A Paradoxical Sounding

December 17, 2015

By Don E. Saliers

Note: this article appeared in the December issue of The American Organist, ©2015 by the American Guild of Organists. Reproduced by permission of The American Organist Magazine.

Annie Dillard is a bold spiritual writer. Read again her Pilgrim at Tinker Creek or Teaching a Stone to Talk. In her relentlessly curious For the Time Being, she cites Aryeh Kaplan, writer on Jewish meditation, about paradox and the divine: “… the God of the galaxies, for whom a galaxy is ‘no more significant than a bacterium,’ is at the same time ‘great enough that a single human being can be as significant to Him as an entire universe.’” Dillard observes that many people can’t tolerate living with paradox. “Where the air is paradoxical, they avoid breathing and exit fast” (p. 197). Yet all of us live in the midst of many paradoxes.

This got me thinking about the paradoxical aspects of music and musicians. The musicologist Nicolas Cook wonders, in A Guide to Musical Analysis: “If a few combinations of pitches, durations, timbres, and dynamic values can unlock the most hidden contents of [human] spiritual and emotional being, then the study of music should be the key to an understanding of [human] nature” (p. 1). How is it that a few notes, with or without harmonies or orchestration, can evoke in us the deepest sense of joy or sadness? Here I think of a child’s voice singing what her mother sang to her, or an unaccompanied folk melody or plainchant. More to the point: How is it that ordered sound could become a means of communication with the divine? This is the strange and mysterious feature of what many of us do every Sunday and each Shabbat in leading worshipping assemblies. Music becomes a medium of how God may speak with human beings and human beings address praise and lament to the divine ear.

Consider the paradox expressed in Psalm 19: “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and he firmament proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge.” Then comes the surprise: “There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard; yet this voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.” God is known through the glories of creation – of the whole created order and of sounds and rhythms of night and day, as well as through the language of Scriptures. Yet there are no words and no voice. The only way to hear is to behold the works of creation. The only way to see the glory of God is to hear the music. We catch this so clearly in Haydn’s Creation. Just the melody of the so-called St. Anthony Chorale evokes the echo of divine glory. I have found myself more than once humming that line unexpectedly.

Once, when I was studying the singing practices in local congregations, I asked a group of children why they enjoyed singing an arrangement of “Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones” (not much sung these days). One eight-year-old responded, to my surprise and delight, “Because the words taste so good!” Yes, the “words” tasted and sounded so good because they took us through the music to a mystery and a joy beyond the words.

Even when there are no words, some music – as all organists know – evokes a sense beyond the time in which the music is played. Think as well of Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time – four instruments in a constricted space and time, sounding eternity.

For Christian communities, the season of Advent is full of such paradox. Singing about the culmination of time marks the beginning of the year. Holding the past and future together marks time. “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” from the Book of Revelation, sings this paradox. This season, many will sing or perform Philipp Nicolai’s great chorale “Wachet Auf,” in one of its many musical settings. “Wake, awake for night is flying… Awake, Jerusalem, at last!” The final stanza presses on with the paradox of faith:


Nor eye hath seen, nor ear hath yet attained to hear

What there is ours; but we rejoice and

Sing to thee our hymn of joy eternally


Count it the joyful paradox that we, so limited by space and time, can plan and hear and sing beyond our finite lives to a glory yet to come.