Waves

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January 15, 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.

What is the character of our creative interaction with the world—not only the material world alone, but also the spiritual one? What do we literally make of the gift we of all creatures have—to see the intricacies of the cosmos and to recognize that they point not just to a god or designer, but to the Lord who invites us into intimate relationship with Him and each other?

Whether in science or in art, our fundamental response seems to be that of representation. Literally, it is to take what we find in the world and re-present it, adding our own associative, creative powers to see and make something new, even if what’s “new” is a more careful and true picture of what we thought we already “knew.” When we create in response to the world and our place in it, we necessarily display the depth of what was already there. Thus, both art and science are part and parcel of reflecting the imago dei, for creative representations direct glory to the God who made first, and show how that relational, recombinant power is gifted to humanity by His will, to bind us to each other and to Him.

There is no better example of the way representation directs us to truth that is both material and relational than composer, vocalist, and music minister Toby Twining’s “Prelude—Playing in the Waves.” Written as part of the accompaniment to the Wilma Theater's production of Sarah Ruhls' Eurydice in Philadelphia, May 2008, “Playing in the Waves” introduced the first scene of young Orpheus and Eurydice together. The piece begins by vocally re-creating the regular pattern of waves crashing on the beach, capturing the joy of the world as experienced by the two youths in love. It is a marvelously compelling rendering, especially given that it is created by five human voices over a foundation of a single cello—the entirety of the Toby Twining Music ensemble.

It’s also important to notice that even this first joyful and seemingly “regular” rhythmic section is built upon complexity: the singers take turns beat by beat to create the melody in a medieval technique called “hocketing”; the strange buzzing, spring-like or whistling sound is produced as a second overtone note by the singers (similar to Mongolian or Tuvan “throat singing”); and the harmonies are sometimes microtonal, or between notes, rather than being restricted to the standard whole and half-step intervals alone. As the piece moves on, each part sings in different rhythms as well as tonal registers, with patterns of four playing against patterns of thirteen to extend and defer our expectations of resolution.

As the “beach waves” sections get interspersed with sections of “ocean waves” (a bit of musical foreshadowing of the complicated events that follow in the story), it is yet another intimation of the way complexity is often masked by apparent simplicity on account of our limited perspectives. The regular splash and run of beach waves occurs when they are forced to "resolve" themselves on the sand, and in seeing that relatively coarse but immediately apprehensible interaction we forget that even just a few yards off-shore the waves are moving in and out and across and through each other, being turned and changed by the shore and other objects in their paths, all these interfering interactions causing an almost infinitely complicated topography of peaks and valleys, edges and curves. Even the “simple” pattern of beach waves carries the imprint of this deeper, beautiful mystery.

In this perceptive representation of natural phenomena, Twining and his friends have given us a reminder of the partialness of our perception—something always helpful in the conversation about faith and science. But as the physical system of water waves is being re-presented, it is also being remade into waves of a different sort in the air, of sound waves created, molded, shaped and shared between the singers in the room in which it was recorded, and with each of us in the spaces in which we listen to it now.

Just as the music originally evoked the complications of human lives in the play, the complex interactions of waves may still represent our own interconnections and interactions: the way even fleeting moments of “interference” may be either constructive or destructive, of building up or tearing down individuals and communities. It is the literal embodiment of the patterns of tension and resolution in human relationships, not just music, for the players breath together and make the air between them—and now between them and us—shimmer and dance according to the level of their attention to and care for one another.

Singing music like this is not easy, nor is anything that requires individuals to be in such intimate relationships of responsive give and take. But in the midst of the syncopated rhythms and sometimes-difficult harmonies, of the implicit meditation on complexity and tension, there is an ever-present sense of play and of joy. Twining is convinced that the role of discovery and representation of we have been given by the Creator is, indeed, a gift whose aim is resolution and reconciliation. He says,

“Our call as artists has boiled down to the imperative to make art that comes out of life and bursts with the energy, mystery, and love of creation. That seems to me what God has done and what our best art making does as well.”

If we can awaken the church to that wonder and mystery, perhaps there will be more love and energy left to turn towards loving our neighbors and enemies. If we can also embrace the belief that science is the sister of art, with the same call to true and beautiful representation of what the Lord has given us in His creation and in each other, then perhaps it and we who argue about its relationship with the Christian faith will also be able to better serve each other and the Lord who is the Maker of all.

New York-based composer and recording artist Toby Twining has received critical acclaim for music that brings together a new choral sound with hi-resolution/microtonal harmonies and innovative instrumental techniques. His ensemble, Toby Twining Music, has recorded three CDs: Shaman (BMG Classics, 1993), Chrysalid Requiem (Cantaloupe Music, 2002), and Eurydice (Cantaloupe Music, available February 25, 2011). The ensemble accompanied Garrison Keillor in the award-winning Little Match Girl on A Prairie Home Companion's 20th Anniversary Album (Highbridge, 1994) and Twining's instrumental works have been recorded by pianist Margaret Leng Tan and cellist Matt Haimovitz. Former Artistic Director of the Arts on the Edge festival of faith and arts in Hew Hampshire, Twining is now Interim Minister of Music at Community Congregational Church in Short Hills, NJ. Samples of the ensemble’s other work may 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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sy - #47547

January 16th 2011

There is so much in this post that is intriguing and thought provoking, but the phrase that finally grabbed hold of my soul was this “If we can also embrace the belief that science is the sister of art…”

I have always believed this to be true, and I was a musician before I became a scientist. But I had no idea how that was true. I think your post, Mark, gives us some important clues. Art and science are complex representations of the world, but both include a great deal of value added. That added value comes from the essence of what it means to be human.

Imagine we visit a wise man in a cave and ask what is true. He might say “I can tell you,but not in words.”. I imagine the answer could take two forms. One would be a musical composition, similar to the Waves piece, and the other would be an elegant equation that describes a scientific finding.

I think the sibling relationship between science and art is also full of other implications. One of the most important might be that the idea of objectivity of science, namely, its cold, impersonal purely rational aspect (which in my experience has always been clearer in films and fiction than in real laboratories) has been highly overstated by new atheists.

Some years ago I attended an opening of a wonderful exhibit on the “Art of Science”  I was struck by the depth of knowledge that the artists had regarding the science that was depicted in their work. Many scientists think of what they do, and how they do it, as not terribly distinct from an artistic approach.

So when an anti theist demands a scientific proof of the reality of Christ, I think it betrays some ignorance of the reality of science. Perhaps the best answer to that demand is to play the piece featured in this article. With a pleasant smile.


Roger A. Sawtelle - #47812

January 17th 2011

Some comments:

Some atheism is philosophical.  It is based on the theory that the universe is strictly physical, matter/energy.  This makes life a one dimensional, flat, superficial reality since it denies the reality of the rational and the spiritual.  Art demonstrates that reality has more than just one physical dimension. 

Another kind of atheism seems to be unduly concerned that belief in God means the end of an orderly universe, because that means that God would interfere with the natural order.  This seems to overlook that fact that God is most interested in personal relationships between human beings and not between things.  Also science is normally considered to be natural or physical sciences, rather than the human sciences, so this science is more interested in things rather than persons.

There is a strong tendency for materialists to transform living beings into determined things.


Jon Garvey - #47909

January 18th 2011

@Roger A. Sawtelle - #47812

Maybe one should add that a third type of atheism is that which doesn’t want there to be a God to whom they are accountable. R C Sproul looks at that in “if God Exists, Why are there Atheists?”

That can underpin the other types of atheism (our philosophy often arises from our psychology, after all, and things are a lot easier to control than God, as well as other people).


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