Saturday, January 05, 2019

the Amar-Hindemith recording of Bartok's 2nd string quartet

this was the premiere recording of Bartok's Second string quartet.  I love all the string quartets but I'm particularly fond of Three and Four!  Those dive-bombing glissandi at the end of the Third are rocking out before Jimi Hendrix could play dive-bombing riffs on his guitar ... but this ... is the second string quartet. 

And as a Hindemith fan how could I not link to a Hindemith recording of a Bartok string quartet, Bartok being one of my other favorite 20th century composers?

2019 has begun and that means a whole bunch of stuff published in 1923 has shifted into the public domain ... if the copyrights weren't already renewed some time later than that ...


Dennis Karjala was a law professor who helped lead the doomed resistance to the 1998 extension. He passed away in 2017, but when I interviewed him in 2013, he told me that it was "basically the Gershwin family trust, grandchildren of Oscar Hammerstein, Disney, others of that ilk" who pushed for ever-longer copyright terms.
Most copyrighted works become commercially worthless within a decade or two. But a small minority of famous works from the 1920s and 1930s were still generating significant revenues in the 1990s. Retroactively extending copyright terms meant an enormous windfall for the companies and families that owned the copyrights.
"There was not a single argument that actually can stand up to any kind of reasonable analysis," Karjala said. But the public domain had few defenders. So even though the arguments for longer copyright terms weren't very strong, they won the day in Congress.
Until recently, I assumed that the same interest groups would try to extend copyright terms again in 2018. But the political climate for copyright legislation has changed radically over the last 20 years.
A year ago, Ars Technica broke the news that three of the nation's most powerful rights holder groups in the country, the Motion Picture Association of America, the Recording Industry Association of America, and the Authors Guild, were not even going to try to pass legislation extending copyrights

That means that whereas thirty years ago probably very little of the early jazz era, and by early jazz era I'm going to say ragtime in its entirety, was public domain you could go to IMSLP and find almost everything Scott Joplin, James Scott, and Joseph Lamb published and be likely to find a sold pdf copy of any given score.  You can't fully understand or appreciate what jazz emerged from if you don't understand ragtime.  It's one of my hobby horses, I admit, and I've been playing with fusions of ragtime and sonata forms over the last few years because it's been a goal all my adult life to develop such a fusion.

Unlike a few people I've known over the years I didn't see the "Blurred Lines" verdict as bad.  What those people who regard it as a terrible verdict may be vexed by is a fear that a genre can be copyrighted.  That's an absurd claim since nobody would say ragtime is a copyrighted genre.  You can do whatever you want with James Scott's "Modesty Rag" by now!  The problem only emerges if you want to emulate a genre where everything is still under copyright because your listening habits are so entrenched in your near lifetime you don't dig any music that's already long-since passed into the public domain.  That is most likely your real problem. I'm happy to mess with riffs from Reicha woodwind quintets or guitar sonatas by Matiegka and works by ragtime composers.  I would suggest that while there are those musicians and fans of music who wish they could sample stuff from the 1940s on out that time isn't here yet.  But what you could do is trawl through IMSLP for all the public domain works you can find, set up a gigantic midi library based on that, base it around an educational institution, and then make all those midi files up for free use. 

If memory serves, I remember Ethan Hein proposing something like this at his blog, noting that the majority of classical music is public domain but that most recordings of that music are not public domain.  Very true.

I've thought about writing more lately, or even this weekend, but I've got some offline projects I'm tackling. 

Kostas Tosidis plays Atanas Ourkouzounov Guitar Sonata No. 4, video with score

I am so getting this CD when it becomes available to buy in the United States, or from the United States. 

I want to write about the five Ourkouzounov guitar sonatas at some point down the line.  I am hoping to write about the five Gilardino guitar sonatas, too.  For now, here's a video to Ourkouzounov's fourth guitar sonata.  I'm glad to hear there's a disc in the works on which all five will be recorded. :)

Tuesday, January 01, 2019

a defense of Lena Dunham at The Guardian mentions that young people want to be writers when they grow up ...


Why is Dunham really being singled out? It’s not a difficult one to solve. Ask a young person what they want to do when they grow up and the most popular answer is no longer “marine biologist” or “pop star”, but “writer”. You can bet a chunk of those could narrow that down to “comedy writer” or even “having my own six-season sitcom about me and my friends, starring me”. Dunham doesn’t look like an untouchable Hollywood goddess – she looks like most people who want what she has. It makes them wonder: why wasn’t that me?

If that is anything like an accurate indicator o what young people in the UK want for their future careers (and I hope it isn't) then the British empire deserves to implode, not because the arts are necessarily bad but because the arts have historically been the icing on the cake, not the cake itself.  The writer shifts from Dunham to someone who might be regarded as an untouchable Hollywood goddess. 

It is also more fun to bully someone who cares what you think. When Dunham gets pilloried, she will eventually apologise for whatever it is you think she did, something that delights her critics, so much so that one of them made an automatic “Lena Dunham apology generator” on Twitter. This reminds me of Anne Hathaway’s famous haters, spurred on by her hopeful, unsure face at the Oscars and her admission that the abuse does get to her a bit sometimes.

The topic of loathing for Anne Hathaway reminds me that during its 2012 peak it seemed to be an intra-sisterhood hatred.  Maybe there were those men who wanted Jolie to play Selina Kyle but the Hatha-hatred didn't seem to be a characteristic of a boys' club as some general principle.  By contrast, I've read comments from women writing articles for Slate to the effect that Hathaway seemed like the kind of girl who was practicing her acceptance speech in front of a mirror when she was twelve years old.  The proposal that Lena Dunham and Anne Hathaway are actually comparable in interests and aims is not really given.  Writer-actors in comedy and television and actors who tend to be known for dramatic/cinematic roles are not exactly comparable.  

The contrast to Hathaway circa 2012 was Jennifer Lawrence ... whose career overall may turn out to be less distinguished but of whom it was said she seemed more "real"--that was likely an appeal to a sense of the "real" in which Lawrence didn't conduct herself in a way that somehow indicated she was part of some kind of Hollywood royalty class or caste.  These days, with more stories trickling out about how badly people behave behind the scenes ... maybe there's something to be said in favor of Hollywood royalty acting like the prestige comes with some sense of responsibility.  

It also reminds me of the writer Laurie Penny, who tried hard to understand and respond to her critics, which only made things worse. And that these three examples are women is not a coincidence: part of the reason women get more grief on the internet and in the media is because the perpetrators assume they will mind it more.

Dunham has had a great deal of success and if that’s what you want it probably feels better to despise her than to envy her. Perhaps it helps to know you’re making her life a little bit worse than it could be. But there’s danger in this approach too. What if you do make it one day? What’s to stop them coming for you too? [emphasis added]

This seems like a compelling claim to the author but it seems dubious.  The idea tha tit's easier to despise someone than envy them has to presuppose envy.  It doesn't feel better to despise or envy so far as I can tell.  

But having been around for the majority of the rise and fall of what used to be Mars Hill Church and its keynote figure Mark Driscoll the reason I find the closing claim to be so dubious is because over the years I saw the "people find it easier to hate X for success than to admit to envy of X doing so much good in the world" only it wasn't applied to Lena Dunham, it was said of Mark Driscoll.  Surely a grown-up can hold that there is plenty to not particularly admire about both Lena Dunham and Mark Driscoll at the same time.  

Well … the thing about this kind of argument is that within the Christian blogosphere in the United States and Christian media over the last two decades I’ve seen precisely this “it’s easier to despise than be honest and admit to envy” gambit rolled out for guys like Mark Driscoll. 

As the Result Source controversy and the plagiarism controversy erupted between later 2013 and early 2014 a question that had to be addressed by those who would say the Mark Driscoll haters might envy his success was a blunt one, the question was how much of Mark Driscoll's success was built upon his own work as distinct from work that others had done for him; work others did that he'd made use of without full credit given to them; and work that had become popular or well-known on the basis of its own marketplace merits as distinct from market-altering gambits conducted behind the scenes.   This might be another element in which the Hollywood royalty may not be entirely bad if in this limited sense, that you can't flaunt the connections and generations of power if they aren't there.  

If the kinds of stars we're getting are in the Lena Dunham or Louis CK category that might be a reason to ask what it is, exactly, that has made these sorts of people stars.  I'm not interested in making harsh comments about Lena Dunham or Louis CK or even necessarily Mark Driscoll.  These may all be people who were transformed into stars by a star-making machine or network of machines the ethics of which has not been examined as closely, perhaps, as could be.  It must be possible to ask why the star-making machinery of first-world nations picks the stars it picks without having to assume that the stars themselves have to be thought of as automatically all bad or thoroughly worthy in the process.  

A Mere Orthodoxy list of top "non-Christian books" from 2018 Christians are advised to read, notes on Jessica Johnson and John Gray books

So this looks to be the first post of 2019.  I'm not exactly a end of year lists sort of blogger but this particular list caught my eye.   Two titles on the list jumped out at me.  The first that jumped out was a book I read and reviewed that I would actually recommend, the second was a book I read and didn't review that I'm not sure I'd recommend because it seems too breezy.

The Jessica Johnson book is a pretty dense academic monograph that has a writing style alienating even to willing readers who were part of Mars Hill. I would still recommend it as the only book so far published on Mars Hill that isn't boilerplate red state or blue state polemic that fails to engage primary source materials and participants, but it's really a book for specialists and scholars that non-specialists will find alienating within the first twenty pages. Since Mars Hill dissolved in 2015 Johnson's book has the benefit of having attempted to describe and discuss one element of the church culture now that the church has been dissolved, at least. Given the extent to which Mark Driscoll has been attempting to continue his public career without so much as conceding Mars Hill ever existed Johnson's book has some historical value for citing and chronicling statements made by MH leaders that have since been, in several ways, purged from the internet record.

Replicating the press blurb ... anyone who actually read the book could, I think, do a bit better. It's not that the book isn't a challenge to read by way of being an academic monograph; it's that in light of the nearly 20 year history of what was once Mars Hill and the way its history has been in some respects scrubbed, if a Christian goes to the trouble to read Johnson's book the most central case Johnson makes in the book, that once you have a fuller definition of pornography than the literary or visual depiction of intercourse for entertainment purposes the appeal of Mark Driscoll within American evangelicalism can be described as pornographic in his Mars Hill period, is a proposal that nearly any Mere Orthodoxy readers who might actually read Jessica Johnson's book might dismiss as soon as they understand it, possibly within the first twenty pages of reading.

I took the time to write a pretty lengthy review of Johnson's book in 2018.

I would go so far as to say that among books that have attempted to describe Mars Hill and Mark Driscoll's ministry within the context of Mars Hill, Jessica Johnson's is the book that is worthwhile for future scholars to consult. Other books that I'm aware of that discussed Mars hill tend to come off as boilerplate either for or against neo-Calvinist doctrines and social practices in binary blue state and red state polemical contexts. One of many reasons such a partisan context is counterproductive is because what is broadly described as neoliberalism can have, as John Halle has blogged, blue state as well as red state iterations--to translate this a bit, Mark Driscoll and Dan Savage may look like they were on opposite sides of issues such as gay marriage and sex work but in the sense that their respective confrontational gimmicks were targeting audiences whose self-assessment of their own sexual market values was considerably above some hypothetical zero, a Mark Driscoll and a Dan Savage were more alike than different in how they pitched to their respectively insular audiences once you begin to separate the formal "what" from the "how" of the self-branding and presentation. I discussed that at some length over here.

If sharing shock jock gimmicks and selling sex talks can be so simple a common point for ostensibly "opposite" men as Mark Driscoll and Dan Savage then the opportunism of sex sells book production can be as pervasive within Christian pop publishing. Nobody's going to be publishing a counterpoint to Real Marriage that is going to be called Real Celibacy. The books that American publishers seem happy to run with are those books that promise to the Christian or non-Christian that if you do it this way the sex will be hotter and the partnership will be better and you will be a better person than all the other people who didn't buy this book.

With Nadia Bolz-Weber having a book called Shameless coming out this month I'd suggest that anyone who reads that book also pick up Real Marriage and then read that book and then read Jessica Johnson's Biblical Porn. Whether it's more of a red-state/fundamentalist ("let's put the fun back in fundamentalism") of Mark Driscoll or a blue-state/egalitarian style that might be the case of Nadia Bolz-Weber, a celebrity preacher can use a "biblical porn" approach. One of the mistakes that will continue to be made by partisans of red state and blue state popular American Christianity (that is more American than Christian, by and large) is to assume that so long as either the red state or blue state checklist is suitably covered that there cannot possibly be an overlap in underlying branding and marketing gimmicks. Whether we're looking at the sex-and-marriage books of a Mark Driscoll, Ed Young, Nadia Bolz-Weber or any number of other celebrity Christians whose books may not really even need to exist except to satisfy contemporary branding purposes, what Jessica Johnson describes as "biblical porn" may be one of the foundations of such branding, branding with an aim less to continue any kind of Christian contemplative or ethical or doctrinal traditions as much as to ensure that a new book gets cranked out and that is dutifully bought by increasingly insular target audiences--the question of whether or not the readers of the Emergent Village authors or Sojourners or The Gospel Coalition of Grace to You Ministries may not all be dangerously insular in their reading and thinking may not be given nearly enough thought.

But Johnson's book, even though I recommend it with some caveats that a moderately conservative Calvinist sort might be expected to have, is not the kind of book that people who want to skim through things for a"worldview" conversation are going to get anything useful out of. It would be their loss, those readers, if they were able to gain anything from reading outside their ideological niche, whether it be blue state or red state or the other way around; whether it be Calvinist, Arminian, Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran or Anglican or not Christian.

Now for the John Gray book, Seven Types of Atheism, I finished reading that last weekend. I think it's a mixed bag. It's a bit too breezy. There are ideas in the book I think should be considered more seriously. Gray's observation that the entire contemporary Western liberal tradition is parasitically dependent on the universalizing claims of monotheistic religions seems to have real merit. Arguing that the Enlightenment era religions of human progress and secular humanist ideals of human development are dependent on millenialist optimism of the sort found in Christianity in Western Europe could actually have a case to be made for its key idea.

But ... Gray kills the credibility of what could be a real case by declining to refine and nuance some of the key claims about liberalism, secularism and Christian millenarian views. Jeffrey Burton Russell outlined in his book Dissent and Order in the Middle Ages that the Catholic church was against both postmillenialist and premillenialist views. Millenialist views such as "post" and "pre" were regarded as heretical in terms of interpretation of apocalyptic literature at the theoretical level and at a practical and political level were regarded as heresies that were endorsed by revolutionaries who set themselves against the social, economic, ecclesial, political and military status quo of the era.

So the trouble with John Gray's book is that it will infuriate or frustrate those atheists and Christians who are widely read enough in the history of religion and political thought to recognize some egregious shortcuts he takes. Since I've been an amillenialist for twenty years I can agree with Gray's assertion that a "millenial" Christian, if Gray means a postmillenialist of some theonomist or Dominionist stripe, and a Marxist have the same basic approach to history. The trouble is that Gray treats all Christian thought as if it has been millenialist since the earliest days of Christian thought and the trouble is that that's simply not true of either Western or Eastern Christianity. There have been amillenialists among Christians going fairly far back into the history of Christianity.

What's more, since there's also a tradition of "already but not yet" in Christian eschatological thought it can't even be said that merely having a millenarian view settles the matter of how Christians think about history. A Christian could affirm there is some kind of millenium but if a Christian holds that the eschatological moment is not something we can bring about by our efforts and that we live "between times" then that can inform thinking about power, politics, church and state. Gray's reading of Christianity seems confined to what might be construed as post-Constantinian, post-Gelasius' doctrine of two swords type of Christendom.

I heartily endorse a proposal that liberalism of the Star Trek variety constitutes propaganda of integration and advocacy for cultural imperialism.

I also wrote about how the core question in Star Trek Beyond was "and who is my neighbor?", a question that shows all of the ways in which the Star Trek franchise is parasitically dependent upon ethical norms and teaching that emerged within the New Testament literature however much Star Trek advocates might wish to believe that, were it not for the legacies of the Abrahamic religions, we would have attained to Star Trek level technological society by now.

So when John Gray makes a claim that contemporary secular humanism and new atheism appeal to cumulative moral intuitions that are residually monotheistic and parasitically dependent on monotheistic ideals I don't really contest that observation. There's a substantial case to be made in favor of that in historical, literary and political terms.

The problem is that he makes such a case in so lazy a way and with so sweeping and inaccurate a grasp of the cumulative global traditions of Christian thinking, and even within Western Christian thought, that he blunts any possibility of his potentially more nuanced case being considered by either Christians or secularists. He has the luxury of being able to opine about the greatness of Santanya and Conrad and Spinoza. It's not that I don't think the new atheists needed to be shown up for the facile polemicists angling for empire that they obviously were--Christopher Hitchens is in many respects no longer remembered as ever having been any kind of left thanks to the vociferousness with which he advocated for Gulf War 2 and to a much lesser extent the war on terror.

That the sun has set on the Western colonial powers and has been setting on the United States is not an idea I expect Americans or Western Europeans to agree with or take seriously, but that's my impression over the last thirty years. Without the largesse of colonial empire the Western European nations are not going to be able to sustain their respective welfare states. The aporia in Western liberalism between the welfare of the human species as a whole and the liberties and rights of individuals as defined by the Western liberal traditions isn't going away. One of the ironies of the emergence of an alt right could be that the alt right sells itself as being for the liberties and rights of individuals while doubling down on collective identity that is more or less fabricated in response to multicultural mythologies that may exist as much in the minds of alt right advocates as in those groups they believe are fabricating mythologies of the rainbow. If the alt right sorts who believe ethnic and cultural monoliths are able to form great empires then the sun set on the West ages ago and China and India promise to be the empires of the future in terms of sheer population size and potential for resource development.

But ... the global biosphere, it seems, cannot withstand second world nations reaching the consumer standards of the first world nations. There may be some truth to that concern on ecological grounds but couldn't international propaganda be a variable? Let's put it this way, couldn't second world powers seeking to emerge as players in the global scene suggest that the decadent and spent powers of the West have more than a mere vested interest in developing a science of climate change whose policy implications require that the rest of the world not catch up to American style consumption? Couldn't Americans just sacrifice contemporary consumption styles back to some year like 1971 or 1917 so the rest of the world could catch up to a 1917 European standard of living? That's never going to happen, obviously, but it's the kind of polemical point that can be raised in response to concerns about the ecological impact of the rest of the world trying to "catch up" with the lifestyle options of the post-industrial West.

John Gray can enjoy a level of luxury that was inconceivable to a Bronze Age regional warlord. John Gray has the luxury of considering that there's actually nothing inherent to atheistic philosophy that should automatically lead to the Western liberal traditions secular humanists and post-Comte style religions-of-humanity take for granted. There's even a case to be made that Gray is right to say that atheists should not take for granted that atheism "should" or even "does" lead to an affirmation of universal human rights and dignities that, in Gray's estimation, are ultimately the innovation of monotheistic religion. If we live in an era in which secularists are attempting to reverse-engineer a natural law tradition on materialist, evolutionary grounds that still yields the social, economic and political advantages for individuals and groups that emerged in the wake of progressive movements that had touchstones in explicitly religious thought then John Gray has a book that could be written to unpack the significance of that. He could have attempted to appeal to the ways that religious people drew upon religious traditions in the Civil Rights movement in the United States, for instance, and compared that to secularist equivalents. He didn't do that.

Unlike the Jessica Johnson book, which is a difficult read but one that I believe is actually useful as a starting point for looking at the ways in which American evangelicalism across the red/blue divide can use sex to market identity and participation, the John Gray book is an easy read but not a book I think you should spend your weekend on now that I've spent a weekend reading through it.


I've been thinking about the Gray book in the weeks since I read it and something's gnawed at me but while I want to write a new post about that I'm not feeling all that energized to do the writing.  Sometimes you feel lethargic when the time could be right for writing as distinct from the time when you're thinking about stuff.  The short, lazy prelude version is that when John Gray wrote that evolution and its processes do not indicate a need for us humans to evolved so as to have to believe true things in order to survive it seems Gray was just plan conceding Alvin Plantinga's evolutionary argument against naturalism but with the proviso that, yeah, we humans may need illusions to survive.  Gray can stake out that kind of position consistently but it may be useful to bear in mind that over the last twenty or so years philosophers have taken Plantinga's evolutionary argument against naturalism, a critique of naturalism in light of evolutionary givenness that argues that there's no actual reason evolution should cause humans to evolve in such a way as to need or seek to believe "truth" in order to reproduce and survive.  Perhaps Plantinga could point out that a John Gray can dryly concede this point and then just move on but that many an atheist would deny this could be the case.

But Gray's matter of fact claim raises a question as to whether all atheists would agree with the claim and whether they would find it appropriate for such a sweeping claim about humanity to be ... fit for a popular level paperback.  It's almost as though Gray has written that, sure, the Alvin Plantinga evolutionary argument against naturalism as applies to epistlemology can be conceded but since human life has no intrinsic meaning in the sense that there's no such thing as a story of history, just competing stories of humanity, this doesn't matter.  But then John Gray is a British academic who pretty literally has the luxury of being that sort of neo-Stoic atheist thinker.  Now that I've written that much I don't even know if I'd get into a more detailed version of what I was thinking of writing.  I just have been so rusty on Alvin and Cornelius Plantinga reading over the last ... twenty years I'm embarrassed to admit it took me a week and a half to think about something that a younger me would have probably thought about while I was reading John Gray's book. 

Negative reviews of Gray's book and Gray's book together has me pondering what seem to be the differences between intra-guild and inter-guild battles.  It can seem as though Anglo-American atheists, to some degree, don't wish to concede an Alvin Plantinga evolutionary argument against naturalism in connection to epistlemology but might simply admit among their own team that, no, there's no real reason evolutionary processes would "require" us to believe or seek "truth" in order to survive. 

If religious conservatives tend to be bashful about conceding the extent to which their attempts to revive throne and altar theologies to establish more or less functionally authoritarian cultural systems then atheists can seem bashful about conceding that the gap between the evolutionary and physical processes that spawned human life and attempts to formulate ethical systems that are based on ... allegedly on science or "universal" values while explicitly repudiating the natural law traditions refined by the monotheistic religions is insuperable, more or less.  What John Gray has managed to insist upon in Seven Types of Atheism is that most of what passes for atheism is parasitically dependent on ideas that were invented or refined within monotheistic contexts and that honest atheists have to step back and reject all of that stuff to become real atheists. 

It's as though Gray decided to publish a little book that narrowed the field of real atheisms into a kind of anti-no-true-Scotsman polemic.  When Gray concludes by saying that the new atheists and religious fundamentalists have more in common in disposition and epistlemological convictions than atheists and religious mystics who withdraw from cultural/imperial projects he's underlining very broadly a polemical point that few atheists and religious followers might consider reasonable or even coherent.  Gray has the luxury of being the kind of atheist who thinks five of seven types of atheists are really just religious zealots who are unable to recognize it.  Whether it's a new atheist, a secular humanist, a believer in a religion of positive and perfectable humanity in Enlightenment terms (and Gray takes some time to insist that explicitly racist and white supremacist views were the product of this Enlightenment more than they had anything to do with monotheistic religions whose catholicity insisted upon a universal human origin in Genesis 3 in the Abrahamic religions), or god-haters or advocates of political parties, Gray asserts flatly that all of these would be atheists are ultimately acting and thinking like religious zealots.  He mentioned in passing the late Christopher Hitchens whose anti-religious views didn't preclude a dogmatic commitment to the war on terror and Gulf War 2.  Hitchens was paradoxically and ironically an exemplar of the kind of dogmatism he claimed to loathe.    Gray's little book might be a useful overview of how there can be, as so often the case with religious people, an observable and troubling gap between precept and practice, dogma and conduct. 

That might have to suffice ... a rather long postscript.

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Tropes of Soul in a Christmas song: comparing versions of "Silent Night" as a short consideration of principles of ornamentation in vocal performance

Today we're going to take a relatively short stroll through different performances of one of the staples of Christmas music, "Silent Night".  I'll start with versions I love or like a great deal and then move toward versions I ... don't ... quite ... like so much.

Mahalia Jackson

A few observations about what Jackson does with this song.  Jackson definitely decorates the melody all over the performance but as she begins, going through the first few minutes she adds ornaments at the start of the note, the end of the note, and sometimes in the middle of the note, but the duration of the note in a "plain" version of the melody is respected.  She'll ornament the start or end of a sustained and, this part might be easy to miss if you're not listening for the foreground and background, she leaves enough space for the chorus singing in the background to have its role.

Let's take her flourish on "Christ the Savior is born" that you can hear about 3:00. She puts in quite a flourish but you'll hear that the foundational note in the tune for "born" is where she stars and where she ends.

Aretha Franklin

There's a similar dynamic going on in Franklin's approach to ornamentation.  What she does that Jackson doesn't is play with the rhythmic durations of the text in its setting.  There's a nice antiphonal approach to verse 2 where a chorus intones the start of verse 2 and Franklin enters in on "shepherds quake ... ".  The chorus takes half the declamation of the second verse, with Franklin adding soloist commentary in the second half of each of the phrases.  This provides a context for her increasingly florid decorations of the melody--there's a chorus intoning the plainer, simpler version of the song and a call and response dynamic that allows Franklin the liberty to add more ornate decorations.  It's a setting that is still pretty restrained in its way.

then ...

Michael Bolton

Let me just say I've never particularly enjoyed his music.  Even Bolton, though, takes the melody in a pretty straightforward way, adding flourishes at a few strategic phrase endings.  "sleep in heavenly PEEACE" or "our Savior is BOOOOOOORN".  The ornamentation gets fancier and fancier with each verse.  This is moving more in the direction of soul that I confess I have less sympathy for.

but as overcooking the Christmas dinner goes ...  Christina Aguilera might be one of the champions

Now I'm not complaining about her tone, her tone production and intonation are really good.  It's just that she throws decorative flourishes that are extraneous to the tune itself and, by way of contrast to Mahalia Jackson and Aretha Franklin, introduces the decorations even before the first verse is completed.  By verse 2 Aguilera has a ... slightly more restrained take on the melody but this whole approach is, I confess, more ornate than I happen to like, and it's more baroque (in a bad way, for me) than even the Michael Bolton performance.  If you're into Aguilera's music then I don't want to say you're wrong, I just have found with this season's holiday musical marathon I've felt that Aguilera's approach to "Silent Night" is an example of the kind of florid soul singing that I think can obscure a melody.  Doing a verse in Spanish is cool, though.  Had there been less decoration the linguistic contrast could have been more prominent.

Not even Mariah Carey started off with so florid an introduction.

and she left the organist room to hit that Leslie speaker effect.  Gotta give her props for that.  It might seem a bit obvious but the soloist/chorus dynamic is in effect here.  It's an important arranging element to keep in mind for settings of songs like this.  You can let the soloist go to town provided the chorus and ensemble are there to anchor the overall performance.

Because I'm a Mahalia Jackson admirer I want to bring this back to one of her performances of a Christmas song to try to explain what I admire about her approach. I've been reading a couple of Bruce Haynes books on Baroque era treatises on ornamentation and performance style.  Back in the Baroque era as we'd know it there were treatises on what was considered good and bad form for decorating melodic passages.  A good performer would decorate a melody in a way that added expressiveness to the material without obscuring it past the point that a person could recognize the phrases of the musical material.    So ... if you're a soloist decorating a melody you want to have a text-based or theme-based reason for doing so.

now I love this version

Jackson takes the majority of the melody and text verse by verse in a straightforward way.  Where she cuts loose and does whatever she feels inspired to do is when she gets to "over the hills and EVERYWHERE!"  She soars and dives away from the notes of "everywhere" in the traditional melody to show that she's going everywhere.  It's a simple text-painting conceit for a song setting like this, but it works gorgeously ... because Mahalia Jackson was a musical genius.  Even when she decorates the final verse it's the final verse.  She's respected the structural integrity of the verse and chorus enough times in the performance that you can hear it underneath her modifications.  The term that's useful here is "reification" but in the Gestalt sense of the term rather than the Marxist sense of the term.  If you don't already have the melody at the back of your mind as the foundation against which built-up variations can be heard then you're less in a position to appreciate the variations.

 So, yes, I admit I'm negatively comparing Michael Bolton and Christina Aguilera to Mahalia Jackson and Aretha Franklin and even ... to some extent ... to Mariah Carey.  Trust me, twenty years ago I never would have imagined I would one day write about Carey displaying any kind of vocal restraint!

To show that the more things change the more they stay the same, there were folks in the Baroque era complaining about soloists interpolating the same over-used florid ornaments into performances centuries ago.

Music in the Baroque Era: From Monteverdi to Bach
Manfred Bukofzer location 7203 Kindle edition

It must also be remembered that the distinctions for extensive ornamentation apply only to music for soloists, especially castrati and the exceptional female singers. Both Tosi and Mancini compared the individual virtues of the two most famous prima donnas of Handel's day: Cuzzoni and Faustina. The first excelled in the cantabile style, in portamento and legato singing, and was praised for her sweet tone quality and for her ability to extemporize affective ornaments, which strikingly contrasted with the often ridiculed habit of singers always inserting the same divisions in different arias. Faustina, the wife of Hasse, distinguished herself in the amazing agility of her divisions, a "granitic" firmness in the execution of trills, perfect intonation, and a breath control that enabled her to phrase and articulate superbly. .. 

I have been thinking for years now we have been living in a new kind of Baroque era, in the wake of the collapse of a refined and perfected ars perfecta (the Romantic era, which any number of musicians and pundits are still committed to in concert music life and not without cause, mind you) we live in an era in which an explosion of different styles and forms have developed and in the wake of an era of instrumental music songs have re-emerged. If theorizing and writing about music keeps anchoring thought about music to instrumental music, particularly autonomous music as it was defined in 19th century debates, then a whole sea of musical thought and writing will get cast off to the side as somehow irrelevant when the history of Renaissance and Baroque era treatises on music could get ignored.

My polemic point at the end of 2018 is to suggest that when we listen to different versions of a popular Christmas carol we can hear that the women I regard as the real masters of soul singing such as Mahalia Jackson and Aretha Franklin, provide lessons in what they did as much as by what they didn't do as by what they did do, and that there's a sense in which soul as a popular mode of song performance has new generations learning as though brand new lessons that were being formulated in polemics and treatises from the Baroque era.  Soloists were overcooking well-known songs past the point of either recognition of savored enjoyment back in the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries, too.

So, yeah, I think Mahalia Jackson and Aretha Franklin handled "Silent Night" brilliantly while Bolton and Aguilera represent more of what I would prefer people not do with a Christmas carol.