Tuesday, February 06, 2018

on the iMonk piece "Masturbatory Worship Music", looking back on a musicologist who anticipated that more and more music would be characterized by statistical climaxes

First off, if you haven't done so, go read this piece at Internet Monk


also cross reference to this piece at Ponder Anew


Last year was the fiftieth anniversary of a book written by the musicologist Leonard B Meyer called Music, the Arts and Ideas. The book was reprinted in the early 1990s with a postlude that I'll be quoting from because it's absolutely germane to musical trends in Western music over the last half century.

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

page 346
... Just as stylistic pluralism among compositions is related to an absence of belief in long-range, linear historical processes, so eclecticism--pluralism within compositions--can be related to the weakening of interest and faith in long-range design. Thus uncertainty about the future reaches down to the realms of the aesthetic, calling into question the possibility, perhaps even the desirability, of long-range goals. One corollary of this is that syntactically structured forms and hierarchies characteristic of tonal music will be less common. Instead, forms will tend to be what I have called "statistical," and hierarchies will be continuous and emergent. Statistical structures, which are based on the action of the secondary parameters of music (for example, timbre and tempo, dynamics and register, beat and contour), depend less on privileged learning than do syntactic ones.

If "syntactically structured forms and hierarchies" is too abstract let's focus, instead, on "statistical" forms and hierarchies.  We can see that Meyer has done us the favor of pointing out that statistical structures are based upon the action of secondary parameters of music but there's another, perhaps more colloquial way of describing what this approach can sound like in music. 

What Leonard B. Meyer predicted would become more normative in musical structuring is what we hear in CCEM post-U2, which was with some justifiable bitterness labeled "crescendo rock" by an author at Slate.


Beneath the surface, the National’s work is full of moves like that. But I still dislike the surface. I dislike the traces of a British accent in Berninger’s rich baritone (he’s from Cincinnati). I dislike the midrange restraint of most of the melodies and the sleepy midtempo pace, making it artificially thrilling when things pick up at all—as when drummer Bryan Devendorf kicks the march beat into double-time, two-thirds through the new album’s first single, “Sea of Love,” though Berninger carries on the same oh-so-stately procession. Most of all, I dislike the way many of the songs milk themselves, doubling down on their repetitions by getting denser and louder in later sections.

This is a common trait of many popular and acclaimed bands that turn me off. I call it Crescendo Rock—I’ve had similar misgivings about U2 and Radiohead, though I’ve aired them less because their fans go way more apoplectic. To me, the bands each sound like a group of guys who feel they’ve got something to say and demonstrate their significance by saying it over and over, getting louder and louder.

That video on display at today's iMonk piece about masturbatory worship songs, it's a remarkably straightforward example of an approach to structuring a musical moment that culminates in statistical climax or crescendo rock apotheosis.  If as the old acidic observation has had it, Christian pop music is just whatever was the big thing three decades ago then, congratulations, Christian pop music and worship music has caught up to U2 circa The Joshua Tree.

It feels really squicky to actually write out that statistical climax is the best way to describe how the span of contemporary Christian music works in the Highpoint Church clip ruminating on the significance of ideas and trends discussed in a piece called "Masturbatory Worship Music". 

Let the record show that Meyer predicted the rise of statistical hierarchies and forms decades ago and here were are in 2018 and Christian pop music has demonstrated the basic prescience of Meyer's observations.  If every church musician in the United States were to read Meyer's books noted here that would probably be a net benefit for American church music, not that I"m saying you "should" as a moral imperative, just as an intellectual one. ;)

And, guitarists, wean yourself off of capos unless you're also playing banjo, violin and other instruments and then never you mind.

But I digress. 

If people want to treat this as a sign of how bad evangelical worship music is that's certainly an option but Thomas Day updated and revised Why Catholics Can't Sing as recently as 2013.  Day may not have found that American Catholic liturgical music hasn't improved so much in the last twenty-five years as to believe there's reason to retract the title of the reissued book.  I read that book twenty odd years ago at the enthusiastic recommendation of a professional church musician who was a Protestant but regarded the polemic of Thomas Day as applicable across the board to all American liturgical music.  So even if megachurches of a Protestant variety might seem to most embody the vices and vicissitudes of church music in America, they aren't the only churches out there in this great big country that demonstrate how ... American the American church at song can sound.

And as Thomas Day put it decades ago, the Irish "sweet song" idiom got introduced post-Vatican II and that wasn't really so far removed from the Jesus people seeds of at least some CCM.

In other words, now is not necessarily the time to pin the blame on one branch of Christendom within the United States for what has been documented as being a fairly observable problem across the board in the Western church.  No ... the Orthodox don't fit into this particular paradigm as best I can tell. 

South Park's episode "Christian Rock Hard" can probably safely be construed as still applying to the Western practice approach in American churches across the board. It's not like Bernard of Clairvaux's approach to Song of Songs, for instance, was a distinctly Protestant approach, was it?  If we want to riff on the weird erotica of contemporary American worship in the way it conceives as the worshipper receiving some wild emotional climax by way of reflecting on God's love for the individual believer
it's not even a uniquely Protestant reflection. Even where there may be a Protestant flavor to it it could be proposed that like everything that isn't Native American about this cultural moment, it came from somewhere in what we know of as Europe. 

Im not contesting that the Protestant megachurch forms of masturbatory worship music are the most egregious and observable case studies ... but I wouldn't cut any slack to Anglicans or Catholics in America, either.  Thomas Day hasn't said that all the copies of his book can be pulped yet.

it miht simply be that the vices are American vices and that the vices of other lands with practicing worshipping Christians will look and sound different.

But, here's a thought to consider, would stripping off all the musical idioms that are characterized by statistical hierarchies and forms known as "crescendo rock" solve the lyrical problem?  No.  If the nature of the lyrical problem is that it tends to present to worshippers a fundamentally narcissistic experience in wich we get to sing to each other and ourselves about God's great love for us first and foremost then fixing the musical problem wouldn't fix anything at the level of the church at prayer or the doctrines implicit and explicit in the music. 

The music may be formulaic and cheap but the masturbatory part of it might not necessarily be in the music. 

But at this point I seriously doubt that what people want is to supplant statistically structured music with syntactically structured music.  That gets us straight back into the problems of the later Baroque era. 

Think of it this way, if the Romantic era and the post-Romantic period of art music could be thought of as an ars perfecta that splintered with the rise of composers like Shoenberg and Stravinsky than those two can be thought of as being like a Florentine Camerata or a Monteverdi whose innovations may or may not stick with us.  I'm floating this idea that it can be all too easy to forget that musical idioms and forms have change dramatically over the last thousand years.  The idea that we're going to settle into a single dominant style as we might hear of it from music historians with specific axes to grind about what church music "ought" to sound like seems remote.  Bach's music was considered by more than just a few to be too esoteric and opaque to be of benefit to ordinary pew sitters.  Hymns or metrical psalms might be considered the lowest common denominator but there's something to be said for tailoring musical means and ends to that which is conducive to congregational participation.

That's a whole other set of topics. 

I'm just suggesting that in a sense it's too easy to forget that if contemporary American worship music seems too masturbatory that might be indicative not merely of a Protestant musical vice but of an American musical vice that spans the Western realm of Christendom in its American form.

But as a composer who has spent the last four years experimenting with ways to synthesize ragtime with sonata form I simply can't believe that the problem is in the nature of the musical vocabulary of the vernacular styles themselves.  The problem isn't that you cannot take popular musical idioms and develop complex macrostructural developmental processes with them, it's that those who are into those styles don't tend to want to, on the one hand, and those who tend to aspire to macrostrutural musical "argument" tend to consider popular and vernacular musical vocabularies fundamentally inimical to the aforementioned large-scale processes and forms.  Both these sorts of partisans are wrong but this isn't the post where I intend to get into something like that.

The problem seems to be that, to put it in the harshest way possible, Americans with an interest in religious music are so dogmatic and fundamentally uncreative across the Catholic and Protestant divide that it wouldn't matter too much if a new Messiaen or a J. S. Bach showed up, there'd be a real question as to how and why that composer's music should show up in a church service.  Turning away from whatever is regarded as masturbatory worship music in the contemporary American idiom doesn't mean that anyone will end up turning toward music that those who might have this to say about contemporary American liturgical music might find acceptable.  I'm not saying there is no problem, I'm just noting that there isn't really a "solution" here. 

Well, wait, Zwingli had one, get rid of music entirely from church services if church music is such a problem.

Who's Zwingli?  ;)


Thomas Day's most memorable polemic, for those who never read his book, was that the Irish "sweet song" solo tradition of singing ruined American Catholic liturgical practice in a way that he did not observe was the case in Protestant liturgical singing in either European or American contexts.


Now that the influence of U2 on contemporary Christian music in the United States would seem relatively beyond all doubt ... the irony may be that it finally has suffused Anglo-American vernacular musical culture in Western Christendom.