Friday, January 31, 2014

Making Connections

One of the difficulties I've always found with liturgy is that it tends to be very local. One short musical response followed by a prayer or a reading, then another short musical response. In the best of situations those responses have something to do with one another, the elements coalesce, the service itself seems to be about something, to have a particular mood, message, occasion, reason for being, but at other times, the service wanders, shifts gears constantly, not sure whether to celebrate or beat its breast, proclaim, meditate, confess, or try to do them all in no particular order.

This is because, in the long running battle of form with function, form has always dominated the church service. All the same elements in the same order, week after week, because that's the way we are supposed to do it, or we like it that way, or it is just easier not to have to make new decisions, or we think God likes it that way, or something.

There are ways, though, myriad ways, to draw connections between the elements, between themes and ideas and positions. Ways to play the opening hymn or the prayer response differently from week to week so that it seems meant not only for the long procession of worship occasions past present and future but on this one occasion particularly intended for this one. 

The last couple of weeks I've been doing that with the transition to the doxology. Between the offertory and the closing hymn in our service sits the celebratory doxology. It is always loud, always majestic, and sometimes of a completely different character than the offertory that immediately precedes it. I submit for your ears the offertory I played on Baptism of the Lord Sunday this year. It's five and a half minutes--if you are in a hurry you can just listen to enough of it to get the idea.

Right. Now, as soon as that ends, it is time for the doxology, which, at our 10:30 service, sounds like this:


(Better, if I don't miss that pedal note at the beginning!)

If you have difficulty imagining how those two things fit together, that makes two of us. So here is what I did about it. After the offertory concluded, I played this (or something like it) as an introduction to the doxology:

That last phrase it designed to get people to stand up, and it works.

The following week we had a classical guitar solo for the offertory. The musical selection was the lute suite in E major. Since our soloist needed a little time to move his equipment back, I made a longer introduction to cover the sound and give him the necessary time. Also, I hoped, to preserve the character of what we'd just heard and move it into the doxology. What I actually played was improvised at the service, and it was more inspired than what I dashed off for the microphone late last night. But it was something like this:

That also meant I took the doxology up a half step. I hope the sopranos in the choir didn't mind. I didn't ask!

The net effect of this is, I hope, to help the service to flow better from one moment to the next, and also to say that in the long parade of weekly services, THIS day matters enough to get the elements to cooperate with one another and make one effective statement out of, to build on the enthusiasm, or the introspection, of a particular moment in time, and not to simply break into it with our regularly scheduled bits of stuff we have to do every week whether it derails the effect or not. 

This is something over which I could write many a blog (and perhaps will one day). It is not intended to subvert the liturgy but to enhance it. And of course it requires imagination and improvisational skills, and much practice in making quick decisions, taking risks (often I have not planned this out ahead of time) and trusting that somehow things will go well. Better than well, one hopes. But then, there is always next week. In a curious way, for a learning musician, church is an excellent laboratory in this respect. On the other hand, every experiment matters. Which is why you live and learn, and yet why I so often will not leave well enough alone.

Because it isn't "well enough."

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