Space (for a minute or two)

@openculture posted this video of David Byrne’s TED talk on music and space. It illustrates an element of “the medium is the message,” going through different types of music and how they are suited, sonically, for the kinds of spaces they’ll inhabit.

At the risk of making you feel like you’ve got the gist of it: Byrne describes how the percussionless, wandering harmonies of choral music are especially suited to open, echoing cathedral spaces, or how the layered, polyrhythmic sounds of some indiginous African musics are perfectly suited for the communal spaces in which all those intricacies can be performed and heard. Switch those performances to the wrong spaces – an organ recital around an open fire or a punk band in an echoing chamber – and the core of that musical experience, why it sounds right otherwise, is lost. Certain styles of music even evolve to better suit the purposes of the audience in the spaces where it is played, like dance music suited for the activity of a club, or heavy highs and lows that play well on a car audio system. Without the recording studio and the personal audio system, there would be no way for Chet Baker to whisper “My Funny Valentine” into our ears. No reason to conceive of it.

What music communicates to us works because it is suited for the vessel in which it is performed. Byrne says the passion we tend to think of as the authentic birth of art is really secondary to the space that dictates its form. There would be no Talking Heads without a CBGBs.

I am thinking a lot about the music we use for worship. Byrne makes a quip about the visual that appears about the MP3 space – a cross shaped MP3 player – that this must be for “Christian music.” But sometimes I think Christian worshipers do arrive at a worship space with our MP3 vision for what music should facilitate. Sometimes we show up with our expectations shaped by what is suited for an arena, or a concert hall. I think a lot of the music we sing together is silently, personally accompanied by the imagined spaces we’d like that music to fill. We want everyone else to disappear so we can focus on the sound coming through our earbuds, or we feel frustrated that the performers or the worshipers are getting in the way of our aural vision of a U2 show.

I’m grateful for those who, through music, create a “space” where I can encounter God. But what is a Christian space? And if there is a space best suited for Christians at worship, what kind of music is suited to that “vessel?”

Do we know any dining room banqueting songs? Do we know songs that would accompany an entry-way footwashing? Does our music suit our moments of reaching out to someone on the street, does it transmit over a phone line shared with a friend in crisis? Do our melodies carry in the aisles of consumption or rowdy cheers of celebration? Can we imagine “The David Crowder Band Live at Folsom Prison?”

I think we have music that carries us through many of those moments as we queue up the soundtracks of our faith with songs and experiences that have been important to us. But we are not just pop consumers; we are culture makers. If we begin to believe the sound of Christian music is something made for an earbud or an auditorium, can we lose the sense of God’s songs that are meant for every space? It would take an army of performers and composers to give us a range of songs like that (and maybe we have one, actually), but let’s expand the question a bit. What are we doing in corporate worship that calls us, as a community, to creative participation in ritual that rehearses our creative participation in the life of God’s world?

When we leave our assemblies, can we carry the sights and sounds of our worship into any encounter, and recognize immediately that This Must Be the Place for which we were rehearsing to perform God’s work?


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