Bon Jovi Knew It

“A widely held opinion in the aesthetic community insists an artist is more credible if he doesn’t consider his audience during the creative process; the philosophy suggests that a true artist has to make his art for personal reasons, regardless of whether or not people like it (or even want it). That’s plainly stupid, and Bon Jovi knew it. Art is not intrinsic to the universe; art is a human construction. If you killed off all the world’s people, you would kill off all the art. The only thing important about art is how it affects people. It only needs to affect one person to be interesting, but it has to affect many people to be important.” (Chuck Klosterman, Fargo Rock City. All the emphases are his.)

Looks like metal strikes at the modern lie of art as self-expression. Way to go, metal!

Apple Doesn’t Fall Far from the Tree

“Elvis Costello has questioned whether or not ’80s glam metal should even be considered rock ‘n’ roll, because he thinks it’s a ‘facsimile’ of what legitimate artists already did in the past. What he fails to realize is that no one born after 1970 can possibly appreciate any creative element in rock ‘n’ roll: By 1980, there was no creativity left. The freshest ideas in pop music’s past twenty years have come out of rap, and that genre is totally based on recycled, bastardized riffs. Clever facsimiles are all we really expect.” (Chuck Klosterman, Fargo Rock City: A Heavy Metal Odyssey in Rural Nörth Daköta)

Epic Fail Battle Strategies

Church music should always feel similar to hearing a really convicting or pertinent sermon. Its mission is not merely to declare (very poetically) the wonder of God’s goodness—a task, in the abstract, I absolutely do not dismiss—but its mission should also be to fight the relevant battles of today. Think of the way a prophet didn’t simply wax metaphysical on God and pearly gates and Jesus’ tears, but he offered the king tactical advice on present concerns. Church music must be relevant. There, I said it. Church music must be relevant to what we’re facing today. But there are two ways to be relevant, or so I’ve noticed.

Think of a battle. There are many ways to lose a battle, but I can think of two that are perhaps the worst. First, you can lay down your arms and embrace your enemy. That’s pretty bad. Or, you can leave the battlefield and go pretend to fight in the battle of Agincourt against imaginary French chevaliers. That’s maybe even worse. And there, in a nutshell, you have the two camps of Church music: the contemporary camp, for whom the word “relevant” is holiness-code for “worldly”, and the traditional camp, which can’t think of anything so dangerous as actually fighting the battles of today.

I mean “relevant” in the sense of anti-worldly. We need to be relevant to the world in the sense that we can attack it, not in the sense that we imitate it. So when David Erb or Mark Reagan writes something contemporary that sounds absolutely nothing like anything anybody else is writing, everyone says, “Well, that’s not really contemporary.” What they mean is that, in order to be contemporary, you have to mold yourself exactly to what the world is doing. Otherwise, you’re just a paltry imitation of the past. But the strange option of actually being contemporary and doing something different from the zeitgeist, well, is not to be borne, Miss Bennet.

Church music needs to be like the sermon. It must ride between the twin ditches of the contemporary camp and the traditionalist camp. It cannot plaster over zits, it must pop them. But it needs to pop the zits on my congregation’s face, not on the face of a congregation from 200 years ago. Toby Sumpter doesn’t lecture his congregation on the evils of alcoholism, urging temperance to all the indolent fathers, so why should his congregation sing hymns written by Sanky? (Thankfully, they don’t.) Douglas Wilson doesn’t urge his congregation to withdraw from public schools. They already are. Nor do either of them, though, compromise on homosexuality just to appeal to a broader crowd. No, pastors are supposed to prophetically fight the battles they’re faced with. Petty sins of individuals, and broad cultural battles.

So, that’s why, even though it’s 100 years old, “O God of Earth and Altar” is not, for now, a traditional hymn that can receive censure as such. It’s terribly relevant. “From all the easy speeches That comfort cruel men; From sleep and from damnation, Deliver us, good Lord!” Fuguing tunes have a fighting, impertinent independence about them, as attractive to us as is the 18th c. New England politics they grew out of . This church music is pragmatic. These weapons are particularly deadly to the enemy.

But, I feel bound to stress, that is the best and, perhaps, the only reason for using older music, music of a different era. Because older music is traditional? Because it connects us with past saints? Because it indicates we have a healthy respect for the past? Show me these principles in the Bible. If such principles exist, they poorly justify the wanton traditionalism that infects much of the conservative Church. The principle, on the other hand, that falls everywhere out of the Bible is to sing a new song. Every time a prophet comes along, he sings a new song. He does it by reminding us of older things, like Jeremiah reminding Israel to find the old paths. But he never just parrots David’s psalms, he retells David’s stories. He never quotes lengthy passages of Deuteronomy, he glorifies Deuteronomy in the retelling with new melodies and poetry. So we should write contemporary music.

But Jeremiah never thought that being a prophet meant encouraging allying Israel with Pharaoh. He never thought that imitation of the world was a prophet’s message. That is absurd. Just as absurd as thinking that being relevant means inviting a metal band on stage so you can say on FB for all your pagan friends to hear, “Worship really rocked this morning.” So we should write better contemporary music.

Kodaly vs. Wee-Sing

[Nurses] are the first people the child will hear, theirs are the words he will try to copy and pronounce. We naturally retain most tenaciously what we learned when our minds were fresh: a flavour lasts a long time when the jar that absorbs it is new, and the dyes that change wool’s pristine whiteness cannot be washed out. Indeed, the worse these impressions are, the most persistent they are. Good is easily changed to worse: can you ever hope to change bad to good? So do not let the child become accustomed, even in infancy, to a type of speech which he will have to unlearn. (Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria, 1.1)

Kodaly’s five principles of child education are that

  • everyone has the right to musical literacy,
  • the child’s natural instrument for learning music in the early years is the voice,
  • in order for children to really become literate, they must start very young,
  • the natural sort of music to use is the folk music of the child’s culture, just like the natural language for him to learn is the language of his people,
  • and only music of unquestioned quality ought to be used in educating children.

I’m not going to defend those here, besides my quotation from Quintilian, which I think is quite persuasive. It’s just that Wee-Sing is (to the best of my limited knowledge) some of the better stuff that America has to offer for children’s music, so I’m interested in comparing Wee-Sing to the most successful program in children’s education to date.

As for everyone’s right to musical literacy, it’s more or less irrelevant. Wee-Sing is for any child, so way to go on that score. And, in fact, on three of the four other points, Wee-Sing is really much better than much of its competition in the market: (1) it encourages, more or less, the child to use his voice rather than just to bang on percussive instruments like many other annoying and primitive music programs for children; (2) Wee-Sing is geared toward the youngest constituency so that my 13-month-old nephew can recognize his favorite songs; (3) and, of course, the music is in our own tongue. That last point may seem odd, but Kodaly’s point is more nuanced. It’s a discussion for another time.

The final point—only music of unquestioned quality ought to be used in educating children—is where, obviously, I don’t think Wee-Sing gets it. To the best of my knowledge, Wee-Sing may be the best we have, and it’s far better to get a surmountably mediocre education than to get none at all, which is insurmountable. As I pointed out, Wee-Sing gets a lot of other stuff right. But its music is definitely not of unquestionable quality. There are several levels to this: (1) the actual choice of tunes and songs, (2) the arrangements of those tunes, and (3) the performance. My problems is really with (3). I actually find the arrangements amusing and pedagogical. I think (1) is worrying sometimes: Wee-Sing tends to the accessible song, the “fun” song rather than the song of quality. I sometimes think that the music is more for the sake of the parent than the child, because there’s nothing quite so gratifying as getting a smile on the face of your infant when you clap, clap, clap your hands as fast as you can. That may be a great song pedagogically, but just because the song gets the kid to laugh doesn’t mean it’s helping his education. Talking gibberish and being uncivilized will always make a kid laugh, and sometimes that’s fine, but the kid’s always learning, so if that’s all you’re doing, you’re giving him a nasty education.

Anyway. About (3), the performance. The real problem with Wee-Sing is that the children whom they’ve recorded to sing all their songs purposefully sing (or were purposefully taught to sing) “like children”. Their elocution can be sloppy and childish, the quality of their voices is not exemplary but just average, their intonation is usually good, but occasionally atrocious. Hopefully it goes without saying that the child won’t positively notice this, in that he won’t think, “They’re not really up to snuff.” The far more worrying thing is that the child will learn from what they’re listening to what is up to snuff. That will be their standard for good performance. The quality of your voice when you sing can be lazy, and your speech too, because that’s what it means to be a child and sing. I’m not sure if parents have noticed this, but I’ve always noticed that toddlers are far more embarrassed to sing Wee-Sing than the parents are, and if I remember my own emotions correctly, it’s because I felt as if I was being encouraged to act decidedly differently from the way parents did. Kids who grow up listening to mediocre performances as a standard will grow up to be parents who are comfortable letting their children listen to mediocre performances.

So, the alternative…well, I don’t know if it exists, but it ought to. Kodaly thought that the greatest effort in training a musician ought not to be put into the concert pianist or the conductor or any kind of performer, but into the teacher and particularly the teacher of the small child. A student, when he is mature, is like his master. Kodaly knew that you’re never going to exceed the level of your teacher, and when you have a “those who can’t do teach” attitude about music, it will be the rare student, not the average student, to be musically literate. To account for this minority, you’ll come up with silly ideas, like “musical genius”. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Kids soak up everything, and in this case, we ought to think of Wee-Sing as our children’s nurse. It’s teaching them all sorts of things about the standards of music, and in the performance area, they aren’t good things. A kid will probably not respond as well to Bach as he will to Three Blind Mice, and that’s fine, but he won’t respond better to badly-sung Three Blind Mice. I think it will make him more bashful about music.

All of which, I guess, to say, be cautious of Wee-Sing, if only for the reason that no age is more formative in standards. I enjoin somebody to re-make Wee-Sing with all its best folk tunes and do it with children who sing in an exemplary way.

Kraut und Ruben in Biber’s Battalia

Update: well, well. The melody does not become swiftly unrecognizable, but is actually pretty clear the whole way. I guess the entire idea of the passage is to introduce lots of folk melodies in different keys, which would have been obvious to people who actually sang them. Silly me! How obvious.

Original post: A friend of mine showed me the delightful passage of Biber’s Battalia that imitates the sounds of the drunk singing in “Die liederliche gselschafft von allerley Humor”. I don’t know if this is obvious, but I may have found “Kraut und Ruben” hidden fairly early on there, becoming subsequently (and swiftly) unrecognizable in the mess. Maybe there are all sorts of German folk melodies in there, but I recognized this one because of its appearance in Bach’s Goldberg Variations.

Highlighted in red is pretty distinctly (without the final passing tone between the E and C natural) the following German folk tune (“Cabbage and turnips are driving me away”):

You can find a fantastic visual aid to understanding Bach’s 30th Variation here at Bach-cantatas.com.

Timeless

High/classical culture is also self-consciously multigenerational. While a composer wishes to find some appreciative listeners in his own generation, his goal is to find what is comparatively “timeless” in music, and his desire is to please many subsequent generations of listeners. Indeed, whenever an artist achieves this multigenerational success, we tend to refer to his work as a classic, for this reason. (T. David Gordon, Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns, 80)

I want to do a review (or, rather, learn how to do book reviews so I can do a review) of this book, mainly because I want to combat the foolishness in its pages with every letter of my keyboard. But T. David Gordon is trying to do something worthy—honor God and solve the church music issue—and we’re on the same side, in that we’re both Christians, so I’m doing my best to be charitable. That shouldn’t, I hope, stop me from pointing out that Gordon has done grievous injustice to his subject matter. He points out at the beginning of the book that he’s no musician and goes on to talk a whole lot (and embarrassingly inaccurately) about music. The problem is not that he’s not a musician, or he’s not “qualified” in the credential sense—neither am I, I guess—but just simply that he’s done some very poor research, and it can be a credit to no man’s scholarship if I can identify some pretty horrendous historical whoopsies on many of its pages.

Hopefully none of that sounded snide. Anyway, the particular passage I quoted stumbles upon a different problem the book has, but that one is not peculiar to T. David Gordon, but is a symptom of a widespread disease propagated by many great men, like Van Cliburn and Ken Myers. I just don’t get it. When has Classical music ever been “self-consciously multigenerational”? What biography of Bach do you have to read to get that his goal was not “to find some appreciative listeners in his own generation” but primarily “to please many subsequent generations of listeners”? It’s almost as if you get the impression that by “timeless” we mean that this music is not a product of its time but just simply art with respect to nothing but beauty. I don’t think Classical music has ever been “timeless”, as if the compositions arose with reference to no zeitgeist but purely the genius residing in the composer. As Schumann once said, if Mozart had lived today (in Schumann’s time), his music would have sounded like Chopin, not like Mozart. How is that timeless?

If Gordon and Van Cliburn mean, when they say “timeless”, that Classical music will last forever or even a really long time, how would they know? “Classical music” is relatively recent. We’re still on a high from it. The length of time between Ockeghem and Bach is about the same as between Bach and us. Ockeghem was extremely popular in his time and with subsequent generations, even with Bach. You’ve probably never heard of Ockeghem. I suggest that this sort of adoration of specific Classical composers is born more from a sentimentality arising from our emotional response to the music than it is from an objective analysis of anything in the music. As evidence, I submit Exhibit A, T. David Gordon’s book Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns, a 187-page long adoration of Classical composers that hasn’t a shred of objective analysis of anything in the music it adores. To my knowledge. Please correct me if I’m wrong.

This rant is not trivial. It’s really vitally important that we stop idolizing the music of dead people from a different country. It isn’t healthy, because it clouds our vision into seeing Classical music as Good Boy music, as compatible, allied with a Christian view of music. That is a dangerous notion and has gotten us into all sorts of trouble.

Part 2: Brushing Your Cultural Teeth

This is about bad breath.

C. S. Lewis talks about the value of reading old books. He says in the introduction to Athanasius’ On the Incarnation, “Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period.” This is where bad breath comes in: you know when other people have it, but you don’t know when you have it. That should make you terrified. You’re enslaved to your ignorance about whether you have the cultural blight of Bad Breath. How do you remedy that? Choose some honest friends.

On the cultural level, every culture has its peculiar flavor of bad breath. We have our cultural blindspots. How do we identify them? Lewis wants you to choose your friends wisely. Choose old books. They’ll tell you where your blindspots are and are to you as a rear-view mirror. They can do this because no age has the same outlook on the world. Liberal education frees you. When you get a liberal education, you get freed from your slavery to ignorance. That’s why “liberal” comes from the Latin for “free”. That’s why people read old books.

I don’t know what generation you are, if maybe you’re a Boomer or maybe you’re, like me, a product of the baggy-jeaned 90s, or whatever, but I remember pretty vividly the first time I watched the Bee Gees’ music video for Stayin’ Alive. It was scarring. If we’re talking bad breath, somebody had smoked about three cigars and masticated several cloves of garlic. The most disturbing thing is that everyone then thought it was the coolest thing in the world. But this will happen to us, since we all think we’re the cool people, or even just think we’re normal. Zoom out 30 years and you’ll find our skinny-at-the-ankle jeans are as revolting as the ones that appear to limit Barry Gibb’s masculinity. It’s as if our cultural moment is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and a few of us know it and are terrified of how our incipient senility will appear to our children. Every age does irrational and arbitrary things and every subsequent age snickers, one senile nursing-home patient to another.

So, the task of reading classical examples does not endow mere intellectual freedom. Reading ancient drama of Aeschylus or The Holy Grail of the Middle Ages gives you, almost magically, a clean, objective look at our cultural clichés. It’s like the touch of cool metal on a hot day. Aristotle said that the mark of an educated man was to be able to entertain an idea without accepting it. (Educated, by the way, was for him the opposite of enslaved.) When most of us watch movies, we get so entertained that we don’t notice what we’re accepting or that we’re accepting it. But when you read old literature, you’re forced to entertain foreign cultural concepts―how Achilles deals with women, how Romans execute their justice system, how the Medievals viewed justification―that you would be revolted at the thought of accepting. But you entertain them anyway. Classical examples are training in the ability to entertain cultural ideas without accepting them. If you have this ability, it will end up accomplishing two things.

First, when you apply this ability to your own culture, you will find that many things of our age which you had previously accepted without noticing it are, on a second look, not worth accepting. Once you can strip that Maroon 5 song (if it has any clothes on anyway) of its catchy riffs, you may find there wasn’t as much there as you thought. A spoonful of clichés makes the shallowness go down. Or it did, before you read Aristotle.

Second, applying this ability will allow you to cherry-pick the best from classical examples. That’s why academia is still called upon (probably mistakenly) to present original solutions to current problems. That originality is supposed to come from a keen understanding of what’s being missed by those embroiled in contemporary events. That missing something can often be found by perusing antiquity, which more than likely has dealt with the same issue and done so in a way utterly different from common contemporary ways of thinking. To bring this down to earth, if you’re an indie band and you really want to market your sound as something new and different, try listening to some Mozart and some Oscar Peterson.

It turns out that this is the other side to the coin I mentioned in the previous part. We do idolize Classical composers way too much. By “we”, I mean lovers of “Classical music,” a repertoire chosen by people discontented with the music of the present, but not interested in writing music themselves and so contented with the music of the past. I still think that if you don’t like current music, you should write better music. Don’t insist that we all listen to old music on the basis that the new stuff is terrible. I still think that writing better contemporary music is far more normal thing than listening only to past efforts.

But. Writing better contemporary music is the hard part. How do we get our music better than the schlock and kitsch out there now? We’re back to our Bee Gees problem. And our solution is the exempla classica. It is the true traditionalism, the secret weapon that has rid almost every composer of schlock status and given him posterity-enjoyment value. So, going back to the two applications of Aristotle’s observation, studying older music should give you an accurate view of how silly certain current music is (or how worthy it is) and it should give you all sorts of ideas about how you could break the limitations of the field and employ unusual ideas. Does it really do this?

Yes, it does. As I said, the exempla classica is the real traditionalism. Every great composer has done it. And, I’d say, every great pop musician has introduced time-honored musical traditions into a flabbergasted commercial recording industry with blistering success. Bach, on the one hand, was immersed not just in contemporary music but the music of 50 and 100 years before him. He took an idea from Buxtehude (an older generation) of a fugue whose countersubjects stay consistent throughout the whole thing. That’s the model he used in the Well-Tempered Clavier, and he consequently redefined the genre. On the other hand, Coldplay’s distinctive sound comes from their use of phase music (innovated 20 years ago in Classical academia) and that curious British modality (championed 80 years ago by the Vaughn Williams crowd). If you want to get right down to it, this is how you get a marketing edge.

So, then. Here I am, advising you to listen to music of the past, when earlier I said it was weird to do so. I’m still right. There’s a difference: getting a Classical education in music is not for its own sake. You are no longer listening to Beethoven just for the love of Beethoven. Shocking as it is, the noblest goal of becoming acquainted with Classical music is not to enjoy it for its own sake. At least, I suspect that Classical composers would think you were really odd if you told them so. The noblest goal is to use composers as an exempla classica for new music.

If this annoys you, I can guess why. Probably you’re thinking that using Classical music at all, instead of simply enjoying it, is crude pragmatism and that it will destroy a deep love for the music to use it as a means to an end. But maybe, like me, you’ve noticed something: at the height of your love for Classical music, when you’re listening to Fanfare for the Common Man or glorying in the climax of the “Ricercare” from the Musical Offering or the prelude to Tristan und Isoulde, there’s always a little frustration. There’s always a little sense of isolation. There’s an unfulfilled desire to have everybody enjoy this music, but, ridiculous though it is, some people find their pop music better. The music is great, but not as great as the number of people who think it isn’t. And that is frustrating.

I think lovers of Classical music will find that, when the music becomes an exempla classica for new compositions, the frustration goes away, but the love does not. Maybe even the love deepens, because instead of viewing Copland or Bach or Wagner as gods, you converse with them. You are unequal to them in wisdom, but peers in profession. I don’t think anybody would accuse you of disrespecting a venerable, wise woman by taking seriously her wisdom as a pattern for your own life. Nobody would say you were using her as a means to an end. Maybe they would, but they’d be stupid. If you’re paying attention to her, it’s her venerability, her wisdom, her beauty that will inspire you to model yourself after her. That’s the way to think about the exempla classica.

Do I make it sound like everyone should be a composer? Maybe I do. Yes. I think I do.

(Which will be explained in what follows.)

Part 1: iPods Are Weird

Part 3 is forthcoming.

Why You Don’t Like Classical Music

I’ve talked a little already about how it’s odd to think Classical music is unpopular. Or rather, how odd it is to think that’s a bad thing. Classical music was never the music of the populace. The populace couldn’t afford to go to concerts or be at the sort of soirees where the real musical conversations were taking place. For more on this, check out Julian Johnson’s book Who’s Afraid of Classical Music (despite the fact that his point may be different from mine).

But one aspect of this discussion that’s often ignored is how much Classical music relies on live performance. Personality is a huge part of CM, which is why the real CM nerds will talk about conductors, first-chair French horn players, recording labels, and who the composer was married to when he wrote the piece. The significance of those things mystifies everybody else, but they’re vital to a connoisseur. He fundamentally understands that live performance lets you into a conversation of personalities. That’s a huge part of how CM holds your interest. Nobody has the attention span to just abstractly enjoy a Mahler symphony start to finish. We’re all human beings and we need some context in order to not get antsy.

But much of that is lost when you go over to a CD recording. You don’t see the performers and their facial expressions. You can’t see how they interact with the baton. You don’t get the bass drum rattling your rib cage like the drag races. You don’t get the visceral sound of horse hair rubbing against a taut string.

The funny thing is, CM lovers expect to evangelize to the outside world of neanderthals (only kidding) by giving them a recording and expecting them to like it. But anyone’s first infatuation (in my experience) with Classical music comes in seeing it performed or, even better, performing it yourself with others. Connoisseurs love recordings best when they glimpse that human personality behind the recording, but they’ve forgotten that that’s what attracted them in the first place.

We’ve forgotten that, on any recording, real CM doesn’t happen, but only a faint shadow of it. Pop music, really, is the only kind of music that’s been molded toward the goal of recording. CM was shaped by the goal of performing live, and so consequently it will often appear more boring than pop on a recording. The competition (and there shouldn’t be one anyway) is unfair because the venue is biased.

Re-examining “High” music

The introduction to Claude Goudimel’s harmonizations of the Psalter makes it clear that the harmonies weren’t meant for church necessarily but for use in the home. Again, another great testament to the level of musical literacy in the post-Reformation world. The interesting thing is how Claude Goudimel ties into the High/Low music debate.

When we say “High music” do we mean it requires great skill? Yes, I think so. But skill in terms of what? There’s no denying that certain music Ken Myers would call “Low” and “pop” takes some serious skillz to perform. He might retort that it doesn’t take as much skill to perform as a Beethoven sonata for a Classical pianist, but I have my doubts.

I think we often miss the point entirely. There are two levels to this: performing and composing. I think we can’t deny Ken Myers’ “pop” music sometimes takes serious skills in performance, but comparing the compositional skill of a Classical composer to the compositional skill of the most creative indy artist reveals the real disparity. There is no competition. And I mean that in its dual meaning: if they were to compete, it wouldn’t be much of a competition, but there is also no need for a competition. The two are just simply for different purposes.

But this reveals two levels to apply the “High” and “Low” labels. I’m certainly not uncomfortable with the non-PC approach of calling something “Low” (although, unlike Myers, I don’t distinguish between folk and pop, unless you just mean that folk is pop music weeded out by time). But I think we need to recognize that certain music is “High” in performance, but perhaps not “High” in composition. This would be Eddie Van Halen or something. But not even Andrew Bird needs to know a ton about music theory in order to compose his stuff. And if that offends you or raises your dander, it needn’t. It’s still really cool music. (Sometimes.) Your kids will probably just think it’s dated and stupid. (If you want to challenge me on this, please do.)

So, if your mind works like mine, you will have noticed that I covered the performance-high/composition-high category with Classical, the performance-high/composition-low and performance-low/composition-low with contemporary pop (and, in my humble opinion, there’s some canonical “Classical” could fit that too). But do you ever have performance-low/composition-high music?

Yes. Try singing a canon. Then try composing one. This is the great strength of the Reformation: it found that people grew the most in composition-high/performance-low style music. That’s Claude Goudimel right there: he’s really got some compositional talent (far more than we think), but yet his music is fantastically easy to learn. In fact, it’s designed for just that purpose. It didn’t require professionalism to perform, but it was still glorying in the complex, beautiful way God created sound. I think it deserves a closer look.

Part 1: iPods Are Weird

It is a warm, late-winter morning. Or a cold, early-spring morning. But I’m an optimist and I am wearing shorts. The breeze and spotty sun coverage makes that slightly uncomfortable, but it’s the principle of the thing that counts: I’m walking along a street, listening to my iPod and wearing shorts. People see me and they stare. They begin to hope for spring. At least I hope they begin to hope. Maybe they just think I’m strange.

Or maybe they’re staring because I make weird faces when I listen to Messiaen on my iPod. Messiaen is so strange. At first he’s like a horror-movie soundtrack with these random bursts of happiness that are way too rare. After you’re able to strip your ear of a silly cultural connotation, his music really becomes like club soda or some palate-cleanser. There’s a minty sting and freshness about his dissonances. The feeling your sinuses get after too much horse-radish. Perfect for washing out the icky aftertaste of too much Chopin, like bits of butterfinger caught in your molars, or the muddy cigar saliva of Brahms.

All these thoughts are strange. And the music I’m listening to is strange. I mean, how many people are walking on a sidewalk now with earphones jammed in their ear, and they’re listening to Messiaen? Let me tell you: not many. You probably don’t even know who I’m talking about. There you go, you prove my point: not many. But even stranger than that is the iPod.

See, I can rub my thumb lightly along the surface of the iPod and be listening to the Beatles (British, 1960s). Then I can rub my thumb more and listen to some Solstafir (Icelandic, 2000s) if I really had them on my iPod, which I don’t. And then I could rub my thumb deftly the other direction and hit Herreweghe’s recording of St. Matthew Passion (German, 1720s) or a little less and listen to Paul Hillier’s interpretation of how hoquetus (French, 1200s) would have sounded.

And then some theologian who should know better tells us that we’re the first generation not to have great respect for the music of the past. What absolute tommy-rot you talk, O theologian! We’re the first generation who can have great respect for the music of the past.

Obviously composers don’t know the future, but most composers haven’t known the past that well either. Everyone knows Bach didn’t know about Brahms or the Beatles, but it doesn’t seem to occur to anybody that Bach didn’t know about hoquetus either. Or Leonin. He may not have even known about Obrecht or Josquin—just like you probably don’t—and he probably wouldn’t have cared if you told him. And doubtless worried Christian social critics would have come along and told him he needed a healthier respect for the music of the past, at which juncture Bach would have taken some snuff and abruptly left the room to go compose more of his impudent, contemporary, modern junk.

Right now I’m listening to Messiaen and then I’ll jump over and listen to some jazz, maybe Antonio Carlos Jobim. I’m jumping from 1960s France to 1960s Brazil. And the funny thing is that I think I’m at home in both of them. Then maybe I’ll go listen to some Middle French or a weird dialect of Hungarian in some Joel Cohen CD of Renaissance music. I don’t think any of this is weird. But I should.

Joseph Addison is famous for his social criticism. He was, incidentally, not a big fan of Handel or the other music of his day. He criticized the English opera because it was all in Italian. He thought, What’s the point of having English opera if it’s not even in English? That’s just stupid.

The funny thing is, the most likely person to say that now is a punk teenager bitter about spending his Friday night at the opera. Apparently it’s the most natural thing in the world to go to an opera in New York and hear unintelligible (but faintly reminiscent of German) syllables uttered from Wagnerian females with gratuitous vibrato. That’s considered decidedly more high-class than going and hearing Andrew Lloyd Webber’s latest musical travesty. And maybe it is, but Joseph Addison would have chosen Cats or Jesus Christ Superstar before some foreign tripe.

The principle here is this: we nowadays aren’t normal. None of this is normal, carrying our musical attention here or there, jumping over times, turning the accomplishments of many years into a series of mp3 files. No other age has felt at home in another age’s music, but nowadays we scarcely feel at home unless we’re listening to other people’s music. And the most refined of us, apparently, are those of us who listen to Classical music: the music of dead people from a different country. Americans like their Classical music, music which is 90% of the time geographically and chronologically foreign to them. We don’t just love our foreigners, we love our foreigners dead. (You know what I mean.)

All this is so normal, apparently, that worried Christian leaders just keep reminding us that we need to be using old music in Church because that’s the respectful thing to do. Actually, basically at no point in the Western tradition have Christians thought being musically regressive was a good idea. There was one, though, I can think of. It was called the Council of Trent. And where is the American Catholic church now? The exact same place Protestants are. We all sing clappy, happy little songs. All of which leads us to the great conclusion of our theologian-critics, the idea that I will refer to as the Retrospective Principle:

If you’re discontent with the music of today, use older stuff.

(…presumably older stuff that’s better, that is. There was plenty of crappy older stuff but, hey, in a fire people save the good stuff, and time is like a refining fire. We get mostly the good stuff from past ages and not the crappy stuff.)

Now, take a look at our Retrospective Principle. Seems like the fairly standard rallying cry of a traditionalist, right? Once we can inspire in you a similar discontent that we have with the music of today, then you’ll be forced to see the reasonableness of using Bach in worship! Yes?

Uh, no. See, not that I’m against Bach in worship all the time, but that’s not actually an intuitive leap there. Let’s make this clearer: you’re a general and you’re losing a war because of malfunctioning firearms. So, the key is clearly to find some really good longbows made by the English. After all, those won at Agincourt, and you’re losing, so you should use the winning weapon. That’s not really intuitive, if you think about it. If you’re discontent with today’s weapons, you don’t use the weapons of the past.

Oh, was that a bad analogy? I’m sorry! I can see icicles beginning to form on your eye-lashes: did I just compare Bach to out-of-date weapons technology? Well, yes, but I didn’t mean that he’s inferior. The longbow is definitely not inferior to the machine gun. It’s actually way cooler, in my humble opinion. Anyway, the point is that Bach was a winning strategy in his time, but that doesn’t mean he’s a winning strategy in ours. We’re fighting a different battle than he did.

And, honestly, let’s face it, past ages didn’t have the luxury to “use older stuff”. Bach didn’t have unlimited access to manuscripts from Dover or IMSLP.org. He had a total paucity in comparison to what we have. Bach did the much manlier thing to do. It’s an idea I’ll call the Pragmatic Principle:

If you’re discontent with the music of today, write better music.

And if you still have any doubt that this is the more intuitive principle, take a look at what all past ages have in common: they all have the music that we’re so jealous of. Why? Well, hm, maybe because they wrote music rather than moping around using older music. Maybe we should stop complaining about today’s Church music and try writing something better. If you think contemporary music is crappy, write better contemporary music. No, I’m serious. If you’re discontent with the music of today, write better music. If you really want to be traditional, do what the traditionalists did and write and use new music. Be traditional: don’t be a traditionalist. Care enough about these traditional composers for them to inspire in you discontent—that’s good—and then once you’ve learned their secrets, run away and do it yourself! Don’t look back! Make weapons for your own battle, not theirs.

So, once I’m done walking along the sidewalk and I arrive at the coffeeshop, it’s time to put away the iPod, that wonderful invention that fuels marvelous discontent. Now is the time to pull out manuscript paper and call my bluff. Time for an egg to hang on its side from one of those five lines. So, how do I do this?

(Which will be explained in what follows.)