The Wood Remembers

My daughter recently began violin lessons, and her mother and I are very excited about this. She has actually wanted to play for a while, much to my delight, and she has a fantastic teacher whose enthusiasm, skill, and creativity mesh together to make my daughter even more into it than before (if that is possible). Of course there is some of the beginner squeaking and scratching going on, but I can honestly already imagine the sounds growing solid, maturing, filling out, glowing warm and vibrant off the strings, singing high haunting notes, resonating through the wood, filling my home.

Anyone who has played violin or has any interest in violin music knows or has heard that the most famous, most coveted violins in the world have the name Stradivarius. I don’t really know much at all about violins, but I have heard the name Stradivarius. Though the rightful preeminence of these violins is disputed by some, the name alone has become short hand for excellence, quality, and a legacy of beautiful sound. Because of the weight of glory that follows the name, many studies have been done both to the materials the instruments are made of and built with as well as various analyses of the sounds they make. While there doesn’t seem to be any conclusive results from these investigations, the legendary status lives on.

One theory, however, is that violins are actually like fine wines. There are certain ingredients that go into making quality, but there is also an aging process. While wines age in bottles sealed off from the outside air, allowing the chemicals to slowly develop and climax, this theory suggests that violins are aged by their environments, and this includes their sonic environments, the sounds they make. In other words, the idea is that violins grow up into the cumulation of all the notes and melodies and harmonies, from the first scratchy sounds to the bold and fierce notes of concertos and everything in between.

Diane Ackerman writes:

Certain vibrations over and over for years, along with all the normal processes of aging, could make microscopic changes in the wood; we perceive those cellular changes as enriched tone. In poetic terms: The wood remembers. Thus, part of a master violinist’s duties is to educate the violin for future generations. (A Natural History of the Senses, 204)

The thought that inanimate objects are being trained for glory and beauty is fascinating, but that really shouldn’t be surprising. Songs are not merely momentary events; songs stay with us. Music continues to resonate long after the performance or concert has ended. Like the embers of a fire hours old, there’s musical warmth still convecting through the air, through our bodies, in our bones and memories, through families, communities, nations, generations. Nothing truly beautiful, really good is ever really lost. It diffuses in the air, but it continues to echo in the world, appearing and reappearing, motifs and refrains and choruses forgotten and remembered again.

That’s all the kind of thing to make a fine documentary, but God has spoken this world. Or better, as Nate Wilson has put it, God is still speaking this world. God is breathing out, blowing on the instrument of this world, dragging the bow of the cross of Jesus over this world stretched like strings between the past and future, hung between joy and sorrow, impaled in the trials of the present. But God is not merely singing a song for us; He’s not merely playing a melody for now, for today. He’s been working on a song that spans centuries, millennia. He’s educating all of creation for the glory He has imagined; He’s tuning this world for a song we haven’t yet fully heard.

Faith is simply believing that this is true and beginning to live and act accordingly. Faith is listening through the scratching, discordant sounds of everyday life and hearing the symphony they will age into. Faith smiles at the present because the Spirit brings with Him the song begun at creation, the victory announced at the cross, and the peace proclaimed in the resurrection of Christ. It’s a song that is coursing down through the ages, a song full of certain vibrations over and over again, making microscopic changes to the material of this world. God is making a Strativarius. God is aging this world to its perfectly enriched tone. The wood remembers.

But this also means that there is profound meaning and significance for what we do and say and sing. What are you training your body for? What sounds are coursing through your body, what words, tones, notes, rhythms are making microscopic changes on you and your family, your community, your church? Are you playing that violin like a fiddle? Are you settling for the scratching noises? You are an instrument being trained to make beautiful sounds. You are meant to be filled with the Spirit-Wind of God. You are the creation of a Master Maker. You are made of wood, meant to age, meant to mature, meant to play a part in the symphony of creation.

  1. Ken Stott November 26

    Hello Toby,
    I have really enjoy reading your blog over the years. We have been friends on FB for some time and I follow your post. You may not remember my name but, I have played for dances a couple of times for your church group when you lived near Greer. Those dances were some of my fondest memories.

    I’m a little confused by your comments below,
    “Are you playing that violin like a fiddle? Are you settling for the scratching noises? ”

    Has something happened in the Kingdom to diminish and separate a well trained violinist from the common folk fiddlers appreciation for a tune meant for worship?

    Thanks for taking my comments.

    Ken Stott

    • Hi Ken, I do remember you and those dances! Thanks for the comment.

      Good question, and I probably could have stated it more clearly. The point was only to encourage excellence in all that we do. Of course there is an “excellence” worth pursuing in common folk tunes and fiddling, and we definitely need more of it. Same thing goes for guitars and harmonicas. But our culture tends to settle for less than excellence oftentimes. Or we take gifts that might be used for great glory and trade them in for something more mundane. Nothing wrong with simple, common, mundane stuff. There’s a place for it. But we ought to also want to see excellence in every arena. There’s certainly a place for a folk tune driven by a joyful fiddle, but if we stop there, if that’s all we do, we may be stopping short of the full range of glory God has for us. I hope that helps!

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