Process and product – ongoing thoughts on sacred choral music

In recent months I have been really only rehearsing classical choral music – there has been nothing serious of the gospel variety to rehearse! And while, as a bona-fide gospel choral director, I have found this very strange – and not especially enjoyable – I am growing in clarity as to why God may have allowed this.

Firstly, I have never been busier. And more is coming. I have been shuffling and re-ordering life, but this will be a cyclical process for the rest of my days on this earth  – and maybe even the world made new. Except, of course, that I won’t have sin to contend with – an incredible and powerful reality that continues to fire me up to share this gospel message in words and music. Gospel music is still part of me, but there have been other things to learn that are making me into an exponentially stronger choral directing musician than I would ever otherwise have been.

But it is so interesting to see how the values of the contemporary classical choral world seem to frequently focus on the technical as opposed to the genuinely spiritual – which is complicated, because singing is an incredibly spiritual activity! Yet after one has dealt with voice production, breathing, pronunciation, diction, intonation, blend and the rest – there is very little time AND interest in the kind of word-painting that connects to the actual idea – the actual reality – of the text. I have had to realise – to my shock and surprise – that the technical standard of classical choral conducting at the best level can actually get the sound and vibe and pseudo-spirituality that suffices for many people – including singers in Anglo-European society. Instead of creating a vibe that is based around drawing people to a higher idea itself – and evolving a process that puts the idea first, the music second, and then works flat out to realise the first in the second (the point being that you cannot help but strive to the highest technical standard when you care about the idea) – what happens is that there is a method of rehearsal and performance direction that many archetypal singers have become very used to that demands certain technical details as the priority. There is no drive to connect people to the concept itself. Story, yes! Concept, no. One would have to be a fairly outstanding choral director to be able to make waves with rehearsal technique etc to then be able to actually deal with the biggest ideas in music with the average decent chamber choir.

Reading an article by Professor James Engel that addressed some theological perspectives on J.S. Bach (September 1985), I encountered this passage:

“A few months ago an education channel on television featured a special Bach anniversary program.
Professional soloists were called upon to teach young singers how to interpret certain of Bach’s arias. Much
time was devoted to the techniques, the facial expressions, even the bodily movements involved in performance,
seldom relating any of this to the message of the text. Only once, and then on the side, came a comment
concerning the text from one of the professionals during a discussion of an aria concerning death, and even that
comment questioned Bach’s belief in a life beyond the grave.
Proper evaluation, interpretation and appreciation of Bach’s art, as with the art of any composer, best
begins with a broad understanding of the composer’s intentions, his motives, his roots. We should know “where
he’s coming from.” An understanding of these matters will most certainly provide the listener with deeper
insights into any composer’s musical expressions. This is especially true when one considers the circumstances
which engendered Bach’s liturgical compositions.
But, then, it is easy for one in this pragmatic, technological age to circumvent aesthetic values and to be
taken up with the peripheral here and now. There has been, for example, since the mid-50s an on-going
investigation into the performance practices and performance conditions which surrounded the first
performances of Bach’s music. The results of these investigations have at times brought about performances
strangely out of focus.”

Pretty much anybody who knows anything about Bach’s sacred choral music knows that it is now accepted that he was genuinely deeply religious and spiritual. But the challenge for the secular person is to find one’s own route to and route through this music without really engaging with the spiritual dimension of the music. And the same applies for the other European sacred art  music traditions. The process itself is such an inherently unspiritual one that is in fact amazing that such beautiful-sounding music can be produced. And this brings me to a rather more serious theological point.

Those such as Hans Urs von Balthasar who talk about nature and grace, and even love/Love, as well and beauty – these guys make some really excellent points at times. However, how many people realise that it is a serious mistake to equate actual perceived beauty with genuine spirituality? A beautiful choral sound produced by a world-class chamber choir is not an actual embodiment of spirituality by definition. The associations are powerful and profound – but frequently unregulated! What was the process? If a person wanted to preach a sermon, and they studied tapes (audio and visual) of great preachers and patched together a sermon from what they heard, together with the speaking style/s and mannerisms of one or two preachers and even mimicked the dress style of some of those preachers – it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that they could fool an entire congregation into thinking that they are genuine Christians. Indeed, one of the characters in one of the subtlest, creepiest novels I ever read (by Daphne du Maurier) was a vicar who turned out to be a monster of a human being. And on that note – I have forsaken crime novels, crime dramas on TV – and even suspense dramas – as I am convinced that they have no place in the Christian life and even less place in the lives of those who work in ministry. But I cite the story in order to make the point.

The beauty is not spirituality. It can only point towards the spiritual. So how does sacred choral music that has been rehearsed with no sense of the actually spiritual then become an embodiment of the spiritual?

But having said all that – Bill Hybels argues that there are times when wise Christian leadership puts down the pep talks and rally calls and spiritual exhortations and actually practically and pragmatically takes people through certain things! So the technical, practical knowledge is important – indeed, some of it is totally necessary.

BUT –

I still know that while I have come a long, long way in my technical and practical concept of certain elements of choral direction, the idea will always come first. And when I’m in charge of something, the concept will always drive practice – especially when it comes to matters of Christian faith. That will mean the the process of ‘becoming’ musically will actually harmonise with the process of ‘becoming’ spiritually.

So when you hear and admire beautiful sacred music in any genre – from classical to gospel – stop and think about what the process might have been for those guys to get there. And then listen again and ask yourself what you really hear in the music!

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