• Churen Li

A Christian Perspective on Western Art Musicking

It simply feels so good to play the piano. My breathing aligns with the phrases of the music, my body’s gestures naturally mirror the affective contours of the music. When I experience what psychologists call “flow” as I perform, I simply feel unbridled joy coursing through my veins. After years of study and relentless hours of practising, I have come closer to retraining my body and mind to trust in its own capability to figure itself out physically at the piano. The tension of my injury-prone teenage years have been replaced (mostly) by an acute attunement to how my body feels whilst performance, allowing me to develop more efficient technique.

Yet the physical, affective and aural pleasure of musicking[1]also comes with a level of guilt for me. I musicking as a verb, instead of its noun counterpart, “music”, to emphasize the processual and active aspects of doing music rather than conceiving of music as text or object. Expecting a roomful of strangers to sit through yet another passionate but slightly cliché rendition of Chopin’s First Ballade – and in fact, putting some of them to sleep through aforementioned performance – might seem a wee bit self-centred and self-gratifying. If you polled the average person on the street about classical music, “boring” and “elitist” might come up as recurring comments. Art music is often accused of operating in an ivory tower – cerebral and esoteric with arguably no tangible impact on the “real” world. The audience for experimental art music is even smaller than that for tonal art music.[2]

To what extent ismusicking ultimately self-indulgence, especially in a world that seems to have decreasing need and understanding of classical music?

I came to new music seeking refuge from the suffocating museum culture of Western art Music (WAM) that I had experienced in my conservatoire training. Yet some of the things I experienced as a WAM practitioner in the new music world (pun unintended) were quite disconcerting, and Becky Chevis helpfully responded to some of my concerns at Word Alive 2019. One of the fruits of these conversations was a colloquium on new music and theology that Tom and Becky organised in February this year. However, the conference spoke to me more general musicking, rather than experimental/avant-garde/contemporary/new musicking. As Christian musicians, we can look to our faith to grasp at a useful framework for thinking about our vocations:

1. Reconceiving beauty as something that extends beyond Western modern period aesthetics

The phrase, beauty is a manifestation of God’s perfection, gets casually thrown around quite a bit. When people say this, they are usually referring to the idea that the symmetry, balance and order of a Mozart symphony can be somewhat reflective of Nature; or that in the overwhelming mass of sound in Mahler’s Symphony of a Thousand, we experience something akin to the awe, sublimity and magnificence of God.

Without going into a discussion on the manifold definitions of beauty(s?) in the Bible, as that would be beyond the scope of this essay, I would like to posit that new music, in particular, opens up possibilities for deconstructing notions of beauty. In fact, music does not need to be beautiful – as in, comely – and we see that mirrored in the Bible. Isiah 53:2 prophesized about Jesus’ coming, that “he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him.” Not everything needs to aesthetically pleasing for it to be worthy.

2. A prophetic lament to lament, go against, show the depravity of the brokenness of this world

One of the most memorable but also the most uncomfortable operas I’ve ever watched was a production of Hans Werner Henze’s The Bassarids at the Salzburg Festspiele 2018. Naked bodies committing all sorts of lewd acts in the name of “Art” belonged on X-rated websites, not the hallowed concert halls of an international music festival!

My opinion on that episode has since changed – perhaps it would scarcely have been possible to communicate the message of this production in a more socially acceptable way. The brokenness of our world in the 21stcentury cannot adequately be expressed by a tonal musical language wrapped up in aesthetics emphasizing symmetry and concordance. Unconstrained by tonality and other WAM parameters, the experimental vocabulary of new music composers is better suited to express the ethos and zeitgeist of our present-day. Such experimental vocabulary will inevitably come with experimental presentation formats, that push against the boundaries of what is acceptable, to honestly convey the unacceptability of sin. In my opinion, there are things to be said that music of the common practice period cannot express.[3]

While an adherence to WAM upholds quality and passes on valuable insights, musicians and institutions would do well to consider how music of the past brings meaning to the present. Mere reproduction of WAM canonic pieces will produce a “glass bead game” not without legitimacy, but with indirect connection to everyday musical experience. I have experimented with bringing WAM outside the concert hall, into bookstores, cafes and clubs in a bid to explore how we as musicians can create more engaging WAM experiences for the average concert-goer. How can we make this musical tradition meaningful and vibrant, both for audiences and for ourselves as musickers? The relationship between tradition and musicking is central to WAM, but we can get so tied up in the semantics of remaining authentic to the score, that we lose sight of the need to communicate something impactful and generative.

Christian WAM musicians have a particular prerogative to remain connected and relevant to the world as they make music. Because we know first-hand the infinite love and goodness of the Lord, Christian musicians have an additional responsibility to make music with empathy, to fulfil a prophetic drive to lament the brokenness of this world as we await the coming of Christ. As Jeremy Begbie writes in A Peculiar Orthodoxy, “art can anticipate the beauty previewed and promised in Jesus Christ”.[4]Musical gift is a blessing and joy, and the Spirit can work through us to do good in the musicking that we do.

3. Being led by the Spirit

After watching me play Rachmaninov’s second piano concerto with orchestra a few years ago, the pastor of my church in Singapore wrote me an email: “There are no words to express accurately the absolute sense of awe of seeing God flow through you.” The younger me was confused. Did my pastor mean it metaphorically? Was only he able to perceive the presence of God with me because of his especial status as a “spiritual person”?

There is something real and tangible about the Spirit working in us and through us, equipping us with abilities and talents. Whilst it would be contentious to argue that one’s ability to play the piano is a spiritual gift in and of itself, I do think that the Spirit empowers me to be generative through my work.

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.” – Galatians 5:22-23

“Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone.” – 1 Corinthians 12:4-7

“Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, 'Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” – John 7:38

When we steward our talents for the glory of God – even when the semantics of how exactly that happens are still being ironed out – I believe something special happens. The fruit of the Spirit is described in Galatians to be almost an anti-thesis of the immoral acts of the flesh, where a Spirit-led life enables us to bear this moral fruit despite our mortal fallen selves. What I have always found interesting is that the fruit are all presented as nouns, when most exist in the exact same lettering in verb form, or are easily translated into verb form. So this fruit isn't a passive gift of the flesh, but is active, in process and generative.

In the sense of musicking, all these fruits are easily expressed through music; we can feel love and joy and goodness in music, and the craft requires gentleness and self-control indeed. Musicking is also deeply joyful – in my work with extended techniques at the piano, playing inside the piano necessitates a heightened relationship between the performing body and instrument, and I relish the sensation of tracing a sound through the air after plucking/hitting/strumming a string.


These are lofty goals and ideals to aspire towards, and doubtlessly I continually slip up and return to my self-gratifying and self-glorifying modes of musicking. At other times, musicking does not feel joyful at all, but what the Bible has to say about work being corrupted as a result of the fall[5]is a helpful reminder to me that work is not supposed to always feel comfortable and we must persevere on in praise of God even when it is difficult. And when we do find pleasure in work (or as I do, from musicking), one ought to be doubly thankful for that this labour that was cursed has become our prize and gain! So then perhaps we as Christian artists are called to take joy in our labour.

I hope that some of these ideas might prove helpful to non-believers as well: on the work ethic, philosophy of beauty; relevance of WAM in our world today; and corporeality of musicking. Let us especially continue to make music these dark times.

[1] I borrow Christopher Small’s concept of musicking quite generously in this article, see e.g. Small, Christopher. Musicking: The meanings of performing and listening. Wesleyan University Press, 1998. [2] A note on terminology: I will use the terms new music and experimental art music rather synonymously. With these terms, I am referring to Western art music from a loosely-defined historical period of 1945-present.

[3] For me, it's not a hard no that Christian artists cannot depict sinful acts in order to express the effects of sin (I'm intentionally avoiding word "perform" sinful acts as there is an implication of greater involvement with the act when one "performs" it). I think that there can be - and oftentimes, should be - a fundamental separation of the true Self and the performed Self when an artist is onstage. This is context-dependent, but if we were always 100% ourselves onstage, that wouldn't be art anymore. That being said, I'm not sure I condone depicting explicitly sinful acts onstage either, for I would not be comfortable doing so myself as a Christian. But the flipside of it is: how else would one communicate these sins through art? Even telling is a form of depiction that lies on the same spectrum as performing or embodying.

[4] Begbie, Jeremy S. A Peculiar Orthodoxy: Reflections on Theology and the Arts(Baker Academic, 2018), 24, italics original. [5] Gen 3:17-19