Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Pascal on Christianity and . . . the Blues.

The Harvard Classics 15 min. a day program is an excellent way to dip into something thoughtful for a moment or two. I've commenced the habit and was rewarded with an excerpt from Blaise Pascal's Thoughts. I had heard of Pascal's mathematical achievements, but I was unaware of his passion for religion. Indeed, he devoted much of his intellectual life to defending the Jansenist sect of Catholicism.

In the particular essay I read, he posits that a person must come to know 1) there is a God and 2) their need for redemption, or their "wretchedness," as he put it. The world is set up in such a way as to make us aware of those two facts. There are moments when we experience the reality of God: in nature, in the power of love, our consciences may evidence it. But there are equally moments of godlessness . . . when we sin or watch the sufferings of others at the hand of sin or natural disasters, etc. In other words, our experience is set up in such a way that we experience both the reality of God and the reality of living in a fallen world, a world in which we are separated from God . . . hence the need for a divine intermediary, Jesus Christ. Christianity allows us to make sense of why we sometimes feel God is there, and why we sometimes feel that He isn't. That's because he *is* there, it's just that, in our current fallen state, we are separated from him. Pascal's reasoning is perhaps the closest we can ever come to answering the question, "If God is real, then why do bad things happen?" In fact, Pascal explained that our awareness of evil and suffering can potentially be faith-promoting because it can prove to us the need for Jesus Christ.

This line of thinking brought the blues to mind. I've always wondered why blues music feels so powerful and I wonder if it has something to do with the blending of the major and minor modes . . . do we possibly hear that as a musical metaphor for life, with it's blending of good and evil as discussed by Pascal, as experienced by all of us? I think the blues might be an excellent sonic illustration of Christian doctrine.



Joe Venito said...

Might it be "an excellent way to dip into something thoughtful for," perhaps, fifteen minutes?

I'm not too sure how I feel about this "God" fellow, but I do agree that if He wanted us to know about His existence, a very good way to do it would the same way we see everything - by it's opposite.

On the blues, maybe you, as a musician, can answer this: the blues scale is, of course, a sorrowful, but lively, scale (I'm playing it right now in G, as a matter of fact). I've always wondered how much of it was 'discovered' versus 'created.'

Also, Wikipedia tells me that they aren't the same thing, but Jansenist reminds me of Jainist. Good folk, the Jains.

Kristin said...

Haha, yes, 15 min. As far as this post is concerned, I realize that I wrote it from the perspective of a Christian, making a number of assumptions about the existence of God, Christ, etc. If I were writing for a larger audience, I might have used more equivocal, diplomatic language so as not to exclude non-religious folks from the discussion. But seeing as how I'm Christian, it was easier to write it up from the perspective of a Christian . . . and it came down to efficiency, I guess. And I figured you, my sole reader, would understand :)

Anyway, I'm intrigued by this idea of opposites. What exactly did you mean?

As far as the blues scale goes, what an awesome question. Here's my take on it, but I'm no expert. To my knowledge, the blues comes from the blacks. Blue notes were sung in the "field hollers," etc. At some point in history, African-Americans "discovered" that blue notes sounded good and they started using them in their music.

"Blue notes." What are those really? Blue notes are more of a technique, a performance practice, than anything else. When you a play a blue note, it sounds "blue" because you don't play it perfectly in tune; you play it slightly sharp or flat depending on the note. This is why the guitar, voice, and trombone are great blues instruments: with those instruments, it's very easy to bend the pitches. On a piano it's harder, though. All of the keys on a piano are tuned. So pianists, to create the sound of blue notes, play pairs of keys together. If they want to sharpen a pitch, they'll play that pitch at the same time as the next highest pitch; if they want to flatten a pitch, they'll play it at the same time as the next lowest pitch. Does that make sense? Again, blue notes are a kind of performance technique. They exist "in between" the notes on a piano, they are tones that one bends or slides into.

If you play a C blues scale without any alterations, for example, your playing will not sound bluesy. The pitches in a C blues scale are: C, Eb, F, Gb, G, and Bb. If you play that scale up and down, it will have some of the flavor of the blues, but to truly sound bluesy, you'll need to sharpen the Eb and F occasionally and flatten the G occasionally. The Gb could be sharpened or flattened. You'll also want to throw in some Es and As, notes that aren't even included in the blues scale proper, but that convention would call for.

If you define a scale as a pool of notes from which one can draw to create melodies, then a blues scale doesn't exist on a paper. A great blues melody uses those "notes between the notes," (by definition, microtones). Microtones can not be notated. Since they don't exist on a piano, they don't have have a home on western music staffs or any place in western music theory. The blues scale you come across in guitar method books, for example, is the closest we can come to writing a blues scale on a paper. But the long and short of it as that the blues can not be properly notated.

The sound of the blues was "discovered" by musicians who likely had little if any formal musical training. It just sounded good to them to bend and flatten pitches resulting in those bluesy microtones. The blues scale, as we see it on paper, was "created" by western music theorists who wanted to get as close as possible to notating the blues.

Does that help? If you actually read all this, you are hard core. And if this genuinely interested you, then I really know I've found a kindred spirit :)

By the way, you said you were just playing a blues scale. On what instrument? What do you play?

Joe Venito said...

As an on-again/off-again Christian, I did get that. Things tend to get long when you have to account, not only for Islam and Judaism and the other religions with only one God, but all the religions that have a bunch of gods and the ones that don't even have a god at all. Although, now that I know that I know you're an on-again/on-again Christian, I think it's best that we never communicate again.

I'm kidding. I generally have no problem with the Jesus folk.

The opposites thing, well, the original point of my blog was to explain that. I don't even know where to start here, though.

I actually did read all of that, and found it fascinating. I'm really interested in music theory, I even thought about minoring it (until I learned that my school offers no such thing). I really don't have any good way to learn about it, so I absorb any information I can get. So, kindred spirits? Possibly. Even though on another comment you completely missed an obvious Simpsons reference.

I tried that - playing the blues scale (on the guitar, I play a few folk tunes), by playing a few notes on the actual fret instead of between them. I learned a specific blues scale - which is why I was curious, because the old African instruments (banjos made from gourds and the like) obviously didn't even have a formalized size or sound, much less a system of frets or... what have you. So, I see what you're saying.

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