Friday, April 26, 2013

Seriously. This is what I am playing in church this weekend.

The church secretary called me yesterday morning to inform me that I was playing the prelude, the offertory, and the postlude at Sunday's service and to ask if I wanted to list anything in the bulletin.

Uh, oh, I thought.

Now ordinarily there would have been nothing odd about that. As the church musician (organist and pianist/keyboard player), I provide those three pieces nearly every week at our "traditional" services (save for the rare occasion when somebody else takes one of the slots). But this week we aren't having our usual slate of four services. Instead, there is only one, taking place in our Worship and Life Center, which is home to our contemporary service, and has a grand piano but no organ. It's time for our annual Children's Musical and Confirmation service, when our teens join the church. I'll be around to play a song with the band, and a hymn or two, but our children's choir director is playing the piano for the musical, so it is practically like having a week off. At least, that's what I thought was going to happen. For the last couple of years there has been so much music in supply from the kids that they sing the offertory as well, as part of the musical. Change of plans this year, apparently.

Hmm. Could I think about it for an hour and get back to her?

At which point my wife, wanting to be helpful, asked if I had anything under my fingers from the concert I am planning to give this summer. Not yet, I told her. Besides, I can't think of anything that would be even vaguely appropriate for church.

But then a light bulb went on. You are going to think this is a really bizarre idea for a Sunday morning offertory, but I think I'll just let you listen to it first and then do my explaining.


It's a piece called "The Banjo" by Louis Moreau Gottschalk, a pianist from New Orleans who lived from 1829 to 1859, and toured the United States during the Civil War. If you are wondering why on earth it would make sense to play it in church, here's why:

The kids are doing a musical called "Down By the Creek Bank." Most of the pieces sound like they were written for banjo, even though they'll be played on a piano. The folks in this musical would use words like "crick" and "holler" (as in "down by the")--it is an evocation of the Appalachians or the Ozarks or someplace in the southeastern United States. The offertory has been placed right after the musical ends.

In other words, I chose the offertory as I was thinking about the nature of the musical and the tradition from which it, broadly speaking, sprang. This is second nature to me, being used to doing this, but I know it is not for many organists: this idea that whatever music you select for a service should somehow belong to the particular service for which it was intended, should somehow match it, in spirit, mood, style, tradition, or whatever. You may think that on this occasion it lead me to a rather bizarre conclusion, but I want to stress how important this idea is.

Besides being a useful discipline (meaning that I don't just play whatever I feel like playing on a given Sunday) it also sends a signal to the other persons in charge of worship that you are taking your cue from their efforts as well. Every pastor I have worked with has at some point been pleasantly surprised to discover that what I choose to play frequently has something to do with the sermon topic or the scripture.

Sometimes that means I go outside accepted norms with regard to church repertoire, which isn't hard to do because somebody's tradition or personal inclination has outlawed practically anything (even music itself, in some cases), or because liturgical instrumental music has usually been pretty narrow in focus, i.e. organists don't think they can get away with much (with reason). Within my own tradition, the rules seem comparatively lax, although people are free to complain about anything they wish, such as playing the piano one week instead of the organ (God's chosen instrument, apparently), or not basing your selections on familiar hymns (these days that's called "diluting your brand"). In our educated university town, however, people seem to be relatively tolerant of a wide range of music. Including gospel and jazz, and--Oliver Messaien. Were I to behave as befits my training, and as many of my colleagues would like to behave if their congregations would let them, I could almost get away with, although I know it would not be the majority taste, playing major classical repertoire every week, scouring the canon of great literature as if on a parallel lectionary schedule. But I think that misses something. For one thing, it is too autonomous. A cycle of Beethoven sonatas would be great (that has been suggested to me, before, by the way) but it kind of misses the larger picture. I can do that in concert, where there isn't anything else, no message, no presenters, no participation, to think about. Or to engage, collaborate with. To cause me to do something I wouldn't have done otherwise.

And then there is this...Paul wrote, right before that endlessly read scripture about love in the 13th chapter of Corinthians that he wanted to "show [us] a more excellent way" which was an attempt to get the members of the church in Corinth to stop going at each other and get along for a change. Love, it turns out, starts with an attempt to actually get along with people, even to recognize and affirm their contributions, their ideas, their tastes, their standards of value. It does not insist on its own way. Which is why I let the service, the contributions of others, have a say in what I play, rather than sticking to the classical organ or piano repertoire I was taught to value. It may be great music. But it isn't the only music.  And my way isn't the only way. My classical canon can get stretched a little. I don't have to play everything on the organ. Everything doesn't have to have been written in the 17th century by some fellow named Bach. And maybe--perish the thought--it really is ok to let people tap their toes to an offertory some of the time. And even more radical, maybe it wouldn't cause almighty wrath to come crashing down on our heads if we actually had a banjo in church. As it is, we'll be getting it second-hand.

There is, finally, something about this selection that might be even more important, particularly if it doesn't sound like church for many of us. It is this: music is a cultural product. Though we claim to worship a creator of everything around us, most faith traditions are pretty exclusive about what they think belongs in a worship service. Some will make arguments relating to quality (including the composer of the present selection, who might have been as shocked as anyone to find his piece in a church bulletin). These arguments are fraught with human relations peril. Often that music which is "quality" just happens to be music from one particular culture, for instance, all dead white European men. Now, I play healthy quantities of Bach and Buxtehude and plan to keep on doing it. And I find the music of high quality as well as spiritual uplift. But shouldn't we be careful about excluding music that doesn't fit our supposedly objective sense of quality? I think of so many people from the Evangelical tradition who have been quite disdainful of rock music, gospel, syncopation, back beats--all things they claim have no place before God, and all things which just happen to have come into our musical vocabulary by way of African Americans. It would be unfair to say (as some do) that any discussion of musical quality whatsoever is snooty or even racist. But I think as human beings with a long history of treating each other pretty poorly we can never be free of this evil possibility. Excluding music is also excluding people.

And so, even though I never would have thought of a piece like this for church before, on this day and in this place, it seems a good match. Besides being a day to celebrate the entrance of several of our teenagers into membership in the church, and the songful contributions of our children, there is also an evocation of the rural southeast, and the culture of a people who are our neighbors from several states over. Is it ok to go on mission trips to build houses for them but not to allow them or their music in our church?

I'll grant you that the children's musical isn't exactly great art. And it's cheesy. But it's a children's musical--what else would it be? The kids enjoy it, and it helps them contribute to our community. And if it happens to stretch our boundaries a little, maybe that's not the worst thing that's ever happened in a church. To which my little offertory says "I support that. I agree with that. Yeah that."

Or in liturgical terms, AMEN.

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