MUSIC: The Freedom Of Constraint by Thomas H. Troeger

The Theology and Practice of Church Music

The Freedom Of Constraint by Thomas H. Troeger

From: Music As Prayer

There are notes our voices cannot reach and our instruments cannot play.  Even the king of instruments is not the king of every sound.  Any one organ has only so many pipes.  To sing or to play music is to experience finitude.

As a flutist, I had long understood that every musical performer has to deal with finitude.  For example, my breach often runs out before a phrase.  But I had not extended that same insight about creaturely limitation to composers.  I thought of composers as the masters of whatever they were moved to create, until I read the following reflection by Igor Stravinsky:

I experience a sort of terror when, at the moment of setting to work and finding myself before the infinitude of possibilities that present themselves, I have the feeling that everything is permissible to me.  If everything is permissible to me, every undertaking becomes futile.  I shall overcome my terror and shall be reassured by the thought that I have the seven notes of the scale and its chromatic intervals at my disposal: strong and weak accents are within my reach, and in all these I possess solid and concrete elements which offer me a field of experience just as vast as the upsetting and dizzy infinitude that has just frightened me.  What delivers me from the anguish into which an unrestricted freedom plunges me is the fact that I am always able to turn immediately to the concrete things that are here in question.  Whatever constantly gives way to pressure, constantly renders movement impossible.  Whatever diminishes constraint, diminishes strength.

Rather than cursing the limitations that he faces, Stravinsky is grateful for how they deliver him from anguish, how constraint aids the creative process.

Stravinsky’s observation reminds me of the American poet and essayist Wendell Berry, who writes that poetic form “is a way of accepting and living within the limits of creaturely life.”  Just as the limited notes of the scale help the composer, so the constraints of literary form help the poet: “The impeded stream is the one that sings.”

Organists know well the realities that Stravinsky and Berry are describing.  Imagine for a moment you are at the organ trying to figure out the registration for a particular piece.  Suddenly a new rank of pipes is magically added to the organ.  You start working with its possibilities, but then another set of pipes is magically added and then another and then another and then another.  You are never able to settle on a final registration because the possibilities are forever expanding, on and on and on into infinity.

“The impeded stream is the one that sings.”  The organ with a limited number of pipes is the one that plays.  The human creature who comes to terms with finitude is the one who lives most fully and most freely.  For instead of cursing constraints, such people find in them the impulse to imagine and create new configurations of reality, new compositions, new interpretations, new ways of dealing with the limited material at hand.

We are at a point in history on this little watered stone we call Earth when we human creatures need to come to terms with our finitude as never before.  There is only so much air and water and soil and fossil fuel, and to live creatively within these limits is the vocation of all of us: “Humankind finds its true being in improvising on the givenness of the created world with the others who are given to us.”  Perhaps the art of our poets and musicians – and especially our organists, who do wondrous things with the finite number of pipes – can be a living parable of what it means to live creatively with limitation:

We are not free when we’re confined
to every wish that sweeps the mind
but free when freely we accept
the sacred bounds that must be kept.

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