Amy Grant, Entertainment, and Worship

by Matthew Raley After the North State Symphony's show with Amy Grant in Redding last week, conductor Kyle Pickett button-holed me for a discussion. Grant had sung "El Shaddai" near the end of the show, getting predictably warm-hearted applause. And the predictability was at the core of Kyle's question.

"Is that kind of response real faith in God? Or is it the result of a great performer crafting her show well?"

Kyle wasn't questioning either Grant’s or our audience's sincerity. He was questioning the mixture of entertainment and worship. Good performances and devout worship are both emotionally powerful. But the worshipper’s emotions are supposed to come from a connection with God, not with a performer. Kyle put his finger on a longstanding issue for Protestant evangelicals: when does a skillful performance eclipse God's presence? And when does human passion drown reverence?

He said, "You need to write an article on this." That's my cue.

For Protestants, this issue goes back to the Reformation.

The reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin did away with the distinction between “sacred” and “secular.” They taught that all aspects of life give glory God in Christ--all vocations, all settings, all human endeavor, not just church activities. Colossians 3:17 says, "And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him." This principle turns even a Christian's "secular" pursuits into worship. This is why Grant sings "El Shaddai" in the same concert with "Big Yellow Taxi."

But the reformers also taught a high view of corporate worship, fashioning a restrained liturgy to emphasize solemnity in the presence of a holy God. No "Big Yellow Taxi" as an offertory.

J. S. Bach often ran afoul of Pietist Lutherans because these two principles were (and are) in tension. A consummate performer and devout worshipper, Bach had no problem giving virtuosity free rein in church. But the Pietists wanted music kept simple to give free rein, as they saw it, to God.

The evangelicals who make up most of Grant's audience have a solution to this tension. Ditch solemnity. Let the popular passions loose with all their boisterous sentimentality. Amy Grant, church, entertainment, worship--they're all whooping it up at the same gospel party.

As an evangelical, I'm not thrilled with that solution. Entertainment often becomes a flippant substitute for doing business with God. To celebrate new life in Christ without attention to the fact that it came at the cost of his life is presumptuous. Because our sins are destructive to ourselves, others, and God’s glory, Christ's forgiveness calls us to express something deeper than "Woo hoo!" True worship comes from an attitude of submission, while entertainment stops at pleasure.

Still, I did not feel that Grant's "El Shaddai" encouraged flippancy in the audience. She directed the audience’s pleasure to the right source.

First, she was clear about being on stage to entertain. Great performers are able to touch deeper themes without being pretentious or manipulative by being straightforward about their purpose. “I’m here to give you pleasure.”

Second, Grant's three decades as a celebrity have seen plenty of controversy. She has received criticism for both her career and personal decisions. From her perspective of the ups and downs of fame, to sing about one of the Hebrew names of God, who "age to age is still the same," is to make a very personal statement of devotion.

Third, she used the craft of performance to focus attention on the words of the song. A manipulative performer would've pulled out all the stops--the full orchestra, back-up singers, a couple of chromatic modulations--to get the audience on their feet with a longstanding hit. Instead, Grant sang alone, accompanied only by acoustic guitar, communicating with directness and intimacy. This is how performers say, "Remember this one. Walk out with this song on your mind."

Of all the things she could have said at such a moment, she chose to say that God is always faithful to us. It was a great use of performance skill—giving pleasure with truth.

What the audience does with such a moment is another matter. Experiencing Grant's testimony, even identifying with it, is too passive. The glory of Christ calls us to go much further, and entertainment cannot take us there. To worship with integrity, we have to marshal all our skills to spotlight Christ.

To put it more directly, Amy Grant has offered her worship. Where’s ours?

A Performance of Berg's Violin Concerto

by Matthew Raley Kyle Wiley Pickett, music director of the North State Symphony (NSS), has built large audiences while programming new music. The NSS has played pieces by regional composers such as CSU Chico's Russell Burnham and Simpson University’s Dan Pinkston, as well as Lowell Lieberman, who is nationally known. On November 10-11, the symphony performed Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto (1935), a classic twelve-tone work, with NSS concertmaster Terrie Baune.

As a member of the first violin section, I was eager to experience the piece from the inside. I was also interested to gauge audience responses, and to consider what kind of spirituality Berg’s work expresses.

In February, 1935, the American violinist Louis Krasner appealed to Berg to produce a work that would show the beauty of twelve-tone music using a concerto form that audiences would readily appreciate.[1] Berg took the commission two months later after the death of 18-year-old Manon Gropius, the daughter of architect Walter Gropius and Alma Mahler, widow of the famous composer. Berg adored the girl, and composed the Concerto in less than four months around the theme of death and loss, inscribing the score, “To the Memory of an Angel.”

The piece rises to Krasner’s challenge in several ways.

It makes dramatic quotations of two tonal melodies, a Carinthian folk song and a chorale by Johann Sebastian Bach. The quotations give reference points for the listener to understand, and to some extent organize, the music he or she hears. They also have strong symbolism, the Carinthian tune conjuring the image of Manon dancing, and the chorale (“It is Enough” from Cantata No. 60) expressing the desire to leave this painful life for the bliss of the next.

The melodies, however, are not mere bones thrown to the audience. Berg assimilates their tonal harmonizations with his twelve-tone row, so that they emerge from his atonal world in a manner that is both musically organic and emotionally devastating. Bach’s tune in particular, with its unusual opening of three whole tones, is an ingenious development of the last pitch classes of Berg’s row.

In this way, Berg brings an audience into his concerto with feats of structural integrity, and his success was affirmed by the warm responses of audiences in Chico and Redding. Terrie earned the ovations not just with technical agility, but with the romantic sensibility she brought to the work. Her sure and beautiful sound production and her astounding intonation gave the performances a confidence that was essential to winning the audiences. She deployed her skills in advocacy of this piece when she might have played a more beloved concerto and garnered even louder applause. Terrie and Kyle are showing our region what it means to have high artistic skill and character.

A serial work has to win over orchestra players before it can reach listeners. Berg’s orchestration is important in this regard.

Even in great tonal works, players often struggle against a composer’s assignment of parts and dynamics, laboring to overcome thick textures or compete with stronger sections of the orchestra. So when a composer orchestrates fluently, the musicians’ work is rewarded. Players simply have to place their notes accurately to realize the composer’s design. They can then spend their time polishing instead of struggling.

Berg is one of these fluent orchestrators, especially considering the technical challenges of twelve-tone music. A basic problem is the equality of each pitch class. Lacking the tonal center of the diatonic scale, which orders seven pitch classes into a strong hierarchy, the row does not allow the listener a sonic home. A serial work’s organization is not even open to players without careful analysis. The main and secondary ideas are actually marked in the scores of serial pieces, so that players will have some understanding of their parts.

From the first bars, Berg’s elegant orchestration clarifies the Concerto’s motifs, structure, and harmony for players and listeners alike. He aligns timbres and overtones in a quintessentially Viennese manner, and also contrasts sections of the orchestra dramatically without drowning the weaker instruments.

This concerto should be recognized as an artistically important marker for modernist spirituality.

Behind the memorial to Manon Gropius lie Berg’s more complicated personal stories. He was a believer in numerology, avidly following the schemes astrological determinism that fascinated many Viennese artists, and encoding secret messages into his compositions.[2] The 10-bar phrase structure of the opening, for example, symbolizes Berg’s mistress Hannah Fuchs. In the concerto’s passages expressing death throes, the violin cries out Berg’s initials along with Hannah’s, filling the Bach chorale that follows with longing for eternal union, not with Christ, but with a lover. The Carinthian song has a double-meaning, recalling a daughter Berg fathered by a family servant as a young man but never knew. Berg lost two young girls.

Berg’s concerto is a mature work of post-Christian culture, a work already nearly 80 years old. In this modernism, the artifacts of Christian hope become malleable symbols, as all cultural artifacts must, expressing the most subjective longings, and consecrating erotic experience as holy ground. Part of what makes this work a classic is its perfect capture of modernist spirituality: the sexual self under the stars.

[1]Kyle Pickett, “Evening at Egan Talk” (unpublished, n.d.).

[2] Douglas Jarman, “Alban Berg, Wilhelm Fliess and the Secret Programme of the Violin Concerto,” The Musical Times 124, no. 1682 (April 1, 1983): 218–223.

Vertigo: Herrmann's Use of Forms

by Matthew Raley One of the visual abstractions we noticed in Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo was his evocation of famous paintings. We saw that his shot of Madeleine floating in the Bay alludes to the painting of Ophelia by Millais, and that references like this give an unconscious emotional atmosphere to the film.

Bernard Herrmann uses a similar abstraction in Vertigo's score. He refers to musical forms in a way that intensifies the cultural and psychological atmosphere. Two such references are important to the score's role as co-narrator with the camera.

First, Herrmann employs a habanera rhythm in relation to Carlotta. The habanera was a Cuban dance that made its way to Spain in the 19th century, and thence to Europe, becoming famous through Georges Bizet’s Carmen. As a cultural artifact, the dance is associated not just with Hispanic atmosphere but also with seduction.

Second, Herrmann uses ecclesiastical forms in his cues at Mission Dolores. He draws the church modes into his harmonies, employing sighing motifs, and using a pipe organ.

Both references, which David Cooper calls “extraopus intertextuality,”[1] remain at some distance from their antecedents. They are not literal. No one dances a real habanera during a café floor show. Scottie doesn’t pass an organist on his way to the graveyard. By remaining abstract, these references allow one’s imagination to play at a less conscious level, and with profoundly ironic implications.

Yet another aspect of Vertigo's intricacy.

[1] David Cooper, Bernard Herrmann’s Vertigo: A Film Score Handbook, Film Score Guides (Westport  CT: Greenwood Press, 2001), 65.

Vertigo: Herrmann's Abstract Score

by Matthew Raley I've given several examples of Alfred Hitchcock's abstract visuals in Vertigo (here and here). But Hitchcock also created a sound-world to match, and he found a collaborator in Bernard Herrmann. Together, they raised the score to the level of co-narrator with the camera.

The term “Wagnerian” is often used to characterize Herrmann’s score for Vertigo, and for good reason. But the variety of composers who influenced Herrmann hints at a more complex musical imagination.

He was famous for loving English composers such as Edward Elgar[1] and Ralph Vaughan Williams.[2] Vertigo’s frequent similarity to music by Claude Debussy is mentioned by critics.[3] Less well-known is Herrmann’s study as a thirteen-year-old of Hector Berlioz’s Treatise on Orchestration. The influence this Romantic maverick had on Herrmann was life-long.[4] Nor was Berlioz the only musical outsider with whom Herrmann identified. Though Herrmann spent his student years in New York close to such American icons as Aaron Copland and George Gershwin, Herrmann also developed relationships with young radical composers in a group modeled on Les Six.

Most significantly, Steven Smith documents Herrmann’s long association with Charles Ives, the ultimate outsider, noting Herrmann’s early study of Ives’s 114 Songs and his habitual visits with Ives until Ives died in 1954.[5]

With such a background, there should be no surprise that Herrmann’s score is one of the more abstract elements of Vertigo.

It is not explicitly tonal—that is, the harmonies are not organized around a triad that specifies a key, but around the pitch-class structures and intervallic relationships that occur in the first bars of the prelude. Such harmonies, while not expressionistic, are at the outer reaches of the common practice era.

Herrmann, further, employs a modular phrase structure that permits the extension of a line, but is not intrinsically melodic, alluding to but not identical with the traditional eight- or sixteen-bar phrase.

Moreover, Herrmann blurs the classic distinction between diegetic and nondiegetic music at various points in the score. Diegetic music comes from a source within the film, like the record-player in Midge's apartment that annoys Scottie. Nondiegetic music comes from outside the story's action: the audience hears it, but the characters don't.

As we will explore over the next posts, the abstraction of Vertigo’s music allows it to operate with subtlety, concision, and force. The score is a large part of the greatness of this film.

 [1]Bernard Herrmann, “Elgar: A Constant Source of Joy,” in Edward Johnson, Bernard Herrmann: Hollywood’s Music-Dramatist, Bibliographical Series 6 (Rickmansworth: Triad Press, 1977), 29–31.

 [2]Bernard Herrmann, “Vaughan Williams’s London Symphony,” The Musical Times 100, no. 1391 (1959): 24.

 [3]William H. Rosar, “Bernard Herrmann: The Beethoven of Film Music?,” The Journal of Film Music 1, no. 2 (2003): 137; Royal S. Brown, “Herrmann, Hitchcock, and the Music of the Irrational,” Cinema Journal 21, no. 2 (April 1, 1982): 20.

 [4]Steven C. Smith, A Heart at Fire’s Center: The Life and Music of Bernard Herrmann (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 14–15.

 [5]Ibid., 21–23, 38–39.

New Series: Hitchcock's and Herrmann's Vertigo

by Matthew Raley This month, the British Film Institute's journal Sight and Sound announced the results of its poll of film critics, distributors, and academics asking, "What is the greatest film of all time?" For the last 50 years, the answer has been Orson Welles's Citizen Kane (1941). But this year, the 846 panel members chose Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958).

This is one more in a series of critical reevaluations over the last couple of decades that has saved Vertigo from the cool response to its release, from relative obscurity, and even from the ravages of physical decay in Paramount's vaults.

But there is something these two films have in common, which makes this poll a vindication for one artist in particular. The scores for both of the top films were composed by Bernard Herrmann (1911-1975), the brilliant and belligerent composer who worked with almost all the major directors of his time.

Why did Vertigo have trouble gaining critical and popular acceptance?

One reason may be that its plot turns on a coincidence. Scottie Ferguson fails to save Madeleine Elster from suicidal obsession. After Madeleine falls to her death, the lovesick Scottie stumbles on another woman, Judy Barton, who reminds him of Madeleine. He makes Judy over to look like her, only to discover that, in fact, she is Madeleine—the fraudulent Madeleine he loved. The happenstance of seeing Judy enables him to solve the murder of the real Mrs. Elster.

In outline the scenario seems, to say the least, contrived.

In a series of posts, I will argue that Vertigo's plot is not as contrived as it may appear, and that the plot's success is due in large measure to Herrmann's status as co-narrator with the camera. Hitchcock and Herrmann, for both of whom this film was personally important, deserve the praise they are now receiving.

In the process of analyzing Vertigo, I will also be reflecting on matters of importance to Christians. Are films important spiritually, or are they just entertainment? How should a Christian interact with a film that conflicts with the biblical worldview -- as almost all films do? Should films provide us only with examples of people who "do the right thing?"

I hope this series will not only influence the way you look at films, but also the way you listen to them.

A Performance of My Piece, "Twelve-Bar"

by Matthew Raley Last January, violinist Laura Rubinstein-Salzedo premiered a trio I wrote for violin, flute, and cello as part of her senior recital at Sac State. She was joined by Kim Davis (flute) and Courtney Castaneda (cello). I am so grateful for their hard work on the piece, and for their fine playing. Click the link below for a recording.

Audio: Twelve-Bar for Flute, Violin, and Piano

"Twelve-Bar," draws from two American sources of music. As the title indicates, the piece uses the twelve-bar blues form as an ostinato. All melodic and rhythmic motives come from the folk hymn, "What a Friend We Have In Jesus." These motives appear in fragments and short quotations of the tune throughout the piece, with the complete tune played by the flute at the end. I hope you enjoy it!

A Performance of "Along the Field"

By Matthew Raley

Each year, I have the privilege of performing with many excellent student musicians at Chico State. Michael Beale, a fine tenor who graduated last spring, is one of them. We performed the song cycle Along the Field by English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) at Michael's senior recital a year ago. The cycle contains eight poems by A. E. Housman.

Vaughan Williams is famous for his lush string writing and folk melodies. While Along the Field shows the folk influence, it is unusual for Vaughan Williams and for art song literature in general. The piece calls for voice and violin only. Its harmonies are spare to the point of austerity.

Here are mp3 tracks of the last three songs from our performance. I hope you enjoy them!


Fancy's Knell

With Rue My Heart Is Laden

North State Symphony Premieres a New Work

by Matthew Raley Many orchestras might shun new music during hard economic times. Audiences are often nervous about hearing contemporary pieces, dreading the dissonance associated with the last century. So it's safer to offer proven concert fare: listeners will pay to hear what they know.

Conductor Kyle Wiley Pickett and the North State Symphony have not retreated from new music, even during the slump. Last May, the NSS gave the west coast premiere of the Clarinet Concerto by Lowell Liebermann, a winning piece played by the fantastic Jon Manasse. Audiences in Redding, Chico, and Red Bluff greeted the new work with thunderous approval. The concerts had great reviews as well.

Every NSS season features major works of the 20th century from composers like Bela Bartok, Igor Stravinsky, and Dmitri Shostakovich, and north state concert-goers have responded with enthusiasm.

This weekend, the NSS will give the world premiere of another new piece, the Symphony No. 1 by Dan Pinkston.

Pinkston is local, the associate professor of theory and composition at Simpson University in Redding. He told me that his interest in composition began early. He was "essentially writing pop songs in junior high school, and studied classical composition in college, as well as for my masters and doctoral degrees. Composing has always been the most natural way for me to express myself musically."

His Symphony was commissioned by the NSS, which also commissioned Pinkston's Woman, Why Are You Crying? and gave its premiere in 2007. Pinkston has composed yet another symphonic work called Oracles, which will be premiered at a later date.

The Symphony, he says, is "a conscious attempt to engage the audience." Pinkston has influences as diverse as Stravinsky, Bartok, the Beatles, and U2. But Shostakovich is his favorite composer. "I have tried to strike the balance [Shostakovich] has between beauty, modernism, form, communication, etc. His music is liked by audiences and musicians, and it moves me personally."

As the NSS rehearsed the Symphony for the first time last weekend, I was especially impressed by Pinkston's orchestration. He makes the orchestra sound good -- always a winner with musicians, who can be even more surly about new music than audiences. The flow of the work is also well-conceived. It was written to communicate, and it does so with strong use of motivic devices, inventive textures, and drama.

I think north state audiences are going to like this work, and will look forward to more new music from Dan Pinkston. Here's a conversation between Pinkston and Pickett:


Boredom, Lady Gaga, and My New Friend Olivia

by Matthew Raley When I saw that Lady Gaga wore a dress made of meat, I considered rejecting the Internet again.

Early in my summer sabbatical, I found that I couldn't abide the Internet anymore, that I loathed it both for being frantic to get my attention and for being a colossal bore.

Twitter, for me, has turned into the annoying person who won't stop recommending stuff to read. The actual information on it is paltry. I watched the #sanbruno feed last weekend roar to life like the flames from PG&E's old gas line, but quickly abandoned it. How many RTs of "1 person confirmed dead" do we need? It was like reading a cable news crawl.

I find that most news websites are stridently partisan, offering little of what the ancients used to call reporting. The vast majority of blogs are unreadable, thuggish, self-absorbed, and profane -- irritatingly profane, as though profanity still had shock value. To spend any length of time on Facebook, it seems that my appetite for kidding around has to be gluttonous.

We say that we use the web to "connect." We rejoice over "connecting" with old friends, people with similar interests, and fellow professionals, as if a connection of 140 characters is significant, as if hitting "tweet" compulsively while your eyes dry out and your face goes slack from hours in front of a screen is personal engagement.

Bottom line: I got sick of trying to convince myself that social media are as great as they claim. I decided that crowdsourcing web content was less a brilliant insight than a desperate ploy to keep boredom at bay. So I paid rude, token snatches of attention to the Internet once a day, and then ignored it.

I resumed normal life this month, with its unavoidable web-staring and "connecting," just in time to see Lady Gaga and her meat.

Gaga is Our Lady of the Internet, a saint of cyberlife who personifies the web ethic of giving and receiving: I'll do a little stunt for you if you'll do one for me. Every day, she feeds the web with a new dress or hat, a new exposure of her skin, or some new pose of her glazed face. And last week, apparently running out of ideas for another stunt, she wore meat.

It happened that I went to speak at a small church in Cottonwood last Saturday. A woman entered just after I began to teach with a person the size of a seven-year-old draped over her shoulder, and at a distance I took the person for a girl. It was clear that she was severely limited: unable to move, hold herself up, or speak. She would moan, and the woman would shift her to the other shoulder for a change of position.

At the first break, I went over to meet the pair. The caregiver introduced me to Olivia, not a girl but a thirty-year-old woman, and she held her up to look at me. As I locked eyes with Olivia, the caregiver said that Olivia had just been released from the hospital. I said to those silent eyes, "I'm so glad you're here today!" Suddenly the face that had seemed inert moved, a slight but definite pull at the side of Olivia's mouth. I got a smile. I got another one later as we said goodbye.

A connection.

So there is a woman on the Internet who flies around the globe trying to keep everyone from getting bored with her. There is another woman in Cottonwood who is shifted from one of her caregiver's shoulders to the other, and who smiles when she meets new friends. Ultimately, I do wonder whose life is richer.

I suppose I won't reject the Internet. But I will be rude to it, with all its pretense of liveliness. I prefer smiles.

Mystery Violin Identified

by Matthew Raley

I've been writing about my evaluation this summer of a violin loaned to me by a friend (here, here, and here). My original low expectations were surpassed as I played it, especially after I put on better strings. But I have been bothered by two things. Who was the maker, Lee Nelms? And could the sound of the violin be significantly improved?

My googling of Nelms, you'll recall, turned up zero. So I drove the violin up to John Harrison, noted luthier in Redding, on the chance that he had at least heard of Nelms. He had indeed.

Harrison told me that Nelms was a maker in Klamath Falls, OR, mainly known among fiddlers (like my friend's uncle, the violin's original owner). Nelms died, Harrison thought, sometime around 1988. Harrison stepped past a dozen violins and violas to a bookshelf, covered with a layer of sawdust, and pulled out a reference work on American makers. Nelms was listed, the bio reporting that he started in 1978 and had made 16 violins by 1986, the date of publication. Two instruments a year. Harrison himself had met Nelms numerous times at conventions and had seen several of his violins.

This particular violin, made in 1979, was one of the better Nelms instruments Harrison had seen. But "it has issues." As a point of workmanship, Harrison noted that the scroll was commercial, not hand-carved. Worse, the tail-piece was too long for the size of the violin, which plays havoc with the main issue: the sound post. Harrison agreed that a more powerful tone could be coaxed out of this violin with a better-fitting post. But proper placement depended on getting a well-proportioned tailpiece.

It would take some investment to improve the violin, but it could be done.

I left pondering the fact that a man I never knew reached across 30 years, down several hundred miles from Klamath Falls, and gained my respect by making a violin. The internet can't find him, but the members of his guild can. As Harrison said to me with satisfaction, "His violins are still being played." Nelms won't be a legend, but his craft has staying power. Not bad at all.

Playing the Nelms Violin

by Matthew Raley For several weeks, I've been switching between my violin and one loaned to me by a friend who wants me to evaluate it.

You'll recall that I had low expectations of this violin until I saw it in the case and played on it a little. Its tone was even, responsive, and capable of different colors even with poor strings.

So I put on an old set of my own strings (Evah Pirazzi, "stark") and started testing the violin across a range of pieces. I played several Rode caprices, and the better strings made an immediate difference. The violin was resonant, spoke brightly, and barked accents at my command. Double-stops and chords, in which the bow is pulled across several strings quickly, were clear.

I got similar results in the Novácek Perpetuum Mobile. As I played through a couple of Beethoven sonatas I found an additional virtue. The violin was capable of real sweetness when I played lyrical passages. This was confirmed when I read through the 1st violin part to the Brahms clarinet quintet.

But I was always bothered when I would begin playing this violin. It would sound nasal, brash. One evening recently, I started with the 2nd movement of the Brahms quintet, and was able to isolate some of the pitches that squawked the worst. But after ten minutes or so, when I went back to those pitches, the squawk was gone.

Conclusion? This violin is grumpy right out of the case. It needs to warm up.

There are other qualities I wonder about. So I'm going to Redding violin maker John Harrison soon to see if he can find any information about Lee Nelms, and if the sound-post might need adjusting. I'm not one to waste a good excuse to go to Harrison's shop.

Evaluating a Violin

by Matthew Raley So, a guy asks me to play a violin he inherited. I can't find any information about the maker, Lee Nelms, but because the instrument exceeds my low expectations I am intrigued. I want to find out how good this violin is. My problem is that I really don't know how to evaluate one.

Okay, I know how to play. I know what I like. But there's an art to examining a violin that I just don't possess.

For one thing, I have never played a great violin. It's one thing to hear Itzhak Perlman play a Stradivarius in a hall; playing one yourself is something else entirely.

You have the sound immediately under your ear. The surface noise of the bow pulling across the string--or the absence of it--as well as the subtler overtones are all right there. Further, you gain rich tactile information from the way your vibrato warms the tone, the effect of bow pressure and speed, and the vibrations of the violin itself in your hand, shoulder, and head.

John Harrison, a maker in Redding, CA, once told me that he had made a violin decades ago for a Chico State professor. While he was trying the new instrument, Harrison was closeted with the professor's Strad, examining, measuring, and above all playing. It's experience like Harrison's, repeated many times, that I would consider reliable.

To play a truly great instrument is to learn why the sound in the hall is so powerful. Never having had the experience, I feel that my standards are unreliable. I did once play a selection of contemporary Italian violins, each worth a fair amount of money. I didn't like any of them. Part of me says that my coolness can't be right, that my thirty-five years of playing instruments in the yuck-to-good range has messed up my taste.

I also don't really know what I'm looking for in terms of craft. An orchestra colleague of mine, Abraham Becker, once looked over my instrument from various angles, and said, "That is a well-made violin." Since Abraham is vastly experienced, playing everything from classical to Broadway to tangos from his native Argentina, I was gratified to hear his judgment. But I have no idea why he said it so confidently.

I can spot an atrocious varnish, or other obvious failings. An awful violin passed into my hands only two weeks ago, on which the varnish obscured all the grain of the wood, the purfling around the edges of the top and back was painted rather than inlaid, and the strings were unevenly spaced.

But the finer points of excellent craft I only pick up informally.

Still, The Nelms violin has piqued my curiosity. So here's what I'm looking at.

The Nelms impressed me in the case as a beautiful piece of work. I love the color of the varnish, and the grain of the split back.

Here is my own violin:

You can see it's a different model from the Nelms, slightly narrower and longer. You can also see the wear of its two-century history, like the spot where the varnish has worn away on the back by the neck. (The left hand often rests there.) The wood itself has many qualities that I prize, like the unusual grain, and the single-piece back on which the grain is slanted.

I have owned it since high school, when I bought it from my teacher. It hung in his shop for years, and I used to stop in just to play it.

In my next post, I'll compare the sound of these two instruments, and see if I can't diagnose the things that bother me about the Nelms.

Mystery Violin

by Matthew Raley In 1989, the first year I was a student at Willamette University, the oldest building on campus, Waller Hall, had just been renovated. While workers were demolishing the interior, they had made quite a discovery under the floorboards of the attic.

Wrapped in newspapers from the 1920s was a violin.

The instrument was appraised as 18th century Italian (the label said 1789, but that's far from decisive), maker undetermined, worth about $10,000. To those used to guitar prices, that may be a jaw-dropping sum, but in the violin world, such a value is more like an entry fee. The violin was restored to beautiful condition, and advertised all over the country in an effort to find anyone who could lay a plausible claim.

No one did.

It's a terrific violin mystery. Was it stolen? Why was there no record of an investigation? Who would've abandoned such an instrument?

Even better for me, since I was a violin major, I played it for four years. It had a dark, rich tone that carried well in a hall, though it was not loud. It was an easy-playing instrument, responsive and reliable. Most of all, it had character. There were all sorts of colors available to me depending upon bow-speed and pressure.

A few weeks ago, I got another mystery violin.

A local guy had been telling me for years that he had a violin he wanted me to play. One learns to have very low expectations of these things, though I'm always curious.

At last, he brought the violin over and left it for me. What I lifted out of the case was a quite lovely piece of workmanship. Red-brown, dark varnish, a two-piece back with dramatic grain. But the sound?

Well, the strings were really poor. The tone was bright, which to my ear often signals a cheapo, in certain places it sounded a bit nasal. Yet . . .

The tone was even across all the strings, and all the way up the fingerboard. Once the sound was established, the violin was capable of blossoming, or becoming louder and more resonant. There were some sweet overtones that promised more character. And it was quite responsive.

The guy had told me the story. His uncle had bought the violin from an American maker for a few thousand dollars, and the maker had won awards.

I looked at the label. "Lee Nelms, 1979." Google turned up exactly nothing, which just made me more curious. Even if it isn't a del Gesu, this instrument isn't the work of a novice either. He must have other violins out there.

So I'm going to put in some time this summer to find out about this violin, and deepen my own education about violin-making. Check back for updates.

Bach's Christmas King

by Matthew Raley [youtube=]

Here is a bass aria from J. S. Bach's Christmas Oratorio, along with a hearty "Merry Christmas!" from me. The bass is Dietrich Henschel, with John Eliot Gardiner and the English Baroque Soloists. The aria's text in English:

Mighty Lord, O strongest sovereign, Dearest Savior, O how little Heedest thou all earthly pomp!

    He who all the world doth keep, All its pomp and grace hath fashioned, Must within the hard crib slumber.

My posts resume in the new year.

Is An Evangelical Art Music Possible?

by Matthew Raley The father of Christian contemporary music, Larry Norman, recorded a song decades ago quoting Martin Luther: "Why should the devil have all the good music?" It was push-back against those who said rock and roll was inherently devilish.

Ever since, the quote has been a favorite of youth pastors who like to think that Luther was talking about tavern drinking songs that were turned into hymns. Take the music of the marketplace, they say, and make it preach Jesus.

Sorry. Martin Luther never thought the devil lived in taverns. The man liked his beer. As far as Luther was concerned, the devil lived in Rome. Specifically, the devil had taken over St. Peter's, with its architecture, its sculptures and frescos ... and its choirs.

In fact, Luther's quote was about the most eminent composer of that time, one-time member of the Papal choir, Josquin des Prez. He it was who wrote "all the good music" that the devil had -- art music, developed over the centuries from Gregorian chant. This music was pre-Palestrina, having many independent parts, so florid in their mutual imitations that the text of the mass tended to get lost.

Luther himself was a well-trained singer and a composer. He wrote many of the Lutheran hymns himself. They were not tavern tunes at all.

Larry Norman's little artifact comprehends the scope of my argument over the last few months. Evangelicals have ditched their folk singing tradition (music from life) in favor of pop music (music from the store). In doing so, they leveled the varied and authentic cultures of churches all over the country into the wasteland of Christian radio. Evangelical leaders committed this blunder because of musical illiteracy, and turned their movement into a cultural parasite.

I have argued that the folk singing dynamic can be recovered, and the richness of local church cultures gradually restored.

But there is one last consideration. The art music descended from Josquin and from Luther's heir, Johann Sebastian Bach, ran aground in industrial society. Philosopher Theodor Adorno said that the only thing left for modern music to express is the alienation of the individual.

Contemporary, newly composed art music (mostly from secular academia) has no mission to edify people, that is, to bring them together on the basis of shared things. The mission of new art music seems to be that of presenting very personal pieces that, it is hoped, will be "accessible" to listeners. It has institutional support, for now, but no philosophical basis.

I may be alone among evangelicals in thinking this is an important problem. But here goes: Evangelical composers could produce what academia cannot, a renewed development of art music from living folk traditions. This art can begin by adding emotional range to a worship service to glorify God, replying to folk singing with artistic affirmation. (An example from Bach here.) An evangelical composer can do this by exploring three mandates:

1. Modernist alienation from the listener is evil.

The musician is a servant of God to the community, not a prophet of his or her own selfish passion. God's musician should not affirm sentimental delusions in God's people. He challenges perceptions and assumptions. But he does so within the confession of truths that are prejudicially shared.

New art music, following Adorno, has restricted itself to the tools of deconstruction and shock so long that it now exhibits a pathetic inability to relate. Whatever its brilliance as art -- and the brilliance is often real -- it is frequently not humane. When it does reach out, it offers the tentative comfort of the emotionally distant.

Overthrow the Beethovenian priesthood of the artist. Reconstitute Bach's guild of pious craft.

2. Bypass pop music and mine a living folk tradition in a local church.

Pop music is, in the vast majority of cases, dead commercialism. It sometimes renews itself with an act that comes straight from the street. But the market usually softens the act. Renewal may come with the Beatles, but what gets stuck in your head is the Monkeys. There is not enough raw material in pop music to interact with meaningfully.

Evangelicals have a folk tradition. Once they resuscitate it, they should speak to it. The interaction between art composition and folk singing is so long and fruitful that it needs no more than a few names to fill it in: Bartok, Kodaly, Katchaturian, Copland, Shostakovich, Chopin, Paganini, Haydn, etc., etc., etc.

American evangelical folk hymns are fertile ground. They only require a composer who believes what they say.

3. Employ forms that live in the broader American tradition.

An audience responds to form before it responds to style. Form is prejudicial. A composer who aims at edifying an audience shouldn't waste his time with surface-level stylistic mimicry. Form says "we." The 12-bar blues and the 32-bar song are both suited to unbelievable stylistic flexibility. And, with Americans, they retain the unconscious power of a Sarabande in Bach's day. (Bach took care with his stylistic etiquette, yes. But his dance movements are harmonic and contrapuntal tours de force.)

These three mandates had their equivalents in Luther's day. He understood that the Reformation would never thrive as a cultural parasite on Roman Catholicism. So he worked hard at developing his people's folk singing. And he inaugurated an artistic tradition that produced, in less than two centuries, Bach himself.

The Controversial Gidon Kremer

by Matthew Raley At a post-concert party in the early 1990s, Saul and Aron Bitran, the violinists of Cuarteto Latinoamericano, were debating the merits of virtuoso soloists. Gidon Kremer's name came up, and there was a pregnant pause. One of the brothers, I don't remember which, said quietly, "I think he does things just to be different."

The other shook his head in dismay. "Oh, I don't agree. His readings have real merit."

That's the way it is with Kremer. He leaves houses divided.

In this performance of the Giga from Bach's Partita No. 2 in d minor, he varies the tempo in ways that I don't understand. But Kremer's playing is brilliant, full of unexpected colors, clean articulations, and rhythmic interest.

He even divides me.


A Strategy That Calls People to Sing

by Matthew Raley The reason churches need to recover the folk singing dynamic is that individuals need to be called out of their own heads to participate in the singing of the body of Christ. Believers are too rooted in their own passions to grow in Christ. They need to pull out their headphones and make music with others, as Ephesians 5 describes. I believe that what's at stake in this issue is not their emotional satisfaction in worship, but their spiritual growth.

So here is the strategy we have followed in Orland to recover the folk singing dynamic:

1. We've given up the right to sing the music we each prefer as individuals.

Look, if I never sang another chorus, I'd be happier. Speaking as a music consumer, the entire CCM industry could disappear tomorrow and my quality of life would be undiminished.

But the reality is that very few believers feel in their guts the kind of music that I feel in mine, the kind of music that I respond to most passionately as a listener. So I have to make a decision. Am I going to claim the right to sing in worship the music that I prefer for listening?

No, I don't have that right. Christ is glorified, and I am edified, when I join others and we raise our voices together.

In Orland -- a rural, small Evangelical Free church -- we brought in all sorts of instruments, including the dreaded drums, without a worship war. Believers here saw the need to give up this "right."

2. We've made no effort to produce a certain style.

Six years ago, when our we began to change our worship, we did not pursue a certain demographic, demanding that those not in that demographic get out of the way. We said frankly that we didn't know what the style of the music was going to be. Our style would emerge over time.

3. We have embraced the musicians and singers we have, in all their diversity, and asked them to work together to lead the congregation.

We have the usual instruments, and the usual musical backgrounds: classical, rock, CCM, bluegrass. We asked all the musicians to go back to basic rehearsal and performance skills, like listening to the other players and finding a good blend, establishing rhythmic integrity, and responding to the expressiveness of others. We found that the classically trained musicians picked up improvisation, while the rock players saw better results from lower volume. (More in a moment.)

4. We have adopted a stripped-down singing style.

Vocal leaders understood that their job was not to have a personal worship experience in front of the congregation, as if they could lead "by example." Their job -- their service of worship to God -- was to give leadership that the congregation could follow musically. Singers did not slide up to notes, syncopate for expression, or ornament melodic lines. They sang the notes that they wanted the congregation to sing.

A funny thing happened. The congregation sang.

5. We put strong doctrinal and devotional themes into our singing.

A theme is a developing idea. "Jesus" is not a strong theme. "Jesus is loving" is not a strong theme, either. Both are too general. A strong theme has potential for development: "Jesus' love is sacrificial" is somewhat better.

For several years, we aligned the sermon with the scripture reading, and took a theme for the singing from them. This year, our readings aren't aligned with the sermon, but cover the history of redemption up to the birth of Christ. Next year, the readings will cover biblical doctrine. We sing lyrics, regardless of style, that best develop the themes in the readings.

What's that? You don't have scripture readings in your worship services?! What exactly is the source of your unity, then?

6. We encourage a variety of musicians to do solos, including young people.

There is a place for solos -- that is, for individual testimony in music to the greatness of God. Just as we combined a variety of musicians in the leadership team, so we encourage a wide range of styles in soloists. We have bluegrass, Gaither, CCM, classical. We've even had fifes. It was thrilling.

7. We minimize electronic amplification as best we can.

Most contemporary worship services are stupidly loud. You wouldn't hear the congregation even if they were singing.

A worship service is not a rock concert. So we took out many of the monitors (small speakers that help the musicians hear), lowered the overall volume, emphasized the vocals, and brought up the weaker instruments (e.g. acoustic guitars). These decisions had a lot to do with the "live," hard-surfaced room in which we sing.

This approach gives enough amplification so that the congregation can follow, but not so much that they're drowned out.

Over the last six years, this strategy has produced a service that is different. It's unique to us. People who come with strong stylistic preferences don't like it. But people who come to participate in a community find that there is a healthy one to join.

People Sing Certainties, Not Questions

by Matthew Raley In recovering the folk singing dynamic, you can have all three of the fundamentals we've discussed so far without the people actually singing. A congregation can meet in a resonant space that permits them to create sounds together. The people can share a memory of songs from the past, and they can gain new songs that retain the stripped-down style of folk melodies.

But without the fourth fundamental, they won't sing.

Maybe I should describe what I think singing is. The murmuring of today's congregations does not qualify as singing -- the shifty-eyed, slouching, hands-in-pockets, worthless droning that advertises in the flashing neon of body language a desire to be elsewhere.

Singing is done standing straight, with the chest up, the throat relaxed, and the lungs filled not from the top but from the bottom. Singing is loud -- less in the sense that someone turned a knob clockwise, than that someone next to you spoke with sudden intensity. Singing is loud emotionality.

So, I repeat, believers can have every fundamental of the folk singing dynamic and still not sing. They have to want to sing. You can't cajole them into singing, manipulate them, or in any way circumvent their lack of desire to sing. If they don't want to, they won't.

The fourth fundamental is the thing that supplies motivation for singing -- a prejudicial belief system. People sing what is beyond question. You sing what you know.

Prejudice now refers almost exclusively to irrational hostility, especially racial bias, and has become popularly synonymous with a quite different word, bigotry. Where bigotry has always referred to hatred or intolerance, prejudice can be used in a more neutral way.

Prejudice is literally pre-judgment, a decision made prior to reason, debate, or fact-gathering. There are morally important human resources in this word. To take just one example, my father drove into me a prejudice against lying. I don't question whether lying might be an effective tool, or might be justified in a certain instance. My pre-judged position, my reflex, is, "Never lie."

The Enlightenment taught us that prejudice of any kind is wrong, and must be debunked as so much superstition. Human beings have the power to transcend their experiences, to know truth with metaphysical certainty, and to unshackle their minds from old notions and subjective perceptions. Through questioning every certitude, human beings can gain control over their environment.

The Enlightenment was full of crap.

The educational project of rationalism has not ended prejudice at all. It has merely created people who are prejudiced and pretentious, prejudiced and cynical, prejudiced and credulous, prejudiced and deluded. The atomic bomb comes to mind.

No amount of reasoning eradicates prejudice, though it may put different prejudices in circulation.

Here's the point: people don't sing from purely rational motivations. They don't sing what they debate or question. They don't sing to prove a point. There are no songs about the impact of the federal fiscal stimulus on consumer demand, the effectiveness of flu vaccines, or the potential of the new season of House. People sing their certainties, and their certainties are largely unconscious. To be sure, they sing about their emotional struggles, but they do so because they know what they feel.

When you get right down to it, evangelicals don't sing because they don't know much. Their faith is painfully conscious. Their prejudices have been leveled -- and by their own teachers. They have been taught that the solutions to their relational problems are therapeutic, not supernatural. The Bible is no longer an authority in churches, merely a source of quotations. And, most devastatingly of all, God himself is called high but held low.

Evangelical music has degenerated into "At Last, I Know My Issues!" because evangelicals are now a deeply self-conscious people. And this has to be laid at the door of preachers. "Five Steps to a Better Marriage" is not a theme that will ever burst into song. But as a theme, it will appeal to that rational, calculating demon who constantly asks, "How can I get what I want?" Evangelicals now refuse to know anything about God until they're sure that their selves will remain intact.

With such a troubled belief system, why would evangelicals truly sing?

C. S. Lewis didn't like what he called "the lusty roar of the congregation." I'd love to have it back. The return of the primitive, unselfconscious certitude of singing would demonstrate that people once again knew God, that their questions had been driven from them by direct experience of his grace, and that they had yielded control to his sovereign power.

They would sing again about the true faith: the coming of Jesus Christ, his death, his resurrection, his ascension and pending return, his abolition of wars, lies, betrayals, and loss, the delivery of justice for his martyrs, and the reunion we will have with him. Believers would sing with longing that Jesus Christ be their vision, that they reach that beautiful shore, gathered at the river that flows by the throne of God.

But as they've stopped, we listen for the rocks.

There Are No Words for Carlos Kleiber

by Matthew Raley But I'll try.

Kyle Wiley Pickett, conductor of the North State Symphony, mentioned in rehearsal last weekend that Carlos Kleiber was his model for interpreting Beethoven. You can see why in these videos of the 7th Symphony (1st mvt).

The first thing you notice is Kleiber has no music stand. The moment he begins, it's obvious that he has not merely memorized the score, but has internalized it down to the finest details.

Kleiber uses gestures that are idiosyncratic. The uniqueness, however, does not compromise clarity. He is able to cue multiple sections of the orchestra with one poke of the baton. His cues do not merely tell players when to enter, but how -- and not merely how loudly or softly but with what articulation and emphasis. You can see him giving particular attention to the ends of notes (an often overlooked detail), and to the integrity of inner rhythms.

Kleiber is one with his players. He has conveyed a vision of this music comprehensively to the musicians, and it's a marvel to watch.

The North State Symphony will perform Beethoven's 5th Symphony on its season premiere on Saturday, 9-26, in Redding at the Cascade Theater (7:30 pm) and in Chico on Sunday, 9-27, at Laxson Auditorium (2 pm).

(The second video overlaps the first. Start at about 4 minutes, unless you want to hear the development section repeated.)



Get Bob the Trucker To Sing

by Matthew Raley Reset the scenario of the folk singing dynamic: A diverse congregation gathers in a space that is resonant, so that they create a corporate sound. They have a shared memory of songs, a bank of tunes and lyrics that they draw upon together.

What you have so far is an intensively local group of worshipers, who have a strong sense of community and identity. That's an edifying combination, but there is a problem.

What's going to prevent the congregation from stagnating in the familiar? People need fresh musical expressions for their faith. Churches need to participate in the high interactivity of our culture, just as 1st century churches participated in their culture's interactions. This is less a need to retain "the young people," and more a need to nurture those who are older, keep their strength from becoming rigid.

The ability to interact with other cultures from a strong identity is a sign of health.

So, how does a congregation stay open to a current of new music? Christian pop is the default source for new songs. Is it the right source? If so, how can it be used without destroying the folk singing dynamic?

I think a Christian pop song can refresh a church if it passes my "Bob the Trucker" test.

Bob the Trucker is not musical. Ask him to sing a solo and he laughs at you -- and it's not a merry guffaw, more like a threatening rumble. Bob enjoys listening to country (I'm not equating "not musical" with "country," I'm just saying ...), but at church, the singing time for Bob is entirely dispensable. He not only doesn't expect the church to sing what he likes, he doesn't see why the church needs to sing at all.

Bob the Trucker -- here's the crucial point -- sees most church music as fluff. And -- also a crucial point -- he's right. If you want him to sing, you have to give him songs that are solid. He needs the third fundamental of the folk singing dynamic: a stripped-down melodic style.

Think about the style of much Christian pop in relation to Bob.

Bob cannot sing songs that make him sound like a girl. The breathy, whiny tone of much Christian pop music is something he will never identify with. This means that the selection of Christian pop songs that we can use to unite Bob with a congregation just shrank.

The style I'm thinking of is elaborately ornamented (think Whitney Houston's "Always Love Yooo-eeeooooooo-ahhhhh," taking a tune that is utterly devoid of interest and adding the sonic equivalent of whipped cream from a spray can). Lyrically, the style is heavy on the first-person singular. It has to be: the drive to communicate comes from how passionately I feel.

Strip out the breathy production values and the fancy solo ornaments of much Christian pop, and see what's left. Is there a melody underneath it all that stands on its own? Not usually. Unless there's a compelling, solid tune, I can't think of any reason to ask Bob the Trucker to join it.

More broadly, Bob cannot sing songs that are written for soloists. Have you ever heard a congregation trying to sing "Voice of Truth" by Casting Crowns? The chorus goes fine, but the verses are written for a soloist to sing/talk through, semi-improvised. When a church tries to sing it, they sound like a bunch of soloists auditioning for American Idol all at the same time. A song written as a vehicle for a pop soloist will not work for a congregation, because as a practical matter, a group cannot sing it together.

This is not just true of pop songs. Churches sometimes try to sing the famous setting of the Lord's Prayer by Albert Hay Malotte. But the melody requires substantial breath control. It also has triplets that are meant to be interpreted freely, and are difficult to feel as a congregation. It's a solo.

Bob the Trucker can and will join songs that are lyrically and melodically solid, not interpretively soft. He will sing a tune that uses formal repetition, not improvisation. In other words, he will sing songs that are meant to be sung by untrained groups. And there are new songs by Christian pop artists that meet these criteria.

The reason a song like the Gettys' "In Christ Alone" has become popular in churches is that the tune is solid and the lyrics are declarative. It is constructed so that a group can sing it. The tune has phrases that are motivically linked and repetitive for easy learning. The syncopation in the melody is natural to the rhythm of the words. The lyrics narrate the gospel story, giving the congregation truths that earn an emotional response, rather than merely telling the congregation what to feel.

The song is not great for listening, nor is it a favorite of mine. For it to work as a solo, the singer would have to vary the repetitions and make them do something compelling. Harmonically, the song is dull. But the emotional power of folk singing is in the participation of the group, not the music itself. "In Christ Alone" has the stripped-down style that meets the need.

So here's the unpopular reality of the folk singing dynamic, the quality that has driven it from favor in churches. Folk singing expresses and welcomes the emotional lives of men.