Tag: music and society

12 Things I’ve Learned from Church Music, Parts 10-12: Stick to Texts Even Though It’s All About the Music…Actually, It Isn’t

“Do you remember…?” is how the song starts. AlleeWillis was writing a song with Maurice White of Earth, Wind & Fire and thought that the nonsense phrase “Ba de ya” was Maurice’s place holder. She kept thinking they were going to change it, but they never did, so “Ba de ya, say do you remember / Ba de ya, dancing in September / Ba de ya, never was a cloudy day” stayed, and “September” became one of EWF’s biggest hits.

Songwriters can change lyrics, but composers generally don’t, unless we collaborate with a librettist or a poet on a new work. I’m guessing that, because of the two-edged sword of copyright, we mostly work with old texts by dead people. Our choice, then, is limited to what texts we decide to set.

In church music we have that choice, too, up to a point. We match, say, an anthem or hymn text to one of the many church themes, knowing that it will fit somewhere during the year. (We could use more Doubting Thomas anthems, by the way.) Even in liturgical music, there are numerous texts in a variety of traditions. But they’re written, if not in stone, at least in a tradition, so once we choose a part of the liturgy to compose music for, we have to stick to it.

10. Stick to the Text

What a good education this has been for me. The “21st night of September” follows “Do you remember” in Earth, Wind & Fire’s song only because they already had “remember,” which rhymed with “September,” and “the 21st” fit better than all the other dates of the month. (Willis said they tried them all.) The intro was already finished, and the “greatest lesson” in songwriting, she says, kicked in: “Never let the lyric get in the way of the groove.”
musical setting of Alleluia
But composing to a locked-in text upends that. Take the example I mentioned in the first essay, the Easter Alleluia. “Alleluia. Christ being raised from the dead will die no more; death has no more dominion over him. Alleluia. Jesus said, I am the way and the truth and the life. Alleluia.” Three Alleluias sandwiched around the words of Paul in Romans and the words of Jesus from the Gospel of John. Those were the words for the Fifth Sunday of Easter in the liturgy we were using. If I were to write an Alleluia verse for that Sunday, those were the only words I could use.

That’s the deal. My job, reversing the songwriter’s, is never to let the music get in the way of the text. If I don’t like the words, I can find a church whose words I do like, or I can find another line of work.

But assuming I go ahead and set it, whence the music? Well, I dig it out of the words. I don’t shoehorn them into whatever musical idea I happen to have at the moment. I don’t start with a groove, but with words, and dig, and dig, and dig some more, until I lift up the words with the music I unearth. With all that digging, I’d better enjoy it. More than that, I have to fall in love with it, just like with any text I set. I fall in love with the text, or I don’t bother setting it.

11. It’s All About the Music

Still, I’m a writer of music, and the text, in this case, is the way to get there. Words are not to be worshiped. Composers pretty much manhandle them, in fact, elongating syllables and pulling words out of their natural state. Even in a short piece like an Alleluia verse I may repeat a word or a phrase, as long as I don’t muck about too much. (The people have just stood up and are waiting for this to end so that the Gospel reading may commence.)
Score featuring musical setting of the words "truth and the life"
Music in church has been a great reminder to me, therefore, that my writing needs to be efficient and strong. It needs to get to the point, and the point had better be a good one. I’ve never liked oohs and ahs in music, and now I think I know why. They’re weak. Sometimes you want a sonic cushion, but I’d much rather get it from the text itself than from a mercenary ooh hired from outside. “Alleluia” has lots of vowels, and therefore lots of built-in cushions should I want to use them that way. Those triple leading tone D-sharps against the E fall on the word “truth,” as ooh a moment as you could have.

Once I see the text this way, as a carrier of musical information, I can get beyond the words and to the music itself. There are a myriad of ways texts suggests this, of course, with rhythm and accent and consonants and so on. All of these factors change, depending on my reading, and so a vast musical landscape opens up as I fall deeper and deeper in love with the text. I move things about, finding even deeper meanings as I move through the text and discover that I am no longer reading but composing.

12. It’s Not About the Music

And composing is what it’s all about, right? Ooh, no, actually. Church music is about church. I have to get on with it, I have to hit my marks, and then move on—like an actor, and it’s much like theater in that sense. Things more important than music are going on. They didn’t invent church to provide me with composing opportunities.

So what about composers who have nothing to do with church? What about me, when I’m not writing for church?
Well, just as they didn’t invent church for composing, neither did they invent choirs or organs or string quartets or orchestras for composing. But without composing, we say, there’d be no music and no orchestras. Of course, but people don’t get together and play—and people don’t get together and listen to other people play—because they love composing. They love something else, something inside, around, below, and above themselves. They love…that’s it; they want to love. Even if they don’t know it, they want to love.

Composing has to serve that. We have to serve the words and what they want to say. We have to serve the notes and where they want to lead. We have to serve the performers, how they play and sing and how they ought to play and sing and how they want to play and sing. They want desperately to sing to each other and to the listeners. We serve listeners, performers, words, notes…everywhere we turn, there are double basses and parallel fifths and altos and more, to love and to serve.

Listen to a cello and an oboe as they serve each other, as they match a quintuplet in a duet, as they listen, lead, and follow at the same time. They cannot do that without love. The listeners in pews or concert halls lift their faces to the music; their minds race ahead and follow behind at the same time. A leading tone desperately wants to resolve up—but, maybe, not this time; maybe this time there’s a deeper resolve.

All these we think of as musical choices, but ultimately they are not. They are choices to serve, choices to love. I keep having to remind myself of this. For me, in these twelve lessons and in many more things I’ve tried to learn about composing, I’ve learned them most neatly in church music. When it’s late and when I’m tired and when for hours I’ve been composing, I have to remember that it’s not about composing. I have to ask myself, Do you love? Do you serve? Do you remember?

The Odyssey of 2001

The horrific events of September 11 are what most people are likely to remember from 2001, but many other things happened during those twelve months that irrevocably changed the world as well. In November of that year, the People’s Republic of China was finally admitted into the World Trade Organization. In April, the former and last president of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, Slobodan Milosevic, finally surrendered to Serbian police and was transferred to the Hague to be tried for war crimes—which, perhaps more than any other single event in the 20-year war that led to the dissolution of Yugoslavia, symbolized one of the most significant geopolitical shifts in Europe since the end of World War Two. (It is only trumped by the dissolution of the Soviet Union.) And in February, the Taliban began destroying the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan—at the time a marginalized event which, with hindsight, was perhaps the clearest sign that extremism had reached a new level that was a danger to the whole world. Also in April of that year, the Netherlands became the first country where same-sex couples could legally marry (although two same-sex marriages performed in Ontario in January of that year, which were initially denied registration, were subsequently upheld in a June 2003 court challenge). Plus Wikipedia went online, Microsoft launched Windows XP (less than two weeks later the US Justice Department abandoned their attempt to break up Microsoft), and Apple introduced the iPod.

Amanda MacBlane

Wherever we went in 2001, Amanda MacBlane was always behind the camera.

Looking back at that cataclysmic year for its musical significance, admittedly, seems somewhat trivial, and contemplating where NewMusicBox fit in to that musical significance runs the risk of navel gazing.  But all I can say to that is music is ultimately what kept us going when the events of 9/11 unfolded in New York City. Something didn’t seem right before I headed out to the office that morning.  The radio I had on at home to check the weather suddenly went dead. As I walked toward the office, throngs of people were walking up 6th Avenue and I saw a huge fire at the World Trade Center which was clearly in view—it was a cloudless day. When I got online, I checked news and heard reports of a plane crashing into WTC. It was awful, but I continued working on something NewMusicBox-related. We were, as always, on deadline.  But then the second plane hit. We were offline. Molly Sheridan and our then-production coordinator Amanda MacBlane arrived at the office, and we tried to tune into whatever radio station had news. Then a strange silence descended on the city that was supposed to never sleep. At the time I lived four blocks away from the office, so I went home and took anyone at work with me who was afraid to go anywhere else.  Other people in our office braved walking home, venturing across bridges to outer boroughs in order to do so. The subways system had been shut down at that point. Soon all entrances in and out of New York City would be closed off as well.  There was so much to do, yet there was nothing to do. The following day is one of the strangest I have ever lived through. No one I knew went to work.  Weather-wise it was another lovely day. I remember walking through Riverside Park and seeing tons of people walking about like it was a summer weekend. But it wasn’t. The energy was tense. It was surreal. The next day we all went back to work and tried to think past it. As soon as we were able to get back online, we published a special September 11 edition of NewMusicBox which included first-hand accounts from people in our community who were based near Ground Zero like Stephen Vitiello, who had been a composer-in-residence at the World Trade Center, and La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela.
NewMusicBox @ 15 logo
And the new music community responded to these horrific events by doing what it does best, it went on creating and performing new music. A ton of new repertoire now exists that was created as a direct artistic response to this tragedy. One of those works, John Adams’s On the Transmigration of Souls, which received its world premiere by the New York Philharmonic on the one-year anniversary of that fateful day, went on to win the next Pulitzer Prize for Music (the first work by a composer who had composed minimalist music ever to do so).
But I also have some unconditionally positive memories from that year, like the first Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute (which hopefully will come back now that the strike is finally over, but who knows) and Pierre Jalbert becoming the first American composer to win the Masterprize competition. (Remember Masterprize?) I still tell people about my chat with the youngest composer ever to get the full interview treatment on NewMusicBox as well as the day I tried to explain hip-hop to Milton Babbitt. In what hindsight reveals to be a harbinger of things to come, I also remember when the first big name composer put all his scores online for free. And then there was the just plain weird stuff like the Tristan Foison plagiarism scandal which some folks were still thinking about a year later.

Molly Sheridan

One of the rare photos of Molly Sheridan (photo by Richard Kessler).

But I have an additional very positive NewMusicBox reminiscence from 2001 that for me at least trumps all of the more unpleasant memories.  I remember reading a fabulous article in Symphony Magazine that was about taking three indie-rockers to attend concerts by a symphony orchestra and describing what their reactions were. The article persuasively argued that, though it was quite a culture clash, it should not have been and that the orchestra needs to find a way to reach and serve this community. It struck a chord, so I sought out the author of the article—Molly Sheridan (then a member of the staff at Symphony)—and had lunch with her. That was on May 23, 2001. Slightly over a week later, on Friday June 1, I asked her to join me on the editorial team of NewMusicBox. She wanted the weekend to think about it, but instead I asked her to accompany me to an all-American new music concert that members of the St. Luke’s Chamber Orchestra were giving the following day. It was part of St. Luke’s “Second Helpings” series at the DIA Arts Center; this program featured music by Elizabeth Brown, Mario Davidovsky, Julia Wolfe, and Tan Dun—quite a mix. It was a fabulous concert. I remember introducing her to all the composers at the reception afterwards.  How could she say no to this gig?  She didn’t, and now 13 years have gone by. Yeah, she went off to Nepal at some point (that’s a story for another time), but she came back and is still with us. It’s been an extraordinary odyssey.

“Music can do things words can never do,” remarked Leon Botstein in the days following September 11, 2001. Few reading these pages would disagree with that statement, and yet we continue to read and write about our music, our careers, and the challenges we face. Perhaps it is precisely these challenges, both internal and external, that intensify our need to keep the conversation on NewMusicBox alive.

During our 15th anniversary celebration, join the more than 120 individuals who, this past year, have already donated or pledged their support to keeping our community strong.

Winners and Losers

“Regardless of the hand-wringing about dying audiences, we still live in a country where more people go to the symphony than to professional sporting events. In 2009, according to AFTA’s National Arts Index, more than 25 million attended symphony orchestra concerts in the top 81 metro areas of the U.S. The NFL has 17 million in attendance.”
—Rachel Ciprotti, June 28, 2013 comment posted in response to Jesse Rosen’s article, “Provocative Choices for Orchestras”, Huffington Post, June 27, 2013

“Police say enraged spectators invaded a football field, stoned the referee to death and quartered his body after he stabbed a player to death.”
—Associated Press news wire “Brazilian fans kill, behead referee who killed player”,
as published in Sports Illustrated, July 6, 2013


Like many cities in the United States, St. Louis has a sports stadium smack in the middle of downtown. Visitors to Busch Stadium, home to the St. Louis Cardinals, are greeted with sculptures of the team in action.

I have never followed sports in my life, except for one year when I attempted to completely immerse myself in baseball in order to compose what I hoped would be appropriate wedding music for friends who were huge fans of the game. However, I’ve often thought about the parallels between music and sports—for starters, both realms use the verb “play.” Perhaps more importantly, both are frequently group activities in which people come together to realize a shared goal, and both activities create a sense of community for their audiences. Most major American cities boast having both professional sports teams and an orchestra, and the venues in which those activities occur (the playing of music in a concert hall and the playing of games in a stadium) are often iconic sites that define those places.

Yet this is where the parallels end. The ways in which music and sports differ from one another is perhaps more telling, both about these two activities and about who we are as a society. Team sports are ultimately about one group against another group—in order for one group to win, the other must lose. It’s a perfect behavioral metaphor for a society that values rivalry, competition, and warfare. And sometimes fandom degenerates into the same brutality as armed conflict, as in the tragic aftermath of the soccer game in Brazil this past weekend. I could never imagine a similar episode occurring at a symphony orchestra performance or a rock concert.

Admittedly, rivalries in music exist, especially thanks to the music world’s over-reliance on competitions to determine who is “the best,” as if there could be such a thing as “best” in a subjective art form. And television shows like American Idol have gone a long way toward shaping our popular music culture directly in the image of sports culture. But once a group comes together to actually make music, everyone wins. At the end of the performance, everyone who participated is entitled to receive applause. People coming together and the result being that everyone is a winner seems to be a much better behavioral metaphor for a democratic society that values the input of all of its citizens. Yet it is almost impossible to spend a day anywhere in our society and completely avoid coming into contact with sports (a newspaper headline, a game in progress on a TV screen in a public place). Phys-Ed is a daily requirement in most schools; music in schools is a luxury in the places where it is still taught. While music is arguably everywhere, it is rarely foregrounded; in fact, how music is presented tends to just re-enforce the notion that the performance of music and attentive listening is a specialist’s pursuit. Imagine if news about music was as prominent on television or in newspapers as sports currently is. Imagine if municipalities offered as many tax breaks to people building concert halls as they do to people building stadiums.

At the onset of this essay, I quoted a comment that Rachel Ciprotti made in response to an essay in The Huffington Post by Jesse Rosen, president and CEO of the League of American Orchestras. (In that essay, Rosen gives an excellent account of the keynote address from the most recent League conference in St. Louis, a talk by Center for the Future of Museums Director Elizabeth Merritt, which I also described in part on these pages two weeks ago.) Ciprotti’s citation of a claim that more Americans attend orchestra concerts than football games is startling and has huge implications. I wonder how the numbers would match up if we compared attendance at all types of musical performances to attendance at all types of sporting events. I would argue that music would win by an even wider margin than the 25 million symphony attendees vs. 17 million NFL attendees she cites.
A naysayer might question Ciprotti’s data saying that more people by a long shot watch football on television than listen to orchestras, whether live, on radio, or on television. To which I’d say the options for experiencing music in a meaningful way on television are marginal. Every now and then you can catch something on public television but almost never on any of the major networks, which are the de-facto go-to channels for most television viewers. Those same major networks are in a constant state of competition with one another to air sporting events. That naysayer might also say that the media is only reflecting what the public wants. To which I would say that in order for the public to want something they need to know that it is there and it needs to be there in a consistent and easily accessible way.

At the League conference in St. Louis, I learned that there’s a video projected in regular rotation at Busch Stadium (home of the St. Louis Cardinals) of David Robertson and the St. Louis Symphony performing an orchestral arrangement of “Meet Me in St. Louis.” (All of the musicians, Robertson included, are wearing Cardinals uniforms.) So one could argue that even people attending a baseball game are listening to an orchestra performance. And I haven’t even addressed half-time shows here. Apparently some attendees are as interested in the invited musical acts as they are in the actual game being played on the field. But these curiosities aside, if more people are actually paying to attend concerts than games, hasn’t the public already made a decision about what it wants that the media is simply refusing to pay attention to?