Saturday, March 31, 2007

Some side notes on composing a Mass

Masses are tough. I suppose if I didn't care what I was really doing musically with the text of the Mass I could say it wasn't hard or if I was some lazy dork who refused to set the Credo for some dubious reason besides just not believing that what the Creed says is actually true then I could decide that maybe it's not really hard ... but it's hard.

It seems the most crucial issue is to take the text and consider its theological content and form as a starting point. The text tends to suggest its own musical form. Kyrie settings are usually some variation of binary or ternary form, usually the latter. Glorias and Credos tend to be more free-floating but this is not something I'm sure I entirely endorse. I think that if you take the literary structure of the Gloria you'll find that a persistent pattern emerges in which declamations about God alternate with descriptions of how we respond to the nature of God's glory. Since the Gloria incipit is taken from the worship of angels to Yahweh I consider it to be not merely a descritpion of how acclamation of the Lord but of the divine court's description of the Lord. I.e. we're not angels so appropriating the worship of angels as our own should not distract us from the observation that angels are the Lord's messengers. Therefore I found a way to compose a Gloria where the incipit is used in a number of forms to describe the Lord's nature and attributes and to use a different thematic gesture to describe our own response to the Lord whether through thanksgiving or supplication. And it came out in a loose rondo form of ABabA.

The Credo presents another set of problems, a HUGE set of problems. I'm not Bach or Penderecki so a large scale multi-movement setting of the Credo feels utterly beyond me. But I am often stymied by attempting to just imitate the Credo forms I've seen other composers use, not because they're musically unsatisfying but because I"m just not sure the musiccal form explicates the theological significance of the text. Text-painting is cool and all but sometimes text-painting just creates a big mush of tunes and textures that don't always make formal sense. It's seeming terribly easy to create a big musical mess where people don't remember the content of the Credo.

So for me the plan that seems most logical is to build the musical setting of the Credo around Christ and to have that be the measure. There are two aspects of Christ to consider via hypostatic union--his divine nature and his human nature; His oneness with the Father and His identification with us as sinful men and women. So how would this work itself out? So far I think the best approach is to establish a thematic and structural link between Christ's earthly ministry, death, and resurrection and the ministry and gifts and hope of the Church. This would also entail finding a thematic and structural link between the Son with the Father and Spirit. So, of course, this means that the melody and harmony associated with the persons of the Trinity should be shared. So far the only composer I've found who made a point of doing this in his Mass is Frank Martin (way to go Frank!) but I imagine other composers have done this and I trust I'm not the last, the first, or that people besides Martin haven't done this already.

Yeah, I know, I've blogged about this before but making sure you are, as a Christian and a composer, putting a lot of thought into the meaning of the text is the smallest prerequisite for bothering to write a Mass at all. I've only been working on this for seven years so I figure I've got no one's deadline and only my artistic goals to worry about.

This is Your Brain on Music, part 2, connections to biblical literature

Now this may seem like a total joke to any of you who aren't Christians or don't see how scientific research on musical perception would have anything to do with biblical literature. Since I'm a Christian and a musician with at least a passing interest in some scientific research (though I admit I don't have any scientific training) I feel that this book Levitin has written provides some interesting stuff Christians, and Christian musicians, should at least be aware of.

I skipped entirely Levitin's points about how brain development connects to musical taste because I think it basically speaks for itself and I've tended to think that people stop expanding their musical tastes around the time they think they've "grown up". Still, it's another interesting excurses Levitin touches on to explore why people seem to have expanding musical interests and tastes up to about their early 20s after which many, many people just stop listening to new music and keep playing that same album by Boston or Led Zeppelin over and over again.

But I think Levitin's explanation of sexual selection, while probably pretty accurate, seems incomplete. To assume we must explain music in terms of the earliest humans is actually a perfectly good idea, though, even if it's not clear that just one explanation of the use of music would do the job. Scientists are still not sure why any animals need to sleep so why would we necessarily have one cover-all explanation for music?

Still, Levitin's proposal that music is a form of sexual selection, that music signals a guy is a good suitor and mate, is something Christians can extrapolate from the Bible. The first song ever sung in Scripture is Adam's song to Eve. When the first song in Scripture is invented by a man for his wife when he sees her for the first time I defy any Christian to just dismiss Levitin's explanation of sexual selection as being inaccurate. It may be incomplete but the Bible pretty well backs it up as far as it goes.

For that matter, let's just look at the titles of biblical books. The Song of Songs is not actually about God except by means of theologians forcing it to be an allegorical exploration of God's love for His people or the individual believer by means of sheer historical accumulation of avoiding the more obvious content of the book. It's a series of love poems celebrating sexual love between a husband and wife. If the first song in Scripture is about sex and the Song of Songs, which advertises itself as the greatest of all songs, at least uses the sexual relationship as its central metaphor (hey, I'll throw a bone to people who assume Song of Songs MUST be allegorical) then we can't avoid the truth that sexual selection and song are linked in a way that even the most conservative Christian can't deny.

Not that this necessarily is presented as a justification for polygamy but consider the two greatest kings in Israelite history, David and Solomon. Both were legendary for their abilities as song-writers and both had quite a few wives. Even if we are not presented with prescriptive teaching from Scripture that Levitin's hypothesis is correct the descriptive evidence of the biblical account is that Levitin's still right that the song and dance man impresses the women.

But I think even a non-Christian could argue that Levitin overstates the explanation of sexual selection. We know for a fact that not all songs are about getting the attention of the hot guy or hot girl. We learn songs to learn things we really need to know. Despite dismissive statements that music is a parasitic offshoot of language centers in the brain it's hard to ignore that we all learned the alphabet through some form of song. Music and memory are intertwined. We remember things when we sing them and Scripture supports this, too. God told Moses to teach the Israelites a song so as to remember what He wanted them to remember. Many of the Psalms are devoted to summaries of Israel's history. If these psalms have ever seemed boring keep in mind that it would be easier to read one of the Psalms covering Israel's history than to read the whole Torah. In a culture where literacy was rare using songs as an aid to memory was crucial. In cultures where written languages were not invented this role of music to aid memory and shared a common history would have been even more important.

Which is to say I think Christians and Christians who are musicians, should read this book and other literature dealing with scientific research into music and musical perception. Levitin's book is pretty easy to read and in some ways is boring because he deals with music at such a basic level for Western repertoire.

And people will justifiably complain that Levitin grossly oversimplifies all musical idioms in terms of Western thought. He's not covering Eastern music and assumes the half step is really the smallest interval the human ear can perceive. This is, to put it mildly, not even close to true! I've visited the Seattle Composer's Salon enough times to tell you that there's all kinds of micro-tonal music out there. The major/minor key system we take for granted still includes tiny distinctions that are real and practical for the notes E sharp and F natural. Enharmonic spellings don't mean the notes are necessarily ever really the same in terms of actual pitch. This is a distinction that people who played fretted instruments may not always care about but string players care.

So besides having a simplistic explanation of music as a way of getting nooky, Levitin's book fails to account for the wide range of ways in which humanity organizes sound and divides tones within the octave. In fact this is where things come full circle on the issue of biblical literature because we know so little about ancient Greek and Hebrew music it would be hard to say with any authority what those musical idioms would sound like beyond a few broad guesses.

What purpose does msuic serve? Levitin's question is still one we'll answer in each generation. I'm not sure there is a clear, cut and dried answer. To tie things back to Levitin's proposal of sexual selection, a lot of people in the modern West might only agree that music is connected in some way to sex and sexual selection but may not want th ekids that would be the natural consequence of sexual selection from the time in which Levitin proposes the evolutionary adaptation developed.

In the end I'd say that Levitin's attempt to explain music in terms of ancient human history actually puts him in the same boat as the theologian who attempts to explain our musical impulses in terms of divine revelation in Scripture. Either way we're dealing with material referring to events that can't possibly be replicated in a lab and is therefore the result of some guess work. The Bible doesn't attempt to explain our musical inclination so much as presuppose it and suggest some directions for where to put our musical inclinations.

Since I've spent quite a bit of time blogging in just two posts about this book I figure I'm done for now. :)