Disappearing (Musical) Languages?

Anthropologists and linguists have been decrying for years the disappearance of spoken languages around the world as globalization proceeds apace. Today, however, I mourn the disappearing of some Christian musical languages.

I’m speaking at Mount Hermon Conference Center this week, in the hills above Santa Cruz, California. Mount Hermon serves a diverse constituency, and one of the ways its diversity is manifest is in its music program.

During the week, most of its music is Christian contemporary rock. I’ve been here a few times before, and I’ve always been impressed by the high quality of the musicians here. The program director I’m working with, Dave Burns, is a particularly talented keyboard player and song leader with whom I have enjoyed jamming a little at previous conferences—which amounted to me borrowing a guitar and playing the six good licks I know before handing it back.

Anyhow, Christian contemporary rock is the main music language of “happening” churches all over North America, Britain, Australia, and beyond. As simplistic as it certainly can be, both lyrically and musically, it has considerable range of expression when used by talented composers, singers, and instrumentalists.

What it can’t do, however, is say everything that needs to be said. I remember enjoying a selection of a Górecki symphony at a colleague’s home and thinking, “There is no rock song in the world that could prompt me to think and feel quite the way this is making me think and feel.”

Today I felt the same way when a beautiful new organ was played here at Mount Hermon by one of its designers. A great hymn played on a great organ speaks a musical language that no rock anthem can duplicate.

Don’t get me wrong. I like to rock as much as the next person, and have been known to crank up my Godin electric guitar or Fender bass upon occasion. There are sentiments and ideas that rock can express that organ music can’t.

But “rock and roll is here to stay,” it seems, and great organ music, I fear, is fading from the scene. It’s amazing, actually, that Mount Hermon has invested in this wonderful instrument, so perhaps I’m wrong and organ is making a comeback. But I’m afraid that this is the exception to a general rule. How many organs have you seen played lately—even in churches that still have functioning instruments?

Pianos, for their part, still get played. But today I enjoyed singing some nineteenth- and twentieth-century gospel songs accompanied by skilled pianist in what I call “white gospel” style. Less syncopated and funky than (black) gospel, white gospel is characterized by lots of scale runs, hammered octaves in one or both hands, and melodies occasionally dropping to the left hand for contrast. It’s hard to play well, and there’s nothing quite like it.

I heard it all the time while I was growing up: my mother was pretty good at it and played a lot at our church. I learned it, too, and I remember the renowned historian of American evangelicalism George Marsden teasing me about that style when I accompanied some Wheaton College faculty members singing before a lecture of his twenty years ago. Even then, George remarked, that style was clearly dying out.

Who plays it anymore—who, that is, who is less than 40 years old? I’m 48, and I have never heard anyone younger playing that style.

Furthermore, the songs it suits best are themselves heading fast for the archives. So, again, a whole musical language is disappearing, with its particular brand of honesty, seriousness, and delight.

Is there anything to be done? Well, the Welsh, among others, would tell us to keep alive the languages we love. Those who still speak them must take them up as sacred causes, maintaining these vital ways of perceiving and articulating the world without which humanity is diminished.

Keeping alive old languages does seem immensely impractical. The universal imperatives of Mammon (that last great deity to emerge in the history of religions) militate against this diversity as they seek to repair the scattering of Babel by insisting quite rationally on just a few major languages—the better to foster the global economy, of course.

I’m all for international communication via this or that lingua franca. But there remains a unique beauty and power in French, or German, or Hebrew, or Arabic, or Chinese, or Korean, or Swedish, or Swahili without which we human beings experience the world and express ourselves a little (or a lot) less well.

How much more is that true for us in worship, as many, many of us now confine ourselves musically to what can be felt and said in contemporary rock—and usually pretty mainstream versions of it at that?

I’d better sign off now, and go practice some holy arpeggios.

0 Responses to “Disappearing (Musical) Languages?”

  1. Bill Chapman

    Hello from Wales. I hope you’ll allow a Welsh speaker (and enthusiastic member of Welsh male voice choir Cor Meibion Maelgwn, to comment on the linguistic matters here. Yes, every language has a unique contribution to make, and the loss of a language is equivalent to a plant or animal dying out. As you say, each language has its own “unique beauty and power”.

    For communication between ethnic or national groups I favour Esperanto as a lingua franca. Have you come across Esperanto? A good place to start is http://www.esperanto.net

  2. David W. Congdon

    My uncle — who is over 45, a Wheaton College grad, and a very talented pianist — is a master of white gospel music. I had never heard of anyone really talk about that style until this post. I think you’re right. You have be from a certain generation to know it, and it’s definitely dying out quickly.

    And as a member of a young missional, evangelical church that plays your typical contemporary rock/folk music, I also lament the loss of the organ.

  3. Daniel Ginn

    Wow. I know what you mean. There are days when it seems like power chords are replacing the rest and “dumbing down” the music. I, too, am a fan of the organ, even though I don’t play it.

    I only hope that the drive to connect with people in a relevant way doesn’t lean to the jettisoning of styles of worship that have theologically enriched lives for centuries (or maybe not even that long). The God who is conforming us to the likeness of his son still is expressing that character in an unending diversity of ways. May He grant that it be the same with the music that we use to praise him.

  4. David Talbott

    Thanks for the support, from your white gospel pianist/organist. Funds for Mount Hermon’s magnificent new organ were given by a couple who wanted to preserve the art form in one of America’s premierie camp and conference centers.

    Unfortunately, despite fairly healthy sales by organ building companies, the number of qualified organists is dwindling quickly. It’s no wonder churches bury their organs. One observer noted that if the organ were invented today, with today’s incredible MIDI and solid state technology, every church in America would buy one. A good one is truly the “king of instruments,” and played well can inspire congregations like no other substitute.

  5. Amy Talbott Biemeck

    Thanks for that article. That’s my Dad above me there. As you might imagine we were blessed to grow up in a home with hymns and “white gospel”, played on the piano and organ. I play his CD’s now for my children, along with other classical music, so that they will know their “musical roots” and appreciate the piano AND organ, and not just the electric guitar and drums. 🙂 Rest assured there are still 30-somethings who appreciate the music, the languages, and the organ. Listening to my Dad “pull out all the stops” still gives me chills and stirs my soul. Could anything sound closer to heaven? Can’t wait to find out.

  6. dan

    The organ isn’t dead yet!

    The show I attended last week — ‘Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band’ @ Richard’s — featured an organ player. If you search for ‘Money Lenders in the Temple Conor Oberst’ on youtube, you’ll hear some nice organ riffs used to compliment vocals and acoustic guitar(the live video captures the organ better, if you can put up with the singing of the girl doing the filming!).

  7. nate

    Yes! Thank you!

    I’m not sure I feel exactly the way you do about organ music in its own right, but I can definitely relate on some levels.

    I’m only 25 years old and I’ve long been lamenting the decline of the hymnbook. There are so many deep treasures to be found, and my generation seems to be overlooking them entirely unless a hip, fresh band gives it a new tune with a funky beat, which, in my mind, usually ends up stripping it of its beauty and power.

    On a recent field trip to certain well known church in Manhattan, I knew I didn’t quite prefer the classical worship with the very loud organ–it’s not something I would load on my iPod, anyway–and yet it somehow brought me to tears more than once throughout the service.

  8. Jon Coutts

    Musically speaking, I hear what you are saying, and I agree. I’d take a good hymn over a good chorus this Sunday, and I miss the skilled organ players that I have had the pleasure of worshiping with—Maybe not droning on every song, but I’m kind of tired of the acoustic guitar droning on every song now too!

    Frankly, however, I think I could stand to do without music at all in church for awhile. I feel like an extremely inordinate amount of attention has already been and continues to be paid to music as a part of church life and worship these days. Sure there are biblical passages which celebrate and recommend music as worship (heaven knows they are all I get for “scripture readings” in church, as if we feel the need to justify our obsession every week!), but I think it could stand to take a backseat for awhile, for the sake of a re-balancing of priorities.

  9. The Ancient Mariner

    Dr. Stackhouse, it’s not white gospel (and so is somewhat off the thrust of your post), but you ought to come out here to northern Indiana next June/July while the MasterWorks Festival is going on; our minister of music, the director of that festival, is doing his best to keep a somewhat older set of musical languages strong, in the culture and (especially!) in and for the church.

  10. John Stackhouse

    Thanks for all these encouragements, folks, that things are not as bad as I’ve feared. And thanks, too, for the commiserations from friends who worry with me that things may be, yet, pretty bad and getting worse…!

  11. Alex Ouligian

    I too miss the traditional music. I went to Catholic high school, and for the first three years, the school kept the traditional music, with choir and orchestra. But my senior year, they switched to contemporary music, and much to my chagrin, the Christian element in the music was lost. But never fear, professor. A friend of mine from school who is now a sophomore at Gonzaga University is terrific at the organ, and intends to continue along that route. Most in the music department agree with me, too, and this organ player was among the stronger proponents of traditional Catholic hymns.

  12. SursumCorda

    Once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far away, I was part of a church with music I don’t expect to experience again this side of heaven. It was in a denomination — Presbyterian Church in America — that is not known for its musical excellence, but this was an unusual church with an extraordinary music director. I wish you could have could have seen how, under her ministry, young seminary students who had known only rock and roll came to appreciate and value church music from all centuries, with an especial delight in Renaissance anthems. (I would have said they “fell in love with” such music, but I remember a previous conversation here.) Even more, I wish you could have worshipped with us. To my great sorrow, that church situation is long gone, but it gives me hope for heaven. 🙂

    In The Disappearance of Childhood, Neil Postman emphasized the importance of what he called the Monastery Effect, in which people committed to resisting the “spirit of the age” keep alive humane and valuable traditions. He was not speaking of church music, but the thought applies.

  13. Dave Swartz

    While I have a long appreciation for CCM going back to the Jesus Movement of the 60’s and 70’s (when it had a wonderful raw and robust quality it no longer possesses), I understand your feelings listening to Gorecki. Now, along with jazz, I’ve added such composers as Arvo Part (especially his Te Deum), Reqieum by Faure and others. They capture an expansive and deep sense of God’s majesty that other music just cannot.

  14. Dan46

    Here is a possible idea for a sister blog entry: the disappearance of the musical language of silence. Seems to me that a problematic aspect of our modern context is over-stimulation, and a loss of the language of silence, which I believe is part of what has robbed much music – and spoken word – of it’s power. I lead contemplative services which include alot of music, but I feel the silence which is practised makes it so much more powerfull. It’s a sign of the times when 2 minutes of real silence is experienced as threatening . . .

  15. Jonathan

    I’m 28 and I can play that “white gospel” style, at least to accompany congregational singing. There are many who can do it better, though.


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