Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Symbol Creation

It's almost Christmas, and, therefore, the past month or more has seen the annual deluge of diamond store commercials. Zales, Gordons, Kay, and any number of local stores, in seeking to up their holiday sales, seemingly spend most of their advertising budget between December and February (a wise decision, I'm sure, especially this year with such movies coming out).

I myself considered purchasing an anniversary band for Amy (it was just our 7th!), as a new Zales outlet opened right by our local Wegman's. There was one I liked, and I know Amy would like, but the Zales saleswoman would not accept this fact—I of course needed to purchase a ring with three stones, "which symbolize our love in the past, present, and future." After I unstuck my eyes from the position into which they had rolled, I said thanks and left.

Besides the "past, present and future" collection, it seems that the rage this Christmas are "journey" collections. These necklaces feature different sized diamonds, growing from small to large—to symbolize the journey love takes as it grows.

These designs are curious to me. Do people allow diamond companies to designate symbols for their lives? Can a corporation really succeed in designating such "illustrative symbolism" into a common symbol system? And, can this corporation expect that the interpretant of its symbol really understand what was intended?

I suppose that last question's answer is, yes, largely, since viewers of commercials are told in that interaction exactly what to understand the symbol as—no abductive thinking there. But, will these necklaces be understood in five years? Ten? If not, then the sign has failed. Do these ads work, though, I wonder?

Two ideas come to mind: the first, that they do not work, and, that people like myself gag when thinking about them. But, if that were the case, they probably wouldn't continue to run them. The second is that they do, but that leaves my to wonder, Why? Are we so sign-starved as a culture that we need diamond commercials to give us more? And, why cannot a couple determine their own sign? Part of sign creation is bound up in the relationship of the sign giver and its interpretant—who has a greater relationship than a romantic couple?

I suppose, though, if movies are any indicator, people really can't interpret signs without explicit explanations given. I don't necessarily agree with that, but that does seem to be how this culture is understood. That brings me to a more important point, and that is, that Christian worship is largely made up of signs. Again I wonder, can people interpret the signs that occur during a celebration of the Eucharist? Can they interpret what happens at baptism? At Easter Vigil? I think so, with little prodding.

Those who have a relationship with the Church and with God should be able to interpret what happens in church during the worship of God. But, maybe the Church should take out television advertisements to run every commercial segment explaining the meaning of thuribles, of bread made from wheat, and of water. That of course would leave congregants free from thinking, and then they could focus only on their feelings about God.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

John W. Peterson

I was saddened to read this week of the death of John W. Peterson on September 20 ( I was living in another world during September). I was instantly taken back to my childhood growing up at Sunnyside Baptist Church in Oklahoma City. Some of my favorite songs to sing in church were "Drinking at the Springs of Living Water," "Jesus is Coming Again," "Surely Goodness and Mercy," and, what was my favorite hymn at the time, "Heaven Came Down and Glory Filled My Soul." Plus, I remember some of his cantatas, like Night of Miracles and No Greater Love, which we did during college at Hazel Dell Baptist Church.

But, I mostly remember Peterson's songs from morning car rides to school with my mom, who always took that time to sing every verse of hymns she knew with me so that I could learn them. As a church pianist since about 1958, she knows a lot! She's been a church musician for so long that even if she plays a popular song, it sounds like an offertory (as my sister is quick to point out). But I am forever grateful for the love of hymns she passed on to me.

And, even though Peterson is sometimes considered passé, many of his hymns are really enjoyable to sing, with fabulous tenor counterpoint lines. Sing a couple, and think of the composers and poets who have so impacted so many people's lives.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006


I love Advent for several reasons! They include getting ready for Christmas, the excellent advent hymns and carols that we get to sing (we of course sang Let All Mortal Flesh this past Sunday, even though I didn't choose it—it brought tears to my eyes), my anniversary falls during Advent, and I am always reminded by the beginning and ending of the church year of the sonata-allegro form.

The sonata form, you ask? Or, even if you don't, I'll tell you anyway. The sonata-allegro form grew out of simpler forms of music (notably the rounded binary form) during the classical period, and is notable for three main sections—the exposition, the development, and the recapitulation.

The Exposition is where the main thematic materials of the sonata are given. It is usually made up of two themes joined by some transition material and followed by a coda.

The Development takes the themes presented in the exposition and plays around with them, taking them through all manner of different keys and various compositional techniques. It ends with a half cadence (I don't really want to go into that here), to bring back the themes from the exposition.

These themes reappear in the Recapitulation, in which the themes from the exposition are again presented, often in a similar fashion, but most often both in the same, tonic key.

If you're asking yourself, "How does this bear on Advent," here's how: the Christian year, from Advent, to Easter, and back to Advent, follows much the same shape. Advent is not only the time of looking to Christ's first coming, but it's also the time of looking to His second. As the beginning of the Christian year, looking for Christ's first coming sets out the first theme, which continues through Christmas. Advent is also a time of fasting (or not, today—it's traditionally been) in preparation for the feast of Christmas and the days following through Epiphany.

Similarly, Lent prepares for the second great theme of the year, Easter. After Easter and Pentecost, the ordinary time builds on the themes of Christmas and Easter—a time of development. Finally, two weeks before Advent again approaches, readings from the lectionary focus on the second coming—a fitting end to the year, which also brings to mind the first coming, and recapitulating the things that began the year.

Even the ratios of the different times of the year fall into ratios that are similar to those often used in sonata-allegro and other forms. In some years, notably those in which Easter falls between April 17-23 (which will next occur in 2014), the ratio of the days from the beginning of Advent to Easter and Easter to the end of the Christian year is near to 140/225, which, if you're up on your math, is almost exactly the Golden Ratio, used in artistic endeavors since ancient Greece.

So, as a new church year begins, listen to some Beethoven or some Haydn, think about the beauty inherent in the form of the music, and the beauty similarly there in the Christian year, and enjoy them both!