The newness of the old way
Via sgblognews, I see that Janet Paschal is laying down vocal tracks for her hymns project (I’ve written about it already here and here). Reading through these two entries, I was struck by two things. One is the genuine sense you get from Paschal’s writing about how focused she (and her production team) is on immersing herself and the album in as much of the original context and style of these hymns as possible.
Yesterday we recorded some vocals as well as a pipe organ track. We went to a church in Nashville that boasts a huge, resonant pipe organ setup. Like my dad, I don’t know how to play a pipe organ, but I know when it sounds right. Yesterday it was right. Wayne (producer, arranger, all around nice person) decided to use the original arrangement and it was as though hearing it on the big pipe organ transported you to a different time. It made the words sink deeper, knowing the musical swells and chords and rests were just where the originator intended.
It’s possible that Paschal means to say in that last line that music is “better” when it’s performed as the writer or original arranger “intended.” But I don’t think that’s quite it, exactly (not least of all because I’ve always assumed an artist as capable and experienced as Paschal long ago learned that what makes art art is that it admits to a wide range of interpretations and adaptations in the eyes, ears, minds, and hearts of the people interacting with it). What I think Paschal might actually be saying is that in this case, invigorating old material with new insight and discovery requires returning to the first musical principles these songs emerged from.
Paradoxical as it may seem – to make something newly inspired by doing it the old way (which is not the same thing as doing something “in an old timey style,” the way most sg folks think) – this makes a certain amount of sense if you think about it. Genuinely “old” music, in the sense of music arranged and recorded as close as possible to how it was originally written, will seem new to us in most cases. Why? Because of all the monkeying around that people have done with the tradition of the hymnody in the last five or six decades. It’s not necessarily all the Brentwood Jazz series’ fault – that seemingly endless supply of smooth and light jazz arrangements of hymns from the 90s that represented the summa (or maybe the nadir) of “let’s do something really funky with this old song” approach to Christian music – but to say it and take it back suggests how the mass reproduction and rearrangement of derivatives derived from derivations of bad imitations have laid waste to a once great and stately tradition of Protestant hymnody.
In this light (and this is my second point), it’s quite possible that even for an artist of Paschal’s experience and skill, a real return to original contexts could be a process of authentic awakening. An experience of artistic (maybe even personal) growth, of stretching and expanding, through the discovery of familiar songs in their (often unfamiliar) original context.
Notice, discovery. Not rediscovery.
As the crusty, flaky, brittle and faded layers of abortive rearrangements and “creative” reimaginings gone awry are chipped away, the long-lost luster and simple beauty reveals itself, preserved by the graceful insight of those gifted lyricists and writers with the old world names: Bliss and Watts and von Schlegel and Sibelius. (I cannot, for instance, be sure I’ve ever really heard an arrangement of “Be Still My Soul” that’s genuinely faithful to Sebelius’ score for Finlandia; thanks, I gather, to Paschal’s album, I finally will.) We have not so much as forgotten the songs of this tradition as never really known them, in most cases, to begin with.Email this Post