The problem with people talking about church music too much 3

The third complaint in Bill Blankschaen’s post is a complaint about repetition.  I have little problem with what he is trying to say here – though it is expressed in a rather confusing fashion.  After complaining about the comical and vain repetitions in some churches, he makes this odd statement:

“Yes, there’s a place for repetition in worship — if the words are really that good or pulled directly from Scripture (“Agnus Dei” by Michael W. Smith comes to mind), but even that can be overdone. Ironically, most of the same evangelical churches that practice this repetition in modern worship music would resist using more formal chants from church history designed for that very purpose. Or reciting historical creeds of the Church.”

There are several problems with this passage.  My favorite is the first part.  That first sentence makes more sense than anything, except I would say it like this, “Repetition is good…except when it’s not.”  Now that is honest and good aesthetic assessment.

The next sentence is really symptomatic of the problems I’ve been discussing.  That is,  Blankshaen makes some good and valid points, but he doesn’t really understand what he is talking about.  I’ve certainly spent some time studying chant.  In fact, we use it in our services every week.  I’ve taught some chant theory at the University.  I have no idea what “formal chants from church history designed for that very purpose [repetition]” means.  Maybe he is aware of some corner of music history that I am not, but I doubt it.  I think he is just making stuff up.  He follows that by curiously referencing the Creeds.  I find this curious because that is an element of traditional worship that is certainly not repeated ad naseum.  We say it once in the service.  No repetition until the next week.

Anyone that has ever been intimately involved in creative work knows that one of the central issues is struggling to get the perfect balance between unifying and discursive elements.   This is one of the non medium specific creative problems.  A tip too far toward unifying elements results in tedium, and a tip toward the discursive can result in incomprehensibility.  The funny thing about artists is that they are always pushing the boundaries of what we think we can handle.  Sometimes they are unsuccessful, but sometimes they surprise us.  Take the case of Gavin Bryars “Jesus blood never failed me yet’.  I am not a fan of minimalism in general.  There are exceptions, of course, and this is one.  Bryars takes a short recording of a homeless man singing (or perhaps improvising?) a simple modern hymn like tune.  In the full version, this short 30 second loop repeats about 150 times.  74’ minutes of it!  The orchestra doesn’t enter until after 3 minutes, and if you can find the 74’ version, Tom Waits starts singing along after about an hour.  Here’s one of the shorter versions.

What is surprising to me about this piece is that there is something in the very frailty and deficiency of the singing that makes it more sincere and powerful.  The quirkiness allows it to withstand more iterations than would normally be tolerable.  To be sure, I’m not convinced that this is an artwork that is motivated by the traditions of Western culture.  I am, however, convinced that this is artwork of a fairly powerful nature.  The central issue is whether or not  the musical and text structure is able to withstand multiple iterations without collapsing under the weight of its emotional fittingness. 

There is a problem in many evangelical churches where music that is not designed to support multiple iterations collapses toward tedium.  That being the case, it seems like much of this centers around personal taste and calling.  I suppose the extreme example would be Organ2/ASLSP by Cage.  In the version that is currently playing in Halberstadt, it will take around 639 years to play the piece (because presumable 640 years was just too slow!).  Funny thing is, if you conceive of something like that, one thing is for sure:  there is some crazy German somewhere that will try it. 

I suppose my conclusion is simply to stick with my original phrase.  “Repetition is good, except when it’s not.”  It’s much easier than formulating general principals around this questions.