Tension and Resolution

February 1, 2020

“I never liked jazz music because jazz music doesn’t resolve. . . I used to not like God because God didn’t resolve. But that was before any of this happened.”

– Donald Miller, Blue Like Jazz

I love this quote, although it’s not quite accurate. Jazz does resolve, just not when and/or how the listener often initially expects it to. What do we mean when we say a piece of music “resolves”? Think of it as “returning home”. Take any piece of western music that you enjoy, listen to the beginning, and then skip forward and listen to the end. Hear how the two ends of the song fit together? In the middle of the song all sorts of things will happen to move you away from the feel of the opening, but by the time you get to the end, you feel like you are home again. (Music theory nerds have a more technical explanation but we don’t need to get technical just yet.) Also, even in the midst of the song, there will be little moments of the music moving away from home and then back toward home. There are chords that are more dissonant, that make you yearn for “resolution”, and the satisfying feel when the phrase comes back to the root chord. Likewise, individual notes in the melody will sometimes do funny, unexpected things, but they will always come back to the expected and familiar.

This pattern of tension and release exists in all music. What makes jazz special in this regard is that often in a piece of jazz the tension is followed not by release but by a new level of tension. Layer after layer gets built up so that sometimes the listener isn’t just yearning to go back home, but has in fact lost track of where home even was to begin with. Perhaps one of the most famous jazz performances to powerfully demonstrate this is John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps”. I’m listening to it now. Go ahead and look it up on Spotify or Youtube or somewhere and listen along with me, if you like. Hear that tension? Listen to it build and shift. Like it’s never going to resolve. Coltrane is deliberately messing with your musical intuition.

Some people don’t like jazz. That’s fine. Some jazz makes some people uncomfortable. It can be confusing to listen to. It doesn’t satisfy the way a lot of other musical forms do. But for me, that’s part of what I like about it. It’s messy, and complicated, and doesn’t go where you expect, and doesn’t give you everything you want when you want it, and yet it still makes a subtle kind of sense. It’s like life: full of ambiguity, complication, and patterns you think you can almost comprehend that then slip out of your mental grasp, daring you to go chasing after them again. Jazz is postmodern in this sense.

But good jazz does resolve. It just takes longer. Again, like life.

All of life, in fact, is a sequence of tension and release, over and over again, nested within larger sequences of tension and release, all the way up and down the scale. This is expressed to us in the Word many times over. The very first story in Genesis is a story of six days of labor and one day of rest: tension, then release. The book of Revelation taken as a whole is a persistent ratcheting up of tension, followed by the grand resolution of the Holy City New Jerusalem. Prophecy is followed by fulfillment. Crucifixion by resurrection.

Great storytelling is all about building dramatic tension, and then resolving it in some way that provides a cathartic release. Joke writing uses the “rule of three”: a joke is two statements that create a pattern and an expectation followed by a third statement that forces the listener to reevaluate that expectation in a sudden and surprising way. Magic tricks do the same thing.

The interaction of muscles and bones that allow humans and animals to move about the world is, boiled down to its abstract form, tension and release. Feel the next breath you take in, sensing the tension in your diaphragm, followed naturally by the exhale of release and relaxation of the body. During childbirth, the expectant mother experiences waves of contractions, interspersed with small breaks–Sabbaths, if you will–leading to a final resolution: new life. Tension and release are everywhere.

Many people prefer rest over labor, peace over combat, victory over temptation, resolution over tension, answers over questions. But sometimes there is value in lingering in the tension. Dwelling in the ambiguity of it all. Becoming comfortable with uncertainty. Being uncomfortable, and just noting that discomfort and allowing it to be.

Likewise, while the Word contains the Lord’s divine Truth, you still often may feel some discomfort while reading it. Occasionally, it may feel like you are experiencing a little dissonance. Yes, there are parts that are unambiguous, powerful in their clarity; and yes, feeling certainty around the important truths of the universe is a powerful and useful experience. But the promise to the New Church is that it is now permitted to “enter into” the mysteries of faith with understanding–which is not to say that we should expect to see it all clearly from start to finish. The Heavenly Doctrines do not fully banish all mystery, but rather illuminate it. The finite human mind often struggles to fully comprehend spiritual matters, although at the very least, it can with guidance at least discern the truth of them. It may all be comprehensible at some point, on some level, but not all of it right now. The Word contains an infinite depth of truth that will take you an eternity to unfold.

We are meant to strive for resolution, and not endlessly dwell in tension. But the tension is there for the sake of moving us forward to the next resolution. Maybe life right now around you feels complicated, dissonant, or unresolved. And that can be uncomfortable. But trust that there’s a Master Composer, and He knows where He’s taking it. And maybe take a moment to step back, and appreciate the tension, knowing that even if you can’t see it from here, you’re being led to a resolution. The route may be an unexpected one, but the Lord is still bringing you home.

Mac Frazier, 2020-01-28

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