It finally hit him after a couple of years. There was a reason Chris Pramuk practiced and practiced at the piano. There was a reason it made sense.
This realization came when Pramuk was 10 or 11 years old and his teacher gave him sheet music to Scott Joplin’s “Solace.”
“I remember playing the piece at a recital and seeing people really respond joyfully to it,” said Pramuk, who is an associate professor of theology and the Regis University Chair of Ignatian Thought and Imagination. “I realized that music wouldn’t just make me happy, but it could do so for others. It could open things up. It’s a deeply poignant ballad, and it hooked me.”
That music has been the bedrock of Pramuk’s career, following him to college and eventually into the classroom for the past 25 years as an educator.
It’s also the focus and subject of Pramuk’s latest work, “The Artist Alive: Explorations in Music, Art and Theology.” The book explores the power of music, poetry and art to consider some of life’s most pressing questions. It uses the music of Joni Mitchell, Bruce Cockburn, Pink Floyd, Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen and the Indigo Girls (among others) to investigate those deeper issues.
“Each artist is a window into these human questions,” Pramuk said.
As part of the release, the Book Bar (4280 Tennyson St.) will host a book launch for Pramuk from noon to 2 p.m. on Sunday, July 14. There will be appetizers and drinks, and Pramuk will do a brief reading. For more information, visit the Book Bar’s event page.
The noted theologian and Ignatian scholar sat down with Regis Today to discuss the motivations for the book, how art has played a role in his life and how that has translated to the classroom.
You grew up playing piano. How did that shape your life?
The piano was a kind of doorway for me into spirituality, contemplation and even prayer. From a young age I’d improvise for hours and hours in the basement, even with one note or a few notes together. Something like Buddhist meditation practice, playing the piano taught me the art of paying attention. Life comes before us in so many different keys and colors, and I had the sense when I played that I wasn’t alone. There was this presence. I think it became for me a means of meditation and prayer.
This comes from a course you teach. How’d that develop into a book?
I built the book around case studies on each musician. It teaches a methodology that I hope will encourage other teachers to find ways to use music, poetry and the arts in their classroom. I think that music, poetry and film — but especially music — touch the whole person. Music touches us beyond our head. It gets to the deepest yearnings, feelings and desires we carry as human beings.
Why these artists?
Well, at one level, these are the classic artists who most shaped me as a kid and as a young man, and as a Catholic, in the 1970s and 1980s. Yet as “classics” I have found that they cross the generations. My students love them. I can still remember hearing Pink Floyd’s music coming from under my brother’s door and thinking, “Whoa, what is that?” Each chapter has an addendum that points to more contemporary artists who young people may be more familiar with.
Why art as a means of teaching?
I think it really helps us explore some of life’s deepest questions. Is God real? Where is God when people are suffering? How to navigate questions of sexuality, gender, and our desire for friendship and love? Can music help us understand diverse communities and experiences around issues of race and racial justice? Even the environmental crisis we are facing. Over the years I’ve grown to see that the arts are a powerful doorway into the human spirit, deeply personal and profoundly social at the same time.
You’re stuck on an island. What are three albums you’re bringing with you?
Oh, that’s tough. Dire Straits’ “Telegraph Road,” Bruce Cockburn’s “Salt, Sun and Time,” and Joni Mitchell’s “Ladies of the Canyon.”