March 26th – Steve Jungkeit & Tom McDermott

Texts: Psalm 29; Isaiah 51: 1-5

Audiotopias: A Musical Exchange with Tom McDermott

[Editor’s Note:  The audio recordings of Tom McDermott’s performances were not good enough quality to upload here.  Sorry]]


There aren’t many references to music in the Bible.  There are a few scattered psalms here and there, one of which we used as our call to worship.  All 150 Psalms were certainly set to music, though what it may have sounded like is a mystery.  We find several other passages in the New Testament, when Paul and Silas sit in a jail cell and sing, and when Paul enjoins his readers to sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.  But we don’t find a great deal about music, which has made the Christian tradition vulnerable, at certain points of its history, to the suppression of music as somehow licentious or provocative, a view more widespread in Plato than the Old or the New Testaments.  That’s what led our Puritan ancestors to shun music.  Thankfully, Martin Luther was a notable exception to that tradition, embracing songs as fervently as he embraced beer. 


Instead, what we find are passages about the importance of hearing, and of listening, which is what we found in our passages this morning.  “Listen to me,” the passage in Isaiah begins.  “The voice of the Lord goes out,” the Psalmist declares, implying the importance not of the eye, but of the ear.  I’ve come to think that there’s an ethics of listening and hearing embedded within the Bible.  I’ve come to believe that listening is itself a form of ethical activity.  That certainly has to do with listening to the words of someone to whom we’re speaking.  To listen, and to listen well within a conversation, is one of the greatest gifts that we give to one another.  It’s also exceedingly rare, which is why many of us have to pay therapists, who will listen closely and carefully to our words.  Listening well to the voice of another takes great skill and concentration, as we discern the interplay of words and silences, hesitations and elisions, tone and cadence all of which combine to produce an elusive truth.  Listening to the voice of another is one of the most challenging tasks given to us as human beings.


But I’ve come to believe that the ethics of listening has to do not only with voices, but with music.  I’ve come to believe that this is a form of ethics that’s crucial for the age of mp3s and earbuds and Spotify.  We live in a world of incessant, sometimes overwhelming sound, which winds up making active listening difficult.  But I’ve come to believe that listening well to the sounds around us, to the music around us, is just as important as listening to the voices of other human beings.  There are entire social worlds contained in songs, which is why a piano concerto is never just a piano concerto, a church choir is never just a church choir, and a jazz ensemble is never just a jazz ensemble.  They all function as audio archives of human struggles and cultures.  They contain conversations, arguments, ceremonies and rituals, laments and aspirations.  Notes, melodies, and dissonance within pieces of music are all microcosmic pieces of DNA containing elements of the human story.  One stray note may signal a memory of Spain.  One familiar melody may contain the history of Africa, and the Atlantic Slave Trade.  Did you know, for example, that the song we now know as Amazing Grace was a moan sung by African captives while trapped in the hull of a slave ship?  John Newton, the person to whom that song is attributed, first heard the melody when he was the captain of one of those ships, later taking the melody and adding his own words.  Whether we know it or not, we bear witness to all those erased African civilizations every time we sing that song.  In a way, I’ve come to believe that all those spirits come to live within us whenever we sing that song, whether we know it or not.


But careful listening has to do with more than accessing cultural archives or memories.  Passionate listening, learning how to hear, allows us to participate in what one author calls audiotopias.[1]  By that, he has in mind a utopia of sound that enters our being through the ear, creating a kind of space that we can enter into, move around in, inhabit, be safe in, conduct arguments within, and learn from.  Audiotopias are what I discovered as a kid riding my bike to the mall to buy tapes and then CDs with the lunch money I saved every week, eating next to nothing at lunch so that I could buy music.  Audiotopias are what young people today discover in their earbuds, as Spotify selects a perfectly curated playlist.  Audiotopias are what subscribers to Musical Masterworks are searching for.  I take it our choir creates an audiotopia Sunday by Sunday.  It’s what Tom McDermott accomplishes at the house concerts he puts on in the front room of his home.  It’s what goes on all over New Orleans, America’s most audiotopic city.  It’s a large part of what gave people in that city the courage to keep on going after Hurricane Katrina.  The engineers and the builders helped put the physical infrastructure back together.  The musicians helped to rebuild the human spirit, putting the emotional infrastructure back together.  New Orleans is one demonstration of the power of audiotopias in our world.


Our service today shall be a gesture in the direction of several audiotopias, born from the interplay of African, European, American, and Cuban sounds.  It’s all in the service of an ethics of listening, of an ethics born from careful listening, where we become more attuned to the conversations and pleas, the arguments and dreams contained in the world of sound, which is everywhere a part of us.  “Listen to me,” the prophet Isaiah says.  Our service today is a gesture in the direction of Isaiah: Listen!


“Down by the Riverside” – Traditional

We’ll start in a familiar place, with a version of the old spiritual “Down by the Riverside.”  It dates back before the Civil War, and probably a long time before that.  It is the very definition of an audiotopia, an ethical world imagined through sound.  It takes the bleakest portions of the human condition, having to do with warfare and violence and enslavement, and it imagines, through sound, the possibility of laying those burdens down – by a riverside that could be the Jordan River, or perhaps the Ohio or the Mississippi.  Here’s “Down by the Riverside.” 


“Heavy Henry” – Tom McDermott

Henry Butler is one of New Orleans’ greatest piano players.  He’s been sick lately, but I’m pleased to say I was able to hear him play a little bit last year at Jazz Fest.  He’s been a hero to Tom, I gather, and to any number of folks influenced by the piano tradition in New Orleans.  Tom can say a little more about his relationship with Henry Butler, but as I hear this music, I sense within it something of the wider human story, which has to do with finding teachers, mentors, heroes, people who inspire us to become who we are.  You don’t have to be a musician or an artist to experience that.  You simply have to be alive.  Who are the people who have made you who you are?  Who are those who inspire you to try new things, to take on new projects, to experiment with a new identity?  Our lives are a composition of the influence of others, which can lay heavy upon us at times.  But those influences might also give us the resources we need to create our compositions, our own jazz standards, our own beautiful lives.  Here’s Heavy Henry.      


“Danza” – Louis Moreau Gottschalk

Which of our senses is the first to experience freedom?  Which of our senses is the first to embrace difference, inclusion, hospitality, embrace?  Which of our senses is the first to embrace something like democracy?  I would make the case that it’s hearing that leads us to identify with the other.  It’s the ear that first opens us to other worlds. 


Louis Moreau Gottschalk demonstrated that reality.  He’s one of the most interesting musicians that America has ever produced.  Long before Louis Armstrong, Gottschalk was a native son of New Orleans who heard the drums of Congo Square every Sunday as a child.  His path took him through Paris, and the world of the European classical music, but he then traveled throughout the Caribbean and South America, and in a move that we now take for granted, but was nearly unheard of in the 19th century, Gottschalk began incorporating the sounds and rhythms of the indigenous peoples and cultures he encountered into his compositions.  And he spent a great amount of time in Cuba.  Gottschalk is one of the most underappreciated of America’s great musicians, likely because he was so far ahead of his time.  But in Gottschalk, I believe we hear yet another audiotopia, where closed national and cultural borders are shattered in an ephiphany of sound, an epiphany whose ethical possibilities we’re still, sadly, trying to follow.  Which of the senses is the first to be decolonized?  Gottschalk helps us to understand that it just might be the ear.     


“Piano Concerto” – Beethoven  

Tom shared with me the other night that he thinks of Germany as producing the greatest musical culture that ever existed, and I happen to agree.  And so we close with a nod to Beethoven, who managed to compose the most sublime pieces of music ever written through enormous adversity.  But his greatest and most well known adversity was the loss of his hearing, which began in his late twenties and continued to decline for the next twenty five years.  It was exacerbated by what is reported to have been a case of tinnitus, an incessant ringing in his ears, all of which had a devastating effect on Beethoven’s life.  And yet he still composed.  He created his best known works while he was deaf.  Which of course raises the question: is it possible to listen well, to hear a melody, even when your faculty for doing so has been radically diminished?  Is it possible to concentrate so fully, to maintain focus to fully, that you’re enabled to create and move forward even without your faculty of hearing?

            Beethoven presents us with a metaphor for a condition each of us faces at points in our lives.  How do we proceed when we can no longer audibly hear the voices we most need to hear?  How to proceed after we’ve lost something precious, how to remain focused when that which we need to hear has fallen silent?  I think that question is especially pertinent in an age when it’s hard to hear the voice of ethical conscience, when we need reminders of the common humanity that we share with others.  Beethoven helps us remember how to listen carefully, when all else falls away.   


[1] Kun, Josh, Audiotopias: Music, Race, and America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005).  I’ve borrowed language here from pg. 2.

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