Tuesday, December 1, 2009

What Music Feeds Your Soul? Part III

I need to qualify what I mean by changing Christian music. I have no grandiose notions. I’m one of the least ambitious people I know. It is a matter of remaining optimistically engaged in the conversation. And this is a hard conversation to stay attentive to. I’ve encountered Christians who make it fashionable to be disgruntled with contemporary worship music. It is a posture best summarized by Lauren Winner’s reference to those “Jesus is my boyfriend love songs.” There is a cross section of the church that is put off and even downright obstinate towards much of the music I make. I can sympathize with their concerns and criticisms better than they know. When I say that I want to be a part of the change, I mean that I don’t want to hide behind academia and write abstract theories. I’m not an idealist—more accurately, while I do have ideals, I can’t afford to be an idealist in the context of ministry practice. This is what Gordon Fee has called a “marketplace theology.” Much of what I learn is in the context of reading and writing, yes, but it's a kind of learning that has traction in the context of real ministry practice. It is in this space where all my best ideas are pressed into a dependence upon the ministry of the Spirit.

An aside: this is a tough thing for college students to appreciate. College is a place to gather and test the best of ideas. We train students how to tear ideas apart, and we train them to be proud of themselves in the process. Learning should be delightful, but what is our delight found in? The muscle of our brains or the joy of discovery? Learning is as susceptible to haughtiness as any playground kid trying to prove whose got the biggest stick—perhaps even more so. It is fashionable to be sarcastic and cynical, to bully and intimidate. Yet cynicism and pride are not very helpful when putting your gifts in the service of God. You can build a kingdom with those attributes, but not God’s kingdom.

If you want to change something, you’ll need to love it first. You can’t change anything from a posture of condescension. You have to get on your hands and knees and dive into the grey matter and pray, pray, pray.

Back on topic…

One of the most poignant sections of the conversation about Christian music is staged in the arena of the recording studio. More broadly, by now you can gather that I am concerned about any issue that might involve technology used in the production of God’s worship. I already alluded to the inherent cult of personality when a worship leader’s face is placed as the center of attention on large projection screens. Well, there are hundreds of other technological decisions that are made even before a worship leader finds him or herself on such a large stage, and many of these decisions are made in the context of the recording process. The studio is a place where much of an artist’s identifying sound is clarified and established. My point is this: technology is not neutral nor is it invisible. Each technological device and decision has the power to affect the spirit and the meaning of a worship service or a specific worship song for the good or for the bad. And for those of us who don't have songs to record, it is these recordings and productions along with a myriad of technological decisions that serve as models for the rest of us. The arrangement and production of these commercial recordings made in Nashville or wherever become defacto our model of the way our worship should sound.

“That I May Please You” was the first song I contributed to Generation Productions’ “Prayers & Worship Volume 1.” It was written in 1998, a year after graduating from college when I had enough money to buy my first computer and where I discovered the temptations of the Internet for the first time.

I deserve much worse than this,
I have trampled underfoot
Your Spirit and you blood.
Wash my body in your Word
And cleanse my consciousness
To love your righteousness
And hate all evil.

Questions about tempo, dynamics, instrumentation all were made in roughly a few hours of studio time with hired studio musicians. The musicians knew nothing of the core meaning of the song and so the result of that session sounded and felt foreign conveying an emotion that couldn't support the lament and repentance of the text.

I really shouldn’t complain. I am still very grateful for the opportunity. Charlie generously paid for everything. It was my first shot at recording—for free. He sold copies of the CDs to me and the other contributors at cost so that we could in turn make a profit and thus fund our own full-length recordings. Charlie has been one of the most helpful friends in my growth in music ministry. Yet, during that same year Don and Lori Chaffer with Ben and Robin Pasley and Brandon and Christina Graves had made the first of the Enter the Worship Circle records, just a few microphones, some guitars and hand drums in a cabin. Time to linger, to make music out of fellowship—a very different kind of recording that I could help but be jealous of. I’ve been trying to learn how to make my own records ever since.

When an artist decides to make a record, a very fundamental question needs to be asked about how the recording will be made. How spontaneous or how live can and should this music be documented? Said another way: to what extent does the recording studio become a part of the record itself? In the early days tape machines had only a few tracks to record on. A four track recorder was at one time a rather sophisticated device. Everything was tracked live. One track for a lead vocalist perhaps, and three other tracks recorded all the rest of the musicians in groups, a mic for drums, a mic for horns etc. A song, even a song on the radio, was a document of a single live event. With the advent of 24 track tape machines and now digital recording devices, recordings are an assembly of many different creative moments assembled together by a mixing engineer over time to resemble a whole unified musical experience.

My assumption is that there are many artists out there who are brilliant and worth listening to, yet they do not have the right access to the kind of recording equipment and expertise necessary to document their music and make it enjoyable to listen to. Again, we can’t be idealistic here either. There is no right or wrong when it comes to choosing between recording methods. I’m not interested in digital versus analog or live verses studio debates in the abstract. The question is what is best for each artist, each record, each song? There are as many different kinds of music as there are human emotions. Further, there are just about as many different ways to record a song as there are kinds of music. My main concern is the ubiquity a very specific, very limiting, formulaic approach to creating Christian music that is aimed primarily at satisfying predictable market targets. Good music or good art in general is at its best when it retains the mystery of exploration and discovery and defies predictability. Popular music, both Christian and what is on top 40 charts in the past decade have become trapped in a box. Even more tragic, worship music, specifically what is often called ‘Praise and Worship’ has become a particular genre that possesses its own sound, its own sonic signature and arrangement patterns.

You and I both know the experience of driving cross-country, flipping through the radio stations. You hear the sound of the music and know before any lyrics are sung that it is contemporary Christian music. This is what twists my stomach in knots.

Yet, while I am arguing for artistic integrity and freedom in the recording studio, my further concern is seemingly counter-intuitive: God focused music should be constrained to a standard of biblical and theological maturity. This is not just a kind of mature development of lyrics alone, but a kind of wisdom about the music as well. In my next post I want to make the argument that Christian artists should study theology and more specifically that worship leaders should seriously consider ministry training. In the long run such study and preparation should, if pursued properly, be more freeing for the artist rather than confining.


livingpalm said...

I wanted you to know that I'm enjoying reading this series. Don't have a lot to contribute to the conversation at this point but I'm all ears!

OKC Herbivore said...

The single most important thing that could happen on our next Chall record could be not doing it in the same studios, with the same producers. We have yet to make a record that really focuses on sounds at the source, though we all think that way, and it does frustrate me.

likewise, though i appreciate our last few records a lot, there are several "moments" kind of songs (i'm thinking of something like "mystery" or "scenes") that often lack much intimacy or urgency that comes across in live settings. "Come for me" from Flying... does better at this.

Brad Kilman works to capture this (and Joel too i think) by recording nights of a group singing and praying the record's songs, and sometimes this is pretty effective.

OKC Herbivore said...

..and one of the things i appreciated about Brand New Mountain Speeches is that we did try to capture each songwriter's particular bend, warts and all, though often this was a time/schedule factor too, and a lot of my inexperience in production shines thru...

and though i still felt like i played too much myself across the record (mostly to fill holes in scheduling), it did come out with a lot of perspectives and sounds, even allowing for the mixers' variegated personalities (Trent's open, more rock and roll touch, and Chuck's compressor heavy, delay heavy hand).

Joshua Banner said...

FWIW...I think Charlie & Company's Flying into Daybreak is one of the most creative and sonically interesting worship recording to have national distribution. And coincidentally I was able to be around for various portions of that recording process. It was good times...both fun with the peeps and impressive to see such care taken to make good sounds.