My Big Fat Mormon Aesthetics Post

October 30, 2005 | 26 comments
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For months now, I’ve been contemplating a series of posts on the possibility of a Mormon aesthetic. I’ve been rereading Kant and Rousseau and Augustine, arguing with Michael Hicks in my head, and contemplating my illustrious career as the great one who definitively articulated the theoretical framework of a Mormon (musical) aesthetic. Last night, sitting in the dark at Stake Conference, I abandoned the notion of writing that piece. Completely. And joyfully.

That’s right, at Stake Conference, in the dark. It snowed all day yesterday in Boston, a heavy, wet snow that brought down a tree onto the power line that feeds the Stake Center. So we had the evening session of conference with only emergency battery back-up lights, flashlights, and a lantern which a brilliant Boy Scout of a Times and Seasons reader (who never comments, but *should*! ahem) just happened to have in his car. I got to turn pages and shine flashlights at music stands, so I was right in the middle of all the music-making, but still able to listen.

The prelude was the middle movement of the Bach double concerto, gorgeous, perfectly played by two world-class violinists. I listened, noticed how beautiful it was, mused on the impossibility of playing that movement as baroque–it is just Romantic, a century ahead of itself. Then there was the congregation, a little confused by the circumstances, but gaining confidence throughout “High on the Mountaintop” (though the words were a little mushy after the first verse). There was talking and some choir pieces performed by a good ward choir which would have been even better if they could have used the organ (I was in a good enough mood not to think too many evil thoughts about the obnoxiousness of partner tunes and the power of one composer to unleash such an idiom on the whole of the church musical scene. Hmmm, ok, well, maybe I did dwell on that a little too much).

More talking, personal and sweet and sometimes funny–funnier and more poignant because we were all together in the dark, talking about the light the gospel brings. More music–a luscious violin arrangement of “A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief,” that never lapsed into lugubriousness because it was so expertly played, an astonishing arrangement (and I really mean “astonishing”–my mouth nearly dropped open a couple of times at unexpected and neat effects) for two flutes of “Oh, That I Were An Angel,” surely as Mormon a piece as there ever was.

Then congregational singing again, “Israel, Israel God is Calling,” and a beautiful talk–sincere and elegant at once–with words from the hymn woven into the text as refrain.

Then more ward choirs, now from the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking units of the stake. One could quibble about their technical expertise: there were some notable lapses in intonation, some rhythmic troubles (probably from not being able to see the conductor in the dark!). But they were earnest and well-rehearsed and enthusiastic. In every way that matters, it was absolutely glorious. Just when I thought there could not be a more joyful noise in all the world, there was a new sound that I couldn’t place for a minute. And then I realized the men in the choir were WHISTLING!! The women were singing words and harmony while the men whistled the tune. I thought I would burst from the sheer delight of it. It was all I could do to stay sitting down.

I am pretty sure there’s no theoretical framework robust enough to account for Bach and Larry Beebe and whistling by flashlight. If there is, I’m not going to be the one to articulate it. And I don’t care. I just want to be there shouting hallelujah and amen.

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26 Responses to My Big Fat Mormon Aesthetics Post

  1. Kaimi on October 30, 2005 at 1:37 pm

    Beautiful, Kris. Wish I could have been there.

    Hmm . . . (checks sunny 75 degree weather outside) . . . let me rephrase that — I wish you all could have been here. :)

  2. cooper on October 30, 2005 at 2:42 pm

    Okay Kristine you’ve got me! This is the first time I’ve ever wished I was in the snow, and in a power outage! Excellent write-up, it was almost like being there. :-)

  3. Ryan Bell on October 30, 2005 at 3:00 pm

    Wow, what a fantastic experience. Thanks for sharing that, Kris. As an accomplished whistler myself, I would have given much to be there. Maybe that’s what I’ll be singing in the choir when the Lord comes again, if my earthly whistling days are over by then.

  4. a random John on October 30, 2005 at 6:20 pm

    Kristine,

    If it weren’t for your description of the weather I would be missing Boston right about now…

    Today I was tempted to leave church early as I was tired and it was the primary program and were not going to be here much longer anyhow. But we actually got good seats. They were good for three reasons. One was that they were toward the back so we could take a baby out if needed. There were also a side row which is key since our chapel has the odd distinction of having movie theater style seats rather than pews. This means that your children have no way of entertaining themselves on or below the bench and that they can really harm themselves if they stand up on the seat in the wrong way. Sitting on a short side row at least limits how far a toddler can go without forcing you to get up and change seats. I never realized how much I scooted back and forth until I couldn’t do so. The final reason was that just up and to my right was a Minerva Teichert original that I probably spent too much time gazing at. The primary program was unexpectedly spectacular and I didn’t regret staying all until Paul spilled his popcorn from nursery all over.

  5. Seth Rogers on October 30, 2005 at 7:50 pm

    That’s really nice.

    It reminds me of the times in high school in Provo when my guy friends and I would hang out at some girl’s house and stand around the piano singing parts while she played. I also remember the bus rides as a member of the high school Accapella Choir where we would just start-up relatively complex harmonies there in the dark bus.

    When I left Utah, I realized just how much I’d taken Utah’s musical culture for granted. While in Utah, I sneered at Janice Kapp Perry and such. But once out, I realized that the Mormons really have something going here. We just seem to be more generally musically inclined than our Gentile neighbors (to paint with a broad brush of course). I know very few people outside of church who can actually sing harmony.

    Many have bemoaned the lack of Mormon artists who can create anything new and exceptional. But maybe that isn’t our purpose. Perhaps our task is merely to transmit the brilliance of past masters such as Bach. Perhaps we are one of the few cultures (as a whole) that is interested in carrying the torch forward to future generations.

  6. Geoff J on October 30, 2005 at 10:12 pm

    Nicely done Kristine.

    Oddly, the power went out in our stake conference here in AZ today too. I was in the choir and we sang three prelude tunes in the dark as well. I hope members of the congregation felt some of what you felt at your conference from our music.

    Thankfully power came back on 20 minutes in to the meeting (just in time for our a capella version of “If You Could Hie to Kolob” — the best song in the hymnal IMO. I wish y’all coulda been there…)

  7. Elisabeth on October 30, 2005 at 10:54 pm

    Great post, Kristine! I would argue that the elusiveness of a Mormon aesthetic parallels that of discovering a unifying force determining consistent weather patterns in Boston. After the blizzard yesterday, today’s weather was 65 degrees and sunny.

  8. Anna on October 30, 2005 at 11:39 pm

    Wonderful, Kristine. I thought the unexpected wonder and joy of the meeting last night might be ineffable, but you’ve managed to capture it.

    I’ve been fantasizing for some time now that someone would write a follow-up to “Oh, That I Were an Angel” entitled “But I Do Sin in My Wish.”

  9. sam b on October 31, 2005 at 8:56 am

    you mean it was stake conference yesterday? I thought we had a snow day from church.
    I see I am now reaping the sinful harvest of my omission.
    (though I’m trying to imagine restraining the kids in the dark and not enjoying the image).
    great halloween-themed stake conf though.
    sad we missed it (we were lying around in our pajamas playing food wars with plastic livestock and reading Winnie the Pooh books)–our religious experience for the night was the Mormon Perspectives meeting.

  10. Adam Greenwood on October 31, 2005 at 10:27 am

    “shouting hallelujah and amen”

    And hallelujah and amen to this post, too.

  11. Rosalynde on October 31, 2005 at 10:51 am

    Kris, I’ve always known that I like reading about haute cuisine more than I like eating it. Now I’ve realized that maybe I like reading about fine music more than I like listening to it—at least if you’re the one writing. (I like making good music more than anything, though.) Thank you.

    I had my own experience with the moment of pure, theory-busting art-eating a few years ago at a ward Christmas party. It was moving along like a fairly typical event of its kind—that is to say, too slowly—with a few carols from the choir, a dramatic reading from the youth, a Primary number, and then the missionaries took the stage for a skit. The premise: Christmas morning, elders around a tree, unwrapping presents from home. Emerge a picture of a girlfriend, a box of chocolate chip cookies, a new tie and pair of socks, and something—maybe it was the cookies, come to think of it—that occasioned many minutes of galloping horseplay around the stage. Just at the moment of “*What* is going on up there?” and with no quieting preparation: a framed picture of Christ from under the tree. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son,” and a precipitous hush that fell like the closing curtain. Dramatically deformed, toeing the absurd, in fact—but with all the wonder and the swooping, crushing delight of the Spirit you describe.

    Of course, we can’t just say that, because it wasn’t beautiful but was still magnificent, there’s no theory for it: those sneaky theorists are too smart for that, and simply build a separate category apart from aesthetics called “Sublime.”

  12. Mark B. on October 31, 2005 at 11:11 am

    Great post Kristine. I can almost hear those beautiful, long, longing tones of the Bach Double Concerto as I read, and great memories of music making come flooding back–an impromptu quartet at youth conference singing “Let the Lower Lights be Burning,” nailing the high A (I don’t know if musicians call it that, but it’s awfully high for a wannabe tenor like me) in the Glory to God from Messiah–how appropriate that the note falls on the first syllable of “highest”–the coming together of voice and spirit in the Hosanna Anthem in the Celestial Room in Manhattan, the flood of emotion waiting until after the final amen.

    Better music, and more of it, and better preaching, and less of it!

  13. Logan on October 31, 2005 at 11:41 am

    Believe me, Mark B., A’s are pretty high.

  14. Mike on October 31, 2005 at 12:38 pm

    Perhaps this qualifies as uniquely Mormon music?

    I have a daughter who decided at age 4 that she would be a violinist. She pestered us for many months before we finally rented a violin and had her take a few lessons just to convince her that playing a violin is unpleasant and not a child’s game. By sheer accident we hired a Suzuki teacher. Turned out that my daughter has natural talent and more important an obsession with it. She carried her little violin around the house with her all day for many years. She went through six Suzuki books as slowly as she could out of the sheer joy of playing each piece as well as possible.

    (If you are not familar with the Suzuki method, it is a systematic method to teach small children to play music by listening to tapes of specific tunes and then memorizing them without being able to read the music. It skips the boring emphasis on scales and downplays perfect note by note intonation. It often creates musicians who can play by ear quite well and seem to play better than they actually do, but it has other disadvantages at later stages- that can be corrected.)

    Anyway she is getting into high school now and has tried out and sometimes gained various positions in the city youth orchestra. She is not at the very top but pretty good. She plays with passion and has natural stage presence more than technical exactness. Her current teacher calls her a wild little pony who needs to be tamed.

    I like to listen to blue grass music and I also think that most pioneer music probably sounded like blue grass. My daughter listens to it with me in the car but not willingly. She can easily “bluegrass” any piece by just sliding around on the strings or double stringing it. And she sounds pretty good to my peasant ears and will play like this for my entertainment, but she does not consider it serious music.

    She has played many times in church since about age 5. (BTW she and a felllow orchestra member played the Bach Double in sacrament meeting a couple years ago, with a perfection I have never heard them play in many hours of practice at our house).
    When she was about 8 years old she took the piece “A Poor Wafaring Man of Grief” and created her own version. At the time she could not sight read a single note, but could play about 50 numbers from memory out of the Suzuki books. It was for a poineer day sacrament meeting and she wanted it to sound like a pioneer song.

    She just heard the music in her head and played it by ear like it sounded. It starts out sad/calm and similar to what is in our song book, but then it turns into a happy energetic bluegrass gig. It is a simple child’s piece and it sends the powerful (and perhaps unintended) message that we will be happy and full of energy as we lift up those less fortunate than ourselves. It is a memorable number and always delights her audience; usually of relatives at family gatherings or baptismal services of younger cousins.

  15. annegb on October 31, 2005 at 2:00 pm

    Kristine, where have you been?

  16. Kristine on October 31, 2005 at 2:30 pm

    Anne, mostly outside playing with my kids. Winter blogging season will resume soon :)

  17. Jeremy on October 31, 2005 at 5:06 pm

    Kristine,

    Whistling. Brilliant.

    I’ve also spent considerable effort and ink trying to fathom a mormon musical aesthetic as well, and I was likewise derailed in my efforts by the music in church yesterday. Sacrament meeting seemed at first like a cop-out to make up for a counselor forgetting to assign talks, but in fact the bishop had planned it some time ago: we had a musical testimony meeting, in which anybody who wanted to was invited to get up and share a hymn-related testimony, after which the congregation would sing a verse of the hymn. The first surprise was how quickly people queued up on the stand: ten minutes in the bishop got up and suggested that everybody already on the stand would probably fill up the rest of the hour. People described undeniably poignant moments, including music-related conversion stories, mid-hymn epiphanies, a capella campfire singalongs on scout trips, etc. etc. I was amazed at how strongly people felt about the musical aspect of their spiritual identity–and also at how delibrately and lucidly they articulated their thoughts about music (as opposed to the sometimes rambling testimonies that so often slow the pace of testimony meetings). I should point out, too, that only a few of those that stood up would likely describe themselves as “musically inclined,” but all were unexpectedly fervent and eager to contribute to the meeting. Also, our congregation sang with a notable increase of volume and engagement; usually, it’s a pretty sad murmur carried along by a dozen or so stalwarts, but it seemed like everybody sang much more convincingly when it was Bro. Johnson’s conversion hymn, “I Need the Every Hour.”

    Also, singing a dozen hymns over the course of the meeting made it much easier to get through my mid-afternoon narcolepsy (our sacrament meeting falls in the deadly hour from 1-2).

    (BTW, you realize, of course, that in abandoning the idea of a Mormon musical aesthetic what you’ve done here is validate Hicks rather than argue against him? :) )

  18. Adam Greenwood on October 31, 2005 at 5:23 pm

    What a great meeting. Bishops, go and do thou likewise!

  19. Kaimi on October 31, 2005 at 5:31 pm

    We had a musical testimony meeting a few months back. It was very nice.

    Our poor organist! She was sweating it out the whole time. I could see the fear on her face that someone would pick “All Creatures of Our God and King” or perhaps “The Wintry Day” or any of a number of other hymns that, for many church organists, requires a bit more than ten seconds notice. Fortunately, the most complicated it got musically was For the Beauty of the Earth.

    Afterwards, I asked her if she was relieved, and she said yes, very relieved.

    And all in all, it was a great meeting.

    (A few weeks later, one of the sisters told me and Mardell that she had really wanted to go up there and make the whole congregation sing As Sisters in Zion. That didn’t happen either — the musical choices were all straightforward).

  20. Chad Too on October 31, 2005 at 5:41 pm

    I’ve scheduled such a meeting before, but rather than an open microphone I asked (the week before!) those I chose to speak to identify the hymn first and then prepare 3-5 minutes explaining why the hymn was special to them. That way I was able to give the ward organist 6 days to practice. She’s very talented, but it’s unfair to throw hymns at her sight-unseen when, with a little preparation on my part, she was able to put in the time she needed to be prepared.

    It was a great meeting; one which many have asked for again.

  21. William Morris on October 31, 2005 at 5:55 pm

    Whistling by flashlight. Wonderful! Thanks, Kristine.

    ———
    Rosalynde:

    I’ve been looking at the sublime (with my untutored eyes) for this very reason, but I think, I think that the sublime doesn’t quite get at what Kristine describes, and what much shared Mormon aesthetic experiences seem to be. I don’t know how to explain it at the moment — I’m still grappling with the basics of the argument over the sublime. But I think it has something to do with Mormon aesthetic experiences pulling in not only the awe (of power, of God), but also the whisperings and charity of fellowship and communion with the spirit.

  22. manaen on October 31, 2005 at 6:35 pm

    Kristine – Thank You!
    Maybe you just wrote the successor to what you claim to have abandoned

    One of my favorite meetings was a few years ago. The Crestridge Ward (Palos Verdes CA Stake) for their Christmas sacrament meeting had the choir perform nine selections from the “Messiah.” In between selections, a different member spoke plainly and fervently for a few minutes about the birth of Christ — in their own life.

    The cumulative effect still makes me tender.

  23. Kristine on October 31, 2005 at 7:20 pm

    Jeremy said: “(BTW, you realize, of course, that in abandoning the idea of a Mormon musical aesthetic what you’ve done here is validate Hicks rather than argue against him? )”

    Yeah, I know, I’ll be depressed about it eventually :) But not yet!!

  24. Jack on October 31, 2005 at 11:42 pm

    Yeah, Kristine, I was wondering why you were arguing with Michael Hicks (in your mind) when you’re cutting loose the idea of a “mormon aesthetic.” ???

    Hey, manean, I used to live in the Palos Verdes Stake. Maybe we know each other. (Of course, I’m not willing to give up my psuedonym to find out–not yet, at any rate)

  25. manaen on November 1, 2005 at 1:19 am

    24.
    Jack, I never lived in Palos Verdes Stake. I caught that Christmas mtg while visiting there. Sorry!

  26. Jeremy on November 1, 2005 at 2:55 pm

    I just encountered a poem that, albeit rather obliquely, reminded me somehow of Kristine’s post. With apologies to those who otherwise steer clear of anything published in The Nation:

    David Mason, “Passion”

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