Of music

When I left university with a First Class music degree, I had endured many complications through rejecting the current course of Classical music. My total aversion to composition based on dissonance and discord meant that I was at odds with the current trends my love of harmony was deemed backward. I coped with this in the knowledge that “ordinary” people know better and I determined to write for them.

The time since my graduation is little more than a decade. Perhaps my perception was wrong then. Or perhaps things have changed rapidly. But the “ordinary” people cannot be relied on to preserve a more warm and pleasant taste in music. Time and time again, my scores are sent back for review because the production company’s client says my music is wrong. Sometimes this is a red herring - a client playing a mini power game, whereby it needs to find a fault before sign-off. But it is too common to be just that. The music is rejected if there are harmonic changes that develop over 8 bars, the music is rejected if there is a melody more than 4 notes, the music is rejected if it attempts to reinforce changes in the visuals, the music is rejected if there is not a continuous droning rhythm in the background. This is therefore not a matter of style but of musicality. In order to satisfy clients (who in turn are applying their musical judgment on behalf of their customers) the background music must attempt to say nothing. It should be a forceful sound, it should be confident, and it must be meaningless.

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This is beyond challenging for a composer - not because it is impossible to satisfy such a brief (banal though it is) but because to do so would mean setting aside all the skills of the composer. Just this week I received an invitation to trial a new software programme of an AI Composer’s Assistant. I would put in the parameters and the machine would “write” a track. Of course, there is no reason for any musical knowledge if that is all that is involved. And I am sure that the computer would write something with the appropriate treadmill effect to please the average listener today.

Once upon a time, the Salvation Army could stand outside a strip club and attract people by their harmony in song. Perhaps it was merely their propaganda, but they claimed some left the club because the music on the street was better. It requires no endorsement of the Army or the saving properties of music to observe that this could not happen now. People do not hear things in the same way. Where there is still appreciation for melodies and harmonies it is usually because the music has been known for a long time.

While this is a problem commercially, it does not affect the truth about music.

From my scribbling book

From my scribbling book

I have enjoyed setting and memorising as many metrical Psalms as possible in the last year. There is no better way to get the words into your head. And, having the words there, you can contemplate on them when your hands are busy and your mind is idle. The song is there to be sung. It is true. The melody helps you learn. With a few exceptions, I am composing new melodies for each Psalm to aid in memorisation. Then, when time permits, I scribble down a version in a blunting pencil.

As a Christian musician I do not want prizes, I do not want fame, I do not want praise. For the sake of bread and butter, it is necessary to display skill and to try to be paid. But these Psalms are what matter. My scribbling book could be lost and yet I would still know them. Wherever I am, I can praise the Lord in words He accepts. There is no higher purpose for a musician’s skill, nothing which makes us feel so inadequate to the task. And striving thus for his glory, the fickle whims of clients are seen in their true perspective.

Why do we sing?

When we sing (rather than read) the Psalms, we hear the words differently. We proclaim rather than study and, unless we are dreadful hypocrites, the act of singing Psalms is a declaration of consent. There may be parts of the Psalms we do not understand as well as others and that should provoke us to further study, but it is still important to sing them all. We are not told only to sing the Psalms once we have reached a level of theological acumen. By contrast, the person who sings the hymns of men selects those which he feels to be most true, which accurately reflect his beliefs and experience. We are not given such autonomy with the Psalms. We sing the same songs as children, adults and in old age. We change - the Psalms do not.

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Why Torrey & Alexander attracted thousands

In writing Music Mania I came across Reuben Torrey & Charles Alexander, noting on p.165:

In 1905 Torrey and Alexander (a preacher-singer combination in the style of Moody and Sankey) took over Albert Hall Mission for 85 consecutive days, performing to 10,000 people every day!

Today they are certainly less well known than Moody and Sankey and their revival missions (held around the world and in major the cities of the United Kingdom) have been overlooked. I have just concluded reading a 1905 biography on the pair.

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The Devil's Tunes? Black Sabbath and Birmingham Cathedral

This week a new work was released after collaboration between Birmingham Cathedral and Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath. The Dean of Birmingham selected the words (based on Psalm 133) and the choral arrangement was by Paul Leddington Wright; but it is Iommi’s name that is attached to this work. 

We might wonder why. After all, fans of Black Sabbath are unlikely to be interested in Christian-themed choral music, whilst regular attenders at Birmingham Cathedral are - hopefully - even less likely to be fans of Black Sabbath, with their occult and horror themes.

Such a collaboration is not only acceptable today, but it is immune to criticism. In Music Mania, we discover the roots of this modern attitude through events that took place in 1875.

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The Theology of Song

"We Anglicans, like many other Christians, learn a fair amount of our theology through the hymns we sing"

~ N. T. Wright in For all the Saints? Remembering the Christian Departed (Continuum 2003) page xiv

This is the true reason for the deposition of the Book of Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs in the Holy Scriptures from its pre-eminent position as the appointed music of the Church. Their theology does not suit our theology. The Rev. William Romaine stood against the tide in his own generation, when the pragmatist said that the hymns of Charles Wesley were necessary because people were so ignorant of any knowledge of God.

The nature of the worth we proclaim moulds us. If we praise God's tolerance at expense of his justice and if we praise God's love in the absence of his mercy, then we sing from a different hymn-sheet. This does not mean that Christians cannot write good songs. But they are not fit for God's worship. Our theology is too poor and the Lord God knew it in giving us songs for his worship. He leads us as children. If we stand on the table and pronounce that we are tall enough to look grown up and can now write songs for ourselves, we only show how childish we still are.

Whatever happened to Reformed worship?

Tim Challies is highlighting a free to download recording of The Church's One Foundation.

http://www.challies.com/articles/hymn-stories-the-churchs-one-foundation-free-download

His introduction spells out how important hymns are to the Church, and especially as a means of teaching. He selects Exodus 15 as an example of this latter point, which is curious. The songs of Scripture, namely the Psalms, are designed (according to the Holy Scriptures) to record, thank and praise (see Rev. Romaine's Hymns Most Perfect for more information). They are not designed to teach. That might be a side effect, but it is not the purpose of songs. The song in Exodus 15 records, thanks and offers praise. It is a proclamation relating to the specific experiences of the Children of Israel - not a homeschooling sing-song to let the kids know what is going on and why.

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