Process, or product? (music)

The earlier post in this sequence “Process, or product? (theology) promised that there would be a second post – the one you are now reading. By way of a link as well as an opening, here is a quotation from that post:

“On a deeper conceptual level, this is one of the fundamental differences between musicology and ethnomusicology…the former prioritises musical products as an object of study – whereas my preferred (well, to a certain extent) discipline of ethnomusicology appraises the processes by which and in which music is made!”

At risk of the accusation of self-aggrandisement, there is also a link to another post on this blog in which the point is made that one cannot be ‘unmusical’ and still claim to be spiritual (if you’re confused, I do suggest that you read it for yourself  (“Musical integrity; spiritual integrity”). Residents of Westernised regions of the world live in a product-driven society – a socio-cultural value paradigm that can now be found almost anywhere on the planet. A relevant digression to make the point: I remember being on a trip to the now war-torn area of Darfur in the Sudan in the late 1990s (it was SUCH a beautiful place with such nice people I have been struck dumb to see what they did to it) and in a little place in the middle of nowhere I stayed in a guest-house with cable TV. Cable TV on which all manner of good bad and indifferent was broadcast. There was what in those days would been considered an extensive selection of films (how times have changed!), and as I noted the lethal cocktails of sex and violence and politics and power and materialism that were being served up on that TV screen, I realised that Africa – the Africa of my childhood – was in a process of change – including Westernisation – and that this change was not going to be for the better. Nearly 15 years later the reality of this situation continues to get worse.

I repeat: residents of Westernised regions of the world live in a product-driven society – a socio-cultural value paradigm that can now be found almost anywhere on the planet. This is a reality with serious implications for music – and for music-making.

Right there, I have begun to hint at where I would like your thoughts to begin turning. What is the difference between ‘music’ and ‘music-making?’ I’ve had a huge number of reasons to think about this in a career that has spanned more diverse playing situations than some people have had hot dinners. Is the music the ‘mechanical’ product (i.e. the CD, tape, LP record, mni-disc, mp3/mp4 file etc)? Or is the ‘music’ the score (the manuscripted sheet music)? Could it be that the music is in fact the actual sound itself – the sound which is ‘captured’ either by the score or the recording (or both)? Then again, perhaps the music is the IDEA, or CONCEPT – which is then ‘realised’ in the actual melody/harmony/rhythm of what we call musical sound…

OK, that last one was deliberately esoteric – but in fact it is not as vague as you may have thought. If you think you know what music is, then I challenge you to define it in simple words that no-one can argue with. A non-contestable definition is considered a holy grail of sorts in Westernised society – it means that the definition carries more authority than is otherwise the case, and is the kind of thing that assiduous students the world over write down and occasionally memorise for the purpose of passing examinations…

If the literature in the field of the ‘philosophy of music’ (yes, this IS a recognised sub-discipline within both philosophy and musicology) is anything to go by, music is a phenomenon about which people find themselves roused to having strong ideas and feelings – with precious little technical awareness of how this phenomenon really functions. The philosophers of music are clever people with hard-earned degrees, but the academic in me is seriously unimpressed with the work in this field – because this academic is also a practitioner – and musicians like myself usually have ZERO time to philosophise about music. But what I’m saying is that in the area of music the philosophers know no more than you or I. In my list of pseudo-apocryphal would-be definitions of music above I never even mentioned the option of defining music in purely physical terms (soundwaves, particles, frequencies, partials etc). Is music a sequence of randomised sounds out of which we have trained ourselves to see meaning and significance as well as order?

The sheer challenge of even thinking about those questions is possibly the biggest reason why folk don’t really stop to think about music as phenomenon. As I discovered in teaching a class at an evangelism training school (within the Adventist church) less than a year ago, even a group of spiritual and well-motivated Christians do not do especially well in thinking in a really technical way about music. They had a sense of the real importance of music in the Christian life, and a tiny number of them were especially musical and really interested in engaging at a higher plane of thought on the subject of music. But for the rest of that particular group, it was harder going than I had anticipated (I do intend to modify my pedagogical approach to that particular teaching context in future). We have to have some genuine sense of what music actually is in order to be able to make an appraisal of a musical process. We do not need that same knowledge to consume music.

When we consume, we consume the ‘product.’ So the product is not necessarily ‘physical’ – a live performance would be an example of a product.

But the quick-thinkers among you may have begun to clock on to the problem with what I just said – a ‘live performance’ is an event that takes place in time – ‘real time’  – therefore, if there is a start time and and end time that is not the same, we have witnessed an event – so that was also a process…!

If  by now what I am getting at is not clear, let me try to spell it out: in music, process and product are inextricably linked, but music does not and cannot exist without ‘music-making.’ So for there to be successful music, there has to be successful music-making. The process is incredibly important. And yet, in the church, we spend such an abominably small amout of time really considering the means by which we arrive at a) musical values; b) musical products – it is little wonder that our ‘music ministries’ are frequently more effective as a) live performance; b) live cabaret; c) freak show; d) ego trip vehicles.

How is music going to actually become a means of LITERALLY sharing faith? How is music going to be a means that the Holy Spirit can actually use to help convict a person? I heard two of the best ‘music day’ sermons I’ve ever heard by two young brothers (in Christ as opposed to biologically) – one of which featured the epithet “God needs your body.” In the interest of fairness and parity, I will say now that I have already planned to refer to the other sermon in a later post – both these two hombres might just end up reading this! 🙂

God really does need our bodies. He needs those bodies in the exact same way that He needs our minds. Where I’m going with this is very serious. For music to actually have real spiritual effectiveness, the music practitioners need to be imbued with the reality of God in their lives and possess an unswavering commitment to bringing the reality of God into every single element of the PROCESS of living their lives; what they eat, drink, read, watch on TV (if anything at all), how they handle their relationships, finances, work responsibilities, etc. All this will mean still mean nothing unless they bring that all of their spiritual selves to each and every area of the PROCESS of music-making (technical work for singers and instrumentalists. How many of you know that in some academic music institutions, singers book practice rooms and practise their instruments the exact manner of instrumentalists? Some classical and some jazz singers even practise scales!! [I know some of you will completely fail to get your heads around what I just said, but you’d best believe it, because it is the truth]. God has to come into the ‘practice room’ where the technical work is being done; where the musical notes are being learnt; where the feel and the timing and the tuning are being perfected before there can be a PRODUCT that is both musically credible as well as spiritually credible – and moreover, one that actually acts as a viable transport for the Spirit of God to work on the human hearts of those who consume the PRODUCT.

The secular world understands how important the PROCESS is. The Church does not. Right across denomination, there is a comprehensive failure to allow due recognition of the processes required for both consistent musical and spiritual excellence. It is not encouraged. People find their way to excellence and mastery in music ministry DESPITE the church – not BECAUSE of the church.

Yes, I went there, I do mean it quite literally in the present tense – and as a lifelong Seventh-Day Adventist who has never left the church and been musically active in church music for most of my entire life, what I said in that last paragraph is completely true for me personally. I’ll leave you to consider the ramifications of that reality for yourself.

If you are a pastor reading this, I urge you to ask God to show you how to become more effective in encouraging a higher standard of service and ministry from the music leaders and practitioners in your congregation. If you are a music minister of some sort and you feel that you would do more and better if only you knew how, get on your knees and PRAY. Then, get off your knees and leave no stone unturned in the search for resources and opportunities to advance your skills and your understanding. God is NOT interested in the ‘naturally’ talented, financially solvent and educationally fortunate music ministers to the exclusion of everyone else. If you have been called to music ministry – like any other ministry – then you have been called to excellence. I’m going to close out here with a very serious statement and a confession.

I was a really, really good treble singer (boy soprano) until my voice broke. I was four months into my 11th birthday. Since then, I have not had anything resembling a solo voice as a singer. And indeed, I never cared too much. I was LOVING being an instrumentalist. In professional music, in every genre of music singers are notorious for being ‘singers’ as opposed to ‘musicians.’ I joined in the jokes and banter like everyone else. I had no time for it.

But I was inspired by a certain British Adventist piano-playing choral director – and somehow that idea of being a choral director never went away. Long story short, God called me to choral work – and now it is a major part of what I do. I consider the work of the choral director who works in sacred music unto God to be the highest calling in music.

I had a great framework for the idea that you did not need to be a singer to be a good choral conductor. I educated myself in many ways about the voice, and by the grace of God (literally) I was able to achieve some incredible and astonishing results with people from all sorts of backgrounds and abilities. I am not boasting; merely being matter-of-fact.

But for five years, God has been trying to get my attention to one important issue – my own voice matters. Not for me personally – but in order to reach the highest level possible as a choral director, I need to be more vocally aware and more vocally capable than I am. Especially the way in which classical music operates! The technical standard of choral conductors is now the highest than at any point in the history of conducting. If I am to operate at the professional standard, then I need to be able to work to the same technical level before I get to bring my spiritual and conceptual self and ideas to the table. And as I become more aware of what the best technical practice of choral conducting involves, I know that in the SDA church most of us will die before ever experiencing sacred music at this level. So for me to offer God the highest standard of praise as a choral conductor, I will have to work with secular people – most of whom will not care for what I believe. So it is my EFFECTIVENESS in the PROCESS of rehearsal and performance that will gain me a hearing.

And given that I aspire to conducting the greatest sacred choral works we have in the canon of classical music – and really experiencing the Holy Spirit use the music as a transport – it is now clear that my own vocal deficiencies are hurting my abilities to raise my singers to the highest level.

Now – if I’d understood just how crucial this would turn out to be, I’d have taken advantage of singing lessons and other opportunities in the past that would have helped me work on my own voice. But I honestly did not understand. And I lost those opportunities. The Holy Spirit was trying to get my attention, but I truthfully had no framework to hear what He was saying to me in that area, so I had no idea that it was He trying to get to me. I made other decisions which were well-adjudged and wholly well-intentioned – but now, if I could go back, I’d do things differently.

This is why Isaiah 43 is such an important chapter. Rather than direct you to just one verse – the pastor in me encourages you to go read the whole thing. It is not all over. I truly did not know, and did not understand. But now that I do, I am responsible.

And, my brothers and sisters by both creation and redemption – so are you!

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