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Holroyd Hammond

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Bach, the Guitar and the Meaning of Life
by Holroyd Hammond   
Rated "G" by the Author.
Last edited: Monday, August 15, 2011
Posted: Monday, August 15, 2011

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My thoughts on music, the guitar and the search for Truth.

"There's really nothing to it. All you have to do is touch the right keys at the right time, and the instrument will play itself." JS Bach

That statement above by Mr. Bach may have been uttered "tongue in cheek," but there is a lot of truth in it: not just for music, but for life.

I got the idea for this paper as I was working on a piece by Bach; an arrangement for guitar of the 4th Cello Suite. At one point the music took over and I really heard and felt it - it was transcendental. I thought that surely God must be pleased with something like that and it seemed as if the music itself was a revelation of Truth. I haven't yet been able to get that feeling back; my clumsy technique keeps getting in the way. But, I know it's there, in the music. I'm still searching.

If you have never played Bach or studied the classical guitar or even if you have, you may reasonably ask, "What do Bach and the guitar have in common with the meaning of life?" In order for me to show any connection at all and to convince you of the rationality of it, I am sure that you would first require and expect that I should have discovered the meaning of life, and that I should be able to present a convincing argument in the support thereof, which argument, dear reader, if I did propose it, you would probably discount from the outset. But, allow me, nonetheless, to continue and you be the judge.

Many would describe "The Meaning of Life" as a search for Truth and the act of, having once found it, living within its prescribed limits. If you will allow me this, then we can continue. In any case, this search for Truth has, unquestionably, been the focus of the study of philosophers, thinkers and theologians throughout the ages. Plato argued that Truth could be understood, or defined, through Forms: Forms representing all objects and human concepts. In other words a table, for example, is a Form that embodies "tableness" or a quality that exists somewhere "out there" that is common to all tables. He was on the right track in a way, for he further described his Forms as unchangeable, eternal, intelligible and divine.

Other philosophers have struggled to intellectualize Truth in similar and other ways. Most (but not all) of them would agree that there is an ultimate Truth and a path to discovering it. That must be a given, else why would some men spend their whole lives in the pursuit? The problem with philosophy, and religion for that matter, is that both are searching for proof, whether it be of "Forms" on the one hand or of the existence of God on the other. There is no proof of either. The path of both is simply one of discovery and enlightenment and we're guided, for the most part, by what we hope to find at the end of it. Ultimately, then, our journey in search of Truth is a journey of faith and hope.

(I once, many years ago, attempted to define Truth when asked to by one of my philosophy professors. Being eager to demonstrate my refined intelligence and my sharp wit, I replied that Truth was birth, death, a bowel movement and a broken heart. I may have been closer to the mark than I realized at the time, at least in the sense that all of those things at least give us a glimpse of, as Plato would call it, "Truthness." But I digress.)

Now it gets slippery. I would argue that God is Truth and that there is no Truth without God. God defines Truth. God is the ultimate Form that Plato was looking for. It is important that I clarify at the outset who/what I mean when I say God. I don't mean a concept of God that we have intellectualized. The popular notion that God can be whoever or whatever we want Him to be - whatever makes us feel good - doesn't work in my argument. If we can create God in our image then we can create Truth as well. We can all have our own little god and our own little truth. It just doesn't work. (Look at the state of our society and government which seem to be ruled by this philosophy.) I submit that God Is, with or without our belief or consent. Now, when I speak of God I mean the Great I Am; God the Creator and Ruler; the God of Abraham, Jacob and Moses. You are offended or disappointed? Too simplistic? Sorry. But, isn't that the catch? Must we not, in order to find Truth (if you believe it exists), first allow for the existence of God? We can't create God any more than we can create Truth. Either they exist or they don't. The meaning of life, then, I choose to define as simply a search for God and through Him, Truth: a struggle to come into communion with Him; to be reconciled to Him; to be the prodigal son welcomed home. In the end, it is all a matter of faith and choice.

If you allow me, then, that the meaning of life is a search for God, I would further propose that the music of Bach and the study of the classical guitar (or any musical instrument, I suppose) can guide us in our search.

God is timeless, unchangeable, immutable, complete and a source of revelation, as is Bach's music. (Bach, by the way, was a very simple and devout man.) Nothing can be added or taken away from his music to make it more perfect. It transcends time and space and creates a perfect world of its own. When heard deeply, it gives you one WOW! moment after another. Its order, sanity, beauty, passion and simplicity can give us a glimpse into the mind of God. You can trust Bach as you do a good writer (or God, if you will): his tools are sharp and well-maintained and he won't lead you astray.

Bach worked within a particular and strict form. I mean by this, a form or style of music. At first thought this would seem to be restricting and confining. Far from it. Bach mastered the formal structure which ultimately freed him and his music from all forms: his music, then, transcended form. What we would see as a narrow way, Bach saw as a way to free himself from all restraints and achieve pure musical truth and beauty. Likewise, the path to God may seem at first restrictive and binding, but it is ultimately freeing.

Where does the study of the guitar fit into all of this? As the great classical guitarist David Russell has said (and I paraphrase), with every musical moment on the guitar there is only one right way. He's not speaking of interpretation here; he means technically: one way to "touch" the guitar that is the perfect way at that particular moment. It is that "perfect way" that we struggle to find and rejoice in when we do. This one way may seem restricting at first but once found and understood, it is ultimately freeing. It frees you from the technical and physical restraints and lets the music flow through the player and come to beautiful life.

I struggle every day with the guitar. It doesn't come naturally to me. There are rules that must be followed. I view every little breakthrough that I receive in my study of the guitar as a blessing from God. These breakthroughs come almost as little revelations. They are those little Wow! moments when everything suddenly becomes clear. These moments usually come, though, only after struggling with an issue for a while and approaching it with humility, reverence and respect. It is exciting and encouraging to realize that something so innocent and satisfying as the study of music can reveal a glimpse into the nature of God. Works for me.

I believe that God created and loves music and gave it to us for our enjoyment and as one way for us to get a glimpse into His heart, into His Truth. The way may seem narrow at first. We struggle as we try to work within the form, within the rules. But when we master the form and understand and apply the rules, the music comes alive - as does our relationship with God. The music of Bach and the study of the guitar reveal to me a truth that transcends the music and the instrument: the truth of the existence of God and of His infinite love.



Web Site: GuitarSkool

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