Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Let Them Enjoy Medieval Music

I am dumbfounded by an article I read today. Apparently the pope has decided to ban the use of guitars in the Catholic Mass. It is really hard for me to believe that this story isn't a farce. Here is a quote from the story:

"It is possible to modernize holy music," the Pope said, at a concert conducted by Domenico Bartolucci the director of music at the Sistine Chapel. "But it should not happen outside the traditional path of Gregorian chants or sacred polyphonic choral music."
Full article at -

Well I guess Gregorian Chants worked for the early 90s group Enigma, but I can't see the Catholic church maintaining any kind of relevant connection with the modern world by pushing medieval music.

I remember reading a story about 10 years ago on the subject of ethnomusicology. It's a big scary word for the study of ethnic music. Anyway the story was about ethnomusicologist missionaries that would travel to secluded people groups in remote areas to study the music of these ethnic peoples so as to help them create worship music in their own cultural/musical language using their indigenous instruments. These musical missionaries represented a paradigm shift in missions. For hundreds of years missionaries would come into new territory and get to the work of evangelism. The problem is that in addition to translating the Bible they did a great bit of imposing of white western European culture on the natives. Part of this imposing would be in the form of music. So even though the native folks would have songs in their language they weren't songs that were from their culture. I can imagine how difficult it would be for me to worship in the style of music from India even if the words were English. I just don't feel Indian music the way the people of India do. So imagine how wierd trying to worship with music from Western Europe if you grew up in the jungles of Africa.

Back to the article on the ethnomusicologist. There was a quote in the article by a woman from an Indian tribe in the Amazon rain forests of Brazil. She said with tears in her eyes, "When they translated the Bible they gave us a way for God to speak to us, but when they (the ethnomusicologists) gave us these songs they gave us a way to talk back to God."

Back to the Pope. His recent statements against guitars in the Catholic Mass are sad not just because of how out of touch they make the Catholic church seem but because they erect yet another barrier for certain people trying to connect with God in a meaningful way.

In my opinion the church should be about helping folks connect with God from within their cultures not by imposing some ancient European culture on them.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Consumers and Connectors

Every analogy breaks down at some point so let me clarify something a bit here. I often use food and drink as analogies for kingdom realities but every comparison has its own problems. When I talk of appreciating worship in the same way as appreciating a good microbrew I'm not meaning to make it seem like simply a consumer affair. Worship is first and foremost for God and about God. That said if worship is to help inspire humans to draw near to God, or to help aid in meditation on God, or to simply minister God's truth to the soul so that it can be less encumbered in the pursuit of God then worship music by all means must connect with the listener/participant. It's not simply that we musicians just need to come up with better crafted songs for the consuming public, it's that we need to be connected with God, and with the church, and with our local communities. Out of that place we then form songs like microbrews that resonate with the souls of our communities helping them to better experience God. I hope this clarifies the analogy a bit more.

There is one other thing that I want to clarify. I know I railed on CCM but the reality is that what is taking place in the Christian music industry is also the same thing going on in mainstream pop music across the board. I just think that the ramifications in Contemporary Christian Music are much different particularly when it comes to worship.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Indie Worship and Microbreweries

I was having a conversation the other day with some friends of mine that had come into town for a Vineyard Regional Church conference that our church was hosting. As we turned our conversation to modern worship songs I mentioned how there are very few worship albums that have been released in recent years that connect with me. I can count on one hand the worship CDs that I have come across in the last 5 years that I have listened to more than a few times - the kinds of albums that really help me connect with God.

It seems to me that a few years ago worship went from being a grass-roots movement to a type of genre to be propagated by Christian Music labels in Nashville. What started from humble beginnings with artists like Delirious, David Ruis, Kevin Prosch, Waterdeep, Matt Redman, Jeff Searls and 100 Portraits (to name a few) suddenly became a commodity to be capitalized on by record labels. When the major record labels noticed all of the folks buying up worship music then they suddenly realized they must cash in on the phenomenon. Then all of the sudden worship CDs became the trendy thing for every CCM artist to record not too unlike the obligatory Christmas album. This recent trend in worship music disturbs me a great deal. Whereas 10 years ago worship music encompassed a variety of styles from earthy and organic to driving rock, now aa good deal of worship albums are starting to sound pretty much the same. They are being mass-produced and engineered as a genre for CCM radio stations. Meanwhile there has been a mass exodus of Christian artists from Christian labels that wish to bring their music to a wider audience (bravo!). So for the Christian labels worship music is one of the few things they have left that can bring in the bacon.

The problem now is that worship music is sounding just as mediocre and trite as CCM music has sounded for years. Even the term "Contemporary Christian Music" is a bit of a misnomer being that it is hardly contemporary, lightly Christian, and many times a poor excuse for music. CCM has yet to be cutting edge or culturally innovative because it is always trying to catch up with the latest trends. CCM is regarded by most as a place for bland mediocrity. Instead of songs that deal with all of life from the good times to the struggles, CCM stations broadcast songs that seem to deny anything but sunny days and happy people as if following Christ means that everything is just peachy until you get raptured. The resulting effect of CCM's involvement in worship music is that the CCM Worship genre sounds like a certain type of homogenized-white-middle-class-pop-rock. The diversity of sounds and themes that should be present in worship music have been gobbled up into one mammoth, non-threatening, heap of "Christianese" bliss. This saddens me to no end. But there is hope; it's just a different kind of hope.

I have been pondering the albums that have really made a difference in my life in the past few years. One thing they all have in common is that they were produced either independently or for indie labels. They have a depth and authenticity, which connect creatively and spiritually with my soul. And after all isn't that what music should do?

I find that I am by no means alone in these feelings.

I will borrow an analogy from a friend of mine. The worship projects that connect with me connect in the same sort of way that beer from a microbrewery connects with me. When I drink a beer I don't want some mass-produced mediocre Budweiser. I want the handcrafted beer that's made in small batches with lots of care. The microbreweries aren't trying to be Budweiser. They are not trying to take over the beer-consuming world. They are simply trying to turn out something good, something unique, and something that the consumer will appreciate. These beers are not the beers one drinks to get drunk, but to savor. They are created for a local market and carry a unique local flavor, whether it's an Abita Turbo Dog down here in Louisiana or a Fat Tire Ale in Colorado, or a Shiner Bock in Texas, these beers are connected to the place where they are created. It's no surprise that microbreweries have exploded in popularity in recent years. Every time I travel some new place I like to try the local microbrews. The flavors connect me with the place and the people and the culture. And this is what I see is happening with worship music. Sure small worship projects have not exploded on the scene the way microbreweries have but it's coming. With the advent of online communities like Myspace and the myriad of sites where artists can post MP3s micro-worship projects are connecting with people organically. Like microbrews, they aren't marketed heavily but rely on word of mouth recommendations. I can only hope that micro-worship will experience the same surge as microbreweries.

What micro-worship projects lack in budgets and expensive studio gear they make up for in creativity, heart and soul. That's why they work.

I was reading the book Velvet Elvis by Rob Bell the other day. He made the observation that when God created everything he said it was good, not it was perfect. God's good creation required man to steward it, to cultivate it, to organize and interact with it - and that to is a good thing.

Too often we musicians, and worship leaders try and create perfect instead of good, but our perfection typically comes at the expense of soul. I've heard many a perfect worship CDs that weren't good. On the other hand I've heard many really good worship projects that were far from perfect. I'm not saying that we need to get sloppy with things and turn out any old thing that pops into our heads. However perfectionism can never be satisfied and takes a heavy toll on the soul, and even worse fails to connect with the listener.

Being fully human is good - it is in fact what we were meant to be. Our music, our worship, and our worship music need the human touch, the human connection, and the human soul. There is nothing whatsoever wrong with that. What is wrong is when we take our human worship music and try to make it something else. When perfectionism takes over the music becomes less than human, and connects on a less than human level. This too is one of the major flaws of Contemporary Christian Music; it has traded goodness for perfection.

The words of David, the great psalmist, were not perfect (at least in the sense that we think of perfection though they do make up the biggest book of the Bible.) They were earthy and organic, full of passion and emotion, raw and honest. These are the types of songs we need. These are the types of songs that our communities need. These are the songs that are full of salt to bring out the God-flavors of the listeners hearts. Like microbreweries our songs and recordings should have a connection with the locale in which they were created and should carry the uniqueness of flavor and expression that arises out of community, love, care, and humble worship.

So go out and find some good micro-worship and when you do let me know what you find. I would love to get a hold of some new stuff. I know its out there.


Sunday, June 04, 2006

The "Soul" in Music Pt.3 - Speaking Through Music

I have been leading worship at The Vineyard Church in Kenner for about 3 and a half years now. When I first came on staff there they were doing 5 services a weekend and by the next year had begun doing 8 services a weekend. It got to the point where I had to start writing down the frequency that we played songs because I would be ready after 2 weekends to drop a song from our repertoire. This was because in 2 weekends worth of playing a song I would have played a new song some twenty times for the 2 times folks in the audience had heard it.

All that to say I've led a lot of worship services in 3 and a half years. I am glad that for the moment our church is only doing 3 services because I am able to keep things a bit fresher than when we did 8 services. But still I get to the point where I get burned out on leading worship. I believe part of this is due to the fact that worship music simply isn't very challenging musically. Much of that is intentional because simple songs are easier for congregations to join in with. In worship music you don't want people in awe of the musicians but in awe of God. Anyway that's a bit of a rabbit trail. Well for the last three weeks I have been able to be a musician in our worship band as we have had others leading the worship. I feel like I am beginning to experience worship in a renewed way as I worship through my instrument. I've actually been playing bass quite a bit lately.

One thing I like about worshiping through an instrument is trying to communicate without using words. I want my bass playing or guitar playing to help communicate what the lyrics are saying. I want to lock in with the other musicians so that we collectively say something musically that helps folks in their worship experience.

I have been a big fan of Stevie Ray Vaughan since I was in high school. There was one song that I really loved when it came out but the older I get I have a much more acute appreciation of. The song is "The Sky Is Crying". In that song Stevie Ray plays this guitar solo that is just dripping with soul. The main riff of the thing is not too difficult. As a matter of fact it was one of the first riffs I learned to play in blues. But what it took me a while to get is that Stevie Ray was talking through that note. He was singing a song about being torn up over lost love. He's so tore up in this song that even the rain falling from the sky seems to echo his sentiment. It's as if the world around him is as torn up as he is. And then when the solo comes along he makes his guitar cry. His guitar is wailing. That one simple riff is the sobbing of the sky, of his soul, through the guitar. When I first heard the song I liked it but I just took it to be some kind of simplistic blues tunes. On the contrary there was some real heavy stuff in there. That's speaking with music.

Another musician who can really speak through his guitar is Jeff Tweedy of Wilco. Jeff Tweedy isn’t a pretty sounding guitar player but you can bet his guitar will communicate whatever the song is saying. There is a song on their "A Ghost Is Born" CD called spiders. As the band drones along keeping time he plays a rather a-tonal solo that sounds just like spiders spinning webs - real cool.

Some musicians are very talented but there playing says nothing. 2 years ago I saw the bass player Victor Wooten at the House of Blues. Though his playing was top-notch for the most part, it didn't have much soul to me. The whole concert was just a show off session. Well a few weeks later I got to see Robert Randolph who is the Jimi Hendrix of pedal steel. He made this pedal steel sound like a black woman singing in church - beautiful. Though the dude was extremely talented he wasn't showing off. He was saying something with his music.

I think that's one aspect of what really works about Nora Jones. She could have come out trying to be big on the R & B charts and probably had some success. Instead she just keeps at it with her smoky understated voice that perfectly conveys the words of the songs she sings.

This is something that we musicians must remind ourselves is important. It's not so much what you play but how you play it.