Calvin’s Positive Principle for Music

A lot has been made of the way in which thinkers in the Augustinian tradition—perhaps most especially Calvin—are suspicious of the value of music in worship. Calvin acknowledges Augustine’s concerns in 3.XX.32. “Yet we should be very careful that our ears be not more attentive to the melody than our minds to the spiritual meaning of the words. Augustine also admits in another place that he was so disturbed by this danger that he sometimes wished to see established the custom observed by Athanasius, who ordered the reader to use so little inflection of the voice that he would sound more like a speaker than a singer. But when he recalled how much benefit singing had brought him, he inclined to the other side.” (McNeill, v. 2, 895-896) Thus the Augustinian tradition is, like most of the western tradition, pro-music but always pro-music with a caveat. Augustine’s own language would seem to locate the problem in the sensual nature of music (at least in his more neo-Platonic mindset in Confessions), which is likely to distract the listener from the whole purpose of worship music, which is the glorification of God (read: the text). And so Calvin is often seen to hold a position more or less interchangeable with Augustine’s: suspicious, on a theological level, of music’s worth.

But this is ignoring the better part of what Calvin has to say about music in 3.XX.31-33. It’s worth noting that Calvin does not locate (or mention, anyway) the problem of music in its sensuous qualities. He mentions Augustine as a tangent, clearly as a sort of refutatio, concluding that, unlike the more Athanasian among the Reformers, he thought music “is without any doubt a most holy and salutary practice,” provided that “moderation is maintained.” I’m not arguing that he doesn’t participate in any of Augustine’s dualist tendencies, but I think that an emphasis on that leads to ignoring the most important statement on music Calvin has.

And the statement is this: music is a way of preventing congregants from auto-piloting through the liturgy.

This positive principle for church music has its roots, of course, in a more noetic perspective on human sin. Calvin is inserting this tangent on church singing (3.XX.32 in the 1543 edition) in the middle of a chunk from the original 1536 Institutes where the broader context is prayer. Calvin begins with the typical concern that people don’t actually mean the prayers and the liturgies that they say, citing Isaiah 29:13 and similar verses. “Unless voice and song, if interposed in prayer, spring from deep feeling of heart, neither has any value or profit in the least with God. But they arouse his wrath against us if they come only from the tip of the lips and from the throat, seeing that this is to abuse his most holy name and to hold his majesty in derision.”And it is in this context that he immediately moves in the 1536 edition to a defense of prayers in the vernacular (“not in Greek among the Latins, nor in Latin among the French or English…”), a logical step since Latin in the service commits the same sin of insincerity. All this can only but resonate with anyone in any church ever—a liturgy, once adopted, tends to make its celebrators go onto auto-pilot in very short order. We sail through formations that we’ve done a thousand times and find it difficult to concentrate. Calvin takes this seriously. He doesn’t just treat it as a necessary side-effect of liturgy, nor does he chuck out the liturgy itself as the problem.

Instead, he characteristically identifies the problem in the nous. “Yet we do not here condemn speaking and singing [NB the problem is not external as in Athanasius or Augustine] but rather strongly commend them, provided they are associated with the heart’s affection. For thus do they exercise the mind [emphasis mine] in thinking of God and keep it attentive—unstable and variable as it is, and readily relaxed and diverted in different directions, unless it be supported by various helps.”

And that is Calvin’s positive principle of church music, that it be a supportive help for keeping the noetically-effected worshipper attentive and thinking of God. And this principle is no insult to music: clearly, in order to affect this vigilance and constant awakening, music must constantly keep slapping us in the face and throwing cold water on us. If we say the same prayers a thousand times, like the Lord’s Prayer that Calvin is about to analyze in the following chapters, we say them each time with music that edifies us and glorifies the text. Good church music makes every Sunday feel like we are encountering the liturgy as if it were new.

It’s obvious that certain Calvinist traditions were more affected by Calvin’s tangential warning against music than his capacious endorsement of it, the same sorts of Calvinist tradition that are likely to be down on instruments and florid music and so on. But as for Calvin’s positive comments and his vision for what music could be, what better way to understand the music of Sweelinck, a Calvinist, and his pupils Praetorius and Scheidemann? The predominately Italian Catholic practice of a church toccata or ricercare (whose names “to touch” and “to discover” encapsulate the idea of noodling innocently) turns, through a Calvinist filter in the Netherlands, into a Buxtehude Praeludium whose stylus fantasticus unflinchingly destroys the possibility of not paying attention. This church music principle is a grand thought, not absent in the best church music in the Lutheran, Anglican and, even in the 20th century, French Roman Catholic tradition (Dupre, Alain, and Messiaen). Of course, you don’t need to be a Calvinist to view church music this way, but you aren’t really a Calvinist if you don’t, it seems.

A provisional definition of “tonality”

Tonality, n. In Western music, a historiographical application of chronological snobbery, arising from the decision by a few men to deify three composers from Vienna, after their deaths, around the turn of the 19th century, whose music they believed to be structurally defined by two ideals living somewhere in the upper west side of Plato’s heaven called “tonic” and “dominant,” and, in so deifying, to define all music with respect to these three dead composers.

All music before this time, then, came to have something of a preludial function—an improvised, sometimes ill-thought, formless groping for tonicization, with one particular German composer of the early 18th century as a final, grand dominant chord that at last resolved in these three Viennese composers. All music after this time, however, had a slightly more ambiguous historical nature. While tonality was implicitly adopted by everyone, it gave rise to two distinct approaches, one which defined itself by manifesting the ideals similarly to the original three, the Classical, and the other, the Romantic, by deviating from the manifestations but still maintaining those ideals. And the dialectic between the Classical and the Romantic shall continue forever and ever, amen.

Pachelbel Being Goofy

I’ve often heard (and hoped it to be true) that Reformation-era and post-Reformation-era music saw no distinction between the solemn and the exuberant. The music laughed when it talked about death and bubbled and joked when it talked about repentance. Occasionally I’ve had a glimpse of that in recordings (particular examples are McCreesh’s recording of Praetorius’ Kyrie from Polyhymnia Caducaetrix or Bach’s Gottes Zeit with Gardiner). This seems particularly prevalent in the Lutheran tradition, the one that famously took a German love song and out of it gave us the hymn tune that we know sing “O Sacred Head Now Wounded” to.

But sometimes I question that as a sort of Chestertonian exaggeration. It’s just too good to be true. After all, you listen to recordings of a great deal of this Renaissance or early Baroque music, and it just doesn’t strike one as all that fun, or funny, or exuberant, or jolly. I look at the music itself and see the potential for a radically different interpretation, one that stresses the comic and maybe even comical, but it certainly isn’t commercially recorded that way very often. (The market couldn’t handle picturing the Reformers as smiling singer dudes.)

And then sometimes I’ll stumble upon music whose downright goofiness is just too overwhelming to ignore. This time, interestingly, the music I found is almost impossible to find recorded, even though it is by Johann Pachelbel, the same who composed the famous Canon in D. He wrote for organ a set of partitas on various hymn tunes, including hymn tunes we still sing (“O Sacred Head,” “At the Lamb’s High Feast We Sing,” “What E’er My God Ordains Is Right,” and even Psalm 42, “As the Hart, About to Falter”).

First, this music is pretty easily sight-readable and is clearly designed to fit the hand in such a way as to make going fast really easy. But, more than that, it’s just impossible not to laugh at some of this music, and not just because it sounds funny to our ears. To any ears, I’d say, taking a tune you know well and doing this and that with it is just funny. But some of the decisions Pachelbel makes are just horrid: he takes a quite cheerful major-key tune and tries creating a chromatic lament out of it. The result is disaster. Never have I run across a pre-19th century composer using chromaticism in this major-key sort of way (not that chromaticism doesn’t appear in the major key, but he’s clearly employing the chromaticism of pathetic lament, which to my knowledge is quite peculiar in this context). But Pachelbel was a smart guy. He must have known that the disparate genres came into conflict and produced some sort of humorous effect. You don’t just throw in a slow chromatic counterpoint underneath a fast-paced tune and expect the whole thing to come off with a straight face.

All these partitas run along similar lines. Exactly when they start donning their most serious garb, they become goofiest. And perhaps this is exactly why this music hasn’t been recorded (widely, at least): the market insists old music must be either garish and crude (like the Newberry Consort) or as solemn as a coffin (Tallis Scholars, Oxford Camerata, basically all Baroque organists). But the two can’t coexist. The market is, you might say, functionally Roman Catholic when it comes to Protestant music: life is divided between the profane and hyper-sexualized on one side and the sacred and hyper-spiritualized on the other.

I have no doubt that, had I lived at the turn of the 16th to the 17th century, I would have been a prude. I would have been scandalized by all the composers I now idolized. But I hope I would have had the good sense to recognize that they were not, so to speak, marrying foreign wives and converting to Baal (Ezra 9), but were in fact asking their wives to convert and then marrying them (Deut. 21:10-14). And I hope I’m being objective and not prudish when I say that I can be in no way so generous in describing Chris Tomlin, Matt Redman, Hillsong, and the rest.

Homage to Capon: Jazz as Ferial Cooking

The-Supper-of-the-Lamb-9780375760563

The news of Father Robert Capon’s death this week reminded me of a suspicion I have long harbored about one particular part of his thought: the distinction between festal and ferial in cooking was a particularly useful way of understanding music. So in this post I want to try to explain how these concepts could map onto music in more than just a superficial analogy.

In this Julian Johnson-Ken Meyers age, we are getting a lot better at understanding the differences between High music and popular music and appreciating those differences. But there are distinctions inside those distinctions that are important too, and I want to suggest that festal and ferial are useful ways of describing High music in the early 20th century, festal being Classical and ferial being jazz. As Capon would stress, both can use the same ingredients, both can be gourmet, but they require different preparation.

Ferial, he says, is the school “that involves the wholesale and deliberate manufacture of leftovers, the creation of all of one’s dishes from carefully precarved and precooked meats.” On the other hand, “to the extraordinary or festal cuisine are relegated all roasts, joints, chops and stakes, and, in general, any meats that are cooked in large pieces and carved at the table,” which differs from ferial because ferial cooks “cut it up small, and make it go a long way.”

This distinction, he says, comes down to economy. Crassly put, festal is a rich man’s cooking and ferial is a poor man’s. Festal cooks are content to use only the prime cuts of an animal and throw away fat and bones and less palatable parts of the animal; ferial cooking insists on using it all, for broth, for sauce, and will serve up a single animal in five meals. That is why sauce is a specifically ferial thought: “A generosity of sauce,” he says, “kept pace with [the cook’s] stinginess of meat. The glory of ordinary cooking began to dawn.” One of ferial cooking’s basic principles is re-use: “If you can possibly do so, contrive to make even a part of anything come to the table twice.”

Over on the other side, festal cooking is all about your budget. “Should your family, however, begrudge you your victory—should they rail against you, calling you Soup-waterer or Chicken-stretcher, several rejoinders are possible. For the first, remind them that if it’s festal cooking they want, they had better provide you with a more festal food allowance.”

Finally, Capon emphasizes that festal and ferial don’t imply any relative worth, in aesthetic terms, of either dish. “[T]he excellence and exquisiteness of the dishes is in no way involved. It is not that festal cooking is best and ferial second-best. Some of the most discerning palates in history have pronounced a good boeuf Bourguignon or tripe Niçoise the full equal of any steak in the world.” Your budget does not determine your status as gourmet, but instead, as Capon elsewhere says, “the presence or absence of the loving eye,” which is to say, in cooking as in theology, love bestows loveliness, and a cook’s love of food will inevitably result in lovely food.

And so with music of the early 20th century. Classical music of the 19th century had been a class affair: you needed money and status in order to get admission to a concert, and very likely both in order to get on stage or even get a place at a conservatory. This began to change in the early years of the 20th century when recordings emerged, radios broadcasted performances, sheet music and four-hand piano transcriptions became increasingly popular, and pianos got cheaper. In eastern Canada and the U. S., this produced an intriguing musical fermentation. Two minority groups—blacks and Jews—were simultaneously provided access to the works of 19th century classical music through technology but sometimes barred access to the usual training that was required to get into the musical scene. And this surplus of musical education, paired with a lack of the infrastructure of Classical music, produced jazz.

And jazz cooks with the same ingredients Classical music is. There are basic things it has in common with Classical music—it uses chords, it uses ABA formal structures, it relies heavily on ii-V-I. But those things can be said of a great deal of popular music of the time and today as well, and jazz and Classical bear a closer affinity even than that. At a time when Classical music insisted on becoming modal, jazz became comfortable with the dominant sonority used as a tonic (i.e. ending a piece on a C7); at a time when Classical insisted on the inclusion of augmented chords in the palate, jazz took an interest in raised 11 and flatted 5 degrees; when parts of Classical began returning to the voicing of chords used by the Viennese school of the 18th century, jazz employed a system of walking bass and comping.

Blues scale

The ethnic side of this is intriguing as well. Many have pointed out that the blues scale’s lowered 3 (E-flat here, the first so-called “blue note”) is a trade-mark of the African-American sound, as is, to an extent, the lowered 7 (B-flat). But the raised 4 (F-sharp) many ethnomusicologists trace to Jewish music, which you can hear if you play the whole scale on a piano and remove the F-natural.

And the theoretical maps onto the historical pretty nicely. There is no need for an endless list that would show how jazz piano or big band was dominated by black musicians, but the lesser known side of the jazz equation is that, with the notable exception of Cole Porter, next to no Broadway composers were not Jewish between George Gershwin and Stephen Sondheim. Whence come the massive canon of jazz standards.

Think, then, of the festal side of the equation. Think of Classical music and the venerable tuba. Over the course of a concert, if the tuba is used at all, the tubaist will not play too many notes, either in 19th or 20th century literature. He might come in during the loud parts of the first movement, a bit in the third, and toward the end of the fourth. And he will get payed, in his cushy professional orchestra, a six-figure salary for doing all of this. (And it’s a good thing too: regardless of how many notes he played, he has to pay off all that student debt from Julliard.) This is festal cooking. It is totally unconcerned with resources. It employs 100 players a night at high salary, some of whom play just a handful of notes for the whole evening.

Jazz, on the other hand, is the music of leftovers. Think of the jazz standard as the dish and the jazz solo as the sauce. You can serve Satin Doll five times with five different sauces and not get tired of it. It is, as well, making-use-of-everything-you’ve-got music. Instead of an orchestra of 100, you have a combo of four. Each solos, each has a distinct role, each has an aversion to being merely supplementary. Think, too, of how Art Tatum stretches the limits of what a human left hand could conceivably do, a mere five fingers producing an entire big band comp at a lickety-split clip. Think of his inexorable desire to see every single one of those 88 keys get hit at some point by his roving, wild right hand.

A lot of our trouble in understanding the relationship between 20th century Classical and early jazz stems from these two things: (1) we imagine they are cooking with different ingredients when they are not and (2) we misunderstand that the difference is not of aesthetic quality but of economy. Jazz is the inevitable result of the Classical zeitgeist given only a piano, a trap set, a guitar, and an upright bass. Nothing could be more boorish of a music-lover than to out-of-hand dismiss jazz because of its ferial preparation. Don’t pass up the boeuf Bourguignon.

Eco Describes Organum

Eco in The Name of the Rose describes near the end the monks singing Sederunt principes in organum, probably much like this example here.

“On the first syllable, a slow and solemn chorus began, dozens and dozens of voices, whose bass sound filled the naves and floated over our heads and yet seemed to rise from the heart of the earth. Nor did it break off, because as other voices began to weave, over that deep and continuing line, a series of vocalises and melismas, it—telluric—continued to dominate and did not cease for the whole time that it took a speaker to repeat twelve ‘Ave Maria’s in a slow and cadenced voice.And as if released from every fear by the confidence that the prolonged syllable, allegory of the duration of eternity, gave to those praying, the other voices (and especially the novices’) on that rock-solid base raised cusps, columns, pinnacles of liquescent and underscored numae. [Not sure they would still be in use, but I don’t know for certain.] …Until that Neptunian roiling of a single note seemed overcome, or at least convinced and enfolded, by the rejoicing hallelujahs of those who opposed it, and all dissolved on a majestic and perfect chord and on a resupine neuma.

“Once the ‘sederunt’ had been uttered with a kind of stubborn difficulty, the ‘principes’ rose in the air with grand and seaphic calm. …Now the choir was festively chanting the ‘Adiuva me,’ whose bright a swelled happily through the church, and even the u did not seem grim as that in ‘sederunt,’ but full of holy vigor.”

Particularly incisive on Eco’s part, I think, is how this music is so dynamically clever. The drama of the music is simply the word. How exciting the word “adiuva” can be, when elongated! The vowels themselves portray some sort of story arc. The phrase sederunt principes will go from loud (e) to soft (u) to brighter (i) back to loud (e) and, as he says, the second a will be quite the dramatic surprise in adiuva.

A Little More Worldly, I Dare You

In a band, there are all sorts of rhetorical levels on which you can distinguish yourself.

1. Instrumentation

Well, if you use autotune, electronic percussion, lots of keyboard synthesizers, and are relatively light on the acoustic side of things, you’re pretty squarely in the Disney-ish pop realm. If you use acoustic everything and you don’t use autotune, then you certainly have your niche among those who like vests, cigars, and craft. If your bass is pretty much the loudest thing on the planet, then you’re using a distinct and popular connotation, especially in South London (I guess?).

2. Melody

If you’re country music, your melodies will be usually pretty monotonic, occasionally traveling along a major triad and hitting blue notes (flatted 3, flatted 7 usually). If you’re just good old pop, you’ll probably pretty squarely travel along the major triad. If you want a more Maroon 5 flavor of pop, you might add some scalar action in there. If you’re beer-sloshing Mumford, it’s pentatonic for you.

3. Harmony

Well, this is pretty well documented, but you have all the creative permutations of the vi-IV-V-I that are pretty prevalent and the occasional deviation from Edgar Meyer (ii-iii-V-[vii]) or Hans Zimmer (i-bVII6-VI-#III). You could also do some non-traditional (i.e. not four-chord) patterns, but then people would accuse you of being some sort of Radiohead imitation.

4. Idiom

This may be a bit subtler, but you can do all the above things identically and still be different. It might have to do with the particular textural execution of each of the instruments. Guitarists have a thousand and one ways of picking, and each one has a slightly different connotation. You could be a Paul Baloche kind of pianist or you could do some Hillsong stuff. Same instrument, totally different feel.

The following things aren’t really ways in which different niches within the popular music world distinguish themselves, but they’re actually so prevalent that they in part define exactly what it means to be popular commercial music.

5. Lyrical Structure

Probably verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus, tag, chorus, tag, tag. Or maybe you want to shake things up. Food for thought: does this predetermined structure or form have an influence on how the content emerges?

6. Gesticulation

There’s a whole language of body that’s been extensively developed by commercial forces and which many of us assume to be natural. This is probably the most brilliant thing about modern music: you can feel like you’re moved to do things spontaneously that you learned to do slavishly and liturgically from all sorts of cultural sources teaching you when to move and how to do it right.

7. Ambience

What do your live concerts feel like? Dry ice? Strobe lights? Fog? Blood? Crazy paint displays on the stage floor? Dancers? Tuxes?

8. Habit

How do you dress? What’s your hair like? Don’t underestimate how these things are important—in some cases, how you’re dressed is probably more important than the music itself (either meat or nothing). But maybe you just wear plaid, or a vest, or suspenders, and this makes you feel more distinct. Ha, ha.

So the grand question, to finish up:

Is there a single aspect mentioned above in which contemporary Christian music does not imitate exactly what everybody else is doing?

Paul Baloche, Chris Tomlin, Matt Redman, and all the rest: if Paul didn’t mean exactly what you do when he said “conforming yourselves to the pattern of the world,” I really don’t think he meant anything.

5 Lessons Revelation Teaches about Music

Revelation 4 and 5

1. This music is loud.

The first voice he hears “speaking to me like a trumpet.” “Coming from the throne are flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder.” The mighty angel proclaims “with a loud voice.” And then something immense: “I heard the voice of many angels surrounding the throne and the living creatures and the elders; they numbered myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands,” not merely singing, but this time “singing with full voice.” And then the choir gets even bigger: “I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, singing.”

2. This music is old and liturgical.

The four beasts are described in 4:8 wonderfully. “They were full of eyes within: and they rest not day and night, saying, ‘Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, which was, and is, and is to come.'” And here we have the liturgical element. It continues, even now. The King James allows this present tense to stand out against the rest of the past tense verbs. This is echoed in the twenty-four elders who whenever the beasts worship thus, “fall down before him that sat on the throne, and worship him that liveth for ever and ever, and cast their crowns before the throne, saying, ‘Thou art worthy, O Lord.'” This idea of without-ceasing is, I think, perhaps a little disturbing to Protestants when taken literally as a prescriptive of liturgy. It sounds too Eastern, like praying with “vain repetitions.” But it appears there is a kind of repetition that is not vain. This is an old musical act not simply because it has stretched into the past indefinitely but also because of the development that follows in heaven.

3. This music is contemporary and eschatological.

Suddenly in the midst of this litany the problem of the scroll takes center stage. Who will open it? The Lamb takes it, and immediately the four beasts and the twenty-four elders break out into a new song. This song is not directed directly toward God on the throne, but toward the Lamb. The same sort of language of honor and blessing is now ascribed to him, and the similarly liturgical gesticulations seem to be taking place, now re-oriented. This development is eschatological. Glory has been added onto glory. I think that the use of the present tense in the last passage is an indication that the older liturgy is still going beneath this newer activity. I realize that this is logistically difficult to imagine, but I don’t think that that should bother us. John portrays the action of chapter 4 as continuous through the present, which is why I think the eschatological development in the liturgy of chapter 5 happens on top of the other. Old beneath, continuous and unchanging; new on top, ever-changing and growing in glory.

4. This music is contrapuntal.

The result of this co-existence is that the worship is in some sense contrapuntal. An old song is happening at the same time as a new song. It necessitates that two songs are happening at once. This is testified by the fact that, even in the old liturgy, the grammar makes it impossible to imagine other than that the elders and the beasts are singing two different songs simultaneously. They are not singing the same thing. It is also polychoral. There is a chorus of twenty-four elders, which are angels according to James Jordan, and there is a chorus of four beasts. On top of this there is the larger chorus of angels unfathomable, and then the largest possible chorus of all creation. There is a certain dialogue between the various choruses of creation and the different choruses have different roles to perform, different songs to sing.

5. This music is surrealistic.

This is not simply because the scene is surrealistic, although that is part of it. There are certain images that are a little hard to imagine quite exactly. A rainbow like an emerald doesn’t seem to make sense as such, since a rainbow is multiple colors and an emerald is one particular color. The four creatures are also pretty fantastical, but then the strangest thing is the description of the eyes. At first they are described as “full of eyes in front and in back.” This forms a chasm where the description of each individual animal is bookended by an emphasis on the eyes, the latter description that they were “full of eyes around and within.” That’s just plain strange. The Lamb itself is nothing like our vision of him. He is described “as though it had been slain.” This clearly means that its neck is cut and bloody. It also has seven heads and seven horns. Oddly enough, that doesn’t seem to show up in a lot of icons or pictures of the Lamb. John would not tell us this, or any of these things, without realizing that he is giving us a mental image. I don’t think we should suppress these mental images because some of them are in fact symbolic. Indeed they are symbolic, but the mental images are powerful and strong and John clearly wants us to try to develop a picture. If we were to commission a Biblically faithful painting of this scene, it’s clear that the only painter who could do it faithfully is Salvador Dalí.

But this is logistically a necessity for the music. When you have polychorality, when you have any sizable group of people together singing, the sound becomes uncontrollable. Control is something we love in our music, and we usually feel that chaos is a pejorative. But chaos is inevitable with an ensemble of any greater size than 5,000. That many people singing even one tune or melody together at any speed greater than the utmost slowness would differ in all sorts of aspects. To add a sense of the contrapuntal on top of that means that likely the noise is not just massive but incredibly dissonant. It’s worth remembering that the rams-horn trumpets (think of Jericho and Gideon’s battle) are very loud and have no pitch control. I’m not sure what the specifications of the trumpet John was imagining would be here, but certainly any instruments present in this vast ensemble would not have the sort of melodic capabilities we expect of instruments now. It’s quite likely that they would be doing something improvisitory and varied with their instruments. I am not pressing for specificity in an effort to ignore the fact that this is all symbolic language. But the symbolic language would have connoted something in the minds of his readers, and it is not what Church music connotes in our minds. Which is to say, it is not tame.

There are two subsequent observations that I’d like to make. First, that these truths about the worship of heaven have been prescriptive of worship music of the church in the past and to some extent today. Second, that they ought to continue to be prescriptive of how we think about music and compose it.

A few examples of the first point: One of the lessons that I think high music ought to learn from popular music—particularly metal, techno, pop, and dustup—is just how important and powerful a loud bass can be. It’s nothing to sniff at. A bass that makes you feel the raw, physical power of music is terribly important for reminding you how physically powerful and raw music is. Your jaws rattle, your cheeks jiggle, you feel it in your chest. This is visceral the way music ought to be. There are very few instruments throughout the 18th and 19th centuries capable of producing this effect besides the bass drum, which is scarcely used by any composer of respectability besides maybe Tchaikovsky (and there are many who think he isn’t). But this is to say nothing of the 17th century. There is, really, only one instrument that rivals today’s synthesized popular music in raw power and compelling bass, and that is, of course, the pipe organ. This is not incidental—I think the presence of a timbre-distinct and prominent bass is exactly what makes pipe organ continue to be the best instrument for congregational singing. It is an instrument designed to smack you into the back of the pew with its magnitude and might. J. S. Bach reputedly loved the 32′ register on the organ. This is the register, incidentally, that is too low for the human ear to identify distinct pitch, which means that, with soft pipes, you simply hear a rumble, and with loud pipes, you hear loud whacking and growling. The sound of a full organ with a 32′ bombarde is a sound that will never stop surprising you because it goes lower, pierces deeper, literally moves you more than you thought it possibly could.

I say this not merely as a backhanded form of job security. There is no way I can Biblically bind the conscience into an appreciation of the organ. It is particularly good at what it does and I think it’s the best choice we’ve got, but there will someday no doubt be a better choice. The point of this here is that the organ developed and grew in influence and ubiquity because it possessed the ability to be louder than anything else. The instruments of Bach’s time continue to produce the loudest sound of any instrument ever made that isn’t electronically amplified. Even with its electrical competitors it holds its own.

The 16th and 17th century loved large, loud ensembles. This is primarily a Lutheran and Venetian thing. The name of the day prior to the Reformation was often a small a cappella choir to sing this or that chant or a mass setting with the ordinal. After the Reformation, contemporaneous with the explosion of the printing press, all sorts of instruments are thrown amongst the choir in a hodgepodge. It occurs to many composers to treat the congregation as a sort of choir itself and they start to add in multiple other choruses in different positions in the church.

Church composers have always been interested in the new arising out of the old and existing simultaneously. In the Middle Ages, the primary form of composition was performing an old chant very slowly and atop that a new exuberant composition full of rhythm and life. Just before and after the Reformation, the beloved style was hiding a traditional tune inside a newer composition, still using it as the basic structural device but adding in an element of mystery and suspense. It is impressive how truly ubiquitous this style has been: new composition is old composition with glory added on top, simultaneous.

But why should we adopt any of these principles for our worship music? There is a very simple reason. “For you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the first-born who are registered in heaven…. therefore, since we are receiving of kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us have grace, by which we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear. For our God is a consuming fire,” (Hebrews 11:18-28). The reason our earthly worship ought to be more like heavenly worship is because it is heavenly worship. The author of Hebrews makes this same argument: you worship in the heavenly places, so act like you do. I think that Hebrews is not just a slap on the wrist to people who casually break it down in church (although it is that), but I think it’s an entire aesthetic philosophy of worship. Just as Leviticus was a structural pattern for our covenant renewal service, so Revelation 4-5, according to the author of Hebrews, is the model for worship in the throne-room. These are principles and history provides us with applications, with methods. I do think all the people of God ought to follow these principles in worship, but I don’t expect them all to follow these principles in the same way.

I think an examination of our tastes in worship music reveal themselves to not align perfectly with God’s. He apparently likes loud music, chaotic music, lots of choirs engaged in counterpoint, and the co-existence of contemporary and traditional, the co-existence of liturgical repetition and wild improvisation.

And my last comment is the comment that should be obvious but never is, for whatever reason. You cannot simply take what I say and haphazardly apply it. The application of these principles necessitate knowing how they have been applied in the past. And so it’s still utterly necessary to familiarize yourself with old church music. Listen to lots of Perotin, Dufay, Josquin, Byrd, Praetorius, Purcell, Schutz, and Buxtehude. They will provide you with a myriad of possibilities that you could not have otherwise conceived of yourself.

Theory of Harmonic Irony

Basic Principles

(1) Theories of analysis only exist as a way of explaining, post facto, what the composer’s intentions were and how listeners hear and process those intentions. It is analysis of rhetoric: what does the composer communicate to the listener, how does he do it, and is it effective?

(2) When a composer creates a harmonic progression, he may have distinct functionality for each chord in mind, but he usually allows the listener to grope through a certain amount of harmonic ambiguity. This ambiguity is what allows him to modulate: one chord can be interpreted one way given one tonal center and another way in another tonal center.

(3) Traditional harmonic analysis does not present ambiguity as a factor in analysis of the composer’s rhetoric. But ambiguity, subversion, and reinterpretation are the primary, central feature of Western harmony. Traditional harmonic analysis fails in the most basic task of understanding the rhetoric of harmony: harmony creates expectation, subverts that expectation and then causes the listener to reinterpret the harmony in light of new expectations.

A theory of harmonic irony basically views harmonic progressions as a stage, where the composer, like a playwright, understands what will happen to the music, but the listener (the first time he hears) doesn’t. This creates dramatic irony in the music. At any given moment, the composer is aware of the ambiguity presented by his harmony in a way that the listener isn’t: any harmony has the potential to be interpreted in various different ways. The listener latches onto one of those interpretations, and the composer takes advantage of that interpretation, plays with the ambiguity, until a moment of subversion when it becomes impossible for the listener to assume the tonal interpretation he has had. At this point, the listener goes back and reinterprets what he has already heard in terms of a path that got him into the new harmonic interpretation. The composer knew and crafted this harmony with this path in mind, but the listener experiences it unaware of the ambiguity until subversion, and then reinterprets previous harmony.

(1) A moment of ambiguity—the composer knows the potential of the harmony that the listener does not.

(2) A moment of subversion—the composer makes it clear beyond doubt to the listener that there is a new tonal center.

(3) A moment of reinterpretation—the listener goes back and reinterprets the past harmonies in terms of where they now have arrived.

I Changed My Mind About Minimalists

And I mean just that—not that I was a hater and now I’m a fan, not that I was a junkie and now I’m a critic. I’ve just simply done to minimalists what one ought to do in music history: not be content with sweeping generalizations but studying particular personalities and their particular output. The results have actually startled me.

First, some background. Back when I first encountered early music, as I’ve recounted many times, I was baffled by the fact that nobody talked about Medieval music and was also passionate to see it re-invented. Shortly afterward, I ran into the music of a particular (living) composer whom I saw actually attempting to do just that. He was a composer that would have been the typical European Ligeti or Penderecki type, but in the ’60s he converted to Estonian orthodoxy and ceased to compose during the turmoil for around 10 years. After he emerged on the other side, his style was radically transformed by the Notre Dame school of Paris (13 c., mmmmm, yes). His name is, of course, Arvo Pärt. Pärt rightly or wrongly is usually considered a minimalist and has subsequently molded the American school of composition in his image, mainly through the conduit of Eric Whitacre. (Sigh.)

So much for Pärt. Then, around the same time, there was the New York Hypnotic School, emerging from Julliard in the wasteland created by America’s Schoenberg obsession. These guys emphasized aleatory, cells, phase, counterpoint, modality, and all that jazz. They were Terry Riley, Philip Glass, and Steve Reich. I presumed pretty much all of them—well, in fact all modern composers besides Pärt and a few others—were just pretty much bunk. I did that on the basis of a little Glass, a little Reich, the little of Riley I could put myself through, and some other composers whose music I found to be as profound a musical experience as eating cotton candy is a gastronomic one.

There were also a handful of modern composers who were engaged in a whole lot of “neo” schools. Neo-impressionism, neo-expressionism, neo-primitivism, neo-serial, and a whole bunch of other stuff that it’s difficult to remember the night after it’s premiered. Most of this I found bland, and I’m afraid I still do.

And you may think I’m a terrible snob, but I have this as evidence: there’s nothing in any of this music that excites the audience the way an audience of Brahms or Dvorak was electrified. On this blog, I’ve identified that as a result of compositional deadness after the demise of classical music, the inability of composers to compose in our own language and still be High music.

On this much I have changed my mind, that we don’t have to wait for the reinvention of a contemporary, high idiom. Pärt is not alone in this reinvention.

I think the first blow to my skepticism of minimalism was a piece by Jonathan Dove performed by the Stanford Chamber Chorale. Dove is a middle-aged British composer and I think not particularly well-known at least in America. I went home from the concert impressed by the piece, because it stuck out amidst a program of Eric Whitacre and Whitacre’s various worshipers and fellow pan-diatonicists. The Dove was similar but it had edges. It had its quietness and haunting dissonances, but it was wild, rugged, and, dare I use the adjective (and please don’t misunderstand me), masculine at points. This is an unusual experience indeed when it comes to choir and organ.

I didn’t want to admit (snob that I am) that I liked the piece to anyone, but I looked up a recording on YouTube and listened to it. And then I listened again. And again. I glutted myself on the piece. I got sick of it. And a week later I’d listen to it again about ten times. And get sick of it again. And then go back again. There was something about it that I found quite compelling. Quite possibly that’s subjective, but you can point to some definite musical things he’s doing that make him stand apart from some of his contemporaries.

But it turns out that I hadn’t properly understood some of his contemporaries. I should mention in passing that I also reversed my opinion on Hans Zimmer, and that is not unrelated as I found out. I got a random email from the Stanford Arts Commission asking me and a few other music students if we could turn pages at an upcoming concert. None of the rehearsal times conflicted for me and so I consented. Lucky for me—it was a Steve Reich concert and it turned out that the man himself was co-running the rehearsal with the conductor of Alarm Will Sound. I had a while to see him up-close, in person, working with one of the best sinfonietta ensembles. I was not really prepared for the experience, but I found myself doing a 180 on Reich.

I am no junkie, I am not categorical fan, and I still don’t like him sometimes. But during rehearsal and especially during the concert, I was confronted with an experience I have scarcely had before. It was a combination of three things that I have always looked for and haven’t found: (1) it was contemporary, (2) it was high, challenging, confronting me with musical possibilities I hadn’t thought of or was new to, and (3) it was also in the language, the idiom of our peculiar musical moment. Which is simply to say that, in a nearly unprecedented experience for me, this concert was normal. Normal in a way that showed just how abnormal our compositional deadness is.

I am sure that I then experienced what I’ve talked about for a while, how music must have been for the audiences of classical music but cannot entirely be for us because it is in the past. There’s no doubt Reich is (1). I know some people will object to (2) but I have recently listened to quite a lot of pop, alternative, metal, and hip-hop and I have yet to find something that musically catches me totally off-guard, which is fine. That’s what that kind of music is supposed to do. I think if you analyze it closely, you’ll find it’s true for you as well. But (3) is perhaps the point where I can’t be totally sure. What I do know is this: the audience’s reaction was not far from mine. We were all confronted with a concert experience that was not the usual binary of bored vs. interested. The binary was arrested vs. annoyed. It was impossible to be bored. Hypnotic is ironically the ultimate misnomer: the audience was forward-leaning the whole time, wide-eyed and riveted on the players, discussing in the intermissions, and unafraid to express opinion. I found it difficult to let my mind wander even if I wanted it to (and sometimes I did want to). It was all a musical language we could handle and knew, perhaps for no more mysterious reason than that it really did come from a composer composing (like Pärt) with respect to nothing but the desire for new compositional possibilities. (Reich’s style from the ’60s has also found its way subtly into our common vocabulary through Hans Zimmer, Radiohead, and Andrew Bird, all of whom, I think, have claimed to be directly influenced.)

It was for me an unusual experience and I think it was perhaps the sort of experience that few people are likely to have experienced in two and a half generations. I can hope that it will be increasingly common. This doesn’t mean Reich is, again, a great composer. I’m simply saying that he is, in the company of few others alive, a normal composer. Normal in the sense that this blog has been insisting on recovering.

The particular pieces that I really found great (and there were some in the program I thought were stupid; don’t worry, I’m still a snob) were Piano Counterpoint Arranged for Six Pianos, aspects of New York Counterpoint, Radio Rewrite, and The Cave (various movements; I can’t quite figure out either his theology or politics, but I suspect we wouldn’t agree; great settings of Genesis though).

All that to say, I think perhaps minimalism as a compositional school may be in fact a viable option for reinventing musical composition. It is in some ways quite aware of its modal, polyphonic tendencies and so in that sense I’m a huge fan. I still think Glass is watery and Riley is way too experimental to be enjoyable. Then there is the deeper issue that I still don’t know how to resolve: re-inventing Medieval music also involves the downfall of professionalism and this artificial distance between performer and audience (and composer and audience) given to us by the 18th century. Pärt and Reich and all of them still are implicitly working in a framework of music only performable by highly trained people. If we’re looking to recover specifically a Christian (a Protestant?) understanding of how music functions in society, certain aspects of the composition will have to change such that it is possible to compose both high and easily-peformable music. But that can happen and I think it will. When I look at how Medieval music emerges, it is actually far less organized than I might imagine given some of its later products. The rules in many cases come afterwards and the wild experiments that don’t always work come first. That’s something I’m interested to watch happen and, well, hopefully contribute to.