Notes on "Music and the Generosity of God"

Music and the Generosity of God, by Gerald C. Liu. Palgrave Macmillan, 2017

When and how does sound become music? And what does the ubiquity of sound tell us of God? These questions are pondered in the most fascination “Music and the Generosity of God” by Gerald C. Liu.

He states the basic theme of his book, “I propose that the generosity of God manifests in the music of sonic ubiquity. Where music never ceases, God gives.” (p. 3) Through exploring the person and work of John Cage, especially his piece 4’33’’ Liu invites the reader to encounter our sonic landscape as music, and this music is an ongoing gift of an ever generous God. Liu place a wonderfully strong emphasis on sound/music as a means of God’s expression, and our encounter of God. “God may manifest beyond measure in current encounters with the music of sonic ubiquity, especially for those unable to grasp the elocutions of speech or other discursively tied ways of communicating holy grace and love.” (p. 10) “Sonic ubiquity” is a recurring concept in this book which develops into the idea of “given music.”

It is hard for me to imagine people not familiar with Cage and his most noteworthy piece, but for those people, John Cage was a composer of what could be considered avant-garde or experimental music. He was also deeply influenced by Zen Buddhism. Performance of his 4’33’’ entails performer(s) not “performing” on their instruments for four minutes and thirty three seconds (although Cage says the piece can be performed for any length of time.) The music of the piece is all the sounds that the audience is exposed to during the time of the performance.

Unsurprisingly, initial response to this piece was uncertain and often unwelcome. Theological response to Cage’s 4’33’’ was disdain. “For [Nicholas] Wolterstorff and [Jeremy] Begbie Cage musically undermines God’s intention for humanity to create and order the materials of the earth.” (p. 16) Music, for them, can only be properly and intentionally human authored sound. “Begbie emphatically claims that God has freed human beings to create music purposefully, not randomly, and that music only happens when human intent is present.” (p. 123) Begbie’s idea of music can only emphasize preconceived ideas of order, and these ideas of order are so culturally based that his approach will crush non-dominant ideas.

Liu counters Begbie stating that “Cage uses his ‘freedom’ and ‘intent’ as an author (to use the language of Begbie and Wolterstorff) to frame what otherwise would go unrecognized – that music is everywhere sounds are.” (p.17)

Cage, perhaps reflecting his Zen influence, understands music with a stance that that doesn’t try to grasp, control, or preserve the music that is heard. It is also important to remember that Cage’s piece is not about the absence of sound. “The quiet withdrawal of 4’33’’, however, does not emphasize rest or silence against sound. 4’33’’ asserts that sonic ubiquity gives music superabundantly and without limit.” (p. 54)

Liu and Cage’s understanding of the generosity of the ubiquitous sonic environment is deeply dependent on the listener’s capability to receive it as such. As Cage writes in a letter to a friend that recognizing the sonic density of his piece depends on “our own emptiness, our own receptivity; we receive to the extent that we are empty to do so.” (letter to Helen Wolff quoted on p. 54).

“Confounding the expectations of its listeners, 4’33’’ promotes hearing musical content that is ‘hidden in plain sight’ and that saturates their entire field of audibility. It displays unbounded, free sound. This same sound announces a more radical freedom, a giveness, a giving of God, or what Christians micht call ‘grace’ or ‘love’ perceived within but irreducible to audible content.” (p. 81)

This is an academic book, and the presence of French philosophers and “phenomenology” were littered throughout the book. This is not particularly familiar territory for me, but John Cage and his ideas of music and sound were familiar to me and this helped make the book feel more accessible – and truly it was an enjoyable read.

Reading this was a great gift as I delve deeper into understanding the relationship between sound and theology – or more precisely and personally – my experience of God through sound. The discussion of the superabundant generosity of music, and a stance of open receptivity resonated deeply within my own experience. This generosity and receptivity encapsulates my understanding of the human/divine relationship at its best. God is the ever abundant giver and we are the receivers – who are not merely receivers of divine generosity but also participate in it as co-creators. We are part of the divinely offered “given music” of our world.

“With or without human awareness, God gives in music: noticeably and unnoticeably, impossibly, indulgently, and even overwhelmingly.” (p. 124)