Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Meanwhile, in Albuquerque

So I was shocked to find, upon logging into Blogger this evening, that the brilliant blog posts I've written over the past two weeks seem to have completely vanished! My insightful dissertation on the paradox of predestination, free will and divine foresight; my scintillating accounts of my oral hygiene procedures; my witty parody of bad conducting textbooks - all, all are vanished into the ether! I could never recover them; I spent too long writing them and neglected to make any copies, and the same flash of inspiration may never strike me again! Ah, infamy!

The worst part of all of this is that people who read this blog may have thought the worst: that I have been busy, and pursuing other priorities at this time of year, and that I have been neglecting this blog in favour of those other concerns! I assure you that nothing could possibly be farther from the truth.

Each time I've seen other organists around this week my first reaction has been to ask how Easter went. Now on the one hand, this is silly: Christ has risen from the dead every year for two millennia, and is not going to be offended and return to the tomb if our hymn reharmonizations are not up to snuff. On the other hand, most of us have been worrying for weeks about how the service would go, and whether the choir would be able to get through all of the repertoire they had to sing through Holy Week and still have any voice left for Sunday, and whether it was a good idea to put Argento's "Prelude for Easter Dawning" on the service music list when I'm supposed to be playing a solo recital the Sunday after Easter (if you're wondering, the service went wonderfully, the choir sang brilliantly all week long, and the Argento was almost certainly a mistake).

Something always seems to come together on Easter Sunday, however; it's a week when I always seem to be stretching the choir (and myself) to the utmost, but I've never yet had a train wreck. My choir, a small volunteer ensemble, was struggling up to the day of the service with a tricky communion motet ("Haec dies", by William Byrd), but when it came time to sing the piece in the service, something finally clicked and the piece came off. I've witnessed choirs falling apart in much easier pieces when the choristers were much better prepared and better rested, but Easter services always seem to come off.

Interesting, is all.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Where, indeed.

From Robert Henryson's The Testament of Cresseid, the Scottish fan-fiction sequel to Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde. Backstory: To punish Criseyde for her misdeeds, the gods have decided that she should be stricken with leprosy; she is run out of town and must live in a leper-lodge. She is not pleased:
Where now is thy chamber pleasantly furnished,
With excellent bed and handsomely embroidered tapestry furniture-coverings?
l. 416-7.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Against the new historians

While trying to avoid turning this into a one-note blog*, I'd like to link to an interesting and much-needed opinion piece. Conductor Kenneth Woods takes aim at a school of writers on music who are currently promulgating the view that modernism in general, and the serial movement in particular, was an artistic dead end because it ignored the preferences of the general listener. Woods makes a persuasive case that attacking these modernist compositions is actually a thinly disguised attack on the very idea of all culture.

Well worth your time.


*The "one note" is probably best summarized as "Yaaaaaayyy, modernism!"

A thought for Holy Week

Sometimes a few lines of verse work their way into my head and keep popping up when I'm trying to think of other things. As I prepare for a busy round of Holy Week services in the coming days, something about this stanza has a peculiar resonance:
Dishevelled and in tears, go, song of mine,
To break the darkness of the heart of man:
Say how his life began
From dust, and in that dust doth sink supine:
Yet, say, the unerring spirit of grief shall guide
His soul, being purified,
To seek its Maker at the heavenly shrine.
Guido Cavalcanti (1250-1301), tr. Dante Gabriel Rossetti

What an ear for language that man had! Read the third and fourth lines aloud, and you'll hear what I mean; the repeated "s" sounds hiss harshly like so much dust running through the fingers. (The complete poem can be found here.) Of course, musicians are most likely to encounter this rather obscure poem through the part-song by Elgar, whose melancholy fits the text perfectly:



The interesting collision for me is thinking about this text while practicing the great Bach chorale prelude "O Mensch, bewein dein Sunde gross", which is my postlude this Sunday. One could almost tag Cavalcanti's poem as a caption onto Bach's piece, so closely do they follow each other in sentiment. These sorts of resonances across the centuries never fail to fascinate me, and remind me what a privilege it is, as a church musician, to be able to retell this wonderful, ancient story every year.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Important Scholar Supports Organist's Eccentric Ideas

One of my hobbyhorses is the idea that there's no such thing as atonal music. It is, of course, quite possible to construct music without reference to the conventional key signatures and tonal relationships that people are used to, but this is of interest only to the analyst. In the listener's mind, old tonal listening habits are still working - any pitch repeated often enough becomes a tonic, any collection of pitches with consonant intervals becomes a chord. The only way to prevent the listener from listening in this way is to turn the piece into Hindemith's amusement park ride - to change the pitch centres around so frequently that he'll never be able to orient himself. There is very little music that does this, mostly because it's so difficult to write music that so systematically defies all our expectations. But in none of these cases is the music exempt from tonality, any more than the man on the amusement park ride is exempt from gravity.

So it's nice to have my prejudices confirmed by real, live, published scholars! Here's Peter Jona Korn* talking about the Second Symphony of Roger Sessions, which is organized atonally but nevertheless uses key signatures:
A minute analysis of this symphony will no doubt confirm the existence of carefully submerged tonal centres, to which these key signatures have reference. The same kind of analysis would bring forth very similar results with any given score of Schoenberg or - much more so - Berg or Dallapiccola, none of whom uses key signatures. Atonal music is, after all, nothing else but tonal music in which the tonal functions occur and permute in the shortest possible space of time.
The Symphony, ed. Robert Simpson, vol. 2, pg. 261.

Ha ha HA HA! Told you so! With both Hindemith and Peter Jona Korn on my side, the world will be at my feet in no time.

*Who? Apparently, a German composer (1922-1998). Studied with an impressive list of composition teachers (Rubbra, Wolpe, Schoenberg, Eisler, Toch, Rozsa, and Dahl) and had a successful academic career, but his music is almost entirely unknown.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

The sky is falling!, and three comments

Big news! A new survey shows that many Americans are losing their loyalty to specific denominations, and frequently switch between different branches of the church, or even, in many cases, leave the church entirely! (See this article for the newspaper story.) As I've commented before, the mainstream media seems to embarrass itself whenever it covers religious matters; there's this strange, Chicken Little alarmism in reporting on trends which have been obvious for decades. Whatever. Here are my promised three comments:
"Everybody in this country is losing members; everybody is gaining members," said Luis E. Lugo, director of Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

"It is a very competitive marketplace and if you rest on your laurels, you're going to be history."
A very competitive marketplace??!!

Folks, he's talking about religious denominations! If you had read only the second sentence, you would assume he was talking about spoon salesmen or something. The good news here is that the Pew Forum appears to be a secular think tank unaffiliated with any established church, so I can perhaps understand this man's rather strange understanding of Christianity. The bad news is that there are people in the church who actually talk like this. The idea that the high-pressure sales techniques of, say, Microsoft, should bear any relation to the church's techniques for retaining membership is, quite frankly, a bit insulting.
YOU HAVE TO WORK TO EARN FOR YOUR LIVING. NO GOD OR GODS GIVE YOU MONEY. WHEN YOU ARE PHYSICALLY SICK YOU GO TO THE DOCTORS. WHEN YOU ARE SUFFERING OF MENTAL SICKNESS YOU ALSO GO TO THE PSYCHIATRISTS. NO GOD OR GODS CAN DO ANYTHING FOR YOU. ONLY THE HUMAN BEINGS CAN HELP THE HUMAN BEINGS ON THIS EARTH SO WHY DO WE BOTHER TO SEARCH FOR GOD OR GODS ? THEY ARE GOOD FOR NOTHING. GOD OR GODS WHICH ARE CLAIMED AND MADE ONLY BY THE CERTAIN PEOPLE THEY ARE MORTAL HUMAN BEINGS LIKE US... I CAN SAY THAT THEY ARE RELIGIOUS HUSTLERS WHO TAKE ADVANTAGES OF THE SUPERSTITIOUS SUCKERS
This comment was posted at the bottom of the L. A. Times article I linked to. I apologize for making you read it, but it illustrates an interesting trend. There is basically no original thought here whatsoever; not only does the author have his Caps Lock key stuck on, but he hasn't made any attempt to tailor his thoughts to the concerns of the actual article. Essentially, this is trolling.

However, this also illustrates a broader problem with atheism which has been creeping forward for years. Once considered the belief system of radicals and freethinkers, atheism has been a socially acceptable stance for long enough that it is possible to adopt it without giving any thought to its intellectual basis. In other words, it is quite possible to adopt atheism in just the same sense that many people adopt Christianity - by default from one's parents - without understanding the reason behind their belief.

One of my friends, an atheist, has only recently noticed this development and is horrified by the lack of intellectual understanding among many of these people. He's seen them use obviously faulty arguments to attack established religion. He's also disenchanted by current atheist writers like Richard Dawkins, whose philosophical understanding is based entirely on earlier writers like Bertrand Russell. I told him that this is to be expected, and is in fact exactly what established religion has been facing for years. Maybe the problems started as soon as we stopped being a persecuted church.

For intelligent and interesting commentary on this article, read Marc Geelhoed, whose blog referred me to the original article. In this post, he places the development of denominational switching in the broader context of American anti-intellectualism:
Americans have taken their religion with a healthy dose of pragmatism, with no appreciation for the nuances of doctrine, a "What are you going to do for me today?" attitude, for some time. The effects have been entirely deleterious, as far as I can tell, with churchgoers having little understanding of what the worshipper next to them actually believes about the God they are both praying to (to borrow one of Wolfe's formulations).

Saturday, March 1, 2008

My new motto

You need to practice! Practice lots.
-Marie-Claire Alain, to an ill-prepared masterclass participant.

Peter Phillips takes on misinformed clergy

I'd like to draw your attention to the following two articles by Tallis Scholars conductor Peter Phillips. Both articles constitute a direct attack on the radical evangelical clergymen which have somehow hijacked the leadership of the cathedral in Sydney, Australia. (As Phillips points out, why would someone who doesn't believe in organized churches or liturgical worship become the dean of an Anglican cathedral? Don't they have institutions for these people?) The articles have a broader relevance, however, because they give Mr. Phillips a platform to outline his own philosophy of church music, and to explain his hope for the future.

Beyond Words (part 1)
Dissent in Sydney (part 2)

In the interests of full disclosure, I should reveal that while I have no personal connection to Peter Phillips, I have performed and admired works by his near-namesake Peter Philips (1560-1628) for years.