On Creativity: An Interview with Chris Thile on Minnesota Public Radio

Thile.jpgThis past week we were given a great interview from MPR (Minnesota Public Radio), with Chris Thile about his transition with Garrison Keillor for the job of full-time host of the radio show A Prairie Home Companion. If you’re not sure who Thile is, he is one-third of the progressive folk band Nickel Creek, one-fifth  of the band Punch Brothers, and an accomplished composer and songwriter on his own and in other small collaborative projects. Thile is one of my personal heroes – has been for quite some time now – and it’s super exciting to know he’ll take over creative control and hosting duties on PHC this coming October.

You can read more elsewhere about Garrison Keillor handing the show off to Thile, but please listen to this interview. There’s lots of good stuff here about music, and about creativity in general. I connected with a lot specifically because I’m a worship pastor in a church, and a few things Thile says here are very helpful if you’re involved in the week-to-week corporate worship and music planning aspects of ministry.

Listen A conversation with Chris Thile Apr 9, 2016 8min 44sec 

Again, give the interview a listen; but here are a few of those extra helpful points I mentioned, for musicians and for church worship leaders in particular.

  1. The joy of creating something new for people every week. Thile talks in the beginning of the interview about the joy and excitement he has, as an artist, to get to create every week for the joy of others. A responsibility like this can be either a privilege or a burden; for a vocational artist, especially one who is saved and serving a local church, this should be exciting as we plan services and liturgies, arrange, even write, and lead in the song and prayer of our churches. As Thile said in another interview published only yesterday, “The prospect of getting to make things for people on a weekly basis … is beyond compare. It’s what I love to do.”
  2. Practice your craft. A lot. Thile says he practices between three and five hours of mandolin every day. It’s that important to his life and work, and he does it because he wants to. Those hours aren’t wasted, but a necessary and good part of his vocation and “calling” (can I say calling here?) as an artist. And we wonder how someone like Thile gets so good at what he does… He puts the time in. Quality takes time and discipline, and it’s worth the effort.
  3. Don’t let your instrument “go to sleep.” Thile answers some questions about bringing his mandolins out of a “sleep,” which happens to the wood of a mandolin, or a guitar, or a violin too, the longer it sits without being played. Especially when a newer wood instrument sits, and the wood dries, if you don’t play good sound into it the wood won’t open up to the sound waves. Not many people know about this aspect of stringed instruments, but it’s super intriguing. Play your guitar, or whatever you play, often so that it stays responsive and produces all the tone that it can. Listen to the interview, because Chris Thile can talk more eloquently about this point than I can.

So there you have it! And there’s lots more in the eight minutes of that interview that’s worth your time. And check out A Prairie Home Companion if you’ve never listened.

 

A Case for Reading Good Books and Singing Good Songs

Library.Stairs

In his book Desiring the Kingdom, James K.A. Smith builds a case for an understanding or “anthropology” of mankind that is liturgical. He argues that we are liturgical beings, shaped not only by ideas, but also, and even more so by our practices. We practice routines and habits in our daily living, that shape us over time into certain kinds of people.

Now, if this is the case, then reading and thereby immersing ourselves in certain “worlds” in reading fiction, for instance, just might shape us as well. Our imaginations are stirred by the stories we read and hear, and stories have proven to shape us into certain kinds of people in the same way as our real-life routines. Think about this: if I carve out some time to read through a book over, say, a couple months’ time, and this book captures my imagination and brings me into contact with a world where good is lauded and portrayed as good, and evil is exposed for being truly evil, my mind and heart might take on the rhythms and feelings and colors of that world of the story.

May we not neglect to immerse ourselves in the Bible, since it’s truly the only Story ultimately capable of really transforming anyone. God does not work through any other book or piece of art the same way. But I obviously think of Lewis’ Narnia books, or Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, both top favorites of mine, as stories worth reading for their shaping influences. In these stories, we immerse our imaginations in worlds where Hope is real, Joy is solid, and there are sovereign purposes at work in the universe. And spending repeated sittings in these books may, over time, turn you into the kind of person who thinks the same ways about the world and about yourself. If you read trashy fiction, enough exposure to it just might shape you into a trashily-minded member of the created order.

In a similar vein, I’ve thought recently about how this liturgical anthropology has a very specific bearing on the content of our songs in corporate worship in a church setting. Does your church sing songs that are vague, disjointed, and/or theologically messy? Worship leaders, do you listen to, and pick songs for your church families that are rich in truth, and that express that truth clearly and poetically? Smith’s anthropology argues that even the way our songs express truth will shape us, even if everything the songs say is technically correct. Go through enough rhythms of singing true, but sloppily written, vague songs in church and you’ll start to think the same way the songs do.

In my role of picking songs for my church to sing in worship, I’ve had a couple times in the past few months where I’ve had to seriously consider scrapping a song, or a verse of a song, that caused more head-scratching and confusion than not. And I confess I had to get over my own pride in these situations, to stop singing a song I really do love to sing, but that wasn’t helpful for a gathered church.

I want to make sure I feed my own soul with the right kinds of shaping influences, and this is probably needed now more than ever in my lifetime, and in our cultural moment. I want to think clearly about God, myself, and the world; and I want to love good and abhor evil. Not in a gooey, subjective way, but in a real, solid, clearheaded, die-for-what-I-believe-in way. To do this I need all the help I can get.

A small tribute

I’ve been really sad about James Horner’s death. I’ll miss having him in the world with us. I’ve told a lot of folks that he’s my favorite modern composer. Out of his whole canon of work this might seem a little funny, but for me, one of the most iconic scores he wrote was for The Rocketeer. This music is my childhood. I think I love certain kinds of adventure stories because my dad took me to our MANN 6 theater to see The Rocketeer when I was 8 years old; and that film wouldn’t have been the same at all without Horner’s music coloring the whole thing.

“James’s music affected the heart because his heart was so big, it infused every cue with deep emotional resonance.”

James Cameron and Jon Landau, from a joint statement about the composer’s death

Great books: after you’ve scaled the mountain.

Mountain Peak2

A good buddy asked me a couple weeks ago about what he should read next, now that he finished Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. He asked if I knew of anything like that, with that kind of richness. I thought for a little bit, and I gave two or three suggestions of other books that might scratch some of the same itches. But I realized that I couldn’t recommend anything quite as good as The Lord of the Rings. And I definitely couldn’t recommend anything better.

The following here applies beyond Tolkien (or whoever your favorite author or book happens to be). Reading a great book that’s the best in its genre is like having scaled the peak of the tallest mountain in a range. In all of the breathtaking beauty and precipitous slow-going, you’ve known the mountain and you’ve seen the view from the top. Any other hill or mountain peak won’t be quite as imposing and full of serious joy as the experience of that tallest climb.

So what do we do? There’s definitely joy and fun and richness in the other books. But realistically, nothing’s going to give the same experience as that one great book. To risk taking the metaphor too far, heading up that tallest mountain again will definitely not produce the same experience, and that can be a really good thing. There will be familiar places that will ignite the same joy and numinous awe. But on a second attempt, the climb will yield plenty of things you missed the first time. When certain scenes are familiar, you’re freed up to experience other nuances of the place. Your experience on the way up won’t go exactly like it did before, and the view from the summit and the highest places won’t look exactly the same: there will always be more grandeur.

It’s disappointing, but also glorious, that there’s nothing else like the best few books you’ve read. It means you have to keep coming back to them – there’s no substitute. Other books will remind you of that greatest one that was the most full and rich, and gave you the grandest views. So don’t move on exclusively to lesser versions of the giant. There’s a store of joy in the greatest books that’s more inexhaustible. Go back again.

Art and Beauty: Folk Music Fridays

Folk Music FridaysHere’s an American folk staple, that’s been done countless times by an array of musicians. “Hard Times Come Again No More” was written in 1859, by Stephen Foster. Foster wrote some songs you might also know – “Oh! Susanna,” “Camptown Races,” and “Swanee River” among others.

“Hard Times” has a tone of lament that some of Foster’s other songs don’t have. It also has an enduring, universal quality in the lyrics, in the call to “pause in life’s pleasures and count its many tears, while we all sup sorrow with the poor.”

This is a fun tune to search for, and listen to a mix of covers. It has also lived up to a certain mark of true “folk” music, in that it’s been passed around as a cultural possession, in a sense. But here’s one of my favorites by Iron and Wine. Enjoy!

Art and Beauty: Wendell Berry’s Essays

In his collection of essays What Are People For, Wendell Berry writes about the role of despair and sorrow in producing hope and joy. It’s just great.

Reading these essays has gotten better and better the further in I’ve gotten. It’s really some beautiful stuff. I only wish I was reading the physical copy of this collection, and not a kindle version on my iPhone…

Anyway, on suffering, Berry says,

“[S]omething more is involved that is even harder to talk about because it is only slightly understandable, and that is the part that suffering plays in the economy of the spirit. It seems plain that the voice of our despair defines our hope exactly; it seems, indeed, that we cannot know of hope without knowing of despair, just as we know joy precisely to the extent that we know sorrow…

“Is it necessary, as some appear to have supposed, to cultivate despair and sorrow in order to know hope and joy? No, for there will always be enough despair and sorrow. And what might have been the spiritual economy of Eden, when there was no knowledge of despair and sorrow? We don’t need to worry about that.”

Wendell Berry, from an essay entitled “A Poem of Difficult Hope.”