Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Awash in sound

My friend and former colleague, Randall Gruendyke, is the campus pastor at Taylor University, Upland Indiana. In case this post finds its way to his circle, before I quote Randy I want to point out that his comment was made about a decade ago, and is not cited here to portray anything about the current or past situation of chapel music at Taylor.

Hmm. I've never begun a post with a disclaimer. Anyway . . .

Randy made this arresting analogy about highly amplified worship bands. (This will be a pale paraphrase of Randy's always well-spoken observations.) The wall of sound that is produced by a band behind amplifiers is analogous to the "rood screen" in ancient churches. That was the usually ornate screen (wood or stone) behind which the priests did the "real work" of the mass, while the people stood around and waited in front of it. Here's a picture of one of the more famous rood screens still in place:

This is the screen at Westminster Abbey, London. (And while we're here, a little tip: If you're going to Choral Evensong at Westminster, try to get there early enough to get seated behind the screen, where the choir sits. Amazing.)

So, you get the idea. All the important stuff happened behind the screen. The people not only didn't understand the mass when it was not in their language; they couldn't even see what was going on.

Randy's observation was that this is what highly amplified worship music does. It separates those leading the music from those who are supposed to be singing. Often, the visual impact is the same, with amplifiers, keyboards and other instruments between the musicians and the congregation. An altogether apt metaphor, and if you sometimes wonder why so much sound still doesn't help you engage in the singing, just think about it.

But my Karen and I had a similar experience Sunday in a very different context. The robed choir, the organ and piano, the classical orchestra - all suggested visually that this was not going to be a "worship band" service. Nor was it. (In spite of the inexplicable presence of a "worship leader" with a guitar in front of all this. I still don't get that. Was it supposed to make the traditional music feel more folksy?) But it still had its "rood screen" effect. Everything had a microphone, and the whole was amplified through an impressive speaker array. (Though elevated in a very lofty space, it was still visually very present. Sort of like a space station.)

We were awash in sound. The songs and hymns, we wanted to sing. And people were singing. But it became so monotonous.The organ and orchestra never found their way to highlight what each had to offer; the sound just sort of smushed together. The piano would have been completely lost if not for the microphones on it. Also, the violins. But rather than draw out the texture of this rich assortment of instruments, it came out as a bland stew. The impressively large choir also might be a very fine choir, but the microphones did nothing to make it sound other than a bunch of voices singing their hearts out. (Give me a struggling 12-voice choir that can hear and respond to each other, any Sunday morning.)

In the end, while we could actually sing along, the focus still was on what was happening "up front." Not surprisingly, the congregation applauded even after the hymns. Was it, after all, all about what was going on "behind the screen?"

This whole thing about the role of music to guide, lead, coax, encourage the congregation is so important. This weekend I again was reminded that it isn't like one approach naturally gets it while another doesn't. An organ can be that screen of sound, just as much as a praise band. A choir can as much as a guitarist song-leader. The main thing is to know the space we're given for worship, understand how it works best for the voice of the people, and decide how to use the space and musical resources for the best benefit of their singing.

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