Reflections on faith and art – Addicted to Melancholy: Life as a Major Seventh Chord

The impossibly orange morning sky mocks my melancholy and seeks to repeal my commitment to a sober day. The feathered fingers of precocious light embroider a morning otherwise condemned to generous helpings of over-thinking and under-living. Like passive-aggression to a psyche better suited to hiding than fighting, I brace myself for the full welcome of morning and, coffee in hand, steep in my self-righteous adherence to less than full inclusion in the happy chatter. If another somber, artsy day of writing and pain-mining was truly what I was after, then why the open laptop at the center table of my local Starbucks? Dear God, am I becoming “that guy”- the artsy, Mac-toting, liberal coffee snob?

at the coffee shop

Those like me are typically well-versed in the finer points of self-pity and overwrought, dilapidated prisons of Freudian fear wed to Jungian collective consciousness, albeit devoid of the intended mutuality to which it points (or much consciousness for that matter, either). The artistic temperament, housed in most musicians, writers, painters and the like, excels at emotional dumpster diving for those occasional jewels found at the bottom of a whole lot of shit. For some strange reason, it contributes to the creative process, for me at least. The smelly job of wading through my fly infested felch gives a certain twisted pleasure if the reward is a gleaming bit of writing or lyric or melody.

Even as I write these words I can’t help thinking to myself, is it any wonder type-As generally hate guys like me?! Growing up, I was that kinerdsd who was either so preoccupied with his own swirling world of imagination that I could just as easily walk into walls as find my desk or whose swashbuckling stories of whim and woe – many of them stolen – regaled whatever girl was most likely to buy into it. In fact, a gift with words (my parents and friends called it bullshit) from an early age made finding friends an easy task, especially girls. This was not because I was particularly good-looking but more so because I was a skilled navigator of whatever self-projections were the most captivating. One might say I was a bit like a buzzard who scavenged tidbits of social detritus suitable to any given moment but who prettied them up with the fineries of clever, droll turns of phrase.

There’s a problem with this however. It has meant that a pleasant, even-tempered melancholy, peppered liberally with witty banter instead of good, old-fashioned hard work and embracing failures, have propped up my life artificially. I’m smart enough to have talked my way out of being wise. And now, at nearly 50, I realize just how little I really know; how little I’ve truly lived. It would have been better to shut-up until I actually had something worthwhile to say!

Now, lest I begin wallowing in self-pity and regret, let me assure you that this demeanor, although prevalent, is not an entirely accurate picture of my modus operandi. I suppose the most apt metaphor I can find for my life is that of the Major Seventh chord.

The Major Seventh chord is non-definitive, unlike the Dominant Seventh chord that pushes its way around until it gets what it wants: resolution. The Dominant Seventh chord is the spoiled child that has never had a need go unmet. Ever. And we get to hear about it regularly and insistently. It needs ground zero to be happy and is pissed off when it must hang around for any length of time without that resolution. It’s like the guy standing at the urinal but forgetting to put stuff away before walking out of the restroom. It’s unsightly, largely unnecessary (unless you’re from Australia) and, well, kinda stupid.

In musical terms, the Major Seventh chord has a raised seventh degree of the scale. She has moved past the standard seventh to a higher plane of consciousness less impacted by the need to settle everything but still yearning after something else. It is still built on a good foundation of a root, followed by a strong and happy major third, and another minor third on top of that. All the building blocks are in place to produce something of strength and beauty. To add the seventh is to add something uncertain, even unstable. The number of notes begins to feel crowded like too many people on a bus after taco night at the pub. Something has to give.

The Dominant Seventh says, in essence, fuck you, this is my show and you bloody well better serve up my demands for a trip back to home plate. The Major Seventh chord has a higher sensibility about it. She never demands anything. She suggests something, something angst ridden and indefinable. Her top note signifies searching, longing. The seventh note of an eight-note diatonic scale is what musicians call a leading tone because it’s leading us back “home” wherever “home” happens to be. However, in her case, there is a kind of contentment with the in-between liminality of a bossy Dominant and a restful Tonic. A quaint story of dubious origin tells of Mozart’s father, Leopold who, in his final attempt to get Wolfie out of bed, went to the piano and played the first seven notes of a diatonic scale, leaving it unresolved. Within seconds, feet were heard flying down the stairs to play the final note. To a musician, it’s a sin akin to lighting the curtains on fire and then walking away.major 7 chord

Major Seventh chords practically defined the 1970s’ Adult Contemporary music scene. Artists such as Bread, America, Gordon Lightfoot and Don MacLean built entire careers on them. They’re perfect for songs about lover’s triangles with the loser singing. They reek of the melancholy I’m so in love with.

And that is my point. Those of us condemned to live in the spongy greyness of our own articisms can ill afford too fine a definition of who we are. We don’t want to be too pinned down, boxed up or, God forbid, understood. And yet, deep within, there remains a fervent longing for just that: to be known, heard, experienced. If I am to find my best self, I’ll have to settle for the delicate balance of sadness and hope enshrined in the Major Seventh chord. It is life in the rain, an honest addiction to melancholy.

Frankly, it has served me well.

15 thoughts on “Reflections on faith and art – Addicted to Melancholy: Life as a Major Seventh Chord

  1. John Decker

    Well, the Psalms are full of those unresolved chords – in fact one researcher stated that two thirds of them are wintry in tone, so you have plenty of company and loads of precedent. What’s different is that the ancient writers apparently didn’t make a cottage industry of melancholy. That was left for more northerly peoples, especially the Germans. In a particularly delightful bilingual play on words, the Dutch word for Germany, Duitsland, when properly pronounced sounds exactly like “Doubtsland.” My wife’s friend is a novelist and she knows very well that publishers won’t take an interest in what she writes unless it’s “dark.” Germanic, in other words. That’s what’s new – elevating melancholy to a new standard, the sine qua non for literary expression, and banishing anything that’s brighter as having no intellectual value. We Christians need to avoid that like the plague.

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  2. John, some salient points here; and “cottage industry of melancholy….” Ha! Let’s say that hits close to home! I can only hope that the off-center tongue in cheek quality of the piece doesn’t somehow lend credence to a prima facie sadness as somehow archetypal. Finding a locus for such things in merely ethnic terms is interesting although perhaps a bit limiting overall. In general I’m a pretty happy guy but with a proclivity toward the grayish-ness of melancholy (not sadness, which is different) for what it’s worth. I must confess that our own American demand for happy-happy joy-joy is not only counter-intuitive for a fully biblical personhood but is perhaps just as damaging to our human psyche as any addiction to melancholy.

    Excellent points and, thanks for jumping in, John!

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  3. John Decker

    Here’s someone who was a creative artist and who deliberately put a melancholy spin on his life and his works: John Dowland, the Elizabethan composer. His motto: “Semper Dowland, semper dolens.” You can hear it in much of his lute music.

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    1. Love the music of Dowland. Another artist addicted to melancholy, Sting, did an entire album of Dowland lute music with a cool “Stingishness” about it. It’s also why I love the Romantic era so much more than the Classical, which was so shiny, happy by comparison to the overly lush and generally over-stated tonal sophistication of the Romantic era. My favorite Christmas carols are invariably in minor keys. But I really am fun to be around. Honest!

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  4. John Decker

    In much of the generic Germanic world, note how nervous the consuming public becomes regarding a genuine, whole-hearted belly laugh just for its own sake. The example that comes to mind is Wagner’s only comedy, die Meistersinger von Nuernberg, where a mildly gloomy prelude to Act III was needed to provide a sense that this was a ‘legitimate’ piece of high art, in contrast to those airhead Italian operas where Rosina and Guiseppe spend two hours, as they flirt, trying to pull the wool over the eyes of their brothers, sisters, parents, aunts or uncles, accompanied by frothy music.
    Not only the gloomy prelude, but that Richard Wagner seemed to feel that his opera needed a dose of lecturing the audience on aesthetic morals, as when the wise father figure of the opera, Hans Sachs, informs young Walther on what true art is: “All poetry and literature is but the interpretation of dreams.” blah, blah, blah, and many more sentiments that make an already-long scene excessively long
    When Christians get together, you see this a lot too, the organizers of events fearing lest the participants have TOO much undisciplined, light-hearted fun.

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    1. John, how painfully true of big Dick Wagner (what we called him at the Conservatory). As wonderful as his music is it has the smell about it of “you know, we really should laugh, albeit in an orderly and contained fashion, if only to prove to the world that the great Germanic people are capable of anything, and that so much better than anyone else.” The irony of it is that the lieder of Schubert, Schumann, Hugo Wolf among others is so chock-a-block full of the typically lush romanticisms that graced the era. I have yet to sing all the way through Schumann’s “Mondnacht” or Schubert’s “Du bist die ruh” without tearing up. They are utterly remarkable and powerfully evocative pieces. Laugher? Not so much. Passion? Uh huh.

      Now, Faure, Debussy and those of the French persuasion seem to portray an ease with lighter fare and love literature that fits nicely our caricatures of French society. But, they’re really no more “romantic” and certainly no more funny or amusing than anything by their friends to the northeast.

      Let’s leave all that to Malcolm Sargent and Mozart. They can be the master buffoons around which we can laugh, sing, dance and make movies.

      Thanks for your incredible comments, John!

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  5. John Decker

    In 2010, I responded to what I thought were serious loopholes in Renovare’s repertoire – namely failure to appeal much to young adults (late teens, early 20s) and failure to use fiction as a tool, and I created a work of fiction called BETSY’S ARM, which is the story of seven not-hugely-outstanding people ranging in age from 16 to about 52, who form a basic Renovare group, then go through the nine basic weeks using the yellow workbook, and then keep going on to other spiritual adventures. I worked hard to make this work reek of everyday life in the modern U.S.A. The 2 bedrock characters, the hero (and narrator) and heroine, make the transition during the action in the narrative between senior year of high school and first year of full time study at the state university.

    I used some of the conventions of YA (young adult) fiction, but I added doses of what has never been seen before in any work of fiction, namely the interactions of 7 people in a Renovare spiritual formation group. Only through fiction can such interactions be related, even in part, because the spiritual formation group by definition is closed and confidential.

    BETSY’S ARM is now an inexpensive work available on Amazon Kindle. I hope it can help people of a certain age group where we now have very little representation – just check our Facebook members and you’ll see that’s true – and also people who find that just about everything that’s really meaningful to them comes through fiction. In modern North America there are an awful lot of people like that, so simply pumping out 10 to 15 Renovare-related titles every year, no matter how high the quality, won’t help them!

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  6. John, this is most fascinating. I will definitely check into that. I live in a town that thought it more important to host an annual county fair than enjoy the gazillion benefits of a 4 year college, but alas, it’s not about me (well, that’s what I tell people anyway). As such, there is a decided dearth of fresh minds and souls into which a person like me might otherwise invest himself. I miss those interactions. I love where we live, no mistake. But I have always loved the hearty tete-a-tetes available with folks in this particular age group.

    Hence my interest in your project. Kudos, my friend and God’s rich blessing on this and whatever future creative ventures you may undertake.

    Peace, R

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    1. Sir, I’m afraid I have yet to enter the mysterious world of e-books and Kindle. At this point I am still old school when it comes to books; something that probably needs to be addressed soon if only for minimizing the ridiculous amount of space my books are taking up. I would be honored to receive the file.

      Many thanks, John…R

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