Monday, August 3, 2009

The Instruments of Worship

The purpose of this blog is to explore the complimentary relationship between the Christian religion and human flourishing, to show that this world makes greater sense in light of heaven, and vice versa. I spend a lot of time trying to establish a realist politics and economics in order to show that social flourishing, one of the highest forms of human life, is rooted in an objective creation. But this isn't meant to be an exclusively political blog. The life of the citizen, political life, social life, human life, is not just politics and economics.

So today, a bit about church music.

The opening question is this: are some musical instruments more appropriate to worship than others? The Church -- especially in Vatican II's decree on liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium -- while making undefined allowance for other forms of music, says that the organ and Gregorian chant have "pride of place" in Catholic worship. Why? What is so special about the organ?

Years ago, I came across an interesting clue flipping through a book of old Church pronouncements. Sometime in the early middle ages (I don't remember when) it was decreed that rhythmic music is inappropriate to worship. I think the reasoning had to do with texts. Chant -- that is, non-rhythmic music -- takes a pre-established text and adds music. But rhythmic music has to fit the text to the rhythm, as every would-be poet has discovered.

Take an example, from my background in the Catholic charismatic renewal. I should point out, in the course of this argument, that I first discovered Catholic doctrine and real worship in the context of "praise-and-worship" speaking-in-tongues guitar music. There are good solid Catholics on the side I'm arguing against.

The community I was a part of was atypical among guitar-music communities because they really used solid texts, mostly Scriptural, focused on God, not on the singer. We sang a setting of the Te Deum, for example. When my wife, whose sensibilities are far more traditional, first encounterd this community, in the context of a wedding Mass, she was amazed at how well liturgical guitar music could be done.

Romans 12
But take this example. One song we sang quoted the latter chapters of Romans at length, and mostly pretty literally. One line quoted this verse of Scripture (in the NAB translation):

Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.

Except in the song it said

Do not allow your minds to be conformed to this age, but let your hearts be ruled by his Spirit.

The difference, I'm afraid, is not insignificant. The "mind" has been moved. In Paul's text, "conformity to the age" is a problem that afflicts the whole of our "selves" (in the Greek, it's the verb suschematizesthe, a passive verb -- "yourselves" -- saying, let not your "schema," your shape, go "with," or be like, this age). We are rescued from this problem by the "transformation of our minds" (here, it's metamorphousthe, an interesting switch from "schema" to "morphe": both words about shape, though I think morphe is a more radical sort of "form"). Our minds should be transformed "that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect."

But in the song, the problem of conformity seems specifically limited to the "mind," while liberation has nothing to do with the mind; indeed, rather than learning to discern what is good, we are just to be ruled by the Spirit. I have nothing against being ruled by the Spirit(!), but this is not the Biblical text. And if you only knew the song, you'd be inclined to think that the real opposition is mind (bad) vs. a more "spiritual" way of life that gets our mind out of the way -- there's no more "discernment" in the song. That, in fact, is directly contrary to the Biblical text.

Now, it could be that the author of the song was directly trying to contradict the Bible. But honestly, the song tries to quote the Bible. The problem is that the rhythm of the song demands a change in the text. The "selves" vs. "minds" thing could have fit the rhythm, but "let your minds be ruled by the Spirit" fits the song, whereas "transform yourselves by the renewal of your mind" just doesn't. And honestly, once you get to a blunt statement of the Spirit "ruling," renewal of the mind so that you can discern what is good seems sort of irrelevant. Who needs minds and discernment when you are "ruled"?

I hope I'm not being too convoluted if I say that the way this text gets transformed is actually a pretty neat summary of the problem of rhythmic music. Christianity is a textual religion. We are transformed -- ruled by the Spirit! -- precisely through the words of the sacred text, which renew our mind. The problem of rhythmic music is that we "conform" to a beat that, if not necessarily wicked in itself, is simply not the beat of Scripture. Our minds cannot be transformed (and ruled!) by the Scripture if we demand that everything conform to the beat.

That, I think, is why the Church at one time banned rhythmic music in the liturgy. Whether or not rhythm is inherently bad, the liturgy is meant to be about Biblical texts. To be a Christian is to refuse to change the text to match the beat.

Ratzinger's Take
In A New Song for the Lord, I think, Josef Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) gives another take, more general, on the same idea. He says that worship, and indeed all of human fulfillment, has to do with moving upward, into the realm of intelligibility. The difference between "good" and "bad" music is precisely whether it brings the mind down into the realm of the emotions or whether it elevates the emotions into the realm of the mind.

Music, by its nature, is emotional. But -- to make a strong assertion -- I think the music of Bach especially, and most classical music, brings one into a contemplation of form. The brilliant thing about good classical music is that there is an overarching form, a global vision in which each part plays a role. You can't listen to a snippet of Beethoven's Seventh, or Ninth, and really understand what it's about. The Ninth is a great example: the famous chorus at the end requires an entire symphony to ascend to its climax. Beethoven's greatest hits is, frankly, not: it's no longer Beethoven's vision. Contemplation of the form descends into a catchy melody.

Of course every rock music song also has a form. The lyrics, the repetitions, the hooks are usually part of some bigger picture, so that Sting sings "don't stand, don't stand so, don't stand so close to me" as part of a longer song. But let's be honest: it isn't rocket science. Churning out a "good" song just doesn't take the kind of concentration, meditation, and care that a great symphony requires, nor does listening to it. You listen to the Police because it's easy and fun. You listen to Bach because it isn't. You listen to rock music because you like the way it makes you feel. You listen to Beethoven, if you ever learn to listen to him, because it raises your feelings into the realm of your mind.

This puts an important new spin, of course, on the old argument that jazz, or even heavy metal, or whatever, is great music because it takes a lot of work. I don't doubt that some of these musicians have worked very hard to learn their skills. But I do doubt that the end result is intellectual the way that great classical music is. In the end, the primary draw of heavy metal is not the contemplative exaltation it creates but, I think, the opposite. Jazz? I don't know, but I think it's closer to drawing you into the rhythm than to drawing your emotions up into your mind. To the extent that's true, all the work that goes into it is just a further degradation of the mind.

As a classically trained pianist, I was surprised years ago to learn that the piano is classified as a "percussive" instrument. Drums -- percussion -- demand a lot of skill and can be fascinating, but they are not harmonic. The piano, on the other hand, is the most harmonic single instrument of all. You can play up to 88 notes, in any combination, limited only by the number of fingers you're using (and it's not uncommon to play two notes simultaneously with the thumb). Piano can be a great classical instrument, I think, precisely because of this harmonic complexity.

Nonetheless, the piano is played by hitting keys that cause hammers to hit strings. It is therefore percussion -- a fact especially notable when the piano is used as an accompanying instrument. In order to make noise, the piano has to keep pounding away: it is inherently rhythmic.

I discovered just how significant this is singing hymns accompanied by an especially good organist at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, in Washington. Where the piano beats, the organ sings. Even though most modern hymnody is metrical and rhythmic, a fine organist is able to phrase the hymns the way the human voice does. The piano makes you keep moving. The organ helps you sing. The organ is capable even of arhythmic chant. I think this is fundamentally the reason the Church gives the organ "pride of place." And it is the reason churches with piano accompanists seem necessarily to end up doing bad church music: it becomes a matter of rhythm, of the music dominating the text and the musicians dominating the singers, instead of vice versa. Much as I love the piano, it is not a hymn instrument.

All the more the guitar. Now, I have experienced the guitar being used like a psaltery -- one of the most ancient and exalted instruments of worship. But in this use, the guitar strums a few chords in order to accompany chant. The rhythmic strumming that defines guitar music as we know it is eliminated. (And of course there is no tradition of rhythmic music for the psaltery.) Again, the question is what direction the music leads. Does the text disappear into the rhythm, the singer into the music, or vice versa?

It is no coincidence that where rhythmic instruments are used for worship, the texts tend -- though not always -- not only to depart from Scripture and tradition, but to depart from thoughtfulness and a focus on God, and to descend into a focus on ourselves. Contemplation is about seeing the other; emotion for its own sake is about me me me. There's not a lot of room for uncomfortable things, not a lot of interest in seeing the face of God.

Music engages the emotions. An ancient proverb (wrongly, I think, attributed to St. Augustine) says "he who sings, prays twice," probably because the body and the emotions are brought up into the mind's worship. But it ain't necessarily so. When music is drawn into prayer, we pray twice. When prayer is drowned by music, we pray not at all.

Precisely because it engages us, music drills a text into us. Many of us still have to sing the ABCs to remember the order of the alphabet, or the Salve Regina to remember that great (arhythmic) Marian hymn. In such contexts, the music supports the text. But what text? If the text is theologically sloppy, or misquotes the Scripture, we remember the misquotation better than the Scripture.

Music can exalt, but it can also depress. Here too there is an objective order, to be learned and discerned, and only through this discernment can we be freed from this age's demands of conformity.