MUSIC: The Perfect Registration by Thomas H. Troeger

The Theology and Practice of Church Music

The Perfect Registration by Thomas H. Troeger

From: Music As Prayer

I have always enjoyed hearing organists search for the perfect registration when they sit down to practice a piece of music.  Sometimes I am playing my flute with them; other times they are playing with a choir or entirely alone.  Often, they will talk to themselves, as if they were two people at once: the performer and an independent critic making judgments about the timbre and blend of the sounds.  “Let’s try this,” they say as they pull out a particular mixture of stops.  Then a few measures later, they lift up their fingers and feet, exclaiming: “No, that will never do.  Too much bass.  We need a little more brightness.”  They push in some stops and pull out new ones.  This time they play farther into the piece, but stop once again: “That’s too piercing for this melody.”  They sit back on the bench studying the stops, thinking without even trying it.  They sit there cogitating, imagining combinations of sounds in their minds.  Eventually light dawns in their face, and they begin playing and the sound that fills the space is just right, oh, so very right!  They have found the perfect registration.

What is it about this drama of finding the perfect registration that so intrigues me?  Is it about music and our passion to get it right?  Yes, of course.  The human ear and the neurological systems to which it is a gateway can make astounding, nuanced judgments about how to balance reeds and strings, how to highlight an inner voice, how to achieve a sense of pulse.  But the sum total of all the musical elements adds up to something more.  It is for me a parable of a process in the soul: the search for the perfect registration of all the voices and dynamics that sound in the depths of our humanity.  Or to put the matter as the early church father Clement of Alexandria, “The Lord made man [the Lord made woman] a beautiful breathing instrument after his own image, an all harmonious instrument of God, well tuned and holy.”

How do we become “an all harmonious instrument of God, well tuned and holy”?  How do we find in our lives the right balance of emotion and reason, reflection and action, confession and praise, lament and thanksgiving?  The analogy of finding the perfect registration on the organ suggests ways to answer these questions.  Organists know that some occasions and some pieces call for big, bold, blaring stops that lift the roof off the place, and other occasions and pieces call for something more mellow and nuanced.  In other words, finding the perfect registration is never settled once and for all, but is continually changing.  In a similar fashion, the registration of life is continually changing.  Tears and grief need to sound in times of tragedy and loss.  On such occasions we are not being “too emotional” any more than we are being too loud or brash on the organ when that is what the music demands.  But there are other circumstances in life when clear, hard reason needs to be the dominant stop that we employ.  The mark of “an all harmonious instrument of God, well tuned and holy,” is the capacity to allow the full range of life to engage the full richness of our humanity.  I believe this is what Christ means when he speaks of having life more “abundantly” (John 10:10).  His own life embodies such abundance because he calls on the full registration of his humanity, from celebratory meals to tears of grief, from tenderness to anger, from honoring tradition to remaining open to the fresh winds of the Spirit.

Perhaps in this life we will only now and then achieve the perfect registration, either at the organ or on our daily rounds, but when we do – or when we get close to it – what a joy it is to our ears and to the heart of God.

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