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The Challenge of Music We Can't Stand
Josh Langhoff

On Chicago's lakefront one breezy August night—five days after a Missouri police officer named Darren Wilson, fearing for his safety, shot and killed an unarmed black teenager named Michael Brown—the thirty-nine-year-old saxophonist, composer, bandleader, and "panoramic sound quilter" Matana Roberts led a nine-piece pickup band in a free outdoor concert at a public band shell. At the outset, Roberts ran down a lengthy list of dedications. She got applause when she named Chicago jazz legends and laughs when she shouted out entire sides of the city. When she reached the names of four slain black youth, culminating with a pointed "Mike Brown," the audience went silent, Roberts turned to the band and swirled her flattened hand to conduct them in, and they were off and running.

Roberts was back home in Chicago to perform her suite Mississippi Moonchile, the second chapter in her projected twelve-chapter musical epic Coin Coin. (So far she has recorded and released the first three chapters and has performed at least three more in concert.) Roberts writes her scores using idiosyncratic graphic notation, in the tradition of both avant-jazz and downtown classical music, a careful mix of the planned and the spontaneous. She is also the most exciting jazz musician currently around. When she's on, her music is a stream of collective consciousness, pouring generations of stories, songs, and arguments into one big pool of sound. The Moonchile recording opens with its sextet stretching and growing into a glorious free cacophony, operatic tenor Jeremiah Abiah wailing over the top. When they are not squawking at one another, Roberts and band play variations on catchy little ostinato melodies. Along the way, Roberts recites passages from interviews with her grandmother, who grew up in the South before the Civil Rights Movement, and with the voting rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer; she also sings "His Eye Is On the Sparrow" using only two jubilant notes, and she closes the suite with the hymn "In the Garden."

Matana RobertsLive, the music was just as exhilarating. Roberts's dedication to Michael Brown lay heavy over the Pritzker Pavilion, but Roberts paid him one more tribute. During the song "Thanks Be You," when Roberts quoted her grandmother on the subject of Mississippi—"I was gone by the time all that stuff started happening in Mississippi, M-I-S-S-I-S-S-I-P-P-I"—she repeated the sentence twice, the second time swapping in "Missouri." If you weren't familiar with the work, you might have missed her equating Ferguson with Jim Crow. Her subtlety got the job done, though. Two songs later, when she ended the night singing "In the Garden," I could see the late Michael Brown walking and talking with Jesus.

Roberts's Chicago band was bigger than the sextet on the Moonchile album; she added local musicians Tomeka Reid on cello, David Boykin on tenor sax, and Jason Adasiewicz, a wonderfully spazzy and bearded presence, on vibes. As a result, the layered major-key melodies were even more gorgeous than the recorded versions, with vibes rippling and horns counterpointing lush beds of sound underneath Roberts's narration. Of course, the coin has two faces: the bigger group's freakouts were even more forbidding than on the record, which, judging by the number of people who walked out, may have frightened off a portion of the audience. The closing strains of "Aaaand he walks with me / And he talks with me…" offered more relief live than on the recording, but folks scared away by the earlier caterwauling would never know it. If you can't stand the noise, Moonchile told us, you don't deserve the hymn. And maybe vice-versa.

As it happens, plenty of people can't stand "In the Garden," maybe because its words don't make sense. A depiction of Mary Magdalene finding the newly risen Christ in his gardening drag, the hymn closes with the line, "And the joy we share as we tarry there / None other has ever known." Not only is this self-centered, it's literally impossible; if one hundred people sing these words in church, at least ninety-nine of them must be wrong. "In the Garden" is often rated among the worst hymns of all time. It is sentimental and pietistic, the argument goes, privileging the singer's personal feelings over the saving work of the cross. The words "I come to the garden alone," writes theologian Stanley Hauerwas, "are not appropriate words to be sung in corporate worship, no matter how meaningful some people may find the hymn" (Hauerwas 2000, 158). A Reformed minister named Joseph Holbrook, Jr., stated, "In my experience people who show no interest in taking up their crosses, in joining in public worship, in concern for the poor, in the support of missions want this song sung at a relative's funeral" (Anderson 1985). During one church music course my instructors used "In the Garden" as their whipping boy, the prime example of what not to do in worship. Even so, the hymn is popular. Though it has never been published in an official Lutheran hymnal, I have several copies in my office in sources like the United Methodist Hymnal, the alternative Lutheran Other Song Book, and Lead Me Guide Me, a hymnal designed for African-American Catholics.

The hymn often finds its way into African-American parishes, which may be how Matana Roberts first heard it. In art and in church, context matters. In Moonchile, Roberts sings "In the Garden" after we have heard Fannie Lou Hamer describe a prison beating and Roberts's grandmother repeat the fraught line, "There are some things I just can't tell you about, honey." Roberts's sweet rendition works as both salve and lash, a scathing reminder of how little joy America has shared with its plundered black citizens. In his book The Cross and the Lynching Tree, theologian James Cone cites "the image of Jesus as Friend and Savior" as "the most dominant motif in the black Christian experience" (2011, 58). Because Jesus paid it all, Cone says, he abides within the historical and continued suffering of black Americans, which is why so many spirituals focus on the crucifixion ("Calvary," "Were You There"). Even when a song like "In the Garden" doesn't explicitly mention the crucifixion, the black church knows crucifixion's terror as a reality. When African Americans sing songs about God's grace, they know that grace isn't cheap.

The thing is, the group I worship with on Sundays is roughly three-fourths white, and they love singing "In the Garden." And so we sing it, once or twice a year. Yes, the Gospel comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable. Yes, you could argue that, as a group, white American Christians were the most comfortable people of the twentieth century. But those white parishioners singing with gusto still suffer afflictions—their eyesight fails, their bodies are wracked with pain, their grandkids die—and it is not my job as their cantor to make them choose a new favorite hymn. My job is to make sure that when we sing "In the Garden," we sing it well, and that our worship as a whole reflects all of the Gospel's rich message. To forbid this hymn altogether smacks of pedantry, the same misguided liturgical correctness that annually insists there weren't really Three Kings and refuses to play the Bridal Chorus from Lohengrin at weddings.

 

Flash back a year earlier to the same public band shell on a rainy August night, a month and a half after a Florida jury acquitted a neighborhood watch coordinator named George Zimmerman, who had shot and killed an unarmed black teenager named Trayvon Martin. That summer, the NAACP and many others were comparing Martin's death to the 1955 lynching of Emmett Till.

The seventy-one-year-old trumpeter, composer, and bandleader Wadada Leo Smith was in town for the free Chicago Jazz Festival, playing excerpts from his four-CD masterwork Ten Freedom Summers, a recent Pulitzer Prize finalist. Summers is an abstract exploration of the Civil Rights Movement, loosely defined, from Dred Scott through September 11, 2001. I expect that Summers, like the Coin Coin saga, will prove one of the enduring musical works of our age. A mix of trumpet quartet and chamber string ensemble, sometimes playing at the same time, its music contains no vocal parts and few programmatic gestures, but it does have some of the best song titles around: "Malik Al Shabazz and the People of Shahada"; "Medgar Evers: A Love-Voice of a Thousand Years' Journey for Liberty and Justice." These days I can't look at Robert Caro's massive LBJ biography, or even think about America's elongated battle over health care reform, without hearing the roiling timpani that define "Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society and the Civil Rights Act of 1964," giving voice to slow-motion legislative wars in every age.

In a word, Summers is austere. Though Smith's trumpet tone resembles Miles Davis's, and though the band sometimes settles into hard grooves and blazing passages of free telepathy, something else always lurks around the corner, and usually it's slow. "[O]ften overwrought and sometimes tedious," complained the prolific jazz critic Tom Hull. The concert's high point came during "Emmett Till: Defiant, Fearless." The strings played long, tempoless harmonies, notes sitting next to one another at intervals both dissonant and unexpectedly right. Then Smith conducted in the rhythm section, and the strings started cycling through different sections of composed material and improv strategies, based on how many fingers Smith flashed at them. Strings and jazz quartet played without regard for tonality or meter, with building intensity, creating a previously unheard sonic structure that riveted the audience to that moment. Or at least some of us were riveted. Some people got up and walked out. As part of Jazz Fest, Smith could have hoped for a more receptive audience, but an audience expecting "jazz" isn't necessarily expecting contemporary classical music in contemplative Morton Feldman mode. Previous years' Jazz Fest headliners included legends Ornette Coleman and Henry Threadgill, who despite their avant-garde reputations brought humor, steady rhythms, and generally beaming personas to the park. If that is what you were expecting, Summers told us, you don't understand jazz, and maybe you don't understand the Movement either.

In my more ambitious moments, I have dreamed up an academic course that would use Summers to jump into a detailed study of the Movement: we would listen to "Dred Scott: 1857," for instance, and then study the judicial implications of Scott's court case. (So far my third grader has been unreceptive.) Smith clearly intends to provoke further study with his suggestive song titles. Part of his genius is that such study would inevitably lead to recognition of inconvenient truths about the Movement. Researching "D.C. Wall: A War Memorial for All Times" in a civil rights context, students would see how Martin Luther King's controversial "Beyond Vietnam" and Poor People's Campaign, both derided as "Communist," grew from the same impulse as his beloved "I Have a Dream," now misheard by many white people as a speech about the content of African Americans' character. Summers' high seriousness has taught me that understanding the Movement, like the Movement itself, remains hard work. I don't find Summers tedious like Hull does, but it certainly has its share of long, still moments, like the sixteen minutes of smearing and sliding strings in "Black Church," when nothing much seems to be happening. In these moments, the idea of progress becomes an article of faith, not immediately evident from what the musicians are playing. Summers works as social critique by first challenging its own audience and our expectations of what jazz activism sounds like.

The thing about challenges is, they are challenging. When they challenge you, you might dismiss them in ways that are perfectly reasonable. ("Not appropriate words to be sung in corporate worship," for instance.) Six months after she played Chicago, Matana Roberts released the album Coin Coin Chapter Three: river run thee, and this chapter turned out far differently than the others. The first two chapters had multiple musicians, fast rhythms, a sense of swing; river run is a piece of overdubbed solo improvisation, layer upon layer of slow saxophone and vocal melodies, electro-oscillations, field recordings of voices and birds and crunching leaves, monologues obscured by the crunching leaves, breathing… and no drums. It received good reviews that I, at first, found overly kind. This seemed to be the chapter where Roberts lost the plot, forgoing the pleasures of her previous work for something more indulgent, dronier, simpler. ("I was nervous about sharing this with people," Roberts told an interviewer.) After a couple listens, I remembered how I had enjoyed music like this before, only not in jazz but in contemporary classical music. For the river run chapter, Roberts finds precedent in electroacoustic improvisers like Henri Pousseur and Pauline Oliveros, along with modernist literature (note how the title echoes the opening word of Finnegan's Wake). Several listens later, river run sounded fascinating and deep through my headphones.

A collage that confronts us with a mix of speech and song, the new and the ageless, allowing us to settle into its complexity only after we have grown accustomed to its strangeness? Sounds like a liturgy. Not only is Christian liturgy a complex mesh of symbols, bewildering to newcomers; when done right, it confronts the ways of both the world and the worshipers. Worship "is counter-cultural," advises the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, "challenging what is contrary to the Gospel in a given culture" and committed to justice and stewardship (ELCA 2002, ix). How does a sappy song about walking and talking with Jesus fit into a liturgy that, as Holbrook correctly states, should prepare us to take up our crosses? Hear Matana Roberts: When placed with care into the collage, "In the Garden" inspires us to imagine the hidden pains of people we barely know. Hear Wadada Leo Smith: Whenever we think we know what worship should mean for everyone, we need to rethink. Our liturgy is an endlessly flexible tool for moving past our fears, prejudices, and selves; and, as church historian Ed Phillips points out, "In the Garden" shows us the way (Hauerwas 2000, 270). "I'd stay in the garden with him"—with the Jesus I know, the Jesus I think other people should know—"but he bids me go." Sing those words assured that the voice of Jesus will abide as you leave the garden of your own comfort. But do me a favor: wait until church is over before you walk out. A

 

Josh Langhoff is a church musician living in the Chicago area.

 

Works Cited

Anderson, David E. "Selections of 10 Clergymen: 'In the Garden' Tops List of Least-Favorite Hymns." Los Angeles Times, March 30, 1985.

Cone, James. The Cross and the Lynching Tree. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2011.

Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Renewing Worship 2: Principles for Worship. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2002.

Hauerwas, Stanley. A Better Hope: Resources for a Church Confronting Capitalism, Democracy, and Postmodernity. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2000.

Roberts, Matana. Coin Coin Chapter Two: Mississippi Moonchile. Constellation CST098. 2013, compact disc.

Roberts, Matana. Coin Coin Chapter Three: river run thee. Constellation CST110. 2015, compact disc.

Smith, Wadada Leo. Ten Freedom Summers. Cuneiform 350/351/352/353. 2012, compact disc.

United States Department of Justice. "Department of Justice Report Regarding the Criminal Investigation Into the Shooting Death of Michael Brown By Ferguson, Missouri Police Officer Darren Wilson." Washington, DC: Department of Justice, March 4, 2015.

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