Chris Thile, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Eucatastrophe in Music

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 [Editor’s note: Say hello to Drew Miller. Some of you will remember his band, The Orchardist, from the Local Show last month. I love the way he thinks about music. Read this post and you’ll see why.] 

Starting at about 47:06 in the video below, Chris Thile reflects on his style of composing music and says:

“You can’t just pull the rug out from someone. That’s easy to do—finding high contrast is super easy. What’s difficult is making that high contrast seem inevitable in retrospect, that a need has been met that you didn’t know you had until afterwards. Essentially subversively creating an expectation and meeting that expectation, which amounts to, hopefully, expectations being exceeded.”

When I first watched this moment unfold, much to my own surprise, tears were shed. What follows is me exploring the question: Why the tears? Because obviously, this is about more than merely composing music.

My first guess is that I have always lived in search of shivers down my spine and mind-blowing moments. I believe that behind this search has been a love for the humbling thrill of having my imagination exceeded. In these moments, I realize that the world is more connected, cohesive, and true in its integration than I had thought.

We all have a perspective of the world, and our perspectives allow for a certain degree of variety and a certain degree of cohesion within that variety. Yet our perspectives are woefully limited. So when we encounter another perspective represented through a piece of art, writing, or even lived experience that is more deeply cohesive than our own, we are brought down to size. We are humbled.

There is a thrill in it, too, because these moments allow our own perspectives to enlarge and expand. We make more room in our imaginations for reality than there was before.

Here are three examples of these humbling thrills in the realm of music:

“My Legionnaire” by Brooke Waggoner: This song establishes its form, then departs from it in a way that ultimately coheres with and strengthens the entirety of the song. I first heard it in eighth grade and couldn’t believe my ears.

“Julep” by The Punch Brothers: When this song goes into the bridge section, it feels like it couldn’t possibly return to the first section of the song, yet it does flawlessly.

“Sellers of Flowers” by Regina Spektor: This one has to do with the uncertainty of where the key center is. When we listen to songs, we interpret the whole song around the tonic note, which determines the home-base key: the one chord from which the whole song ripples out. So when a song bends away from that and modulates to another key, the center shifts and we feel like we’re going somewhere. The thing about this particular song is that the melody and chord progression work together to constantly evoke a sense of rapid motion in which every new chord feels like a new key center.

I find music to be the epitome of the humbling thrill. I think this is because one purpose of music is to bring seemingly disparate pieces together. Wendell Berry writes, “In healing the scattered members come together.” He writes of grace, healing, and wholeness as near synonyms. You can’t have health without bringing fragments together into a whole, and grace is what it means to bring those fragments together.

Music reveals the hidden cohesion behind seeming disparity. The key of G feels totally dissociated from the key of C sharp. In fact, those are tritones, as far apart from each other as they can conceivably be, and yet they are related. The circle of fifths reminds us that we can get from G to C sharp and vice versa, and to me that feels like hope. Music refuses to believe that the world is a fractured place.

Notes resound within the grace of time. Strictly speaking, without time, there is no music. The relationships between tones give us ratios and harmony, but these relationships need time in order to unfold into melodies that tell stories, that “go somewhere.” Without time, the story aspect of music is lost.

There is the old adage that there’s no healing medicine like time; music is a great microcosm of it. My dear friend Cameron Welke once paraphrased the words of music theorist Jean-Phillipe Ramaeu for me: “harmonic motion is motivated by the resolution of dissonance into consonance.” That doesn’t happen without time. Time allows us to go to unstable places where we’re suspended from the rhythm, the pattern, and the melody for just long enough that we doubt in our bones whether the rug that has been pulled out from under us will be replaced with another rug—and yet it always is.

If it’s a well-written song, these moments of resolution will be satisfying in ways we couldn’t have imagined. If it’s a poorly-written song, then we’ll have the rug pulled out from under us only to fall flat on the floor. What are the sorts of things you think after hearing a bad song? Probably something like, “That did not feel complete. It did not feel whole. The parts didn’t fit together.” A half-baked idea does not do justice to the wholeness that all songs seek to achieve. Time is the key to that wholeness, the condition for music to reveal the fullness of itself.

The problem is that we have inherited in this age a fundamentally fractured view of the world. No matter how we may depart from this view as we grow up, it is yet the ubiquitous backdrop behind our lives from which any departure is a tenuous journey upstream. We breathe like air the predominant assumption that the world is a place of competition, that all things are at odds, that my good must exclude someone else’s good. Life is a zero-sum game until proven otherwise. This is what many people mean by “individualism.” It’s not a very musical perspective.

We’re intensely aware of how contestable our little beliefs are. When we confront the vast uniqueness of each and every person on the earth and all their perspectives, it becomes more and more exhausting to believe that we all fit together, that we can cohere as a human race.

And yet we don’t just resign ourselves to this fragmentation; that’s not a very human thing to do. Our current state of desperation has only made us more thirsty for revelations of hidden cohesion. The stronger the narrative of disintegration becomes, the more we will know in our bones that it can’t be true. We will go on believing in a deeper wholeness to the world in spite of extensive contrary evidence.

In a recent interview with John Dickerson, Stephen Colbert was asked how he felt about “post-truth” being Oxford Dictionary’s word of 2016. He responded, “That’s before God said ‘let there be light.’ That’s absolute chaos. That scares me.” There’s something catastrophic about this. Can we no longer agree that anything can be agreeable? Is the foundation of our very words and sentences now a thing of the past?

Once upon a time, J.R.R. Tolkien played around with the word “catastrophe” and put the prefix “eu-” at the beginning of it. Speaking of “eucatastrophe,” he writes in his essay “On Fairy Stories“:

“…it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence…of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.”

He goes on to say that good fairy stories more often than not contain a moment of such eucatastrophe:

“It is the mark of a good fairy-story, of the higher or more complete kind, that however wild its events, however fantastic or terrible the adventures, it can give to child or man that hears it…a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears…It is not an easy thing to do; it depends on the whole story which is the setting of the turn, and yet it reflects a glory backwards.”

Is it just me, or is Tolkien speaking of something very similar to the “high-contrast moment” Thile got so excited about regarding music? Although fairy stories are not entirely comparable to music, there is yet a strong analogy between Tolkien’s and Thile’s insights.

We come into one of Thile’s “high-contrast moments” with a certain extent of imagination. The moment then exceeds our imagination by showing us a greater coherence than we had known to hope for. According to Thile, as the moment passes, we realize in hindsight that it was inevitable. At other times he has even spoken of these moments as “genetically encoded” into the DNA of the music from the very beginning, like a recessive gene.

Tolkien’s eucatastrophe “reflects a glory backwards,” he says. So the whole story is working up to this “turn,” and once the turn comes, it’s so miraculous that it sheds light on everything that came before it. Think of your favorite mind-bending TV show drama—mine is LOST—and recall the moment when you learned something about a character that changed everything. You had to pause it, catch your breath, and frantically reinterpret the entire series in light of this new revelation.

Tolkien goes on to write:

“The Resurrection was the greatest ‘eucatastrophe’ possible in the greatest Fairy Story—and produces that essential emotion: Christian joy which produces tears because it is qualitatively so like sorrow, because it comes from those places where Joy and Sorrow are at one, reconciled, as selfishness and altruism are lost in Love.”

Jesus’ embodied life is the original eucatastrophe, the modulation of key on which the song depends, and the brilliant punchline. It is the central moment which, within the grace of time, shines a glory backwards and forwards in history. History was never merely linear with Christ’s time on earth as one more little point on the line among other points. Instead, all of history hinges upon him. He is where the stone hits the water in the pond and the ripples come out to every inch of space and time. Jesus stands up, reads a passage of Isaiah, and says, “This scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” And even now Jesus says to us, “I have come that you may reinterpret the Story, that your perspective would be exceeded by my grace.”

This is why Chris Thile’s words put tears in my eyes. He’s not just talking about art; whether he realizes it or not, he’s speaking of the gospel.

When we’re thrilled by a break in a pattern, a moment in a movie, or a song that does something we didn’t think it would do, these are little reminders of the true nature of the world as always more than we thought it to be. The gospel itself is the more towards which these trinkets point. It is the abundance, the grace, the healing we desire.

So if the gospel is a thrill, it’s not a thrill of mere candy. It’s not a thrill of indulgence—rather, it’s a thrill of hope in which the weary world rejoices. It’s the thrill of an enduring hope, a deep, quiet hope that our insufficient imaginations may be subverted and exceeded by God’s own again and again.

I will leave you with a poem I recently wrote called “Songs We Couldn’t Write:”

Where Imagination fails
Beyond the edge of light
There live the tallest, truest Tales
And Songs we couldn’t write

Like the patient peace of trees
We think to be asleep
They yet resound the silent Speech
Of roots hidden and deep

Far away from fantasy
And further still from fear
They bear their ancient history
For quiet hearts to hear

Every child listens first
In their own native tongue
A heavy gift to tend the Thirst
Inside of them begun

All our works of good and ill
Have from this Thirst been wrought
Each desire to heal, to kill
And every passing thought

Some grow up to bitterly
Deny their Thirst unquenched
They’re wrong when they think themselves strong;
Their fists are merely clenched

Others crave a prize to earn,
A treasure to attain
They ever burn, their world upturned,
Imagining in vain

But in Hope the meek receive
The failure of their sight
And like the child none can deceive
They wonder with Delight

That where Imagination fails
Beyond the edge of light
There live the tallest, truest Tales
And Songs we couldn’t write


9 Comments

  1. Ben Bryan

    You introduce a quotation from Tolkien by claiming, “He goes on to say that every good story or piece of art contains a moment of such eucatastrophe.” That is not what Tolkien says in passage you quote. He says that a good fair story contains eucatastrophe. He says nothing about all stories, not to mention all art. The claim that every good story contains a eucatatstrophe entails that there are (for instance) no good tragedies (since they lack a eucatastrophe). That proposition is, if not obviously false, at least wildly controversial. And extending the claim from all stories to all art is even stranger. Not all art contains a narrative structure–even in a sort of metaphorical sense, in the way that instrumental music might–not to mention a narrative structure that contains something like a eucatastrophe. Tolkien’s claim, is as far as I can tell, more genre-specific (and, as a result, more plausible) than the more sweeping claim you attribute to him.

    This is no small difference. The idea that all good art involves eucatastrophe is a step down the path of conflating truth and beauty–of saying that art can’t be good unless it tells the truth about us and the world. This view, it seems to me, is misguided. Art can be dangerous precisely because it is capable of making falsehoods beautiful and fascinating and mysterious precisely because it can be beautiful even when it is has no meaning. (I think, for instance, of the sometimes incomprehensible lyrics of Bob Dylan or Steven Delopoulous. Or think of listening to a song in a langauge you do not know. You can experience some of the words’ beauty while understanding none of their meaning.) There is plenty of good art that lacks a eucatastrophe. There is plenty of good art, in fact, that has no real intelligible content at all. Though truth has its beauty, beauty is not truth.

    (Implicit in what I’ve said above is the view that the constitutive aim of art is beauty, not truth. See Etienne Gilson’s The Arts of the Beautiful, especially pages 25 and following, for a fuller defense of this view.)

  2. Pete Peterson

    @pete

    Great comment, Ben, and I agree that the eucatastrophe idea has its limits. I suspect Drew misspoke by extending it to “every good story or piece of art” and I certainly should have caught that as editor.

  3. Drew Miller

    @drewmiller

    Ben, I am honored that you engaged so critically with my thoughts. Forgive me for my hasty generalization. It was just that—hasty—because sometimes, when I perceive a connection that excites me, I claim more than I can defend. Pete and I have edited this post to clarify where Tolkien’s assertions end and where mine begin.

    That being said, it seems to me that you believe eucatastrophe can only occur in arts with narrative structure. I invite you to question whether this must be true. Consider visual art for example: although its structure is not strictly narrative in nature, I believe it is yet capable of producing the joy of which Tolkien writes. In my mind, eucatastrophe has everything to do with the structure of the art at hand revealing itself to be more cohesive and expansive in its integration than is immediately apparent. I would say this can happen in a math equation just as likely as a story, and it’s every bit as breathtaking.

    Granted, this is stretching the word “eucatastrophe” to mean more than it was originally intended to mean. But that’s why this was a fun essay to write. 🙂 I sought to do so in a way that honored Tolkien’s original intention.

  4. Ben Bryan

    Drew, that’s an interesting thought. I think, though, that there are good reasons to think that eucatastrophe cannot exist outside of something of a narrative, though the notion of narrative I’m using is quite loose. Otherwise, I worry the notion of eucatastrophe becomes unilluminating.

    Think about the kind of features a piece of art would need in order to involve eucatastrophe. When thinking about this, there are two things here worth keeping distinct: features of an artistic object on one hand and features of a person’s aesthetic experience on the other. Eucatastrophe, as Tolkien seems to understand it, is a feature of a certain kind of story. It is a sudden, positive turn of a certain kind. This turn in the story produces something in the receptive reader, a certain kind of joy.  So let’s distinguish two things: eucatastrophe (a feature of a story) and an emotion that produces–call it the joy of the turn.

    Both eucatastrophe and the joy of the turn are possible in forms of art that aren’t stories, but that have what we might very loosely call “narrative” structures. Music can be this way. What’s interesting in your article is connecting this idea of the sudden turn and the joy of beholding that turn to music. But notice: the possibility of this sort of turn depends on the ability of music to have a certain kind of narrative structure, which allows a kind of eucatastrophe and can produce the accompanying joy. Music is the sort of thing that can be headed some direction and then change.

    It would be quite a stretch, however, to try to apply the notion of eucatastrophe to pieces of art that have little that we can–even very loosely–call a narrative structure. Certain kinds of visual art, for example, may simply not have enough movement or direction or whatever you want to call it to create much in the way of a sudden joyful turn. And, of course, many things that have a narrative structure don’t do their work through a sudden turn that produces the kind of joy Tolkien describes. And this is no knock on the notion of eucatastrophe. There are many kinds of enjoyment one can have of art, and some kind of art simply isn’t meant to produce the joy of the turn. It’s meant to produce other sorts of enjoyment. (Think of tragedies or sad singer-songwriter tunes. We get very different kinds of enjoyment from those, but they aren’t the joy of the turn that is produced by eucatastrophe.) The notion of eucatastrophe is illuminating and interesting precisely because it picks out a particular feature of certain kinds of art that is compelling in an interesting, specific way. To try to stretch the notion too far would prevent it from being illuminating. Imagine that someone suggested that we use “eucatastrophe” to refer to anything in art that produces enjoyment. That would be to remove from the term the very thing about it that is interesting and illuminating: it’s identification of a particular way joy is produced in a particular kind of narrative structure.

    In short: it seems to me if we want “eucatastrophe” to remain an illuminating term that identifies the interesting phenomenon Tolkien meant to identify with it, we need to restrict its use to a certain feature of certain narrative forms of art. One way to think about what is interesting about your original post is that it draws out of Thile’s remarkes the idea that music can have the kind of narrative structure necessary to have eucatastrophe, and thus can produce the joy of the sudden turn.

  5. Drew Miller

    @drewmiller

    Ben, I find myself in agreement with you. Your distinction between eucatastrophe as a specific point within a narrative structure and the joy of the turn that occurs in response is helpful for protecting both these qualities from being misunderstood or misapplied.

    I’m still curious about other non-narrative arts and how their own forms can subvert or exceed themselves in ways that illuminate the limits of our understanding. There are so many cases out there of patterns that extend further than we can immediately perceive, along with their accompanying aha moments happening within us! Although it may be misguided to categorize these as eucatastrophes, there must be a connection between this common experience and the pattern of crucifixion and resurrection that we are to believe is written into Creation. I think this connection is more what I’m after than anything else.

    One book of interest is The Meaning of the Body by Mark Johnson. It’s a great investigation into the patterns of aesthetics and how we perceive art more viscerally than we give ourselves credit for. Thanks for the challenging discussion!

  6. Matthew Benefiel

    Having a hard time following all the thought processes in the comments, but for some reason I keep calling to mind the line from Ratatouille:  “Not everyone can cook, but a great cook can come from anywhere.” Not every form of art has the joy of a sudden turn, but that turn of joy can come from every form of art. It isn’t always necessary, but when someone masterfully makes it so, it strikes you to the core. My sister and her husband got me to listen to a few Twenty One Pilot songs, and while I’m not much of a hip hop person, after a while his music struck me in that he often does have a progression underneath the outward façade that fascinates me and frankly, gives me a respect for the music he crafts. His song “Car Radio” is a perfect example, when you grasp what he is actually saying, then all of a sudden all the weirdness of the song just makes so much sense and you can feel his frustration as well as ultimate healing in having to hear your own thoughts. Anyway, great article, definitely worth a re-read.

  7. Matthew Benefiel

    Something else that occurred to me is that we are living our own narrative and sometimes we come across something that in itself may have no narrative, but it connects with our own narrative, for whatever reason, and we do find that the notion of eucatastrophe. After all, what is a story without a reader. Symbols are a great example. They are built off of a meaning, but that meaning doesn’t always strike a chord. How often do we pass a cross without a second glance, but those few times where we are in desperate need of a savoir, we see it and are reminded of our Savior’s story. So while it is a loose definition of what Tolkien is referring to, I understand where Drew is coming from.

  8. Chris McLaughlin

    I am so grateful for this post, Drew. Your explanations took my breath away and (along with Tolkien) gave me words for experiences I cherish, but for which I had no words. Thank you. This, for me, is the epitome of the Rabbit Room’s purpose and points to why I enjoy it and the people it draws so much–to give those of us who are muddling along a glimpse of the “deeper still”; to keep us going, to keep us loving life and others.

    I was also pleasantly reminded of the end of the Wingfeather Saga, when the final pages revealed the eucatastrophe which left me weeping in grief and joy for quite some time–beautiful, just beautiful.

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