Reading from Two Books
Nature, Scripture, and Evolution
In the Middle Ages, philosophers and theologians described nature as a book, a coherent work in which we could glimpse the mind of God. Like scripture, the book of nature bore the divine imprint—the Imago Dei—and the two books were seen as complementary. In the centuries after the Enlightenment, there developed a sense that scientific and spiritual ways of knowing were somehow at odds, that the apparent contradictions between the two books could not be resolved, and that intellectual integrity required a person to choose. Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, published in 1859, brought the matter to a head, and remains a battleground issue for some. Estrangement between science and faith has impoverished both the church and the sciences. Today, while signs of reconciliation are plentiful, animosity often flares back to life, sparked by polemical voices on both sides. Perhaps artists have a special role in bridging the imagined divide. Like scientists, artists are at home in the realm of metaphor and image; and like scientists, they also tend to love and feel curious about the nitty-gritty, concrete stuff of the physical world. We invited a group of writers from a variety of fields, including poetry, nonfiction, dance, music, and health and environmental science, to address the connections among art, faith, and evolution—particularly the question of how artists can help shape humanity’s sense of its place in God’s changing universe. Their responses are collected here.
The Evolving Song
PSALM 33 FAMOUSLY ENJOINS musicians of faith to “sing a new song in his honor, play with all your skill as you acclaim him!” The Psalms, taken with the Old Testament prophets and Paul’s vision in Romans of the whole creation in labor, suggest that the song of the stars combines with our well-wrought musical praise to make one great cosmic symphony. Entrusting us with the creative imaging of the ever-materializing kingdom of God, God makes us collaborators in a process that reaches far beyond the boundaries of time as we understand it.
Enter the modern natural sciences. We know that many of the founders of modern science, including those who contributed to evolutionary science, were theists. They saw the study of nature as an act of reverence—an attitude certainly still held by many scientists today. The scientist and artist each contribute to our developing construct of reality with various forms of empirical and creative imaging. Even if one views the moral imperative of the artistic call as going further than science, in that art helps us to imagine something of God’s new creation, we may understand the scientist and artist as collaborators in the same project: an unfolding narrative of reality that is ultimately the theological new creation.
I see a connection, for example, between Goethe (1749–1832), the poet and naturalist, a close observer of plant life, and his contemporary Haydn (1732–1809), the masterly composer of string quartets, symphonies, masses, oratorios, and sonatas. Goethe marveled at the multiplicity and structure of plants much as Haydn did at the many directions and outcomes possible in music. The searching minds of the poet/botanist and composer took similar paths.
In The Metamorphosis of Plants, Goethe wrote:
[W]e…relate these manifestations both forward and backward. Thus we can say that a stamen is a contracted petal or, with equal justification, that a petal is a stamen in a state of expansion; that a sepal is a contracted stem leaf with a certain degree of refinement, or that a stem leaf is a sepal expanded….
One could easily employ the same terms to describe the relationships of parts to the whole in Haydn’s sonatas. The botanical trope of the “dynamic leaf” and Haydn’s mono-thematic sonata allegro exemplify the western yearning for a germinal principle that grows into diverse, marvelous forms.
The musical events in a Haydn sonata unfold in time in such a way that they cohere logically and create a form. This type of linear progression of thought—what musicians call “teleological” music, borrowing a term from theology and philosophy—has been at the core of historical German art music since the Enlightenment. Its most celebrated composers comprise the first Viennese school: Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven.
For a living American composer like me, the teleological idea is only one among several crosscurrents in a multicultural sea of influences. The strongest of these is cyclical time and structure in traditional African music. The explosive pace of American industrialized culture, combined with an African musical sensibility, have hardwired me with a driving sense of rhythm. Having grown up in Oklahoma, I’ve absorbed a sense of stasis and the eternal now from the landscape of the American plains. I love hearing the steady pulse of Steve Reich’s music on long drives across the West. The open harmonies of early American folk music and the peaceful, meandering flow of melodies like “Oh Shenandoah” are in my blood. The modern American experience offers musical metaphors for time and structure that are very different from those of eighteenth-century continental Europe.
Furthermore, science has continually changed our understanding of the world we inhabit. Life, biologists tell us, has not unfolded in a coherent, linear way, and is quite unlike a Haydn sonata. The process of evolution in nature is something much messier and wilder, continually shifting, full of false starts and dead-ends. In 2015, it simply isn’t possible to write the kind of music Haydn did. Contemporary composers like me embrace the creative tension between linear and non-linear forms.
Essential to how we organize reality is how we experience and measure time. Science has enlarged our notion of time, providing new metaphors for rhythm. Consequently, composers have come to imagine increments of time that are both extremely brief—REMs, nanoseconds, the nearest instances of the universe to Big Bang—and extremely long—geological time, evolutionary time, light years.
American minimalist composers have made significant experiments that offer metaphors for the rhythm of natural processes, often with musical structures that unfold incrementally, with strikingly varied results. Alvin Lucier’s I Am Sitting in a Room (1969) begins by establishing a theme, in this case a short text to be read and recorded live before an audience. The recording is then played back into the room, whose inherent resonant frequencies reinforce those same frequencies in the recorded voice—the first variation. The variation is also recorded and played back, and the process is repeated until eventually the amplitudes of these frequencies are so great that they have obliterated all other recognizable sounds of speech. The final variation is an amorphous series of harmonic waves. The process mimics the processes of small changes over time in the natural world.
Lucier regards himself as a minimalist, but the neoclassical part of his imagination speaks to me most. He begins with a clear, simple premise and allows it to unfold towards its logical end without unnecessary embellishments. I Am Sitting in a Room follows the same procedure as the first movement of Mozart’s Piano Sonata no. 11 in A Major, each new iteration unfolding over a fixed period of time and changing gradually from the one before. The main differences are in pace, dramatic shape, and syntax. The syntax of historical classical music is modeled on rhetoric; Lucier’s is based on empiricism—both are dramatic and colorful. Lucier’s gift is to know acoustics well enough that his particular poetry can speak through it, operating within a sort of acoustical playground.
A rhetorical model of composing (which goes with a teleological thought process, and works like a well-fashioned sermon, speech, essay or argument) is not the opposite of an empirical model, of which there can be many kinds, including many approaches to logic and time. It was the American innovative composers, particularly in the first half of the twentieth century, who approached sound through the lens of acoustics in order to derive new musical material. I’m thinking for example of Harry Partch’s tuning system, which relied heavily on the work of the physicist Hermann von Helmholtz, or Henry Cowell’s modeling of polyrhythms on harmonic wave motion. These are ideas that have been important to my work as well, especially in pieces like 9:11 Blues, Schoenberg Dreaming, and the “Gradual/Tract” of Chrysalid Requiem. These works actually follow patterns of logic and phrasing typical of rhetorical models, yet concern themselves with an empirical approach to harmony.
Most people believe, in some form or another, that we need music, if only because it makes us feel good or gives us a veneer of sophistication. But music is not important just for its emotional content, nor its usefulness in education, nor any other quantifiable benefit. Music’s value is wilder, and therefore more real. Its value is prophetic in the biblical sense. We cannot control it, though we long for it. We need innovative music because it affirms our lives in the now—it tells us that our lives matter, our decisions matter. New and skillful music—the kind the psalmist tells us to make—refers not merely to the past, or to the current dominant constructs of reality, but resonates with the promise of God’s life in the present and the future.
Therein lies the moral imperative to make new music. It is not merely entertainment or an intellectual dalliance, a signifier of cultural superiority. Its meaning is ultimately not fixed. Like the Tetragrammaton, the sacred name of God, it has an independent and ongoing life of its own which we must respect with vigilant openness, lest we destroy it and ourselves. Its power is not at our beck and call. At best, we can hope, wait, and strive for it, and be grateful for it.
Toby Twining is a composer whose recordings include Shaman, Chrysalid Requiem, and Eurydice. His music also appears on A Prairie Home Companion 20th Anniversary. His awards include fellowships from the Pew and Guggenheim foundations and the Foundation for Contemporary Arts.