Not something that happens
But the way something happens
-- Charles Ives,
Essays Before a Sonata

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Desegregating traditional and contemporary church music

Talk to any Protestant church musician these days and you will hear talk of "contemporary" and "traditional" music. What these terms usually describe is technology. "Contemporary" music is based on the technology of the late 20th century (amplification, mixers, electric guitars, synthesizers), while "traditional" music is based on the technology of the late 19th century (symphonic organ with electric blower, concert grand piano).

I have never felt comfortable with these terms, because I think they emerge from a typically American attitude of technological determinism. If we take technology out of consideration, so-called "contemporary" music is actually more backward-looking than so-called "traditional" music. In particular, if we consider the development of Protestant liturgies since the Vatican II reforms of the 1960s, so-called "traditional" music is more in step with the times. The music that suits liturgically-minded Protestantism is more often found in denominational hymnals and in choral music catalogs, rather than in the output of the contemporary Christian music industry. "Contemporary Christian" music has a modern technological gloss, but many of these songs continue the same textual traditions as the gospel hymns of the 19th century.

My point is not to stand contemporary Christian music on its head and say that because it's backward-looking, it's therefore bad. There is much to admire in the 19th century gospel hymns, and therefore much to admire in contemporary Christian songs. A Protestant liturgy is enhanced by "Shall we gather at the river" (1864), "I love to tell the story" (1866), or "Jesus, lead me near the cross" (1869), to name a few. Likewise for "Seek ye first" (1972), "Shout to the Lord" (1993), or "Come, now is the time to worship" (1998).

But I wouldn't construct an entire service on such hymns.
The gospel hymns, and the contemporary Christian songs after them, have a heavy emphasis on the psychology of the individual believer, as opposed to the sociology of the gathered community. Both are necessary for liturgically-minded Protestantism.

What I'm getting around to is that good church music is good church music, whatever its age, its national origins, or its technological media. I am troubled that at many churches, there are now different worship services targeted to different demographics. The so-called "traditional" and "contemporary" services may occur at different times on Sunday, or on alternate weeks, or even at the same time in different parts of the building. It is a shame that these congregations cannot resist the market-driven logic of media companies, which divide audiences into ever-smaller niches.

In my own work at First Congregational Church of Melrose, Massachusetts, I have resisted this trend, and have received positive feedback from the congregation for doing so. We have a single worship service on Sunday, with a diverse group of musicians who perform special music according to a rotating schedule:
  • youth choir (Treblemakers): 1st Sunday of month
  • praise band: 2nd Sunday of month
  • bell choir (Jubilate Ringers): 4th Sunday of month
  • adult choir: 1st, 3rd, and 5th Sundays of month
I consciously avoid segregating each service by musical style. For example, I may include a Bach organ piece as postlude on the same week as the praise band anthem, or have the adult choir sing an anthem in rock or gospel style. The music of every service is a mixture of different national origins and performing forces.

(Performance by YouTube user MusicByMichele.)

This past Sunday, for example, we had:

  • Organ prelude: Moderato in E minor (from L'Organiste), César Franck (French Romanticism)
  • Choral introit: "Thuma Mina" (South African praise song)
  • Opening hymn: "Jesus calls us o'er the tumult" to GALILEE (19th century hymn)
  • Choral prayer response: "Shine, O star," Lloyd Larson (contemporary with piano accompaniment)
  • Choral anthem: "One Bread, One Body," John B. Foley, arr. Jack Schrader (contemporary Catholic eucharistic anthem)
  • Communion music: Improvisation on piano and violin by two church members
  • Communion hymn: "I come with joy" to DOVE OF PEACE, with violin (American folk hymn)
  • Vocal solo: "Come, thou fount of every blessing," arr. Mark Hayes (jazz influenced hymn setting)
  • Choral prayer response: "Santo, santo, santo" (Argentine acclamation)
  • Concluding hymn: "We yearn, O Christ, for wholeness" to PASSION CHORALE (Modern hymn text to classic German chorale)
  • Organ postlude: "Menuet gothique" from Suite Gothique, Léon Boëllmann (French Romanticism)
For congregational hymns, the adult choir provides leadership, though I may also draw on musicians from the other ensembles as available. (This past Sunday, a violinist in the congregation joined one of the hymns.) I avoid a "one size fits all" approach to accompanying hymns. In this approach, I am helped by the New Century Hymnal, which the United Church of Christ published in 1995. In some quarters, this hymnal is criticized, particularly for heavy-handed alterations of hymn texts to remove archaic and gendered language. I agree with some of these criticisms, but in its defense I will say that the New Century Hymnal is an excellent resource for a congregation that, like ours, needs to bring together diverse performing forces. It has hymns that work best with choir and organ; with piano and soloist; with guitar and band; with children's voices. This combination is hard to find within the covers of one book.

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