Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Dissonant Death

The day after the Grammys I was listening to an NPR radio bit entitled "Why Some Songs Make You Cry".”  In the wake of Adele’s sweep at the Grammy’s, they were considering her song “Someone Like You,” and searching for an explanation for why this song is, as they put it, “an emotional powder keg?”

John Sloboda, a professor of music psychology at London's Guildhall School of Music and Drama, offered this explanation. “Our brains are wired to pick up the music that we expect. So when we're listening to music, our brain is constantly trying to guess what comes next. Generally music is consonant rather than dissonant, so we expect a nice chord. When that chord is not quite what we expect, it gives you a little bit of an emotional frisson, because it's strange and unexpected. When Adele bounces around the note on "you," there's a tension that is then released.”

The key, according to Sloboda, is a delicate balance between dissonance and consonance.  There needs to be enough dissonance to create real tension and enough consonance to bring resolution.  Too much dissonance and the song is irritating.  Too much consonance and the song is predictable.

Years ago, while on a youth retreat, Dave Corsello was our cabin’s chaperone.  Dave is a gifted classical guitarist.  As we got ready for bed one night, Dave was messing around with his guitar and played the lullaby “Rock-A-Bye Baby.”  All except the last note.  “And down will come baby, cradle and…”  He packed up his guitar, turned off the lights, and settled into his sleeping bag.  Our cabin, dark and still, hung with the tension.  We lasted three minutes – maybe.  Finally, we heard rustling from Dave’s bunk, the clips of his guitar case, and the muffled thumps of his guitar, pulled from the case and settled onto his thigh.  “I just can’t do it, guys,” he sighed, and played the final note - the note that resolved all that tension that was bouncing around in our brains.  I don’t think any of us could have slept without it. 

My father-in-law passed away last Monday after an 18 month battle with lymphoma.  Throughout, I realized death was possible.  I didn't realize it was imminent.  He went into the hospital on Friday.  Four days he breathed his last.  This past week has been full of travel to Michigan, planning the services, looking through pictures, sharing memories, going to the services, seeing extended family and friends, feeling the grief, comforting others in their grief.  It has brought me face-to-face with death.  Death of a man I admire.  Death of a man I love. 

I can argue the necessity of the resurrection from an intellectual standpoint.  I know there must be some ultimate reckoning, a just resolution.  I can take a theological angle and point to the resurrection of Christ as the first fruits, an initial installment for all those who have placed their faith in him.  But in the face of death I don’t need intellectual or theological explanations.  I need some emotional relief. Something that not only sounds reasonable, but also feels satisfying.  You see, death is a horribly dissonant chord.  It sounds awful.  Like a song played many years ago, hung out without the last note.  I need the resolving chord. 

To see my father-in-law gradually weakened was hard to watch, even from afar.  He lost not only hair, but weight and strength.  My mother-in-law shared how dad was frustrated by his increasing dependance on others, as he was unable to do the things he had always done.  In the end, he couldn't even breathe alone.  He was kept alive by a machine long enough for my wife to fly out to be with him for those last moments.  This is not a fitting conclusion.

But death is not the final note.  Paul, in his powerful chapter on the resurection, says, "If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men" (1 Corinthians 15:19).  To end the story at death is like ending the lullaby at “ baby and.”  That's a tune that will keep me up at night.  I need the note that finishes the song.  I need to be able to sing the last word “all.” And that is the hope the resurrection offers.  It is the promise that the song does not end with dissonance. We await the promised day when death will be swallowed up in victory (1 Corinthians 15:54). All the tension of that chord is satisfied in the resurrection.

In a sense, the song doesn't end with that resolving note.  It's more of a transition.  In it, the first movement is over and the second is just beginning.  Dad hit that chord a little earlier than I did.  I'll join him in that song at some point in the future.  And our voices will be added to the throng.  "To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb, be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever" (Revelation 5:13).  And that's as satisfying a song as has ever been sung.  Even by Adele.

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1 comment:

  1. Thanks for your post, Phil. I'm so glad that this world is not the end. The best is yet to come, and it will be "better by far." Don't know if you're a Chris Tomlin fan or not, but his song "I will rise" had been going through my head lately. Looking forward to that day with great anticipation!