I get the impression that for a few who used to attend Mars Hill Church there is a lot that, in hindsight, they regard as altogether bad. A thread that I sometimes see among former members and attenders is that they liked the music. A subset of music and the history of the former church is that Christian hip hop has been a thing for decades, even if it's a subgenre of rap or hiphop that people might not know existed.
West putting out a gospel album isn't the least bit shocking if you've heard of this genre of hiphop before. Now usually when I blog about music it's about classical guitar music and formal analysis but I have been known to write about Taylor Swift when something newsworthy comes up about her and, so, there's room to write about West, too, when something he does gets my attention.
I'm also reading about the evolution of black gospel music as commercial music in the 20th century and there's fascinating stuff about how there was a tension between the newly emerging gospel blues and blues as popular sheet music in the vein of Thomas Dorsey and the concert spirituals and classical music works of composers like William Levi Dawson. The popular musical style(s) prevailed in the 1930s through 1950s and so black American music that was developed in what is known as the concert music traditions (aka classical) has been less thoroughly discussed at the level of popularly read music journalism and history. That's kind of obvious that pop music history, criticism, and discussion would skip past African American concert spirituals and sacred choral works but West's gospel album being released might be as good an occasion as any to recollect that it hasn't always been about blues, and even gospel blues in the style of Mahalia Jackson caused a stir because it wasn't blues as was thought of in secular terms on the one hand, nor was it the kind of church music people were used to hearing. Mahalia Jackson was described as too much in the style of "sexy singer" for more mainstream/mainline African American churches.
As I've been reading through scholarship on gospel music and, of course!, listening to the music I can hear something like the opening from "Everything We Need"
and it's not hard to hear how this kind of introduction draws on a rich tradition of gospel quartet singing. Quartet singing goes back into the 19th century as a popular style and Scott Joplin had some of his musical development in the quartet idiom.
Take "The Devil with the Devil" by the Golden Gate Quartet
There's some fun vocal mimicry of the plunger mute technique for cornet and trumpet that starts about 1:28 with a pure ragtime set of chord changes.
Since the Golden Gate Quartet is pretty spectacular, let's just keep running with them for a bit.
Years ago Kyle Gann blogged about how he would show students that the strict technical mastery required in a lot of popular musical styles meant they needed to beware of thinking that going into popular styles meant not as much work for them as in classical.
I’ll contextualize. I don’t teach modulation until March, and nearly all classical music modulates, while in ragtime and barbershop I can get a dense wealth of varied harmonic functions without having to worry about changing key. Plus, classical music is so varied in its techniques that I used to spend a lot of time cherry-picking my examples to find pieces with which to teach a certain principle. Contrariwise, if I want to teach common-tone diminished sevenths, almost any ragtime will do; if I want secondary dominants around the circle of fifths, any barbershop quartet will do. If I need further examples, I just turn to the next page. When I teach pivot-chord modulation I’ll turn to Schubert and Schumann, though even there, mid-century Broadway tunes offer wonderful modulation paradigms within a three-page song, and West Side Story gives me both those and a lot of imaginative uses of the French sixth chord. Besides, the complexities of these chords from “Lida Rose” already had the students pretty distraught:
Brahms would have been easier. I don’t mind letting it viscerally sink in that they would need to develop a stricter range of technical skills to pursue a career in Broadway music or film scoring than to hang out a shingle as some anarchic avant-garde composer. They need some respect for the amount of expertise even a supposedly “fun” musical career will demand of them.
To give a personal for instance, picking up ragtime on the piano is technically very demanding. I managed to learn just enough piano to teach myself to play J. S. Bach and to teach myself to play Scott Joplin ... and Paul Hindemith. All three composers made me work pretty hard, if in different ways, to learn how to play their piano scores. I had to teach myself stretches of Ludus Tonalis because my piano teacher wasn't a Hindemith fan and I wasn't really a music major to boot.
What you'll have heard in the Golden Gate Quartet recordings is how fluently the group mixes different vocal timbres within their performances, something for which Western notation has basically no significant taxonomy or terminology. It's not that abrupt shifts in vocalization aren't called for in "classical" vocal music. Xenakis wrote some far out a cappella music. Wait, if memory serves Caroline Shaw's probably covered that somewhat with Partita.
Although even that isn't as "crazy" as might first seem if you have some familiarity with Greek folk music.
Now something I want to suggest, since it's the weekend as I'm writing this, is that we should not settle for some stupid axiom that Western musical notation doesn't have the tools to articulate differences between timbres in vocal production. We do. All we'd need to do is reassign the noteheads of the shape note tradition so that each differently shaped note in that tradition would no longer be assigned to a space or line on a musical stave but, rather, could designate one form of vocal timbre or another, whether a straight tone, a nasal tone, a hollow "headvoice" tone or something like that. American choral/vocal traditions in church music have already provided a possible option for designating changes in timbre for vocal music. I'm rusty on choral music after so many decades of digging into chamber music for guitar but someone has probably already done plenty using different note heads to designate different timbres. The problem is not so much that Western musical notational conventions "can't" designate timbre, it's that the accumulated weight of musical practice didn't call for it often enough to lead composers to develop a solution. If it took microtonalists generations to develop something like Ben Johnston's approach to extended just intonation in his string quartets it may take a similar generational shift from Partsch through Johnston for consolidating timbrel transformation in vocal music. Or maybe someone has already done that.
Now West isn't likely to ever be my personal favorite in terms of listening music but his dropping a gospel album doesn't seem like a shock in itself. Maybe he hasn't spoken and behaved in a way that makes it seem like a gospel album would be likely but Johnny Cash managed to live a pretty rough, sinful life amidst a life in which he also kept coming back to gospel music, didn't he?
Randall J. Stephens' The Devil's Music did a pretty good job exploring how early rock and soul pioneers were steeped in Pentecostal musical traditions. I don't know that West is Pentecostal but the books I've been reading by Stephens, and Mark Burford and Anthony Heilbut lately have a theme in common, a lot of important developments in American popular music have connections to Pentecostal music and black Pentecostal traditions more particularly. Of course Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash were white guys but they came up from Pentecostalism. Even the Baptist Mahalia Jackson was open about how she preferred the Sanctified (i.e. Pentecostal) approach to music and worship. I find that interesting to read about, being ex-Pentecostal that I am for doctrinal reasons, because although I've got reasons as big as rejecting futurist dispensationalist eschatology and associated modes of biblical interpretation, I enjoyed the Pentecostal musical styles and the more I read scholarship on the evolution of those styles the more it seems that what the Pentecostals managed to do was literally (or figuratively) sanctify street level "dance hall" styles.
Which brings things round to Kanye West. Kanye West putting out a gospel album can be a usefully instructive moment about how hiphop can be a style that is used in the traditions of church music.
There's a lot about my time at the former Mars Hill Church I regard with regret but one thing I am grateful for is it was a big enough of a Christian community that within it I got to learn about just how diverse the range of possibilities can be for kinds of gospel music. I've made this polemic before but I find it interesting how in Anglophone musical contexts musical innovations have seemed to emerge inevitably from high church Anglican contexts while in American music history the most substantial musical innovations that made it into histories seem to come more from Baptist and Pentecostal traditions, i.e. innovations tended to come from the low church traditions in America. That's a very rough theory for a weekend post, mind you, but it's something I've been thinking about over the years.
So I don't know if I'll go and actually get the Kanye West gospel album but it's interesting to hear of it. Bryan Townsend was blogging about the album this weekend, which got my attention.