Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Tim Challies on "Why I didn't Sing When I Visited Your Church" a model of passive aggressive 2nd person generalization articulating some worn but still-valid concerns in the cycle of worship wars

There's a certain kind of ineffable elegance to a Christian blog post that is so exquisitely coached in luxuriant prose with so indefinite a second person address.  You know the kind of post even if you don't think you do.  But since the axiom among writing teachers is "show don't tell" ...

Of course Tim Challies could have said which church he actually visited and had in mind for this piece but perhaps the better part of Christian scruples advises against this.

It was a joy to finally visit your church a couple of Sundays ago, and to worship with the believers there. You know I’ve been looking forward to it for a long time. Just as you promised, the pastor is an excellent communicator and a man who loves God’s Word. His sermon was deeply challenging and led to some great conversations with my children.

Now, you asked me why it looked like I wasn’t singing. I know that was probably a little awkward, so thought I’d send along a brief explanation. Primarily, it’s because…

Here we were just discussing at the blog the potential problems inherent in a plea to revive the didn't-exactly-end worship wars earlier this week.  Ten years ago, actually, that church could have been one like the former Mars Hill.  For that matter ... five years ago it could have been a church like the former Mars Hill.  Or the church could have been inspired by example.  In any event, let's consider Challies' reasons for not singing along. They do get to issues that keep coming up in worship wars between ambitious musicians on the one hand and people considered about liturgical or doctrinal fidelity on the other.  This is hardly to say that these two impulses and groups never overlap.  Those for whom both aspects are primary concerns tend to make the history of Christian music here and there.

I was not familiar with the songs. Your church has a tremendously skilled group of musicians leading them and it was a true joy to hear them play and sing. They sound as good live as they do on their album! But, unless I missed something, all of the songs on that Sunday were drawn from their own music. There weren’t any hymns in the service or even any familiar worship songs. So it’s not that I didn’t want to sing; it’s just that I didn’t know the songs. I want to be fair—every church has some of its own songs, and there is nothing wrong with that. I tried to follow along the best I could so I could learn some of yours, but even then…

Before he moves on to his inevitable next point let's make a few observations here.  Many of the churches that tilt more contemporvant also tend toward what Theodore Gracyk described as an "ontologically thick" approach to musical culture.  In lay terms this means it's all about the recordings and the audio files, and it may only secondarily (if at all) be about media that are "ontologically thin", which was Gracyk's slightly unwieldy term for what we'd colloquially know as "sheet music".  Fans of the "thick" approach to music and styles that are produced and mediated primarily by recording technology tend to fetishize authenticity by way of specific timbres and extra-musical narrative/social contexts.  It's not even remotely the case that this DOESN'T happen in the "thin" cultures that rely on music  notation and the rest of the nominally "classical" idioms.  They are as picky themselves on all of those kinds of issues.  The teams have their shibboleths in both directions. 

Having said all that, the kinds of churches that are into being contemporary may not necessarily have more than a few charts indicating the words and basic chord shapes.  It might be impossible to follow the music simply because unless you're already steeped in that specific church culture you couldn't possibly begin to guess at what the texts are or what the melodies are.

But given the "literate musical tradition" we so often associate with "classical" music the tricky part is that what if you go to a church that has a full-blown hymnal with hymnody and you're musically illiterate?  You're still just as stuck.  What if the liturgy is Serbian or Ukrainian and you don't know those dialects?  Well  the same  problem accrues even if the chants are written out for people to sight-read and sing along with.

Challies is describing something like the alienation that can happen in either direction on the part of those who may not be musically conversant or who may not be conversant in the culture they're visiting. 

That conveniently gets us to the next point.

the songs weren’t congregational. Most of them seemed to have been written with the band in mind more than the congregation. What I mean is that they were unpredictable and often went beyond my vocal range and ability. This made them tough to learn and difficult to sing. Sometimes I would just begin to think I had it, but then…

There's this old book, decades old actually, called Why Catholics Can't Sing.  Maybe you've heard of the book or read it yourself.  The fusillade is largely against the importation o fthe Irish "sweet song" tradition for solo voice that had crept in or flooded into the Catholic church scene in the United States over the last half century.  The complaint was not that the songs themselves lacked for beauty but that they were often soloist material and made some more or less impossible demands on the vocal abilities of anyone who wasn't Sundays-special-soloist. 

This next point Challies gets to is quite possibly proof of a couple of things 1) he's white and 2) he's either never been to a Pentecostal church or hasn't been to one in a reaallllyy long time.

your singers would ad-lib. Twice through that final chorus they sang it one way, but then on the third they did something I didn’t see coming and just couldn’t follow. Was I supposed to follow them up the scale as they went high on that final chorus, or was I supposed to stick with the original melody? I didn’t want to mess it up, so figured I’d better keep it quiet. I might have had help there, but…

You may already know where he's going with this and he ends in the unsurprising riff about how it all seems like a rock/pop concert so he sat back and enjoyed the show.  It's got no suspense at all and if he'd led with how pervasive he might find this ethos in American churches he could go on to have enumerated how often this happens and perhaps even gotten specific about which churches or brands of churches are apt to do this.

Here in Seattle this was Mars Hill.  Many of us who went loved or didn't-quite-love Luke Abrams' voice and his vocal range was in the zone of what some guy kinda joked was the sound of a 12-year-old-boy.  Around 2005 when the congregation had a groundswell of complaints along the lines Challies has shared about why he didn't sing at church X recently these criticisms were considered the basis from which to give the entire church a tongue-lashing courtesy of then pastor Tim Smith. 

There weren't just complaints about the songs being difficult or impossible to sing along with there were concerns about the loudness of the music.  Challies kinda gets to that next.

I couldn’t hear the congregation sing. I wanted to learn from the people around me, but I couldn’t hear them. A lot of them seemed to be singing along, but they were far quieter than the band. Don’t get me wrong, I love loud music and often crank it to silly levels when I’m at home or in my car. (I’ve even got it at an obnoxious level as I write these words.) But as I understand it from Colossians 3:16, a key element of congregational worship is hearing the congregation. Singing is in the realm of “one-another” ministry, meaning that we are to sing for the other people there. But that was tough because…

finally ... he gets to the central, unifying point that he could have led off with.

it felt like a performance. We were in a darkened room sitting on theatre-style seats. The band was on a brightly-lit stage at the front of the room, singing their own songs with the volume cranked right up. This set a context that struck me as more concert than church. I really enjoyed watching the band and listening to them, but it felt to me that they were doing rather than facilitating the worship. So finally I just sat back and enjoyed the show.

Now, please don’t think I’m trying to rekindle the old worship wars. I believe there is room in congregational worship for both traditional hymns and modern worship songs. I love them both! But the way the music was structured and implemented in your church was just not conducive to congregational worship. It was good, it was professional, but thinking about it now, I can’t help but wonder if perhaps it wasn’t a bit too good and too professional. I wonder if the desire for excellence may have robbed it of much of its usefulness. It’s worth considering: If our desire for excellence puts the music out of reach for the congregation, perhaps we’re pursuing a wrong definition of excellence.

Whereas the Mere Fidelity crew want to revive the worship wars it seems Challies would like that to be avoided.  Still, he's clearly willing to articulate some grievances with the state of contemporary praise and worship. 

Maybe there was a visited church at some recent point or maybe it was just the sort of abstracted thinkpiece that seems virtually inevitable in the Christian subset of cyberspace whenever articles come along a few days earlier, such as this little number from Michael Lee Ed Stetzer.

Challies' points are boilerplate as they go and they're sound concerns.  There are some potential caveats pertinent to musical culture and education.  In contemporary music there's more likely to be a guitarist leading the song time.  This is likely to be a guitarist who is not really comfortable playing in every imaginable major and minor key and who may also not have invested in a capo.  Now the music director at my church knows I absolutely hate capos but I can easily forgive his use of one because while he ... uses a capo on his guitar, he's also played the violin.  Anyone who's learned how to play the right notes on a bowed string instrument will have done something we fretted instrument players don't have to deal with unless we've got some custom-built microtonal instrument, consistently nailing down the difference between F sharp and G flat. 

So, anyway, a key that is easily played on the guitar by a guitarist of modest skill is likely to be a key signature that is NOT easily handled by an untrained voice.  The reverse is also the case.  An average singer in a choir can sing in F major more comfortably than E major because of where all the register breaks happen in the voices of adult males and females.  But which key do you think the guitarist is going to try to play the song in?  E major, of course.  If the singers were to ask the guitarist to play in F major instead do you think a guitarist would comply?  I would because I love F major and F minor on the guitar! Were it possible to pre-order the scores and recordings of Nikita Koshkin's 24 preludes and fugues for solo guitar today I would have done it already! 

But for the average, or even slightly-above-average church music guitarist odds are still pretty good that the guitar-friendly keys are not going to be voice-friendly keys.  This problem shows up even when we're talking about faithful old stand by songs like "What Wondrous Love is This?" or even "Amazing Grace".  Just because a tune is easy to sing doesn't mean it's easy to sing above a shimmering open A major chord struck on the silvery strings of a Stratocaster. The situation is not necessarily changed if we're talking about Martins or Taylors or Ovations.

Even if we grant there's too much of a rock concert vibe to a lot of contemporary church music this is a problem that has been incubating for generations and is not likely to go away inside of even one generation.  We'd need to ask questions about where music education for people happens.  Gone are the days when families would entertain themselves and each other by playing parlor music.  Sousa warned more than a century ago that once the mediation of music rested in machines and technology rather than people that we'd see and hear a flattening out and homogenization of musical culture.  That's not ... entirely true but that's not the point.  The point here is that most people get their musical education from music they hear by way of machines even if they are used to singing songs in church. 

Do something to address the musical literacy issue across the board and it may become easier to articulate when and why this or that song doesn't sit well in the throat of X number of congregants. 

The thing about shifting musical styles is that this is literally the history of church music.  Would we expect Lutherans in German to insist on singing Veni Creator Spiritus in Latin?  NOt so much.  Would a Catholic rite for Pentecost have that?  Likely.  One of the fun parts about music history and musicology is tracing how a chant like Veni Creator Spiritus can appear vestigially in the fugue subject of Bach's C major fugue from his famous violin sonata.  There's a historical case to be made that the version of "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God" that you may have sung in church is probably not the version that was first penned but the isorhythmic post-Hanssler version.  One of the weaknesses fans of old music can sometimes have is forgetting (almost as if on purpose) how much the standard repertory of even an earlier generation was steeped in incremental modification of existing traditions. 

If the adage that ninety percent of everything is crap the musical canon means we've preserved or had preserved for us just the most workable stuff from preceding generations.  There are reasons we may still sing hymns by Isaac Watts and Fanny Crosby more often than B. E. Warren, for instance.  Decades ago I remember checking out the Rolling Stone guide to albums from a city library and was surprised to see entries for Amy Grant, Al Green and Keith Green.  Both entries had jaded introductions about how those who don't believe may have qualms about listening to Gospel music.  The verdicts were that with Al Green the fears were unjustified because the music was great.  For Grant the fears were justified.  For Keith Green the riff was that even though Keith Green's songs were often pedantic and doctrinaire you never had moments where you felt like the person singing the songs wasn't a real human being. 

If I wanted to I could diverge into a fantastic episode of South Park called "Christian Rock Hard" but that's not something I feel like doing on a week night.  Besides, the 20th anniversary of the show is this year anyway so there's some other occasion during which that episode can be discussed.

Challies' points aren't exactly bad points.  They were concerns I had about the musical culture of Mars Hill a decade ago.  But there's a point past which we might want to ask what the broader scope of our musical culture is.  Given how frequently unoriginal and uninventive evangelicals can tend to be let's be mean about it here for a moment, evangelical musical culture probably lags behind mainstream musical culture by something on the order of a decade, right? ;) 

Just a day or so ago we were looking at how historically the Baroque era, particularly the high Baroque era, was full of exalted church music that was completely beyond the abilities of the untrained to follow, participate in or understand.

Challies' comments are not exactly original or even inspired and yet in a way they're perfect because if we were to compare them to Bukofzer's general observations about the complaints made that the music of a J. S. Bach was too esoteric it lets us know that these concerns go back centuries.  If it be protested that there's no way a Chris Tomlin three-chorder is at the level of J. S. Bach we'll just grant that point while noting that for the purposes of this blog post that's not where we're going.  There's nothing new under the sun.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

coming back belatedly to a Mere Orthodoxy podcast about reviving the worship wars, a musicological/historical problem--high liturgical music has ALWAYS been above the heads of the laity

Reviving the worship wars at this point would benefit from an explanation of what they were, how they got started, why they should matter, and whether or not we can even say in historical terms that the worship wars ever stopped.

I'll bracket in a mention made at Mere Orthodoxy of Roger Scruton.

I've begun reading through Scruton's work at The Future Symphony Institute and elsewhere.  As a moderately conservative sort there are things I can admire about Scruton's desire to preserve the traditions and idioms of the Western art musical discipline.  In the current era when people in the United States are worried the NEA and NEH will get gutted there's reason those who love the fine arts traditions should be happy that some people are interested in preserving the high art traditions.

You don't even have to be a political conservative to see value in preserving the traditions. Take John Halle's essay "Nothing is Too Good for the Working Class", for instance.

Something Halle mentions along the way is how a certain Seeger known within the left reformulated the question about music as an art.  The question was no longer "is this good?" but "what is this good for?"

To the extent that the demise of musical high culture and the elevation of popular forms, both in terms of their prestige and their nearly complete domination of the musical marketplace, constitutes a triumph, Seeger has triumphed. [emphasis added] But it is by no means clear that Seeger himself would have regarded it as such. One indication to the contrary is provided by an iconic moment within rock history, the 1965 Newport Folk Festival at which Bob Dylan made his final break with unamplified folk music, assaulting the audience with a maximal volume Maggie’s Farm. Charles, nearly 80, accompanied Pete. And while accounts of Pete’s hostility to amplified rock are likely highly exaggerated by Dylan fans wanting to construe a Seeger-Dylan standoff in mythic, Oedipal terms, Charles likely did have misgivings both with respect to Dylan’s performance and with the form which the rock revolution was ultimately to take.
To recognize what these may have been requires looking more closely at Seeger’s stated views which are somewhat subtler than Davis’s critique of them would suggest. One statement is contained in a memo23 Seeger wrote in his capacity as director of the WPA Federal Music Project overseeing those working under the FMP’s auspices. Most prominently, Seeger will be seen to promote a horizontalist musical culture privileging active participation in music above passive listening: the former is the “essential thing,” whereas the later was “secondary” according to him. [emphasis added] Complementing this was a rejection of the peaks of musical achievement, i.e. the production of masterpieces as the standard by which musical culture should be judged: “As every person is musical . . . [t]he musical culture of the nation is to be estimated upon the extent of participation of the whole population rather than upon the extent of the virtuosity of a fraction of it.” [emphasis added] And given that “music as a group activity is more important than music as individual accomplishment,” “professional music” should not be “artificially stimulated.” Finally, perhaps most challenging of all, Seeger wasn’t interested in whether a piece of music was or was not, in some sense, “good”; rather he was interested in “what is it good for?” [emphasis added]
These amount to a direct attack on the Eislerian vision of the high musical arts, albeit of a familiar sort. The “artificial stimulation” Seeger refers to implicates the many years of subsidized, formal training which are necessary for classical musicians; in contrast, the skills required to perform in most other styles are learned “on the job,” mainly by performing and socially engaging with others. The subsidies are justifiable if one assumes that the masterpieces of the literate medium have a unique, transcendent value. But this assumption is challenged by Seeger, raising doubts as to whether the question of musical quality—“what is good”—is even meaningful in the absence of an understanding of what is gained by defining a hierarchy of musical value—“what is it good for?” Asking the latter question turns back on itself classical music’s commitment to “timeless masterpieces,” equating these to an economy similarly hierarchically organized albeit around the production of concentrations of wealth and power. How can we criticize one, and celebrate the other, Seeger quite reasonably asks the left? ...

Halle went on to propose that the triumph of popular vernacular musical styles that could have presaged social revolution turned out to reflect the powerful influence of capitalism and the triumph of popular musical styles over the high art music tradition of the West was employed by the right as a defense of capitalism and its results.

So there's that, and it's not hugely surprising Halle went there.  But a person could also propose that the pragmatic skepticism of complex high-art idioms would be a thing we'd expect to find in the ostensibly right-leaning evangelical scene, wouldn't it? 

So Scruton is not the sort to ask "what is it good for?"

But this might be where a traditional conservative or someone defending the old liberalism might differ from a neo-liberal who might suggest that if the market doesn't "want" high art why should people be forcibly exposed by way of educational cultures to a canon they don't want or don't regard as sufficiently canonical?  Charles Mudede over at The Stranger has written about his childhood experience of classical music as stuff written by dead white guys that he had to learn about in school and when he asked if there were black composers of this sort of music the answer at the time was basically nobody.  Now here we are at the centennial year of Scott Joplin's death and if there ISN'T an over-priced prestige format compilation of everything Scott Joplin ever wrote it'd be an insult to the legacy of one of the great pianist composers in the American compositional tradition. 

And that's probably still a controversial claim because for advocates of a high art musical tradition Scott Joplin probably doesn't count. 

Now at the same site there's a case in process for what the relevance of the art music tradition of the West is.

I think Borstlap places far too much emphasis on music since the common practice era and not enough on the musical traditions ranging from the foundation of early Christian liturgical music up through Bach and the late Baroque period.  The Future Symphony Institute folks seem too busy beating the dead horses of Cage and Schoenberg to remember the whole range of experiments in the wake of Harry Partsch or Morton Feldman.  I'm not saying you have to LIKE their music but pretending that the history of the avant garde is all about the aleatoric or atonal schools of thought without looking at the advocacy for just intonation or microtonality seems lazy.  Richard Taruskin's gadfly contributions to the public discourse on music history has included the assertion that Cold War institutional and ideological polemics may have given the Cage/Schoenberg orbit more influence within accepted academic history than their music might warrant in terms of market presence. 

Borstlap and Scruton may be committed to preserving an art music tradition that prominently features Wagner but Wagner's influence beyond the realm of music is so indisputable as to be boring.  The legacy of Wagner's vision of a total work of art that integrates all possible media and technical options lives on in our day.  It may exist in a formulation that Scruton and others will find appalling but we've got Star Wars, we've got Star Trek, we've got Transformers, we've got the Marvel cinematic universe.

Earlier this year I read David P. Roberts' The Total Work of Art in European Modernism.
eISBN 978-0-8014-6145-3
Copyright (c) 2011 by Cornell University

if we mozy on over to location 212 ..

The total work of art is characterized for Fornoff by four basic structural components:
I) An inter- or multimedial union of different arts in relation to a comprehensive vision of the world and society
II) An implicit or explicit theory of the ideal union of the arts
III) A closed worldview, combining a social-utopian or historical-philosophical or metaphysical-religious image of the whole with a radical critique of existing society and culture
IV) A projection of an aesthetic-social or aesthetic-religious utopia, which looks to the power of art for its expression and as the aesthetic means to a transformation of society.

George Lucas might have set out to make Star Wars a total work of art and thanks to some dubious ideas proposed by Joseph Campbell people can imagine that the franchise is somehow a universal heroic journey rather than an implicitly and explicitly Anglo-American one.  By contrast, or comparison, Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek so emphatically fits the profile of the total work of art at every level that the point here is not whether or not the original Star Trek series isn't goofy or of its time, the point beyond any legitimate dispute here is that if we go with a working definition of the aims and means of the total work of art as a project we can't find a better example of what Wagner and others set in motion than Star Trek.  Wagner's legacy is assured even if a lot of people find they have better things to do with their lives than listen to his music.

That people can pay attention to half a century's worth of space opera suggests that, in principle, they could have attention enough for Wagner's Ring cycle and thus satisfy the wishes of Scruton.  But ... something someone like Scruton may recognize that someone like Matthew Lee Anderson may not is that one of the crises in educational culture these days is about how difficult it is to convey to even college students how a sonata form works.

A colleague in Music History at a major American university reports that it has become difficult to teach sonata form because sonata forms transpire over 15 minutes and more.  This topic – shrinking attention-span — is obviously not irrelevant to the future of orchestras.

So it seems that even among college students it's hard for some teachers to explain what goes on in sonata forms because sonata forms (in the symphonic tradition) can traverse a quarter of an hour's time.  When attention spans are cultivated in a stream of popular songs how can you explain what goes on in a sonata form to a college student whose attention span has not been trained to keep focused on a purely musical experience?  It is here that we might be daft enough and impudent enough to suggest that the legacy of Wagner has been negative, insisting upon unified artistic experiences that engross every sense in ways that could vitiate the possibilities of a more "autonomous" musical experience. MTV may have killed that kind of musical attention a generation ago.  If it has expecting students to follow along with the 19th century attention span might be an unrealistic goal.  The problem is not so much the repertoire being unworthy.  It's worthy, even if I find much of it tedious because I'm more into Baroque and Classic era music on the one hand and 20th century music on the other.  No, the trouble is that in some ways a fixation on 19th century canonical music will run aground on insisting that the best way to convey the thought processes of the musical discipline in Western art music is best conveyed by a 19th century Germanic idiom. 

In fact you could walk students through a Bach fugue from the famous 48 and in many cases the fugue won't be longer than the length of an average pop song.  There's not a single fugue in The Well-Tempered Clavier that gets past the half-way mark of Bob Dylan's "Desolation Row". 

But having mentioned Bach one of the other troubles with attempting to revive the worship wars by invoking the art music tradition is that it can potentially misunderstand who did and didn't understand the music of the high Baroque era, for instance, at the time the music was being made.

On this matter it's useful to turn to Manfred Bukofzer and his book.  Bold emphasis is added throughout:

Music in the Baroque Era: From Monteverdi to Bach
location 7882-7883 if you've got the wonderfully cheap Kindle edition
The fatal gap between composer and audience that characterizes modern musical life did not exist in the baroque period. The composers wrote as a matter of course in an idiom that was "modern" at the time. They did not fear, as our contemporary composers sometimes do, that their genius might be recognized only after they had been safely dead long enough to be recognized as "classics." The aristocrats and the patricians had sufficient musical training in music to keep abreast with the musical innovations of the time.  This high level of musical understanding was taken for granted although the unschooled common people were obviously far removed from it. In view of the restricted social background of baroque music it is not surprising that the common man was given no consideration.

[paragraph break supplied]

Complaints that the common people did not understand the elaborate church music were quite frequent. It is interesting to see how these justified objections were countered. In his Psalmodia Christiana Mithobius disposed of the argument in a highly significant fashion. He admitted that the common man was unable to understand "all tricks and artifices of the musician," but he did not conclude from this fact that music should be composed on a lower level within the grasp of the untrained.  He maintained on the contrary that the common people should rise to the music by "exercise" because the more labor and artifice was devoted to the praise of God the better: "God cannot be praised artificially enough."  Even though the people did not quite follow the composer, it was, according to Mithobius, enough for them to know that a sacred piece was being performed.  He clearly disclosed the strong ethical reason why patterned elaborations and contrapuntal complexity held so central a place in music. It did not occur to the composers to "write down" to an audience, nor were they bothered by the idea of writing for eternity. Bach's works were composed for the various occasions of the liturgical year and these called for his best efforts.  Precisely because Bach wrote for the day as elaborately and "artificially" as he could, he composed music that was not of an age, but for all time.

In other words, the problem with Anderson proposing that the average lay person can't understand a complex musical argument in a more advanced piece of church music now is not so much that this isn't true.  It's certainly true the average churchgoer in the pew won't understand the intricacies of high liturgical Christian music in the same way they won't understand the abstractions of development or dialectical possibilities in a symphonic piece from the common practice era.  But that will miss some things, such as that a symphony penned by Arvo Part or Steve Reich doesn't even traffic in that kind of discursive procedural approach to form in the same way a symphony by Haydn or Brahms does. 

So we could also say that the average churchgoer in the pew will not understand a Bach cantata as readily as a three chord praise-and-worship chorus or a chorale.  But that is precisely Bukofzer's point, the historical facts were that the average churchgoer in the pew didn't understand what on earth Bach was up to in Bach's own generation. Anderson's point that the average churchgoer in the pew can't follow the complexity of a symphonic work might have had some teeth if it were ever actually true that the average layperson could follow the complexities of the most advanced works in the Western art music tradition but since historical study suggests this was never actually the case it might not be the best point to lead with.  Making a case that patricians and aristocrats COULD follow the complex musical arguments could work but American evangelicalism has this history of not necessarily being the most ... highbrow.  Sure, we'd expect German evangelicals to be plugged into complex church music because why wouldn't German Lutherans keep the music of Bach around in much the same way Austrian Catholics could have an incentive to keep Haydn's Masses around, to say nothing of the oratorios.  Anglicans have an incentive to keep the Masses of Byrd around because they're amazing! 

For that matter since one of my pet reading projects has been on the history of the fugue and the sonata forms I've been steeping myself in the most esoteric and advanced approaches to procedural and formal development in the Western art music tradition prior to Schoenberg for a couple of decades.  So while I can grant Anderson wants to propose that lay people rise up to the advanced level of a symphonic movement would he be able to identify a Type 2 sonata form when he heard one?  The Mere Orthodoxy folks seem more focused on the usual conservative evangelical topics of sex and marriage than on debates about the parameters of sonata forms and theories about them that you might find here or here or here or here

The too long; didn't read summation of those articles is this--if we have scholarly debate in the 21st century about the accuracy and applicability of recent theories that propose to explain the formal processes of thematic differentiation in sonata forms for 18th century music that should be construed as a sign that sonata forms are not really "obsolete" in the way we might have been told they were by 20th century Western academics.  Of course regular readers of this blog might have read a long set of posts discussing the details of early 19th century guitar sonatas and observations about approaches to sonata forms at the series of posts that have been tagged as being on that topic.  Another post Cold War irony might be this, that self-avowed conservatives now praise the Soviet Union for preserving all sorts of wonderful things about the Western art music tradition thanks to composers like Shostakovich!  It's a strange era we live in when conservatives can get anywhere near expressing the sentiment "thank God for the communists!" because they preserved elements of the Western art music tradition that Western academics spent a generation or two regarding as obsolete and passe.

But notice what that defense was regarding the complex music of the Baroque era, that it was more complex than what an uneducated layperson could handle but that's alright because the layperson should rise to the sacred occasion.  That's not so different from what advocates of atonal or aleatoric music have tried to argue for.  The trouble has been, it seems, that in the 20th century the music that was too complex for laity to keep track of did not traffic in a set of compositional constraints that permitted ordinary people to predict what was going to come next.

What's different this time around is that while the music of the 20th century Western vanguard composers was difficult and above the heads of the masses what these composers frequently did not have was an extra-musical incentive to give to the audiences to draw them in and help them rise to the occasion the music created.  Well, sometimes it could be done but I think it was over at his blog that Kyle Gann noted that the extra-musical associations ordinary people have for atonal music tends to drift toward anxiety and horror.  I can't recall the exact spot that observation came up so I'll just jump to this point, that a Penderecki can compose a wildly discordant and punishing musical setting of the Passion according to St. Luke and we can go along with the musical depiction of agony because the extra-musical purpose of the music, depicting the crucifixion of Christ, is commensurate with the musical language that permeates the work we're hearing. 

What advocates of atonal music can sometimes forget (and perhaps willfully) is that the difference between a complex Bach work and a complex Babbitt work could be the extra-musical incentive provided for "why" an untrained listener should be willing to sit through this piece of music he or she does not necessarily understand.  If you say that this musical work depicts the generosity of salvation Christ has bestowed upon us then some kind of esoteric double canon for organ is easier to appreciate.  If a double canon has no readily discernible purpose other than, well, er ... advancing the conceptual possibilities of the Western musical tradition beyond the clich├ęs of late Romantic kitsch ... eh ... you know ... I don't really own a whole lot of Babbitt's music, I must confess.

Worship wars have been going on for about as long as anyone in the history of Christianity has been around to document people disagreeing as to what should be sung in church, in what way, at what time, and for what reasons.  The worship wars have never ended for those who have bothered to read even a little about them.  What could change at this point is not a question of how high or low church music is expected to be but how catholic or regional church music is expected to be in a given range of liturgical contexts. 

One of the reasons I'm cautious about Scruton's approach and the approach of The Future Symphony Institute is simply that I'm a guitarist rather than a symphonic musician.  I love the symphonic tradition but Fernando Sor (if memory serves) conveyed the idea that if a painting of a landscape is a big canvas painting what the guitar could be by comparison is a more ... stamp sized replication of the proportional image.  Not for a moment do I think the guitar is ill-equipped for complex musical forms, developmental processes or the like.  I ... know of ... a couple of guitarists who have composed cycles of 24 preludes and fugues for solo guitar.  We guitarists are eventually "catching up". 

But in light of fears of what a Trump administration may do to arts funding I would suggest, as a guitarist to fellow guitarists, that if we're getting a potential cultural equivalent to a Thirty Years War we might want to pull a Heinrich Schutz.

Schutz kept on composing music but scaled down his practical performing resources. 

But there is yet another reason I'm not so sure the future of the Western art music tradition is necessarily going to be the symphony and it has more to do with the Anglo-American critical past than the present.  Here Kyle Gann has some helpfully clarifying remarks:

Two books I’ve read recently had a notable impact on me. One was Orchestrating the Nation: The Nineteenth-Century American Symphonic Enterprise (Oxford) by Douglas Shadle, who’s at Vanderbilt. It’s a history of the relationships among 19th-century American composers, critics and conductors, and particularly of the Europhile bias American composers had to face at every step. Music critics were enamored of what came to be called The Beethoven Problem: a composer of symphonies had to both imitate and expand on the Master’s principles. They developed a set of binary goalposts that could be relocated to frustrate any American contender: If your music was too similar to Beethoven’s, it was derivative; if not similar enough, it failed to build on eternal principles. If it followed the Mendelssohn-Schumann line it was timid; if it veered toward Liszt and Wagner, it was damned for being mere program music. If it used American source material, it lacked “symphonic dignity”; if not, it represented inauthentic European wannabe-ism. If audiences loved it though the critics didn’t, then it merely appealed to the superficial; and even if critics liked it and audiences didn’t, then it may be intellectual but will never appeal to the common man. [emphasis added] Meanwhile, Europeans as minor as Jan Kalliwoda were enthusiastically welcomed into the repertoire. As Shadle puts it, “critics relegated the music of nineteenth-century American composers to the dustbin of history while applying mutable standards of criticism to each new crop [p. 263]”. And so each new American symphonist – Anthony Philip Heinrich, William Henry Fry, George Frederick Bristow – would create a frisson of public excitement only to be forgotten and dismissed in short order, creating a mistaken impression that no history of American symphonic music existed.

Critics had more power back then than they do now, but Shadle makes clear that star conductors like Theodore Thomas nurtured similar sets of shifting criteria to save themselves the trouble of performing American works. The book’s arch-villain, though, is famous Boston music John Sullivan Dwight. For decades I’ve tried to find something to admire about the guy because of his connection to the Transcendentalists, but he was the worst of the worst of those who thought the Europeans had said it all and so Americans shouldn’t bother trying, and Shadle hangs him with his own hypocritical words again and again. (I’d like to think his type of critic died out with the late Andrew Porter.)

More than anything else, Orchestrating the Nation illuminates the origins and myriad strategies of the classical music world’s eternal animus against American composers. As I teach every week among student composers who can’t be bothered with Ashley or Nancarrow but sing the praises of Kurtag and Lachenmann, Saariaho and Haas, I feel like little has changed. If it takes a hundred points to achieve parity with Beethoven, you get fifty free points just for being born in Europe. Shadle shows how long that’s been going on. [emphasis added]

Which is to say, having since read the Shadle book for myself, The Future Symphony Institute folks could ... maybe ... try to appreciate that when guys like Cage declared "Beethoven was wrong" they may have been punks about it but American composers in the 19th century were trapped in a double bind.  Gann summarized Shadle's overall account pretty well. 

The American avant garde has been full of people who resented never being able to beat Beethoven and who decided they might as well reject the Germanic art music tradition and everything it stands for.  I don't think that's necessary.  I think that if we're living in the age we're in now that a new kind of Baroque era can be our educational path forward.  The difference now would be the entire Western literate musical tradition can be regarded as the "first practice" within academia while a "second practice" in the United States can be jazz, blues, country, various forms of popular music.  I think we can explain principles of harmonic modulations in Bach and Stevie Wonder.  I think a case can be made that in Stevie Wonder's songs we can hear musical elements that we might also hear in Scriabin but with more memorable, singable hooks. I even had a post around here somewhere called "Counterpoint According to Stevie Wonder" (way back in 2006) and another about the brilliant way he used modal mutation in one of his songs.

One of my strongest points of disagreement (though sympathetic disagreement) with the Future Symphony Institute authors is with the tendency some of them have to treat the American popular musical vernaculars as conceptually "other" than the Western art music tradition.  But here we are at the Scott Joplin centennial of his death and I'd love to know what it is about how Joplin deployed augmented sixth chords that is somehow different from Wagner's, that somehow renders the Joplin chord an entirely different chord.  I know that I'm going to be listening to way more Joplin and Scott and Lamb this year than Wagner and it's not so much because Wagner's not important, it's that Wagner's beauty is not unlike the perfection of Beethoven or Mozart.  These men wrote remarkable works that I am willing to regard as beautiful cul de sacs (well, Mozart and Beethoven ... less sure I'd say that for Wagner's cul de sac). 

But pertinent to any attempts to revive the didn't-really-end worship wars, I think that we could go back to Leonard B. Meyer (again).  His book from 1967 may be half a century old but it is still worth thinking about.  I think it could be particularly useful for the ideas church musicians and Christians who think about pluralism and the arts.  There's a 1990s postlude he wrote I'm going to quote a bit, first for his suggestion that it would be a huge mistake to imagine the fall of the Soviet Union should be interpreted in teleological "end of history" terms, and secondly, on the matter of the trend toward pastiche as a compositional technique.

Leonard B. Meyer
Copyright (c) 1967. 1994 by The University of Chicago
ISBN 0-226-52143-5

page 335-336
If no inherent and beneficent linear processes guide historical change, then Marxism and comparable models for history lose credibility. For this reason, it may be a serious error to interpret the collapse of the Soviet Union as evidence of the triumph of capitalism and free enterprise. It seems doubtful that communism collapsed solely for economic reasons. After all, "intolerable economic conditions" have often been tolerated by the underprivileged--and for very long periods of time. They have been endured because of prevalent ideological beliefs, either because suffering and oppression were considered part of a preordained order or because historical processes were supposed eventually to lead to more tolerable conditions. What happened was the result of a gradual weakening of belief not only in the practice of the Soviet system but in the preaching of Marxist ideology--including increasing skepticism about the existence of the inherent, necessary dialectic historical processes that were supposed to have led to a utopian social order.


page 344-345

The theoretical problem of pastiche eclecticism in the arts has to do with what, if any, is the rationale for the interrelationships ,both proximate and remote, among excerpts and styles within compositions; a problem that has scarcely been dealt with, let alone solved. It might be possible, for instance, to formulate a theory of rhetorical succession, perhaps on the basis of a gradually developing "conventional" practice. This is because a purely musical theory will be difficult to come by, there will be a tendency to propose "explanatory" verbal narratives to account for succession in eclectic pastiches. The "problem" may, however, be illusory, because explaining succession is important only if aesthetics-cum-ideology posits the value of organic wholeness; a value that has become less and less compelling. Especially if listeners attend only sporadically, theories of organic unity and aesthetic necessity are largely beside the point. 

Meyer went on to point out that if radical discontinuity of style became a new norm then the possibility of assessing the success or failure of pastiche eclecticism could be difficult or even impossible.  Over at The Imaginative Conservative Webster Young had this article asking where all the great composers have gone.
There are two conditions that will be crucial for nurturing the growth of any new greatness: the existence of a common practice and the rise of a new music criticism to match. For a common practice to survive, a new criticism will have to be developed to go with it, and this new criticism will have to self-consciously reject the tenets of modernism. (We may as well use the simple term “modernism” to cover virtually all of the music of the past sixty years, rather than introduce such distinctions as “modern,” “post-modern,” and “post-post-modern:” in reality, the “post-post” term that one now sometimes encounters is a tacit admission of the failure of modernism to evolve into anything of substance.) As we have already seen, a common practice in music is by its very nature contrary to the iconoclasm fostered by modernism. It is precisely the theoretical tenets of modernism that have caused the “impatient search for novelty at all costs” (Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s phrase), and the resulting dearth of a common practice in music. The notion that there can be no new great composers is thus a self-fulfilling prophecy arising out of musical modernism itself: both as a goal and as an excuse.
The reader will want to know what the tenets of a new criticism of music might be. If the seeds of a new common practice in music—as represented by the composers mentioned above, and by some we may not yet know—are present in today’s world, by what criteria shall we judge their work to be great, if not by the standards that are in place today? Put very simply, the critical methods of modernism must be replaced by the standards of neoclassicism. The tenets of neoclassicism are well known in the fields of architecture and painting. Unfortunately, they are virtually unknown in the field of music. In the Renaissance, Leone Battista Alberti and Andrea Palladio took classical ideals from the Roman architect Vitruvius and from the Greek musical theory of the Pythagorean school. The neoclassical ideals of these architects could apply very well to music, but they have not been clearly articulated in the music conservatory, much less considered as an option for present-day music.

Yes, well, as Meyer pointed out FIFTY YEARS ago, there was no such consensus back then and there doesn't seem to be much more of a consensus now.  Meyer's proposal was that if we're stuck in a polystylistic steady-state we'd better get used to it.  He proposed that with the decline of traditionalist, unified theories of art we'd gotten an eclectic formalism.  Interestingly, he seemed to note that some of the most explicitly formalist eclectics were arch-traditionalists on things like religion or politics.  E.g. Stravinsky and T. S. Eliot were essentially avowed formalists. 

In another book Meyer pointed out at some length that what the Romantic era was full of was people who pretended they were breaking the rules as they were codifying them or disguising them.  We've been through eras in which a previous era of unified style collapsed and was replaced by a polyglot.  This period was not the end of the already polyglot nationalist Romantic era.  This period wasn't even the high Classic period.  Nope, this period was the Renaissance and it was followed up by a century and a half of stylistic fragmentation that came to be known as the Baroque era. Sometimes I get exasperated by conservatives who have a thing for the Romantic era because it's as though they forget the thing they claim they care about, history.  I'd say I'm moderately conservative in religion and politics and even in art ... and yet I kinda dig a few string quartets by Xenakis.  The string quartets of Ben Johnston are fantastic.  Every note that Toru Takemitsu wrote for the guitar is a gem.  I actually kinda enjoy John Cage's prepared piano music.   Conservatives, and particularly conservative Christians, seem to regard artistic pluralism as being precisely the same kind of "enemy" social or political pluralism is regarded as being.  Why should it be?  If anything a Christian composer and musician has an incentive to embrace pluralism in a way that may not be feasible for a completely secularist perspective. 

But the Future Symphony Institute folks seem particularly committed to one slice of a centuries long tradition.  John Borstlap has been proposing that the greatness of the Western art music tradition is a body of work that has a feature of interiority.  Sure, for the broadly Romantic era music of the late 18th and early 19th century.  But here, again, Leonard B. Meyer is a useful reference because he highlighted that there was a paradigm shift in the eighteenth century in comparison to what can be called the very long 19th century. 

ISBN 0-226-52152-4

page 221
The valuing of individual inner experience is evident in the shift from the eighteenth-century idea that music represented emotions (affects) to the nineteenth century belief that music expressed the feeling of the composer.

Want to take a wild guess which of those two options I take seriously?  That gets to the heart of a rift that will continue to exist even among conservatives.  Perhaps you'll remember, dear reader, that Stravinsky asserted that music expressed nothing other than itself?  Anti-German sentiments regarding what music is or isn't, and about what music does or does not express were legion in the 20th century.  I wonder if the Future Symphony Institute crew fully appreciates that it's entirely possible to self-identify as a conservative or even as a conservative composer and also explicitly reject the "interiority" approach to the idea of what music is believed to express. 

I still admire a lot of the music of Beethoven and I can put up with some of the music of Mozart.  Yet one of the weaknesses of the great man canonical approach to Western music is that the pinnacle composers, by dint of being pinnacle composers, represent aesthetic cul de sacs.  They masterfully solved the pressing problems of their own time and place, not ours.  In a very simple way a plea to revive the worship wars by Anderson at Mere Fidelity is just a plea that some kind of war be fought over music and associated aesthetics.  Whether or not Anderson or other participants at Mere Fidelity have the knowledge, musical literacy or philosophical foundation from which to have much business suggesting a renewed worship war is ...not entirely clear. 

Meyer's proposal decades ago was the crisis of the eclectic era was establishing on what musical basis eclecticism could be understood.  Given the extent to which the history of music is about the extra-musical or non-musical reasons music is written, a Christian formalist response could be to embrace eclecticism and this is, quaintly enough what we see in the work of avant garde composers from the last century such as Stravinsky or Penderecki or Messiaen.  The first was Orthodox, if not always a very good or observant Orthodox, while the second and third were Catholic.  And we can't forget Arvo Part now, can we?  Protestants are not left without a presence, we Protestants have Frank Martin, has Mass for double chorus is a jewel in 20th century choral music.  In an era with as much balkanization as we have, with as many fractures along identitarian lines as we've seen, what conservative groups and conservative evangelical groups probably should not try to do is to pine for a "common practice". 

Artistic cycles of consolidation and fragmentation can't be forced along or even necessarily easily observed.  Let's keep in mind that the fragmentation of art music in the last century and a half since the New German school has been working itself out over a long stretch.  One of Meyer's central contentions in his later work was that not only did the Romantic era not really end but that we're still living in it and that the ideological impetus of the Romantic era still essentially defined our art even if arch-modernism appeared to reject the formalities of Romantic music from the 19th century; in fact, Meyer proposed and I dare say demonstrated, the arch-modernists of the 20th century were observably as bound to the ideological commitments of the Romantic era as Wagner.  The difference was that the Romantic era composers didn't find ways to truly break free of all the rules that kept the individuality of the artist down.  The arch-modernists of the 20th century finally, and actually, did that.  Ironically, those people who swear by the greatness of the Romantic composers can often reject the music of their 20th century self-identified ideologically and artistically innovative descendants and heirs because people don't like Schoenberg.  That's what it is, but at another level that's one of the troubles of conservative reactions to the avant garde, a double bind in which the product is praised while the ideological engine that drove the production of the product (i.e. Wagner or Liszt or Brahms) is rejected as soon as the products that come off the production line sound like Berg or Schoenberg, let alone Carter. 

For those of us whose sympathies are with the Baroque era and the pre-Hegelian approach to the high Classic period, our heroes are Schutz and Byrd and Bach and Haydn.  For this sort of conservative composer there's no reason to accept either the music of Wagner or the ideological imperatives of Wagner's idea of what art must entail.  And Beethoven, sure, he can be regarded as a pinnacle of the Western art music tradition, but as a cul de sac.  I draw more inspiration from composers like Haydn or Villa-Lobos, composers who were not merely in the "high" tradition but had or retained connections to street music, too. 

One possible avenue composers can explore was laid out by George Rochberg, someone who's been approvingly mentioned by the Future Symphony Institute contributors (and, frankly, with good cause as Rochberg wrote some fine music and more or less has the praise and blame for launching the poly-stylistic post-modernist era in art music).  Rochberg, however, expressed skepticism that the path "forward" was going to be predicated on an alternative to pluralism. 

The Aesthetics of Survival: A Composer’s View of Twentieth-Century Music
George Rochberg
Copyright © 1984 by the University of Michigan
ISBN 0-472-10037-8

Page 240
the twentieth century has pointed—however reluctant we may be to accept it in all areas of life, social as well as political, cultural as well as intellectual—toward a difficult-to-define pluralism, a world of new mixtures and combinations of everything we have inherited from the past and whatever we individually or collectively value in the inventions of our own present, replete with juxtapositions of opposites (or seeming opposites) and contraries. …

Page 241 (from “On the Third String Quartet”)
Granting pluralism, how is a composer to deal with it? From the inside out, i.e., from the internal psychic imagery which becomes the musical gesture to its artistic manifestation. Gesture, singly or in combination, successive or simultaneous, is the determining factor—not style, language, system or method.

A guitarist would say everything emerges from the riff.  It could be a single chord explored as a sonority that expands and contracts.  It could be a melodic/rhythmic gesture that is subjected to systemic mutation and expansion.  It could be a rhythmic pattern.  Whatever the gesture is, that gesture can be built upon or expanded and developed into any number of directions that are no longer dependent on a fixed style or musical system.  There's no need to reject twelve-tone methodologies if they help you arrive at a musical sound you like.  Why shouldn't we run our favorite blues riffs through a kind of twelve-tone process?  Maybe a blues riff that sounds good in its primary form could sound interesting in its retrograde inversion.  In fact as we approach the centennial of Joplin's death we could note how symmetrical rhythmic phrasing in ragtime and its shared vocabulary with Romantic era music might open up possibilities for a fusion of the vocabulary of ragtime with sonata forms.  Of course someone has already actually written that. 

To borrow an observation from a Mere Fidelity guest, Yuval Levin, conservatives need to recognize that both they and liberals in the United States are running on nostalgia.  The left pines for 1965 and the right pines for 1981 but whatever the future may hold nobody is going to benefit from pining for an era we can neither get back nor want back. Levin even went so far as to say that conservatives should even give up on the idea that in finding common ground on causes we care about that we should expect people to become conservative.   As a composer and hobbyist musician the last thing I'd expect most musicians I come across to ever agree with me on is about being, say, a moderately conservative Presbyterian.  Nor would I expect them to share my interest in the writings of folks like Edmund Burke or Emil Brunner, for instance.  But what we can share is an enthusiasm for the music of Haydn, or the music written for guitar by Ferdinand Rebay.  We can share a love of the tradition of polyphonic music.  What we love in common should not have to be compelled to bring along with it some sort of ideological litmus test.  Supposedly conservatives fretted that that was one of the fatal flaws of the Marxist left.  Well ... it's not necessarily just the fatal flaw of the Marxist left, it can also be a fatal flaw for the evangelical right or any other group for that matter.

Not all Christians in the United States or the United Kingdom want to grant pluralism but granting pluralism in the arts is not something we can avoid.  If anything Christians, in particular, can embrace the confession that Christ died for the world and that world includes everyone who makes musical styles we may not get or may not like.  We have an incentive to embrace the possibility of a panoply of musical styles  After all, if in Isaiah 25 we read of the promise

On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare
a feast of rich food for all peoples,
a banquet of aged wine—
the best of meats and the finest of wines.
and if in Revelation 7 we read
After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.
Will they only be singing Bach?  Or strains from Wagner's Parsifal?  Within Judeo-Christian beliefs it is not some big surprise that a plurality of people will one day worship the one true God.  I'm not going to pretend I don't prefer Bach's Matthew Passion to "Shine, Jesus Shine" but Bach's art was not necessarily dependent on whether or not the materials he worked with were worthy of the artistry we are justified in ascribing to his work.  The question any conservative, and conservative Christian at that, needs to answer in wanting to, say, restart worship wars, is to ask why a great multitude including every nation, tribe, people and language will be standing before the throne and before the Lamb and why, with that future to look forward to, there's this specific style of music we should want to banish from admission into liturgical use. 

Bukofzer noted in his monograph on the Baroque era that the Pietists were most against what they perceived to be unworthy secular idioms in church music and yet in our era not so much of the music of those Pietist composers is all that integrated into musical life.  Paradoxically the Pietists were more trapped in their moment.  THAT could be a lesson on how we don't want to be early and fast adopters but the lesson there may be that the traditionalists weren't "just" traditionalists.  As Bukofzer put it, people were composing music that was "modern" for their time and place.  If the history of the Baroque era has any possible "lesson" for Christian musicians and liturgists it may be that we've been here before in the realm of a polystylistic polyglot and we got through it okay.  The Baroque era composers did not necessarily always fight over what style was "legit" and the high Baroque era we tend to wrongly conflate with the entire period was the end point of a century and a half of stylistic assimilation and consolidation.  To cross reference a plea to revive the worship wars with the Yuval Levin interview, there's no point in starting a war that has arguably not ended anyway; we may be living through yet another cycle of fragmentation that may be followed up by a process of consolidation in the arts.  If the historical shifts from the late Renaissance through to the high Baroque era give us any signs, that process of consolidation took a century and a half and spanned an entire hemisphere. 

POTSCRIPT 03-20-2017

Having dissented from Anderson's riff on musical education at some length that's not to say he hasn't written some fine, thoughtful stuff.  His mixed-to-negative review of Real Marriage five years ago, for instance, stands out as one of the best reviews of the Driscoll book.  Whether the book review would be changed retroactively knowing how much the Driscolls got paid to write the book might be moot ...

but it might interest Anderson to learn that a book on marriage that seemed to want for beauty got an advance as big as it did.