The Sound of Beauty

The Sound of Beauty: A Classical Composer on Music in the Spiritual Life

by Michael Kurek
2019 Ignatius Press, 229 pages, $17.95
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A teacher recently told me about playing Simon & Garfunkel for her middle school students to introduce them to lyrics and imagery. An astonished student said he had never heard music like it before. That is, he had never heard actual instruments and the real human voice, unadorned by autotune and electronic sounds.

We live in a world where that is normal. Michael Kurek writes music for that world. In The Sound of Beauty, he writes words for that world. A classical composer, Kurek serves on the music faculty at Vanderbilt University and has received numerous awards for his compositions. His The Sea Knows was a Billboard number one traditional classic album. The American Academy of Arts and Letters gave him an Academy Award in music for lifetime achievement.

His own musical story involves two overlapping conversions: in his composing Kurek went from modernism (seeking progress in musical history by extreme innovation) and post-modernism (rejecting the possibility of progress and all musical form) to more traditional classical music. He also was raised Catholic, became Protestant as a teenager, and returned to Catholicism in adulthood. That return caused him to question music’s meaning and purpose, and to seek transcendence in his works.

Understanding Music

In The Sound of Beauty, Kurek sets out to outline a Catholic understanding of music at several levels: physical, psychological, sociological, and eventually theological. He calls the book an inquiry into “music as a metaphor-in-sound for the link between immanence and transcendence.”

Kurek examines the different ways music communicates to listeners. He first analyzes music as physical matter. It is key for him that music is physical sound waves, because in Kurek’s view the transcendent God “indwells” the physical world, revealing its goodness and making it holy.

Expanding on work by the philosopher Susanne K. Langer and the psychologist Rudolf Arnheim, Kurek seeks to explain how music moves people emotionally: through tension, dissonance, and resolution that correspond to physical feelings. These patterns map onto larger human stories of victory, hope, and redemption.

He argues that the virtues can help us respond rightly to the emotions that music prompts. For practical examples, he looks to contemporary classical and popular music, analyzing their history, benefits, pitfalls, and the human attitudes that sustain both. He finds that ultimately neither satisfies human artistic needs.

From there, the book pivots toward practice. Kurek addresses how music communicates to the soul, how performers and composers should understand their task, and how listeners can listen to music more fruitfully. He examines the attitudes toward transcendence and immanence in Protestant and Roman Catholic worship, defining the terms “secular” and “sacred” as they relate to music.

He summarizes current Catholic legislation on Church music, including Vatican II’s documents. Most helpfully, Kurek concludes with a “call to leadership” and proposes a national Catholic fine arts council that could help renew the arts today.

Much of the strength of Kurek’s writing comes from the fact that he has at various times held the views of music that he now argues against, especially those of what he characterizes as the hopelessly self-enclosed world of contemporary classical music. His assessment of contemporary classical music could stand alone as a mini-testament from someone on the inside, who has come to see what many others see in “modern music.”

Kurek’s winsome writing makes the book an appealing travel guide through the “sound of beauty.” Still, it is sometimes unclear who his audience is. Parts of the book, especially on the psychology of musical perception, address topics rarely considered outside musicological circles. Others are geared at different times toward performers, composers, churchgoers, students, and parents.

Renewing Catholic Art

Kurek’s most valuable contribution is a set of rigorous but achievable proposals for renewing Catholic arts. He highlights the indispensable role education will need to play and suggests concrete steps Catholic colleges can take to promote artistic reflowering.

Kurek’s work might help with a problem that orchestras and churches share: the graying “audience.” Why and how has the base shrunk? Is there any way to win younger people? The Metropolitan Opera hosts “Fridays Under 40” performances to draw younger listeners. The evenings usually feature beautiful productions of classic operas. The productions are not avant-garde; they are not trying to be cool. And they are packed. Might the Church need to offer her perennial beauty without shame?

The practical bent of Kurek’s later chapters is telling. In medieval music theory, there was an idea that the musicus, the music theorist, was the only real musician. Singers were lower grade “instruments” for theorists’ work. There is a theological version of this meritocracy, yet in the Chapters on Prayer the fourth-century monk Evagrius Ponticus held that “If you pray truly, you are a theologian.” Kurek implicitly embraces this maxim: true musicians sing, listen, play and, at their best, pray. This is where renewal begins. Introducing young students to good music is a way to start.