Category Archives: Music

The Soul of the City

Walking Pace and the Soul of the CityDid you know that you can use the walking pace of an average city dweller [number of footsteps per unit of time] to determine how many libraries that specific city has?

How about the amount of crime?

The average wage?

The number of colleges?

The population?

Yep.

Well, at least with a reasonable degree of error.  How reasonable?  Quite!

Jad Abumrad RadiolabIn a recent podcast from New York public radio’s Radiolab, co-hosts Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich aim the powers of science towards that perennial question: what gives cities their unique feel?  Many of us have had the experience of being in a city and sensing a distinct identity or personality from the city itself.  Is the personality of a city something which we imagine or, to use a science term, are there specific elements in an urban environment which create a unique city DNA?

Surprisingly, even though science is not incredibly well equipped to examine things like culture, history, ethnology, social mores and customs, there are data-based judgments that scientists can make about a city from something simple and quantitative like walking speed, that speaks novels about the city in question.

Needless to say, footsteps per unit of time and other telling data all ride shotgun to one, most important, type of data and… it’s so simple it’s almost criminal: population.  No, not population density or population demographics but… just population.   These “specificities, [like] the local history, are in large part insignificant… they are completely overwhelmed by these generic laws of urban scaling”.

I am tempted to say more but, really, this should be listened to.

So, strap yourself in and enjoy an hour of science and the city that can only be explained as fun and full of holy wonder.

Listen to the Cities episode here at Radiolab.org


The Role of Art in Social Transformation

Bill MalloneeThis week I’ve been looking at the connection between art and faith.  There is good precedence for these two uniquely human forces being a critical concoction behind social transformation.  I received a flyer for the Kairos Conference earlier this week and was pleased to see that Sweet Honey in the Rock will be involved.  Kairos is a gathering “discerning justice & taking action on America’s death penalty” to be held in Atlanta this November, 2010.  Sweet Honey will be doing a public benefit concert at Ebenezer Baptist Church on Tuesday of the conference.  How perfect that this group, so deeply rooted in the civil rights movement and the sacred music of the Black church, will be performing at the church of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as we address the injustice of the death penalty.

Sweet Honey in the RockI wish we could say that we are as far along in our planning as Kairos but we do have quite a bit more time still left to prepare.  What I can say is that we do have some amazing things simmering over the wood fires!  Please tune in here every now and then as we share information about the artists who will be involved in the 2011 Congress on Urban Ministry.

On Wednesday, as we shared the news about Bill Mallonee, I was struck by the way this artist has increasingly focuses his art to causes of social justice.  Most recently, in the mini-albums he’s been releasing about three times per year.

This past summer Bill Mallonee released his newest Works (in) Progress Administration Ep: Dust Coal Soul.  In the wake of the recent mining disasters, both stateside and elsewhere, this song cycle lifts up the issues of one of the world’s most dangerous professions.  And yet, far from being sterile and abstract, the heartcrafted lyrics do much more to personalize and create an intimate connection characters of these songs.  Bill writes:

Bill Mallonee - Coal Dust Soul Ep“The songs for Coal Dust Soul were written after the Massey Mine explosion, in Montcoal, West Virgina on April 6th, 2010.  There were no survivors.  The death toll was 29 in the country’s worst mine disaster in four decades.  Another mining disaster in China, less than one month later (the facts regarding the number of deaths from this explosion and subsequent flooding were almost impossible to verify), continued to call attention to the perilous conditions miners labor under.

These songs, almost all of them written in the “first person,” took shape over a couple of weeks.  I was deeply moved as I watched the coverage of the disaster, the rescue attempts, the frail expectations of those who awaited better news, and the eventual failings of the team’s efforts to rescue the 4 trapped miners.

But mostly, I was humbled to the point of hushed silence by the faith and courage of the families who had lost loved ones.  The risks their loved ones daily undertook were great; the losses their surving families now bear seem almost incomprehensible.  I sat numb and helpless before the screen every night as I tried to comprehend it.

They now began a different journey: a journey of grief.   It is a journey I know little about in my own life.  But I know enough to say that it will be a journey on a road of confusion; a journey in search of answers; a journey in search of justice that may one day create better working conditions than those miners currently face down every day…

And finally, they are on a journey that will produce all that is noble and imperishable in the human spirit when it must grieve.  I am convinced that those who must grieve give us a “gift.”  It is a “gift” (however fragile) whispered in their prayers, written in their testimony, traced in their tears and offered in their eyes.

That’s what these songs are about… Maybe that’s what the best songs have always been about.  It is my hope that these songs maybe of some comfort to any and all sharing in a similar journey.”

Bill MalloneeIn case you still need some reasons to give Bill a listen – here are a couple:

1.  Bill Mallonee is quite possibly “…the best folk-rock act nobody’s ever heard of…”  – New York Press

2.  Bill came in #65 in Paste Magazine’s “100 Greatest Living Songwriter’s” Poll

3.  Bill has recorded over 23 cds.

4.  Bill’s deep love for early Dylan, Neil Young, Alan Lomax’s legendary field recordings, Flannery O’Connor, John Steinbeck, hymnody and other writers of the “American experience” left an indelible mark on his work and vocal delivery.

5.  Blue-eyed soul rocker Edwin McCain (of “I’ll Be” fame) covered two of Bill’s songs “Babylon” and “Welcome to Struggleville”

6.  Bill has played with these artists:

  • Edwin McCain
  • Sean Mullins
  • Sufjan Stevens
  • John Mayer
  • Dwight Yokum
  • Emmylou Harris
  • REM
  • Buddy & Julie Miller
  • North Mississippi Allstars
  • Allejandro Escavado
  • Pierce Pettis
  • Pedro the Lion
  • Denison Witmer
  • Glen Phillips (Toad the Wet Sprocket)
  • Peter Case
  • Peter Mulvey
  • Bruce Cockburn
  • Gin Blossoms
  • Derek Webb

Check out this touching Bill Mallonee ode to Autumn posted over at the Heroes of Indie Music blog.


Bill Mallonee at the 2011 Congress

Ernst Fischer quote

Art is irrevocably intertwined with social change.  Art is both the tell tale on the mast of culture signaling a change in the direction of the wind and, in many ways, art is the wind itself.  Listening again this morning to the stories of Freedom Singer Bernice Johnson Reagon (NPR) it became unmistakably clear that even the most stalwart of injustices don’t stand a chance when art is wound up with faith.

St. Sabina praise dancers

This is a conviction that the past 15 Congress gathering have attempted to embody.  Music, dance, drama, visual art, and poetry have been the crossroad companions to our journey of faith and justice.  They have consoled us and given voice to our lament just has they have given wing to our joy and worship.  Art has been the marrow in the fortitude of our faith and has challenged us to express this faith in new and bold ways.  In short, art is essential.

Bill MalloneeWe are pleased that for the 2011 Congress we will have one of the songwriters of our age… Bill Mallonee.  In fact, his critical credentials are only outdone by the well-kept-secret nature of his 3 decade spanning career.  Bill has been alternatively heralded as one of “the 100 Greatest Living Songwriters”[1] (two spots in front of Conor Oberst and three spots behind Sting) and “the best folk-rock act nobody’s heard of”[2].  Bill Mallonee will be bringing his heartbreaking, life-affirming, faith-filled cast of songs  to the 2011 Congress where he will appear in concert as well as lead a workshop on the relationship between art and religion.

“Bill Mallonee… [has] remained fascinated with the shadowy emotional toils and struggles inherent in the American experience, compelling, insightful, [he] continues to probe through Americana rock and roll proving that sometimes the only story worth telling is that of the journey.”
Rolling Stone

We’ll be sharing a bit more about Bill in the coming days but, for now, visit Bill on Myspace if you’d like a taste of his music and lyrical prowess.

[1] Paste Magazine

[2] New York Press


Insurrection

Peter Rollins

Last Thursday I was lucky enough to be one of about a hundred people crammed into the upper room (how biblical) of Trace pub here in Chicago for an evening of poetry, song, dj-ism, philosophy, and some of the most courageous and dis-lodging theology I have recently encountered.  The evening, promoted as a “provocative cocktail of incendiary theology, haunting soundscapes and musical lament”, did not disappoint.  Poet/singer songwriter Pádraig Ô Tuama held court with his arresting verbal imagery and “sad stories and sadder songs but with funny stories in between” while artist/DJ Jonny McEwen provided a musical backdrop that held the evening together like a liturgy.

The real draw for me, and most of us there I suppose, was the esteemed and inspiring Peter Rollins.  Peter has any number of things going for him.  First off, Peter is a master story teller.  He weaves narrative a parables (like those in his most recent book The Orthodox Heretic and Other Impossible Tales) that are effortlessly compelling and, more importantly, impel the listener to paradigm shifts that lead to action.

The second thing Peter has going for him is that he is much smarter than you or and I.  He has a wide and deep understanding of the philosophical and theological conversations that have been going on for centuries and well as a willingness to infuse our current context into the discussion.  Pair this with a wicked adeptness for communication complex ideas with ease and you end up with a situation not unlike someone accurately explaining to you in 30 seconds a ten minute conversation you’ve overheard in a foreign language you don’t speak (like this scene from Lost in Translation).  Long-winded analogies aside: you will like what you hear from Peter, you will be challenged by what you hear from Peter, you will be changed by what you hear from Peter.

The last thing Peter has going for him is that he speaks with the most intriguing and beautiful Irish brogue.  It is so pleasant to the ear that I’d probably listen to a recording of him snoring just so long as the accent came through.

Peter Rollins at Trace Pub - Insurrection 2010

There isn’t enough space here to give this Insurrection experience its fair dues.  Primarily, this is because the evening itself was fashioned like a communal parable.  It provoked, inspired, confused, empowered, and moved those of us in that room precisely with its undefined edges and opaque core.  In a way that church seldom even approaches these three liturgical rabble-rousers allowed the mystery of the divine and the resurrection the breathe into the room instead of merely stopping short at trying to explain or classify.  It really was an upper room experience.

Instead of trying to force this mystery into words, allow me to post a few audio moments from the evening so you can experience it yourself.

Audio from the abbreviated NYC Insurrection here.

Insurrection review article: ‘In an Upper Room’ by Devin Bustin