The Meme Of Banal

I notice over at the Chant Cafe some discussion about reform2 Americans reforming Roman liturgical music. (Paul went there, so I suppose …) It rung a bell with some Praise Music as performance I saw there from earlier this week. Kathy Pluth’s comment:

One obstacle to sacred music that the two countries have in common is that we have become accustomed to a widely accepted musical idiom that musicians know to be banal.

This is illustrative of the both the problem of the reform2 movement and its eventual hopelessness in converting the world to beauty and quality, at least it’s own brand of it.

In my time, I’ve heard the banal/boring meme applied to chant. An otherwise insightful and spiritual priest I knew once gave me a theological yawn over the hymn Conditor Alme Siderum. Monotone, was his specific objection. It holds to the six-note rule a composition professor once suggested to me.

The thing of it is this: it is often the arrangements, but mostly poor musicians who make music poor. Or banal, if you will. The wholesale dismissal of quality of entire musical genres because one prefers another for liturgy seems to be a rather frowny-faced (to use a technical term from music) was to play it.

In my experience, I’ve had to play truly bad pieces of music. Almost always, there’s a good reason for doing so. Once it was for a home devotion on New Year’s Eve with a young woman who struck my fancy. The music itself was quite horrid. But I brought my hammered dulcimer, and since my friend was a musical genius on the piano and as a singer, it was rendered with wild success among her parents and their friends. In a way, I suppose I felt like a sell-out. But turning a bad piece of music into something people could pray wasn’t all bad. I doubt that song ever received a better effort.

Another comment from that first thread:

And that is why a principal task of the church musician is the education of the congregation (and sometimes the clergy). It is a slow process, but in the long run pays off in really spiritual results, if the music is truly liturgical music.

Count me a skeptic on this.

I don’t think education is the catch-all solution. When it comes to art, I really think it’s more a matter of appreciation, imagination, and quality. From what I’ve seen in liturgical music, God seems to be able to work in the spiritual realm quite well through the virtue of gratitude, through human creativity, and in giving music one’s very best effort whether one likes it or not.

Education produces pundits and critics, in my view. Grateful people, creative people, and hard-working people are spiritual. The insulting presumption is that uneducated people are too stupid to discern what is good. And that is not always, or even usually the case.

The bottom line is that God can and does work with non-chant genres and even with very flawed musicians (personal experience on both counts, especially the latter) to produce something edifying.

To be honest: I might well assess some music I hear in church as dog-doo. My motivation is most always better-placed to improve my own craft. Not to point fingers at the specks on someone else’s instrument.

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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One Response to The Meme Of Banal

  1. What mystifies me is how many folks opine as how revitalizing a parish music program in the doldrums is a mundane simplicity amounting to a recipe of sequential actions and predictable, one size fits all resources that surprisingly don’t even require the wisdom or abilities of a qualified leader now.
    And whilst on this mini-rant, how could any right-thinking, common sense R2 advocate ignore the realities of “ALL POLITICS ARE LOCAL.” As if a phalanx of CMAA folk could “occupy” the maestro’s stand at all those Roman and European disparate parishes and “fix” their problems without natural and justified resistance? I dunno, if no one else admits it, I think we’re in the Twilight Zone like Burgess Meredith looking for his broken glasses in the middle of his ideal library.

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