The Porcupine Shuffle

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April 17, 2011 Tags: Worship & Arts

Today's entry was written by Mark Sprinkle. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what we believe here.

Palm Sunday forms a turning point in the season of Lent—a promise of the victory and coming Kingship of Jesus, but also a false climax of the story of His resolute march towards Jerusalem: we know that the triumphal entry does lead to Christ assuming His throne, but only through the darkness of the cross and the grave. The irony of being human that we contemplate during these forty days includes the fact that we join in celebrating the One who comes in the name of the Lord on Sunday, but by Thursday will be with the crowd again, only then in calling out “Crucify Him!”

Such profound tensions do not seem to be peripheral to the narrative of our creation, fall, redemption and restoration, but central to it; it is a common thread in these Sunday posts that such paradox is also central to the way God is yet telling His story through both the Scriptures and the natural world. By considering creative works that help us dwell in the mysteries of our faith, in the tensions between Biblical accounts and scientific discoveries, we come closer to the truth that following Jesus is at least as fluid and relational as it is solid and propositional. By their form as much as their content, artworks can help us appreciate the un-resolved now, and give us a fleeting taste of the joy that awaits.

This week, then, in honor of the complicated joy of Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem, we present “The Porcupine Shuffle” by The Fretful Porcupine (Saxophonist Kevin Gosa and Violinist Jake Armerding, click the image above to hear). Aside from the perhaps too-obvious suggestion that the participants in the science/faith dialogue are themselves sometimes “prickly,” I’d like to point out three features of the music as it comes to us in this video that can remind us that we are ever in the midst of God’s unfolding revelation of Himself through nature and through Scripture.

First is the dynamic interplay between two voices that are very different and whose differences are accentuated rather than diminished by being linked together in this particular time and space. The sounds of the violin and saxophone are made differently (one by direct physical contact between bow and string, the other by shaping of breath itself), and the lines each one plays are set against the other in counterpoint for more of the piece than they are in synchrony and harmony. Tension is what gives the piece its life.

Second, appreciating this tension takes patience. During this approximately five minutes of music, fiddle and saxophone take turns carrying the melody, sometimes present competing melodic lines at the same time, and occasionally seem to lurch and stumble through complex rhythmic patterns, only to find each other again precisely at the right moment. Hearing all the different ways in which the two voices are different and play different roles within the piece takes time—more time than we are accustomed to giving to music these days, or to web-pages, perhaps even more time than we are often willing to give each other.

Third, there is freedom for the players to explore individually, separately within the music, without the piece itself being lost. Though the audience may perceive moments of seeming confusion, the loose, more improvisational moments do not actually threaten the coherence of the whole, but only heighten our awareness and appreciation of the final resolution built into it from the beginning.

Furthermore, this aspect of freedom, of meaning being created in the process of musical discovery on-stage, is more acute in this performance because it is “live” before and with the engagement of the audience. A studio version of the Porcupine Shuffle is only a few seconds shorter but seems more structured and steady, perhaps even more secure. And while that is not a bad thing, the live performance video ends with something the studio version does not have: the excitement and celebration of those who have been listening and watching along.

As with The Fretful Porcupine’s music, the tension—even conflict—we experience between God’s various strains of self-revelation is heightened when we struggle with it as the whole community of the Church, and when we attend to the “live performance” rather than being content with what has already been recorded in a time and space remote from us. But then, also heightened is the joy we find in the eventual and promised resolution of those tensions. And whereas the shouts of joy and exhilaration here mark the end of the Porcupine Shuffle, our exultation at the resolution God has promised to provide will mark a new beginning, where without irony we will shout, “Hosanna to the King!”

The Fretful Porcupine is a collaboration between saxophonist Kevin Gosa and violinist/mandolinist Jake Armerding, who note that “neither of us had ever heard a violin and saxophone combine to make sounds worth hearing. . . We wanted a challenge." Their first official performance was at the 2009 World Saxophone Congress in Bangkok, Thailand, and the ongoing exploration of "roots chamber music" incorporates instruments of radically different ages: centuries (violin and mandolin), decades (alto, tenor and soprano saxophone) and months old (laptops, loop and octave pedals).

Gosa earned his Bachelors and Masters of Music from the University of Kansas, and has worked for the International Arts Movement since 2007, overseeing technology and its annual Encounter. He also “loves collaboration, whether with fiddlers, painters, dancers, actors or even politicians.” More of his music may be found here.

Armerding grew up in Boston around professional musicians and was playing in his father’s bluegrass band, Northern Lights, as a teenager. Recording his first album of self-penned songs while at Wheaton College, the most recent of four additional albums is titled Her. Information on Jake’ solo CDs, upcoming shows and The Fretful Porcupine’s debut recording, Cellar Sessions, can be found here.


Mark Sprinkle is an artist and cultural historian, and was formerly Senior Web Editor and Senior Fellow of Arts and Humanities for The BioLogos Foundation. A phi beta kappa graduate of Georgetown University, he received his M.A. and Ph.D. in American Studies from the College of William and Mary, where he studied how artworks embody complex relationships in different cultural contexts. Since 1996 he has been an independent artist and frame-maker, also regularly writing and speaking on the role of creative practices in cultural mediation and renewal, especially in the area of science and Christian faith. Mark and his wife Beth home-schooled their three boys, and are active in the local home-school community in Richmond, Virginia.


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Jeff Fischer - #58143

April 17th 2011

Taking a few minutes to listen to “The Porcupine Shuffle” was exactly what I needed to start my day. Wonderful piece. As you note, there is dynamic interplay, the tension requires patience to appreciate, and there is freedom for the players to explore individually. It is important to remember that each of these attributes is given by God, and each is vital to our human experience and understanding. Thank you for sharing, and thanks for the thoughtful narrative.


cammoblammo - #58152

April 17th 2011

Sweet.


John Polkinghorne is fond of talking about mathematical beauty, although you really need to be a mathematician to properly understand what that means. In the same way this piece of music exemplifies something called tightness, which is can be explained but probably only really understood by musicians.

Tightness happens when the musicians blend perfectly. The rhythms they play sync the way they’re intended. They play at volumes which allow soloist and accompanist to complement each other perfectly. The instruments are properly attuned to one another. And so on.

Playing tightly requires a musician to play to the best of his or her ability whilst simultaneously allowing the other(s) to shine. It’s a subtle blend of showing off and showing others off. It’s what makes the piece greater than the sum of its parts.

My initial thought after hearing the first ten seconds of this piece was, ‘Wow, they’re tight. I don’t know how that sax player is restraining himself—-just rip it up already!’ And of course he eventually did, but in the context of the piece and in perfect synergy with the violin player. Very, very nice.

This piece is a great parable about how Christians need to submit to one another. And I don’t think I need to spell out the parallels with the tension between faith and science. 

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