Holy Week 2019
When men and women, and children, encounter the divine, when we meet face to face with God, when we find ourselves as it were banging up against holiness, we cannot keep from speaking, from singing, from proclaiming. Our lives are overwhelmed with the need to pray and praise, to lament and cry out, to protest and to question and to adore. And the word we use to describe all of that, is worship. Worship is why you are here. Worship is what cathedral choirs are for. Worship is what Christians do, and we need help and inspiration and the words to say when no words will come, and the harmonies that will lift us up or console us, or help us to deal with all the anger and frustration, all the adoration and wonder and all the bits in between – everything that bubbles up from the heart in that great outpouring of whatever it is that outpours when we recognise that God is here and we are here, and that we need to do something about it.
The Rev. Canon Tom Clammer, Precentor, Salisbury Cathedral. Sermon: "What is a choir for?". 20 July 2014.
I've been confronted this week with my deep poverty of imagination and understanding on the concept of "power" as it relates to art. Part of my deep frustration with the powerlessness of which I wrote a few days ago is that I don't rightly know what the concept means as related to art, music, church music, the church itself, etc.
“You can kill people with sound.”
And so it seems to us at the blog at Sinden.org that the time is right hold a colloquium on the questions of power and art, and explore how these concepts relate to music within the liturgy of the church.
The ever helpful Maria Popova gets us started on the value of arts
This is the power of art: The power to transcend our own self-interest, our solipsistic zoom-lens on life, and relate to the world and each other with more integrity, more curiosity, more wholeheartedness.
Wholeheartedness leads to thoughts of Brené Brown, and (artistic) vulnerability of which I expect we will have plenty to say later. Note that the title of her TED talk uses the P word: The Power of Vulnerability
Which leads us to think maybe the power of art as found in its vulnerability could really be thought of as "weakness". I'd love to unpack the paradox here, and I may later reach for a title by theologian Marva Dawn, Joy in our Weakness.
There are moments on this blog when "power", as it is connected to art, music, and the church, has already surfaced.
Here are a few:
“If we consider what sort of music we should want to hear on entering a church we should surely, in describing our ideal, say first of all that it must be something different from what is heard elsewhere; that it should be a sacred music devoted to its purpose, a music whose peace should still passion; whose dignity should strengthen our faith; whose unquestioned beauty should find a home in our hearts to cheer us in life and death. What a powerful good such music would have”.
“You can kill people with sound.”
It makes you appreciate the tremendous power of particularity. If your identity is formed by hard boundaries, if you come from a specific place, if you embody a distinct musical tradition, if your concerns are expressed through a specific paracosm, you are going to have more depth and definition than you are if you grew up in the far-flung networks of pluralism and eclecticism, surfing from one spot to the next, sampling one style then the next, your identity formed by soft boundaries, or none at all.
And these words of music critic Alex Ross, which find their way on to this blog for the first time:
“Art does not stand apart from reality; if it did, it would have no life in it, no light, no darkness, no power.”
"As If Music Could Do No Harm." The New Yorker, Cultural Comment Blog, 20 August 2014
“Art does not stand apart from reality; if it did, it would have … no power.”
As I look back over the ten year history of this blog (has it really been that long?) it seems that strands of this colloquium have been emerging for some time. I'm happy to try to collect these different strands into a more directed conversation. I am eager to see what emerges.
To bring this brief tour full circle for now, art, which Alex Ross so powerfully notes "does not stand apart from reality", has a peculiar kind of power. I believe this power is best explained by Thomas Merton summarizes when he says
“Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.”
I read with real disappointment "The Power List" in the Style Weekly periodical of Richmond, Va. In the Arts & Culture portion of the list not a single musician was listed, nor was any musical organization in this city named. Listed were philanthropists, Ballet board members, theaters, visual artists, non-profits -- one of whom wants to build a new baseball stadium, etc.
Does music really exercise no influence in the cultural life of this city? I suppose one shouldn't put too much stock into a list like this, but then none of the other Arts & Culture articles in this issue were about music or musicians either.
Whether or not we currently do, musicians should occupy a vital place in the cultural life of this city.
What's our role? What's our position? How can we fix this?
It was on my birthday, August 20, in 1994 that I first came to hear the "Blue Album" by Weezer, which I received as a gift that day.
I'm a strong believer in listening to new music, even that from another genre, so I have enjoyed what is now a twenty-year affinity for this quartet.
I have, in the intervening twenty years, purchased for myself further recordings of this modern, electric, american chamber music and enjoyed
Things have been quiet for a while, but I look forward to the release of Everything Will Be Alright in the End, which has an indescribably awesome internet-aware cover, on October 7, 2014.
I'm not sure if there are other "bands" that make "albums" like these, but I do find this stuff fascinating and worthy of study.
Those familiar with the list of Christmas carols commissioned annually by King's College Cambridge for their famous Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols will recognize the name of Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe. Sculthorpe's carol "The Birthday of Thy King" was sung at that service in 1988.
This is a great tribute by Andrew Ford (via Alex Ross)
Peter Sculthorpe, a composer in Australia | Inside Story
In orchestral works such as the Sun Music series (1965–69), Mangrove (1979), Earth Cry (1986), Kakadu (1988) and Memento mori (1993), Sculthorpe addressed a wide audience, communicating with them in a direct manner similar to the way in which Aaron Copland had addressed American audiences. However, there was a difference. At the height of Roosevelt's New Deal, Copland had deliberately set out to find an American style, assembling it from hoedowns and hymns. Sculthorpe, at least initially, was far less deliberate in his methods.
I first heard Robert Glasper when we were both students at Houston's High School for Performing and Visual Arts (HSPVA) about ten years ago.
Since then, he's gone on to make a name for himself and was the subject of this article in the Washington Post in 2012: "Pianist finds the right notes between hip-hop and jazz".
This article is the source of the quotation that appeared in my post from yesterday ("Glasper, Robert - music in the present"). Here it is in full:
“I think everybody stopped trying to outdo each other and everybody started paying homage,” he says. “I love all my jazz masters and my elders that came before me, but I always say that people have killed the living to praise the dead. It’s like, ‘Yo, I’m here.’”
Reading it in full gave me more food for thought, especially about music in the church.
It's very easy to "pay homage" to all the great music of the past. And in fact I think many music lists of many churches fail to move past the expected and the very familiar.
While the "Yo, I'm here" sentiment has limited value in the liturgy, there is something to be said for forging a way ahead that pays homage to the past but also moves the conversation forward.
Music can't remain static. The repertoire should not remain the same. If the Holy Spirit is still in operation today then fresh voices must be given airtime.
Finding a balance between the established canon and new voices should be a struggle in jazz just as it should be in church music. The two should be held in creative tension.
We in the church can learn a lot from jazz, a form of music whose very being thrives on fast-paced real-time creativity, conversation, and improvisation.
The modern "symphonic" approach to church music, first found in the music of Charles Villiers Stanford and then redefined by Herbert Howells, continues to provide a foundation for much of the sacred music being written now.
So, the ultimate tension is that "paying homage" is itself a way forward.
It's been a really rough couple weeks for jazz.
First, poorly conceived satire piece in The New Yorker aimed at an elder statesman.
It's supposed to be funny, but it's not. At best, it's a poor, confusing joke. At worst, it's racist.
And now someone dismissing the whole genre – not satire – in The Washington Post.
Thank goodness for this response.
All what jazz? Or: How to declare something dead without listening to it
There's an entire of generation of rising young jazz players wrestling with that perception — and with the idea that jazz music belongs to the past, not the present. Two years ago, the inventive young pianist Robert Glasper told me, "I love all my jazz masters and my elders that came before me, but I always say that people have killed the living to praise the dead."
The refusal to investigate Glapser's world — i.e. the present — is what makes this argument so bothersome. The article dismisses an art that the author is not currently engaged with, tamping his broadside with the disclaimer of simply speaking one's mind. These are "some of my problems," [Justin] Moyer writes. (And Moyer has a fascinating mind — I've known him through the D.C. punk scene since I was a teenager.)
But personal and provocative declarations are what make the Internet hum, and in music journalism, (and everywhere else), the clicks have become more important than the quality of the conversation. So the conversation stays urgent and stupid, preventing a substantive dialogue from ever getting started. A little more brain gets chewed up and spit out.
How many of us musicians have to deal with the "urgent and stupid" conversation about an art form that our critics don't bother to engage with? How many of us really have the courage to? Or the time?
Music must belong in the present. Music of every genre happens in the present.
We can have better conversations. We must.
Reports of the death of music of all types has been greatly exaggerated.
But until now there has not been any resource that lists the birthdays of composers and hymn writers of interest to Episcopal Church Musicians.
Behold: the Episcopal Musicians Calendar. Along with principal feasts and feasts of Our Lord, and other major feasts of course.
Bookmark this calendar here: sinden.org/calendar
This article, written by Dale Adelmann, Canon for Music at the Episcopal Cathedral of St. Philip, Atlanta is still available in PDF format on the Cathedral's website in the August 3, 2014 edition of the Cathedral Times.
Have you ever thought about the fact that, after the Bible itself, our hymnal is the richest collection of Christian texts we have at our disposal?
We have no greater anthology of Christian poetry for use in worship. Whether you sing or not, I encourage you to open the hymnal—as you await the beginning of the service, and during worship—to read the texts we are singing. Our hymnal is an astonishing treasure-trove of Divine revelation in verse—from the simplest truths to the most profound mysteries—through the musings, admonitions, prayers, and praises of nearly every generation of Christians who have gone before us, as well as our own.
Music aside, if you check out the fine print underneath every hymn, you may be surprised to notice that, for instance, the text we are currently singing at the breaking of the eucharistic bread is attributed to Thomas Aquinas. And that some of the Christmas carols you love most have been sung by Christians for 200, or 500, or 1700 years. The Hymnal 1982 contains words penned by some of history’s greatest poets, even one hymn by a living Pulitzer Prize winner. Did you know that the texts to several of your favorite Easter hymns have been sung by Christians (albeit in Latin, and obviously to other music) for 1500 years? We live in the only age in history that has ready access to the profound poetry and hymnody of every previous generation. We also live in a time when newly composed hymnody, both texts and tunes, has flourished as it has in only a very few other generations before us. Those two facts provide immense potential for our spiritual enrichment, and they also pose significant challenges for the Church.
“none of us will live so long that the Holy Spirit will run out of unexpected words and music to inspire us”
It is a fundamental tenet of my own life pilgrimage that, like life itself, a vibrant faith should always be dynamic rather than static. This core belief also governs my approach to music, to text, and to music-making. I have been working full-time with the “new” Episcopal hymnal for several decades, yet rarely a week goes by that I do not discover something profound that seems “new” to me. If there is wisdom to be gleaned from that realization, I suspect it is that none of us will live so long that the Holy Spirit will run out of unexpected words and music to inspire us, or the ability and will to open our eyes and ears to something more of “the beauty of holiness.” The question might be, will we be open to receive it?
Of course I hope you will read and sing the hymns, whether you think you have much of a voice or not. Why? Well, the answer to that would fill books, but one of the many reasons we sing is because singing texts helps us to remember them. I enjoy a great preacher as much as anyone, but as the old quip goes, when was the last time you left church humming the sermon? Throughout Judeo-Christian history, singing holy texts has been one of the ways that people who seek God have learned and internalized their faith. God's self can be revealed in more ways than we can begin to name or imagine, and one of those ways (interestingly, in nearly every religion known to humankind) has always been through singing sacred words.
I invite you to discover the hymnal. Where else are you likely to receive a 1500-year-old text message?
Canon for Music
As an afterward to this, it may interest readers to know that Church Publishing offers a book that contains only the words (not the music) of The Hymnal 1982. It is called Poems of Grace.
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