Let me begin this post with a list of the last twelve songs I listened to (at the time of writing), somewhat randomly, and working backward:
(Sittin On) The Dock of the Bay by Sara Bareilles
Build a Levee by Natalie Merchant
29 Ways by Marc Cohn
Lake Charles by Lucinda Williams
Slow Dancing in a Burning Room by John Mayer
Slow Turning by John Hiatt
Cajun Moon by J.J. Cale
Moment of Forgiveness by Indigo Girls
Walkin’ Daddy by Greg Brown
Sundown by Gordon Lightfoot
Give Me One Reason by Eric Clapton and Tracy Chapman
Boulder to Birmingham by Emmylou Harris
Having made that point, if there was one, last night Nancy and I went to hear the NSA choir perform Mozart’s Vesperae Solennes de Confessore, which was of course glorious. It is kind of hard to fathom how all of that came out of one guy’s head.
I mention this evening before and morning after musical contrast in order to make the point that it is not really a contrast. There is no tension between these different sorts of music for different occasions, any more than there is tension between cereal for a breakfast and a steak dinner for an anniversary.
Many of our problems in working out the ramifications of a true cultural education are problems in cataloging or grouping. Because we want to choose up sides before thinking through all the issues carefully, we tend to latch on to issues that are not really issues at all. For one example of this, in his (generally good) Music & Ministry, Calvin Johansson argues against pop music on the grounds that it is “mass produced.”
But of course, virtually everything is mass produced now. The planet has billions of people on it now, and if somebody in London wants a CD of Vivaldi, then he will get one that was pressed in Los Angeles, and shipped in a crate from Baltimore. And that’s the old fashioned way of mass producing Vivaldi — it is quicker these days to just bounce it off a satellite.
Comparing Mozart to Vince Gill is like comparing your lawn mower to your dishwasher and asking which one is better. Better at what?
There should be no ordinary conflict between genres of music. There might occasionally be a conflict of opinions when it comes to an evaluation of “what kind of occasion this is,” and one of the indicators of those differing opinions was the music chosen. For example, I once had a pastor acquaintance who had done a funeral, and the music selected for it was Kenny Rogers’ “You Picked a Fine Time to Leave Me, Lucille.”
There are three basic kinds of musical condemnation that I think are appropriate. I am writing here about the music itself, not music as contaminated by the lyrics.
1. Judging a piece of music as substandard within the rules of its genre — bluegrass badly done, according to the standards of bluegrass, blues badly done, according to the standards of the blues, classical badly done, according to the standards of classical, jazz badly done, according to the standards of jazz, and so on.
2. Taking a piece of music on its face value and rejecting it, when that music declares openly its rebellion against God (e.g. John Cage’s random music, Schoenberg’s atonality, and Johnny Rotten’s entire oeuvre). I leave room here for some very limited and lawful uses for atonal music — as when you need some really creepy music in a movie, right before the axe murderer gets into the house.
3. Judging a piece of music for being wildly out of place — say, Mozart’s Requiem at a third grade birthday party, Scott Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag for the offertory, or Lipbone Redding’s Dogs of Santiago for the bridal march. But with all such negative judgments, the problem is not the music itself, but rather the placement.
Outside these basic areas, if we reject a form of music out of hand because it is not the form of music we prefer, then we are trying to kick against the variegated world that the triune God created. And if we are doing this in a spirit of musical snobbery, we are demonstrating that, however adept we are in the form we prefer, when it comes to music at large, we don’t really know what its for.