Yesterday’s Wordless Groans post was intended to be a one-off, but it prompted me to think a fair bit about wordlessness, and how much we can communicate without using words.
There are countless utilitarian examples of this – at home, at work and definitely on the freeway – but today I want to focus on something a little more transcendent: music, the only art form that I’m not wholly ill-equipped to connect with.
Can I ask a hypothetical question? (Thanks! And can I ask this one, and one more, too, while I’m at it?)
Which song really communicates more about the nature of joy? The venerable hymn Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee – or a non-choral version of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony? I don’t mean to knock the hymn (it’s quite a good one, as hymns go – if for no other reason than the fact its tune is both familiar and singable). But from my perspective, its lyrics, good as they are, are a clumsy attempt to verbalize for the cerebrum a message that the music alone delivers much more effectively to our hearts.
But if Beethoven is a little old-school and high-brow for you, here’s an example from way back in the 20th Century:
In 1967, Jimi Hendrix released a song called Little Wing – one of the greatest blues-rock ballads in history. A couple decades later, Stevie Ray Vaughan recorded an instrumental version of the track (released on the 1991 album, The Sky is Crying), and the contrast is startling.
Vaughan’s performance captures all of the beauty and ethereality of Hendrix’s composition, and, still shockingly after two decades, adds depth to it. Not by shredding a bunch of jaw-dropping, technically brilliant, showboaty solos, but by tastefully picking out simple new melodies, and leaving space between them to create both peace and tension (often at the same time).
The original version remains a masterpiece, but in Vaughan’s hands, the absence of Hendrix’s (arguably) faux-deep lyrics actually adds meaning to the song.
But don’t take my word for it. Compare these two YouTube videos:
I’ve also become more aware recently of the wordless groans in some of my favorite worship songs, and I’ve been struck by how much meaning there is in these seemingly meaningless musical moments.
To my ears, the non-linguistic vocalizing in the nifty post-chorus of Chris Tomlin‘s song I Will Follow is a cry of fear and trembling, as we who sing this anthem come to terms with the fact that we’re in the midst of promising to follow a Saviour who was scorned, mocked, beaten, tortured and (gulp) murdered.
Similarly, Matt Maher uses structured moaning in the live version of Your Grace is Enough on his All the People Said Amen album to wrestle with the reality that it’s one thing to assent intellectually to the idea that God’s grace is sufficient, but quite another to actually believe it in our hearts – and live like it’s true for us. (That’s what I hear when I listen to this track, anyway.)
As a quick aside, I need to very highly recommend All the People Said Amen. It might be the best album I’ve bought all year – secular or sacred (if those words mean anything). It’s a great blend of stellar new material (such as the title track and Lord, I Need You [featuring the inimitable Audrey Assad], which is the best new worship song since 10,000 Reasons, for my shekels) and tasty live renditions of familiar songs that have become the definitive versions of these songs in Baldyville, including the aforementioned Your Grace is Enough. And getting back to our topic at hand, this album is jam-packed with ‘oh’s, ‘ah’s and ‘li-li-li’s, making it a veritable treasure trove of wordless groans.
Speaking of which, let’s get back to wordlessness.
… Or better yet, let’s not.
I could go on, but I think you get the idea. In fact, using more than 700 words to celebrate the miraculous reality that sometimes an absence of words sings more than an abundance of them could be considered counter-productive.
And all the people said Amen, Baldy. 😉
Peace be with you.