On this Easter Monday, when I had planned to be at rehearsal with the Georgetown Choral Society, I find myself instead at home in a freak April snowfall that has cowed us into cancelling. Because our restart in these ongoing latter (we hope) COVID days was only in mid-March, we have elected not to present a performance this spring, planning instead to turn our attention to future seasons. We hope these seasons will run differently for us than the three pandemic seasons: 2019-20’s abandoned season, 2020-21’s all-online season (our 50th anniversary), or 2021-22’s interrupted, restarted and now strangely ebbing season, melting away around us as soon tonight’s unexpected snow must also inevitably do.
Choral scene watchers like myself occasionally notice particular works taking on unexpected resonance and popularity… and in the COVID-defiant 2021-2022 season that work has been, in southern Ontario, Johannes Brahms’ Ein Deutsches Requiem, op.45, with recent past performances by the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, Grand Philharmonic Choir (Kitchener) and Orpheus Choir of Toronto, and upcoming by the Ottawa Choral Society and Ottawa Classic Choir. I may well have missed performances here in Ontario, and we would quickly find others, especially beyond our province.
The Requiem Mass or ‘Mass for the Dead’, of which by one estimate some 2000 settings of all shapes, sixes, texts, languages and musical styles exist, is directed at a very particular cohort of humanity: those victim to, bereft by, or otherwise affected by the inevitability – and yet endlessly powerful and disruptive matter – of death. Based initially on the Roman Catholic tradition of celebrating Holy Communion to mark the death of individuals or groups, and most often still using traditional liturgical texts, one might assume them to be inherently Catholic, or at least inherently Christian.
One would in our time, however, be incorrect in that assumption, and a ground-breaking major choral setting of the late 1860s – the German Requiem of Johannes Brahms, is responsible. Brahms’ use of biblical texts makes it a sacred work, but not a liturgical (it was written for the concert hall, not a church service). ‘German’ in the title refers solely to the language of the text – Brahms told Carl Martin Reinthaler, director of music at the Bremen Cathedral at the time of the work’s premiere, that he would have gladly called the work “Ein menschliches Requiem” (A human Requiem). Brahms himself seemed to have little interest in or time for religion – yet, perhaps uncoincidentally, in 1865, the year of the death of his mother, he set out to create this monumental work – his largest in any form. Assembling the scriptural texts himself from the German Luther Bible, he flouted controversy and criticism by forgoing both the Latin language and all explicit references to Christian doctrine (that is, the salvation of souls in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ).
The resulting song of comfort, of sympathy for those who mourn and who struggle to hope amid despair, indeed, of triumph over the tyranny of death – broke the mold – and set the stage. In the decades that have followed Ein Deutsches Requiem‘s eventual rise to popularity despite the Church’s resistance, Requiems have continued to change, often still rooted in traditional liturgical texts, but gradually coming to reach much farther across the genre universe, freely to incorporate sacred and secular poetic texts, and nearly always to reside not within the rites of the Church, but in the secular choral/concert culture where it feeds a fundamentally spiritually-inclined public. Why does Ein Deutsches Requiem seem to be resonating with choirs, their Boards and Directors this season? It might surely be the millions lost (some of them choir members, supporters, concert-goers and their loved ones) to the virus and its variants, an army that knows no nationality, religion or ideology in its brutality and plunder of human life.
But I think there is something more. Many choirs, including the Georgetown Choral Society, have made conspicuous achievements during the COVID-19 pandemic, navigating obstacles, tackling new skills and technologies, recruiting new members who could be promised no rehearsals or performances beyond those that could be contrived on computer screens – even creating great, unusual works of beauty in the virtual and in-person performances they carried off against impressive odds.
Notwithstanding outstanding achievements, recovery for many of our choirs from the ravages of COVID-19 will take years: but we can be proud of our resilience and persistence. If any of us sings a proverbial Requiem for our departed choral seasons, for the members and supporters and general strength we have lost, let it be a Hopeful Requiem, and let us above all look to a blessed future, full once again of singing.
When Caesar Augustus (‘Caesar the Great’) reigned over the first Roman Empire a remarkable story – some have called it the greatest ever told – was begun with the birth of a boy in Bethlehem, the City of David, who would save his people from sin and found, and head for all time, a worldwide church.
Centuries later, in 1822, a Belgian boy was born and named for the great Roman Emperor – and he would become an important voice in the music of that church. In addition to becoming titular organist at Paris’ beautiful Basilique St Sulpice, César-Auguste Franck became professor of composition at the Paris Conservatoire. Indeed, little of Franck’s beautiful organ music is explicitly sacred: but in this Holy Week dedicated to the culmination of Jesus’ ministry I have chosen and free-associated several works with His story.
To be clear, there is no indication whatever that Franck made associations like mine between his abstract compositions and this (or for that matter, any other) story – he might very well have thought, as did many in the 19th century, the very notion to be complete rubbish! But I defend my use of this great man’s great music uniquely to illuminate a tale we know well – perhaps too well – suggesting like every year that, perhaps, we hear it again. Join me now in following the young rabbi from Nazareth on his journey from Bethlehem to Golgotha.
Advent – Noël suite (extraits de l’Organiste)
Music’s compelling power and persistence enters into our heads and hearts at the slightest invitation, and it comes to describe moments and movements of seismic importance and power. That Christmas carols as disparate as Silent Night, Hark the Herald Angels Sing and ‘Twas in the Moon of Wintertime can propose such different affects and aspects of the same story speaks not just to music’s power, but perhaps still more to our own hunger for meaning, for connection – for belonging. The celebration of Jesus’ birth is synonymous with the melodies we sing in its honour… but as you just heard in my first group of Franck’s works, the noël melodies as familiar to the French as the carols I named above are to us seem strange – unknown. Perhaps if, as I assure you, they tell the same story to the French people as our Christmas carols do to we English, you might be able to open yourself to Franck’s organ music doing the same?
I would like to take us first outside of Bethlehem, to a familiar setting. The urban lens that has made the “pastorale” a fixture of Western classical music is often overlooked, but it deserves mentioning here – particularly because of Franck’s take on the idea. If we recall the ‘Pastoral Symphony,’ or ‘Pifa’ in Handel’s Messiah; Bach’s well-loved Pastorale BWV 590 for organ, even Haydn’s picturesque depiction of grazing animals in The Creation, we are reliably given elegant triple-metre, barely jig-like pieces to evoke shepherds cavorting at their rural business. These graceful musical depictions of ‘country life’ probably bore little resemblance to the music, instruments, dances and other aspects of whatever was customary to actual shepherds-in-the-fields.
In Pastorale, op. 19, César Franck gives us an even more idealised glimpse of things pastoral – he does score a reedy “shepherd’s pipe”- like stop, but uses more academic, dotted rhythms instead of the traditional triplets – perhaps following the more ultra-genteel concept of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. Nor can he resist giving us a vigorous middle section that seems far more at home in the recital hall than on the slopes amid grass and manure. Notice, too, that the work’s ABA form gives us a basic presentation, and following an interposed diversion, another take on the same music… perhaps in this we can imagine the angels giving praise and worship in the skies, and later, the shepherds doing likewise at the manger, the middle section being their hasty trip to find the babe they were told would be there.
Christmas – Pastorale, op.19
In regarding French organ music in Franck’s day we often miss the detail that an enormous amount of the repertoire of the great composers was written either explicitly for, or to be also playable, on the harmonium. The harmonium or reed organ is most familiar in the English-speaking world in the form of the pump organ once popular in homes, small churches and chapels. Unlike these smaller cousins, French harmonia often had multiple manuals, pedals, and even sometimes enclosed divisions that allowed a form of crescendo/decrescendo. They had the characteristic reedy sound you might know from more familiar pump organs here – but they were considered an entirely respectable and viable classical instrument – and one I will try here to emulate today on this very different instrument.
At birth, my wife of 23 years was given the name Marcia – she pronounces it identically to the Italian term Franck in his Quasi marcia, op.22, like other composers, used to evoke a musical March – not “Mar-CI-a” or “MAR-shaw” as many assume. Seeing Marcia’s name in the title of a piece certainly caught my attention, and not just because her name, coming from the Latin, means ‘dedicated to Mars (the God of War)’ – I will not comment further!
The thing that struck me was the dual meaning within this name… one of the synoptic gospel writers was named Mark, and in Hebrew, his name generally means ‘polite.’ How interesting that in the Latin form coming from the Roman occupiers of Israel… where names like Markus, Marshall, – and yes, Marcia – associate the name with the God of War.
I know this of the entry of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem thronged by his ranks of supporters: despite the raucous crowd He came willingly, (perhaps politely?) to die; he was heralded with shouts from his legions of Hosannas to a King thought from Messianic prophecy to conquer and overthrow the Roman occupiers – yet, as the days unfolded he would save his people not through power of might, but through submission and service.
March into the Holy City – Quasi marcia, op.22
Franck’s most famous work is without a doubt a sacred song he wrote as part of his Mass op.12, to the penultimate stanza of the hymn “Sacris solemniis” written by St Thomas Aquinas for the Feast of Corpus Christi. Franck scored the hymn Panis angelicus originally for tenor voice with harp, cello, double bass and organ accompaniment. The organ arrangement I’ll play today by Pierre Gouin of course gives the vocal part to the organ, but it also respects the familiar canonic scoring of the repeat with cello (a low voice), entrusting it, in the tenor range, to the pedals.
Last Supper – Panis angelicus op.12, arr. Pierre Gouin
After they had sung a hymn Jesus and the disciples went to a garden called Gethsemane. In Jesus’ lifetime, only twice do the gospel writers ascribe to Jesus specific words he spoke, in prayer, to his Father in heaven. Though Jesus prayed to his Father throughout his life, we are only made privy through the Bible to two instances… the first, being in that garden, “Father, if it be your will, let this cup pass from me.”
To reflect the horrifying story of Jesus’ Passion I chose Franck’s beautiful Prélude, Fugue et Variation, op.12. During its haunting opening melody I think of Jesus’ desperate – yet resigned – plea to be spared the suffering he knew would come. The Fugue, with its short, ominous introduction, to me represents the inevitable march of events comprising his betrayal, arrest, trial and crucifixion. Then, as we hear the return, almost dreamlike, of the opening melody with a more elaborate accompaniment, the only other scriptural instance of Jesus addressing his Father, as he hung broken on the cross, “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” and “Into Thy hands I commend my spirit.”
The Story of the Passion Prélude, fugue et variation, op.18
Today’s program began with a short collection of the songs Franck and his countrymen used to remember and celebrate Jesus’ birth. It ends with one of the set of three usually considered to by Franck’s greatest organ works, the three Chorales – which, perhaps in respect for their posthumous publication, have never been given an opus number. These large-scale works have in common an epic, fantastical structure, rich ultra-romantic chromatic harmony… and an original hymn-like tune, the presence of which gives them the name ‘Chorale.’ These simple melodies are presented at the works’ outset, and reprised at their end, offset by free improvisatory and stunningly beautiful melodic passages designed to show off the rich colouristic possibilities of the King of Instruments. They seem like stories unto themselves, each identified by a hymn – but one that is never sung. ‘Les Trois Chorales‘ were first published in 1892, two years after the death of their author, César Auguste Franck.
The story of salvation is not only what has been called the “greatest story ever told.” Like in Franck’s idea of a hymn never sung, it is a story that is never over – it continues, these two millennia later, in churches like this one, in hearts like ours, and even in a world such as this, still filled with the beauty, the wonder, the evil and suffering – and we pray, the redemption it exists to tell to all time.
Today I have proposed that music never associated with this story can nonetheless help us to tell, and receive it. I do not ask for you to agree with my associations or pretense in making them – but together, let us look to the reborn world promised in Jesus Christ, in which (as Jesus put it entering Jerusalem) even the stones, and the creations of God and man (including music), cry out.
When Caesar Augustus (‘Caesar the Great’) reigned over the first Roman Empire a remarkable story – some have called it the greatest ever told – was begun with the birth of a boy in the City of David, who would save his people from sin and head a worldwide church.
Centuries later, in 1822, a Belgian boy was born and named for the great Emperor – and he was destined to become one of the most defining voices in the music of that church. In addition to becoming titular organist at Paris’ beautiful Basilique St Sulpice César-Auguste Franck became professor of composition at the Paris Conservatoire, a position that likely limited his own compositional output.
Almost none of Franck’s organ music is explicitly sacred: but in this Holy Week dedicated to the culmination of Jesus’ ministry I have chosen and free-associated several works with the story of Jesus’ life and ministry. To be clear there is no indication whatever that Franck made associations like mine between his abstract compositions and this or any other story – he might very well have thought the notion to be complete rubbish.
But I defend my use of this great man’s great music to uniquely illuminate a tale we know – perhaps too well. Join me in following the young rabbi from Nazareth on his journey to Golgotha.
Advent Noël suite (extrait de l’Organiste)
Christmas Pastorale, op.19
March into the Holy City Quasi marcia
Last Supper Panis angelicus, op.12
The Story of the Passion Prélude, fugue et variation, op.18
Unlike for many, two years spent largely at home failed to furnish me with much time to write blog entries or publish podcasts – but times, they are a changing. Though restrictions have eased in many places cases are multiplying, and COVID-19 is not by any means securely endemic much of anywhere – and it is a significant worry in such relative (and very different) strongholds as China and the UK. But the time has come for me to resume posting for Ideas About Music.
This early April 2022 my musical work has mostly resumed – indeed, term is nearly finished at the U of T Faculty of Music; we are a mere two weeks out from Easter at Rosedale Presbyterian Church (for which we have just finally welcomed the full choir to resume rehearsing), and I have been invited to give three Holy Week performances at St Thomas’s Anglican Church (Baroque Music by Candlelight), All Saints’ Anglican Church, Kingsway (the ORGANIX Series), and Beach United Church (Easter livestream Recital). Though it is not until next Christmas I’m honoured to have been invited by the Guelph Chamber Choir to produce an encore humorous pre-performance show “Messiah Night Live!” at the River Run Centre, and by the Orillia Concert Society to offer a solo organ recital in tribute to our late mutual friend, Maestro Kerry Stratton.
The Georgetown Choral Society is back in-person rehearsing, the Orpheus Choir under Robert Cooper is just about to offer a beautiful performance of the Brahms Requiem, and even the long-silent Marion Singers of Greater Toronto are once again joining their a capella voices in support of several concert invitations benefitting worthwhile causes next season. Meanwhile, the Summer Institute of Church Music is running its 53rd Session and its 26th biennial Osborne Organ Competition in Whitby this July AND thrillingly, launching a second concurrent campus at the King’s University in Edmonton. And the Southern Ontario Chapter of the Hymn Society is well into its 2022 programming season, with my presentation of a McLuhan reading of the Church Media world (changed perhaps forever by cameras, microphones, remote congregations and a permanent presence of the Internet) debuting online in both SOCHS’ season, and at the Hymn Society’s annual conference in Washington, DC.
Why the long hiatus in posting for Ideas About Music? Indeed, many writers and content creators found, with much of their physical work shut down by the pandemic, new energy for their home studios and word processors, websites and YouTube channels. But for me, IAM is not just some fountain of ideas and inspiration emanating from me personally… it is more of a dialectical proposition, “what happens when the musical world all around me makes me think – and makes me want to share some of those thoughts with you?” This is not to say that the pandemic somehow stopped me from thinking – or from making music, although through much of it that music making was very different… but somehow blogging about it was just not the same absent the journey.
Resuming weekly posts next Tuesday April 5th after two years of silence, I’m looking forward to welcoming the curious and thoughtful music lover along on the musical journey that has taken us all an increasingly interesting ride…
Greetings, IAM community: I hope you’re passing as pleasant a summer as possible. I’m looking forward to resuming Tuesday posts a few weeks from now – I’ve missed it, but the break has also been enriching and inspiring.
The Anglican Foundation of Canada has for over 60 years provided over 30 million dollars in financial support for church reconstruction and renovation, theological education, and imaginative ministries from coast to coast to coast. During the COVID-19 pandemic, it like most of us, has had to reimagine itself, in its case due to a world of sagging investments and shaky donation levels. Under the leadership of Executive Director Canon Judy Rois it has chosen to step back into looking at the very thing that has enabled much of its work over the years, generosity as less an expectation or obligation than an outlook, a response to both a world in need and to blessings freely received. Each ten-minute episode of Foundation Forward features a remarkable Canadian with a unique and deeply personal take on the topic, with we hope real resonance for people like you and me.
The first episode featuring Canon Judy Rois went live on August 15th – monthly episodes will appear at anglicanfoundation.org/podcast on the first Monday of every month – you can download or stream them there, or subscribe on Google/Apple podcasts, Soundcloud, Spotify or Pocketcasts.
Dear followers of ideasaboutmusic.ca … as the seasons have changed I have (as some of you might have guessed) taken a break from posting while attending to other projects, and perhaps a little good old-fashioned vacation time. My last post was a couple of weeks ago on June 2nd, and so as the 20’s lined up in today’s date, and summer beckons from tomorrow, it seemed time to make this decision and update you.
I will confess that as the COVID-19 pandemic has, unpredictably, temporarily and resoundingly turned me into more of a digital media professional than a musician the fount of musical experiences and ideas has been running a little dry – so it feels like a natural moment to press pause.
I am of course involved regularly with music through the lens of online content, as an audio/video recordist and publisher, and in fact am meeting regularly with a few colleagues from Rosedale Presbyterian Church in Toronto to make music for summer services – so I am stimulated, inspired and active.
You’ll see me back in a few weeks, as the summer unfolds, and as the musical world gradually emerges, blinking as it adjusts to the sunlight, out of its home lock-downs – in whatever shape it will.
Blessings and beautiful warm wishes to match both the weather and the music still running through our heads and imaginations,
It has been some years since I have indulged in regular private music-listening as I am nowadays, and only rarely in years since I have had the privilege to sit and play regularly within a symphony orchestra (other than as part of a choral performance, which has remained a plentiful constant).
When I first began to learn about music in the 1970s it seemed reasonable to follow the example of music historians, theoreticians and critics in viewing the musical works offered by the miniature orchestras in my parents’ stereo system basically as autonomous works of art. Works created at a certain time, and by some genius composer who bequeathed them to the players and listeners of posterity – but now alone, ripe for the befriending. I spent years before taking music lessons or studying theory during which the sounds, vocabularies and sensations that were the tools of the composers’ trade seeped into my consciousness unnamed. They would remind me of themselves every time I would hear music, and await the day when study would teach me the names of notes, chords, rhythms, progressions, structures and styles.
By university, when just enough music had seeped into me to (very narrowly) entrap me into a musician’s life, snatching me from the very jaws of the science career that I had intended, music had become much more than a thing to hear, to know and understand. It had become a thing to do, a thing to create and share – and critically it had become something with others, rather than simply its own marvel dwelling between the ears that had admitted it to my head and heart.
I have occasionally contributed to symphonic performances as a french horn player and later as a keyboardist, but excepting that few dozen or so occasions this genre has continued throughout my life as a solitary experience – most notably as the cassette Walkman-borne soundtrack to rural wanderings by bike in my early-teens and through high school. The Brandenburg Concerti, the Symphonies of Beethoven, the works of the Mighty Five in Russia and the new currents flowing in France through the 20th century preceded by decades the now-ubiquity of choirs, organs, hymns, the intimacy of chamber music and the smorgasbord that is theatre that have since come to define my musical life.
Now, unexpectedly and inexplicably, nearly all the rest of music has joined the symphony as a private experience – not one between me and colleagues, audiences, congregations, recording producers and technicians, but between me and the autonomous, usually recorded work of art.
I learned from the Solitary Symphony to love music, to aspire to play it, to wish to understand it and to want to share it… it will be my hope that as music reverts, at least for a time, to being a private friend rather than a public product I will love, aspire and understand still more; and never stop wanting to share it.
Erwin Schrödinger’s 1935 thought experiment or paradox concerning a cat sealed, unobservable, in a chamber along with some force that that might or might not kill it has taken on an enormous life of its own in popular culture. Schrödinger proposed the thought experiment in the face of remarkable uncertainty about subatomic particles that emerged when Einstein’s began to unseat Newton’s understanding of matter. Its basic point describes the concept of superposition – when two (or more) contradictory states (such as a cat being alive or dead) co-exist indeterminably due to our inability to observe and ‘collapse’ reality into one ‘truth.’
In our time this one part macabre, one part amusing and two parts intriguing paradox is applied indiscriminately (and usually with little or no knowledge of its original meaning) to any seeming logical contradiction (witness if you will, Schrödinger’s Dumpster.)
Like all widely-known truisms (clichéed and otherwise), Schrödinger’s paradox has a way of sneaking up on all sorts of applications, and in my particular corner of the musical world, so dependent on currently unwise or even outlawed gatherings by artistic ensembles and their audiences, I find myself wondering outside of the cat’s chamber.
The novel coronavirus pandemic drags on as a defining presence in the world’s life. It has progressed from a curiosity, to a concern, to an emergency to for the time being, a ‘new normal’ – but perhaps unknown or unconsidered by some there are people, societies, industries and institutions for which it has reached the status of existential threat. True, the interruption it represents to normal life is in some form of ‘temporary’ – months, years, perhaps according to some even a generation – which implies a return to normal. But when abnormal persists for too long a sinister ‘statute of limitations’ begins to creep into effect – people sicken and die instead of recover, businesses flounder and fail instead of pulling through, institutions implode or recede to mere shadows of themselves, and things we have taken to be ‘ways of life’ seep into history or even fade from all memory.
Are, for example, the many virtual choirs whose checkerboard singing faces we see and voices we hear through our screens currently alive or dead? Of course, we tell ourselves, they are alive – choristers, conductors, boards and audiences are deeply invested, technology is bringing people together and unlocking creativity – even making great art at times. But many of them, like ICU patients on ventilators, are certainly threatened in any number of ways, by their older, vulnerable memberships and audiences, by the loss of critical musical and social capital imposed by lockdown, by evaporated ticket revenue and always-uncertain corporate, government and university funding, now thrown into hitherto-unknown stress. And critical to the analogy, our screens may give us hope, but we cannot peer into the chamber, so our choirs are, after Schrödinger, both alive AND dead – we cannot determine which, nor know when or from whence that answer will come.
But before this sobering state of affairs defeats us (and resisting the temptation fully to uncork theoretical physics) let’s consider ‘superposition,’ the concept underlying the seemingly perilous plight of Schrödinger’s Choir. Superposition relies, yes, on uncertainty, but in a glass-half-full sense it must be remembered that it absolutely includes life. In the so-called ‘Many Worlds’ or multiverse view of reality all confined cats survive – as well as perish. Physicists and philosophers use the ironically negative term ‘collapsing reality’ to refer to settling, when the chamber is opened, on a single state for a particle, or a cat, or a choir. Reality while it is undeterminable is open; it is a fantastical ‘house of many rooms’ that will perhaps not stand forever – but on so-called collapse it focuses, it concentrates: it does not disappear.
More practically our families, our businesses, our churches and our musical lives may be redefined by this phase of their shared history, but collectively survive it they will, and whoever is outside the box wondering will doubtless find amid our losses and heartbreaks beauty, creativity, vitality and always music.
One of the curious things inherent to growing older is watching technology’s increasingly quick procession from breakthrough, to industry standard, to passé and obsolescence, and then – to vintage.
Realising that in the audio realm the major defining factors in this journey lie not really in the realm of the technological, but rather in connective, storage and other protocols I have a soft spot for what is now affectionately known as ‘vintage audio’, much of which works perfectly well if you invest in a small arsenal of adapters, cables and other measures to allow various devices and recordings to work together. One such piece of castoff technology recently to join my always-evolving home office/studio patchwork of components is a Harmon Kardon AVR5 amplifier/receiver, once on the leading transitional edge of the decline of the home stereo system in favour of the juggernaut of home theatre.
Never being one with a lot of time or money to dispose of on audio trends and advances I mostly missed the ‘Surround Sound’ phenomenon that quietly spanned the audiophile era, from Disney’s Fantasia that pioneered the technique in 1940 (where it is still best known, in movie theatres) to the early compositional experiments of the likes of Karlheinz Stockhausen, to the standards emerging from Dolby Laboratories the late 1970s and the gradual fusion of them all into the mainstream for home theatre and even lowly personal computer speakers. Thus it has recently been interesting for me to explore transitional technology like the AVR5, which provided an approach to the broad array of current and historical media which variously follow or completely ignore surround protocols.
Without getting into the tech-talk, it strikes me that the impulse to recreate the most ‘real’ (or otherwise enhanced) home art consumption has become a bit short-circuited lately. Not only have we seen the storage of audio information move exclusively digital in increasingly compression-oriented formats; we have also resoundingly, even pre-pandemic, moved to the Internet as our delivery system of choice, resigning us to the irony of our latest industry standards all but sweeping away the hi-fi advances of the preceding decades. Nor is this loss of definition limited to the audio realm, as even more memory-hungry video too has had to abide within finite bandwidth, storage and transmission parameters. VHS giving way to DVD? DVD to Blu-Ray? PVRs and media servers with massive hard drives to store and provide our media? All gone or going, in the name of hardware-light and lower-quality on-demand streaming.
As COVID-19 has robbed us, at least temporarily, of what is still within memory the gold standard, the live experience and reception of works of art, one wonders about a renaissance in the interest in the home listening/viewing environment. It is early to predict what our return to concert halls, art galleries, even movie theatres will look like, just as it is becoming difficult to imagine a new face for health-secure public transit in our energy-conscious times, so it seems reasonable that something (like some say of electric bikes in the latter case) will compensate.
Sound comes at us not just from left and right, but from all sides at all times. But the curated surround sound of contemporary movie sound design, that encoded from Decca-tree and otherwise quadro-to hexa-phonic audio recording arrays, and especially those intriguing electronic mixes somehow dreamed up by my AVR5 to make up for the size, sound absorption and other issues facing listening in my home office are not in the end about audio realism, but they are certainly about experience. I am gradually moving past my sense of loss of the treasure – both experience and livelihood – of real, live music, and conceding that for as long as my art lives in a box, I want technology held to better standards to redeem the sacrifice.
I also hope that technology will come out the better for the experience, just as I hope I will.
The social media feeds of us pandemically-despondent musicians, choristers and music-lovers of all kinds are awash not just with our ten selected influential record albums and cool virtual incarnations of the music we once made and shared publicly – they are awash too with unmade music.
As seemingly endless similar days and weeks drift by, musicians facing boredom, financial uncertainty and even crises of identity are posting ennui-, angst-, and even rage-filled notices of the concerts, tours, services that ‘would have been.’ For me, as optimistically postponed or resignedly cancelled freelance dates slip into propositional history and my institutions grapple with a future nearly impossible to plan, the four choirs that surround and in many ways define my creative life seem to sink only further into limbo as longer-term worries about singing and contagion spread almost more quickly than COVID-19 itself.
I watch, sometimes inspired by new challenges on the virtual front; sometimes lying awake wondering how and when music will once again fill our churches and concert halls – and wondering, as one artist put it, how much value has a cobbler to a world that doesn’t wear shoes? To add an uglier side to this snapshot of artistic crisis, singer Bryan Adams is currently reaping the unpleasant fruits of a post including a snippet of his song Cuts like a knife nestled in a racist tirade against the Chinese ‘bastards’ he blames for the pandemic that cancelled three shows he would currently have been doing at the Royal Albert Hall.
Unmade music is relatively foreign to those of us who have grown up making it. As I’ve been chatting informally with colleagues, many of us listen to strikingly little music for recreational purposes, even as we endlessly pore over it coveting to play/sing it ourselves, hear others’ interpretations, learn styles and techniques helpful to our own art. Much as I love music, and I’m probably old-fashioned, but the concept of Spotify offering a playlist designed to suit my tastes or still worse capture or enhance my mood is as other-worldly to me as Gwynneth Paltrow promising me new-age health revolutions.
As, by default rather than qualification, media guru to my congregation, it is a strange new thing to synthesise Virtual Services that can, like a radio show, feature anthems my choir doesn’t have to prepare on time (indeed, might never even learn), and organ postludes there is no need for me to re-prepare (or indeed, that I’ll never have to learn at all). My musician’s constant calculus – finding and researching, physically and mentally learning, rehearsing with others, polishing and offering on time and in various venues – is suspended, or in the case of virtual services mostly reduced to combing the Internet for what can be found that is suitable and legal for me to DJ to the faithful. This is not an entirely unpleasant, unstimulating or unsatisfying experience: but it certainly is different.
Among our various depressed, disjointed and terrified outbursts online also dwell thoughts of optimism and resilience: as one colleague recently put it:
My boat is strong and it has no leaks, it just also has no anchor… Or it has a different anchor that I don’t know how to utilize yet.
I made my first-ever trip to give blood yesterday – a tremendous feeling of honest service to my species – and I was struck by the hauntingly familiar (from more musical days) welcome, gratitude and satisfaction I felt offering up this simple gift. To all of you who feel music coursing through your veins as I do, and are uncharacteristically unable to give it at the moment – never forget to give in the ways that you still can, and never forget the connection. To turn, turn, will be our delight ’til by turning, turning, we come round right.