Friday, February 1, 2013

Tallahassee Church Music Conference: Day Two

My body decided to be petulant today. I only have so much sitting capacity these days, and even standing becomes problematic after a time.  I even resorted to listening to one session in the next room, lying with my back on the floor and my legs propped up in a chair.  And it was actually pretty comfortable, though getting up was less so.

Still, a lot of awfully good and thoughtful things happened today.  I am sure such things happened in sessions I did not attend, but of course I can only report on sessions I did attend. I will attempt to do so now.

Keynote I.  The keynote speaker for this conference is Paul Westermeyer, pastor, musician, teacher, and author keenly observant of all things pertaining to the music of the church.  The keynote is spread out over three sessions for this conference (the third is tomorrow morning).

Some of Westermeyer's observations would no doubt be challenged by some corners of the church.  He notes that all too often these days (and historically as well) music is simply a tool by which the church "sells" Christianity; it is an instrument of manipulation.  Before anybody gets their knickers in a knot, know that this is not an attack on any one musical idiom in the church; one can "sell" Christianity with Mozart and Verdi just as much as with Hillsong.  Still, the notion that music is basically a way to "push buttons" in your intended target indicates a rather secular approach to music; what is a good musical hook but a means of doing exactly that -- pushing your listener's buttons?

Another thought; if the church counts singing as one of its principal activities in worship (how broadly true that is may be a subject for another post sometime), what is the point of doing so?  Here Westermeyer turns to a broad survey of theological thought on music in the church, from biblical examples to the most prominent theologians of later times, to draw the conclusion that the purpose is twofold; for the glory of God and for the edification of the neighbor.  The former point would probably not surprise many folk, but the latter may well be unexpected.

Adapting an idea from Bonhoeffer, Westermeyer points out that it is not you who sings; it is that the church sings, and you may take part in it.  Communal song, then, would seem to be the norm.

Here's a straightforward quote: "The liturgy protects the people from the presider, and the presider from the people."  That's worth a fairly good chunk of reflection.

Another session led by Christopher Robinson, a professor at the Perkins School of Theology at SMU, addressed a "Theology of Singing, Biblically Considered."  One of his more interesting insights is that in biblical accounts of music or of singing, it is a disruptive, volatile, even dangerous thing: Joshua's trumpets bringing down the walls of Jericho; Isaiah's experience in the Temple, which he apparently found so terrifying he assumed he was doomed; the shepherds' fear, even terror, at the bursting-in song of the angels.  (Didn't include my favorite, from 2 Chronicles 5:13-14, in which the song of the Temple musicians so excited the Lord that "the house, the house of the Lord, was filled with a cloud; so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud; for the glory of the Lord filled the house of God.")  Luther follows this with his notion that music "excites" or even "provokes."

Robinson appropriated a quote from Pierre Boulez, whom no one ever accused of being a church musician, to chastise musicians who never challenged themselves or their audiences: "that's not culture, that's marketing."  (Yes, Robinson's address had several points of contact with Westermeyer's keynote.)

A final couple of provocative observations from Robinson: taking a cue from the parable of the talents, Robinson draws the conclusion that the person given the talent is responsible to return it multiplied; and the claim that music is not only an advocate of the word, but music is about the same thing that the word is about.

Keynote II: mostly in bullet-like points.
The assembly or congregation consists of non-musicians who gather around font, word, and table and sing without rehearsal (the choir rehearses, but they are left for the final part of the keynote, mostly).
The church's music has been primarily (though not exclusively) vocal.
The church's music is fundamentally communal.
Quality is mandatory, but worship is what defines quality, not the concert stage.
What fits where in the service must be considered.
Acoustics, architecture, and the general character of the space matter.  (Microphones and canned music are emphatically not fixes for such challenges; here followed a quote from someone whose name I sadly did not get, to the effect that "microphones and amplifiers are weapons of mass destruction" (get it?  Mass?  heh heh...).
A quote so good I had to tweet it on the spot: congregational song as "the sounding form of the body of Christ."

It was at this point that my body refused to cooperate any longer and forced me to leave.  I also ended up missing what I'm sure was a killer organ recital.  Grr.

I also attended sessions on historical and contemporary English-language psalters, congregational song resources of the last five years, and the negro spiritual (the latter led by Andre Thomas, the eminent choral conductor and prolific arranger of such works; actually he wrote the book on the subject).  From those I got names of resources.  This is a good thing.

A sign that a conference is going well is a realization that it's going to take me a long time to think about and reflect upon the things I've heard at the conference.  I'm going to be thinking on these things for a long time.

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