faced with offensive or incomprehensible words in songs we were asked to sing in church or in school or at camp.  Some of us, as we lose our hearing, find that music is no longer as pleasurable as it used to be.

    Some of us are afraid to join in singing for fear we won’t get the notes right.  Some of us are still peeved about the theology of various religious songs and, as the old UU joke puts it, “we sing poorly because we’re too busy reading ahead to see if we agree with the words.”  These are wounds and barriers that keep us from receiving many of the gifts of music.

    What does music mean to you?  Can you identify that meaning in a word, or is it one of those things too elusive for words?  Would anyone be willing to share? (share)

   Eileen is going to lead us in a musical experience right now.  I ask you to participate in it as fully as you are able, whether you think you can make music or not, because in the second half of my reflection this morning I will ask you about your experience.  I’m going to participate with you in this, as music is most meaningful to me when I’m participating in it.  Your mileage may vary.
Eileen teaches spatial chant.
    Okay, now we’re going to try to put this experience into something we can share with each other.  For me, at least, the way to start is by identifying feelings we have during a musical experience.

     Let’s take a time for reflection so that you can put yourselves back into the moment of music-making and find a word----or a gesture----that expresses a little bit of what you experienced.  (silence)  Let’s hear words first:  (share)      How about gestures?  (share)

    When we let ourselves experience music, in worship or in a performance hall, when we are listening, absorbed in the experience, and not just using it as background sound, we can feel rhythms, we can have a sense of being enveloped by sound, coming not just through our ears but through the very ground we stand on. 

    If my hearing ability were to be diminished, I might try to see if I could experience the music through the vibrations of the ground or in the energy in the air of the room.

    If we close our eyes and remove visual stimuli, we can have an experience of simply sound---complex or unembellished. 

    Music can be a vitally important part of a spiritual experience.  It doesn’t work for everyone, and you’re not a weirdo if it doesn’t.  But for many, perhaps most, of us, music offers an experience that can be transcendent, and the transcendent is what spirituality is about---lifting us out of the mundane and into a realm beyond ordinary experience, moments when we feel expansive and exhilarated or quiet and self-reflective in ways we don’t normally experience.

    This is what we’re trying to create every time we come together for worship, whether here on Sunday morning or at EvenSong evenings.  We hope for transcendence, we hope for a moment that reminds us that we are good and that we can be even better.  We hope to go home with an inspiration, a clarity, a sense of purpose, a sense of grounding that we might not have had before.

    Music can do this for us, as can other elements of worship.  It can do it through the melody, it can do it through the words, it can do it through our ability to let ourselves be lifted up by the experience of singing or listening together.

    I invite you to open your hymnals to 123, Spirit of Life.  This is a favorite hymn of UUs and we sing it regularly.  Have you ever really thought about these words?  Have you ever really let yourself feel the melody and the harmonies?

    “Spirit of life, come unto me; sing in my heart all the stirrings of compassion.”  What does that mean to us?  (share)

    “Blow in the wind, rise in the sea, move in the hand, giving life the shape of justice.”  What’s that about?  (share)

    “Roots hold me close, wings set me free.”  What are our roots?  What are our wings?  What ideas do these metaphors represent to you?  (share)

    “Spirit of life, come to me, come to me.”  What is this song in its entirety saying to us? (share)

    If we were just to read these lyrics as a lovely poetic prayer, would it be different from singing them?  How does the music work with the words?  (share)

    In a few moments we’re going to sing Spirit of Life again, and I want to invite you to experience this song in a new way, letting yourself be lifted up by the words and by the melody.  If you like to sing a harmony part, by all means, add it in and experience yourself as one part of a harmonic whole.

    When I began to sing with my band a few years ago, I discovered the exhilaration of being one voice in a group in which everyone was singing a different note and even occasionally a different beat. 

    As another voice moved between notes, my note needed to change to maintain the pleasing sound of harmony.  Each of us changed our note depending on what the others sang.  Sometimes we even deliberately sang dissonant notes just to up the interest level of the sound.
Every note has value, whether it’s consonant or dissonant.  In consonant harmony, the whole effect tends to be pleasantly melodious, with the notes forming sounds that “go with” one another.  When a dissonant note enters the picture, it’s like a new idea that causes the sound to go somewhere new in its mood and its possible meaning. 

    Bela Bartok and Igor Stravinsky were masters at using harmonic dissonance to create new musical ideas.  So don’t be afraid that your sound won’t work.  We are in a long tradition of religious heretics already; why not be a musical heretic as well?  Every voice contributes to the whole picture, just as every human being, every being contributes to the universe.

    As we sing Spirit of Life, we’ll sing it through twice; the first time we’ll sing it softly and with reverent reflectiveness; the second time, we’ll sing it with gusto and joy, and I hope you will earnestly put yourself into this musical experience.


BENEDICTION:  Our worship service, our time of shaping worth together, is ended, but our service to the world begins again as we leave this place.  Let us go in peace, remembering that each of us has  beauty within, that we each contribute to the world around us by the music we bring into our lives, and by the acceptance we have of our own notes and rhythms and those of others.  May we truly listen to the music within, the music among us, and the music of the spheres.  Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.


Miss Kitty said...

Ms. K, I love love LOVE this. Thank you for posting it. Funny how your sermons show me just what I need to see, just when I need to see it. :-)

ms. kitty said...

You sweetie, Miss K. Thanks.