Music can move us in ways that reach beyond discursive speech. That does not mean that notes have no relation to words. Music is not a literal language, but it is more than a metaphorical one. The best music hints at a universal language that can redeem the cultural and geographical barriers of human communication. Even when wordless, music is always dramatizing our desire to hear something truer than we can ever say. The secret of music, then, is the way it elevates language in extra-linguistic form.
For the Christian, this elevation has a theological dimension. For example, we can hear the Trinity in the way that instrumental sounds penetrate each other in order to reveal a unity found only in difference.
But music also has a Christological dimension. By letting us hear transcendence within the limits of sound itself, it reminds us that the content of our words cannot be separated from their physical, acoustical properties. When we communicate, we vibrate. We long to be understood by others through the intimate opening of that passageway we call the ear. Music, in other words, keeps transcendence physical. It does not let us pretend that voices can be separated from bodies.
The most Christological piece of music I have ever heard is Gavin Bryars’s “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet.” In 1971, Bryars was working on a film about homeless people and recorded, almost by accident, an old man singing: “Jesus’s blood never failed me yet, Jesus’s blood never failed me yet, Jesus’s blood never failed me yet. There’s one thing I know for he loves me so.”
The song was not used in the movie, but Bryars was haunted by it. One day, as he went out for coffee, he left it playing on loop at his studio. When he returned, he found a group of people gathered around the tape listening in a somber mood, with some of them openly weeping. Bryars never knew the tramp (as he calls him on the liner notes), but he decided to compose an orchestral accompaniment for his simple refrain.
At first we hear only the tramp’s voice, but then the strings gently begin; as if to say that no voice, no matter how rough and untutored, is without support. As the music slowly progresses, the string quartet follows the tramp’s lead but keeps a respectful distance, ready to provide full instrumental support while honoring his vocal freedom.
With a little auditory imagination, the strings become the “cloud of witnesses” (Heb. 12:1) that the Bible says surrounds us. And yet, even with the increasingly intense intervention of the professional musicians, the old man sounds so terribly alone. Just at the point that the swelling score seems like it might steer off into a false transcendence, with the instruments eclipsing his voice, another voice can be heard growling in the background.
That voice belongs to Tom Waits, who at first sings just below the tramp’s range, almost inaudibly. It is as if he has stepped beside the homeless man not to lend him a hand but to be a friend. Waits’s voice then begins to rise as the tramp’s voice seems to falter, as if Waits is now going to carry him home. What is nearly impossible to do in lifeaiding somebody without appearing condescending or controllingis accomplished here with a grace that might be best expressed in musical form. Waits assumes without overcoming the tramp’s tune, carrying it to new heights without leaving the tramp behind.
Bryars’s composition is an act of aural atonement, a recapitulation of Christology in acoustical form. Waits is the acoustical shape of the Son, lifting the tramp with his low voice, and thus showing us how Jesus can take our discordant souls and make them whole.
While not a literal language, music is more than a metaphorical one: We might call it an imaginary language. As an imaginary language, it strives to say something objective about reality. It aims not at mystery in general but at universal truth. Bryars’s composition, like all great music, I suppose, gives us a sonic foretaste of what it might mean to enterwith the dispossessed at our sideinto heaven.
Stephen H. Webb is a columnist for First Things. He is the author most recently of Mormon Christianity. His book on Bob Dylan is Dylan Redeemed.
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