I had the very odd experience yesterday of attending a committee meeting at my church and then attending a local AGO meeting where the organ builder contracted to put in an organ (Casavant) gave a presentation about the process. I am thinking this morning about the lack of vision and authenticity I experience in both situations and how it relates to the consumerism which dominates our culture.
I experience my church community as an opportunity to present the profundity and beauty of the intersection of excellent music with public prayer. At the same time I am confronted with what Borgmann calls the inevitable “stunted and marginal state” of any church in our culture. What remains of Christian liturgical churches in the USA seems to be vestigial and far from the “communities of celebration” we as humans so badly need. In the wake and noise of our consumer culture a liturgical Christian community has what is probably an insurmountable task to exist authentically. Our real religion, the one we are all taught and live out daily, is that the purpose of life is to consume. (Power Failure: Christianity in the Culture of Technology, p. 62).
This is a bit harsher than I mean it to sound. I am continually trying to analyse my attempts at helping my church community worship authentically as possible. Worship as a “gesture” in which the gathered community reaches “out in hope toward transcendence.” This last phrase comes from Peter Berger’s A Rumor of Angles: Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatural. When I read the phrase I thought it also nicely pointed to why someone might choose to listen to profound music as well consume entertaining music (the latter activity seemingly predominating what people think of when they think of music these days).
Which brings me back to my church community and the AGO meeting.
The AGO meeting was a morass of complexity and lack of vision and knowledge. I listened to the representative from Casavant from my perch in the back of the room. All my fears about the direction Hope College is going with its new music building were pretty much confirmed. The building and the organ seem to have been conceived without bringing a depth of knowledge and wisdom to the process. I understand it was quite a struggle to arrive at the solutions for the design of the organ. And there was obviously some cleverness in the final choices we saw last night. But unfortunately, they have elected to hide the pipes and put an entire French Romantic style organ under expression (this means confined into a chamber with Venetian blind like louvers to allow control of the sound). This is a very odd choice. The man from Casvant did a slide show of beautiful instruments they have installed over the world. Not one showed pipes hidden to the extent our local people have insisted on. I took this to be a subtle point on his part (that we’re doing it wrong). I was also particularly discouraged to hear that the expected reverberation of a musical performance room was under 3 seconds. It should be a great room for small instrumental ensembles if that is the case. But organs and choral singing, not so much.
But further here in Western Michigan, every power struggle seems tainted with an odd Calvinistic materialism and reductiveness.
I sometimes picture our local leaders as burgesses very impressed with their own local life and blissfully unaware of larger perspectives. The very definition of provincial. But maybe that’s just America these days.
It’s a good thing that I am not that invested in the future of Hope’s music building. I do wish them well and hope I’m wrong about how it will turn out.
At church I attempt to help the community do its worship with music that is transcendent as well as holding obvious meaning for and relationship to public prayer. This is my act of faith and investment of my professional self. I continue to believe in beauty and its authenticity when it’s not clear that I or the music we are doing is connecting with the people all that well.
The best I can do sometimes is to imagine that the music is floating over the heads of the people who are gathered closer to me in the back of the church who do not seem to notice I am doing anything at the organ console and that the community is indeed listening as I play a prelude. It becomes more clear that people are connected when they themselves are making the music in singing. This is probably one of the things that encourages me the most. I feel that the experience of doing music and prayer will lead us to gestures that are authentic, hopeful and transcendent.