Steve Martin’s complaint that “atheists don’t have no songs” is now not completely true. A Brooklyn-based musician has cleverly refashioned gospel trombone music into a paean to atheism.
Does this mean that atheism is a religion? Or does it at least show that those who declaim God retain some religious traits? New York is famous for its fighting atheists so it is only fitting that “atheist religious music” should get the first treatment here.
Some prominent atheists like popular philosopher Alain de Botton in his book Religion for Atheists, are promoting “Atheism 2.0.” Botton, who comes from a Jewish family, promotes a sort of atheist appreciation of religion. He told his audience at a TED Talk in the summer of 2011:
"I'm interested in the kind of constituency that thinks something along these lines: that thinks, "I can't believe in any of this stuff. I can't believe in the doctrines. I don't think these doctrines are right. But," a very important but, "I love Christmas carols. I really like the art of Mantegna. I really like looking at old churches. I really like turning the pages of the Old Testament."
The spirit of Atheism 2.0 animates the music of “The Heavens: The atheist gospel trombone album” by Jacob Garchik, a Brooklyn-based trombonist. Garchik uses the tradition of gospel trombone music of The United House of Prayer for All People, which has a branch in Harlem, as his lens to exegete pithy statements from Woody Allen, Stanley Crouch, David Deutsch, Albert Einstein, Gideon of the Bible, Stephen Hawking, Mark Twain, and his own mother.
Garchik marshalls his own formidable compositional abilities and his experiences with brass bands such as Slavic Soul Party to create original gospel music. Those who have heard the McCullough Sons of Thunder up in Harlem will recognize the brash energy and counterpoint of the trombone shout band, which is amazingly preserved in this solo album by Garchik layering his own playing of the Sousaphone, trombone, baritone, and slide trumpet.
The first track on the album, “Creation’s Creation,” meditates on how Stephen Hawking might re-imagine the gospel music idea of God’s creation of the universe, but without God. In an interview with Der Spiegel magazine in 1988, Hawking claimed,
"What I have done is to show that it is possible for the way the universe began to be determined by the laws of science. In that case, it would not be necessary to appeal to God to decide how the universe began. This doesn't prove that there is no God, only that God is not necessary."
Garchik begins out of time: sustained chords supporting a wavering vibrato in the lead trombone, evoking the mystery and paradox of time before creation: "if, as Hawking and other cosmologists propose, time didn’t exist before the creation of the universe, what would “Creation’s Creation” have looked like? Not only that, but how can this timeless pre-universe be described in a medium (music) that is inherently time-bound?”
Garchik then wastes no time before diving into the second track, “The Problem of Suffering”: a rollicking, dissonant reflection on theism’s most persistent dilemma: the co-existence of suffering and evil with an omniscient, omnipotent, and omni-benevolent deity. Countless debates have revolved around this question, but in keeping with gospel music tradition Garchik chooses an expression of this debate from the Bible. The judge Gideon faced defeat in battle. He had to wonder,
"Oh my Lord, if the Lord be with us, why then is all this befallen us? and where be all his miracles which our fathers told us of, saying, Did not the Lord bring us up from Egypt? but now the Lord hath forsaken us, and delivered us into the hands of the Midianites."
The abandon with which Garchik approaches this passage may reflect an empathy with the Jewish people’s struggle to reconcile the stories of God’s good miracles with their own suffering—Garchik is, in fact, Jewish. Or it may be Garchik’s indignant response to the problem: if God has abandoned us, why shouldn’t we abandon God?
The result is incredibly musical, yet undeniably philosophical; a tour de force. Technically, the album is impressive. Emotionally, it is potent. Spiritually, it is evocative.
The Heavens begs so many questions: If an atheist harnesses a sacred music idiom for his own purposes, is it still sacred music? Can the religious listener really relate to the music? Can the atheist gain motivation for his life in atheist gospel music? Or is the music just a borrowing that cut off from its spiritual roots will eventually die, leaving the atheists “without no song” once more?
Or could secular appropriation be the trombone shout choir’s best chance of survival? Garchik’s work comes at a time when the very sources of the shout choir idiom, historically black churches in Harlem and elsewhere, are declining or becoming mere European and Japanese tourist destinations.
For now we have an incredibly interesting presentation of godless, godlike tunes that will move even religious listeners.
For those readers in the New York City area, go check out Garchik and his band play The Heavens at the Winter Jazz Fest, 8:45 pm, Friday, January 11, Bowery Electric, 327 Bowery btw 2nd St and 3rd S. Jazz Fest offers 1 day and 2 day passes. Then, check out the traditional shout band at the United House of Prayer at 2320 Frederick Douglass Boulevard. Experiencing both will be a musicological (and philosophical) adventure.
More from The Heavens: The Atheist Gospel Trombone Album, "A digression on the history of the Jews and Black Music"
"They [the Jews] have a joy of life that's cynical, which is basically the same sensibility as the blues sensibility. That's a greater connection than atrocities...If it [the musical connection between Jews and Blacks] was about suffering and atrocities and all that, the American Indians could outplay everybody. " -- Stanley Crouch
Author James Hall is a jazz trombonist and composer living in New York City. His composition "The Serpent Speaks" premiered at Saint Peter's Church in New York. James currently enjoys a busy performing schedule with various ensembles in the greater New York area.