Ask Jim: New Age tranquilizers, sharks, and thin places


In this post, I answer three questions a musician might be asked;  and explain how God mysteriously rescued a man on a life-raft, surrounded by sharks.

How would listeners describe your music?

Solo pianists like Liz Story, George Winston, Lyle Mays, or Keith Jarrett have shaped my approach to solo piano.  So listeners who enjoy those artists might resonate with my albums. 

Listeners graciously use words like "reflective," "contemplative," or "peaceful;" yet I'm never consciously setting out to create those results:  I'm just trying to craft a song -  like a sculptor chipping away the excess marble to reveal the statue waiting underneath.  

I try to create solo piano pieces that resonate emotionally in a way that doesn't leave listeners feeling like they've just been hit with a "New Age" tranquilizer gun.   In other words, my hope is that the music is accessible without being trite, reflective without repetitive droning, and emotive without being drippy or overly sentimental. Music isn't a sedative or numbing agent, it's nutrition.  

Jim's newest CD,  Only Two Things .

Jim's newest CD, Only Two Things.

Describe your sound and approach to music.

I like to compose in a way that allows the resonance, harmonics and dynamics of a great piano to shimmer.  The space between the notes allows the music to breathe and resonate. 

I'll also often leave room in a composition for some kind of improvised element, even within a determined song structure. Otherwise, the song becomes too predictable and rigid for me.  However, the improvised elements can't stray so far that the composition loses focus, either. 

Composers are often asked, "Do you come up with an idea first, then develop it; or do ideas surface spontaneously and fluidly?"  For me, it's both.  Some songs, for example, "Bozeman Waltz" on my newest CD, had a more specific structure that I developed and refined.  I knew I wanted a 3/4 time feel and even tempo. Yet, other pieces, like the title track, "Only Two Things," arose spontaneously as I was improvising at the piano, and the piece unfolded in a more fluid and unplanned fashion.


What do you think is the most important thing you are contributing musically?

I want my solo piano music to create what the ancients called, "Thin Places" - hallowed locations where it is said that Heaven and Earth converge.  These intersections or spots were usually located in wild, lonely places in nature where the veil between Heaven and Earth was said to be so "thin" that the two worlds merged and intersected, one flowing into the other.  Music can reveal "thin places."

One of the tracks on my newest CD is even called, "Thin Places."  My hope is that the songs can be a vehicle for creating, or unmasking, "thin places;"  so that the intersection of Heaven and Earth can occur anywhere:  At your office desk, in your favorite reading chair, or on a lonely highway.

The visitation
I remember reading Laura Hillenbrand's, Unbroken, a brutal account about Louie Zamperini, the WWII airman whose plane crashed in the vast Pacific thousands of miles from the nearest land.  Sharks were raking their backs along the bottom of his small life raft; and his starving body was literally eating itself to death in an effort to survive. 

On day 40 adrift at sea, Louie suddenly sat up.  He had heard something.  And saw something: Above him in the clouds were 21 figures...singing to him.  The two other men in the boat heard and saw nothing.  This was not a hallucination:  Louie felt absolutely alert and lucid.  As Louie continued to listen, he noticed he was drawn in by the song's melody and found that he had memorized it as he listened. 

This unearthly event had created a "thin place" for Louie.  I find it intriguing that when he needed comfort, God did not speak to Louie, He sang to him.  He did not address the suffering man with mere words of assurance, as in,  "Louie, I am with you.  You'll be o.k."  Rather, among all the means available to Him, God sent in an A-list vocal team, with a melody Louie could sing to himself for comfort when the agony of loneliness would once again sweep over his bow.  Through music and melody - not mere words alone- a "thin place" on the empty Pacific broke open for Louie, anchoring his hope as a tether for his soul.

Posted on June 3, 2014 .