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.

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Comments

  1. Trent wrote:

    Some very good points.

    However, an argument could be made that the way a song sounded in 1886 when played on instruments of that day will not touch people today–at least not as much as if it were played on modern instruments.

    Here’s a modern-period example of what I’m talking about. If you went to Nashville with your singing group in 1972 and cut tracks on “What A Day That Will Be”, you would be arriving in town during the heyday period of the steel guitar. Those Nashville players and producers would put the steel on just about any ballad coming into town. This was effective with the listening public. Now fast forward to today, and let’s say the Perrys record it. There may be touches of the steel on the song, but you’re not going to have it laden with the George & Tammy heaviness of it from the early ’70s.

    Likewise, let’s say you do “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” with all organ. That is probably the way it was played a lot in its early life. People are not going to respond to it as well as they would if you put some orchestrations on it.

    Second point: You mentioned playing a song as the original songwriter intended. I recently was part of a tracking session where a song I had written was being laid down by Nashville players. They put it down much more aggressively and driving and modern-sounding than the way I had the song playing in my mind. I almost said something to the producer after the track was cut right on the spot, but I smiled and let the session go on.

    After the session was over, I listened to the song many times, of course. I am now absolutely in love with the way they played the tune and I wouldn’t want this cut to sound any other way. So, my point is the songwriter is often open to other interpretations of his/her song, as long as quality prevails.

    Now, I have a question. Could you define for us “summa” and “nadir”. Are these names of famous wrestlers overseas?

  2. RF wrote:

    There are a couple of ways of looking at this and I’ve pondered them quite some time.

    I think songwriters intend for their work to be done a certain way. I’ve always enjoyed listening to songwriters’ interpretations of their own work. For instance, comparing Jimmy Webb’s recording of “Campo de Encino” with Harry Nilsson’s. It’s fascinating to see what the songwriter intended. And you can say the same thing about Bill Gaither, but Gaither changes things a lot. Witness the new twist on “The King is Coming” he started in about 2001. A totally different chord progression on the chorus.

    When you consider what Janet is doing, though, you are talking about he gems of the church. These hymns have lasted over 100 years (and in many cases more), so how are we to know what they intended? We can guess or we can do research to try to find out. How was it first played? We’ll probably never know. But does it matter? At least the great language used in these songs and the wonderful melodies will see llight again and for a moment we can escape the mindless repetition of “praise choruses”. Real music with real lyrics and the possibility of a sg artist using a pipe organ. I can hardly wait for this to come out.

  3. Alan wrote:

    A rather brilliant piece of writing, Doug, and Trent’s observations are excellent as well. In an e-mail to a friend this evening, who’s heard Greater Vision’s new hymn project,
    “Hymns of the Ages”, (I haven’t yet) I told him that even without hearing them, I feel that the GV project, and the new hymns project from Janet Paschal, will likely define that genre for a very long time to come. To me, Janet emotes a song, and phrases, better than anyone today. She reminds me of something that Marijohn Wilkins (One Day At A Time) told me once: that there are just “songwriter’s singers”; those rare jewels who intuitively give voice to the song, exactly as the writer intended and envisioned it to be sung. I have not one doubt that when Janet’s new CD is all polished and ready, we’ll all get to hear every word, and every note, masterfully presented just as the writers of old would have wanted them to be. For one, I cannot wait to hear that project for the first time. I’ll save it for a time when I can devote every fiber of my being to the concentration needed, and I also have no doubt that it will be one of the defining moments of my journey.

  4. David Bruce Murray wrote:

    “Summa” is what Sean Penn calls the season between Spring and Fall when he’s mangling a Southern accent (as he did in _All The King’s Men_).

    “Nadir” is the ultra-environmentalist guy whose presence in the presidential race in 2000 was just enough to cost Al Gore the election.

  5. arnold wrote:

    But will the SG consumer stand and cheer if there is not a key change for every verse, and a screaming, screeching double suspended, staggered resolution chord on the end? If the veins are not sticking out on the little tenor singer’s neck, and the baritone ain’t sweating through his twice taylored yellow suit jacket, it ain’t God!

  6. CVH wrote:

    The hymns and sacred songs from a century or two ago were written and performed on the instruments common at that time period. Surely the writers could not imagine what their works would sound like a century hence, when played on instruments of a newer era. Again, leaping forward a century from now, we cannot imagine how music will be created (will there be a continuation of the development of electronic interpretations or will there be a backlash effect and a move toward the use of simple acoustic instruments? Or both?)

    You can recreate a piece of music the way it was originally written (orchestral, piano, organ music) or you can ‘adapt’ it to modern orchestra and solo instruments. When music is performed and interpreted by players of later eras
    it seems inevitable that there will be adaptations made to accomodate changes in musicality and technology. Even classical pieces are often ‘re-interpreted’ by modern conductors and/or arrangers.

    Thus the aforementioned Brentwood series; a few tasty cuts here and there but a lot of it unimaginative and predictable. The same with much of the contemporized versions of traditional songs. Most of it’s a notch above elevator music but only a notch.

    Speaking of hymns, two of the big albums out now are the “music inspired by” the Amazing Grace movie (EMI I think) and the new WOW Hymns 2007 (Word). There are a lot of overlapping tracks between the two projects but they each represent interpretations of traditional hymn texts in contemporary arrangements by popular CCM artists. While I found a few nice moments on the discs, for the most part it is just a regurgitation of the melodies in the artists respective styles. It may be inspiring to some and perhaps an introduction to some of the hymn texts to listeners who aren’t familiar with the songs. But it’s a marketing thing - because on the WOW Hymns you will also find some quasi-hymn-like-sounding new original songs; and Chris Tomlin wrote an additional verse for his version of Amazing Grace. I’m not sure it was necessary and some would argue it besmirches the ’sanctity’ of the original text. But again, this was not designed to be an authentic recreation of the hymns; it’s a marketing project with hymns as the means to that end.

    One can occasionally find an obscure album of hymns recorded ‘authentically’
    with period instruments and singing in a traditional style. But I doubt, however noble its intention or purpose, anyone but a musical purist would buy it or enjoy it. I’m sure Paschal and Haun will do a commendable and respectful job on the material they’ve chosen. And I can’t think of many voices I’d rather hear to bring these lyrics to life than Janet’s. But there’s always going to be that tug and pull of how ‘traditional’ and ‘authentic’ to make the project.

    I think the awakening you’re referring to can happen if the music is faithfully produced (which takes research, skill and a sense of daring, since it would certainly lead you down a less commercial path than would otherwise be the case) and if the listener/consumer is ready for that experience. While anyone can (hopefully) get something out of a hymn arrangement, traditional or contemporary, it takes a willingness to engage the art and let it move you. I don’t care whether a hymn is interpreted in traditional fashion or in a more contemporary style as long as it’s done well. Too often today listeners want an easy buzz or a quick tearjerker, then they move on, unchanged and unfazed by the experience. Most music is ingested superficially. As I said in my response to the post a week or two ago about ‘mediocre Christian arts’, creating and understanding good art is hard.
    Transcendent experiences, as an artist or listener, are not limited by style as much as by knowing truth and engaging it as transparently as possible.

  7. Diva0427 wrote:

    I actually enjoyed when 4Him did their take on hymns a few years back. My understanding is that they did research into the background of the hymn itself, the writer, location, etc., and based the musical arrangement on that information. And this album was done BEFORE doing a full album of hymns became popular.

  8. Bob wrote:

    I love hymns and grew up on them - first sung as a congregation either acapella or with a simple piano accompaniament in the church I attended as a child, then with a choir and organ when I began attending a church in the city when I was an adult. I started getting into Contemporary Christian by purchasing hymn albums of artists such as 4HIM, Fernando Ortega and Selah.

    Recently I was inspired all over again by Alan Jackson’s Precious Memories album. His simple interpretation of the hymns, with spare acoustic accompaniment, seemed so heartfelt and honest. It was if I was hearing the songs again for the first time.

    I hope Janet doesn’t fall into the trap of so many others - letting the orchestration overwhelm the wonderful message in these songs. For many of us, our fondest version of a hymn is not when it is sung with a full choir in front of a huge pipe organ, but when it is sung by your mother as she is washing dishes at the sink, or by your wife as she is singing to your baby in the middle of the night…

  9. Trent wrote:

    Some wonderful observations here. This is a great topic. CVH, I thought your post was really insightful, but I must disagree with your statement “creating and understanding good art is hard”.

    Well, creating good art is hard most of the time, whether you are a musician, songwriter, painter or whatever. However, there are those days when things flow. They are truly rare, but on those particular days creating good art is not necessarily hard; it’s just a joy.

    In my opinion, understanding good art is never hard. Great art reaches out and speaks to you, and if you have to look at it for 30 minutes to get it, or you have to listen to the song a dozen times to be touched, the artist’s mission has failed.

  10. jj wrote:

    I buy strawberries whenever I can because my five year old granddaughter is crazy about them. God created strawberries because they taste great, they have nutrients we need and because He’s seems to take pleasure in giving His children pleasure.

    Yesterday, I watched my granddaughter jumped up and down with glee as I took the strawberries of of my refrigerator.
    Then she popped a great, big juicy strawberry in to her delicious mouth. The joy I felt in providing the strawberry seemed to be equal to the joy she felt in eating it. I offered her as many strawberries as she could possibly eat and seh took as many as she wanted. I gave a gift and she enjoyed it. No questions asked. No commentary provided. Just a simple gift and a grateful heart. It appears to be the perfect combination.

    I would hate to see the day arrive when there a numerous websites, with various bloggers, whose only existence on earth seems to be a preoccupation with the origin of strawberries; how to present them properly; how to eat them properly; who does the best job of eating and presenting them in the “proper” way; what’s wrong with people who insist on eating them a “new” way, etc. Dear God in heaven, just eat the strawberry the way you want and thank God for inventing strawberries.

    Don’t you people have lives?
    Music is a gift that God gave the earth.
    Just enjoy it.
    Who cares about whether it’s the OLD way or the NEW way?
    Just let the notes settle on your senses and if you enjoy it - fine.
    If you don’t like “strawberries” then eat a peach.
    The continual nit-picking on the SGM blogasphere is amazingly ridiculous.
    Music is a gift.
    Enjoy it.

  11. thom wrote:

    I believe the “less is more” approach is best when interpreting the classic hymns of the church. I honestly can’t think of any “hymn” project that I have been particularly impressed with - possible exception being the beautifully simplistic piano work on Roger Bennett’s “Midnight Meditations.”

    Maybe Janet’s new one will be the first to “wow” me.

    note to jj: i like the strawberry example, but isn’t the purpose of a blog for people to share their diverse opinions? wouldn’t a blog about SG music be boring without the critiques and dissections?

    I enjoy music without requiring that it be “old” or “new.” There is good in each and what speaks to me today may not speak to me next year - the Lord uses music in that way, to speak to our need.

    Discussing the logistics and nuances of the recording process, the business of selling records, the process of writing, the selection of material, or the choice made by the producer does not in any way lessen the impact of the music.

    If you consider this “nitpicking” and think it is “ridiculous” then maybe reading this blog is not healthy for you.

    Enjoy your strawberries. I know I will. Anybody got any real whipped cream?

  12. CVH wrote:

    Trent,

    Thanks. I don’t disagree with your suggestion that there are days when the creativity just flows. I guess what I meant by the process being ‘hard’ is that, in order for there to BE those days when it ‘just flows’, there first have to be many days and nights (ok, years usually) of working on your craft, pondering it, letting your mind and spirit absorb and process it, honing your skill and acuity…THEN, it sometimes flows.

    A lot of what passes for creativity these days (music, art, written word) seems to be superficial and in our consumer-oriented culture, it’s often taken in superficially. What I meant by saying that understanding good art is hard is that sometimes taking that 30 minutes to look at a painting or re-reading a passage in a book or playing a song over and over to capture every nuance of the orchestration or phrasing or lyric brings a greater depth of meaning and a realization of the artists’ vision. It’s not that good creative work can’t have an immediate impact on the senses, it’s just that some art can speak to us on deeper levels that we too often overlook.

  13. jj wrote:

    Thom,
    I’ve got REAL whipped cream.
    Opinions I can handle.
    Differing opinions I can also handle.
    But in many instances it does go beyond a simple voicing of opinions in to a group of judge and jury.
    I read this blog because the guy writing it is an excellent writer and it encourages me to find a professed Christian doing something excellently. I have no clue who Doug Harrison is, but I enjoy his writing.
    Sometimes he gets slightly judge and jury-ish but a good writer can be forgiven a bad attitude now and then.

    So, Thom, I don’t usually read the blog comments. Guess I was bored today.

  14. Scott wrote:

    This all reminds me of Vestal Goodman’s 1994 Hymns for Life project, the one where Vestal is singing out of what could be the Baptist Hymnal. The accompaniment is John Minick–and the playing is quite unadorned–which is to say understated.

    It’s an amazing album that shows just what can happen when we stop trying to put one over on the Gaither crowd and just sing. Stripping away the layers let’s the songs rise and fall on their own merits, which is probably something antithetical to what we’ve come to associate with Vestal Goodman. Pascal is a different sort of artist, however.

    I’m not one to go back and anaylze the original intent of this author or that. It’s irrelevant, if not impossible. What is relevant to me is music that speaks to me and stirs me where no other music can. It is in the simplicity of this music that one finds, after all, (to quote Marianne Moore) a “place for the geniune.”

  15. Trent wrote:

    CVH, we are on the same page. I agree with everything you said in your last comment.

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