Not Quite an Hobson’s Choice, but Close

For the past few years, I’ve deliberately avoided discussing politics in my column, or social media generally, simply because it’s usually a waste of time and energy (as will be this rant).  But, sometimes the need for one to express one’s thoughts (and yes, feelings) about such matters becomes overwhelming.  I’d be curious as to how many folks here think about what’s going on, particularly as pertains to the presidential (and in many ways least important) race.

For me, I have to say this has to be the single most disappointing presidential race I have ever experienced in my, perhaps too many, years on this planet. Never, have I disliked, even been repulsed by, both candidates.  Usually one is relatively acceptable.  For me it’s usually been the Democratic candidate because I am generally of a more progressive persuasion.  Notwithstanding, that hasn’t precluded the positive aspects of the candidates from the other side.  Even Nixon was responsible for the establishment of the (now virtually moribund) National Endowment for the Arts.  At least Reagan, Ford, G.H.W. and G.W. Bush were not openly malicious, notwithstanding my disagreements with most of what they brought to the White House.  Anyway, you get my drift here.

However, this time around I have to say I am in a serious quandary.  Back in 2008 I was very much in favour of Hillary Clinton; Let’s face it Barack Obama was simply not ready for the office; and he has (very much to my regret) proved it (the reasons for this would be for another discussion).  At that time Hillary Clinton was still a very credible candidate for the office; she had not been corrupted by the secretive machinations as Secretary of State for the Obama administration.  Her credibility has been seriously undermined by her inscrutable determination to not be forthcoming on not just her incessant e-mail revelations, but her whole circumspect approach to dealings with the Foundation and in what other cryptic endeavours she and Bill have been engaged.  I’m not generally one to pay attention what the American public as a whole thinks (since I for the most part have a pretty low opinion of the American public’s irrational, emotional and largely ill-informed “thinking”), but this time around I have to concur, I find her to be vexingly disingenuous.

That being said, I then think, how can anybody in their right mind even remotely consider Donald Trump a serious contender for president?  To those of you who support his candidacy… What is wrong with you?  I know that people don’t like to be told that they are stupid, but… YOU’RE STUPID!  There is, and can be, no other explanation as to why anybody with anything other than the I.Q. of a radish, and the emotional development of a four year old, would even remotely consider this man for the office.  There simply is no excuse.

I guess what bothers me the most is that the Democratic Party had a bona fide alternative, a chance to win not only the presidency, but actually precipitate a major sea change in Washington beyond the presidential level, which I mentioned is actually less important that what is commonly referred to the “down ballot” part of this election.  Nothing could reflect more clearly the distinction between the two major parties than what happened prior to and during the conventions:

The Republicans went with the “outsider” candidate who reflected precisely all the worst qualities of the so-called base of the party:  xenophobia, racism, religious fanaticism and the worst form of jingoism, economic inequality, global arming denial, you-name-it, all packaged in the fear of anything remotely associated the government.  The result is a candidate who the majority of Americans find repulsive.  A person whose unfavourable ratings are close to 60 per cent of the public.

The Democrats on the other hand through their blatantly corrupt determination to assure their predetermined (thank you Debbie Wassermann Shultz machine candidate of choice was the chosen one despite all data that evidenced over and over again that THEIR outside candidate Bernie Sanders would have beaten Donald Trump by as much as two-to-one margins.  Why?  Because people knew Bernie Sanders was authentic.  He didn’t have innumerable skeletons in the closet, and always stayed on message — a message, by the way, to which the folks at “Black Lives Matter” blinded themselves because of their tunnel visioned approach to the political situation.

Anyway, for me the political process in this country has not only hit an all time low, it doesn’t look to improve anytime soon.  In fact, with the mass media frenzy feeding on Clintons e-mail and foundation bungling and the latest Trump crazy man faux pas on virtually anything, I don’t expect the American public to become intelligent soon — if ever.

So, I’m confronted with the “lesser of two evils” syndrome — again.  Do I vote for a big mouthed blowhard, narcissist who cannot make a decision in which he feels does not benefit him personally, or do I vote for a completely compromised, surreptitious person whose credibility ever since becoming an high profile ill-prepared member of an high-profile ill-prepared president’s cabinet?  I afraid I’m going to have to hold my nose and divine into the quagmire with the latter, for two reasons:

1) At one time she was an idealist with progressive ideas, and maybe, just maybe, if she’s elected with at least a Democratic majority in the senate she can retrieve a little of her old self

2) She’s not Donald Trump.

I really can’t stand this.

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American Music on the Radio on an American Holiday

On this Memorial Day (2016) I thought this was worth a reblog.

Mostly Music and Curmudgeonry

Being the curmudgeon that I am, modern technology doesn’t generally impress me; and on those occasions where it has, such as Facebook, I have ultimately found it wanting (more about that some other time).  Nevertheless, there are those instances in which technological advancements have not only impressed me, but have actually proven to be most useful.  A case in point: internet radio.  Through the glories of digital technology I now can listen to virtually any broadcast radio station, plus any station which is solely designed to be heard on the internet through streaming, much of it via iTunes.  On any Wednesday I could be listening to a Choral Evensong on BBC Radio 3, or  All Night Classics on the ABC (Australia), or L’Air du Temps on RTBF (Belgium), or something on WFMT, VPR, WRTI, WGBH, WQXR, MPR, or any of the exclusive online services such as Organlive, Connoisseur Classics, or RadioIO…

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How did This Happen?

Did you ever have one of those days later in life in which you came to the realisation that, quite literally, everything — and I mean everything — for which you strove, to which you aspired, to which you devoted essentially your entire life, gave you definition as an individual had not even remotely been fulfilled?  Somehow I doubt it.  So far, everyone I know, whether it’s from my childhood, college, to later in life (including Facebook and other social media) has to some extent achieved a level of success in life.  It may not be exactly that for which one originally strove, but it may have been close; or, at least, a not unreasonable approximation.  Then there are those who found a level of success in a completely different field altogether.  You may have started out wanting to be a musician, but somewhere along the line, whether for personal, philosophical or simply practical (i. e., financial) reasons you ventured into a completely different line of work.  Or, as in the case with many, perhaps most, artistic people, you found a way to do both and still manage to attain some satisfaction in your artistic endeavours.

I, on the other hand, have failed abysmally.  Mind you, I really don’t blame anyone but myself; and perhaps, the occasional uncontrollable circumstance.  Nevertheless, I fully realise that, as the cliché goes, since I made my bed I must sleep in it.  That doesn’t palliate the remorse or regret, much less the pain.  In fact, it only militates against any assuagement of my despondency.  All it does is remind me of the sequence of bad decisions I have made throughout most of my life, the first and worst of which was wanting to be a musician — an organist in particular.  But, that was only the first of many, many unfortunate, notwithstanding good intentioned, decisions:  most of which were what I had considered at the time to be pragmatic or realistic junctures in light of my relative youth and aspirations, but were actually more survival expediencies than goal directed stratagems.  Some decisions turned out to be just plain stupid; but, stupidity is the special preserve for the young — I guess.  Eventually we’re supposed to grow out of the stupid phase; you know, the “with age comes wisdom” thing.  Unfortunately, wisdom comes a little (or a lot) too late.   

You see, there is this really noisome trait I have — rationalisation.  I can’t tell you the number of times I left a situation — either personally or professionally — and learned very soon how bad a mistake it was.  Now, almost everybody has done this sort of thing at one time or another.  But, it seems there are those of us who have made a career of making decisions later to be regretted.  Not occasionally, not seldom, or sporadically, but steadily, constantly, habitually.  Everyone of these decisions were attempts to get myself into a situation in which I could finally find the time and space to consistently practise my craft and get my musical career back on track (operating under the delusion that it actually was at one time).  Unfortunately, to list these unfortunate decisions is not within the purview of this rant and would be far too numerous much less humiliating.  I have to live with these incomprehensibly obtuse decisions.

And now?  Now I have pretty much abandoned the art form to which I had devoted my life.  The three aspects of music in which I had hoped in some fashion to succeed — conducting, composition, the organ (not necessarily in that order), I now know will never happen.  Conducting I gave up long ago, even though I am an innate conductor: vastly superior, even now at this unpractised stage in my life, to 99% of the boneheads out there;.

As to the organ, since moving to Boston and receiving the decided cold shoulder from “my guild,”  I have pretty much bid my adieus.  This explains my not adding any further installations to my commentary in the “Choral #3 in a” by César Franck.  What the hell good is it to express ideas about how to perform a piece of music if you can’t actually demonstrate those ideas?  At this point I don’t even have the confidence to apply for a church job simply because I don’t feel I could execute a decent audition anymore.  Ultimately, I guess, it’s a good thing.  At least I’ve come to acknowledge the reality of my pathetic station as an erstwhile organist.  Oh, but there’s an additional sad irony:  I masochistically signed up as a volunteer for a number of activities for the AGO convention when it was here in Boston.  How’s that for pathetic?

Composing?  The last and most hurtful failure of all.  As a composer one always has in the back of his/her head the hope that, no matter how remote, someone will eventually perform your music.  Little disgusts me more than the successful composer — or even the “unsuccessful” one who has only had a few pieces performed — who, in responding to the lamentations of his/her completely unperformed brother or sister, pontificates about how one should be doing it only for itself; that composing is an end in and of itself; you do it for the sake of the art, not for the glory, etc., etc., blah, blah, blah.  That’s easy for them to say.  They’ve been performed, no matter how infrequently.  They’ve heard their music performed by someone other than themselves in their studio or living room.  Every composer, I don’t care how artistically virtuous, composes with idea that he or she has something to share with the world, that each and every creation is meant to be heard; i. e., performed.  When that hope, even in the most perfunctory or trifling manner miscarries, that desire, that compulsion to create eventually disintegrates and eventually atrophies.  Why bother?  I don’t expect my “colleagues,” “brother or sister” composers (much less performers) to sympathise, empathise or even remotely understand.  At this point I rightly don’t care.

You see, there’s huge frustration here.  I listen works by people who have absolutely no business calling themselves composers — but, then again considering our current environment —  and yet, their music gets performed.   Even worse, they get paid to write their drivel and even win prizes for it (case in point Libby Larsen’s little ditty she composed for the 2014 AGO Convention in Boston). I don’t need to go into why, We all pretty much know that talent has little to do with winning competitions or receiving commissions.

All of us have experienced failure and disappointment at various times in our lives, some of us more than others, some of us more than most.  And then there are those of us who, in spite of our best efforts to the contrary, persist upon bungling it.  I guess some of us are born to screw up; which brings me back to the rationalisation factor.  Long after it had become clear that I was not going to achieve anything near, or even remote, to my musical aspirations I somehow convinced myself that there was still hope.

Anyway, it’s taken a long time, but I think I may have come to terms with my life of “should-haves”  and failures — noble and ignoble. I realise at this late date that whatever I do from here on out just becomes another facet of the survival mode into which I have fallen.  Oh, there are plenty of excuses, some of them plausible, even valid; but, at this point it really doesn’t make any difference. I just have to content myself with knowing that my knowledge, skill, talent and innate musical acumen notwithstanding, I  will live out my years as the organist without an organ, the conductor without ensemble (vocal or instrumental), the accompanist without partner, the teacher without a student, the writer without a reader, the composer without a performer, the performer without an audience.

Ain’t life grand?

Mahler 8 in Phila.

It’s always a special occasion when Gustav Mahler’s Symphony #8 in Eb, also known as the “Symphony of a Thousand,” is performed.  However, this series of performances in March of 2016 has even greater significance since it was one hundred years ago that the then 28 year old new Director of the Philadelphia Orchestra Leopold Stokowski gave the American premier, using literally over a thousand performers (including choruses).  It was the performance that put Philadelphia in the map and, as WRTI announcer Greg Whiteside said “it hasn’t wavered since.”   Maestro Yannick Nézet-Séguin commanded forces not only of a greatly expanded orchestra (including 8 French Horns, a mandolin, harmonium and full organ, plus an addition off stage brass band of 4 trumpets and 3 trombones, but also 8 soloists, two large choirs and a boys choir.  It’s pretty big, and Maestro Nézet-Séguin held the reins very firmly.  It was most fitting I suppose that not only was this performance celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Mahler 8th in America, but only a few days earlier Maestro Nézet-Séguin had celebrated his own 41st birthday.  Nice.

Unfortunately, I think partly because of the problematic acoustics of Verizon Hall the sound was not very good.  Mike placement was almost entirely focused on the strings and the chorus and soloists were very much in the background.  As a result, it was difficult to get a good sense of how the choirs really sounded.  Overall, from what I could determine from the sound it was quite satisfactory.  With that caveat out of the way I thought  Maestro Nézet-Séguin’s interpretation was right on spot.  The dynamics were faithfully followed, for the most part, and the tempi were absolutely perfect! 

Yet, for some reason getting good soloists for this piece has always been a problem.  And this was no exception.  The main difficulty is finding a lyric soprano capable of singing the Mater Gloriosa part, who also is usually the soprano (unnamed) solo during the beginning of the final chorus (Das Ewige-Weibliche — The Eternal-Feminine).  This section requires the soprano to unobtrusively approach and then effortlessly pick out (or “float” to) a pianissimo high C.  I’ve never understood why conductors over and over again: Bernstein, Solti, Haitink, etc. almost invariably choose the wrong soprano to do this.  Of the dozen or more recordings and performances I’ve heard of this piece only two have had a soprano who actually gets it right: 1) Donald Runnicles 2010 performance with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, which in this case Erin Wall (Una Poenitentium here in Phila.) was Magna Peccatrix, but also did the high C and did it beautifully; and 2) a 1960 outdoor festival performance in Vienna with Dimitri Mitropoulos, with all of its shortcomings, was more than compensated with Mimi Coertse’s Mater Gloriosa and her absolutely impeccable, astonishing pianississimo C from which she grows the most delicate crescendo.  I can only assume that this singing was precisely what Mahler imagined.  I have never heard ANYBODY, no matter how famous, do this so perfectly.  Of course, as you can imagine, unfortunately Angela Meade* fell a little short.  She was an unfortunate choice, she had a total lack of control, resulting in the kind of straight tone one experiences from strain, albeit fairly quiet (about mp), but strain just the same.  It wouldn’t mean so much if this wasn’t such crucial point the score; which is why it baffles me so much that conductors treat this moment so cavalierly that one would think that they’re just thinking: “Oh, she’s a lyric we’ll have her sing the C,”  without hearing it first.

OK, enough of the “high C.”  Among the other soloists interestingly enough two others who have recently sung this work together stood out as exceptional:  the previously mentioned Erin Wall and bass John Reylea who sang Pater Profundis with Ms. Wall in 2010.  Among the other soloists special maention needs to be made for mezzo-soprano Elisabeth Bishop who was called in at the last minute to replace Stephanie Blythe as Mulier samaritana and did it with aplomb.  Also Mihoko Fujimura (Mater Ægyptiaca) had a rich almost velvety sound closer to a contralto.  Baritone Markus Werba did quite nicely in his short Pater Esctaticus solo, although he had to belt out his high G contrary to Mahler’s p indication; but, then again, I have yet to hear a baritone hit an high G softly then crescendo as the score indicates; methinks Gus was asking just a little too much.  I mean, seriously folks, if Hermann Prey couldn’t do who can? The tenor,  Anthony Dean Griffey (Doctor Marianus) seemed adequate to the task it was, again difficult to discern, as in case of all the singers, because of the less than satisfactory sound.   Nevertheless, Lisette Oropesa sang Mater Gloriosa most delicately and serenely.  Her pianissimo high B was sublime and gave me hope that she would be the one to sing the “zieht uns hinan” C. I should have realised that would have been impossible since she would have had to hightail down from one of the upper tiers of the auditorium down to the stage.  It might have been possible; but, it would have asked too much for her to give that note what she more than likely normally would have given it.  That was very unfortunate indeed.

 What I really liked about this performance was that Maestro Nézet-Séguin was not afraid of letting the organ be heard.  More than the 2nd Symphony, this one has a substantial organ part, pedal runs included.  I could kiss Michael Stairs for giving that part everything it is suppose to have without exceeding the composer’s wishes. MWAH!  Again, I can only imagine how much better everything just have been live.  Unfortunately, now that I’m in Boston I couldn’t get to hear it in person and had to settle for the broadcast; I couldn’t hear the mandolin and could only barely hear the harmonium. Moreover, as I mentioned earlier, the singing, it seemed to me, was treated very much as secondary by the engineers and the strings over emphasised.

So, what about the choirs?  As if I’m not in enough trouble already, let me say this:  since it was not made clear to those not present I couldn’t tell who was Choir I or Choir II.  I think overall (again compensating for the crappy sound) Choir I had a fuller, dare I say richer, sound than Choir II.  Now this difference is slight.  Both choirs sounded quite well, but, the sopranos and tenors in Choir II, in the softer sections, lacked warmth and richness of tone, i.e., no vibrato (the kind of English sound that Simon Rattle likes).  As I said, I don’t know who was whom, I just hope Westminster was Choir I.  In any event all I can is that a John Finley Williamson, Warren Martin, Elaine Brown, or George Lynn choir wouldn’t have needed any help.  I know, because they didn’t.  Notwithstanding, it’s always great to hear this piece performed, especially, as in this case, in a most satisfactory performance indeed.

*this is a correction to my original text in which I assumed that Ms. Oropesa was to be the soprano in the final chorus to sing the “hinan C.”   I have since learned (via my good friend Thomas Faracco, who WAS there) that Ms. Meade was chosen for the task, which explained much of my conclusions.  Thank you Tom.

Thoughts on Hearing a Westminster Choir Concert

I’ve been thinking about a concert I recently attended given by the Westminster Choir.  This is the elite touring choir that, as the folks at Westminster Choir College of Rider University say (Ugh! I still can’t get used to the idea that Ray Robinson had the insolence to convince the board to negotiate the sale of a first of its class music school to a second rate university after dragging it it down into financial ruin), is the core of the larger and more public Westminster Symphonic Choir, which most people hear as the choir performing large scale works with an orchestra such as the upcoming Gustav Mahler Symphony #8 with the Philadelphia Orchestra this spring.

The Westminster Choir is an excellent choir by most standards of what is currently the current vogue in choral singing.  And that’s what bothers me — the current, or should I say dominant, vogue in choral singing in which choirs, no matter what their make-up or the period/style is, sing with no vibrato, particularly in the women’s voices.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not so dogmatic as to insist that straight tone not ever be used — I don’t think Monteverdi should sound like Verdi. Which is why I found the William Byrd Miserere mei, Deus particularly compelling.  The problem lay in the 19th and early 20th Century works specifically the Brahms “An die Heimat” from the Op.64 Three Quartets, the wonderfully lush Aftonen of Hugo Alfven (of Swedish Rhapsody #1 fame) and the Debussy Trois Chansons.   What I find disturbing is when romantic music (yes, including the Debussy since they were written in 1898) such as this is given the English boy choir effect they lose their richness and warmth.  Typically it’s the sopranos which are the primary (but not the only) culprits for the harshness, sometimes brittleness that results from singing in this manner.

Most glaring, however, was the Poulenc Mass in G Major.   Now, the Poulenc Mass is a fiendishly difficult piece.  The tessiturae have a tendency to be high particularly for sopranos and baritones, who seem to be considered more as second or third tenors having to sing E’s and F#’s frequently.  Notwithstanding, the men sounded fine.  For some reason it’s okay for men to sing in full voice but not so much the women.  Even then, since the range for the altos isn’t quite so demanding their vocalism sounded more natural.  Unfortunately, the sopranos have to deal with an uncommonly high tessitura and are therefore more exposed.  And that is my point:  singing this music with an English Renaissance vocalism can come off hard and quite literally tiresome to the listener.  The listener gets this uncomfortable feeling (empathy) during high notes, and is at best just a hard, cold sound.  One doesn’t sense that singers are singing from above the note but are reaching for it.  No matter how well placed their breath the effect is anything but a beautiful sound.  The Mass in G is not a piece to be sung in the “straight tone” manner.  I really don’t care what the justification is, this type of choral singing has its limitations, just as singing in full vibrato does.  A balance must be found.  I’m sure Joe Miller thought that he was achieving this balance; but it’s pretty clear that he reflects the overwhelming prevalence toward straight-tone on most, if not all, choral singing.  The rest of the concert was made up of a lot of inconsequential, highly unmemorable pieces, with possible exception of Ev’ry Time I Fell the Spirit as arranged by William Dawson; which significantly was one of the few moments where the choir had the opportunity to “sing out” so to speak.  But, full throated singing shouldn’t be relegated to just loud pieces.

I really just wanted to concentrate on the choral sound of the Westminster Choir, but this “Angel Band” and “Tapestry of Voices” thing was at best kitschy and more than not, simply obnoxious with all the overtones of the current trend in “pop” style church music.  This whole idea of having people write down what they’re supposedly feeling at that moment and then photographing them for inclusion into some collage back at the WCC campus smacked of not just a little disingenuousness.  I mean, seriously, who is going to write down “irritated” or “depressed” or “pissed off” and then have their photograph taken for public display?  Then there was the “Angel Band” with the “fiddle,” banjo, guitar, and electric bass with its faux Appalachian flavour and the little interludes where members of the choir would take some of these photos and put them into a bowl before the audience; some singing in their pop, soul, or “broadway” style of singing.  I was not impressed with either the singing or the phoney sentiment.  I suppose it was fitting that the setting was a Catholic church.

Back to the choral sound.  Westminster used to represent a unique concept of choral singing.  It’s a type of choral singing which requires a certain physicality; choral singing which requires a particular type of vocalism: one which uses a full vibrato (though not always), and a solid diaphragmatic attack.  It’s the kind of singing that a performance of the Beethoven Missa Solemnis Op.123 with the full New York Philharmonic only needs a choir of 80 — as opposed to 180 or more voices.  It’s the kind of singing in which the overtone produced makes a piano’s strings ring sympathetically.  It’s the kind of singing in which one soprano can float a pianissimo G over the entire Symphonic Choir with enough overtone to sound like an entire section.  I heard none of that at the concert.  With the rather ironic exception of the Byrd, which, even with the period style had a warm, yet crystalline beauty, and the very delicately handled Stephen Paulus Hymn to the Eternal Flame which bookended the Byrd, that rich tone, that overtone I mentioned earlier, was seriously missing in Poulenc.  The Dawson was closer but still seemed a bit thin compared to when George Lynn would to a spiritual.

This special sound (whether you like it or not) was cultivated, perfected if you will, over many years by WCC’s founder John Finley Williamson; and was maintained its continuity by his students who also made up the majority of the voice faculty and the entire conducting faculty.  A student, whether a voice major or a voice minor (EVERYBODY had to study voice) could go from a choir rehearsal to a voice lesson or class and get the same training; each was an extension of the other.  Such is not the case today.  Beginning with Ray Robinson replacing George Lynn (who presciently resigned in 1971) with Arthur Sjogren as the touring choir conductor, and then hiring Joseph Flummerfelt the following year to head the conducting department, therefore leading both the touring and symphonic choirs, foretold the beginning of the end to the Westminster tradition of choral singing and conducting.   

Today, out what is ostensibly 32 voice teachers (practically, if not all of which are adjunct) only five have had any Westminster training and only two of those from teachers who learnt from a Williamson student.  Of the 5 members of the choral conducting faculty — the foundation upon which WCC was built — NONE are Westminster grads.  Is it any wonder that the Westminster Choirs no longer have the sound that was unique to Westminster Choir College?  In fact, I personally feel Rider U and its little musical toy WCC have made a conscious effort to exclude Westminster grads of more traditional training from the conducting faculty.  Why else would they pass up on a more than qualified and devoted Westminster alumnus with more than sufficient experience and a solid  Westminster background for some one who has had absolutely no prior connection with the school to be the conductor of the Chapel (freshman) Choir, the choir upon which all other Westminster choirs had been (not now) built?

Nevertheless, let me reiterate:  the Westminster Choir I heard at that concert was very good.  Musicianship was superb, intonation was as close to immaculate as a 40 voiced primarily a cappella choir can get, especially in meeting the tonal challenges presented by the Poulenc Mass.  Nevertheless, it could have been better; particularly the sopranos.  Too many times when singing those A’s and B’s the sound was not a beautiful sound, but piercing.  Not shrill or screechy but hard and and lacking warmth.  A little more focussing of the breath with some natural vibrato would have gone a long way to making those fortissimo moments a little less brittle and more sumptuous.

I realise I’m in a decided minority here, the odd man out so to speak.  But, that’s okay with me; as an organ student at WCC (it was still an independent school then), I was essentially the only unabashed Virgil Fox devoteé among a very purist minded organ department.  But now the pendulum has swung back in the organ world where not everything needs to be played on an Arp Schnitger type instrument.  Unfortunately, I don’t see that happening anytime soon in the choral world, especially at my old Alma Mater.

The Decline of Church Music, Pt. II

I realise that a number of my colleagues (at least those of certain social media groups) might have been a little upset with Part I of my little personal analysis of the dismal state of church music — particularly my opprobrium of of those large numbers people (“masses” if you will) who are more than willing to subjugate the rational to the simplistic answers or dogma of similarly predisposed religious leaders.    Maybe what I say here will help to clarify a few things. Some may have been reluctant to respond, because I’m sure a fair amount of them have perfectly fine working relationships with their bosses.

Notwithstanding, it’s pretty clear that the clergy bear most of the responsibility for the dismal state of music in the church: if for no other reason the clergy are the leadership in the church.  This includes the supposedly more democratic non-liturgical denominations (Presbyterian, Methodists, Baptists, United Church of Christ, etc.); because, although these denominations have strong committee based governments, it is still the minister who supplies the leadership and steers the ship.  His/her influence over the direction of a church remains considerable.  After all, clergy are supposed to be the experts, and are supposed to know all about this business of running a church.

 

Nevertheless, clergy cannot be held completely accountable for the deterioration in the quality of church music.  There’s lots of blame to go around.  Even in the Roman Catholic church, in which the laity are quite literally treated as sheep, external societal pressures, both cultural and economic, have had a bearing on the decisions that the hierarchy have made concerning music.

 

Music is an easy target.  Changing or modifying music in the liturgy doesn’t have the political weight as many of the social and political issues with which the church has been contending. Therefore, the one thing about which the congregation isn’t really going to make too much of a fuss is music. Very few people understand the subliminal effect music has on them; so as a result, they simply don’t care. They don’t realise how important it is until it’s missing. The governing bodies of the church, whether they be the ecclesiastical hierarchy of  the liturgical denominations, or the various lay councils (sessions, trustees, vestries, what-have-you) of the majority of Protestant churches, have often had a deleterious effect on the quality of music in the church simply because they don’t know anything about it; ironically, the one person who does is often treated with — let’s say — um — less than appropriate respect.   With the exception of the occasional church that has an affluent, highly educated, or at least, fairly enlightened lay leadership, the church musician is usually pretty low in the pecking order.

 

Of course, this low regard for the church musician merely reflects our society’s generally dismissive attitude to the arts, and is extended further to people who instruct or teach, in some fashion, in general.  America has traditionally been a musically, and, more often than not, a culturally, ignorant nation.  Even back “in the day” when we did teach music in the public schools it was always considered as something extraneous, if not down right frivolous.  Music (and art in general) isn’t considered important to American culture because it doesn’t fit well into the concept of an avarice based economy.  That’s not to say you can’t make a lot of money as a musician: it’s just that it is usually accomplished by doing what Americans do best:  appealing to the lowest common denominator.

 

This is the crux of the matter.  Congregations and clergy come from the general population; they reflect the educational, cultural, and intellectual development of their society.  That culture is, in turn, influenced by those who wield control over the two most important determining facets that direct our society:  the media, and those who own that media.

 

This, of course, leads me back to the lowest common denominator mentality of an avarice based economic and political structure.  The present state of our culture presents a serious problem for mainstream denominations.   The church’s main message of eternal life, the quintessential deferred reward, directly competes with the speed-of-light instant gratification which permeates popular culture.  Coupled with the absence of historical and cultural education which is endemic in even our supposedly better public and private schools, making the case for serious, deeply spiritual, dare I say, metaphysically provocative music and its associated liturgy, becomes a daunting task in the very least.

 

All denominations, even the UU’s for all their disingenuous New-Age touchy-feely, warm and fuzzy approach to spirituality (if you call it that), engage in some sort of evangelism.  The dilemma is the form in which that evangelism takes place.  In our present culture — thanks in large part to mass media — evangelism has become synonymous with a kind of unseemly grab for masses, using a blend of highly emotional (to the point of hysteria as in Pentecostal movements) fear mongering (the harps of Heaven or the harpsichords of Hell) and superficial, pop-style entertainment.  Unfortunately, when music falls under this purely commercially based pop form of entertainment, it is, resultantly, ineluctably, trivialised.  When you trivialise something it becomes a throw-away item, easily replaced by the next trivial item which, of course, is hyped as the latest “must have” phenomenon.  Excluding the ubiquitous “mixes” incessantly played in malls and chain stores, when was the last time you heard, much less recalled the title of what was considered a hit song from 15 years ago — even 5 years ago?

 

Unfortunately, the church has adopted the use of this dismal type of music in a pathetically  frenzied quest for converts and members, new or old (hoping that a more “upbeat,” “happier” service will entice the wayward sheep back to the fold).  Church leadership who engage in this approach to music in the church have become so caught up in this trend they don’t see that it, not unlike much of the theology associated with it, is a house built upon sand.

The Decline of Church Music Pt.I

It’s fairly common knowledge that mainstream Christianity is in decline, at least in western civilisation. Now, by mainstream I mean churches that aren’t the simplistic, backward, literalistic, entertainment oriented, fundamentalist churches which engage in a heavy handed proselytising form of evangelism; rather, mainstream churches take the lessons from the Old & New Testaments and try to have them make sense in our world: that the precepts in the Bible are metaphorically applicable (as opposed to literally) to today’s exigencies, is one of the distinguishing features from its more gratuitously superficial, excessively emotional, reptilian, counterpart.  It’s not unlike comparing the literary talents of Snooki (remember her?) to Iris Murdoch.

Similarly, the more cerebral, spiritual and metaphysically challenging mainstream church can’t compete with the superfluous emotionalism of the  fundamentalists.  Those institutions/enterprises which appeal to the baser aspects of human beings will always have a certain cache among the largely ignorant and emotionally governed masses.  Moreover, as times become more and more complicated and stressful the ardour for quick and easy answers becomes more and more intense — a common trait among the emotionally arrested, intellectually and spiritually vacuous.  Recent political history gives us a very clear example of such behaviour.

 

Americans (I will stick pretty much exclusively to the USA since that’s the  society I know best) have been politically bouncing around in a desperate quest to find the “Good Congress.”  But, not unlike the inhabitants of Plato’s “The Cave” they only know about the two political “shadows” they see, and are either unaware of any alternatives, or (more likely) are afraid to find out —  denying that such alternatives do, in fact, exist; so, they keep repeating the cycle becoming more and more frustrated each time when they see that nothing has actually changed, much less improved.  The more desperate the situation the more ardent the pursuit for simplistic and instant answers; or, conversely, the greater the inclination to just simply resign to the situation, assuming that the idea of electing politicians who honestly have the public good in mind is at best quixotic.

 

So it is with the Church, and church music.  The clergy have always begrudged music her part in the liturgy.  Church musicians are in direct competition for the hearts and minds of the congregation.  And usually when it comes to the having the consistently more inspirational message it’s the musician.  Clergy don’t particularly appreciate this fact and are often threatened by it.  This can be, and often is, a source for stifling creativity on the part of the organist.  My experience is the more powerful the clergy person the more easily threatened they are.

 

Ever since the birth of polyphony in the 12th Century there has been constant tension between the church fathers and the church musician, especially composers.  A large part of this resentment by the clergy stems from the postulation that the level of musical sophistication is directly proportional a person’s level of spiritual consciousness.  And if there is anything the clergy fears, it’s a laity that has a grasp of metaphysics equal to or superior to theirs.  Great music does exactly that.  It transcends any spoken words, whether they be uttered in admonishment or approbation, no matter how emphatic or passive the delivery.  You don’t have to know the text to the Allegri Miserere to experience its profundity.  It is precisely this otherworldly, non-verbal, aspect that unnerves those mostly (not all — mostly) musically callow church leaders.  Great music threatens their claim to spiritual dominion.

 

Spoken or written language has its roots, and is still primarily based upon, the corporeal, the tangible, the somatic.  Ever since the concept of an invisible, intangible imperceptible “Great Creator” (God, if you will) entered into the psyche of humankind, we have tried to manipulate and engineer language to reflect our nonmaterial thoughts and feelings; even to the point of completely inverting the original meaning, or perception of the meaning, of those words.  A classic example would be Mary Baker Eddy.  Her abuse of the language distorts and subverts words like “science” and “reality”  to such an extent that the meanings become quite literally the opposite of their otherwise universally accepted usage. Those are just two of the more extreme examples of her misguided attempt to permute language with definitions or explanations with concepts beyond the parameters of its function.  Although Mrs. Eddy presents a glaring example, she is by no means alone.  Such great names in metaphysics as Tillich, Augustine, Hegel, Barth, and a host of others are all guilty of endeavouring to squeeze lime juice from an eggplant.

 

Great music by virtue of its abstract nature surpasses the limitations of spoken or written language. Unlike the representational nature of language, music is nonrepresentational; therefore, what it communicates cannot be coherently or concretely defined or described via the medium of words.  Conversely, one really cannot expect music to describe or define anything specific, such as a sunset, the sea, love, hate or any other specific emotion.  That is why the tone-poem is a bogus concept.  Unless one is told in advance what the subject is a person simply cannot know what the the music is meant to represent.  Really now, could you honestly tell what Debussy’s La Mer is supposed to represent if you didn’t know what the title meant?  What if you discovered  the piece was called La Merde instead?  You really don’t have to know what the piece “is about” in order to enjoy its beauty.  In fact, I contend that knowing the work by its descriptive title compels the listener to limit his listening experience by putting it into some prefabricated box conforming exclusively to images of the sea.  This does the music a disservice by restricting it to the confines of verbal language.

 

Such is the dilemma of the clergy; most of whom are either musically illiterate or (perhaps worse) marginally knowledgeable of the art form.  Perhaps he plays the guitar or thinks himself a singer.  Nevertheless, in most circumstances (due primarily to the nature of our “culture”) his or her musical “knowledge” is popular music based.  Moreover, as a reflection of the mindset of the general public there’s a growing tendency among clergy to think of traditional — classical if you will — sacred music as stodgy, highbrow, not upbeat enough, too serious.  It’s, like —you know —  it’s like — too hard. Y’know?

Unfortunately, clergy today are in the business of pandering.  They look at their monthly and yearly expenses and the only thing can see is the need for more money.  As a parish’s expenses have grown so has the desperation to attract warm bodies with disposable income.  With a public whose attention span has devolved to the level of a gnat, whose primary function in life has become the endless pursuit of mindless entertainment (the reasons for which can be discussed in another paper), clergy feel that they have to go the expedient route by taking their lessons from the mass market evangelists.  We can see mainstream clergy salivating at these big mega-churches, with their pews brimming with people and their coffers brimming with cash, thinking “I want some of that.” Of course, the cost of pandering is the loss of substance.  But, clergy, being the totally compromised individuals that they are, somehow manage to find a way to rationalise the sacrifice of legitimate spiritual growth for the dream of increased numbers of supposedly saved souls.  And what better way than to advertise to all those “church shoppers” that: Hey, we’re the fun church.  Everybody here has a great time.  No thinking necessary; and that goes for the music.  None of that serious old pipe organ and classical type music.  We have a BAND!

A Merry Christmas Indeed

This Christmas was more special for me:  it’s the first Christmas I can remember in a very, very long time in which I can safely say I’ve enjoyed and fully appreciated the season.  You see, for the past 30 plus years I’ve worked in what is probably the most Scrooge-like, coldblooded, mean spirited business in which a person could work at this time of the year — retailing.   Actually, I’m insulting the Dickens’ character because he, at least, became repentant toward the end.  Retailing on the other hand, especially what are referred to as the “big box” stores, primarily (but not exclusively) department stores has no such scruples.  Moreover, the American consumer has become equally coldblooded in encouraging major retailers’ (and many small ones’) behaviour by gorging themselves in spending and debiting themselves to borderline insolvency in order to slake a need to be accepted by others through a superficial act of materialism.

The problem lies in that this act of buying “things” in voracious quantities has been so conditioned into the American psyche that those who don’t (and even a few that do) work as retail sales clerks — oh, excuse me:  “associates” (as if that reflected that they aren’t considered the low life scum that they are considered) —  don’t even give it a second thought that these stores have to be manned by people during those wee hours of the morning in which these stores insist upon being open.  When stores like Kohl’s are open 24 hours during the week before Christmas I’m sure the people who shop at 3:00 a.m. are so incredibly selfish, or absolutely stupid/clueless to understand that just because they can’t sleep at night, it doesn’t mean that that sales person, who is doing everything he or she can to stay awake, doesn’t want to be at home sleeping next to a partner or spouse.  The thoughtlessness of the American consumer is one of the most telltale examples of our material obsession over life affirming values.  It is significantly indicative of how petty and shoal American society continues to devolve.

We could give a s— about those essentially indentured servants to our beck-and-call to which they must respond (at 4:00 a.m.), and who must deal with the most petty of enquires about those things that are no longer in stock and for which there is no longer a supply and the irate self-entitled behaviour such circumstances engender.  Hey Ms/Mr. shopper, do you think that:  1) what you ask is reasonable? 2) That the person of whom you are demanding your petty concerns actually gives a damn?  Moreover, even if you don’t acknowledge what kind of loathsome creature you are, do you think making some one else’s life miserable just so that you can buy a few trinkets for somebody you wish to impress with your “thoughtfulness” justifies your incorrigible behaviour?

Nevertheless, I still blame retailers for taking Christmas and making it into something so less than the religious and (dare I say?) spiritual holiday that it is supposed to be.  It is simply a reflection, a byproduct, of the materialism as generated by the avarice defined by the nature of Capitalism.  Greed has not only become the dominant force behind this holiday, it has become the expedient tool by which the avaricious have asphyxiated the original concept of Christmas by quite literally eviscerating it.  A recent Wall Street Journal article shows how the season has been co-opted by businesses appealing to recent societal trends by capitalising on trashing Christmas for the politically correct and the monetarily fruitful vomit of “Happy Holidays” and “Season’s Greetings.”

I, for one, am sick of it.

The lust for profit has driven retailers to take these extraordinary and ultimately unprofitable extremes with little or no consideration for the fiduciary responsibilities to their employees welfare.  The amount of business they do in additional sales relative to the cost of good will and additional expense to their employees (I’m sure there are egregious anecdotal exceptions) much less operating overhead, simply goes against any rational business sense.  But, that’s what we’ve come to expect from these big stores:  desperation over rationality.

Anyway, I’m glad I’m out of it and am in a position to say “no” to working weekends and late nights.  This year I was able to do what little shopping I needed to do with ease and no stress or pressure.  I was able to simply spend quiet evenings listening to REAL Christmas music, watch “It’s Christmas Charlie Brown,” have a simple yet elegant meal by candlelight, and just overall simply relax and absorb the the wonders (again through the true music of the season) and mystery of Christmas with my beloved.  Whether or not one  adheres to precepts of the theology associated with Christmas Day is irrelevant.  There is something much more — a metaphysics if you will — that, if you’re simply willing to give yourself the time and honesty, transcends all the commerce, and avarice that have become such an unfortunate aspect of Christmastide.  Hey folks, there are twelve days in Christmastide, not one; do something more than just buy a present or two for someone.  Find yourself.