Michael Wright

Michael Wright is the Associate Editor at Fuller Studio. He studied theology and the arts through the Brehm Center, and you can find him on Twitter @mjeffreywright.

Meditation and Contemplation

Luke Hankins is a poet, editor, and founder of Orison Books, a publishing company committed to supporting voices at the growing edges of spirituality and literature. In his first poetry collection Weak Devotions (Wipf and Stock, 2011), Luke explores the religious context of his childhood, one marked by violence, fundamentalism, mental anguish, and a pure desire to encounter God in the midst of it. With years of experience as an editor at Asheville Poetry Review Luke has written extensive poetry criticism, essays on aesthetics, and more—all in the service of his search for spiritual art and literature. As he writes in the mission statement of Orison, “the best spiritual art and literature call us to meditate and contemplate, rather than asking us to adopt any ideology or set of propositions,” and Luke’s edited anthology Poems of Devotion brings together emerging voices calling us toward that meditation he describes. He graciously allowed us to republish a few of his poems—and to present a new one for the first time (“The Right Way”)—and we discussed devotional poetry, faith and violence, and the struggle to find a language to express our spiritual longing.

from “Weak Devotions”

Why do You leave
some recess of my mind,
my heart, unlorded?
Leave nothing behind
that will linger in shit
and wallow and grind
itself in filthy defiance,
in masochistic, blind
groping after further
blasphemies. Furnace, kind
Lord, the furthest reaches
of me—make me refined.
Make me new. Take me to You.
Why have You assigned
this torture to me,
this desperate mind
that thinks inevitably
what it fears to think? Be kind
and do not let me be.
Need I remind
You, Lord, that You lay claim
to even the blindness of the purblind
worm—not only its righteous
wriggling? Be kind and be, kind
Lord, what You rightly are.
Rule what—whatsoever—you find.
Rein me in and reign in me.
There is freedom only when You bind.
Take me wholly, holy God.
Wholly, Holy. Mind my mind.

*Reprinted from Weak Devotions (Wipf & Stock, 2011).

Curator: More than a poet, you also edit work, curate anthologies, and run Orison Books, a press you founded. Online, we’re often trained to build our own platforms and focus on our own writing, so why work so intentionally with others? How did Orison come about?

Luke: I’ve been an editor almost as long as I’ve been a writer. In college, I worked at the campus literary magazine; in graduate school, I worked at Indiana Review; I’ve worked at Asheville Poetry Review, a national literary journal based in my current hometown, for ten years. I’ve always loved championing and publishing work that I’m enthusiastic about, and also working with authors to strengthen their work. Orison Books is a natural extension of those passions.

As valuable as periodical editing is, let’s be honest—the audience is miniscule. Books, however, are a little different. There’s at least a possibility that a book will gain a lot of attention and find a place on many bookshelves, to be treasured and returned to year after year. For whatever reason, we don’t treat literary magazines the same way. They feel more ephemeral and I think we treat them as such. Very seldom do people keep past issues of literary magazines on their shelves—unless their own work appears in them. Our cultural relationship to single-author books is different, more long-term.

Curator: You begin Poems of Devotion, an anthology of modern devotional poetry, making a careful distinction between devotional poetry directed toward God and poems about devotional experiences. Why is this distinction important for the reader to understand?

Luke: My aim in the introduction, and in the contents of the anthology, was to demonstrate not a genre so much as a mode of composition. The devotional mode, in my mind, is experiential on the writer’s part, a dynamic and uncertain process in relation to the divine—or at least the idea of the divine. This kind of poem enacts devotion through its very making, rather than simply recounting a past experience or pre-conceived notion.

And I want to be clear that when I speak of devotion, I decidedly do not mean simplistic expression of faith and certainty—that hogwash that passes for “inspirational” verse. To me, that’s not even devotion, because it doesn’t do justice to the human relationship to the divine. Real devotion is full of doubt, curiosity, wonder, confusion, anger, playfulness, fear, awe—all of those real human responses to the ineffable, transcendent, immanent sublimity of God.

Curator: I imagine the process of anthologizing devotional poetry exposed you to the best and worst of the genre. I wonder if you could reflect on the state of the devotional poem today? What’s happening in this genre that needs to change? What excites you about today’s devotional poetry?

Luke: I’ve just mentioned the hogwash that passes for inspirational verse. I think that’s all I need to say about that. There’s also the kind of poetry that seeks to convince the reader that the poet has all the answers or to proselytize—which I think is the opposite of devotional poetry because it doesn’t exist in relationship to mystery, but rather relies on false certainty.

But I think the state of real devotional poetry today is very exciting indeed. I’ve seen so much compelling recent work that embodies brave spiritual searching from poets and musicians like Christian Wiman, Jane Hirshfield, Leonard Cohen (ave atque vale), Yehoshua November, Kimberly Johnson, Vandana Khanna, Franz Wright (requiescat in pace), Bruce Beasley, Alicia Ostriker, Kaveh Akbar, Leila Chatti, and many, many others. I also want to single out the poems Brett Foster was writing at the end of his all-too-short life.

I hope that Poems of Devotion provides an important historical overview of recent decades, and that the annual Orison Anthology that Orison Books has initiated—we released the first volume last year—will help provide an ongoing record of today’s best spiritual writing.

Curator: Your recently published poem “Equal and Opposite” reflects on the weakness of language to express spiritual experience, and it reminded me of Rowan Williams, who said, “Language behaves as if it were always ‘in the wake’ of meaning rather than owning or controlling it.” In a way, you’re asking to be carried upstream to an experience of being that language cannot contain. How has poetry helped to carry you there?

Luke: I imagine that no one feels viscerally both the possibilities and limitations of a medium until they’ve worked with it for a long time. The longer I write poems, the more I feel the tension between the wild potential of words and their ultimate insufficiency. I think poets are fascinated with language for both reasons—its potential and its limitations—as I’m sure painters are with canvas and paint and musicians are with sounds.

One of the things that writing poetry does, over time, is cause you to attend more closely to the ways language informs, shapes, and even limits your experience. That’s what I’m wrestling with in the poem you mention. For better and for worse, humans are linguistic creatures, and we inhabit language constantly. Physical experience is always accompanied by and mediated through internal language.

I don’t have much more to say about this than what the poem itself says, nor do I think I’m able to say it any better than in that attempt.

Curator: It seems our public life has a fraught relationship with language right now. We’re reeling from political rhetoric and the constant bombardment of information online, and this atmosphere makes it difficult to speak and think clearly. The way we use words seems to be part of the problem, what can we do to restore our language and how can poetry and literature help?

Luke: I probably differ from most writers in this, but I don’t believe that language needs any restoration. Language itself is not ill—how could it be? Language, like any cultural product, is not inherently good or bad, right or wrong, healthy or sick. Language exists as a constantly evolving medium, a tool for us to use. What matters is the way we use it.

What you’ve called our “relationship with language,” however, may well be unhealthy. This is nowhere more evident than in our current politics, as you rightly point out. Donald Trump and his laughable excuse for a White House team continually use language to distort reality and to lie. Kellyanne Conway’s oxymoronic phrase “alternative facts” exemplifies this insane administration’s relationship to reality. The people in the most powerful positions in our country right now are deeply ill, spiritually, psychologically, ideologically. Their relationship to language is constant evidence of this.

While it’s vital that poetry continue to use language to illuminate reality and the human experience rather than distort it, its ability to effect political change in the moment is very limited. The audience for poetry in our country is a very small percentage of the population, and one that tends to already be politically progressive—poetry mostly operates in an echo chamber. We shouldn’t minimize the importance of shoring one another up through dark times, nor the potential for poetry to outlive us and benefit future generations, but we should also be honest with ourselves about the limitations of our literary work. We ought never give up our art, but we need to combine it with tangible political action as well.

Curator: The cycle of poems in the first section of your book Weak Devotions is an unflinching examination of violence. You write about writhing cottonmouths, barbed wire, a boy shooting another boy with a pellet gun, etc. The violence circles closer and implicates your own body where you’re in the earth digging a grave, your hands are soaked in blood. At one point you’re even covered in piss. These moments seem to operate in you as existential shock, a forceful clearing away of the mind’s debris in response to bodily suffering. How do you understand the violence that has happened in your life? How have you used it, and how has it shaped your understanding of religion?

Luke: Andrew Hudgins, in what I think is one of the finest religious poems of recent decades, writes about Christ in response to an artwork by Andres Serrano:

He peed, ejaculated, shat, wept, bled—
bled under Pontius Pilate, and I assume
the mutilated god, the criminal,
humiliated god, voided himself
on the cross, and blood and urine smeared his legs—
the Piss Christ thrown in glowing blood, the whole
and irreducible point of his descent:
God plunged in human waste, and radiant.

We have grown used to beauty without horror.

We have grown used to useless beauty.

(“Piss Christ,” from American Rendering: New & Selected Poems)

The idea that beauty without horror is of no use is a fascinating one. While I don’t believe that suffering in and of itself is a good, I do believe that we find God incarnate there every bit as much as we do in pleasureful experience. Beautiful art that doesn’t do justice to the suffering that is inherent in being human doesn’t serve art’s highest purpose.

I’m reminded also of a beautiful passage from one of Orison Books’ recent titles, Two Worlds Exist by Yehoshua November, in which the poet references mystical Chassidic teaching:

Two worlds exist:
The higher hidden one
and our earthly realm.
Everything that occurs in this life
flows down from the hidden world.
That which appears good
descends through an infinite series of contractions
until it fits within the finite vessels of this world.
That which appears tragic
slides down, unmitigated,
from the hidden realm—
a higher, unlimited good
this world cannot hold.
So the mystics explain suffering
if all comes from above,
from where no evil descends.

The poem concludes:

When I was younger,
I believed the mystical teachings
could erase sorrow. The mystical teachings
do not erase sorrow.
They say, here is your life.
What will you do with it?

So, while violence and suffering are not beautiful in and of themselves, I try in my work to find meaning in them, to see how they might teach me something about what beauty really means, by being informed by its opposite. In that way, maybe we can do something useful with our pain.

Curator: Violence can also be internal, and you’ve also explored the theme of mental anguish in your work. In section X of “Weak Devotions,” you say, “Do not leave me / feral and alone—yank / my heart that it may come heeling / and creaturely before You.” It’s a prayer asking for divine violence, and it echoes other devotional poems like Donne’s infamous “Batter my heart, three-person’d God.” These poems fit squarely in the tradition of “dying to self,” but what’s the difference between the death of self and self-harm?

Luke: I can’t pretend to know where the line between self-abnegation and self-destruction lies. It’s likely different for each person. Some of the spiritual thinkers I most admire—Simone Weil, Franz Wright, David Bazan—often seem to me to cross this so-called line. I love their work despite its extremity—well, also because of its extremity, if I’m honest. It’s something like what I’m talking about in the poem “The Right Way” when I say “I think / you’re wrong, but wrong in the right way.” The farther away I move from my fundamentalist upbringing, the more I find myself interested in ideas I technically disagree with, such as Weil’s insistence on the “destruction of the ‘I’” rather than simply its abnegation, such as when she speaks of “decreation” and “self-effacement”: “The self,” she writes, “is only the shadow which sin and error cast by stopping the light of God,” and “Even if we could be like God, it would be better to be the mud which obeys God.” I pity Weil. She’s all Romans 9 and no Sermon on the Mount. But I also admire the dark beauty of what she’s written, even where I think she’s mistaken.

About the self-destructive strands in my own poetry, I’d like to say that they’re the record of particular times in my life, and are not indicative of my day-to-day outlook. I recall that T. S. Eliot once said something beautiful and insightful about his early work when asked, late in life, whether he would change anything about his early work. He said, essentially, that he didn’t feel that he was enough the same person as to have the right to change anything about his early work. My collection Weak Devotions was published in 2011, so even the most recent of those poems are seven or eight years old—and many are much older. So, while I wouldn’t change much about them and I remain proud of them, they’re not the poems I’m writing today.    

Curator: In an introduction to a poet published by Orison, you say, “this is the highest and most essential function of art and literature: not to provide the so-called answers that ideology attempts to, but to delve fully into the unknown, to accept it, to bravely meet it. And by doing so, to convince those who encounter one’s art that they are not alone, but that there is that type of invincible human solidarity that Joseph Conrad so eloquently describes.” That distinction between ideology and literature is fascinating to me. I’m often more moved by Denise Levertov’s poetry or Frederick Buechner’s Godric than creeds, and it’s been cause for confusion for me. How do religious communities begin to support this kind of brave meeting?

Luke: Art is experiential. Creeds are propositional. Experience carries authority because it isn’t conclusive, but rather full of mystery. And if we believe—or at least suspect—that God is immanent in the actual world we live in, then we encounter Her through experience.

Creeds lose their authority because they seek to claim too much of it, without doing justice to experience. Religious-minded folks often make idols of creeds, all the while looking askance at art out of fear of idolatry. Dear God, the irony.

Curator: The poet Franz Wright said, “You gave me / in secret one thing / to perceive, the / tall blue starry / strangeness of being / here at all.” Your own work as both poet and editor searches for this enlarging of perception. Any last advice for our readers hoping to do the same?

Luke: The strangeness of being—the mystery—is all.

A Shape with Forty Wings

Love is strange and calls me to stranger things.
When I was young I thought that I’d know why.
I’ve drawn my life—a shape with forty wings.

The woods at night are full of awesome beings.
Listen carefully and you can hear them cry:
Love is strange and calls us to stranger things.

I want to follow everything that sings,
but I cannot tell you how afraid I am to fly.
I’ve drawn my life—a shape with forty wings.

The unseen Being deep inside me brings
ideas to mind I hope I’ll never try—
Love is strange and calls me to stranger things.

Possibilities surround me in concentric rings.
A light shines down that I cannot see by,
yet I’ve drawn my life—a shape with forty wings.

I walk about as if I understood my wanderings.
If You are near, show me how to die.
Love is strange and calls me to stranger things.
I’ve drawn my life—a shape with forty wings.

*Reprinted from Weak Devotions (Wipf & Stock, 2011).

The Right Way

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in a letter from prison,
The transcendence of epistemological theory
has nothing to do with the transcendence of God.
Which, given, is an epistemological theory all its own . . .
But the sentiment is right. It feels right to say that sentence.
And so I say it over and over, and I write it again and again.
He also says that God’s “beyond” is not the beyond
of our cognitive faculties. Hmm. I can’t
technically agree with either statement,
as they seem to arise out of the very processes
they’re attempting to discount. It involves a logical fallacy
for which I’m sure logicians have a name.
But I do say yes to these statements.
I do memorize and repeat them.
Dear Bonhoeffer, I don’t agree, but I feel you, man.
It’s strange—I could almost be talking to myself.
Heaven nowhere more possible than in the depths of hell,
I write. God as reason beyond reason.
Dear Me, I feel you, man. I think
you’re wrong, but wrong in the right way.

 

Equal and Opposite

Looking at the sky, the word sky
comes to mind. The word has a referent—
the sky itself—but the sky itself
has no referent. To live in language
is to anticipate metaphor,
but in this moment I sense the void
upon which, all these years, I have built
my house of words.
Only come with me
to the precipice where I peer in terror,
I pray, grasping at words
that offer no resistance
like feathers snatched from the air,
like ropes not tied to anything.
I plunge through the world
that is no language
praying (in my language)
to the absent Referent,
the force equal and opposite
to the void, the grip that can
(I pray) suspend my fall
so that I might hang
in what the sky means.

 

*Originally published in St. Katherine Review and also appeared in The Poet’s Quest for God (Eyewear Publishing, UK, 2016).

Noteworthy: More than a Spectator

In the documentary, Bill Cunningham New York, New York City’s beloved fashion photographer received an award from the National Order of the Legion of Honour of France and said, “It’s not the celebrity and not the spectacle. It’s as true today as it ever was: he who seeks beauty will find it.” It’s one of the few moments in the film when Bill’s ebullient personality cracks to reveal a wide-open heart filled with both deep love and wonder for the world. At that point, you’re listening to less a lecture on fashion and more his life’s thesis—the open-hearted pursuit of beauty.

My only experience of Bill is watching the recent documentary and a few interviews, but even with that limited connection, I’ve found myself thinking about him—even grieving his recent death. It’s not intimacy per se, but I have a real sense of gratitude for the choices he made to pursue his work. As Søren Kierkegaard said, “purity of heart is to will one thing.” Bill’s life as a photographer is a model of that kind of purity, and reflecting on his simple yet consistent commitments can help with our own pursuit of beauty.

He committed himself to his creative work. As soon as Bill discovered photography, he documented New York City for the rest of his life. Sometimes working two jobs at a time, he always found a way to be on streets taking pictures, “letting the streets speak to him.” It was a commitment that shaped his personal life (he never married) and even his apartment. A quick glance at the rows of file cabinets crowding every corner of his apartment—a priceless photographic archive of New York—and you can see how his life and work were fully integrated.

He lived simply. Bill rode bicycles all over the city, and the fact that they were often stolen didn’t matter to him; the tool was a means to an end, and if it needed replacing he would replace it. It’s an open-handed approach to possessions that carried over into his whole life. He seemed genuinely uninterested in accumulating wealth—it was a distraction to him, and choosing simplicity emerged less from a place of moralistic self-denial and more the need to remove whatever obstacles kept him from his work.

He separated himself from those with power and influence. Bill distinguished himself from the socialites he photographed by wearing a bright blue worker’s coat and eating before events instead of accepting the wine and lavish gifts offered him. And it wasn’t only his dress that separated him from others—at times he refused payment for his work, preferring creative freedom instead: “Money’s the cheapest thing; liberty and freedom is the most expensive!” These clear visible markers signified the purpose of his work. By resisting the social (or financial) hierarchy, he was free to work without deference to the expectations of others.

He treated everyone—regardless of status—with compassion. Giving up a sense of entitlement overflowed into a compassionate interest in every person around him. In scene after scene in the film, he spends just as much time laughing with people on the street as a wealthy museum donor; he’s fascinated by people and they way they clothe themselves whether that’s a homeless person or a runway model.

When I look at these choices, Bill seems almost like a priest, and in the film one friend even called him a “fashion deity.” Certainly, he wouldn’t want that kind of attention, and it would be irresponsible to canonize him. But think about Pope Francis or His Holiness the Dalai Lama or any celebrity with the reputation of being “down to earth”—they all share the same open-handed relationship to their own power and a genuine interest in others, and Bill’s work as a photographer is much closer to saints than the paparazzi. G. K. Chesterton describes a similar egalitarian quality in St. Francis of Assisi:

“There was never a man who looked into those brown burning eyes without being certain that Francis Bernardino was really interested in him; in his own inner individual life from the cradle to the grave; that he himself was being valued and taken seriously, and not merely added to the spoils of some social policy or the names in some clerical document.

Free from selfishness, St. Francis could engage others not as means of accumulating wealth and status, but loved persons qua persons. This kind of openness to others is transformative, and as a photographer, Bill looked through his lens with this same love—and that’s inspiring no matter what our creative work might be.

 

 

 

We Are All Moths

Ryan Lott is a film composer, sound collector and remixer, and the founding member of the band Son Lux. Now with the help of multi-instrumentalists Rafiq Bhatia and Ian Chang, the trio has distilled Ryan’s earlier “investigations of sound” in We Are Rising and Lanterns into a new distilled voice that is both visceral and heady, precise and surprising. Their newest album, Bones, begins with Ryan singing, “Close your eyes / swallow the sun / you have only just begun,” a lyric that expresses the band’s musical ambitions and a theme throughout Ryan’s lyrics: a resolute desire to move through suffering towards light—no matter how painful that struggle might be. I talked with Ryan over email about metaphors, the “hidden” discoveries in the creative process, the way songs meet people in their suffering, lectio divina, and more.

 

Michael Wright: Hello Ryan, and thanks so much for your time. In interviews, you’ve mentioned a particular show in Berlin when you realized Son Lux was no longer a single artist with two hired hands but a trio. Why did that show have a catalyzing effect on the band? What is it about the three of you that makes your performance have that creative and unexpected excess?

Ryan Lott of Son Lux: That show was our very first show ever. It’s something we had the moment everything was plugged in and people were listening. I hadn’t experienced it before, that sort of effortless chemistry. We all feel the urge to throw a relentless energy into music. Perhaps that sort of unbridled, almost aggressive effort, combined with the mercurial ease with which our minds combine, is why it works. That and luck. And good food.

MW: You’ve called your music “investigations in sound,” and over the course of your albums, it seems to expand from an intellectual investigation to an emotional one. Now that Son Lux is a trio, there seems to be greater risk, and a distilled emotional struggle in your music. Do you think this is from the trust you’ve developed as a band? How would you characterize your search for new and honest sounds?

RL: I’ve never thought about it that way, but maybe I should. Intellectual and emotional investigations might be unfair paradigms to diametrically compartmentalize the human experience and expression. I understand your observation, but a change in the vehicle or manner of expression doesn’t necessarily change what is being expressed. If there is a perceptible change, it may be the result of what I hope is an emotional maturity that has allowed me to continue to become more vulnerable and honest with myself and the world around me.

MW: During my research, I was fascinated by the way you’ve built up sound libraries from years of collecting sonic scraps. Over and over again, you’ve talked about the importance of starting with acoustic, human-made sounds. Why is that? Why have an expansive collection of human-made sounds if the end result may not register to an untrained ear listening to electronic music? I’m interested in this paradox of your desire to “make human music” with new technology.

RL: Perhaps your questions answer themselves! I am interested in the same paradox. I believe there is truth on the other side of paradox. Or at least, there is truth that comes with greater confusion, dismantling our certainties. Personally, I’ve been guilty of assuming that clarity necessarily accompanies a revelation of truth. In so doing, I’m sure I’ve failed to see truth because of the grey fog of confusion and complexity surrounding it.

 

SON_LUX Header

MW: That sense of truth-in-uncertainty definitely fits within a spiritual tradition (I’m specifically thinking of The Cloud of Unknowing and the via negativa), and it also reminds me of your discussions on the “hidden”. You’ve said in interviews, “In order to find the hidden thing, I’m always looking to place limitations on the main road,” and “It’s behind that bend, around that corner, where beautiful things happen that maybe I didn’t cause to happen but I came upon them. I had to be on that road to discover them, but more than that it feels much more like a discovery than a creation of my own.” I’m curious: what is that hidden thing? What are you looking for?

RL: The hidden thing is the thing you can’t will to exist. You can only put in the time and heart and money and strength and pain. Picasso said, “Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.” I’m not exactly saying this, but it’s a related sentiment. There is something beyond your imagination, that doesn’t just wait to be found; at some point it comes out to greet you. When you catch it in motion, creeping toward you of its own volition, there’s a beautiful feeling of excitement and humility.

MW: That’s fascinating—the discovery is a complete gift, but we still have to create the conditions for it to occur. It’s like cymatic experiments where scientists create a controlled space and discover new emerging forms; or, in your own words, your music is a kind of architecture for “the investigation of sound.” What has this musical approach provided you?

RL: My manager Michael Kaufmann once said to me that I build great cathedrals of sound, but I needed to fill it with smoke and sacrament. I love this analogy because it speaks to creating a space that serves as a platform to explore beyond the space. This relates to your previous question about intellectual and emotional expressions. Perhaps there is some distinction. I think this way, but I also think in a purely technical way. Theoretical ideas, divorced entirely from a lofty sense of purpose and gravitas, really excite me. They’re the kindling. Once the fire takes, I move into a more emotional, or perhaps more accurately, a more sensuous pursuit to create that “smoke.”

MW: The theologian Douglas Christie said in an essay on embodiment and the natural world, “The rupture—between the human and more-than-human, between body and soul, heaven and earth, spirit and matter—must be named and acknowledged before the healing can begin. Only when we allow ourselves to feel the full weight of our exile will we be able to begin describing and imagining a world charged with eros, a world straining to be joined together in a web of intimacy.” Your music seems to hover around this struggle. From lyrics like “let’s meet in your open wounds,” “I will be a breathing man,” to the lungs and bones imagery throughout Bones and Lanterns—there’s this sense of struggling to connect the body to the larger body of the world, whether that’s internal or communal. Could you reflect on this exile?

RL: I would betray the songs to build a didactic, or splay them out like a junior high biology project. But I love your interpretation! And it’s “let me in through your open wounds,” but I prefer your version. Do I have your permission to use it at some point?

MW: Of course! I’m happy to mishear whenever it’s helpful. Your lyrics also use metaphors of light. It’s in your name (which echoes the “fiat lux,” that moment in Genesis when God speaks light into existence), and it’s throughout Lanterns and Bones: light coming from mouths, swallowing the sun, etc. Why are you drawn to metaphors of light?

RL: We are all moths.

son lux live

MW: Yes! This is exactly the image Annie Dillard explores in Holy The Firm; we can’t help but to move towards it—no matter what it burns away. Early in your career you and your wife founded the ministry ASH (Arts Serving Humanity). Looking back, was there something about that season that informed your full-time work as Son Lux? Do you see Son Lux’s music as a service to others? I’m curious if you have any stories of how fans receive your music.

RL: One of the most rewarding experiences we have on tour is meeting with fans after shows. We get to hear stories of the way our music, completely apart from us, does some sort of magical work. I’m grateful for Music’s ability to act in this way, despite its Makers’ intent. It’s something made in three dimensions, but occupies five. It does something we can’t do, and we’re grateful to glimpse it, and to feel it. We’ve heard stories from people on the precipice of suicide, even in the act of it, who’ve come back from the edge as a song of ours swirled into their mind. Who’s doing that? We’re not doing that.

MW: I think we all have songs that join us through our darkest times—they can express what we don’t know how to say. The mystic Meister Eckhart said that “the soul projects itself outward into created acts in order to understand itself.” I love that—it’s as if the right art at the right time reintroduces us to parts of ourselves we’ve forgotten or voices hope we couldn’t quite believe ourselves. On a more technical level, many of your songs have dramatic contrast in style and dynamics: the frenetic drumming and vulnerable silence, legato melodic lines and halting pizzicato, an almost mathematical precision in the arrangements and off-tempo horns and wavering voices. What’s going on there? Why are you drawn to these contrasts?

RL: Surprise in music is the best thing. The. Best. I’m essentially aiming to balance the fulfillment of expectation with surprise. Our brains are wired to dislike anything that fails to meet our expectations. As with life, so it is with music. But tension and release are the building blocks of musical architecture. Anticipation and expectation grow in moments of tension, and fulfillment of that expectation is the release. But there’s a way to bring release a different way, with surprise. But the sensuous impact of the surprise must trump the satisfaction of fulfilled expectation. In electronic music, “the drop,” is a good example of a release. It’s awesome, and as soon as you hear one, you want another, but it’s the easy way out. Give me a surprise that feels even more wonderful than what I hope is coming, and I’m yours. Good spiritual metaphor there, right?

MW: Sounds like the “hidden” to me! What surprises outside of music deepens your creative practice? Books? Meditation? The Brooklyn Museum? Hours browsing books in The Strand? Punch Brothers? All of the above?

RL: Here’s a good list, excluding the obvious influences of family & friends. New York, Paris, Bob Dylan, Hamza El Din, Radio & Portis heads, Andrew Norman, Young Thug, Zaha Hadid, Dawn of Midi, Samiyam, Senagalese dance drumming, Kendrick, Björk, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Elon Musk, Krista Tippett.

MW: Great choices. Krista Tippett has said, “Christianity is my mother tongue,” and that seems true for you as well. You’ve used biblical imagery throughout your music, and Andy Whitman and you both compared your music to lectio divina. A song like “You Don’t Know Me” (both the song and music video) seems to continue that imagery with a strong critique of public forms of religion. How does your mother tongue inform your music and what animates you spiritually now?

RL: Let me grab some bourbon, one sec.

OK, I’m back. Lectio divina was an early influence on Son Lux. It was the thing that caused me to abandon binary form (verse/chorus) almost altogether on the first record. It also informed the process by which I investigated sound, because I needed sound and texture and color to do some heavy lifting, in lieu of structural pivot points that binary form provides. I could go on for a million years about this, but I like the mother tongue question. And this isn’t really answer, but we speak the language we’ve learned. When it fails us, we learn it better. And then when we learn another language, we discover the strengths and weaknesses of our mother tongue. The same is true of countries, of cultures, of religions, of everything, maybe? Christianity continues to provide an allegory analogous to my limited perception of the human condition, but I also recognize its weaknesses as a means to explain everything, or perhaps more generously, its insistence on keeping many explanations hidden from sight. For this, I’m incredibly frustrated and thankful.

MW: Björk sings, “no one is a lover alone / I propose an atom dance,” and it’s a good handhold into your work and the way you voice the struggle for authentic relationships in our world. You have a tribe of intellectuals and wayfarers and creatives reading this interview: any last proposals you’d like to make?

RL: Amplify the voices of the unheard, unshackle yourselves from the myth of an acceptable bell-curve.