Simple Gifts

You go from people’s earbuds, into concert halls, into living rooms, into cars, into what — so you can — it can exist across a lot of different physical spaces and geographical spaces.” ~Yo-yo Ma

Music exploits the ‘omnipresent’ (25).

When you receive something that’s living (music), it goes inside you, ….. it becomes your own.” ~Yo-yo Ma

The bodiliness of sound experience is harnessed intensively in music…speak of musical sound as received through your body” (27).

Recently, I heard an interview of Yo-yo Ma expressing somewhat of a spirituality of music. One finds similar sentiments when reading Jeremy Begbie’s exposé in Theology, Music and Time. To demonstrate the theological themes of music I found on YouTube, a duet of Yo-yo Ma and Alison Krauss playing “Simple Gifts.” I will unpack the themes that I discovered in the hymnody. This melody with different lyrics is more commonly known liturgically in music missals as the “Lord of the Dance.

Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free
‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight- played in unison with the cello.

(There’s a slight pause of silence before the chorus)

When true simplicity is gain’d,
To bow and to bend we shan’t be asham’d,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come ’round right

The song begins with the cello playing solo the first time through the verse and chorus moving smoothly and continuously through each note.

The second time through ‘Tis the gift to be simple’ – the verse is sung by Alison with an undertone of the cello that ends the final note in unison on “right.”

Halfway through the recording the cello again plays a verse solo until Alison joins back in singing the melody ‘And when we find ourselves in the place just right’ with the cello playing harmony under the voice. ‘When true simplicity‘ is played with a counter melody and harmony of the cello building through the ‘turning, turning’ lyric and ending again in unison on “right.”

For the final repeat of the chorus  ‘Till by turning, turning we come ’round right’ the tempo slows down with the cello playing in unison on the final note an octave under the voice.

Change and order

As a most beautiful piece that begins quite simply with a solo cello voice lyrically played at a moderate tempo rather straight forward to a duet with a lyrical voice that slows dramatically for emphasis, this piece invites change and order. With that “music demonstrates that there can be ordered change, that change need not imply chaos” (85). This piece demonstrates that order of A, B, A, B, yet paradoxically there is change. The tempo changes, the voice changes, the melody is at first in unison, but later harmony is introduced. As a theological lesson it seems ironic that order and change can both go hand in hand, yet music embodies this concept.

Taking time

Music thrives on momentum. Classical pieces are composed in movements that build from one to another with interplay artfully woven between movements ever growing until the final movement when everything fits together in the finale. This inherent character of music is a theological attribute of all of creation and its temporal order of being. “The created world takes time to be”(86). With regard to this piece “Simple Gifts” Yo-yo Ma begins deeply and softly on his cello only to build into a duet with Alison Krauss changing octaves and adding harmonies while also changing tempos and adding retards. Half way through Yo-yo Ma again plays solo and softly as if demonstrating a time to wait during the lyric, “When true simplicity is gain’d,” There is a sense of enjoyment that the movement is building to something bigger. The anticipation is rewarded again with Alison’s voice and  the cello’s counter play. “Waiting is an experience based on the interpretation and understanding of the temporal structures of events and human desires”(87).

Limited Duration

As temporal beings one is aware of life’s limitations and finitude. Music too exacts the temporal nature of humanity where one note gives way to another. “Music is constantly dying, giving way ” (92). Yo-yo Ma does this so artfully where the notes almost breathe into the next. There is great continuity where one note ends in the voice of Alison and Yo-yo Ma continues the tone of the cello as if there is an eternal nature to the song, “Twill be in the valley of love and delight.” The lyric conveys the notion of heaven as the notes end and enter into the silence. Between the verses before the song loops back to the beginning there is a moment of silence. As Augustine refers to the use of sound and silence demonstrating one’s coming into being from nonbeing, music artfully invokes this deeply ontological significance as “musical silences are not mere void but enter into the proportional ordering of music” (96). The significance of the pauses and recognition of the nothingness is of utmost importance to maintaining the harmony of humanity. Similarly speaking as a musician if one doesn’t recognize a rest or accidently miscounts, there can be disastrous results in playing when one is to be silent.

As Rowan Williams states, “What we learn, in music as in the contemplative faith of which music is a part and also a symbol is what it is to work with the grain of things, to work in the stream of God’s wisdom.”

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3 thoughts on “Simple Gifts

  1. My first excitement comes from hearing this melody with different lyrics. 🙂 I’m not the biggest fan of Lord of the Dance, but this is a beautiful rendition of the same melody…

    I like your comment on the change and order: “The tempo changes, the voice changes, the melody is at first in unison, but later harmony is introduced. As a theological lesson it seems ironic that order and change can both go hand in hand, yet music embodies this concept.” Change does not necessarily mean chaos, but like with the other concept Begbie introduces of “tension,” change can bring the music to a new resolution.

    Thank you for your reflection!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Beautiful rendition of a classic piece. I particularly liked your comments on order and change, as well. You said that music shows that order and change can go together. I think that this piece shows that, not only can they go together, but that music is most beautiful when they do go together.

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  3. Thank you for your reflection! I haven’t hear this song before and I really enjoyed it. What stood out to be was the theme of limited duration. “As temporal beings one is aware of life’s limitations and finitude. Music too exacts the temporal nature of humanity where one note gives way to another.” This piece shows beautifully that one note must end in order for the other to begin. It reflects the finite order of creation. Begbie says, “Christian hope speaks of a life through death which is fuller than this life, a life given by God, this life transformed into the life of the ‘age to come'” (92). Our death is not a final end but rather the beginning of new life.

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