Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Musical Iconography

It is somewhat ironic (yet in equal measure understandable) that music was one of the few religious "icons" not thrown out by iconoclasts.  Perhaps this is because it does not offer a physical target at which icon-busters can throw stones.  Perhaps music's seeming intangibility simply protected it from the impulse to throw physical reminders of religious truths out the window.

For this, we can be thankful.

Yet, studying and teaching music as I do, I have to remind my students that music actually is quite physical in its matter.  For starters, sound produces a change in the matter that connects the instrument to the ear of the listener.  Sound is literally communicated through space using packets (waves) of dense and non-dense air that hit the ear hundreds of times each second.  These sound waves physically hit our ears much like waves at the beach hit the shore.  In response to these waves, our mind perceives sounds, and our minds do what human minds do automatically: they try to make meaning of these sounds, understanding them to form harmonies, melodies, and so forth.  These sounds can remind remind us of spiritual realities just like the light waves that bounce off physical icons and strike our eyes and minds can.  Further still, we become musical and physical icons as we interact with music by producing it ourselves.  We fill our lungs fill with air as we sing, and our collective physical participation in the music making becomes an icon of our unity as the Body of Christ.  We feel the vibrations of the pew, as it (and the rest of the sanctuary) trembles with the vibrations of music praising our Divine King.

Perhaps even the most rigid iconoclasts lose themselves in awe at the aesthetic grandeur of Renaissance polyphony or the magnificence of a Lutheran Chorale Prelude...or even the humble simplicity of a hymn sung prayerfully on a bright Sunday morning.

One of the many things I love about being Catholic is that we embrace not only icons that lift the soul through sound sensations, but also icons that lift our souls through our eyes and noses as well.  We become icons in adoration of God as we feel and place ourselves in postures of adoration, standing to hear God's Word and kneeling before God's presence.  And Jesus himself, who communes with us through his Real Presence in the Holy Eucharist, invites us to receive Him into our bodies and souls.  Though we taste and see bread and wine (the accidents that remain after transubstantiation), we figuratively taste and see the goodness of the Lord through our participation in the Eucharistic sacrifice that takes away our sins and helps us to become saints by His free gift of grace.

Considering the almost universal embrace of beautiful, soul-inspiring music across Christendom, I remain baffled why more Christian communities don't embrace similarly moving icons in other aesthetic domains.  At the same time, I remain ever hopeful that music can point us back to our senses--all of them--as an important means of engaging the whole human person in the worship of our God.

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