". . . little shall I grace my cause

In speaking for myself. Yet, by your gracious patience,

I will a round unvarnish'd tale deliver . . ."

(William Shakespeare's Othello, I.iii.88-90)

Friday, October 2, 2009

New Songs

My friend Susan the hymn addict has been thinking about church music lately (surprise, surprise!) and winds up a recent blog post thus:

And that's what got me to wondering. When I read about the new music being written for the church, good churchly music, I've wondered sometimes about the constant pursuit of new settings for hymns and liturgy. There's nothing wrong with the new things. Many of them are very good. Many of them become my new "fave" for a few months. But why the frequent desire for something new? Is it the difference between what's beautiful and what's exquisitely sublime? Do we eventually tire of the beautiful and well-written new church music, whereas the old (at least, the old that is still with us!!) never becomes tiresome?

Susan's questions have been bouncing around in my head for several days now so I decided to share some comments here rather than co-opt her comment box. My first thought has to do with the assumption that those who compose church music are always chasing after newness. Perhaps some are. But for many I don't think that's it at all. Especially when it comes to people like my husband, who does most of his composing for ancient texts (psalms, canticles and liturgy), it's not so much a pursuit of novelty as it is an expression of the eternal. As we gloriously experienced at my church when we had a hymnfest there a few weeks ago (and as we experience every Sunday), faith sings. It can't help but do so. And it sings in each of our lives in different ways. For some, the song of faith may consist of sewing new garments for those they love. For others it might mean planting and tending to a garden, creating a work of art, providing healthy food for one's family, writing poetry, playing a musical instrument, teaching, farming, serving in the armed forces, or tending to the sick. The song of faith finds its expression in one's vocation--all those things a person does in his daily life because he can't not do them. They are a part of who he is and can't be denied.

I am a musician, but I am not a composer. When I sit down to play the piano or stand up to sing I want a piece of music in front of me. My husband, on the other hand, has music exploding out of him all the time. He sits at the piano and his hands go to the keys and start to play without him even realizing it sometimes. As he walks around the house he sings unawares. The notes just tumble out of him--he can't help it. The music is there and must come out. Now certainly there is a craft to the composition process. He works at it. He tries one thing, then another, and keeps fine tuning :-) until he is pleased with the result. But that basic impulse--to put notes together--is something that is in him that is not in me.

And yet I don't think he would identify the primary goal of his compositional efforts as the creation of something new. He is one of the greatest champions of the old, the proven, the classic, that I know. Our adult church choir is right now singing selections by Bach, Schutz, Mendelssohn and Brahms, among others. Our worship services are replete with traditional hymnody and liturgy. Yes, we also do new music. But the test of whether we do a newer setting does not rest with its age. Instead there are several tests: 1) Does the music amplify the text? 2) Is the music of excellent quality? and 3) Is the composition suited to the assembly that is going to hear/sing it?

My husband is fond of talking about the "Four C's of Worship." To explore all of them here would make this post far too long, but in brief, he says that good Lutheran worship is confessional, catechetical, catholic (small "c"), and contemporary. By contemporary he is talking not about the use of microphones, worship teams, drum sets, screens and subjective "Jesus is my boyfriend" music, but rather the truth that worship has to do with bringing the eternal to the people assembled in a specific place at a specific time. So worship is by its very nature contemporary, because it happens in time.

My second thought is in response to this question in Susan's post: "Is it the difference between what's beautiful and what's exquisitely sublime?" I think she is asking why some of the newer settings, lovely as they are, do not have the staying power of the old. First, I would say that people have different definitions of what is sublime. I don't want to get into specifics, but I have a feeling that my friend and I may not see completely eye to eye on that one! :-) Ultimately, sublimity is determined by consensus--if the majority of people whose opinions we respect think something is sublime, then it probably is. So yes, there is a difference between something that is passingly beautiful and something that wears well over time and could therefore be called sublime. The most readily accessible and embraceable often turns out to be the thing that is most easily tired of. One of my husband's favorite examples is the Bobby McFerrin song "Don't Worry, Be Happy" which took the country by storm some years ago but which no one ever plays or sings anymore. But in every generation there are new songs that enough people consider to be sublime that they survive the test of time and eventually make their way into the canon, to become one of those traditional favorites that future generations will revere and love for ages to come. And that is what I think Susan is getting at in the final sentence of the paragraph above: "Do we eventually tire of the beautiful and well-written new church music, whereas the old (at least, the old that is still with us!!) never becomes tiresome?" I would say that yes, we do tire of some of it, and it drops out of use, and so doesn't last beyond a generation. But again, some of what is "new" today will because of its excellence and universality remain for more than a decade or two, and then it will become one of those "old" songs that future generations also embrace.

One final thought: while I don't think that the primary motivation for my husband and many of his contemporaries is newness per se, I do think that there is value to be had in freshness and variety. I think that God made us to appreciate variety. Why else would He have made for us the world he did, containing an almost infinite diversity of color and shape and texture? Why not just make one kind of flower, one kind of tree, one kind of terrain? Why the multiplicity of kinds? I think God appreciates variety and made us in His image to do the same. You can see it in the way we approach food. If food were merely all about nourishment, why not just eat the same basic staples in the same combinations day after day, week after week? As long as we're getting the nutrients we need, why spend so much time making it appealing and interesting and enjoyable? It's because there is an art and aesthetic to food that humans embrace. We savor food for its interest and variety and richness as well as for its sustenance. We appreciate the tried and true comfort foods--fried chicken and mashed potatoes--but we wouldn't want to eat fried chicken and mashed potatoes every day of our lives. We thrive on a diet of variety, taking the same basic healthy ingredients but putting them together in new ways, trying new recipes, tossing in this spice or that herb, sometimes finding that we like the new thing but sometimes finding that we don't. For some (not me), cooking a meal is akin to creating a beautiful work of art. It's a way to give expression to their creativity and love of the Creator's gifts. And some of those works of art become recipes that are shared and passed down through time, to be filed in the recipe box and cooked again and again, while others get rejected and tossed. I think church music is much the same way.

To be sure, some of us have a higher desire and/or tolerance for newness and variety than others. Part of being a church family is respecting the differences that may exist in a worship community and being willing to give a little, to sing something that is not our favorite but to do so because it sings faith into someone else's heart. It is the job of the pastors and cantors to keep congregations on a right path and to navigate through the difficult waters of making their congregation's worship confessional, catechetical, catholic, and contemporary. It's not always a smooth voyage. But congregations that are focused on Word and Sacrament and that have cross-shaped worship (looking to Christ while reaching out in love to one another) will be able to survive the occasional storms and choppy waters while charting their course for the calm and safety of the harbor and the fixed and immovable shore.


Kelly said...

What a coincidence that you posted this today. I wanted to drop you a note to tell you that I downloaded "Sing the Faith" from itunes today and that I am blown away by it! The tunes flow so beautifully and the choir that recorded it did a wonderful job. My daughter is still too little to fully appreciate it but I look forward to using it for years to come to make learning the Catechism much easier! Excellent job, Cantor!! Thank you!

Dakotapam said...

Bravo Cheryl. And, like Kelly above, "Sing the Faith" songs tend to float through my head almost as often as old standards. I think there is room for the new as well as the old. I thinkage does not determine value in church music. at one point all was new...last I checked there were no pipe organs in the upper room, no?