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.
Looking into the realm of musical transcription (setting music written for one instrument or combination of instruments for a different instrument or combination, sometimes taking on new stylistic attributes) it is not long before one notices the prominence among the works chosen of baroque music in general, and the works of J.S. Bach in particular.
Baroque music is known for many characteristics that may have contributed to its favourability as a target for transcribers – but addressing the question must begin not with the music, but with the act of transcription. Why transcribe, when the composer bequeaths to us a perfectly authentic and successful version with instruments and style attributes he/she actually knew and chose? The answer originates in love: we don’t transcribe works we dislike: we transcribe out of a wish to play or hear a work on our instrument or ensemble (organists, having an enormous authentic repertoire for their instrument, are implicated here, perhaps second only to pianists). Baroque music is often the very first music we encounter when beginning our music lessons; Bach and Handel’s names, the first we come to know, and their hugely popular melodies the first to become stuck, welcome or otherwise, in our heads. The Baroque era’s interest in ornamentation offers a particular benefit as a tool for learning: it has a perfectly viable (if inaunthentic) “easy-play” form omitting ornaments.
If we learn by playing and singing Baroque music we are perhaps predisposed to like and transcribe it – but what makes it work so well? Let’s consider this 1989 MCA release by the Amherst Saxophone Quartet, a compilation of Bach orchestral and keyboard works, including one meta-transcription, a Concerto Bach himself first transcribed (from Vivaldi) for organ, now ending up for a quartet of instruments that didn’t exist until about a century after Bach’s death.
Here’s the program (you can hear the whole album or read the liner notes online): Badinerie – Suite No. 2 in B minor BWV 1067; Overture No. 6 in G minor BWV 1070; Art Of The Fugue, BWV 1080 (excerpts); Fantasia & Fugue in C minor BWV 537; Suite No 1 in C major (excerpts) BWV 1066; Fugue In G major BWV 577; Concerto after Vivaldi No. 1 BWV 592. A quick ‘needle-drop’ listen (that’s a vinyl reference for you young-‘uns!) anywhere in the program reveals a range of styles spanning the exuberance of orchestral suites, the academy of fugues, the freedom of an organ fantasia and the trademark tunefulness and general simplicity of Vivaldi. Bach may have brought Baroque music to its ultimate flowering, but his range of styles can be found across his 18th century colleagues, and from around Europe.
A range of styles? You can find that in any era, and while Bach is one of history’s most prolific composers (perhaps giving him a statistical advantage) one doesn’t find arbitrary modern classical quartets wildly transcribing Mozart, Beethoven, or even other Baroque composers to the same degree. Nor does one find the same degree of interest in transcribing these giants among groups like the Modern Jazz Quartet, Hooked on Classics or the Swingle Singers (all of which wrested Bach from its classical gatekeepers in the 1970s).
Perhaps the answer comes in the person of Bach, who was himself not just a musical genius, but a great transcriber in his own right. He admired Vivaldi’s music and so respectfully transcribed it for his own use. He had an open enough view of, for example, his solo violin Partitas to transcribe parts of them for keyboard and even orchestras and choirs. Father to twenty children, he also had enough of a sense of humour to compose works like the secular Coffee Cantata. These attributes were by no means unique to Bach, in his own age or in the ages that have followed – but perhaps they aligned in a rare, proto-planetary way, giving us this remarkable legacy of transcribed gems.
When my old university friend Dave Kutz, now Principal Tuba in the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra, contacted me early in COVID-19 quarantine about a virtual collaboration there was no need to ask what might be on the menu. And the ethical concerns expressed at times earlier in my own career about the act of transcription from a composer’s “original intent” now seem quaint and even ridiculous. The world already owned Bach’s music – blessings upon him for having given it us!
As galleries and museums, churches, opera houses and concert halls around the world remain shuttered for months in the effort to slow the spread of COVID-19 there has been nonetheless an explosion of art, music, dance, theatre and every conceivable combination thereof – and all of it is on our screens.
Our screens have brought us art (and its sometimes less respectable relative, ‘entertainment’) since their inception. Indeed beyond movies and TV, born in the bosom of the video screen, the proliferation of computer, Internet and mobile device has meant a steady migration of art with a perfectly respectable ‘real life’ into our projection theatres, our homes, our cars and even our pockets. Predictions of screens causing the inevitable demise of live performance, live gallery-hopping and theatre-going in the face of the ease and economy of home consumption, like the similar accusation leveled at recordings in their time, have appeared exaggerated and even quaint – perhaps until right now.
COVID-19 is endlessly compared to past larger, global-scale pandemics, and though indeed there are virological, epidemiological, and economic similarities to be drawn with the Spanish Flu and even the Black Death it stands alone in outbreaks of its scale and penetration in having emerged in the modern world of media. No aspect of our professional, political, social and personal lives stood untouched by media before 2019’s novel coronavirus, and none could expect to survive a major disruption unchanged by the impact on those media.
What ‘happens’ to art when it is placed in the box? Borrowing an aspect of the virus that has lately placed it there for many of us and despite its decades-long path, it is still inherently novel. To those of us who love art, and indeed also those for whom it is a curiosity, we feel well that distant and costly works of genius, skill and inspiration can be shared so simply and inexpensively in our lives, especially while darkened by confinement, fear and suffering.
Yet we understand that transmission of an art work, as in René Magritte’s most famous painting, is not the work itself, it is a representation of the work mediated by the act and mode of transmission. Self-evident in visual art this is no less true of music, especially so often stored and shared through the skeletal mp3 audio file format.
It may mostly be understood that art shared electronically is not like ‘seeing/hearing it live’, as we apologists for live art love to point out – but for many is it nonetheless ‘good enough’? In The McDonaldization of Society (1993), sociologist George Ritzer suggests that in the latter part of the 20th century the socially-structured form of the fast-food restaurant became the organizational force representing and extending the process of rationalisation into the realm of everyday interaction and individual identity. Ritzer was commenting mostly on us and our society, but I ask, is not also necessarily in evidence in our relationship with art?
Like many of my colleagues I have been active during quarantine in the production and diffusion of music and media intended to fill an acknowledged vacuum, but I am occasionally troubled by wondering how long that vacuum will persist, filled with increasing competence and success through the miracle of technology. Whenever ‘normal’ returns, might we find our art remains comfortably, cheaply and eternally ‘in the box’?
We of sufficient privilege in the wealthy west to be confined to our homes and Internet connections have turned resoundingly, if perhaps not exclusively, to social media for entertainment and edification during the COVID-19 pandemic. On the positive side of this sometimes mind-dulling and catastrophically time-consuming pursuit is a particularly interesting instance of sharing that has bubbled up among musicians and music-lovers alike, the 10 Albums 10 Days Challenge.
Though it appears to have had a recent upsurge the 10 Albums 10 Days Challenge is not new to COVID-tide, in fact it was well-established on Facebook at least a year ago. In it, those accepting the challenge post a record album of personal or professional significance (in my age-range these are mainly vinyl and CD) every day for 10 days, inviting a new person to take on the challenge themselves each day as well. One should always be wary of these vaguely pyramid-shaped serial information solicitations on Facebook, as they often are used to harvest information on our tastes, history, biases etc. for uses that range from the commercial to the more nefarious. But revealing our love and allegiance to mostly out-of-print albums we mostly already own seems safe enough – and to we music-types it is DARNED interesting.
Full disclosure: I have been invited to take the challenge several times, but have not yet picked up the gauntlet (although I have included a track above from one such soundtrack of my young musicianship, courtesy perhaps of my Dad, always intrigued by the whole sphere of Bach transcription, and my Mom, who quite loved to play this particular record over and over). I’m not resisting 10-10 on principle: I find myself busy these days, and somehow feel the selection merits some careful thought. On the contrary I find the prospect very interesting: the named choices amuse, intrigue and expand my understanding of whoever posted them. But since around the time I coined and adopted the term ‘metatheory’ to describe my habitual outlook, I try always to take to heart one of my favourite quotations:
“When a thing is funny, search it carefully for hidden meaning.”
– George Bernard Shaw
SO, what is inherent to this exercise? Back to basics – music, the purpose the challenge exists, and the force that has worked upon each one of us to create our experiences, our likes and dislikes, sometimes our political and social leanings and for artists, our muse.
Second, it relies on not just music, but recorded music, invented in the late 19th century and risen to formidable cultural force, identity-obsession and industrial cash-cow in the 20th. We are the first few generations to be able to take this challenge: it simply didn’t exist to help form our musical selves until just over a century ago, and unlike live music, it shows no sign of going away.
Another assumption in the 10-10 Challenge is the album itself, a concept that has become much murkier in the the newer era of streaming, downloading and playlists. It was full albums that we saved for and browsed through unheard in the record stores, that we tirelessly transferred to our Walkman tapes, that we played end-to-end repeatedly into scratched oblivion or… whatever other strange afterlife old CDs reached.
Another, especially in the case of vinyl: album art. 10-10 challengers post the sometimes beautiful, always memorable covers from the albums they cite. These visual markers were at least as much a part of the cultural commodity, to say nothing of a critical piece in the marketing/shopping puzzle of live stores as the only way to obtain the product.
Hand-in-hand with the idea of the album is a sometimes narrative, sometimes conceptual, sometimes stylistic, but always somehow uniting paradigm that made songs of an album belong together – and often in a carefully determined order of playing. This paradigm is far from disappeared from the industry culture of hit singles, format radio and online recommendations – but again, it has certainly retreated.
But here’s the most striking thing to me – the 10-10 Challenge is about ME; about the whole idea that the music we like and listen to somehow shapes us. This is intuitive enough in the case of those of us who actually play, sing, conduct, compose and generally encourage music-making – but it is undeniably also true in Challengers who claim no musical talent or activity. Some 10-10 Challengers insist there be no explanation or documentation of each choice – usually just the album cover to convey its thousand theoretical words to the interested viewer. But many other Challengers go into remarkable apologia of what precisely a given album did to form or influence them, or even share touching remembrances of periods or events in their lives that connect therewith by association. And always there is the undertow of gratitude at being nominated for the challenge, and the rewards of self-examination it brings.
I recently had the privilege of a conversation with a former student-turned colleague who recounted the story of a live performance he had attended that had deeply moved him: in his words it was “life changing.” No doubt he, and certainly I, also have pinnacle musical performances I have given as well as received – it makes me wonder what other 10-10 challenge concepts could flourish in the musical playground and crucible of the Web 2.0?
My Celtic band Chroí (Irish Gaelic for ‘heart’) began in the early 2010s on the tail-end of a period of my career which saw me working, studying and playing a great deal in the vicinity of culturally-expanding Hamilton, Ontario. A then church-home and some wonderful people around me at the time enabled the founding of a group fitting a vision that I had had for some many years – but like so many others the group faced a problem, that pesky system, phenomenon or construction known as genre. All of us were university-trained musicians, sporting a non-conventional instrumentation for a Celic group (with, for example at the time, piano and cello) we were by no means a church-praise or traditional-folk band. Being in our 30s and 40s we all felt drawn to the rhythms of popular traditions that more and more traditionally-founded celtic bands were also increasingly building into their sounds… so what to call ourselves?
The decade I mentioned above that saw me so much in and around Hamilton featured notably my graduate work at McMaster University in the subject of musical genre, a topic that continues to fascinate me. In studying musical genre one quickly notes that genre labels, especially in the last century or so, have often been founded in arbitrary and constructed ways rather than in rigorous, more scientific ways. Consider ‘world music,’ a title given by western academics to describe mostly the folk genres of other societies, neatly placing them in the realm of the exotic (and more pointedly primitive – for this reason, indefensibly, the sophisticated west saw fit to exclude itself from ‘the world!’) Consider also ‘classical music’, the bulwark thrown up by the tortured descendants of the western canon to defend its fractured 20th-century self and rich heritage from the meteoric rise of popular music at home through recording, broadcasting, and especially targeted capitalism. And let’s not forget ‘popular music’ – a genre that isn’t a genre at all, encompassing whatever music the multi-billion dollar media industry chooses to bless with the machinery of marketing, distribution, and the powerful construction of consumer identity.
Well, another such genre/non-genre that had existed for decades before Chroí (with, I should say, a healthy sense of irony and humour) tackled its existential question of genre was ‘Crossover.’ The name reveals nothing more than the presence of two or more musical paradigms that by implication are traditionally separated, as the banks of a river or opposite cliffs of a gorge. I had grown up with an intense love of Bach, including but far from limited to my parents’ recordings of Moe Koffman, Switched on Bach, the Swingle Singers and so on, this paradigm, which was innovative and outrageous in its time, had become quaint and a standard part of the landscape. Indeed it had spread from the conspicuous early fascination with Bach and jazz (a topic for another day) to ever more complex and intriguing crossovers that included heavy metal bands like Metallica with symphony orchestras, jazz/world rhythms and harmonies, celtic idioms and even recorded animal sounds in the church music of Paul Halley, and the incursion of poetic and cultural mosaics into such fine chamber ensembles as Quarteto Gelato, the Kronos Quartet and the Art of Time Ensemble.
Me personally, I think all the barriers that are put up between genres are so easily broken. People just love music that moves them.
Haitian-American pop icon Jason Derulo
Chroí settled on ‘Celtic Crossover’ because it committed to just one thing – not our early inspiration in traditionally-founded groups like Lùnasa, nor our early Christian forms such as the Iona Community, nor our early embrace of the rich diversity of influences and vocal/choral sound of Irish-American band Solas. No, it stated only our raison d’être, the Celtic music that formed at least a part of each player’s ethnic heritage; that had drawn us to play together, and that despite some changes in membership has kept us playing together approaching a decade later.
Now fifteen years past the completion of my M.A. in Music Criticism I confess I still find myself more often a critic of musical genre than a scholar of it. But I remain fond of the label ‘Crossover’ for its ambiguity and its openness. Like many musicians I have been and remain beneficiary to fortress-like musical institutions seemingly more bent on self-glorification and self-preservation than in artistic creation and emotional gifting to audiences, congregations and societies. For much of my career those institutions have seemed to be in perpetual turmoil and occasional collapse, but through the spirit of Crossover many have taken their place as part of the ever-richer mosaic of musical life. Crossover is no longer news – it is normal – and for me at least the Kronos Quartet has in no way cheapened the classical string quartet, nor Paul Halley the latin mass or motet, nor Welsh super group Calan undermined the range of influences to be found in its work.
Musical Genre can speak much better about who you are than what you do.
Music, like all art, tends to thrive on the energy of dialectic – that is, the inquiry real or implied into contradictions and their solutions. When death is both the most radical undoing and yet also the most soothing release – we have a dialectic. When a pandemic causes suffering and fear and yet also connects, strengthens and heals its survivors, same thing. When a work of art can be strangely beautiful and yet strangely disturbing it draws the mind of the onlooker into consideration of meaning and perhaps magic.
Perhaps no stop along the church’s year illustrates this in more striking relief than the dual-named Palm/Passion Sunday, the start of Holy Week, exactly one week before Easter Sunday. It is a well-loved observance from the depths of Lent that juxtaposes the elation and excitement of the crowds that accompanied the young rabbi Jesus into the holy city of Jerusalem with that rabbi’s ever bolder affronts to the Jewish establishment, the horror of his betrayal by one of his chosen, and his trial, suffering and death.
To take a more directly musical example, consider a familiar hymn text, which Australian-born one-time Master of the Queen’s Music set in his Procession of Palms:
Ride on, ride on in majesty, in lowly pomp, ride on to die. O Christ, thy triumphs now begin o’er captive death and conquered sin.
– Henry Hart Millman (1791-1868)
What form majesty leads its bearer to death? How can anyone’s death be the harbinger of triumph over death and sin? Isn’t that paradox defined?
Here’s a way of looking at it – we have discussed recently the concept of liminality, the notion that it is only when pushed beyond comfort, beyond reason that we can begin to see beyond such assumptions as the permanence of death, the seemingly inevitable triumph of earthly power. How does a beloved become a betrayer? A king become a criminal? One’s triumphant procession become one’s march to execution?
In Williamson’s piece we see a uniquely British attempt to reconcile these diametrics, a piece that folds the great texts of the day into a vigorous, exciting setting that seeks to capture Israel’s euphoria at its inevitable release from Roman bondage through the promised Messiah, but which flows into a tapestry of diverse textures and emotions on the way to a thoroughly unsettling ending.
A Procession of Palms was never sung in my twelve years at St James’ Cathedral in Toronto, but I will always remember the solution arrived at by my colleague and mentor Giles Bryant; though the Palm Sunday liturgy always featured the great hymns, waving branches and choral Hosannas by the tradition’s pinnacle composers it always quietly imploded during and after the Eucharistic celebration with some truly sombre motet and the congregation’s singing of the Passion Chorale, and left the jarred congregation staring ahead on Holy Week’s journey to the cross with no way to go but forward.
It was only many years later during graduate work that I became initiated into such terms as dialectic and liminality. But as in the rhythms, chords and other sounds of my parents’ countless vinyl records that implanted themselves early in my mind only to be named much later when I learned music theory, early experiences such as Palm/Passion Sunday at St James’ indelibly fueled my love of church music long before I had the tools to speak of it philosophically. In this most unusual of Holy Weeks without services, choirs and organs I find myself feeling like that disoriented Palm Sunday congregation, and equally with no way to go but forward.