with ives in the school of prayer

Any writer who tries to get published winds up receiving the (ahem) occaisonal rejection. The prudent thing to do in that situation is take a look at the piece that was rejected, give it a polish if necessary and send that sucker right back out. It is with this rule in mind that I'm not going to do that at all.

Instead, I'm posting my recently rejected article on Charles Ives' music and prayer right here at serotoninrain. That's akin to publishing it I suppose. And I wouldn't really know where else to send it, the piece was written for a very specific theme in a specific publication. I've added a couple of links within the piece, and I couldn't resist the urge to change a phrase here and there. It's about Charles Ives, but it's really about.... well, go ahead and read it.

The insurance salesman and composer Charles Ives taught me some important lessons about honest prayer. I was in college when I discovered Ives’ music, or rather, his music discovered me—haunting, compelling me toward deeper appreciation of the power of a well placed, if not theoretically orthodox, tone.

Ives’ wrote complex music, liberally indulging a fascination with sonic experimentation that he inherited from his father, band leader and composer George Ives. Some of the younger Ives’ pieces include microtones, tones that come partway between one note and the next. For example, in the musical scale, ‘B’ and ‘C’ are adjacent to each other, but Ives might find a tone somewhere between ‘B’ and ‘C’, often making use of specially tuned pianos to play the results. He also used ‘tone clusters,’ a musical breakthrough he achieved by banging the piano keys with a closed fist. I remember sitting in stunned silence during ‘Religion in Music’ classes while our two professors played recordings of Ives’ music. Some in the class clearly were not impressed with these odd sounds. Yet the unfamiliar sonic landscape and the way Ives guided us into it touched some deep and unexplored place in me.

This was especially true of his The Unanswered Question. It begins quietly, somewhat ominously, with strings weaving a soft theme, the foundation of the entire piece. Soon a lone trumpet plays a halting phrase, symbolizing what Ives called "the perennial question of existence." Throughout the piece this trumpet, periodically and with increasing drama, poses its question. Each time, an answer is attempted by dissonant and ultimately frantic flutes. This discordant response, the persistent question, and ceaseless though barely audible string undertones, come to reside together, an ethereal marriage of strange harmonies.

As the piece ends, the trumpet poses its question one final time, again haltingly, but now the strings are the only response.

Listening to this piece now, it still sounds like prayer, like holy fear overwhelmed by the inner yearning for contact with God. Voices answer the yearning soul with various fix-it solutions, any one of which might make sense in and of itself. Together they become a cacophony. The seeking heart, persistent in its questioning, expresses longings in a language above and beyond words which even its owner cannot grasp. Then the final moments of quiet waiting, listening.

Not all prayer is unanswered questioning. God hears, God answers. I know this is true at some level of my being. But Ives’ music suggests that perhaps an answer to my prayer isn’t the point. Prayer is an offering, an in-quest of sorts into the mind and heart of God. As I voice my prayer and leave it before the Maker of Heaven and Earth, I await my desired answer, which may or may not be the one that comes. In the time between, the solutions of the world are logical and loud and virtually meaningless. Still I call out, “If I only touch his cloak…”, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” because what I want are not answers, I want God. In these not-yet moments, I am like Charles Ives with his ultimately honest and therefore frequently dissonant music, touching something beyond reality yet somehow real. A contradiction? Yes, it is. Is it not also a contradiction that rich beauty and heartbreak can daily coexist in this world, even in a single life?

Life, prayer, God, the longings of our hearts—all are full of odd counterpoints and inconsistencies. The dissonant music of honest prayer encourages us to live within the contradictions and to hear the ultimate silence, the peace that God is in Christ, and is there, which is our answer.

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