Conversation and information about music and liturgy from a confessional Lutheran perspective.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

"Music's music!" (aarrrgghh)

We'd like to hand the platform over to Cheryl Magness, who has some excellent observations on authenticity in music - something we're very big on here at Liturgy Solutions, as you know. We've all run into this growing attitude that music is commodity to be consumed, and that it is value-neutral. Cheryl does an excellent job of reminding us of the value of real people making real music:

Recently my friend Susan wrote a blog post called "Real Music" in which she highlighted one of the things that sets live music apart from recorded music: with live music you can hear the sounds of the music being made--things like the singer's breaths or the depressing of the organ or piano pedals or the guitarist's fingers sliding up and down the strings. She wrote of these things not as distractions but as things she is happy to hear because they are representative of real music being made by real people.

As someone who is increasingly distressed at the ways recorded music is replacing live music in our world I greatly appreciated her post. Many people don't see a difference between a recording and a living, breathing performance. A few days ago I saw a pastor friend on Facebook touting a product called "The Virtual Organist." His post began, "No organist? No problem." As someone who thinks it is quite possible to have reverent, beautiful worship without any organ or even without a musician, part of me responds positively to that sentence. At the same time, I bristle at the claim that a human musician can be replaced by a digital one with nothing lost. I think in fact that much is lost. And I think it is a huge problem that it is getting harder and harder to find musicians of a certain skill level. It reflects a troubling trend in our society, one that more and more views music as something not that people do but as something that they merely receive.

This morning I saw this comic strip in my blog reader:

(Original link here.)

The issue is different, but I think it demonstrates a similar lack of appreciation of many for what goes into--and comes out of--live music. Music is music, right? So there is no difference between a real, live organist and a recorded one. Hey, that recording will probably be more accurate and rhythmically clean than an imperfect, human musician. Yet I would far and away rather attend a service accompanied by my friend of limited ability who is working hard to fill in the gap created at her church by an organist's failing health than to attend a service accompanied by "The Virtual Organist." The latter might be clean and neat, but the former is authentic. Real. Honest. Alive.

I am currently playing in a pit orchestra for a local junior high's production of Bye, Bye, Birdie. I have immense respect for this school and its music and administrative staff for appreciating the difference between a live pit orchestra and a recording and for being willing to pay for the former. We will not be as clean as the recording will be. But each performance will be unique, something that is a reflection of a particular combination of musicians, performers, and listeners at a specific point in time. The pit will be able to adjust to the performance in a way that a track cannot. And the young people in the production will get something that more accurately reflects the give and take that happens in a real musical/theatrical event. It is something that can't be bottled, with a worth that can't be measured.

I also have great respect for schools in my area that annually hire live accompanists (like me) for music contests. A friend and colleague of mine recently shared the experience of adjudicating a school contest in another district. All of the students were accompanied by "Smart Music" tracks. My friend was told to go easy on his judging of the students because, after all, they had never had the benefit of playing with a live accompanist. As with virtual organ programs, I can appreciate some of the practical applications of recorded music. But I grieve what is being lost when people begin to look to it as a replacement for live music. "No accompanist? No problem." I'm sorry, but it is a problem. The students are missing out on the enormous benefits of working with an experienced accompanist, getting additional musical coaching, and collaborating to achieve a harmonious and unified ensemble. That cannot be replaced by an accompaniment track.

But again, most people don't seem to get this. Except for the American idols who command millions of fans and dollars, musicians seem to be getting less and less respect. I recently heard a pastor argue for compensating organists hourly along the lines of secretaries. So if one plays for a service, and the service is an hour long, one should get paid about the same as a secretary would get paid for an hour of his or her time. I don't mean to disrespect secretaries, but the time and study that goes into developing the musical skills necessary to accompany a worship service, not to mention the time that goes into practicing for that specific service, is beyond that required to learn to be a secretary. One can decide as an adult to be a secretary and can realistically set about acquiring the skills in a reasonable period of time. It is much harder in adulthood to take up music if you have never, ever studied it before. But I can see how someone who thinks "music's music" might not get that.


Rev. Roderick Schultz said...

As a body at worship we are one Body, the Body of Christ. That Body is beautiful and talented and artistic and diverse, etc. But it is also a Body with faults; a Body that makes mistakes. Pastors make mistakes, organists occasionally hit a wrong note, choirs are not always on key and parishioners are all over the board with musical ability when singing hymns. Music within the service can be a wonderful reflection of that one Body. However, when live music by living, breathing musicians is replaced by "perfect" recordings, for whatever reason, something of this reflection is lost. Thank you for your post and keep fighting the fight to preserve the integrity of sacred music in the church from the onslaught of technology. Pr. Rod Schultz

Phillip said...

Thanks, Rod. I'm reminded of what Robert Preus reportedly said about the Divine Service: "It's not a Lutheran liturgy unless there is at least one mistake!"

Let's keep on keeping it real. ;) Cheers!

Tapani Simojoki said...

You know, I whole-heartedly agree. And yet we use the Concordia Organist CD set at my little English church. Why? Because it's the only way that we can realistically keep music going at all. Sometimes the CDs have us tearing our hair out (What is it with American organists and tempi? Don't you guys need to breathe?), and sometimes we manage in other ways.

But without the CDs, we would have to have a mainly spoken service, while with them, we can have a sung Divine Service. And we do sing pretty much everything.

The moment we can turn the machine off and replace it with a living alternative, we will! But in the absence of alternatives, it has been a genuine blessing.

Phillip Magness said...

Hi Tapani,

Good to see you on here.

Have you tried singing the service w/o the tapes? Not that we need to go back to ancient times w/ everything, but Christians did sing for centuries w/o aid of instruments.

Do you have a flute player? I know one small congregation in Canada that moved away from TCO and is singing "better than ever" according to their pastor. They use the tapes to practice with a small, volunteer choir that learns the hymns in unison a couple of times a month at short practices. Then the leaders sit with the flute player who doubles the melody an octave higher (like the organ's 4' stop).

There really are so many alternatives one might explore that can "keep the music going" w/o using tracks.

Tapani Simojoki said...

I posted my comment in April and the forgot all about it, and one shouldn't wake up zombies, but I will. Who knows, someone might discover this discussion thread at a later date. So here goes:

I appreciate that you replied, Phillip, and I apologise that I didn't!

The answer to your first question is 'yes', and it doesn't work terribly well a cappella. Our singing is better with the tracks than without, and they genuinely help rather than hinder. Part of the problem is that the congregation's hymn repertoire is so narrow that without instrumental support we could sing very many fewer hymns.

As for the second question, the answer is 'Yes, my wife'. But she is also in charge of our four young children, and teaches Sunday school every other week. So at the moment it's not practical. My daughter plays the violin well enough to accompany, so soon that will be an option. But at her tender age I don't want to place that responsibility on her slender shoulders quite yet.

I play, but accompanying the liturgy and leading it doesn't work terribly well... I do accompany hymns every now and then. Perhaps I should do that more.

There are no other musicians of any description at all. With an average attendance of 15, we really are very limited.

All this calls for more mission work amongst music students at the local universities!