“I am, of course, the lyre and harp of God’s kindness.”
– Saint Hildegard of Bingen
All of us, at one point or another (especially if we spend any extended time in silence), are confronted by the peculiarity of sound. Sounds surround us from our waking to our retiring. They meet us in the early-morning praises sung by choirs of birds and in the bustling clangor of work in the kitchen, in conversations with family and coworkers, and even the gentle babble of moving waters. Whether in a hymn or song shared in a gathering, or the tender melody of our final “goodnight” to someone we love, this phenomenon marks our lives in ways both subtle and profound. At its most profound, sounds can serve as signs, pointing our inner gaze toward truths whose glory overshadows their seemingly contingent origins.
Sound and Meaning: A Whole Resonance
Certain sounds can carry special semiotic content – that is, they mean or signify something. Think of an alarm or a church bell. Even though these two sounds may sometimes sound similar, we know at once the meaning carried by the one or the other. Take as another example the simple rise in inflection characteristic of questions. “Did you enjoy your supper?” We understand at once this interrogative modulation and respond to the meaning transmitted by it. Even sounds that occur in nature – sounds that do not originate from the minds and bodies of human meaning-makers – can come to bear a specific significance. Consider the sound of the salty ocean surf, the trickle of a stream, or the anonymous rush of a breeze. These sounds, depending on their volume and intensity, can either carry us into a region of calm delight, or cause us serious concern for our safety.
These semiotic or meaning-rich sounds find a unique expression when human beings make the kind of organized sound we call music. Though tempting, it would be a mistake to call music a “universal language.” The languages of music are as varied and diverse as the cultures that speak them. Yet despite myriad dialects, music-making marks the human heart in a distinctive way. We do not have to speak our neighbor’s musical language to see that it communicates something deep and true to the listener. Since our heart (sometimes even our whole body) responds so deeply to sounds received as music, we should be bold enough to say that music marks us as God’s own creation.
Shared music, like prayer or communion, seeks to transmit more than mere information; it seeks to transmit truth. Music is a particular shape of the sign of sound that invites and enables complex communication and communion, for knowing and being known. Dvorák’s Ninth Symphony, for example, is the first piece of music I can remember hearing as a child. Subsequently, even the first interval of the first movement – a whole step – vividly re-members inner states of heart lost to my conscious memory. Past and present are blurred, and I am able to communicate with my own embodied memories of love and longing in a unique way for a brief moment. Of course, we experience this chronological diminution best and most fully in the sharing of the Holy Eucharist.
Sound and Creation: Sonic Sacramentality
Why should sound speak to us in so many rich and varied ways? Why does this phenomenon from time to time seem to cry out for our deepest attention? I suspect sound speaks to us in this deep way because sounds are essential to the kind of creation God has gifted to us and the kinds of creatures God has created us to be.
Sound is essential to who we are as creatures – even those sounds we cannot hear – for the Bible reminds us that creation is sound. The language of Genesis 1 uses sound as an image for the divine creative act, rather than a grand cosmic war or the manipulation of preexisting matter (as we find in other local traditions of the Ancient Near East and beyond). We read “And God said …” seven times as the narrative of Genesis unfolds God’s creative character. No new texture, creature, or reality emerges without God first speaking.
While the Scriptures tell of creation by fiat – that is, through speaking – we need not necessarily understand this as literal speech. In Jewish tradition, the border between sacred words and chant is extremely blurry. The Hebrew Scriptures are rarely, if ever, simply spoken. They were (and continue to be) recited according to a specific set of sung (or “cantilated”) formulas known as ta’amim (“flavors”) or ta’amei ha-miqra (“flavors of reading”); tajweed or qur’an tajweed in Islam. Christian tradition shares this characteristic, particularly within monastic communities. While this kind of recitation is common to all three Abrahamic faiths, it is not exclusive to them.
Such an image of creation, at its core, carries the implication that underwriting all beings in creation is the vibrant, living, dynamic resonance of God’s creative Word. We can trace this concept throughout the arc of salvation history, and the Gospel of John reiterates it in light of the revelation in Jesus Christ: “In the beginning was the Word.” From the beginning, all being is inextricably linked to the sounds of the heart of the divine – the ever-vibrating Word of God. The insights of modern genetics and physics harmonize with John’s wisdom. The human genome contains more than three billion letters of a chemical alphabet, arranged in precisely the right order. Furthermore, the physical universe – its constituent parts, including us – consists in vibrations, of resonances tuned in relationship. We are each a word and a song of God.
In this way, we may say that sound has a deeply sacramental quality, “outwardly” signifying an “inner” grace. Saint Hildegard speaks of the sacramentality of sound when she writes, “The marvels of God are not brought forth from one’s self. Rather, it is more like a chord, a sound that is played. The tone does not come out of the chord itself, but rather, through the touch of the musician. I am, of course, the lyre and harp of God’s kindness.” It is the invitation of our life in Christ to tune our hearts to those sounds that our physical ear is incapable of hearing, for which all physical sound is but an icon and signpost. In so tuning our hearts, we find there is only one musician skilled enough to provide the music for which they were made: Christ himself.
Sound and Us: A Song Day by Day
In our inner life we often encounter movements or experiences that escape linguistic description. So too, we encounter in biblical or devotional texts a certain uncanny profundity that requires the kind of sensitive attention we might also give to a piece of music: a listening that seeks something deeper than mere information. Nikolaus Harnoncourt reminds us that, in many languages, the word for “poetry” is also the word for “song.” He writes, “At the moment when language [surpasses] any concrete message, it is immediately likened to song, because with the help of song anything over and above pure information can be conveyed more clearly. [Song] make[s] it possible to reach a kind of understanding that goes beyond the purely linguistic.”
Prayer and Holy Scripture mark our day-to-day life at SSJE – specifically, sung prayer and chanted scripture. When we Brothers gather in chapel to sing the daily office, we step into a place that only the vulnerability of singing together can manifest. As we sing hymns and canticles and chant the psalter, we encounter one another in a peculiar way. Our voices can compete, overpower, derail, and distract; and at the same time they can mingle and meld, weave fresh textures, interpenetrate and color one another, and cause the chapel stones themselves to sing as they ring with the sound of our prayer, praise, and lament.
A song, no matter how simple or short, has the potential to point our hearts to their source. An occasion spent immersed in music can tantalize unexpected gratitude out from under a grief-stricken or cynical heart. The otherness of an unfamiliar piece of music can remind us of the breathtaking infinity of God’s diversity. When we encounter something anonymous yet undeniably present, true, and weighty in the sounds that surround us, we can be sure a sign has crossed our gaze. Listen. Sound and music remind us that life is profoundly mysterious and difficult to grasp with any kind of absolute certainty. A song will not necessarily speak the same word to you as it will to me. Yet this same phenomenon holds us together, marking our diversity as creatures, inviting us into that place within us that yearns to hear the uncreated symphony of our divine Composer.