Finding what you look for …

NINhands in air

You’ve heard that phrase, “It’s always in the last place you look,” whenever you’re searching for a lost item haven’t you? What a dumb thing to say … Of course it’s in the last place I look.

I don’t find my missing keys/glasses/wallet/vital piece of paper in the mythical ‘drawer of stuff’ which seems to function more or less like Harry Potter’s Room of Requirement, and then carry on looking for said items in the kitchen cupboards, or the bureau, or in the glove compartment of the car is it? You find the thing and then you stop looking so it’s ALWAYS in the last place you look … either that or you’re bonkers!

I do find things in unusual places though … in the past I have found TV remotes in the fridge, I’ve discovered a cordless phone for the house in the car, and one time, I promise you, I actually found my marbles – lost them straight away, but I had them there for a few seconds!

I do find other things in unusual places too …

I went to the Nine Inch Nails concert at the horribly named ‘Phones4U Arena’ in Manchester (it was bad enough when it was the MEN Arena, but seeing the name ‘Phones4U Arena on the back of a tour t-shirt next to names like the Vector Arena, the Spektrum, the Zitadelle and the Rockhal just looked somehow ridiculous) a couple of weeks ago and found some things there I mightn’t have expected.

To be fair, I also found lots of what I expected – a full-scale sonic assault, a light show that you could still appreciate with your eyes closed and a performance that was full of intensity and virtuosity. There was a point (or three) when I felt a little like I was in the final scenes of Close Encounters of the Third Kind when the mothership is ‘talking’ with the overwhelmed humans. Just an astonishingly good – awesome – show.

Anyway, the things I found that I didn’t expect …

I looked around during the song ‘Sanctified’ – the crowd with arms raised singing along with the lyric, “I am justified. I am purified. I am sanctified. Inside you” – and I found myself thinking, ‘Well, what does that mean?’

Not that there needed to be some sort of explanation of those thorny theological terms “justification” or “sanctification” but rather that I was trying to figure out where that sort of passion, that sort of connection was coming from. In most churches, you’re never going to find the same sort of passion and commitment to singing (and yeah, let’s be honest, worship) than I saw in that moment. I wondered why … still not sure really, but perhaps there’s the sense of grandeur and occasion that a concert brings rather than the week in week out church dreariness that most of suffer through. The sheer unadulterated skill of the band was another thing, not one beat missed, not one line fluffed … again slightly different to my experience (I’m still waiting for the day I play a full set of songs and don’t make a mistake!)

I struggle with the whole performance thing when it comes to church music … I don’t think it should be a performance, but I recognise that if you’re musically and technically competent it means you can relax into what the experience can bring as a musician and as a worshipper and not spend half the time panicking about whether or not you’re going to mess up the tricky minor chord inversion in verse two!

Then, during “Head like a Hole” I found myself thinking that Trent Reznor could be a dark prophet – his perfectly pitched bitterness as he pinpointed the pernicious power of “God money” and the lines “Bow down before the one you serve, you’re going to get what you deserve” seemed both prescient and precise. A song I remember hearing for the first time when I was an art student (sooooo many years ago now) still resonated now … and there’s still a part of me that could do more than just recall the idealism that might say to ‘God money’ “I’d rather die than give you control!”

But a curious thing really stuck out … there was a point when Reznor picked up a tambourine and rocked it out, and the midst of this avalanche of sound, this wall of noise that pummelled us all, in the midst of it all you could hear it perfectly. As someone who occasionally flies a sound-desk in church, I am in awe of that particular sound man! The fact that the delicacy of the tambourine was still heard over the wall of noise that almost physically moved me every time the kick drum sounded was somehow significant to me … the idea that a single, delicate, simple instrument could be discerned through the most powerful arrangement of industrialised sounds encouraged me.

It’s easy to imagine that our own efforts to contribute, however feebly, to the mostly discordant symphony of life that we’re engaged with daily are unnoticed by anyone except ourselves. But, thanks to the careful ear of the sound engineer, everyone could hear the singular voice of the tambourine, even over – and maybe even because of – the wall of sound.

Two things occurred to me when I’d gotten home and my ears had stopped throbbing! Firstly, with the whole tambourine analogy, I thought – I hope someone might notice my clumsy attempts to bring a ‘different sound’ to the song (maybe even ‘a new song’ to use a phrase from Psalms). And, to be fair, that’s mostly been my experience in my stumble through faith; someone has usually noticed and encouraged me to step up and try things out, to support me as I learn to try and follow Eugene Peterson’s fabulous phrase “the unforced rhythms of grace.”
Then, once I’d got past my ‘Me, me, me,’ attitude, I thought, “Wouldn’t it be better to aim at being as attentive as that sound engineer?”

And, maybe that’s the point – not to be so concerned with being ‘up on stage’ (wherever my/your stage might be) but rather to be listening carefully for the things that make the ‘show’ really sing, really work, really catch your eye and your ear. And to then make sure they’re heard …

Either way, probably not the things you might expect to emerge from a Nine Inch Nails gig!


One response to “Finding what you look for …

  1. The last place you look? I didn’t even know I was looking and I stumbled on this refreshing, clear and really interesting site and this excellent post. As chance would have it, I dug out my NIN albums over the weekend and was struck by -as well as the brilliance of the songs- the attention to detail in the production. My partner was in the music business for much of his career and will attest that sound engineers such as you describe are rare, and to be thoroughly treasured when discovered.
    But what about your message- that’s refreshing. The reason I stopped going to church some time back was primarily the self-heavy, clumsy, ill-thought out, often horribly ignorant way the services were presented and when I moved a few towns to the north of my county and found a similar attitude in the lay-led services, I more or less gave up altogether, though I miss church a great deal. It’s good to know that there are people like yourself around.
    Church music will probably always be contentious- and quite rightly so for anything that stimulates useful discussion in church has to be good. Other faiths and practices have a much more comfortable relationship with the spiritual effect of music than the ill-defined and rather wriggly British Protestant, whatever his or her denomination tends to have. Other faiths are aware that prayer can be continual, be moment by moment- can be a deliberate putting together of words, or the experience of wordlessness that strikes under the power of sublime music- whether hearing it or performing it. For God’s in everything, after all.
    The churches and Christian people around me that I come into contact with day by day are lovely, well meaning and deeply frustrating. I really don’t want to hear, ‘Well as Christians, we find that offensive/inappropriate/unpleasant… etc, etc’ any more. I also don’t want to hear an incredulous ‘Well, people say we should be working with those sort of people!’ when the drug and homelessness problems in our area are mentioned. It makes me unwilling to be a part of them.
    But you’ve reminded me that there is an ear open to everyone’s contribution- and that my fuming is just judgement of another sort. I shall try and be more of a Red Setter like yourself- and go bounding in.
    After all, even the tambourine left on a stool can have a powerful effect on the whole.

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