Monday, August 16, 2010

Phish or Ghoti?

The band Phish played two concerts in Chicago this weekend. A couple of my grown children used to be Phish fans (and maybe still are), which was my point of reference when I heard the announcements on Chicago's public radio station - which was both cool and ... strange. And hearing the band's name again set up a string of associations. Bear with me!

First, the spelling of the name. Well, it's rather obvious. But I had recently seen the YouTube post "Everyday IPA" at the ChoralNet daily blog, and was still chuckling over that. And that made me think of the notion, generally attributed to George Bernard Shaw, that with the outrageous inconsistencies in English spelling, the word "fish" could be spelled ghoti.

Shaw is credited with this facetious observation, because he was an ardent advocate for the reform of English spelling. A reform which I suppose school children would welcome, as would those learning English as a second language. But without an English version of L'Academie francaise it just never can take hold. The argument - made to highlight how crazy it is to have a language with such diverse spelling options - goes like this:
gh - "f" as in laugh
o - "i" as in women
ti - "sh" as in election or initial
Of course, there are rules of pronunciation that actually rule out that the letters put in the given order would be pronounced "fish." Gh only carries the "f" sound at the end of words, for example. And yet, I suppose this is part of the point for Shaw or whomever would use ghoti to argue for spelling reform. Those may be the rules, but ... why?

OK, I can't help but think of my work, and particularly that part of the work that decides what the congregation will sing in worship. If we want to sing about "fish" - must we sing "phish" to appeal to a younger, pop-music-driven crowd? On the other hand, may our song ever be so esoteric as to hide "fish" in ghoti? What if we have both a youthful crowd, and a highly educated crowd, together? Wouldn't "fish" be best served up, in its simplest, most straight-forward, standard form?

I can certainly ask the same of preachers. Why talk "phish" in a multi-generational context? And please, don't take a detour in the arcane and tell me why "fish" is really ghoti is really - after all -  fish!

I'm trying to finish up my prep work for the new choir season. We won't be singing any Phish, and I'll try to be careful that ghoti doesn't factor into the repertoire here, either. Here's to clarity: which is not simplistic, not the tried and true, and certainly not tasteless. But which we can count on being direct, honest, and beautiful.

Monday, August 2, 2010

photo op

I had to take my dog to the vet the other day. Poor fellow. And my dog, too; I also felt sorry for Truman.

Truman (it's not a political name; it's for the Jim Carrey role) had to leave the examining room with the vet, while I stayed behind. Normally my Karen takes Tru in, and I understand nearly all visits go this way. The poor vet. I had to wait in the examining room and, unusually, had not brought along something to read.

So, I looked at the informational posters. The photo montage of the cats and dogs that this vet cares for, whatever was on the wall. And eventually I got to this photo I'm going to try to describe. You've seen a photomosaic before, I'm sure. Perhaps the classic is the "photo" of Abraham Lincoln. As you approach it, it takes on a pointillistic look, and then upon inspection you see that it is comprised of fourscore and seven tiny photographs, all of them of Abraham Lincoln, but not all of them alike.

This was that technique, a picture of "a dog" that was, upon closer inspection, many pictures of all kinds of dogs, put together in just such a way as to create someone's idea (I suppose) of the ideal dog. (Though, I have to say, it didn't look like Truman, so ...)

And, POW! It was but a small quick hop to see how like a photomosaic a choir is. Visually, a robed choir is like this. I recently had occasion to defend the concept of a robed choir at my church. My argument is always: we want to be seen as a whole, not as a group of individuals; no one stands out in a robed choir. Those who see are not distracted by the very well dressed nor the, shall we say, sartorially challenged among us.

And aurally, any choir is like this. "More than the sum of its parts" only begins to describe it. Let's say the featured "dog" in question is an Australian Shepherd mix (just for example's sake, and let's call him Truman). He is beautiful, and you want to get closer to him. But as you do, you notice that his picture is comprised of other kinds of shepherds, bird dogs, lap dogs, ratters, fancy show dogs, and that lousy mutt down the street whose business always ends up in your front yard. The church choir, in particular (and I suppose most school choirs, many community choirs, and others with which I have no experience) may include the gamut of musical experience, ability, finesse, etc. They have, perhaps, very little in common, and mostly that is: they sing. One may or may not wish to hear every participant sing alone, just as one may or may not wish to own a Dachshund or a Great Dane. But their combined sound will, with proper care, result in a "picture" that may be surprising - surprising in its composite ("what?! you made us into an Aussie?!") and surprising in its detail ("what?! you included a Chihuahua?!").

Some artist has to create the photomosaic. I see that there is software that will do this. Of course there is. But in the end, it takes an artful eye to make it truly pleasing and more surprising the closer you get to the picture. It is not all about technique.

Some artist has to create the choralmosaic. Sure, I can learn techniques to help with it. But in the end, it will take an artful ear to turn a group of people (I refuse to stoop to the easy joke here) into a choir that people will want to hear, week after week, season to season, year to year.

I don't have a photomosaic in my home or office. If I did, I'm sure I would begin to take the overall picture for granted. I might even get bored with it. I certainly would if I didn't stop, now and then anyway, to look at the little details that made up the whole. To explore and enjoy the little Lincolns, or the array of breeds, that made up the big picture. Just like working with the choir. It is not all about the overall sound, the big picture, it is every bit as much about the details, the tiny pieces, the individuals who allow themselves to be placed just so in this work.

Well, it's an imperfect analogy, and I want to consider it more. But it's a helpful one. I should just probably use the Lincoln photo, and not the dog photo, when I begin to apply it to my own choir.