Thursday, July 24, 2008

the slow death of congregational singing? reflections on road maps, texts, and musical form

Excerpted from post:

1. The rhythms are, generally speaking, more complex. A lot of praise choruses have syncopations that don’t come naturally to many people, especially older people who have not immersed themselves in CCM. Getting comfortable with those rhythms often takes more time than is available during a worship service. If the praise team has to rehearse in order to be “in sync”, what chance does an unrehearsed congregation have?

2. The “road map” of the songs is more complex. Contemporary worship songs have all sorts of “bridges” and (frequently ad lib) repeats that most hymns lack. It’s harder for a novice to figure out where the song is going, let alone guess what it’s going to sound like when it gets there.

3. Most of the instruments don’t play the tune. In a traditional worship setting, the accompanying instrument (piano or organ) always plays the melody, and a good accompanist will emphasize the melody above the harmony notes. In a typical praise band, the guitars are playing chords, and the drums merely reinforce rhythm; there may be a keyboard and/or other instrument playing the melody, but they are probably outnumbered (and possibly outgunned) by the guitars and drummer(s).

This creates the need for the inevitable team of vocalists, who must, of course, be miked so that they may be heard over all of the electronic, amplified instruments. If the sound man is not particularly judicious, the result can be a blasting contest which drowns out the singing; if the vocalists mistake themselves for performers and start embellishing the tune, there may still not be any pattern that the congregation can easily follow.

It is, of course, quite true that many organists have drowned out their congregations over the years. But at least they were playing the tune when they did it, and everyone could hear what the tune was (possibly to the exclusion of their own thoughts…).

I'm going to be very blunt and say that having been at Mars Hill for years these three are emblematic challenges to a CCM style. I totally appreciate the idea of doing completely homegrown music so as to avoid copyright issues but I also know that MH has long abandoned its confident claims that in the coming technological age to come traditional copyright will be irrelevant and everyone was encouraged to use the special open copyright method. Ha ha ha. Well, couldn't just dumping things straight into the public domain work? Do what Woody Guthrie did and register the copyright with the Library of Congress so you always get credit for it and then publicly announce to the whole planet that anyone can sing it as much as they want. THAT, my friends, is a way to secure yourself as a pop folk legend (notice I very carefully phrased that sequence of words!)

Observations 1 and 2 are crucial. Certain rhythms tend to permeate certain cultures. When you start investigating music from central Europe you start finding rhythmic patterns that are dizzying if all you're used to is the duple and triple patterns of much Western music. You can acclimate yourself to 7 and 5 and uneven divisions of 9 or 12 over time but it requires a great deal of thought and training. What seems easy to musicians writing a piece (believe me, I continually learn this) may seem terrifying to non-musicians and even other musician's whose conceptual millieu is far from your own.

I mean, to just use myself as an example, I worked out a fugue with an essentially 11/4 subject in a fairly upbeat allegro with a subject and two countersubjects. I findi t challenging to play but easy to conceive of ... but I fess up that I've been working toward finishing thisp iece over the last decade. Something that seems effortless may be the sign of a master (big hint, not me) such as when Gene Kelly does his title thing Singin' in the Rain. HE makes it look easy but if you try to do it yourself you'll find out otherwise.

And the road map, ah, I could spend a lot of time on the road map. In songs it's always good to have a formula and stick with it. The development of formula in song form surely comes from the need to make a song memorable enough to keep singing it. My own impression, for what little it is worth, is that a lot of contemporary songs have rudimentary structures, musically speaking.

The real problem of teh raod map in contemporary christian music is not that road map itself, which is usually bonehead, but that there is no clear connection between the musical road map and the road map of the text. What can often happen is that a vernacular, modern setting of a text or hymn takes the text and sets it up musically in a way where if you were to attempt to explain how the melody and harmony of a song's structure reinforces the implicit or explicit narrative of the text you'd be stumped.

For instance, it's not as though there is any obvious narrative arc to the melody in "Be Thou My Vision" is there? Well, actually, you could argue there is one. THe same tune repeats over and over but the text rises and falls in a pattern. Be thouh my vision o Lord of my heart starts low and rises up to the third of the scale. The second line starts on the second scale degree (literally) and rises up to the fifth (dominant). The third and climactic line rises to the sixth scale degree and the highest sustained tone (not the highest tone, the highest tone of notable length or recurrence) and falls down to the lowest point where we have "I thy true son". This is the kind of melodic line that produces an implicit narrative. God the Father is a whole octave above me, the true son. The fourth line stabilizes the range.

So even though the chords and melody repeat over and over again within each refrain in the text the melodic and harmonic materials reinforce the narrative implicit in each segment of the text. Amazing Grace, of course, is the same way. What doesn't necessarily happen in the average CCM song is this kind of melodic/harmonic narrative.

Add to this lack of a road map a penchant for syncopations geared more toward performance than for the best sort of mob singing and it's not hard to see why a lot of songs both old as well as new just don't cut it for congregational singing. It has to be said that the attrition rate of old hymns is a lot higher than most people may think. I've looked through many a hymnal in churches over the years you know what? 90% of the musical time is spent on at most 10 percent of the hymns in the hymnal. Why? Because a lot of the old hymns don't have a decent road map either! Not defending CCM so much as pointing out that this mysterious thing called the road map is vital to songs and if I understood it better myself I'd be able to write more songs than one or two songs every few years that I'm not sure I'd share with the outside world.

I think part of what makes things challenging in a lot of churches is that ideally it would be awesome to sing Scripture more but our Western idiom doesn't lend itself as easily to the near-Eastern poetic forms and concepts as readily as we sometimes think. The Psalms have a certain elegance and form to them that is idiomatic to Hebrew that English doesn't have. It's not for nothing that many great settings of biblical texts in the vernacular have had to replicate the effect rather than the literal wording. To the extent that King James English has stuck around it is because it more than others has maintained a certain element of poetry. But I think a better solution than King James is to suggest that Christian musicians not just study music but also poetry. Not June and moon rhyme stuff. I'm talking more like immersing yourself in John Donne, T. S. Elliot, Herbert, and others. And SCripture. To translate the idiom of Scripture into vernacular you have to master not one vernacular, so to speak, but two. Just mimicking synthetic parallelism in a biblical text may not be the right thing to do.

One of the things I discovered in composing a vernacular and a Latin setting of the Magnificat is just how drastically my approach had to be even when using the same text. For English it became more important to have a through-line. There is so very little that repeats in Mary's song that a straight setting of the text from start to finish is impossible. It would be impossible to follow and even the best composers have, I think, erred in not introducing a bit more repetition in some otherwise solid settings. In a pop idiom my solution was to make the opening lines a repeating chorus that preceded each verse--my soul will magnify the Lord, and my spirit rejoice in God my savior. Repeat a total of two times. The rest of the text in large chunks was then able to present itself as REASONS for each new level of rejoicing--God's kindness toward His humble servant; God's punishing the proud and wealthy and elevation of the humble and weak (this last part becoming a handy excuse for a very necessary bridge); and then revealing how all these things were thematically fulfillment of God's promise to Abraham. The bridge that served purely musical variety purposes earlier could then be brought back as a coda on the Gloria Patri.

Yeah, all very complex. My hope, however, is that by composing the music in an admittedly complex way with a chorus, verse, chorus, verse, bridge, chorus, verse, bridge (coda) that I was doing justice to the complexity of the thoughts in the text and using repetition to reinforce what was, despite the textual complexity, a thematically simple conceit. God has given us reason to rejoice by fulfilling all His promises through the child He gave to Mary. So, yeah, I'm using my own song (which you've never heard, trust me) as an example of what seems necessary for groking the road map of a particular song with a Christian text. It seems that in writing any song you HAVE to let the text guide you before you guide the text.

In the case of Scripture this is even more important. How and when you repeat something should be based on how central a text is to the theme of the biblical passage. In the case of the Magnificat it's easy, you let Luke's poem of Mary do the work. The theme throughout is rejoicing in the Lord and that leads you inexorably through how each refrain is a reason to rejoice in the Lord. In a text like, say, 2 Timothy 1:9-10 the thing would be completely different. Or if you set Jeremiah 10:24 as an interlude in a Kyrie. Yes, in case you're wondering, I picked all those because I set those texts.

Even in complex settings of biblical texts the road map should be simple. Binary forms, ternary forms, at most a modified Tin Pan Alley form of aaba at a macro-level with digressions in the middle. But the musical form should REINFORCE the text rather than work against it or have no bearing on the text. If I picked, say, a Team Strike Force song like the setting of the biblical text "Wake up O Sleeper" I could point out how the rambling within a melodic sixth works because the musical punch line of "Wake up o sleeper" jumps out of that sixth to complete the octave and move on up a little higher (hat tip to Mahalia required here). It's a song that has an awkward range written by a guy who sounds like a 12-year old boy but it still works because the range is still just a little over an octave and the musical road map matches the road map of the biblical text. This is a rather unusual example but it's an example of a song that is understandably popular at the church I'm at. Hey, even I like it and I suspect some people might think I'm a full-blown musical snob ... which I pretty much am I guess.

So all that is to say that this idea about a musical road map has intrigued me. Musical structure and its use to delineate textual and extra-textual symbolism fascinates me. If music is a language then what is the nature of musical symbolism? How does musical symbolism work in connection to the more commonly understood symbolic communication we live by, spoken language. When music and spoken word reinforce each other the results are songs that get passed down across generations. When they don't reinforce each other or work against each other we get smooth jazz hits that go in one ear and out the other. Or we get really, really, really awful contemporary Christian music.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

reading and memorizing the Bible

As I peruse the Boar's Head Tavern I notice discussion of reading and memorizing Scripture or what devotional/quiet time stuff is done. Mine is sporadic. The whole concept of whether or not Protestants have their own Romish sacramentology is an intriguing topic I may yet return to but here I am concerned with the more mundane questions of how a person reads the Bible or gets through it.

Never done a "get through the whole Bible in a year" plan. Never interested me. Never interested me to formally get through the entire Bible cover to cover. The Bible was never written to be read in that way so I don't see any need to read it that way. The Bible was not written to be memorized by chapter and verse in the way we moderns tend to think of it. The author of Hebrews is content to say "somewhere it is written" without naming chapter and verse or author but he knows the text he is citing.

Not that I'm not a Protestant but I grew up in church settings where knowing chapter and verse and remembering atomized bits of Scripture as proof texts or points for reflection seemed, not exactly the norm, but tempting. There was always some punk kid who would go up and share his memory verse before the Sunday school set and after naming the reference that the kids' ministry leader would not necessarily recognize off the top of his head proudly say "Jesus wept". Eventually that kids' ministry leader knew that verse backwards and forwards ... maybe even bothered to learn it in Greek.

When I was in high school I worked at vegetable canneries ... and worked in vegetable canneries through much of college. Lacking the SPanish skills needed to converse with most of my co-workers, and having utterly spent any conversational opportunities with the Watchtower society old lady I had easily settled into a custom where during my short breaks and lunch break I would read the New Testament. Started in Matthew, read up through Jude, and skipped Revelation. My reason for skipping Revelation was that I didn't feel like any benefit came from reading it because of so many competing ideas about what this or that passage meant, whether or not this or that was the Mark of the Beast, whether the Beast was the European Union or Syria or whatever the latest fads in freakish dispensationalism held at the time. Hey, I was Pentecostal for sure and even a dispensationalist/futurist at the time but I didn't feel up to read Revelation so I stopped at Jude. I did mention much earlier in this blog that I once began rewriting a song I wrote years ago because I had shifted my views on eschatology. I am SO not kidding when I said that then or now.

But setting that aside as an aside, I read through the New Testament more or less dozens of times in my high school and college years. Full scale immersion in a book is a better way to remember it than focused memorization in my experience. You can be so busy memorizing you don't think about what the text means. We don't memorize things like songs because we have some instrumentalist/utilitarian goal in mind. We memorize songs because we love those songs. We play them over and over again until it's part of who we are, until without really thinking about it we can pull up a phrase or a line. Scripture is supposed to be like that, that you can just pull up something from Ecclesiastes or the Psalms at the mention of a phrase. It doesn't prove you're holy or anything ... but it is the sort of love for Scripture that I hope any Christian can have. It's not knowing what John 7:1-5 is in terms of verses, it's more like (I hope) that you know where to find it if you need to review it and you remember where it is in the gospel narrative and what Jesus said and did.

An informal yardstick for me is if as soon as someone mentions a biblical text and they use it out of contet you start being cautious that is a negative yardstick for how to tell you've been immersed in Scripture (i.e. noticing when other people are just proof-texting). A more positive use would be, oh, something like singing songs based on that text. Yeah, I betray my being a composer adn a musciian there but God DID command Moses to write a song to help aid in memorization of His deeds, right?