The Water Is Wide
Listening to this recording of The Fretful Porcupine playing “The Water Is Wide” online is a very different experience than being in the room with the duo and other audience members for a live performance. Nevertheless, the diversity of readers of this post does recreate one particular aspect of being with Jake Armerding and Kevin Gosa presenting the music in person: in both settings, some hearers are familiar with this very traditional and well-known folk tune as just that, but many others’ first association with the melody will be the cross of Christ, as those hearers recognize the music as the Christian hymn “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.” At the live performance, that latter group may have wondered if this pair of avant-garde bluegrass/jazz players was surreptitiously proclaiming the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection in the midst of a show at the Infinity Hall performance space, or merely hearkening back only to an 18th-century tale of woe. The truth is most likely “both,” and in that very fact the Fretful Procupine gives both audiences a complicated gift—an example of the way that in music, as in all life, adaptive reuse is a way to wring the most meaning out of both the material and symbolic forms we discover in the world.
In the life sciences, the idea of adaptive re-use or biological re-purposing—of taking an existing form and making it do sometimes very different work—is often given the term “exaptation.” In less technical terms, scientists also sometimes speak of a feature being “co-opted” from one role in the life of the organism to another. But while in common parlance we tend to think of something being “co-opted” as a bad thing and a violation of original principles or intentions, the word itself does not imply a “hijacking” so much as a divergence with connection: co-operation between one use and another.
This intrinsic openness of both complex and seemingly-simple structures—not to mention whole organisms or ecosystems—sometimes makes for new, different, even transformational relationships that do seem to upend or contradict what came before, rather than merely taking a slightly different “co-operative” path. Thus “The Water Is Wide,” also known (and listed in hymnals) by the name “O Waly Waly,” is a song that its early hearers would recognize as a lament about the fickleness of love, the inconstancy of human relationships and promises, and the despair that comes of misplaced trust. But when paired with a different set of words, those of Isaac Watts’ hymn, “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” the meaning undergoes a profound and ironic change.
What’s interesting here is not just the idea that one can strip a symbolic, expressive musical form of its “original” meaning and impose an entirely new regime of meaning upon it, but the way such a change is often not a wholesale substitution but a transformation—the old meaning becoming part of the new meaning, even when that first is superficially left behind. This is particularly appropriate when thinking about the Water Is Wide/Wondrous Cross pairing, because the lamentation quality of the original tune reinforces in the newer symbolic environment the idea that what makes the cross of Jesus “wondrous” was precisely its horror—and that our very God would submit Himself to it for our sakes. That tension is one of the deep and terrible mysteries and ironies of the Christian faith.
But even more than just affirming that the cost of our redemption was high, remembering (or learning) the various texts that “O Waly, Waly” accompanied before Watt’s hymn was paired with it gives us a beautiful contrast between the character of human love and commitment (fickle, inconstant, self-serving) and the character of divine love (constant and self-sacrificial). In other words, the hymn setting preserves not only the musical structure of the song, but even part of the meaning of the first—lament and sorrow over love—but in a new context, with a new framework of meaning. The lament itself is transformed without being lost, and turned to mark the distinctively Christian tension between sacrifice and redemption through a greater love than that of mortal men and women.
Precisely because of this kind of expansion rather than replacement of meaning, our appreciation of this or other hymn tunes ought not decrease when we realize that they may have had secular or even profane origins (think of the drinking songs used by Charles Wesley), or be limited to merely rejoicing that such vulgar forms have been redeemed. Instead, we can celebrate and marvel at the way such beauty and new work has come directly out of something that seemed either unrelated or even in opposition to our life in Christ. This dynamic of renewal is, after all, exactly what we celebrate when we affirm that God’s grace is extended to us, and our own covenantal responsibility fulfilled by God himself, through the horror of the cross of Jesus.
By analogy, then, this instance of expressive “exaptation” in the art of worship has something to tell us about how we might think about the science of biological and even human origins—of how the scientific accounts of the history and relatedness of life on earth express the character of God. Most generally, we should see that it need not degrade or debase the biological world (much less humanity) as God’s creation to proclaim that we were made from lesser materials and that we share so much of our physical make-up and history with creatures in whom we may not see much to celebrate. It is, after all, the very power of God to remake what is base into what is glorious through often surprising and unexpected means.
Even more specifically, this reminder of the way new meaning emerges in old forms may help Christians think about what genetic research and developmental biology is suggesting about the way everything from proteins to cellular structures to body parts (from bacterial flagella to feathers) may be put to very different, novel and unexpected uses in different (or just changing) biological and ecological contexts. The more scientists in various fields of specialization look closely at the way life grows expands and connects, the more they see that adaptability—creativity—is the rule rather than the exception, and that biological or environmental challenges are often answered by surprising and unexpected re-purposings of previously-extant, often apparently “unrelated” capabilities.
A more detailed discussion and important examples of this exaptive principle in evolutionary biology may be found elsewhere on this site, but the key issue for our worshipping life together as the Church is that we recall the thrust of Watt’s hymn—that God wrought something more wonderful than the disciples (or we) could have imagined from the most unlikely and disturbingly-familiar means: the cross. Listening to “The Water is Wide” with ears to hear both the lament for lost human love and the affirmation that divine love has, indeed, found us, may we be reminded that at nearly every scale of life, and at every point on the material scale from chemical compounds to poetic symbol, creation points to the Creator who says, “Behold, I am doing a new thing,” and to the Redeemer who so often told His hearers, “You have heard it said. . . but I tell you. . .” while calling them to a radically new way of being the People of God. May all our songs of lament be put to similar new uses under the guidance of the Spirit and in fellowship with all the saints.
In their own words, The Fretful Porcupine "brews finely-crafted roots chamber music made of saxophones, wires, and wood." The duo incorporates a list of styles and idioms in creating its own, from jazz to pop to bluegrass to classical. Since their first official performance at the 2009 World Saxophone Congress in Bangkok, Thailand, they’ve performed regularly throughout the U.S. at festivals, clubs, colleges, performing arts centers, cellars and rooftops. Currently, the group is focusing much of its energy on developing a new paradigm for live performance that recognizes the need for physicality and human interaction in music. They are performing and lecturing on the subject "Embodying Music" at colleges and conferences throughout 2011/2012.
The ensemble's saxophonist, Kevin Gosa, is an emerging thought-leader on arts and culture. His writing has appeared in Comment, Chamber Music, and The Curator. He has masterminded four conferences for International Arts Movement. Violinist/mandolinist/guitarist, Jake Armerding, has been performing as a bluegrass fiddler and folk songwriter for over 20 years. He was acclaimed by the Boston Globe as “the most gifted songwriter to emerge from the Boston folk scene in years.” You can follow the Fretful Porcupine on Twitter, and like them on Facebook.
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.