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Chris Thile, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Eucatastrophe in Music

 [Editor’s note: Say hello to Drew Miller. Some of you will remember his band, The Orchardist, from the Local Show last month. I love the way he thinks about music. Read this post and you’ll see why.] 

Starting at about 47:06 in the video below, Chris Thile reflects on his style of composing music and says:

“You can’t just pull the rug out from someone. That’s easy to do—finding high contrast is super easy. What’s difficult is making that high contrast seem inevitable in retrospect, that a need has been met that you didn’t know you had until afterwards. Essentially subversively creating an expectation and meeting that expectation, which amounts to, hopefully, expectations being exceeded.”

When I first watched this moment unfold, much to my own surprise, tears were shed. What follows is me exploring the question: Why the tears? Because obviously, this is about more than merely composing music.

My first guess is that I have always lived in search of shivers down my spine and mind-blowing moments. I believe that behind this search has been a love for the humbling thrill of having my imagination exceeded. In these moments, I realize that the world is more connected, cohesive, and true in its integration than I had thought.

We all have a perspective of the world, and our perspectives allow for a certain degree of variety and a certain degree of cohesion within that variety. Yet our perspectives are woefully limited. So when we encounter another perspective represented through a piece of art, writing, or even lived experience that is more deeply cohesive than our own, we are brought down to size. We are humbled.

There is a thrill in it, too, because these moments allow our own perspectives to enlarge and expand. We make more room in our imaginations for reality than there was before.

Here are three examples of these humbling thrills in the realm of music:

“My Legionnaire” by Brooke Waggoner: This song establishes its form, then departs from it in a way that ultimately coheres with and strengthens the entirety of the song. I first heard it in eighth grade and couldn’t believe my ears.

“Julep” by The Punch Brothers: When this song goes into the bridge section, it feels like it couldn’t possibly return to the first section of the song, yet it does flawlessly.

“Sellers of Flowers” by Regina Spektor: This one has to do with the uncertainty of where the key center is. When we listen to songs, we interpret the whole song around the tonic note, which determines the home-base key: the one chord from which the whole song ripples out. So when a song bends away from that and modulates to another key, the center shifts and we feel like we’re going somewhere. The thing about this particular song is that the melody and chord progression work together to constantly evoke a sense of rapid motion in which every new chord feels like a new key center.

I find music to be the epitome of the humbling thrill. I think this is because one purpose of music is to bring seemingly disparate pieces together. Wendell Berry writes, “In healing the scattered members come together.” He writes of grace, healing, and wholeness as near synonyms. You can’t have health without bringing fragments together into a whole, and grace is what it means to bring those fragments together.

Music reveals the hidden cohesion behind seeming disparity. The key of G feels totally dissociated from the key of C sharp. In fact, those are tritones, as far apart from each other as they can conceivably be, and yet they are related. The circle of fifths reminds us that we can get from G to C sharp and vice versa, and to me that feels like hope. Music refuses to believe that the world is a fractured place.

Notes resound within the grace of time. Strictly speaking, without time, there is no music. The relationships between tones give us ratios and harmony, but these relationships need time in order to unfold into melodies that tell stories, that “go somewhere.” Without time, the story aspect of music is lost.

There is the old adage that there’s no healing medicine like time; music is a great microcosm of it. My dear friend Cameron Welke once paraphrased the words of music theorist Jean-Phillipe Ramaeu for me: “harmonic motion is motivated by the resolution of dissonance into consonance.” That doesn’t happen without time. Time allows us to go to unstable places where we’re suspended from the rhythm, the pattern, and the melody for just long enough that we doubt in our bones whether the rug that has been pulled out from under us will be replaced with another rug—and yet it always is.

If it’s a well-written song, these moments of resolution will be satisfying in ways we couldn’t have imagined. If it’s a poorly-written song, then we’ll have the rug pulled out from under us only to fall flat on the floor. What are the sorts of things you think after hearing a bad song? Probably something like, “That did not feel complete. It did not feel whole. The parts didn’t fit together.” A half-baked idea does not do justice to the wholeness that all songs seek to achieve. Time is the key to that wholeness, the condition for music to reveal the fullness of itself.

The problem is that we have inherited in this age a fundamentally fractured view of the world. No matter how we may depart from this view as we grow up, it is yet the ubiquitous backdrop behind our lives from which any departure is a tenuous journey upstream. We breathe like air the predominant assumption that the world is a place of competition, that all things are at odds, that my good must exclude someone else’s good. Life is a zero-sum game until proven otherwise. This is what many people mean by “individualism.” It’s not a very musical perspective.

We’re intensely aware of how contestable our little beliefs are. When we confront the vast uniqueness of each and every person on the earth and all their perspectives, it becomes more and more exhausting to believe that we all fit together, that we can cohere as a human race.

And yet we don’t just resign ourselves to this fragmentation; that’s not a very human thing to do. Our current state of desperation has only made us more thirsty for revelations of hidden cohesion. The stronger the narrative of disintegration becomes, the more we will know in our bones that it can’t be true. We will go on believing in a deeper wholeness to the world in spite of extensive contrary evidence.

In a recent interview with John Dickerson, Stephen Colbert was asked how he felt about “post-truth” being Oxford Dictionary’s word of 2016. He responded, “That’s before God said ‘let there be light.’ That’s absolute chaos. That scares me.” There’s something catastrophic about this. Can we no longer agree that anything can be agreeable? Is the foundation of our very words and sentences now a thing of the past?

Once upon a time, J.R.R. Tolkien played around with the word “catastrophe” and put the prefix “eu-” at the beginning of it. Speaking of “eucatastrophe,” he writes in his essay “On Fairy Stories“:

“…it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence…of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.”

He goes on to say that good fairy stories more often than not contain a moment of such eucatastrophe:

“It is the mark of a good fairy-story, of the higher or more complete kind, that however wild its events, however fantastic or terrible the adventures, it can give to child or man that hears it…a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears…It is not an easy thing to do; it depends on the whole story which is the setting of the turn, and yet it reflects a glory backwards.”

Is it just me, or is Tolkien speaking of something very similar to the “high-contrast moment” Thile got so excited about regarding music? Although fairy stories are not entirely comparable to music, there is yet a strong analogy between Tolkien’s and Thile’s insights.

We come into one of Thile’s “high-contrast moments” with a certain extent of imagination. The moment then exceeds our imagination by showing us a greater coherence than we had known to hope for. According to Thile, as the moment passes, we realize in hindsight that it was inevitable. At other times he has even spoken of these moments as “genetically encoded” into the DNA of the music from the very beginning, like a recessive gene.

Tolkien’s eucatastrophe “reflects a glory backwards,” he says. So the whole story is working up to this “turn,” and once the turn comes, it’s so miraculous that it sheds light on everything that came before it. Think of your favorite mind-bending TV show drama—mine is LOST—and recall the moment when you learned something about a character that changed everything. You had to pause it, catch your breath, and frantically reinterpret the entire series in light of this new revelation.

“The Resurrection was the greatest ‘eucatastrophe’ possible in the greatest Fairy Story—and produces that essential emotion: Christian joy which produces tears because it is qualitatively so like sorrow, because it comes from those places where Joy and Sorrow are at one, reconciled, as selfishness and altruism are lost in Love.”

Jesus’ embodied life is the original eucatastrophe, the modulation of key on which the song depends, and the brilliant punchline. It is the central moment which, within the grace of time, shines a glory backwards and forwards in history. History was never merely linear with Christ’s time on earth as one more little point on the line among other points. Instead, all of history hinges upon him. He is where the stone hits the water in the pond and the ripples come out to every inch of space and time. Jesus stands up, reads a passage of Isaiah, and says, “This scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” And even now Jesus says to us, “I have come that you may reinterpret the Story, that your perspective would be exceeded by my grace.”

This is why Chris Thile’s words put tears in my eyes. He’s not just talking about art; whether he realizes it or not, he’s speaking of the gospel.

When we’re thrilled by a break in a pattern, a moment in a movie, or a song that does something we didn’t think it would do, these are little reminders of the true nature of the world as always more than we thought it to be. The gospel itself is the more towards which these trinkets point. It is the abundance, the grace, the healing we desire.

So if the gospel is a thrill, it’s not a thrill of mere candy. It’s not a thrill of indulgence—rather, it’s a thrill of hope in which the weary world rejoices. It’s the thrill of an enduring hope, a deep, quiet hope that our insufficient imaginations may be subverted and exceeded by God’s own again and again.

I will leave you with a poem I recently wrote called “Songs We Couldn’t Write:”

Where Imagination fails Beyond the edge of light There live the tallest, truest Tales And Songs we couldn’t write

Like the patient peace of trees We think to be asleep They yet resound the silent Speech Of roots hidden and deep

Far away from fantasy And further still from fear They bear their ancient history For quiet hearts to hear

Every child listens first In their own native tongue A heavy gift to tend the Thirst Inside of them begun

All our works of good and ill Have from this Thirst been wrought Each desire to heal, to kill And every passing thought

Some grow up to bitterly Deny their Thirst unquenched They’re wrong when they think themselves strong; Their fists are merely clenched

Others crave a prize to earn, A treasure to attain They ever burn, their world upturned, Imagining in vain

But in Hope the meek receive The failure of their sight And like the child none can deceive They wonder with Delight

That where Imagination fails Beyond the edge of light There live the tallest, truest Tales And Songs we couldn’t write


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