A conversation with Eric M. Pazdziora
In our continuing fascination with the innumerable harmonies between fantasy and music, and our generous sympathy for people with zed in their surname, Paradoxes interviewed composer and copyeditor Eric Pazdziora. He talked with us about everything from unsystematic theology to how fairytales might help in emotional healing. Read below to listen in on our conversation. Just get ready for some unexpected turns of thought.
PARADOXES: You have a lot of diverse and possibly unrelated interests—and you have been able to use many, if not most of them professionally. Do you mind talking about what those interests are, and what you’re doing with them?
ERIC PAZDZIORA: The first and most obvious one is music. My interest in music goes back to—as far back as I can remember, really. It’s not so much an interest as a part of me. I’ve been playing piano since I was about four years old and could reach the keys, studying since I was age six, started composing when I was age eight. So it’s an extremely natural part of who I am. Then I get my degree in college in music composition, and I’ve been able to use that in a pretty wide variety of venues.
What did you compose when you were eight?
I had a book of dinosaur poems by Jack Prelutsky—just these little poems for kids all about dinosaurs. And, of course, an eight year old boy and dinosaurs get along very nicely together. So I just took the poems over to the piano and started setting them to music. It seemed the most natural thing in the world. It didn’t occur to me that there was anything remarkable about this until other people started saying, ‘You’re doing what?’ and freaking out about that. Then I realized it was something a bit out of the ordinary.
But my piano teacher recognized I had something there, and actually notated all the pieces for me. And made it into a musical which my third grade class performed. So that was my introduction to the world of composing.
Let’s see, other interests. Almost as far back as I can remember—I can remember actually when this started—was my interest in writing. Of course, as I kid I would be interested in telling stories and making things up—wild and very goofy adventures with all my imaginary friends, or whoever they were. I decided not to study that in college, but through one event and another, my fulltime job now is with a publishing house as a copyeditor. So I’m using writing rather than what I have my degree in.
Also, with my degree being from Moody Bible Institute, I’ve learned a thing or two about the Bible and theology along the way. I’ve been interested in writing and explaining Christian beliefs to a fairly wide audience, being able to put that out there clearly and interestingly.
Another interest you can add to the list would be classic hymns—finding old hymn texts that aren’t well used anymore, but still are extremely valid and relevant for today, and setting them to music that could be used in a church, providing an alternate picture of Christianity than you might have seen if you’re in a spiritually abusive church.
Aside from that, I guess my interest is reading. To be expected, I suppose.
You’re combining your professional arts interest with, dare I say, this professional and personal faith interest. Faith and the arts seem to be getting quite a bit of attention these days, particularly as a cross-disciplinary study. In your music and in your writing, how have you been able to reconcile the two, or not?
Yes, you are correct. There has been increasing interest in the past twenty years that I’ve been watching this unfold. In the evangelical world, possibly Francis Schaeffer would be the person who really kick-started that. And others as well, just by simply being in the arts.
There is—I think not so much in reality but in the church culture, especially in the United States—this peculiar tension of what makes art good art, what makes art Christian art, what makes art something that a Christian artist should do. We have this idea that here’s this list of twenty Christian catchphrases—‘worthy’, ‘glory’, ‘sovereignty’, ‘Lord’—and if you put these in you art, then suddenly that’s good Christian art. And that’s something a Christian can do. Otherwise, it’s suspect at best.
Of course, there’s all the bad words—like ‘wizard’—and if you have that in your story than certainly it can’t be Christian, even if it has a Christian worldview. Unless your name is C. S. Lewis, in which case you get a free pass on anything.
For me personally, it’s somewhat an interesting tension, coming from that church culture but also having a fairly unique voice as an artist that comes to me extremely naturally. I would say that one place where discussions on faith and the arts fall short is—picture the artist saying at a very high level, ‘Hmm, I need to impact the culture with my art. Let’s see, this idiom is a very good idiom with which to do it, and let’s see, these are the theological themes and the redemptive themes I want to work in my art. Maybe I can do that with music, and, ah, let’s see, maybe a minor chord contrapuntally—’ Whereas art simply doesn’t work that way.
Art is something you do because you have to. It’s not just a hobby or even a desire to do it, it’s a compulsion to do it. It’s the feeling you get when you’re about to sneeze. You know you have to sneeze, something has to come up there. Like when you feel an itch, if you pardon a crude biological metaphor. But in some ways, it is just that elemental level. There’s something in you that has to be expressed through this mode of art.
The way I look at it is, the only good art is art that’s honest to the artist. (As well as being technically skilful, but that’s a whole other discussion.) And so if the artist is a person of faith—has certain beliefs that are fundamental to him as a person, rather than being merely tacked on (which is another whole discussion in itself), then that will be reflected in the art. You can look at somebody like Johann Sebastian Bach, signing all his manuscripts To the Glory of G-d, or in the twentieth century Olivier Messiaen, who just could not stop talking about his beliefs, and his interest in music, mythology, romance and so forth. But any artist is going to as a matter of course reflect their worldview, reflect their faith or their lack thereof. That’s something that’s worth exploring, that’s extremely worth celebrating and analyzing and wherever we find it.
The tension for me personally—how do I define this? I’m not segmented as an artist, but the surrounding society wants me to be segmented. They want me to say, ‘Here, this is church music, and this is art music, and this is classical music, and this is music you would do if you were playing in a coffee shop. This is Christian writing, and this is fantasy writing, and this is comedy writing, and this humour, and this is theology, and so forth.’ I don’t think on that meta-level when I’m creating. I’m just making something because I want to, because there’s something in me that has to. I’m facing this culture that’s trying to segment me and put me into multiple boxes just because I happen to have multiple modes of expression.
A lot of unfortunate things have happened because we’re looking at the world in this dichotomous worldview. Here’s the secular, here’s the sacred. This is the part where we’re supposed to be spiritual and this is the part where we’re not supposed to be spiritual. If you’re making art and you’re a person who’s spiritually minded, that’s going to come out in your art, whether or not it has this list of twenty religious words in it.
I grew up thinking, there’s good music—that’s what you hear in the concert hall, and, of course, only classical music, I thought at the time—and then there’s church music. Which is not good music. And this is the music you can use when you’re worshipping. My composition professor has a great quote from Ralph Vaughn Williams, ‘It ought no longer be true that the most exalted moments in a churchgoer’s life are associated with music that would not be tolerated in any place of secular entertainment.’
So, that’s the whole other issue, which is probably more than we have space to get into.
No, actually, let’s get into that. At one point you obviously accepted that dichotomy as natural and now you obviously don’t. Why this shift for you personally, and is there a need, for church culture as a whole to make a similar shift into what Vaughn Williams is talking about here?
I’ll answer the second part first. The answer is yes.
The first part, why there was a shift for me. That’s probably fairly complicated. It wasn’t so much a shift—you know, I woke up one day and said, ‘Hey, I shouldn’t be thinking of certain kinds of music as not sacred, or I should be thinking of certain kinds of music as evil.’ There were a lot of personal issues I had as a result of being in very high pressure, very negative, very judgmental religious groups in the past. Certainly not all of them, but many of them were like that. Being that environment, I became reactionary to the point of casting judgment on certain kinds of music, or to the point of saying only music that fits this very narrow criteria can be anything Christians should have something to do with.
[My views changed] over several year’s process of healing and also of being educated at the same time. A lot of the credit for that would have to go to my wonderful composition teacher, Dr. Edwin Childs. He is a brilliant composer and also an extremely empathetic and caring individual personally. Through that process, I came to see that a lot of my reaction was simply not so much an issue of music as it was an issue of me putting up defenses. It was a matter of learning to forgive those people for what they had done erroneously in the name of Christ—who has, of course, nothing at all like that in his message regarding the world. But I realized that my perspective was equally skewed as a result of that.
And through just education as well, through Dr. Childs and other musicians I’ve been trained by, exposing me to a very wide variety of music in the world. Studying the world of ethnomusicology as well, which is another interest we didn’t get to in the first heading—studying the music and cultures of the world, realizing just the great ingenuity that we have as humans, which I believe G-d has put into us, and realizing the authenticity of the expression that we can find in so many forms. And realizing that we should seek that out and find it when it’s being done as well as it can be. Music expresses a wide variety of things, and not all of them need to be expressed in a church setting necessarily, but that doesn’t mean there’s therefore some blanket religious prohibition on them from any reasonable standpoint.
The change I’d like to see in the church culture. And I don’t want to put the blame entirely on religious people, I just happen to be one myself. I put a post up on my web site about all the tacky and kitschy things that are marketed by atheists as well. I’ve been criticizing the bad, kitschy art that’s done in the name of Christianity, and somebody pointed this out to me—yes, there are tacky atheist throw pillows, and bad CDs of people singing out of tune about atheism. Leads me to conclude the problem is perhaps not so much theological as just our culture in general.
The change I would like to see made is people not dichotomizing the world. I believe when Jesus saves us as people, he saves all of us. So either we’re totally under his lordship or we’re totally not. But, assuming we totally are, we should take into account everything he’s made us to be as people. So, as the church, we need to stop being afraid of that.
I think to some extent it’s simply a lack of exposure to other artistic things, and to some extent it’s a certain insularity that’s bred into us. Either as Christians or just as Americans in general, we can be very blind to things that aren’t just in our little corner of the world. There is a world full of wonderful art, good mixed in with bad, and you have to learn to tell which is which. But there’s no reason at all to be afraid of it.
Eric Pazdziora has worked as a composer, a writer, a pianist, a singer, a copyeditor, a worship leader, an accompanist, an arranger, an orchestrator, a conductor, a tutor, a blogger, a software tester, an audio engineer, a voice actor, a street preacher, and a circus clown. In his spare time, he reads a lot and makes really bad puns. His wife is much better looking.