Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Art, Music and falling short on Godpod

So goes the quote from Rita's mother in the wonderful film 'Educating Rita' which formed part of the discussion on the latest 'GodPod #53' which I stumbled across the other day. The main topic was principally on the subject of art by guest artist Charlie Mackesy. The quotation above, which Charlie drew attention to, was actually directed to church music, particularly so called modern worship music. Interestingly the conversation did not draw conclusions other than the rather easy cop-out about personal taste and preference despite promptings by host theologian Graham Tomlin asking whether their should be 'rules' to govern scope.

The consensus was very much that there shouldn't be such rules yet this is where I think things fail bigtime although I would prefer to use the term 'Absolutes' , I do have sympathy with the negative sense of rules! I certainly think this issue is worth a good listen as Charlie's contributions are excellent and, despite, generally, clergy being weak on the subject of music, Graham, as clearly a man of good taste (liking one of my fave bands 'Mumford and Sons'!) and author of the excellent book 'Provocative Church', would, if pushed, have had more to contribute on this subject.

However, the notion that something should be 'better' is profound, particularly concerning music played in churches. For many this seems a simple issue of old versus new and therefore it is just a matter of preference to 'enjoy' worship in your own comfort zone. Whilst there are clearly issues of old v new which has warranted a good few discussions the situation is much more interwoven than that. I would suggest that a lot of the time it is exactly one of how it could be better, so let's have a quick look at a couple of areas to consider:

Interestingly David Byrne has recently delivered a TED talk on the environment that creates music (styles) and refers directly to how certain church music developed because of the building space it was set in. In fact, BBC4's series Sacred Music highlighted how much of the early chants were an effective sound reinforcement system to project the liturgy to the corners of large churches and cathedrals. David Byrne also stated how music becomes 'auditory mush' when a style is played in a space that simply does not match.

One of the big problems with modern church music in the worship music genre is that it is generally 'not very good' to quote Martyn Joseph. The reasons for this are varied and include the church selling out to singer - songwriters, the development of a revenue earning business model and the fact that most so-called worship leaders (and record companies) lead conferences to train more leaders, thereby perpetuating the same mediocrity. Sadly Holy Trinity Brompton, on which even the edgy GodPods reside, is deeply guilty of this!

As far as more traditional music is concerned many of the same issues apply, however, it is more glaringly obvious when there are errors in tuning and choice of music. Church choirs and organs represent an earlier sell-out by the church when the West gallery musicians, usually blokey blokes who were still a bit tipsy from playing at a Saturday night party, were ousted out to make way for the more solemn and staid sucessors. Many say this was a contributing factor to there being a much lower percentage of men in the church.

To expand the 'not very good' aspect we have to realise so many of the singer/songwriters are not naturally gifted musicans (and/or authors). There are many instrumentalists that are pretty good but often they are playing in a style that is not appropriate and encourage the narcisstic issues surrounding the worship leader. Most great songwriters (in the real world) are teams, usually a double act where one focusses on music whilst the other concentrates on creating lyrics that at least rhyme, have a regular metre and are poetic :-) The latter point, hymn or song lyrics, was certainly discussed on GodPod #53 and, thankfully, on this the contributors were more decisive in their critique.

So I strongly feel we have to consider that there are 'Absolutes' as far as church music is concerned. It seems there is no common sense guidance to get people to think that what they do is to enable congregations to worship rather than be the worship, to serve rather than perform, to be special with a committment to excellence (yet ideally not necessarily perfect!) and try to be distinct rather than presenting a poor copy of world culture. The 'Absolutes' approach helps form strategies so that appropriate styles would be considered, standards of music and lyrics adhered to and that the musicians and singers have a greater understanding of music, basic theology and even why they are there in the first place.

Oh, yes, I have so much more to say on this...!



Archdruid Eileen said...

I think there's a simple rule. It's not always right, but it's always worth bearing in mind. It works in old-style and modern church music. And it says:

"The better the music, the worse the worship. And vice-versa".

Musicians constantly have to remember it. That may be a lovely Am6, but to the congregation it's normally just a crunch.

Revsimmy said...

There IS plenty to be said, especially in our culture where music is generally a commodity to be consumed - even "classical" music since the advent of Classic FM and various TV reality shows. This fits uneasily with worship where, although there is a place for performed music, more often congregations should be participants
I disagree somewhat with Eileen (sorry). I think there is a problem with both very good and very bad music - both distract from the focal point of worship by drawing attention to the music itself and those leading it. If I'm being dazzled by the musician or gritting my teeth then I ain't worshipping, EVEN if they are!

Sam Charles Norton said...

You've prompted me to stick this up.

Archdruid Eileen said...

RevSimmy you are quite right. The baseline for the quality of music I was thinking of was "acceptable" at worse. I think if the quality of music is "awful" rather than "awe-full" you're not going to be worshipping you're going to be looking for the door.
I can feel a graph coming on.

Paggers said...

The (Anglican) church where I'm a music* leader has a monthly meeting of the vicar, the churchwarden and the two music* leaders, to choose the songs for the following few weeks. I think this started because the wheels of printing songsheets etc turn very slowly, but the effect has been that a great deal of time and prayer is put into making the music appropriate, musically and lyrically. This benefit far outweighs the mild frustration of the 'hymn sandwich' format.
We do modern and older music, all with guitar/bass/keys/drums: songs have been vetoed in the past for musical reasons, but much more often for the words.
*Call me pedantic, but I'm a music leader, not a worship leader. Worship doesn't only come with a tune...

Sally said...

Paggers how fortunate you are; "The (Anglican) church where I'm a music* leader has a monthly meeting of the vicar, the churchwarden and the two music* leaders, to choose the songs for the following few weeks."

Most of the churches I work with have organists who worry about their ability to play anything beyond the traditional stuff. As for musicians they are sadly lacking on the whole!

That said, I, unlike my friend Archdruid Eileen believe that quality is important, and acceptable can be ear-chrunchingly bad at best and boring at worst.

Boring music lulls us into a kind of non worship stupor, and hymns slide through one ear and out the other.

I do like to use a variety of music in worship, and believe that to participate in worship does not demand that we sing along!

To that end I will be using Cold[lay's Til Kingdom Come on the Monday of Holy Week and part of Liszt's Christus on Holy Saturday.

As for Mumford and Sons, they are great, used Sigh no more at a funeral - by request last week!

Kathryn Rose said...

Do you think the shift from a culture of musical participation to one where people listen more passively is a related issue? In the West Gallery period, if you wanted to listen to music it was going to be live, and probably played by people who had other jobs. Now we can listen to professional musicians at the push of a button.

There is also the issue that in any new music, the newer stuff is going to contain some music that is just not very good; "old" music isn't better, it's just already been filtered. The really awful stuff didn't last, for the most part, because it wasn't worth printing.

Peter Banks said...

Brilliant responses, thank you all, it already seems some 'Absolutes' are being defined?!

Thanks Archdruid Eileen, both for your thoughts and inspiration. I am already working on a meditational piece set in Am6. From your 2nd comment I do recommend everyone checks out her revealing graph. Perhaps an 'Absolute' would also be that worship is worse when you cannot spell the name of the band? Like delerium?

From Revsimmy's comment, with which I totally concur, taking the last point, sadly, the gritting of teeth does seem rather frequent! In my post I alluded that where more traditional choral music is utilised it needs to achieve good standards to prevent it being more painful...

Good to refer back to your document Rev Sam ;-)

Thanks Paggers, you have opened up one of the Absolutes. Where so called 'Worship Leaders' are employed in churches they indeed appear to promote the thought that Worship only happens during the musical contributions. To articulate this 'Absolute':

Music is only one aspect of Worship. More significantly music is actually part of the Liturgy of the whole service.

So your point is spot on, the musical elements must be appropriate artistically and totally sympathetic to the rest of the service. Liking the description 'Music Leader' too, 'Worship Curator' is another good alternative title

Yet again Sally raises another point so close to my heart! we have such a wealth of mainstream music with great lyrical and musical quality and spiritual depth... why not make use of them! Check out the youtube about the tiny acoustic services near here.

It must be so frustrating to have little (or no!) musical resources to count on... and something I fear we have 'unlearnt' is instinctive unaccompanied singing? The tiny Brethren chapels I endured in my early years had the most exquisite singing (not always!), much more akin to traditional folk music meets Wesley than the plethora of 19th Century choral music. My sense is that the rise of power of organists, choirmasters and choirs (nowadays also read worship bands and leaders) have to take a big chunk of the blame for killing off this natural congregational singing.

This leads me nicely into Kathryn's comment... yes, totally agree about the survival of the 'filtered' in the older material, however, your last point 'it wasn't worth printing' surely prompts the thought why on earth (certainly not heaven!) does so much dreadful crud indeed actually get printed now??!! Not only printed but released on yet another CD, then in compilations of the 'best ever...' etc.

To conclude this comment I fear the industry around the sub-culture of modern worship music is actually entertainment rather than worship. Entertainment is NOT a bad thing, but labelling entertainment as worship is a deception.

Very often entertainment is deeply spiritual, too. But massive stages, light shows, back projections, deafening bands... actually what those events do is create a 'safe' environment for mainly Christians to have what they are told is worship... not to say that there is no element of individual worship for either performer (note choice of word!) or punter but it is 'OF the World and NOT in it'. The feeling of wellbeing would be just the same at U2, Peter Gabriel and ColdPlay and still provide moments of individual worship.

Still loads more to say, thank you for all your thoughts!

Helegant said...

Comment: In my observations, the best corporate worship is that which comes out of the hearts of the people. I think it is there anyway, waiting to be called out by the setting of the service, the words we use, the location, actions, symbols and music. The difficulty I often see is that one person's 'worship' is another person's cue to disengage. Yet many people will actively seek to join in with music that isn't necessarily their choice, and often where their preferences are not represented at all - such is the grace of God in our congregations. They do this when they are respected. One thing that distresses me is seeing people being co-erced by 'worship leaders' into behaving in a particular way. The patronising attitude this represents is what causes people to disengage - that you must start from where 'I' the 'worship leader' find myself, not from where 'you' the worshipping community might be.
I well remember a 'worship leader' berating the gathered people of God for not raising their arms and waving their hands in the air.

Context: I'm talking here only about corporate worship in church services. One church I work in is an Anglican church with a very high level of musical ability, albeit within a very narrow range - mostly modern-ish worship songs, one hymn per service - from a short repertoire(Songs of Praise 5 of the top 10 type). Music is led by keyboard, with guitar and assorted instruments, and an excellent 'vocal group' - no choral pieces though. The 'excellent' organ is only played by visiting musicians for funerals and three 'Songs of Praise' services during the year. The title of the music leader is 'Music and Worship Director' about which I will say little for now, but you can hear my teeth grinding.

Helegant said...

Oh, and the most common reponse I hear to people asking for their preference to be represented too is "But worship isn't about 'me' it is about God." In which case, why are we singing 'your' preferred songs? Rant over.

Peter Banks said...

Loving your rant, Helegant!

Your point about worship coming out of the hearts of the people is so good. As folk come to a service there is sometimes a subtle difference in their expectation... like you, I get twitchy if their expectation is one in line with their preferences yet where they come ready to 'lose' themselves regardless of style or content the engagement is more complete.

This compounds the problem of style of service dictating what actually take place, for example, folk that prefer a style they perceive as more traditional versus those that think a free form service is non-liturgical.

A similar issue here is that during our more trendy, family orientated service I struggle to persuade the organist to play the organ for some of the blockbuster hymns! When he has, Love Divine, for example, everyone has loved it and sang their little hearts out with broad (read joyful!) grins... fully engaged :-)

Power struggles, eh?!

Many thanks for your contribution.

Kathryn Rose said...

however, your last point 'it wasn't worth printing' surely prompts the thought why on earth (certainly not heaven!) does so much dreadful crud indeed actually get printed now??!! Not only printed but released on yet another CD, then in compilations of the 'best ever...' etc.

Well, because it no longer has to be copied out by hand, or even plate engraved. The means of re-publishing the same work are extremely cheap. This means publishers like Kevin Mayhew (just one example) can afford to turn out all sorts of cringeworthy stuff if people will buy it.

What I want to know is why people buy it! That's not an easy question, but I think it's often a matter of trying to balance rather complex needs with a limited budget.

My sense is that the rise of power of organists, choirmasters and choirs (nowadays also read worship bands and leaders) have to take a big chunk of the blame for killing off this natural congregational singing.

As far as power struggles are concerned... Canon law in the Church of England is quite clear. Canon B20 states that music in liturgy is the responsibility of the incumbent. It is suggested that the incumbent may refer to the organist (or other musical specialist, but the law says "organist") but the final decision rests with the incumbent. As someone who is taking on more church music work I am acutely aware of this!

That said, the official acceptance of hymnody within services at all is a sort of strange loophole. My understanding is that there was a bit of a controversy in Sheffield in 1820, in which a clergyman accused of introducing hymns was brought to trial for heresy. The court declined to interfere, which set a legal precedent. Clearly metrical psalmody and vernacular hymnody had been in use for some time by then.

The difficulty is that most clergy don't get a lot of musical training, many church musicians don't have much theological training, and both may have very different ideas of how best to enable congregational worship. For my part, I try to show that I take the theology seriously, and hope that my concerns about musical quality will be taken equally seriously.

Peter Banks said...

Welcome back Kathryn!

Thanks for your latest thoughts and a bit more history, too. Your last paragraph is particularly pertinent, there is a real issue of lack of knowledge in respective areas. I have been doing my bit to educate our current incumbent who, I am pleased to report, has both trusted my input and also changed some of his selections on my protestations. Equally I have absorbed a great deal from him on the theology front, I have no fear to even ask potentially dumb theological questions, he longs to see us go forward as disciples, so it represents no grief to explain to non C of E plebs like me!

The worry is that a lot of the Music and Worship training events have presenters that tend to only have experience of Churchworld rather than ones with broader and more expert knowledge to hone burgeoning skills.

I am still learning more and more about so much, particularly music, and still working on the 'less is more' NVQ ;-)

Listening to Peter Gabriel's pianist on Sunday night, normally a virtuoso jazz man, the 'space' he left in his playing allowed so much more for expression and feel, it was truly inspiring!

Thanks, P