Thursday, April 06, 2006

Music is not neutral......

Thanks to Dan at Necessary Roughness for his comment about Mendelssohn's Elijah! I have never sung the entire Oratorio, so when I listen to the recording, I usually pay the most attention to the pieces that I've sung. Upon his recommendation, I've spent some time with the "rest" of it, and I echo his love of the "Blessed are they that fear the Lord".

I sang parts of the Elijah my freshman year in college (bonus points to any of my friends who know what my first major was that year...) but I sang the Angel Trio "Lift Thine Eyes" my senior year in high school. My best friends Ellen & Julie & I sang it for the Solo & Ensemble contest. The funny thing was that no matter what we tried, we could not end in the same key we started in! We always went sharp - which drove our teacher batty - she knew the answer to going flat, but we never did that. She had us start in a higher key, a lower key, stand in a different order, stand in opposite corners of the room, stand in a tight circle...didn't make a difference. And we always were in tune with each other...just half a step to a whole step sharp. Finally she started shifting which part we sang. By time we went to contest, we could each sing (by memory) any of the three parts standing in any place we wanted. Good thing they didn't deduct too many points for being sharp!!

Spending the last few days revelling in the glory of Mendelssohn brought to mind a conversation that I recently had with one of my friends. Her kindergardener came home from his public school with a flyer for a concert at the school. He was all excited about the concert and wanted to take his money to buy a CD when they went. She told him that they would wait and see what mommy and daddy thought after the concert. When they got to the concert, it was put on by an organization that uses a hip-hop sound with postitive messages for kids.

She said that she was upset first of all by the sheer high volume of the music - she wants her kids to learn to NOT listen at such high volume. And how did this organization get access to the school kids? And when would they be promoting a classical concert with such fervor?

I said that I thought an even bigger problem was that the kids are learning to like this style of music, using positive words. In a few years when they take their allowance down to the music store and buy more music that they like the sound of, they certainly won't be getting such positive messages.

But the thing that I wish I had said is that it's time for those of us who love good music to stop apologising for it. Learning and loving good music is not snobbery. Just as good music does not exsist only in the "classical" world - there is much good music crafted in various genres. And it's not like it's the only thing we listen to! Come on, I've already admitted to being hooked on "When Crabs Walk Sideways." Variety is the spice and all that.

However, while music may be a matter of taste and culture on some levels, that does not mean that any music can carry any message. It is not "neutral." And it is precisely BECAUSE music contains cultural messages you can't just put the words that you want to communicate to just any style of music. No matter what words you put with hip-hop, the overriding cultural mores will not go away. Just as Mendelsshon's "Lift Thine Eyes" could never carry the lyrics to any of your basic hip-hop songs. The artistry and mastery of music occurs when the music and text are crafted together.

It's a lesson that I think the whole "contemporary worship" movement has finally learned. At least I haven't heard the Divine Service Liturgy sung to the tune of "This Land is Your Land" for at least 30 years. At least they are making up new music instead of trying to use existing melodies. But now we have secular self-esteem taught to the sounds of hip-hop. It just never ends....


YarnThrower said...

Awesome post! You write with such clarity. Now, I am wondering, what was your first major during your freshman year? (For that matter, and I really SHOULD know this, where did you go for your freshman year?)

Well, back to getting the house cleaned up, though I'm pretty tired of it, so I might go to sleep and then get up early to clean toilets. I don't recall ever doing that before. It would be an Easter to remember. I'll make up for it by going to church twice (really, once with the boys, and once without).

Designated Knitter said...

Hey yarnthrower, during my freshman year at IPFW, I was a music therapy major with a vocal concentration and a piano secondary.

No, I don't really play the piano, but I have had years of lessons!

I do miss singing tho...