Tuesday, January 24, 2012

D. G. Hart offers a suggestion on why neo-Calvinists make terrible CCM


... For neo-Calvinists distinctions between creational and redemptive spheres when considering aesthetics is a form of dualism and a sign of infidelity because it denies Christ’s lordship over all things. 

The frustrating aspect of those who are so eager to blur distinctions between the religious and the secular, between the eternal and the temporal, is that they are long on inspiration and short on qualification. What I mean is that someone could plausibly read Kuyper on the effort to integrate the church and all other walks of life as an endorsement of contemporary Christian music.

If I may provide a musician's perspective on this perhaps the way to illustrate this point is to put things this way: in "classical" church music and worship there is no prohibition against learning new styles, assimilating them into a liturgical setting where they are useful, and measuring the appeal of the style over against its practicality in a liturgical setting.  If no one ever did this in any churches we would not have gained the Bach cantatas, Luther's hymns, anthems by Tallis, and so on.

There was not necessarily in any of those epochs a need to go out and deliberately court the contemporary because each epoch of Church music was contemporary in its own way in the Western Church. There were debates about whether Bach's Matthew Passion was acceptable since it borrowed heavily from the forms and idioms of opera but the piece still got performed and it's still a masterpiece of sacred choral literature in the Western tradition.  At one point, however, it was "new" and contemporary.  Other musicians and musicologists have already spent time explaining how the "high" and "low" distinction we have seen in popular and concert music was not as great in the 19th century or earlier periods as it has become since then; the 20th century saw an almost complete break between academic and popular styles. About that I will have plenty to write later. 

What I'm trying to get across is that the whole idea of even bothering to keep up with popular styles at all is a uniquely 20th century business cycle procedure rather than one in which culture necessarily springs forth in an organic way. Step back and look at popular music not at the surface level of production values or compression or audio engineering; look at it beyond the perspective of regional popularity and instead look at it in terms of the nexus of musical form and text setting and you'll begin to discover that there have been no significant innovations in popular music at all in the last sixty years. 

A lot of the core ideas for forms and setting approaches emerged within folk music and the Tin Pan Alley tradition.  And while in the minds of partisans who conflate aesthetic and cultural norms rock music is not playing for the Man, it is, probably more so than even chamber music would be these days if you consider the millions or billions at stake.  As Frank Zappa put it, if you were a rock musician and you sold 20,000 copies of an album they'd sniff at you and consider you a failure whereas if you sold 20,000 copies of classical music you'd be a hero. Marketers have a strong need to sell different styles as different based on demographic appeals but musicologists have been noticing that the barriers between, say, white and black popular music have been more fluid than marketers have at times been interested in dealing with. In a similar way, a composer like Haydn could appeal to a broader audience in his life than he likely will now.  He did play in street ensembles after all.

But in contemporary Christian music there may not often be a whole lot of bringing the past into the present and adapting the present options back into what is musically useful. We may see, instead, in the neo-Calvinist scene particularly, a case where a bunch of ambitious guys want to be a "Christian" version of Radiohead or whatever band is current. Musicians in churches of this sort are urged to find out what is going on in contemporary music and name-dropping is important to establish street cred.  That was what I noticed at a church I used to be part of.  In the church I'm part of now the question is thankfully more prosaic and important, "Can you play this?"  Yes, yes I can and I'd be happy to.  The need to know new bands isn't important if you're playing the old standards, even if you're playing them in new ways.  I look forward to the possibility of playing some more, actually, but first I'll need to get my glasses fixed up.

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