Trickle-down Musical Economics

In a music history class today, the professor was talking about subtle effects that render medieval and Renaissance music alien to our ears. He mentioned elitism and class as one of them. Medieval and Renaissance music, at least the sophisticated stuff that we have manuscripts of, was understood and sometimes even heard only by the clerical class, the educated class (which was—duh—really small). I writhed.

I’ll be interested in talking with him about this more, but I think that represents an inaccurate view of the relationship between popular music and High music in any culture. There will always be trickle-down. No matter what the class situation is like (here, I think, the analogy breaks down), whatever trend High music takes will eventually show up in popular music. I think this has always been true and continues to be.

(1) Chuck Klosterman talks about Elvis Costello’s critique of ’80s metal. “…[H]e 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)

But isn’t that exactly what happened 50 years earlier—maybe even 25—in the world of Classical music? Innovation simply stopped with the second Viennese school. That’s a situation tracked heavily by musicologist and a constant theme of this blog. Classical music died, and innovation stopped. The only real attempt to compose High music now is in a sort of rehash of the pre-tonal (Arvo Pärt and co.).

(2) Coldplay, a ridiculously popular band these days (too popular for some total poseurs), gets that distinctive Coldplay sound from assiduously avoiding the leading tone. (Interesting to note: they don’t use a mode in “Viva la Vida”, but they do use a sus4-3 chord in place of a straight dominant, which means that “ti”, scale-degree 7, never appears.) To cut the music theory jargon, they never have Vs, dominants; they never use the crowning achievement of common practice tonal music. No, wait, I didn’t cut the music theory jargon, darnit. Anyway, take my word for it. They’re modal. (Agh. Sorry.) Why are they modal? Maybe because that’s the direction that composers in academia took a couple decades before.

Actually, let me get really crazy. Think of some of the iconic “classy” bands in rock history. Think of the British ones. What do all the British ones do? Rely heavily on modality. Think of the Beatles. Maybe this is an intangible throwback to what Ralph Vaughan Williams was onto, that the British folk spirit speaks through Dorian and Mixo-Lydian and Lydian. And when academia recovers that blessed tradition, perhaps so does the popular world, but less consciously (and maybe less artificially, too).

(3) And, more to the point, look at masses in the Middle Ages. If class is really such a big deal, why was the parody mass on L’homme arme the most popular thing in the world to do? If you take “Yesterday” and work the melody into some sacred piece, people in church who know nothing about music and composition will start to giggle. Giggling, I submit, is the first and most important sign of understanding a piece’s composition. They’re engaging with the music. So, can we realistically suppose that Dufay and Ockeghem and Josquin had other motives in mind when they wrote their pieces? Who were they trying to impress? Who were they trying to appeal to? The people who know L’homme arme. In other words, everybody. (Okay. Everybody in Europe in the 15th century, but you get my drift.)

But! You say. That isn’t trickle-down, that’s trickle-up. But I’d say this represents some give and take altogether in the Middle Ages. Think about the popular tunes that get into the Piae Cantiones, things like Angelus ad virginem. Those whistle-able tunes are from chants monks would sing. They come from the Gregorian corpus, or antiphons, or whatever. In an age when folk music is molded so willingly by High music, I think High music is much more likely to cross that bridge itself.

There it is. I submit that whatever happens in High music will have an affect, seen or unseen, on popular music. The real battles lie in what is the philosophy behind both and how that philosophy conflicts with the musical assumptions of other ages.

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A Slice of Canned Collins, for Keeping in Your Memory’s Pantry Somewhere

Forget Strauss
with that encore look in his eye
and his tiresome industry:
more than five hundred finished compositions!
He even wrote a polka for his mother.
That alone is enough to make me flee the past,
evacuate its temples,
and walk alone under the stars
down these dark paths strewn with acorns,
feeling nothing but the crisp October air,
the swing of my arms
and the rhythm of my stepping—
a man of the present who has forgotten
every composer, every great battle,
just me,
a thin reed blowing in the night.

Billy Collins, Sailing Alone Around the Room, “Some Final Words.” J. R. R. Tolkien put (I think) the same point somewhat differently:

Kings made tombs more splendid than houses of the living, and counted old names in the rolls of their descent dearer than the names of sons. Childless lords sat in aged halls musing on heraldry; in secret chambers withered men compounded strong elixirs, or in high cold towers asked questions of the stars. And the last king of the line of Anárion had no heir.

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.

Music in the Bible

This is a section I’m probably going to cut, because it’s a little theological for that particular context. I am also shamelessly putting this up without many citations or references (but they’re there in my mind). I’m analyzing here the Bible, ancient Hebrew music, etc.

If you’re wondering what it would have sounded like, I can’t help you much. There are some people who’ve tried to “reconstruct” ancient Hebrew music, but we have no real guarantee it sounds remotely close. There are just too many variables. But there are some important things here for a music history course.

Remember what we discussed last chapter. The point of a Classical education is to give you a “liberal” view, a free view, on our own era and the assumptions peculiar to it. Arguments about music in general suffer from dangerous assumptions, like “the way we moderns view music is the only conceivable way.” Arguments about Church music, though, are ten times worse, because we inflict our modern categories on the Bible. We have all sorts of modern categories that we just assume Paul the Apostle would have had. But he was working in a totally different musical universe.

This comes down to the difference between exegesis and eisegesis. (Greek. “Ex” means out of, “eis” means into.) Exegesis is getting some meaning out of Scripture; eisegeis is approaching Scripture with your opinions already made and then finding what you think is there, cramming your meaning into the text. Inevitably, exegesis will determine what the original authors meant by what they say, whereas eisegesis will usually sound like somebody saying, “Well, Paul could be saying X, Y, and Z, which, incidentally, is my opinion too.”

When Paul says that we should sing to one another with “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your hearts,” we assume that he’s talking about psalms (like Psalms, the book from the Old Testament), hymns (as in, four-part harmony, “Amazing Grace” sort of hymns) and spiritual songs (anything else with Jesus lyrics). Unfortunately, Paul wasn’t talking about anything of the kind.

“Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” are three Greek terms that the Jews and early Christians understood as the three big sections of the Old Testament book of Psalms. Psalms were divided into three sections: psalmata, hymnoi, and odai pneumatikai. Think of them as the three big chapters in the book of Psalms. All three refer to what we’d call “Psalms”. Now, I don’t think that means he thinks we should sing nothing but Psalms. After all, when he says it in Colossians 3:16, he’s saying it a chapter or so after he’s composed a new psalm or hymn himself (“He is the image of the invisible God”). But Paul’s point is clear: Psalms should be the vast majority of what we do. It is, according to him, how we “teach and admonish one another.”

Lots of people try to find some common ground between people who like traditional music and people who like contemporary music. Here’s something I’ve found: neither of them really sing a lot of psalms. Which tradition is more likely to get out a book and sing through Psalm 1 the whole way? And then Psalm 45, maybe? Psalm 110? My guess is that, in America, neither is more likely.

You might not think this has much to do with music, but what Paul says next in the parallel passage in Ephesians 5:19 is even more interesting. “Singing and making melody” is usually how it’s translated, but more accurately it’s “chanting and plucking a stringed instrument”. The second word (“making melody”) is just simply the Greek word for “pluck”. It’s used in Herodotus and a handful of other places to refer to plucking an instrument. “Making melody” just muddies the waters. As for “chanting” rather than “singing”, this is just a cultural thing: if you went back and actually heard Paul “singing” a psalm, you’d think it sounded a lot more like what you’d call “chanting” than “singing”. That, at least, is one of the things we know about ancient music.

Studying music history teaches you how a culture thought about music differently from how you think about it. Not doing that with Paul has gotten us into some messes: we end up doing eisegesis because we don’t know any better. But then, instead of the Bible forming us, we go to the Bible already formed by our modern era and then just find what we already thought was true.

What are some things about ancient Hebrew music that we can glean from the Bible’s descriptions? There are three basic principles.

1. They Used Lots and Lots of Instrument

Lots and lots. Psalm 150:3-5 describes, in short order, trumpets, harps, lyres, tambourine, strings, flutes, “crashing cymbals” and “resounding cymbals”. The impression you should get is that it was loud and there were lots of them. I Chronicles 16:5-6 describes how it was the full-time jobs of ten guys and their families to play instruments in front of the arc of the covenant in David’s time. These instruments are pretty diverse: lyres, harps, cymbals, and trumpets.

It’s worth remembering that when Jericho fell, there were seven trumpeters playing. These were rams’ horn trumpets, which have no pitch control. In other words, seven guys playing whatever notes they just happened to hit. Rams’ horns are loud and kind of freaky. Seven of them playing at once would have created what we’d call “cacophony”. Apparently God liked it.

This may seem like a silly point, but of the few clues the Bible gives us on music, this is the most important one: God should be worshiped with all sorts of instruments. Ironically, this discussion is largely ignored nowadays. And, there’s some more common ground between the two sides of the Church music debate. Neither side uses that many instruments. A guy on a piano or pipe organ doesn’t come close to what the Bible describes. Neither does a worship team of five guys. Biblical theologians refer to the Davidic instrumental ensembles as “orchestras”. (And it was a full time job, not something you rehearse on Wednesday nights for a half an hour.)

It’s also worth noting that many people go to Psalm 150 with its description of all the instruments and try to justify their worship band by some sort of correspondence with the ancient Hebrew instruments. I once heard a church musician seriously try to justify his band by insisting that each of his instruments had the same number of strings as the ones described in Psalm 150. This is a great example of eisegesis, and the need for some classical education in music. Don’t initially take your categories with you. Our instruments are miles and miles different from theirs.

2. Innovation

David really liked new songs and musical innovation. Psalm 98 says “O sing a new song to the Lord.” That’s echoed earlier in Psalm 96. (Notice: imperative. New songs aren’t just okay, they aren’t just good, they’re required.) David actually says that God put a new song in his mouth in Psalm 40, “a hymn of praise to our God.”

There’s also a bigger point. David brought the tabernacle worship from virtual silence in the Mosaic system to constant and loud noise-making in the Zionic tabernacle. That’s not a move backwards, it’s a move forwards. David was trying new things liturgically. That was good. Of course, later the Northern Kingdom will innovate liturgically in a bad way by putting altars in high places. That wasn’t good. Just because it’s new doesn’t mean it’s good, but just because being innovative can sometimes be sinful doesn’t mean we’re allowed to be sticks in the mud. There’s a good way to be new and a bad way.

3. For Different Contexts

Some people think all music should be party music. Some people think all music should be background music. Some people think all music should be the sort of thing you’d sing God in his throne room. The Bible is, actually, a lot more relaxed about it. In the parable of the prodigal son, Jesus describes party music. Song of Solomon is itself music for love making. There’s music for all sorts of different occasions and different contexts. Party music, background music, throne room music are all appropriate in their venues. Party music in God’s throne room is probably not a bright idea, but neither is throne room music at a party. Probably if you have throne room music at a party, you don’t really know how to party. It’s also worth noting, though, that if you have party music in the throne room, you don’t know how to behave in a throne room.

Take-away Points

  • Eisegesis is common when interpreting the music passages in the Bible, because people like to bring their pet genres of music and justify them using the text, rather than exegesis, getting principles from the text and letting them form our tastes.
  • Ancient Hebrew music used lots of instruments. Much more than most anybody now.
  • David was a great musical innovator, and this was a good thing.
  • There are different contexts for music. The Bible mentions some of these favorably, in their proper context.

Discussion Questions

  • Why is it that the modern Church music argument seems to ignore the Scriptural precedent of a sheer mass of instrumentalists? Are our musical forms and genres limiting us in this respect?
  • I Chr. 16 and 25 clearly describe music as the job of these men. Is it feasible for a modern church to fund lots and lots of instrumentalists full time?
  • What kind of liturgical and musical innovation is bad? What kind is good? What’s the standard?
  • Take a handful of your favorite hymns or worship songs. Compare them to Psalm 69:19-28 and Psalm 74. Can you picture those sorts of lyrics fitting a smattering of your favorite worship music? Do you ever sing worship music with lyrics like that? Are dark themes like Psalms 69 and 74 typical in Psalms? Are they typical in your favorite genre of worship music?

Suggested Further Reading

  • Te Deum, Paul Westermeyer
  • From Silence to Song, Peter J. Leithart

A Program of Living Composers (Surely Not)

A History of Western Music notes that “one of the most remarkable developments in the entire history of music” is the shift from concerts that performed living composers to concerts that performed dead ones. This shift represents, to the authors, the emergence of “Classical music”. Performing mainly dead composers in concerts is, as they acknowledge, a strange phenomenon, whether or not we take it for granted.

“In concerts of Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, for example, about 85 percent of the pieces performed in 1780s were by living composers; by 1820, the percentage had dropped to about 75 percent. Over the next fifty years, the situation reversed completely, so that by 1870, fully three-quarters of the repertoire was by composers of past generations, chiefly Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn, and the early Romantics.”

It’s important to note that this is from Leipzig. In Paris, to the best of my knowledge, the premiere of works by eminent living composers continues to take center stage as late as 1912 and the famous riot that accompanied Stravinsky.

So, what accounts for this strange phenomenon? The book gives us a couple options: (a) it could be the popularity Haydn and Beethoven received in their lifetime, or (b) it could be that sheet music was cheaper from the older composers and therefore easier to access from amateurs. But the authors’ personal vote goes to this: “influential musicians and critics actively promoted the music of the past as a counterweight to that of the present.” Critics have always done that, of course, but to this extent is pretty unprecedented.

Apparently the Academy of Ancient Music from the 17th century rejected modern music because they thought these new composers were just silly. Their definition of antiqua musica was over 20 years old. Yeah. 20 years. That’s why our fascination with 300-year-old music (at the expense of modern music) is strange.

Paltry Imitators of the Past

From the Technical Manifesto of Futurist Music (1911):

“Today we find ourselves at the threshold of a glorious madhouse, for we declare without hesitation that counterpoint and fugue, still considered the most important branch of the musical curriculum, represent nothing more than the ruins of the history of polyphony of the period between the Flemish School and Bach.

“We hear laments that young musicians are no longer capable of inventing melodies, doubtless alluding to the type of melodies cultivated by Rossini, Bellini, Verdi, or Ponchielli. But melody is now conceived harmonically; harmony is felt through complex combinations and successions of sounds, thus creating new melodic resources. This development marks the end, once and for all, of paltry imitators of the past, who have no longer any reason to exist, and of various venal purveyors to the low tastes of the public.” (Music Since 1900, 1296)

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.)