Friday, October 14, 2016

Musical preaching

I love music. There are a few genres I do not understand or appreciate and pretty much everything out of the 80's has some negative association and so I cannot judge it fairly. But my music taste are pretty diverse.

I like the greats. Palestrina and Josquin. Mozart. I like folk. I like some pop and some country. I like some metal. I like to unwind with loud music turned up (and the curtains closed,) singing and dancing and cooking alone in my kitchen.

One of my pet peeves is when people tell me they like to listen to classical music because it is relaxing. Some of it is, of course. But some of it is wild and chaotic. Some of it is angry or dark. Some of it is sweetly romantic. Some of it is seductive. If I can listen to it while I am going to sleep, it is not good music. Or anyway, it is not to my taste.

I am very emotional about music. I let it affect me. What I want in music is to be taken in. I want to feel. I want to be engaged. Music reaches emotions which are hard to express. Sicut Cervus was not the first piece of music I loved, but it was the first time I gave thought to why I loved it so much. "As the deer longs for water, so my soul longs for you, my God." You can hear all of it. The deer and the water. And the longing. Such a longing. Especially in those opening tenor notes. It is stunning. Palestrina is a genius.

But all my favorites are affective. Bach can make piety exciting. Some pieces, like The Trout by Schubert, give me the same sense of calm as enjoying alone time in nature. Pete Seeger and his proteges stroke my inner social justice warrior. Irish music is fun; rollicking along, but with glimpses of a painful story and an incredible storyteller.

"When you sing, you pray twice."

When it comes to Church music, I have very strong opinions. Liturgical Music can be risky. If we agree that music inspires and elicits something real but hard to grab, we open it up to criticism. Is it emotional? Is the emotion appropriate? What should we be feeling during Mass? Or is it simply enough that the words be theologically sound?

Mass is a sacrifice, but it is a celebration! You are in the presence of the Lord and King, who taught you to pray by calling him Father. It is sacred, but it is also home. What should you be feeling? Awe? Comfort? Sorrow? Joy? Wonder? Liturgical music has the tall task of inspiring what is appropriate even when what is appropriate is paradoxical.

Music shouldn't just carry words, it should inform them. Elevate them. Give them a story or a perspective. Chant, echoing down the halls of history but endlessly present and always appropriate, preaches about inerrant theology. The swinging lilt of a traditional Irish hymn setting is warm and welcoming and very real. An early American march with a rigid building block time signature focuses fellowship and structure; this is who we are and this is what we are doing. The words and the sound echo and reinforce each other.

I am not a snob. I like it all. I like the organ at the shrine and the guitars at the teen mass. So long as the music brings something to the table, I like it. I think that most criticism of contemporary music are strange. What makes a three hundred year old song better than a thirty year old song? In the context of a two thousand year history, the three hundred year old song can't even claim age.

There is a lot of criticism of contemporary Christian music. Critics hear emotionalism or protestantism or happyhappyjoyjoy saccharine. They hear a bounce, empty of theology and covered with syrupy prosperity creed. It is more than an aesthetic preference. It is an aesthetic judgment. Mass is not a pop concert. It is not a sentimental appeal. If you are moved to tap your foot, is the music inappropriate? I hear the frustration, but I don't know where to draw lines.

One of the deepest musical experiences I've had was when an African American choir visited our parish. It was incredible. The layered rhythms and harmonies pushed back against overt and lingering dissonances. It preached pain, but joy too. That music explained joy in sacrificial suffering in a way no words possibly could. I was moved. If you are ever struggling with the concept of celebrating a sacrifice, I cannot recommend this experience highly enough.

Toe tapping is not the problem. Maybe entertainment is. That criticism can apply to any type of music. The job of the cantor is to lead a prayer, not to amuse you during the boring bits, which is good since we cannot all be amused by the same things. Does that mean that if you are entertained the cantor has done something terrible? That seems silly and also makes a hard task impossible.

If sentimental music is not the problem, maybe sentimentality is. The Mass is divine, but it is also human. We are the body. The Church. The people. Through the sacraments, our Lord comes to us, truly, physically and spiritually. We need that. The humanness. He designed us that way. Feelings are part of who we are and not a bad part. We shouldn't shut out out feelings, but we shouldn't let them lead either. They are unreliable and moveable. Appeals to feelings primarily can be misleading. A good artist can make you feel all kinds of emotions. Emotions can wrap untruth in the most delightful packaging.

What we need in liturgical music is pretty straightforward.

Music should be is interesting, but singable. It should be either very old or very new or possibly somewhere in between, but it must not be antiquated or voguish. It should be beautiful, but not entertaining. Well lead, but not performed. Appropriate to the mood of the Mass which is conflicting. It has to be culturally appropriate to a universal church. It should be theologically sound, even the moody bits which can't easily be parsed. We want it to sound good whether or not there is participation from the congregation, but we don't want the congregation drowned out by a blaring sound system. It should elevate, not overshadow. Why can't the music leaders get it right? It seems easy enough.

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