Praise the Lord and Pass the Immolation

Radiance. The lusciousness of that word. Doesn’t it sound wonderful, especially in regard to sacred music? But I have found that in sacred music, it has little to do with the kind of radiance to which I’m referring. We have a lot of churches out here in the Southwest, the “feel good” churches (yes, I know they’re everywhere) that do not want to offend, that offer a million, ok, only a few thousand support groups, and a “feel good” ministry. People put little decals for their churches on the back window of their cars to show off their affiliation—that they’re part of the cool, radiant crowd.

Unfortunately, this radiance doesn’t translate to the music that is offered. Yes, we have new music. Yes, it has a message. While we were just talking about mediocre music a month ago, this music not only raises the decibel level, it raises the mediocrity level right with it. But it must be good, because it’s supposed to make the listener “feel good.”

I’m going to take a shot as to how I think this music could be better. First of all, we’re sinking to new lows in terms of trying to appease listeners in a sacred space. That includes the form, structure, and sound in general. Can’t it be musically interesting as well as listener-friendly? Secondly—and many musicians have found themselves in this unenviable position—after years of specialized training, musicians are receiving mandates to make the music more people-friendly (translated in this case as dumbing down the music so that listeners can appreciate it).

I think this is one of the few “new music niches” where mediocrity is actually something people are trying to achieve—and it is not being led necessarily by musicians, but by the politics. If you aren’t getting the people, there must be something wrong with the music. If you want more money or a bigger church, then play plenty of rock or pop music.

We are actually losing good musicians over the fact that they are now forced to lead a praise band—a small rock group of sorts—along with the other music that they play (the music they were trained to perform and conduct). This is added to what these musicians already do, while understaffed and underpaid. And it has very little to do with many of us composers and what we are doing—the types of pieces that we are writing are for choirs, acoustical ensembles, pipe organ and taking into consideration the use of acoustics with our training. So, we are losing good musicians to poor music, and with it the very people who would choose to program the kind of music that we would write. Praise the Lord and pass the immolation.

If you don’t want to talk about God, then here’s a little sample of a piece from a poem by Carl Sandburg, “For You.”

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4 thoughts on “Praise the Lord and Pass the Immolation

  1. philmusic

    “..where mediocrity is actually something people are trying to achieve—and it is not being led necessarily by musicians, but by the politics…”

    Music composition is an area where mediocrity is not only tolerate; its demanded.

    Phil Fried, PhilFried.com

    Reply
  2. paulhmuller

    Good points. Churches today seem trapped between the traditional hymnody and liturgy of the 19th century and the trendyness of popular music/culture. I think serious new music has failed to give the church an alternative and this is one area where musicians writing new works could really shine.

    We need someone like an Arvo Part to write for the average sanctuary choir as well as for the concert hall. It could transform worship and re-establish church music as an important form of the art.

    Reply
  3. TheIndieHandbook

    You are absolutely right about the expectation of mediocrity. I feel, however, that this is indicative of a larger problem (but I won’t get into that here).

    I received my degree from the conservatory of a major Christian college. We were forced to confront these issues daily. It can be no surprise that so many of us who came from “feel-good church” backgrounds, if we remained active church musicians at all, finished school in traditional Anglican churches (except the organists, who all took jobs at Lutheran churches). Many decided just to save their playing for the recital hall.

    And this is all remarkable, when put in perspective, considering the Church was on the cutting edge of music for so many centuries.

    Reply
  4. jaquick

    Go back…
    The problem with church music is that audiences and musicians both think it’s about them rather than God. The history of church music in the Western world is largely one of elaboration rather than creation….what can be done with Gergorian Chant, or a chorale. There’s no room for the old in Praise music (that’s just a specific case of what’s wrong with Protestantism in general). I find, now that I am a believer, that my church music is becoming simpler but not, I hope, simple-minded…and that’s an important distinction to make. Too often, modern worship music reminds me of Hari Krishnas chanting.

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