The opening lines of “It Is Well” don’t normally include clashing polytonality and inscrutably rhythmic patterns. I took a creative risk this morning. Note clusters. Non-functional harmonic groups. Painting with colors that are so far outside of our normal 3-chord pop-tastic worship that at one point I was screaming inside for a 3rd hand, so that I could fully realize the Eb / D(6/9) / Dbmaj9 stack that I wanted. I know. Using chord notation at that point is just gratuitous. You get my point.
And then, because I like my church and enjoy my current level of employment with them, the crashing cacophony resolved down into notes that made sense, notes that made happy, notes that made me fairly certain that I will be welcome back next week. But for a little while, it was glorious.
I blame Alex Wen, my ne’er-do-well teaching assistant. That kid causes me more trouble. He has a frustrating habit of dropping by, serving up some canapé of intriguing speculation, and then leaving me to process and re-process for the remainder of the week. I enjoy it so much that I don’t have the heart to tell him that it’s supposed to work the other way around.
This week, it was on the role of music in worship. Alex was talking about the use of aggressive and difficult music, modern compositions that will not yield easily to passive listening, but that richly reward the engaged.
Which left me thinking about the role of music in church. Not just in worship, but in the institution at large, the cultural and social phenomenon that the gathered people construct around themselves.
Music is nearly gone from public education. We recruit our best musicians at APU either from secluded art-intensive high schools, or from other countries that still consider a musically literate public to be a worthwhile expense. The musicians who grew up in the church come to us either as butt rock guitar strummers of the most parochial kind, or as power-pop vocalists. Some are very good, but good only in the narrowly confined musical space that is useful for corporate worship. Good at dreamy delays and 3-note gospel harmony. Good at ripping off Coldplay. Good at dropping out after the bridge to build up to the final chorus.
Can we do more? Should we do more? Should we, as the church, be elevating the musical language of our congregants? Should we be force-feeding them dissonance, poly or even a-tonality, and complex musical ideas until they know how to understand that rich language of tension and resolution? Should we give them musical meat that is not yet useful in worship, until it is? Can we move to repair some of the musical poverty caused by our federal abrogation of all non-testable educational outcomes? Can we train up young players to understand and appreciate music that is just beyond them, until it isn’t? Should we bring in talented artists capable of transforming and elevating the congregation’s perception of what music is? Can we set them loose to play things that are not trite rearrangements of popular hymn melodies?
Once we move beyond music as marketing, music as useful, music as emotional scripting, is there a role for music in the church qua music?