Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Hymnody or Christian Rock?

Music in most American churches today usually come from one of two traditions: Hymnody or Rock and Roll. Many churches refer to these musical styles as "traditional" and "contemporary," but both of these are misnomers. Each is a living musical tradition, that comes from different historical and cultural roots.

Not being an expert in hymnodic history, I'll keep my comments generally about my own perceptions and experience. Typical characteristics of Hymns: strophic (one tune for many verses), designed for four-part choral singing, syllabic text-setting (each syllable gets its own note) with mostly simple rhythms, linguistically and theologically complex and developed (i.e., lots of words, poetically arranged with carefully developed theological messages).

Like many living musical traditions, the Hymn tradition has shown the remarkable ability to incorporate different musical traditions throughout its history: ancient folk tunes ("Let all things now living"), renaissance dance tunes ("A Mighty Fortress is our God"), Bar songs ("We praise the O God"), Gospel music ("Pass me Not O Gentle Savior"), and even elements of contemporary popular music (such as in "Here I am, Lord" or "Gather us in"). Yet hymns have kept most of their trademark identifiers (listed in the previous paragraphs); these other musical influence have not replaced hymnodic stylings, but have been adapted to fit them. Most importantly, new hymns continue to be written, and the best name for these would be "contemporary hymns." It's what makes hymnody a living tradition.

Rock/Popular music, its roots largely coming from African-American rhythms and blues harmonies, also has its own set of typical music characteristics and stylings. The kind of pop-based music most churches sing typically feature: syncopated rhythms, melodies with extensive use of repetition (an important musical device, and what makes the tunes "catchy"), shorter stanzas that are linguistically closer to today's vernacular speech. These songs are less rigid with metrical consistency--each verse may have a different number of syllables in each phrase, and each phrase has a different number of syllables, too. That is, many hymns can be categorized by a number meter (e.g. D), while many pop-based worship songs cannot (marked "Irregular").

Mark Allan Powell has recently compiled an Encyclopedia of Contemporary Christian Music and was interviewed about it by Christianity Today. He makes some important comments about Christian Pop/Rock:
  • It is a musical tradition, and deserves as much attention as other kinds of church music.
  • The people who write it are sincere, faith-inspired, and incredibly diverse.
  • It's purpose is to express and embody Christian piety, in contrast to the hymnodic tradition's usual practice of expressing Christian theology. To quote the article:

Two aspects of faith are theology, which can be explained as matters of the head, and piety, which is matters of the heart. I usually call this the prose and poetry of faith. Theology is the prose, and we need good theology to know what it is we believe and know how to articulate what we believe.
Piety is the poetry of faith. In it, we pay less attention to precision than to honest expression. Contemporary Christian music needs to be theologically sound, but its real strength is in the realm of piety. It touches the heart, it's relational, it's empathetic and it's emotional in a way that is completely appropriate for a holistic understanding of faith.

What's helpful about understanding these things is that it allows us to appreciate each musical traditions for their respective strengths, removing us from judging church music solely on personal preference. It helps to free us from self-centeredness and toward communal identity, away from isolation and toward community.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Performance or Participation?

I practice music in two very different settings: my church, where I serve as the music director, and the UMKC Conservatory of music, from which I will be receiving my Master of Music in Composition (as soon as I finish my thesis). Both these worlds put unique and extremely different demands on me and the music I do.

The purpose of music at the conservatory is aesthetic excellence. The conservatory's aim is to develop musicians with technical and artistic skill--that is, the ability to conceptualize musical works of beauty, power, and depth, and the ability to execute those conceptions. Training, done right, is rigorous and plays no favorites--the best students excel, the worst students fail and drop out. It's a good thing, too: the biggest disservice the Conservatory could do is deceive students by allowing them to believe they are skilled musicians when they in fact are not. Such students need to be redirected to areas in which they will excel.

The purpose of music at church, however, cannot be the same. The reason we do anything at church is fundamentally about community. Why else would believers meet together? It is possible to pray, sing, read scripture--even prepare and consume bread and wine--on our own. But we meet together because God comes to us in community, when we are gathered together. The triune God himself is a communal being, having relationships between each person of the trinity. The purpose of music in church, then, is fundamentally communal.

Consequently, our goal for church music should be participation from everyone, for this is music's most powerful effects: many voices join to become one sound, all occupying the same space together. Where rigorous performance standard asks that only the best sing--for example, we audition for solos, and the best performer wins--our goal of communal worship invites everyone to participate.

Recently, this has been made very personal to me by relationships I have built with some in my church. One member of my choir suffered a stroke a few years ago, and decrease mobility has also been accompanied by decrease vocal strength and control. This person always loved to sing, and they sing in choir now, even though the vocal ability isn't what it used to be. Singing in choir is, for this person, a cathartic excercise, and a gesture of faith that one day their body will be restored. I wouldn't for the world have this person leave my choir, even though they often have trouble matching pitch. I love the way my choir sounds, not because of their musical precision, but because theirs is the sound of the Body of Christ working together.

But if the primary of church music is participation, not excellence, is there any pursuit of aesthetic goals at all? We don't want to do bad music, do we?

My current thinking is that there is a delicate, even precarious balance. I used to be very embarrased by bad church music. I'm still embarrassed by a lot of Christian pop music. Are cheap knockoffs the best that we can do in praise of Christ? Furthermore, if each member of Christ's Body has different gifts, shouldn't we encourage those with gifts other than music to pursue their true calling, not be misled into futile attempts at endeavors to which they are poorly suited?

Somehow, I have to find the right approach that encourages everyone to participate, but that urges everyone toward better music as well. As with all areas of Christian discipleship, there is always room to grow. The real problem isn't with bad music, it's with apathy. Whatever we do in Christ's name and for Christ's body, we should strive to do it well. But this is a journey together, where we do not leave even one out of a hundred behind.

As a trained musician, aesthetic excellence is a hard idol to let go, but ultimately, I believe, one that I must. An important witness for the church is the witness of weakness: that we do not rely on ourselves, but we confess readily our frailty and our reliance upon God's grace. Therefore, we don't shun brokenness or imperfection--we give thanks that in our weakness, Christ's power and grace is made evident. As with any activity in the church, when we sing, we should do our best in praise of Christ, but what's more important is we all do it together, expressing God's grace through our cooperative efforts, through our communal work.