Friday, February 13, 2009

A Note on Music

Earlier this week, I was reading a post by Tim Jones on speaking in an authentic, counter-cultural voice. While I appreciate the concept, I can't agree with his take on Christian pop music. He seems to be confusing medium with message. While there's certainly a lot of bad Christian pop music (and maybe that classification may be a bit broad), there's most certainly some very good Christian contemporary music. If Tim is talking about packaging Christian music in the same fashion, then I would have to agree. However, the sounds and timbres in music are much like the various media with which Tim works in his art. The message you convey has less to do with the particulars of the media than with the actual message. For example, Dali had an amazing ink portrait of Christ's face under the crown of thorns that looked like random ink splotches on paper. The effect was stunning, yet it was an effect very much in vogue at the time to carry a Christian message. Would Tim consider the medium in that case to be flawed regardless of the message?

I'm a musician rather than a plastic artist. I don't always appreciate the media used to express these ideas. My take, for example, on the renovation of a local church is a good example. I can appreciate that some styles aren't appropriate for conveying a Christian message (for example, diabolical tatoo styles). Frankly, I detest much of the ecclesial style from the 70s and 80s, which is what this local church seems to be targting. (I call it Flinstone or Stone-age Ecclesial. You cradle Catholics know what I'm talking about.)

Anyway, there's a difference between trying to force the message into the medium and using the medium to convey the message. I've heard a whole lot of bad Christian contemporary music (in various timbres). I've also heard some truly inspired music using timbres I never would have expected in Christian music. When we classify mush as being pop or alternative or metal or country, we're talking about textures and timbres—the tools musicians use to do what they do. Painters (and others in the plastic arts) have the same types of materials. To exclude the options for musicians simply based on how those options are often employed in secular music is simply bigoted.

There are certainly legitimate divergences. Dipping a crucifix in something resembling urine or smearing a portrait of the Blessed Mother with something resembling dung are certainly unacceptable, but it's not only the media that are the issue but the message those media convey. Likewise, attempting to convey the love and mercy of God (or the justice and wrath) using graphic, hateful, and obscene language doesn't work. It offends the message itself.

So the question isn't in style but in the materials. For artists, the materials are the canvas, oils, marble, wood, or whatever. For musicians, the materials are instruments, lyrics, rhythms, tonalities, and tempos. There are some tonalities that are said to evoke evil feelings (traditionally, the Locrian mode, though I think this has more to do with the associations of minor tonalities in that mode than anything else).

That said, I can completely agree that some styles are completely inappropriate for liturgy. I do not like contemporary (or even pseudo-contemporary/folk) music for the Mass. It conveys a sense of the everyday that doesn't belong in a timeless celebration. I played for a time in a Lifeteen group, but I've since decided that the Lifeteen approach only enhances a sense of alienation between adolescents and the parent parish rather then fostering a sense of belonging. That's not a judgment on the many youth ministers out there who use Lifeteen to reach out, but it is a judgment on the mindset that says that the liturgy has to appeal by being secular.

Anyway, I and my band play many covers of contemporary Christian music for our diocesan young adult ministry. I'm happy for the opportunity to serve this way, and I hope that the music we play edifies those who attend the various TVYAM functions.
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