Sunday, April 22, 2007

Festival of Faith & Music 2007:
The Collective Spirit of God, Art, & Anathallo

“God cares about the details of senseless beauty, and He encourages us to care also,” said Lauren Winner in her keynote address that opened the 2007 Festival of Faith & Music at Calvin College. Winner bases this comment on Exodus 31-32 where God directs the Israelites in the most intricate, non-utilitarian aspects of creating the tabernacle. It is where we see God as artist enlisting His people as fellow craftsmen.

Winner’s words reminded the FFM audience of 1300 that the arts have always been a central part of what we do in the Church. “We sing, listen to live music, read poetry,” in some cases dance, and there is also drama—skits and the liturgy itself.

Senseless beauty in the hands of God’s craftsmen. That is an apt description of the FFM Friday night concert featuring Sufjan Stevens and Anathallo. Both performances communicated more than the mere lyrics, and a good portion of what is communicated is an undefined, non-utilitarian, overwhelming truth of the beauty of God’s world and gifts of life we experience.

It’s no wonder that Anathallo’s workshop at the Festival of Faith & Music was titled “Creation & Communication in a Band Twice the Size of Yours.” Their Festival performance shows the collective nature of their music.

Besides the fact the Anathallo themselves are an eight member troupe, guitar/vocalist Matt Joynt’s brother-in-law arranged the songs for a twelve member trombone choir from Northern Michigan University. The stage was alive with music—action, rhythm, art, spirit, and collaboration.

When the band took the stage, there was a huge response as Anathallo formed at the nearby Central Michigan University and grew as band by playing at Calvin. In fact, they give much credit to Calvin’s Ken Heffner, Student Activities Director and guide of FFM; on stage, Joynt called Heffner their “Father Goose.”

In reaction to the warm greeting from the crowd, Anathallo delivered a nearly hour-long set which envelopes the listener from many different aural angles while also presenting a dizzyingly intoxicating visual art as the eight members slide from instrument to instrument. They exhibit the joy of throwing yourself into performing—attacking their instruments, doing a whole band shudder on a musical breakdown, and unfolding like flowers for a ballet-like flourish.

Musically, Anathallo owes a lot to Sufjan Stevens with their orchestral broad strokes, Beach Boys background singing, a Carpenters-like 70’s sheen, and the love of horns. There also complicated rhythmic patterns leading to stomps and something akin to the Squirrel Nut Zippers. False stops, dying horns, buzzing trombone mouthpieces, hand clapping to punch out the rhythm combinations.

As the songs shift, take shape, fall apart into apparent chaos, and grow to huge places without a clear sense of pop song structure, you might be tempted to thing that the whole thing is an exercise in improvisation—throwing up a bunch of sound and seeing what sticks. However, the benefit of this live performance was seeing the conductor directing the trombone choir. His presence signaled that this was far from chaos. While Anathallo certainly creates music from a collective spirit that rises up each individual’s offerings in the mix, this is not some aimless spirit. Anathallo crafts this process may lead us wandering down dead ends, shortcuts, circling back paths, and running wild across fields, but the band is our tour guide. They know where they want to take us, and this tour bus does not break down.

The tour often finds its destination in senseless beauty where a listener stands seeing the intricate, meaningless details of God’s temple in the world—a temple wrought of song, rhythm, sounds, movement, and words. This is not didactic; this is experiential—and the experience is a reminder that despite our fallen “floating world,” God did indeed declare His Creation to be good. There are still those marks of God’s goodness today.

Thanks to Anathallo for the review CD. The Anathallo picture is © 2007 Nicole Rork.