Smooth wood nestles between my fingers; a sharp edge scores my knees; elegant fretwork and crenellated shadows delight my eyes, lifting me up from the superficial towards the Divine. The first strikes of the hammers produce a whisper-like chiming that insulates me ever more from the technosterility of being human in the 21st-century of a highly technology-driven society. As my left hand settles into the rolling drone, the resonance of the strings works its way into my body and mind both upwards via my fingers and downwards via the soundbox on my knees. As the music begins to take up every available bit of space in my mind and body, I am released from the ordinary, free to soar to the very heart of the universe. Through the sacred doorway of music tapped out on a non-chromatic souvenir of the medieval crusades, I stumble into the center of that energy that produces meaning out of the mundane: I stumble into the heart of Divine Love itself.
Here in this experience that is neither truly space nor truly time, the Garden of Eden is restored, and the human once again becomes one with the Divine. I am transported here by the sympathetic vibrations coursing through my oversized psaltery and jolting my entire being into harmony with the thrumming life of the air around me. How strange that I, a vocalist, should need a soundbox and strings and hammers in my hands to align myself so perfectly with the vibrations of the cosmos. The pulsing of my vocal cords, the tension in my shoulders, the fullness in my lungs, and the subconscious control over my muscles should be sufficient to make me sense my oneness with the Divine each time I draw breath and release it as melody. But perhaps I take the very ordinary experience of singing for granted. Perhaps it is the anything-but-ordinary antiquity of the instrument resting in my lap that shocks me into recognizing the spark of Divinity within me and around me, a spark that binds all of Creation lovingly into one joyous dance. Or perhaps the shock lies not in the uniqueness of the instrument itself, but in the uniqueness of purpose represented by it.
This particular piece of technology – the musical instrument whose modern English name bears within it the designation of sweetness – exists not to provide a layer of insulation between its user and the rest of the natural world, but to draw the user squarely into the center of that world. All musical instruments – especially those that function without the benefit of a power cord and a wall outlet – serve such a purpose, of course. But it is this sweet instrument, with its unapologetic refusal to fit neatly into the world of well-groomed orchestration and orderly modern Western scales, that opens my eyes most clearly to the humble, yet mighty, purpose of musical technology. Namely, this instrument reminds us that humans, like all other life on the planet, are made from the dust of our sister, Mother Earth, and will unto that dust return.
How absurd do we thus make ourselves in our attempts to dominate our environment and distance ourselves from it. Musical technology – and my oversized psaltery in particular – laughingly tells us to stop being ridiculous and to come home to the messy, uncertain, sometimes sorrowful, sometimes painful, but always very real and unfailingly Divine experience of life.
This is a bizarre and unprecedented use of technology in 21st-century America, where we are inundated with communications devices which ensure that we need never actually engage in a real act of communion / communication with another human being. We are inundated with labor-saving devices, modes of transportation, and climate-control apparatuses which lull us into the belief that we have conquered Mother Nature and put her squarely in her place. We are inundated with food processing techniques which make us forget the bounty of the earth and the perils of ravaging it. We are inundated with philosophies, theologies, and medical technologies which dazzle us into believing that we can conquer pain, fear, insignificance and even death itself. The so-called inevitable advance of progress has technologized human existence into a cold and hollow, but neatly controlled, sterility that cleanly cuts us off from the messiness, uncertainty, pain, sorrow, and even death that is lived by everything else on the planet, including the planet itself. The so-called inevitable advance of progress has largely abandoned craftsmanship and artistic variation in favor of sleek and shiny, but bland, mass production. The so-called inevitable advance of progress has normalized a culture that takes without returning and without seeing consequences. The so-called inevitable advance of progress has – perhaps – made us something less than human. Yet the plodding technology of musical instruments that have been left lying unnoticed in the dust of the digital age still hold the awesome power to bring us home.
Let us start the journey homewards – home to a time of blessed one-ness with all of God’s goodness – through music! Sing! Dance! Clap your hands! Listen to music! Tap out a note or two on a keyboard instrument, or pluck the string of a string instrument whenever you can! And as you go about your everyday day, using the wide array of 21st-century technology that has become commonplace, pray a prayer of thoughtful technology use – a prayer that helps you use technology in the quest to express – rather than eradicate – the unique, joyful, and joyfully Divine experience of being human.