Working on this project has been a life-altering experience, both musically and spiritually. Prior to Devotion, I felt as though I was in a “good place” in my musical abilities and certainly considered myself a Christian. However, upon beginning the composition process, I found a renewed zeal for honing my technical abilities at the piano, and more importantly, I found unshakable conviction in the truth of the Bible and the promise that God has for each of us.
My hope for Devotion is to create music that would encapsulate the meaning and general message of a few books of the Bible. Originally, I was seeking to avoid programme music (that is music that essentially goes along with a story). I felt that programme music was an incredibly interesting idea in its nascent stage, such as Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, but that some of the novelty has been lost with time. So I originally placed myself in the Beethoven school of thought, “The whole work can be perceived without description – it is more an expression of feelings...” (Beethoven in reference to his 6th Symphony: Sinfonia Pastorale) I had never been big on musical literalism, and I instead preferred to leave my music up to the individual interpretation of each listener. Working on Devotion has considerably softened my stance on this, as there were many passages that I read that translated perfectly into music, and deserved to be treated in a concrete fashion. Later, in a song-by-song breakdown, I will share some of these concrete passages and how they are reflected musically.
The Bible and the way that classical composition and jazz improvisation is constructed share parallels that I hope connect in this music. Classical composition and jazz improvisation is essentially based off of the presentation of motifs/themes that get developed over time. Sometimes these ideas might get repeated verbatim; sometimes they might go through changes of the harmonic, melodic or rhythmic variety. However, the composer expects the listener to be at least somewhat, if not fully aware of these motifs/themes, and much of the fun of composing music is seeing how these ideas can be developed and how they may align with the listener’s innate expectations or present them with pleasant (or unpleasant, I suppose) surprises. Similarly, there are themes in the Bible that remain constant and are developed throughout, such as devotion to God, charity, humility and caring for our each other. There is also the theme of God’s promise of peace, strength and eternal life with Him that is ultimately the backbone of what the Bible and Christianity is all about:
“For I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord. “They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.”
But all who listen to me will live in peace, untroubled by fear of harm.
For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord.
These themes’ foundations are laid in the Old Testament and are presented in the New Testament through Jesus in largely unexpected ways. In “Biblical times” (that is, the Torah became a written collection by 400 BC, which was preceded many, many generations of oral tradition) the prevailing belief was that God promised a Messiah that would come and establish a strong earthly kingdom:
In those days and at that time I will make a righteous branch sprout from David’s line; he will do what is just and right in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. This is the name by which it will be called: The Lord Our Righteous Savior.”
Instead of an earthly, militaristic king, Jesus came as a heavenly and spiritual king:
Mathew 5:3, 10
Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven…Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven
“You are a king, then!" said Pilate. Jesus answered, "You are right in saying I am a king. In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”
In classical composition and in jazz improvisation, it is very common practice to reference or quote previous works. For example, in Debussy’s piece Golligwog’s Cakewalk, there is a reference toward Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde. (Although, Debussy admittedly does this in an attempt to poke fun at the stark seriousness of Wagner’s work by placing it in a cakewalk…) In jazz music, improvisers will regularly quote melodies from other works, such as Sonny Clark quoting “Birk’s Works” during a solo in “It Ain’t Necessarily So” (from Grand Green: The Complete Quartets with Sonny Clark). By referencing or quoting other works, the composer/performer is calling attention to a history and huge vault of musical knowledge that those who are “in the know” will appreciate. These references greatly enhance the music, as it is an impactful way to bring additional meaning to what could just be “notes.” Instead of a series of new notes/sounds, these quotations carry connotation and emotion to the music that listeners who are well versed in that style will recognize.
The New Testament and the story of Jesus is largely about fulfilling prophecy. Now, Jesus’ story on its own accord is powerful and impactful. However, when viewed through the eyes of someone is knowledgeable with the Tanakh, (the Old Testament) many of the writings in the New Testament carry new meaning and greater weight. A particular passage in Luke really struck me in this fashion. Luke 3:23-38 recalls 77 generations of the genealogy of Jesus. To most readers, this likely to be a long list of hard to pronounce names. (How does one pronounce Arphaxad?) However, there are tremendous Biblical backstories and great meaning to many of these names. The stories of David, Jacob, Isaac, Abraham, Noah and Adam are told in the Tanakh, and in turn, those names meant a great deal to the people who were around Jesus. And when one reads the last four entries, there is unmistakable gravity to this list:
…the son of Enosh, the son of Seth, the son of Adam, the son of God.
This genealogical list traces Jesus’ ancestry from his earthly father, Joseph, all the way back to the first person, Adam, who was the design and creation of God. This list reveals the promise and plan that God created; that there was purpose and meaning in every generation from Adam to Jesus, and that Jesus would carefully fulfill every prophetical claim made in the Tanakh/Old Testament (these prophesies range from 300 – 400+ in number, depending on who you talk to). God’s composition – humanity and its salvation through Jesus – was carefully planned far in advance, and far beyond our comprehension, at that. The written story of this composition, the Bible, modeled the sort of exposition and development that musicians, composers, listeners, orators, writers and readers cherish: the initial presentation of ideas/motives/characters and their development in creative, unanticipated and compelling ways. And so it is in this light that I wrote the suite of pieces that I’ve called Devotion, with the idea that there are themes that will recur and evolve that represent important figures of the Bible, hopefully also in creative, unanticipated, compelling and meaningful ways.
Visit www.danmusselman.com to read the detailed, song by song break down!