Gloria Gaither was so intrigued after reading Aaron Robinson’s book, Does God Sing?, that it became the theme for our entire March/April 2014 issue — an exploration of God, music and the universe of creation!
GLORIA GAITHER: Give us a quick thumbnail sketch of all the things you’ve done. You started out as a kid who loved music, but then you have just done … everything! How did one thing lead to the other?.
AARON ROBINSON: I grew up in a Nazarene church, very steeped in traditional gospel music, revivalist, Evangelical, and that hit me quite quickly as a child, even though I didn’t take piano lessons — I didn’t study music at all. It wasn’t until my teenage years that I discovered Scott Joplin and early jazz — especially ragtime. We had this old piano, and I taught myself how to play it, around age 16 or 17. People say it’s luck or fortune, but it’s an absolute blessing that from then on, I went to theater, and then went to study composition and film scoring in Boston … I had my spoon in so many different soups. I appreciated that different styles of music weren’t really that far from each other. The music that I had started with — the hymns from the Nazarene church—were very close to what I was playing from the 1890s and the popular songs of America, which then led into early Broadway, which led into rock ‘n’ roll and swing. It just seemed to be this one big tree in which everybody wanted to climb out on a branch and make that their own.
GLORIA: That is very interesting, because I think many great musicians, no matter what style of music, had their roots in the church, and that is true in black gospel, jazz, R&B. All of those come from that basic structure and those emotional chords that take advantage of the classic rules of theory. Theory is just, over centuries, the rules that have emerged from what is pleasant to the human aesthetic.
AARON: That is exactly it; you’ve put it into words beautifully. People who study this say that the rules came after the fact. This is nature, this is natural, and there is something about a certain chord change and a turn that just speaks to me. Your songs with your husband, especially! There’s that certain turn that always happens, after that beginning is said and sung, that just speaks to me.
GLORIA: Bill grew up in the Nazarene church, and if you ask him what moved him musically as a young boy, it so parallels your story. They had a man in their church by the name of Alvie Little, and he had that “heart ability” to think of exactly the right song for exactly the right time. Fortunately, it was a church where people were free to sing or to testify or to participate. So, when the service was particularly sweet or there was a testimony that was particularly moving, Alvie would start a song. That is what Bill does to this day — starts the right song for the right circumstance. He is a walking encyclopedia of possibilities, and concerts change from night to night.
Anyway, I was so impressed as I began to read your book. Tell me, though, was there that one experience, in which you first knew that God speaks in music?
AARON: This book came out of an illness. I fell ill in 2006 and struggled with it for about three years while I still performed 80 or 90 hours a week. The illness just ravaged me completely — spirit, body, mind — everything. I don’t know whether or not I can actually pinpoint the time when I climbed up on a mountain and heard the voice of God and knew it. It was, for me, almost like a rock being smoothed down by water over a period of time. It was not a big, crashing wave from which I all of a sudden came up for air and it was done, it was over. I look back on all of those times, and find where God was reaching His finger down, and I was just lying there saying, “What more do you want from me? This can’t be me, and this shouldn’t be me.” But you look back and say, my goodness, this wasn’t just a one-time event. Being a small child in the Nazarene church, listening to four-part harmony, a cappella gospel, is one thing; but then years later, in my 30s, being completely changed by a woman singing “He Touched Me”? … I think my whole life has probably been that “one moment,” and I never get tired of thinking that God was singing to me and that music was God.
In knowing your music with Bill, there are more times that I read your songs rather than listen to your songs, because I’m instantly attracted to the melodies that Bill writes, but I lose a little bit of what the message is if I get caught up in that music. Many times, I just pull up your archives of lyrics and read them. Many times, we sing things and never even listen to what we’re singing until a moment snaps us into the words. I often wish people would read songs more than listen to them, because the words are so … you can find anything about your life in words of someone who’s lived it themselves. And of course, the writers of the great hymns … if people would just read those words, as they do poetry, it would be a great addition.
GLORIA: Music style has changed; the wrapper has always changed, and it’s no big deal. But if the wrapper doesn’t hold some content … it is the content that throws us a lifeline. If we throw people music that has no content, because we’re voting totally on style, I fear that generations to come won’t get what has rescued you, as in your story of “It Is Well with My Soul.”
AARON: Right. I always ask people to listen to “It Is Well” — the Gaither one — because the harmony is so precise and rich. And then, David Phelps does this wonderful rendition, but it’s that opening four-part harmony that just moves people to the point of tears. I don’t even know if someone could sit down and define or analyze why physical sound could actually create that in a person, but it’s amazing to me that music is always there.
When we celebrate someone’s life at a funeral, we choose music; when we celebrate a birth or wedding, we choose music. It’s just an amazing phenomenon to me.
You have to ask yourself: “Are we all channels? Are we all tuning forks? Are we all some instrument?”
GLORIA: I love your chapter on the tuning fork; explain how you touch the fork to a student’s head and make that sound come through the child’s head…
AARON: (Laughing) Well, it has to be a large tuning fork, and it’s very faint, but once you strike a large tuning fork, it really can resonate anywhere, at any time. And it always seems to work that when they open their mouth, the tuning fork actually sounds. And I teach this to my choirs: Many cultures resort to humming for keeping their body in tune, and humming correctly. Often people close their mouths, tighten everything up and hum into their nose, which doesn’t really resonate into the body. I honestly believe that music can heal quite a lot more than just the soul and the mind; it actually can heal the body because it’s a physical vibration. Our bodies are open to receiving vibrations and sounds. And so, with that tuning fork, it allows them to realize that they are the resonating chamber that receives that sound. It’s a good starting lesson that maybe they can look back on and say, “Well, if it was just physical sound that was passing through, what about other things that aren’t physical sound — such as being open to God and being open to possibilities and opportunities and experiences?”
GLORIA: If the string theorists in physics turn out to be right, that indeed the smallest form of matter is a vibrating sound wave, then you are exactly onto something, as music therapists have believed for a long time. That if you are sick, you’re out of tune with yourself … that your vibrating sound waves that are matter have gotten out of tune, so then you’re physically, emotionally, spiritually somehow sick.
So, your tuning fork is not just a metaphor, but it is right in tune with the question, which would be, What is the universal tuning fork? And it would have to be the original sound. So it makes John 1 totally different — “In the beginning was the Word…”
AARON: I know, I know! And what if that word were sung?
GLORIA: You know it was! There are so many scriptures that talk about how God sings over us or His creation reverberating with His words. As you have explored all these areas of music — all different kinds of music — it’s really interesting that that has been the focus of your teaching.
AARON: Yes, and to just sum up all that for me — I am so sad at how the world has tried to shut out so much of that vibration. When I go into a city, the first thing I think about when I put my feet on that ground is — it’s not even ground, it’s concrete — is that I am hundreds and hundreds of feet away from any soil, any earth at all. I’m on concrete; there’s nothing that’s going to get through this; there’s no song of the earth that’s going to come up from walking through a field — there’s nothing. Everything is so tight, and there are so many people who are sick and pale, and not in tune with what is around them, which is, I believe, a song of life.
GLORIA: That is, I think, one of the reasons why so many children are in trouble, not just in the cities, but people who never learn to listen to nature… And I agree, I think there’s nothing to tune us; there’s no tuning fork.
AARON: That’s a great quote; there’s nothing to tune us. I love that! That’s wonderful!
GLORIA: Well, needless to say, I really am taken with your book and with getting to know you. You have hit so many nerves in this about whether God sings … and He sings all the time, He sings all around us — if we can find these little moments when that can break through. And He’s so persistent; I love the image of the Father God in the Michelangelo painting of the creation of Adam, but your comment is that God is reaching farther. He’s reaching farther, and we barely lift our finger.
AARON: (Laughing) Exactly. I don’t know why no one else has pointed out that analogy from the painting, but that was the first thing I saw — with the little cherubs holding Him back, because He was gonna fall since He was reaching so far.
GLORIA: And His love, thankfully, keeps on reaching, right past the shackles of our minds. Blessings on you, and thank you for this. We’re looking forward to June, when you come to be with us for the Songwriter’s Intensive; that will be such a joy.
AARON: And to you as well, and I look forward to seeing you in person.