Musical irrelevance

Sophisticated music that doesn’t reach out directly to its listeners — that doesn’t depend on their response — bears the seeds of its eventual irrelevance. One reason classical music struggles as it does today lies with the several generations of composers in the last century who demanded that audiences understand them rather than the other way around.

But music written solely for the comfort of its audience is equally irrelevant. Pushing ethnic buttons as a form of quick access to the worshiper’s attention is only advertising. Easy familiarity acts like the door-to-door salesman’s foot in the door, the prelude to making that sale

This short quote is taken from an article in the New York Times from a few years ago.  I forget how I found it, but five bucks says it came up in my “recommended reading” from google reader.  Man that thing is great.

But anyway, I’m talking about music not software and gadgetry…

Should church music be influenced by the culture in which it exists?  Though I long for it, I can’t exctly imagine the opposite.  What is that sweet spot between art for arts’ sake and comfort for comforts’ sake.  Either extreme is wasting our time.  Intrestingly, the article lists two examples of the “ideal” music in the article: Verdi and gospel music.  I don’t see why those two examples reperesent the ideal, but I understand his intension here.  We need to uphold two things, beauty (read: more than 3 chords), and participation.  So how do we have the entire audience participate and make it beautiful?  I think thats why we have pipe organs.

But in all seriousness, the sound of a congregation singing anthems in unison can be incredibly powerful when done correctly, and horribly dissapointing when not.  Composers of church music, should seek to write idiomatically for a congregational voice.  It can be simple and it can be beautiful.  What is done with that simple and beautiful melody is where true art can be made.  Bach did it well (I also think it shameful that he wasn’t mentioned in that NYT article).  He took commonplace melodies of the Lutheran church of his day, written by the previous generation composers such as Praetorius or Schütz, and enriched them with craft, counterpoint, and creativity.

A great example of this, and incidentally a piece that I’m currently obsessed with, is Bach’s Cantata 118, “O Jesu Christ, Meins Lebens Licht.”  |  Boring history.

Why I think its so fantastic for christian worship (this was actually funeral music, but you get the idea), is that the original melodies remain unhindered amidst the complex polyphony.  Its no longer a chunky hymn setting, but a real work of art, and the congregation could still sing along with it.  This has, on numerous occasions, brought tears to my eyes just from listening to it. Joy.

What is our equivalent to Bach today?  Though they pale in intellectual comparison, I’m a fan of folky arrangements of American hymns.  You know, the ones by Issac Watts, Charles Wesley, and the like.  David Crowder Band (yea they’re still around) does some good ones.  I like his because rarely if ever does he change the melody.  We can do hymns with electric guitars, old people are happy, young people are happy.  The congregational voice takes priority over any fancy (and wickedly awesome) face melting synthesized accompaniment.  I can sing along, and so can my grandma.  Joy.

Author: adamkurihara

Minister of Worship Arts at NSCBC in Beverly, MA

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