Amanda Albrecht Gods creature skilled in music composition.
Interviewer: j. harms
harms: Is there anything that you have learned specifically about the mercy or grace of God through your time composing music?
albrecht: The Lord was actually pleased to use my compositional activity as a vehicle for revealing and conquering profound idolatry within my own heart. This has resulted in a new desire to glorify God through my work and a depth of submission that I had not previously known.
To accomplish this great work, God led me through a very painful season, during which He humbled me in my academic and creative life. This season began shortly after my doctoral composition recital. The recital was a high point in my graduate career, as I had received much positive feedback from participants and those in attendance. Shortly thereafter, I was scheduled to give a presentation at the departmental composition seminar. My topic was audience empathy, and I focused the talk on one of the pieces that had been premiered at my recital. However, in the question and answer session that followed, several of my colleagues challenged the merit and success of the work. I navigated the discussion with grace, but I left the seminar feeling very embarrassed.
When I next met with my composition teacher (a guest lecturer for the year), he indicated concern over some aspects of my work that he had seen in the recital. Then, when I received my semester grade for my composition lessons, I was dismayed to see that I had only earned a B+. I approached him to ascertain the reason for his decision, and he stated that it reflected the degree of progress he had seen over the course of the fall term. Again, I was embarrassed and humbled.
Meanwhile, God had already been using my small group to challenge my faith as applied to my artistic work. I had recently joined a Christians in the Arts small group led by a jazz performer and composer. He shared about the preciousness of seeking communion with the Lord during his composition sessions, saying that the Lord often gave him the music to write. I could not relate. Having been trained as a classical composer in academia, I had never approached my work in this way. There were a number of reasons for this. First, I had always been a disciplined, hard-working individual, and so I felt that it would be lazy to ask God to give me music. I also felt that it was presumptuous to expect the Lord to answer such a request, and I lacked faith that He would really do it. At the deepest level, however, I was motivated by deep-rooted pride and idolatry. My work had become an idol for me, and I desired to receive glory from it. If I relied on the Lord as I composed, He would get the glory from the music I wrote. I wanted to be in control, and I wanted to receive the praise. I was not yet fully aware of these deeply sinful motivations, but God was about to do a great work of revelation and conviction.
One morning, as we discussed our processes for working, my small group leader began to press me with a series of questions: Do you believe that God created you? Do you believe that all of your days were written in His book before one of them came to be? Do you really believe that everything is from Him, through Him, and to Him, that He may receive the glory forever? Do you believe that all things work together for the good of those who love Him and who are called for His purpose? Scripturally, I had to answer yes to these questions. He then related these truths to my work as an artist and challenged me to prayerfully consider seeking the Lord as I composed my music.
I felt that I had reached a major turning point. This was facilitated by the fact that my self-confidence had been utterly undermined by my recent experiences at the university. So I sought the Lord, and He graciously began to reveal the depth of my academic and artistic pride. I was appalled at my God-diminishing attitude and broken in repentance. I had come to the end of myself, and I was ready to do what had previously been unthinkable to me: to seek the Lord in my work.
This spirit of submission also carried over into the composition studio, and the spring semester was a fruitful one. My teacher and I began to work through a major refinement of my compositional approach. Due to my aesthetic preferences, I had always desired to keep my music fresh and vital by defying predictability. I feared reliance on instinct, convinced that it would lead me to write music that was trite. Over the years, therefore, I had progressively incorporated more indeterminacy into my process, going so far as to develop a manually-driven algorithmic system that governed many of my compositional decisions. However, by defying predictability to this degree, my music began to move towards chaos and incomprehensibility. This is one reason why my most recent work had often relied heavily on text for its meaningfulness. God used my composition teacher to open my eyes to this, and I became convicted that this manner of working did not honor the God of logos. While I retained many elements of my style and technique, I began to utilize these musical materials with more care and purpose. Most importantly, I began to pray before (and during!) every composition session that the Lord would govern my work, and I was now willing to follow His leading as I wrote.
I now have a new joy and freedom in my compositional labors. While this is wonderful, the more important outcome is that the priorities of my heart have completely changed. I am no longer concerned about trying to make myself into somebody by gaining prestige or respect as a composer. I fully realize and embrace that I am nothing and that Christ is everything. And Im OK with that now; in fact, I love this truth! This heart-transformation applies to every area of my life. God just happened to use the vehicle of my composition to pour out this grace. For that, I am infinitely grateful.
harms: What has God taught you about yourself and the difference between you and Him through your labors in the arts?
albrecht: As an artist, the reality that there is nothing new under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1:9) is something that has always terrified me. And the more I have studied the discipline of music, the more I have been persuaded of this truth. I have often been tempted to despair over the seemingly futile task set before the composer of writing music that is new and creative. Of course, my discomfiture had everything to do with the fact that I was trying to gain glory for myself through my creative work.
My freedom from this particular bondage has led to a more conscious awareness of God as the Master Acoustician of the universe. He has intimate and complete knowledge of sound itself and of human perception and cognition. How foolish it is for a composer to forsake His wisdom and knowledge as she writes music! I used to be fearful and resentful of my limitations. However, rather than resenting my limitations, I now rejoice in them. It gives God the opportunity to display His wisdom, in the spirit of II Corinthians 12:9: He has said to me, My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is perfected in weakness. Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.
I have never felt my own weakness more profoundly than while writing my doctoral dissertation. This work is an avant-garde music theatre piece based on the life and Passion of Christ. My goal was to utilize the most powerful aesthetic I know to tell the most compelling story I know, to the end that Christs glory would be revealed.
God had actually given me a vision for this project even before He accomplished His great work of demolishing my idolatry. It is His grace to me that He became Lord of my composition before I began to work on the dissertation in earnest. I quickly came to realize that I had set out to accomplish a task far beyond my own abilities. I remember sitting in church on several occasions, being freshly overwhelmed by a powerful and weighty vision of Christs work on the cross. Then I would think of my meager little project, driven by the aspiration to reveal that enormous reality. And I would break down in sobs, crying out to the Lord: Its so big . . . its too big for me . . .
Last spring, a professional new music ensemble premiered two movements from my dissertation. I had worked with this group previously, as they had performed a few other pieces of mine. This time, I was an active part of the rehearsal process, as I performed the role of narrator. After one of our run-throughs, one of the musicians asked me what I thought. I began to comment on how well things were coming together when she interrupted me. No, I mean, what do you think about this piece? Its so different than anything else weve played of yours . . . And we really like this one.
Which implies that they may have had some difficulty in fully embracing my past work. I couldnt help but break into a wide smile. Here was unsolicited and unbiased proof that my seeking to follow God as I composed, with the aim of glorifying Him, actually resulted in music that was much higher in quality! (Duh. Any impartial follower of Jesus could have told me that a long time ago.) But I treasure this particular interaction as evidence of Gods grace, confirming for me that He is a much better composer than I could ever hope to be.
Another truth that I have come to embrace as an artist is that art is just temporary! Of course, there is a type of art that lacks substance, in that it fails to point to truth. However, even the art that works to reveal truth is a mere shadow. It simply points to the substance, which is Jesus Himself. This is true not only of art, but of every type of human creation or institution that is meant to point to Christ, such as the celebration of the Lords supper or marriage. All of these things are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ (Colossians 2:17).
Peter talks about the day of the Lord, in which the heavens will pass away with a roar and the elements will be destroyed with intense heat, and the earth and its works will be burned up (II Peter 3:10). All of the works of the earth will be burned up. But for the Christian artist, this should not provoke despair! It would only be bad news if we loved our own work more than we love our Savior. Before God rescued me from my idolatry, I think that II Peter 3:10 would have at least tempted me to despair. But now, my deepest longing is to be with Jesus. I ache for the day when I will see His precious face.
When Jesus appears, we wont need art anymore. We will have Truth Himself.
harms: What have you learned about trusting God for your every provision and satisfaction?
albrecht: To answer this, I will refer the reader back to my answer for Question 1!
For me, the heart of the matter is not whether I am looking to God to provide my needs, (although it is crucially important for the believer to live in this kind of faith!) Rather, I need to be freed from the idolatry of seeking my satisfaction in anything other than in Christ. Can I really say that Christ is everything to me? I can test my heart in this matter pretty quickly by asking myself what if questions about the things I value:
What if I am never able to produce a performance of my dissertation?
What if I end up working some dead-end office job totally unrelated to music?
What if the Lord says no to this deeply-felt request that I am persistently bringing before Him?
The what if question is immediately followed by this crucial question: Will I be OK with that? And I dont mean OK in the sense that I am just submitting to the inevitable exercise of Gods control over my life. I mean OK in the sense that I experience heartfelt joy over the outcome, since I know in the deepest core of my being that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, who are called according to His purpose (Romans 8:28).
For most of my life, I was a little punk rebel. When I didnt understand some aspect of His character or His rules, I doubted His goodness and became accusatory. When God didnt give me what I wanted, I was angry and hurt. Obviously, I was not wholeheartedly valuing God Himself!
I never let the ugliness of my rebellion be seen by others. And I never really stared it in the face long enough to own it. The prophet spoke rightly when he said, The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; who can understand it (Jeremiah 17:9)? But I think the contrast between then and now can be summed up in this simple statement: I am now on Gods side.
harms: Have you seen any benefits from ever being in need, as the artistic life so often blesses us with that opportunity? And if so, how do you fight against the temptation to despair?
albrecht: Its true that the artistic life often blesses us with the opportunity to experience financial need! Which is part of the reason that my primary career goal has been to teach I knew that it would be very difficult to make a living as a full-time composer. (Although this is in addition to the facts that I love to teach, feel God has gifted me with teaching skills, and feel called to the college campus as a domestic mission field.)
So, my career path has been focused toward finding a position in academia. Therefore, I can best answer this question by sharing about my recent job search.
The academic market is flooded with overeducated composers and music theorists who are looking to land college teaching gigs. I knew this going into my graduate school career, but I had always been confident that, if God really wanted me on a campus, He would provide a job.
My season of searching for an academic position lasted about one year, from August of 2006 to July of 2007. Over the course of that time, I applied for approximately 80 jobs. It was a process through which my faith was strengthened and my heart was purified. For this, I am abundantly thankful.
The weekend before my first interview, I attended a seminar at church, which was focused on spiritual disciplines as a means for pursuing communion with God. When we got to the topic of prayer, the pastor shared a passage from James 4:
You ask and do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your pleasures. You adulteresses, do you not know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? Therefore, whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God (James 4:3-4).
The Holy Spirit was at work, and I was cut to the heart. I realized that I had been praying like an adulteress about my upcoming interview. I had been asking the Lord for physical healing, wisdom, and favor in the eyes of men. But I realized that I had been praying for these things because I strongly desired the job. Seeking God Himself had not even been on my radar screen! God was pleased to reveal the depth of idolatry that had been compelling my prayer, resulting in repentance and a renewed desire to treasure Christ above my career.
Fast forward to Monday, the day I was scheduled to fly out for my interview. Minneapolis was buried under mounds of snow, thanks to a weekend blizzard. As I opened my front door, I was dismayed to see that the plough had recently been down our street, and there was a fresh hill of grey wetness piled up against our driveway.
No problem. The snow-pile isnt that big. I can take it. This was my inner monologue, as I glanced at my watch and reasoned that I really didnt have time to shovel.
I drive a Geo Prizm. 2-wheel drive. This was not a wise decision.
I ended up profoundly stuck in that mushy grey pile. I couldnt go backwards or forwards. At this point, I pretty much lost it. I jumped out of the car and started kicking violently at the snow. Kick, kick, kick. Back in the car. Still stuck. More kicking. Nothing.
This went on for a while. Finally, my upstairs neighbor came down. I ran to get shovels. We finally achieved success. But when all was said and done, it had taken over 45 minutes to maneuver my car out of the snow.
After driving like a madwoman through lunchtime traffic, going through the security checkpoint on the verge of exploding with impatience, and running (literally!) down the concourse, I finally arrived at my gate. The waiting area was deserted. I hurriedly boarded. Within five minutes, they had shut the door of the aircraft.
Have you ever been utterly stunned by Gods majestic sovereignty and gracious goodness?
Yet I was an emotional wreck. My entire morning had been full of faithlessness and sin. Sitting on the back of that plane, I wept openly. I mourned over the adulterous impulses that had once again given my old man free reign over my emotions and actions. And from this place of despair, I felt a fierce need for God. I had my Bible with me, since I had planned to do my quiet time on the plane. Now, I had also planned to study for my imminent interview, but this task absolutely faded into the background as I hungrily followed the Holy Spirit through the pages of Gods Word. It was such an intensely sweet time of communion with my merciful Savior!
I spent time reading through I Peter, and I was particularly convicted and comforted by two verses:
Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon
you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you (I Peter 4:12).
After you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who called you to
His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself perfect, confirm, strengthen, and
establish you (I Peter 5:10).
While it is absolutely ridiculous to compare the suffering of my morning to the suffering of the early Christians that Peter was addressing, I absolutely needed this reminder of who God is and how He uses suffering in the lives of His children. And to hear the promise of I Peter 5:10 after I had failed so miserably in my time of testing! this was a healing balm to my soul.
The rest of my interview was also filled with circumstantial hardships lost luggage, insomnia, ill-functioning technology yet God sustained my soul in faith and joy through it all! And, while I still found the job itself to be quite attractive, I was much more desirous of maintaining my newfound intimacy with God.
Within a month, the college informed me that they had chosen to hire another candidate. I had another interview in April. God was so gracious to me this time, the entire process was faith-filled and saturated with joy. In fact, at one point during my teaching demonstration, it seemed as if the faculty observers were unhappy with my presentation. In the moment, I distinctly remember thinking to myself: Hmm, I wonder if this is what God will use to close the door on this job? But I didnt feel anxious about it; in fact, I almost smiled to myself. In just two months, I had come to trust and to desire Gods sovereign control over my life to that degree. Quite a turnaround.
As the months wore on, it looked more and more as if God were closing the door to an academic teaching job for the upcoming year. I had been preparing for this career for almost 10 years. Yet I did not feel discouraged! Had I been in that situation even one year previous, I think I would have been struggling against despair. But, no I found myself actually rejoicing! I was especially encouraged by a passage in Ephesians:
Therefore be careful how you walk, not as unwise men but as wise, making the most of your time, because the days are evil. So then do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is (Ephesians 5:15-17).
Being a college professor is a very time-consuming job. One of the great things about the position is the degree of accessibility to students and other professors. There is great potential for testifying to the light of Christ. However, I wondered if God were closing the door to a career as a professor in order that I might invest my time more purposefully towards building the kingdom of Christ. I was very excited by this, and I began to seek the Lords guidance for how to best use all of my extra time in the upcoming year.
At the last minute, however, I was contacted by a community college. After going through a whirlwind-like interview process, I was offered the job and accepted the position. The timetable gave me less than two weeks to pack up my entire life and move out of state. On top of this, I had to defend my dissertation during this same window of time! It was an insane couple of weeks. However, God was a faithful provider, and He made it all work.
It seems like this should be the end of the story (i.e.: And she lived happily ever after.) However, there has been a recent development at the college that God is using to challenge my faith once again....
harms: What pleasures do you know in God that are uniquely or especially known when you are laboring in your artistry?
albrecht: I did not experience the pleasure of God during my artistic labors for the majority of my compositional career. It has only been in the last year and a half that writing music has truly been an act of worship and a time of communing with Him.
The majority of this time has been spent in writing my dissertation and the subject matter for this work is Christ Himself! So my answer to this question will perhaps be a bit skewed; I am not sure that my experience would be the same if working on other types of projects.
Over the last several years, God has led me to a deeper and more complete understanding of His work through redemptive history. And as a result, I have come to love Jesus so much! So the driving force behind writing my dissertation was a desire to communicate this new understanding to others.
I began my work with an overarching vision of what I wanted to say, but I didnt yet have a clear idea about how best to articulate these enormous truths. As I mentioned previously, I felt overwhelmed by the profundity of the undertaking.
So the writing process was really an adventure in faith! Every day, I would plead with God to give me the ideas large-scale ideas regarding content and structure, as well as the nitty-gritty ideas for working out the musical details.
I was so delighted by the way in which God answered my prayers! He would give me an idea for a new scene, and I would then begin the nose to the grindstone labor of generating and orchestrating specific pitches and rhythms. Often, I had no idea what would come next. I would tell Him, OK, I think Im going to finish this scene tomorrow . . . and I feel like Im going to hit a brick wall. Where should we go from here? And the Lord was so faithful to give me a new idea at just the right time. I never really found myself stalling in a writers block mode. The wonderful thing about working this way was that I knew these ideas were not coming from me, because they simply werent there the previous day! The experience was both humbling and worship-provoking.
A good example of this can be seen in my work on Showdown in the Temple, a scene based on John 8. God had given me an initial image of a tangled knot to represent the Pharisees. This was manifested both visually, through staging, and aurally, through a dense string ostinato composed of interlocking chromatic runs. I had been working with this musical texture for the entire movement, which built to a climax right before Jesuss proclamation: You are not of God (v. 47). A grand pause. What to do next? It seemed logical to return to the tangled knot music, yet I wasnt sure how I could use this same material to create an even more intense climax, which the end of the chapter certainly calls for.
Suddenly, a new image burst into my consciousness: a slowly meandering snake. I thought, Where did that come from? And I began to see a visual image of the stage picture: the instrumentalists unwinding from the densely knotted formation, circling Jesus in a writhing, single-file formation. And I began to hear music: excruciatingly slow, cascading chromatic scales, harmonically layered in whole tones. The textural contrast was stark; dramatically and emotionally, this represented a new tactic taken by the Pharisees. And the symbolism of the imagery, in light of Genesis 3 and John 8:44, was breathtaking.
I started laughing out loud. I asked the Lord, Really? Thats what you want me to do? . . . OK, lets see what happens. My compositional dilemma had been solved, as quickly and easily as that.
I had many such moments of delight as God led me in composing this piece. Additionally, I was often provoked to worship of God through the actual content of the piece. In other words, the Lord would give me a specific idea for articulating truth regarding Jesus. Then, as I began to contemplate and work out this idea, I found my soul rejoicing in or loving my Savior more.
That happened right after I finished the text for Epilogue: Fairy Tale, which retells the story of redemptive history in the guise of a fairy tale. Several days following the completion of the story, I went to church. And it seemed as if everything that was said during the service reinforced the precious truths I had been meditating on while writing the fairy tale! I was overwhelmed with a profound love for Jesus, an ardent thankfulness for the cross, and an intense longing for the day when I will see His face. My heart soared in worship as I reflected on this story God had given me. I thought to myself, If the only purpose in my writing this dissertation was to help me love Jesus like this, its worth it right there. And if He chooses to so bless others through my work, this would just be icing on the cake!
harms: Can you share with us what faithfulness to God looks like in the stewardship of your artistic disciplines?
albrecht: This is a difficult question to answer. I think that the purpose of my life is to help other people to know and treasure Christ. However, I am not convinced that my writing music is necessarily the best way for me to fulfill this purpose. Rather, I am eager to build relationships with others, seeking opportunities to share the gospel and to disciple younger believers. This is one of the reasons that I feel called to profession of college teaching, as the campus environment tends to foster this kind of relationship building.
Composition, on the other hand, is a very lonely activity. So I think that investing inordinate time in writing music could actually limit my ability to get involved in peoples lives for the sake of Christs kingdom.
Of course, composition does become collaborative in the rehearsal stage, once performers get involved in the process. So staying active as a composer does have the potential to expand my circle of connections, and I would be wise to make pursue these types of relationships.
This is why I need to rely on the Lords guidance for how to best use my time! I think that I can bless others through writing music. However, this is only one of the ways in which I can bless them, and its probably not the primary one.
The aesthetic in which I prefer to work, and in which I am primarily trained, is unfamiliar to the average listener. It is certainly beyond the artistic scope of the typical church service. So the venues in which my work most readily finds a home are the contemporary art music recital hall and the experimental theatre stage. I have found that the majority of people who attend these types of artistic events either claim no faith or tend to be unorthodox in their beliefs and practice.
This situation provides me with an interesting challenge and opportunity. The challenge lies in the fact that overtly religious work is often dismissed as irrelevant. After all, Western music history has been overshadowed by the institution of the church, and we are now in an era of freedom in which Christian-themed art music seems anachronistic. As such, it is difficult to genuinely engage an audience with such a piece. (The exception to this is work in which the Christian content is presented with an unorthodox twist, such as in works that utilize irony.)
Yet I believe that audiences, even in this postmodern era, are hungry for honesty and substance. And there is nothing more substantial than Jesus Himself, who is Truth and the summation of all things. So how do I engage an audience without giving them an excuse to immediately write off my work?
This is a great challenge. I believe it has much to do with forcing my audience into a state of active engagement, rather than trying to passively spoon-feed them with truth. I therefore aim to engage my audience on both an emotional and a cognitive level, invoking their own empathy in order to challenge their perceptions and beliefs. My ultimate aim is that Christ would be revealed as all sufficient and all satisfying.
While pieces such as my dissertation are overtly focused on spiritual truth, much of my creative work is concerned with exploration of the human condition. It is often necessary for idols to be torn down before people will worship the living God. This was certainly true for the Israelites in Elijahs day: Elijah came near to all the people and said, How long will you hesitate between two opinions? If the LORD is God, follow Him; but if Baal, follow him. But the people did not answer him a word (I Kings 18:21). What followed was a spectacular display of the worthlessness of Baal, which opened the way for the LORDs power to be made known. This resulted in true worship of the living God: When all the people saw it, they fell on their faces; and they said, The LORD, He is God; the LORD, He is God (I Kings 18:39).
I desire that my work would expose the vain things of this world for what they are, leaving room for the power of Christ to be made manifest. This wont necessarily happen in as dramatic a fashion as in Elijahs story, but through genuine emotional engagement, I hope to force my audience to question the things that they hold as true and valuable. With the prophet, I pray that this people may know that You, O LORD, are God, and that You have turned their heart back again (I Kings 18:37).
Amanda Albrecht can be reached at: email@example.com
||6/07 Dance Melissa Hardy