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Friday, June 28, 2013

Triaging all that new music

It’s that time of year again. It’s amazing: some of my internet friends around the country, people who do the kind of work I do, are already planning, or have already planned, Advent and Christmas for this year. I know that at least some of these folks have a life, but for the life of me, I can’t figure out where they get the time or energy to be planning worship so far ahead. My natural inclination is not toward future planning. So much of what we do with liturgy and music has to do with what’s going on in the world. But when I step back and think about it, most of what’s going on in the world is what has always been going on, and we can pretty much count that this Christmas it will be the same s***, different year, if you know what I mean. 

But the time of year I mean, apart from summer and the blessed respite of the “season of the year,” is the time when music publishers send out stacks of music on approval to my office, often with one or more CDs for my listening pleasure, so that I can choose the Next Great Motet to have my choir sing for Advent, or Christmas, or Easter.

Their number is Legion, and the piles of notes are suffocating. Worse, when I listen to the CDs which are sometimes sung by professional choirs and sometimes by ad hoc groups of singers, the music pretty much sounds the same. It sounds like "church music," with those big air quotes around it. I have a friend who begins to listen to these demo CDs in his car, and then, when the music hits that nerve, like a fingernail on his artistic blackboard, the CD flies out the driver’s side window of his car. There is quite a library along that particular stretch of Interstate 90, if you’re interested.

As a writer myself, I want my songs to get a fair hearing by other music directors, but honestly, very few of the songs I use in church are used because I heard them on a demo CD. In fact, in the case of two, both by Bernadette Farrell (“Christ Be Our Light” and “O God, You Search Me.”), it was actually in spite of the recording that I was able to perceive the quality of the songwriting and the genuineness of the works, so they don’t really count. The recordings themselves seemed to me ponderous and self-important, again, trying to make a beautiful, simple melody into a church motet by a kind of reverse alchemy. Publishers may not use the artist's recorded version on a demo CD - they re-record the songs with the same group(s) of singers and instrumentalists to sort of level the playing field. I can understand that dynamic, but it homogenizes the recording.

Generally, the way I discover and use other composers’ best music is either by word of mouth (hearing someone I trust recommend a particular song) or singing it myself in the liturgy at a conference, or at a reading session, or workshop. Occasionally, a review (few as they are) in a publication like “Pastoral Music” will at least get my attention, if there’s some attention to the lyric and  some other link to my experience, like a composer or lyricist with whose work I am familiar. 

My publishers have done a creditable job publicizing my songs. Most recently, World Library has really done a number trying to get people to experience my song “You Have Built Your House” at several conferences over the last few years. But the amount of music being produced is so overwhelming that everyone gets about 5 minutes at these conventions if they’re really, really lucky. A lot of musical spaghetti is being thrown against the wall, and there's not much room for it to stick. If it weren’t for some inner necessity, I’d be better off finding something else to do. But I feel a vocation to this work, at least when I’m finishing something that I sense is necessary in some way. It really can’t be my job to make it popular. All I can do is try to find out whether other people, other artists who are in the publishing business, think that musicians and congregations in other places might feel the same way about what I’ve written as I do, and might find it attractive and useful for liturgy as well. Sometimes, we’re all wrong. Sometimes, we get it right.

But what I started to write about today was how I triage new music. Honestly, it’s a rapid process, or I would be buried, my office would be buried, in octavos and CDs. So, here we go.

A stack of new music arrives in my office from a publisher whose name to me evokes some of my favorite hymn text writers. The names of the composers in the enclosed packets reads like a Who’s Who of church music’s Tin Pan Alley. It’s music for Christmas. So what am I looking for? I’m looking for a song that doesn’t have the words “peaceful,” “lullaby,” “angel,” “shepherd,” “comfort,” or “baby” on the first page, for one thing. There is a TON of music already like that, people already know it, and love it, and sing it. I pretty much am convinced that no one can add another nuance to the Christmas repertoire unless they dig a little deeper into the meaning of the feast. I mean, how many birthdays of people you know are focused on the actual birth of the person? The meaning of a birthday is derived from the person as the person is now, not then. So I will not buy another piece of Christmas music with snow, bells, starlight, sheep, or drummer boys unless the writer surprises me with it in verse two. All of that has nothing to do with Christmas, especially the snow, if you happen to live about anywhere south of the tropic of Cancer.

So I’m looking for music, in general, that has a lyric expresses a faith in God with eyes that have seen the enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, the Holocaust, Hiroshima, Vietnam, Palestine, 9/11, and maybe the Hadron collider. I’m looking for an appealing melody and harmony with gentle surprises that will grow on folks over time. Of course, I’m looking for music that fits the instrumental profile of my community, but if I find a song I like, I can make those adjustments. I’m looking for a song that comes from a heart that is grappling with the paschal mystery, with the fact that people and things suffer and die, and that even though that is true there might be meaning for us anyway. I’m looking for a song that makes me see that the writer has read scripture, and tried to begin to mine its riches of wisdom and meaning. I’m looking for a song from a writer who knows that Sunday is the Lord’s day, who believes in Sabbath and jubilee justice, who will help us remember from week to week God’s promise to the poor and broken-hearted, a promise that we have been baptized in order to help Christ keep it. I’m looking for music in which the virtuosity of the composer or songwriter is put to the service of those who will be playing and singing the song—in my case, a congregation and a medium-sized SAB choir and few talented musicians. 

Also, I’m looking for grammatical coherence. You wouldn’t think that this would be such a big deal, but you haven’t seen some of what I've seen coming out of the youth music movement, either. Not only does the theology scare me, the sentences often don’t make sense, with similes colliding and mismatched images followed by exclamation points. I'm not interested in paraphrases of the catechism or theology 101. Live for a while, then write about faith.

Maybe you are wishing I would name names, and quote lyrics, and give examples of what I consider bad material, but honestly, I just can’t bring myself to do that. Even though I may say crabby things, I know that all of these folks are writing what they feel they have to do in faith, and it’s more incumbent upon me to have those conversations in more intimate settings than the worldwide web. I don’t think any of us are well-served by poorly conceived lyrics that should have been rewritten or edited before recording or publication. Not every pious musical thought deserves its day in church; like everything else we do, our music needs some communal discernment. One element of that ought to be literary discernment, another scriptural and theological, and all of that before it ever gets to the musical level. The Christmas stuff I mentioned earlier was not an offering from an RC publishing house, so I don’t hold it to the same standards, but I had high expectations because of the name of the publisher. 

The point is, writers have to write. It's the publishers' job to publish. Discernment is part of everyone's job. The church can only make its musical choices for prayer from what is available to us, so I don't want to sound like I'm for self-censorship, either.

There's no need to introduce a lot of new music every year anyway - we know a lot of music already, and when you figure there is only time to sing about 250 songs a year (on Sunday), including repeated songs, well, you don’t really need all that many more than 100, or people will forget how the songs go! Most of those songs have to be ones people can sing from their hearts, so that they spend more time praying than figuring out notes or studying worship aids and hymnals. This is why I’m so careful about choosing new music for the choir and the assembly at St. Anne.

Leave a comment, even if you disagree with me! Try not to name names, or even say things like, “I don’t want to name names, but the jerk’s initials are ‘R.C.’”

You Have Built Your House - Christ the Icon


  1. "It really can’t be my job to make it popular."

    Yes, exactly!!! That is the work of the Spirit!! A composer can do what he/she is called to do, but what the people of God take into their hearts is a matter for the Spirit!
    I have made a list of musical choices that is distributed to every family who will have a funeral liturgy at St. Thomas (my parish)ALMOST everyone picks the same songs/psalms (and I am not naming anything.....) The same is true for weddings.
    It is the Spirit (no matter what MY favorites are) who chooses what is popular!

  2. I was "hoping" you would name the publisher, though I was satisfied that you went here: "Live for a while, then write about faith."

  3. I always thought that was how somebody like you would pick out music!
    When I get the opportunity I always look for music that I believe will touch peoples heart! Great article!!