Sunday, October 2, 2016

Hurry up, People of the Risen King!

I might have left this alone, except within a couple of weeks we had the same experience in two separate churches. Both are churches with fine music programs, whose services we appreciate, and whose ministries we admire. But both sang the same song wrongly.

You ask, how can I say that a song is sung wrongly?

Years ago I heard a fascinating interview with Quincy Jones, the great musician and music producer. He holds the most Grammy nominations, and nearly 30 Grammy awards. He’s been at it a long time, for decades racking up awards for producing in many styles of music. Asked for the key to his success, Mr. Jones replied with one word: “Tempo.” Get the tempo of a song right, he said, and you get the song right.

Twice within three weeks at the end of summer I was expected to sing “Come, People of the Risen King” at a tempo that is, technically, humanly possible—but hardly optimal. Granted, since I didn’t clock either service with a metronome, I only have my subjective memory to go on. But in both places the speed of the song was fast enough to just barely get the words out. Certainly too fast to sing with real understanding or meaning. (And this is a song I know well.)

After the second of these experiences I wondered what might have driven that fast tempo. Is this how the song is being recorded? Are service planners so worried about length of service? Are we worried that people will grow bored, or have grown bored with the song? Nerves?

I rather like the song, and am responsible for introducing it in one of the churches where we sang it this summer. So I came home and did a bit of YouTubing. Predictably the leading videos are of the Gettys themselves performing the song co-written with Stuart Townend. Very near the top of the list is also Mr. Townend performing the song. Ah, there’s the definitive tempo, right?

Very singable, with both breadth and welcome. Ironically, the only really fast version I found in my quick search was by a robed choir singing a choral arrangement of the piece. It would seem there is not an unavoidable online move to re-cast the song.

But can I say the song was wrongly sung in both churches? I believe so. First, because it was difficult to sing the (excellent) text clearly. (And again, this is a text I know; I wasn’t trying to parse the text as I sang.) Second, the song at a too-fast tempo has more of an urgency than a sense of invitation to it. And only third, but importantly, the song creators themselves might be considered to be the best judge of the appropriate tempo for their own song. (I know this is not always the case, but in any case, surely we may privilege a song’s creator with knowing how it goes best?)

As we invite congregations to sing any text, let’s exercise our inner Quincy Jones, and recognize that tempo is one of the means we have to let our singing be “filled with the Spirit” and “let the Word of Christ dwell richly” in those who sing.