Archive for the ‘music’ Category

Christmas Carols

December 6, 2017

My father has been gone for 12 years. I think of him often at this time of year, because he so loved music, and particularly Christmas music. Thanks to him I grew up listening every Christmas to a record of the King’s College Choir (in Cambridge, England) singing Lessons and Carols. The sound of those angelic voices singing “O Come, All Ye Faithful” in the reverberating space of the college chapel moved something elemental in me. It might have been a sound from another world, unlike anything I knew in plain, foggy Fresno, California. In some small way I learned from that music the meaning of transcendence–a concept that, otherwise, I could not have taken in.

The story of Jesus’ birth touches us at a very deep level. You can say all you want about the doctrine of the incarnation, but we feel and understand it through our senses and our emotions, just as much or more than our intellects.

This connection often comes through music. What astonishing, multi-faceted beauty in song has been inspired by Christmas–and I am not referring to “White Christmas.”

“O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” Our deep longing, and hope beyond hope, are caught in that plaintive song.

“Joy to the World–the Lord is Come” occupies the other end of the spectrum. It is really a chorus of the Second Coming, when Jesus’ kingdom is fulfilled. “No more let sin and sorrow grow, or thorns infest the land.” Emmanuel has come, and with dash and vigor “Joy to the World” erupts with the news.

“O How a Rose E’er Blooming.” The delicacy, the utter silence with which the astonishing answer to our prayers is revealed. Jesus unfurls, like a rose.

Many of the carols capture this quiet magic. “What Child is This?”–as if to say, what am I seeing? Can I believe it?

“O Little Town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie.” It begins in the stillness of the night, unnoticed by anyone important. So it has always been, and so it remains today.

“Silent Night, Holy Night.” This is perhaps the greatest of all the carols. Simplicity and calm pervade the music and the words. When we sing it together, for a few moments all is calm, all is bright.

“O Come, All Ye Faithful.” The story calls us. Joyful and triumphant, we join in. O come, let us adore him.

“Ah, dearest Jesus, holy Child, make thee a bed, soft, undefiled, within my heart.” These are Martin Luther’s words. The story calls us, and we call back to the one who makes the story. “Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask thee to stay close by me forever, and love me, I pray. Bless all the dear children in thy tender care. And fit us for heaven to live with Thee there.”


Body and Spirit, Music and Words

March 27, 2015

Music is constantly changing, and it mutates not only from culture to culture but generation to generation. The only place this bothers people is in church. There, fashion-driven variability encounters the unchangeable. Somehow we expect that worship music will be as immutable as the nature of God. It isn’t, to the lasting distress of those who want young people to love 19th century hymns and organ music.

Music changes, and it has always changed. The biblical psalms were clearly meant to be sung, but we have no idea what kind of music was dear to their authors. Would we like it? Perhaps not: I doubt I would adopt 3,000-year-old Hebrew music any more than I would adopt 3,000-year-old Hebrew clothes. Thankfully I do not have to: the psalms are taken up in musical styles that suit the times and the culture. The Scots put all their psalms to music—Scottish music. The Dutch Reformed did too but in a Dutch way. The English taught us to chant them, and still do. None of these is universal or eternal. The psalm singing that was bedrock for my Scottish grandfather is gone with the wind. It is not coming back!

Yet for all music’s impermanence, there is no worship without it. And perhaps the variability, the flexibility, the variety of music is a part of its glory. My friend Joyce Scott, a South African, has spent much of her life encouraging African people to use their traditional music styles in worship songs. She is healing a historical wound: When Africans encountered Christianity they often adopted European hymns and abandoned their parents’ music. In many cases a very musical people became much less tuneful whenever they entered church. Joyce loves music passionately, and she began to experiment with Scripture songs as a missionary in Kenya; eventually, her specialty became training and encouraging indigenous music in the church. To every people and every generation, a different music—their own music.

Yet here is the interesting thing: we re-write the music every generation, but we do not re-write the psalms. The psalms as literature cross the gulf of years as though it were nothing. At least half of the psalms reach me without the slightest strain. Culturally we are far away from the men who wrote those poems so long ago—but our experiences of life and God seem not to have changed very much, nor do the words that capture them.

So the timeless and the time-bound are knit together. You can’t get a knife in between a song and its words; we respond to them as to one unit. Yet one goes on and on, and the other fades away with its time, and must be renewed. One translates across all cultures, and the other bears all the local color and spirit of its time-bound surroundings. The eternal spirit is in the words, but it comes clothed in music. Spirit must be incarnated in the mortal, changeable flesh of the tune.

We speak of mysteries. How do permanence and variability go together, making a single unit? We cannot say, but we can sing. All this dense reality—body and spirit, two natures fully expressed in one being–is on the tips of our tongues when we open our mouth to make music.

How Much Drive is Enough? How Much Drive Is Too Much?

March 19, 2015

Last week I saw two excellent movies on back to back evenings: Whiplash, and McFarland, USA. They could not be more different. McFarland is a terrifically warm, feel-good movie, and you’re never in doubt that you’re headed for a happy ending. Whiplash makes you nervous from beginning to end, and you’re not sure of its direction even when it’s over. It’s the most intellectually stimulating movie I’ve seen in a long time, something nobody would say about McFarland.

Yet both movies probe the same question: how much motivation do you need to succeed in life, and is there a point where it’s self-destructive?

McFarland is about a small central valley picker town, and a group of Mexican kids dragged out of themselves by the semi-desperate leadership of a failed football coach who is reduced to cross-country. The kids aren’t sure there’s any future for them, apart from the same farm labor their parents do. Cross-country helps them find their competitive spirit. They are used to hard work, and when they are motivated toward a goal, great things are accomplished. They win the state title.

The message is: those kids need something to motivate them. A loser coach and a loser sport do the trick. Yeah, it’s a sports movie. I loved it. (It doesn’t hurt that all my kids ran cross-country.)

Incidentally, in my county some anonymous donors have been buying tickets for local kids, a nice gesture meant, I assume, to motivate them. (Maybe it’s a cross-country coach.)

Whiplash is about a middle-class kid with lots going for him. He has a loving father and a caring girlfriend, and he’s been admitted to the best music school in America. But he’s fiercely competitive—he practices drums until his hands bleed—and he’s eaten alive by an abusive teacher who’s trying to produce the next Charley Parker. The kid knows that Charley Parker died in drug-induced squalor, but he buys the program—he’ll happily die in his own snot if he reaches jazz nirvana and plays on that level. His teacher eggs him on, torments him, verbally and physically abuses him. Through much of the movie you feel sorry for the kid, and you hope the teacher gets what’s coming to him, but in the end you realize that the kid is drawn to the teacher like a moth to a flame. He wants success so much that he invites abuse—anything for motivation.

(Incidentally, when I asked my son the Olympic rower about the movie, he said that the teacher didn’t seem that bad to him. Which says something about Olympic training, I think.)

I think everybody would agree that we need motivation. Inspiring teachers and coaches and parents supply it. And abusive ones, too. How much is enough? How much is too much? This is a constant question in parenting—especially since, in the modern era, teachers and coaches have little opportunity for abuse. But parents? Lots of wiggle room. Will we be Tiger parents? Or will we be affirming parents? Will we raise ultra-successful neurotics? Or will we raise happy slackers?

I never had an abusive boss or teacher, my parents were of the hands-off, encouraging type who thought I did just fine, and I think I turned out okay. I’m not exactly a slacker. However, I’m not very driven, either, at least compared to some whom I know well. Sometimes I wonder whether I would have accomplished more with a more driven approach. It wasn’t naturally in me, but maybe it could have been pounded into me. Whiplash suggests that without somebody to pound it into you, you’ll never be the next Charley Parker. Maybe so. Do you want to be?

Real Culture

October 18, 2013

For inspiration in these dispirited times I would recommend this interview with Ted and Dana Gioia. They are remarkable brothers: raised working class Catholics in southern California, educated at Stanford,  Oxford and Harvard, seriously and professionally dedicated to poetry and jazz, MBAs with terrific respect for and experience in business, serious Christians. Reading this bucked me up considerably.

The Value of Contemporary Christian Music

June 6, 2011

Back in March, Christianity Today’s Mark Galli wrote an editorial note explaining why the magazine was publishing four separate articles all extolling traditional worship music:

“We strove to find an article or conduct an interview that would give more space to exploring the gift of contemporary music, but we came up empty. I’ll be frank: When it comes to contemporary Christian music, I have yet to find authors who are able to probe its uniqueness with the same depth and insight as those who relish traditional music. What I usually find is articles that say, ‘But people like it!’”

I’ve been pondering the matter. I like contemporary worship music, but can I articulate its contribution? Let me try.

First, though, let me distinguish between two kinds of contemporary music. One is little different from traditional hymnology—just different instruments. The melody may be simpler, the harmony less complex, and—most notably—the typical accompaniment is drums and guitar, not organ. But the lyrics are as extended as most hymns, and they are arranged in verses. For this kind of contemporary music I believe we are merely discussing musical tastes. You prefer organ over guitar? Good for you. The fact that most such contemporary hymns are flaccid and forgettable is hardly relevant. Most hymns composed in most of history have been of poor quality; they appear for a season and then vanish unmourned. So it will be with this new crop, whatever instruments are used. Let us hope that among a lot of bad material, something good will appear.

Another kind of contemporary music really is different, though. I was forcibly reminded of it this past weekend when I attended Bethel Church in Redding, California, a Pentecostal congregation known for its music (among other things). The guitar-driven songs were well performed, in a U2, wall-of-sound way. The lyrics projected on the screen for singing were brief, almost mantra-like words of adoration or confession, and they were repeated without much variation for about ten minutes per song. I liked the music but found it boring after the third repetition. My fellow worshipers did not seem bored, though: they appeared to be in states of ecstasy right to the last note.

This is the music mocked and scorned by traditionalists: three chords, four words, five times. But let us take it seriously, since our fellow worshipers do.

The goal of traditional worship music is to engage mind and body together in a rigorous act of worship. It requires work and skill to sing hymns well, especially in harmony, and the words to a good hymn require your sustained attention. The best hymns express truth in a comprehensive complexity, unified and full.

Just the opposite is the case in the best contemporary praise songs. They take one simple phrase that the emotions and mind and heart can seize on, and repeat it. These are not mantras in the eastern sense, where mind is dazzled into quiet by sheer mystery. Rather they reflect one comprehensible facet of the gospel message—God’s infinite power, for example, or our longing for his love, or his sacrifice on the cross. They hold a beam of light on that facet. Their value is in enabling contemplation, in a way more familiar to Catholics than Protestants. Trained as I am in traditional hymns, I do not find it so easy to lose myself in these songs. My younger fellow worshipers do, “lost in wonder, love and praise,” as one older hymn puts it. The simplicity of the music enables this. You do not have to work at singing; in fact, the wall of sound makes it virtually impossible to hear yourself sing. The words are easy. No hymnal need prompt you, nor even a powerpoint slide. The best songs stick in your head. You can focus on one thing, continuously, and for ten minutes see nothing else.

Then there is the body. Andrew Walls somewhere snidely refers to the remarkable western achievement of making music in a way that goes against every human instinct: not moving your body at all. Traditional worship music involves very little swaying or toe tapping. The body is still. Just try dancing to, “How Great Thou Art,” or “Of the Father’s Love Begotten.”

But in contemporary Christian worship music, the body is expressively involved. If you do not signal worship with your body, you are not really participating. Look around the room; you can see the difference between those who are involved in worship and those who are not. Their bodies tell the story.

This is one reason why contemporary worship music crosses cultural boundaries in a way that traditional hymnology does not. Anybody who has worshiped outside the west and heard a congregation struggling to sing western music badly will understand the problem. Contemporary music makes the transition with few obstacles. Surely this is a significant point in favor of contemporary music. It internationalizes. Its musical simplicity, and its danceable qualities make it communicate in almost every culture.

In sum: contemporary music enables worship of a different kind—that of adoration and contemplation. It enables bodily expression, for soul-and-body worship. And it begins the process of melding all nations into the one great chorus that will sing eternally. It is not the only way to worship, surely, but it has captured the minds and hearts of many. “People like it,” and for a reason.

True Worship

November 13, 2010

This week I attended a conference at which Andy Crouch led worship. He had a tough assignment, a mix of scientists, philosophers, theologians and pastors in a dull conference room with no reverb. Yet he managed to help us to enter thoughtfully into heartfelt worship.

Andy is an excellent musician (keyboard) and has a wonderfully rich voice, but that wasn’t what made it work. He led congregational worship. He got us to do the work of singing and reading Scripture. He enabled us to be the people of God facing God and calling out to him together.

In my experience, it’s a rare worship leader who focuses on helping the congregation do the work of worship. The question most people ask after attending church is not, “How did I do?” but “How did I like the music?” It’s performance, which we get to enjoy and follow. We’re like people singing along to the radio. We do it with pleasure, but we’re strictly auxiliary. If we did nothing, it wouldn’t make the least bit of difference.

Andy thinks we’re worshiping in a pre-Reformation mode. Then, the priests did the work (through the liturgy) and the congregation showed up to get the benefit of their work. So it is today: the musicians practice and hone their skills; the rest of us enjoy the emotional overspill. All the effort is from the platform. Andy said it has made him understand popular resistance to the Reformation. Not just the priests got benefits from the system, the people did too. They got glory without having to put anything into it.

If you’ve ever been in a church where people know how to sing, you know how wonderfully different it can be. But how many church leaders see it as their job to teach the people how to worship well? The Lutherans are the only group I know that takes congregational worship seriously.

If you happen to know Andy, besiege him with encouragement to teach other leaders how to do what he does. He said that he’s considered making a DVD that would show him in action, teaching and leading worship. He’s a multi-talented guy, and his time is scarce, but for my money he brings something unique to this. And it’s crucial.

The Power of Art

June 30, 2010

Last week Popie and I went to see Faust at the San Francisco Opera. I wasn’t taken by the music, but the production was wonderful. I appreciated that they played it straight, not remaking Faust as a wisecracking gay follies. The opera really is about temptation, and its evil really is evil. The devil it portrays is a very charismatic person—the most attractive character in the play, really—but that’s true enough in real life. If you take Faust seriously it gives you lots to think about.

I was struck by how fundamentally and straightforwardly the opera offered Christian beliefs about good and evil. The basic story line tells of an old man, Faust, deeply frustrated by his life, who makes a bargain with the devil: he will become young again, and find love, in exchange for a promise to serve Satan after his death. With the devil’s help he seduces a lovely young girl. He is conscience stricken when he meets her, and almost pulls back, but the devil urges him on. As the opera progresses, we see that the devil has not only bargained for Faust’s soul in the afterlife, he is determined to corrupt his soul (and the girl’s) in this life too. There are no simple bargains with Satan. He doesn’t really give; he takes.

Marguerite, the girl Faust seduces, is no more virtuous than Faust. She is seduced by her own vanity. (The devil helps Faust know how to get to her.) Pregnant, abandoned, mocked by her community, she kills her own baby and is condemned to death. The devil and a still-in-love Faust offer her a chance to escape the prison, but she appeals to God. Her ascent of the scaffold is accompanied by the devil’s declaration that she is condemned, and angel choruses singing of salvation. She is evidently ascending to God while Faust is going straight to hell.

Okay, it’s melodramatic. But it’s been very popular, and in Gounod’s version, it’s strikingly true to Christian belief. That wasn’t because everybody in those times believed. Faust opened in Paris in 1859, just two years after Madame Bovary. A few years later the Impressionists mounted their challenge to classic painting; their world was full of experiments in unorthodox thinking and living. Yet Faust’s composer, Charles Gounod, was a devout Christian (according to Wikipedia). Through the popular spectacle of this opera, orthodox (and imaginative) Christian content was widely displayed. I don’t know how many in his first audience really believed—perhaps no more than believed in San Francisco last week. But clearly, the times allowed Gounod to present his beliefs straightforwardly. Would the same be true today? I’m tempted to say no, but then, the San Francisco Opera just presented a very straightforward version of the same opera that wowed them in 1859.

It’s hard to argue with art. One great writer—or even one capable composer, like Gounod—can speak into places and times that would never otherwise hear.

Ode to Joy

December 8, 2009

Last night I sang in my third and final performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, along with the Santa Rosa Symphony. I have been wanting to sing this ever since I missed singing it with the San Francisco Symphony as a sophomore at Stanford. (I was in France at the time.) It was worth the 39 year wait. Part of the joy was sitting through the first three movements, right in the middle of the first three movements, on three consecutive nights, practically swallowed up by the horns and the timpani. (For the Ninth, singers don’t get any action until the fourth and last movement. But then they get a lot of action.)

Our director, Robert Worth, read a brief passage from a essay by Jan Swafford that captures something of the glory:

Famously, the Ninth first emerges from a whispering mist to towering, fateful proclamations. The finale’s Joy theme is almost constructed before our ears, hummed through, then composed and recomposed and decomposed. The Ninth is music about music, about its own emerging, about its composer composing. And for what? “This kiss for all the world!” runs the telling line in the finale, in which Beethoven erected a movement of epic scope on a humble little tune that anybody can sing.

The Ninth, forming and dissolving before our ears in its beauty and terror and simplicity and complexity, ending with a cry of jubilation, is itself his kiss for all the world, from east to west, high to low, naive to sophisticated. When the bass speaks the first words in the finale, an invitation to sing for joy, the words come from Beethoven, not Schiller. It’s the composer talking to everybody, to history. That’s what’s so moving about those words. There Beethoven greets us person to person, with glass raised, and hails us as friends.

That says it pretty well, but what it says is that we don’t know what we are talking about. We only know that we are exhilarated and moved as we share Beethoven’s obsessive brilliance. “A kiss for all the world” doesn’t do much for me. It’s the music that enthralls.

How is this? How can sound waves communicate such emotion? For all that science has uncovered about the way our brains work, the power of music suggests that we have barely touched the tip of understanding.