The Brilliance sparks a spirit of collaboration on Lee's stage
Students crowded the Conn Center Chapel Tuesday, Sept. 9 to take part in a unique worship experience led by contemporary Christian band The Brilliance. The two-man music collaboration, led by David Gungor and John Arndt, also participated in a student Q&A after the chapel service, providing insight into their musical process.
Described by critics as "musically rich, theologically brave and emotionally honest", the idea for The Brilliance came into being in 2010, when Gungor was inspired by an orchestral arrangement performed by his brother-in-law, classical cellist Joshua Roman, at Carnegie Hall.
"Having grown up in church and getting my music education through that experience, I had a lot of appreciation for moments of epic size'the kind of moments where everyone is singing at the top of their lungs arena-style," Gungor said. "But during this performance, I was moved to a place of great awe and wonder'one of those moments where you get goosebumps'and I looked over and saw that everyone else felt the same as me and was leaning in, but we were all completely silent."
Gungor said the experience was so stirring, he felt compelled to call up Arndt, his childhood friend and original band mate [the two started a group called the Rockin' Jammers when they were only seven years old] to discuss forming a band with a similar sound. Arndt, who was studying piano performance at the University of Texas, Austin at the time, was immediately on board.
"With most worship records, and even in pop music, string arrangements are treated as filler, like a layer of frosting on top of a basically finished song," Arndt said. "That wasn't what we wanted. We started with a string quartet as the base of our sound, that was always going to be the heart of the music."
So strong was their emphasis on orchestral music that for a long time, there was no concern about band name or even lyrics, the artists said.
"We didn't know what this was or what it was going to be, but after we recorded the strings for two days with some incredible musicians, we showed [the music] to some people we trusted and they thought we should run with it," Gungor said.
Their goals affirmed, Gungor and Arndt dove headfirst into recording The Brilliance's first album, a work of the same name, pulling the name from a former pop project dubbed The Brilliance and The Flyer.
Though the band remains mainly a two-person endeavor, with Gungor leading vocals and Arndt writing music and playing piano, the duo has grown a roster of musicians to pull from for performance tours and recording, and have collaborated with a number of different cello players, drummers and violinists over the years.
This spirit of collaboration was reflected on Lee's stage during their concert Tuesday, when The Brilliance performed traditional church hymns as well as original music alongside a choral and instrumental section comprised solely of Lee music students.
"We received a volunteer sign up sheet of musicians who were interested [from the school] this past weekend, and John started creating a whole set of arrangements specifically for this on Friday," Gungor said.
Arndt said that he finds performing with students fun and liberating.
"It's a process of becoming, where we all share in this thing that's bigger than ourselves together," Arndt said. "We [had] never played this specific configuration before, and we'll never play it again."
After playing a few traditional worship songs and inviting the crowd to sing along, the band asked the audience to be seated, explaining that the next song they would perform, a piece entitled "Does Your Heart Break?" was meant for quiet reflection.
The song explores the mysteries of God's nature, and raises the unanswerable questions that so many people of both Christian and secular backgrounds pose of divine existence.
The pair explained that they had always hoped to touch on the aspects of Biblical truth that few Christian artists acknowledge within their music, wishing to provide an honest reflection of the Christian experience rather than the often formulaic worship tracks that receive top radio play.
"We don't question things for the sake of questioning, we're simply being honest about the things that so many people wrestle with, but in a posture of humility," Gungor said. "There is room in the Church for lament, for reflection and honesty, and we are trying to really delve into the reality of what it means to be human and what it means to be God."
Arndt suggests that it is this exploration of Christianity's roots that has made the band so successful among denominations of all kinds.
"Our music, at its foundation, is art, and we treat it that way, and hope that that can be a means to bring people together no matter their background," Arndt said. "We're writing for the capitol C-Church, and want all factions of Christianity to be able to share in this music as one body, because we are one unit."
As for the future, The Brilliance hopes to continue building its collection of albums [Gungor and Arndt have already created seven in a span of four years], touring and sharing their music with people who are passionate about art and their faith. Gungor has high hopes for the band, and looks forward to seeing how the music will continue to influence others.
"We want our music to be fruitful, to be an appreciation of beauty. And we don't know what our audience's response is going to be, but we don't want to, either - we want our music to take on a life of its own."