In the Wind. . . .

June 30, 2015

In perfect harmony

All musicians know what harmony is: chords, voice leading, dissonance, and resolution. We know harmony as one of the persnickety courses you’re required to take in school, in my case taught by a tyrannical and sometimes abusive professor. When you master the craft of harmony, or at least understand it enough to be dangerous, the magic of music is unlocked for you. You may have always known that Bach’s music was special, but dig into its structure and mathematics, and it becomes otherworldly. Paradoxically, the more you know about, the less you can understand it. I think it’s the mystical equivalent of how Rembrandt, Rubens, or Hobbema could mix linseed oil and pigment and make light flow from their paintbrushes.

But harmony is more than a mathematical exercise or an enigmatic code. It’s a way of being. It’s a way of managing the life of a community. Dictionary definitions use words like “pleasing,” “agreement,” and “concord.” 

 

How green is green?

I have vivid memories of two special moments in my childhood when I experienced something “live” for the first time. One was the first time I walked into Fenway Park in Boston with my father to see a Red Sox game. Dad was an avid fan, and I had watched dozens of games on (black and white) television with him. I’ve never seen grass so green as it was at Fenway that day. It was breathtaking, and I’ll always remember it.

The other was the first time I heard the Boston Symphony Orchestra live on their “home field.” There was something about the sonority of those double basses that I knew could not exist anywhere else. And the scale of the thing—the sea of black suits, the amber hues of fifty or sixty stringed instruments with their bows moving precisely in parallel, the gleaming polished brass in the back row, the majestic proscenium arch, and of course, the huge display of gold façade pipes of the great organ. 

That impression has evolved over the years to include the idea that a hundred highly trained musicians spread out over a vast stage, playing simultaneously, is one of the great expressions of the human condition. I love witnessing the precision of all those instruments assuming playing positions, the conductor’s downbeat, and the instant expression of sound. It moves me every time. Young and old, men and women, liberals and conservatives, and from all races and backgrounds, baring their souls and their intellects toward a common result. What a world this would be if our politicians worked that way.

Let’s take it a step further. Strip those musicians of their paraphernalia. No violins, no piccolos, no drums, no hardware at all. What have you got? A choir. It’s elemental. The instruments are the human bodies themselves. Isn’t it amazing that you can give a pitch and have them sing it back, out of the blue? And I love the sound of a hundred people drawing breath at the same instant. It gives new meaning to the phrase, corporate inspiration!

 

What sweeter music 

can we bring?

While I know some musicians consider John Rutter’s choral music to be saccharine, or too sentimental, few of us would fail to recognize this opening line from one of his lovely Christmas carols. I think his music is terrific, not necessarily because of its intellectual content, but simply because it’s beautiful. I’ve been rattling on about harmony as if it’s the essence of music, but what about melody? A Mozart piano concerto, a Schubert song, and as far as I am concerned, anything by Mendelssohn draws its beauty first from melody. I think John Rutter is one of the best living melodists. 

Whenever I put a new piece by Rutter in front of a choir, invariably, they loved it. Congregations lit up with smiles, and people went home humming. Beautiful harmonies, catchy rhythms, gorgeous tunes. So what if it’s sweet and sentimental?

Rutter was born in 1945, which makes him eleven years older than me. But when I was fourteen years old, singing in the choir in my home parish, I saw his name in that green Carols for Choirs published by the Oxford University Press. He was in his twenties when he started creating those arrangements and newly composed carols, and a choir member once said to me, “Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without John Rutter.” (She was referring to the Shepherd’s Pipe Carol with its snazzy organ licks.)

I’m not thinking about John Rutter because I’m yearning for Christmas. As I write, a late spring is finally beginning to look like summer in Maine, after a long harrowing winter. And besides, he has written plenty of music for other occasions. But the other day, while lurking about Facebook, I came across a brief video, The Importance of Choir, produced by J. W. Pepper, which markets Rutter’s music in the United States. It’s three and a half minutes long, with two basic camera angles, showing Rutter in the obligatory Oxford shirt (unbuttoned at the neck) and sweater, summarizing his long-gestated reasoning of why choirs are important. He says:

 

Choral music is not one of life’s frills. It’s something that goes to the very heart of our humanity, our sense of community, and our souls. You express, when you sing, your soul in song. And when you get together with a group of other singers, it becomes more than the sum of the parts. All of those people are pouring out their hearts and souls in perfect harmony, which is kind of an emblem for what we need in the world, when so much of the world is at odds with itself. That just to express in symbolic terms what it’s like when human beings are in harmony. That’s a lesson for our times, and for all time.

 

It may sound as though he’s describing a perfect choir—one that could hardly exist. But he continues, “Musical excellence is, of course, at the heart of it, but even if a choir is not the greatest in the world, it has a social value, a communal value . . . a church or a school without a choir is like a body without a soul.”

“Not one of life’s frills.” I love that. It’s such a simple statement, and it rings so true. When the human essence of the thing is described so eloquently, the concept is elevated to become essential. You can watch this brief but meaningful video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pm-Pm1FYZ-U, or type “John Rutter the importance of choir” into the YouTube search field. 

An important foundation of tomorrow’s choristers is the youth choir of the local church. Ideally, it’s a group of kids who dependably attend rehearsals, where they’re taught musical and vocal fundamentals. I remember wonderful experiences with the kids at my last church, when they responded to challenges and took pleasure in mastering complicated music. But it was a short season. That was a community where lots of families had second homes in ski country, and as soon as there was snow, off they went. Oddly, the kids often came to weekday rehearsals, but then missed Sunday mornings. 

And ice time. Holy cow. Peewee hockey teams jockeyed for reserved time at rinks, and since that time was so highly valued, coaches were happy to get a 5 a.m. slot. By the time the kids got to church at 8:30, they were beat up and exhausted. And in the schools, when budget time came around, arts and music (as if they could be separated) got cut long before football and even cheerleading.

And I’m talking about young kids in public schools. Take it to the next level where colleges and universities produce scholarships for athletes with sometimes only cursory academic requirements, and the priorities of an institution can really be questioned.

 

Take one for the team.

I’m not what you’d call an all-around sports fan, but I do love baseball. Our move last year from Boston to New York has made things complicated for me. There’s a precision about baseball—an elegance in the strategies. The application of statistics makes it the closest thing in sports to a Bach fugue. And since that first breathtaking glimpse of the greenest of green grass, I think I’m safe saying I went to hundreds of games with my father, who had the same seats for forty years. I love telling people that the two of us attended twenty-five consecutive opening day games at Fenway Park. That’s many thousands of hours, and I know that an important part of my adult relationship with my father happened in those seats (Section 26, Row 4, Seats 13 and 14—on the third base line).

And when they were playing well, it was a pleasure to watch the carefully choreographed 6-4-3 double play. Or a pitcher and first baseman trying to bluff a base runner. I think I understand the importance of teaching teamwork, which I suppose is the root of why there’s such a strong emphasis on sports in schools. But if choir, or band, or orchestra isn’t teamwork, I guess I’m missing something. 

Later in that video, John Rutter challenges those who are responsible for institutional budgets to acknowledge the central importance of the arts and especially ensemble music in education, saying that it’s “ . . . like a great oak that rises up from the center of the human race, and spreads its branches everywhere.” To carry that thought a little further, as long as the squirrels don’t get there first, that great oak will drop thousands of acorns which, assuming good conditions, will grow to become tomorrow’s great trees.

For the life of me, I can’t understand why cuts in a school’s budget should affect the arts before sports. I know I’m biased, and I surely know that people will disagree with me, but to quote the late Robin Williams, “I’m sorry. If you were right, I’d agree with you.” Football is just a game, while music—learning to play an instrument or singing in a choir—is a centuries-old centerpiece of human expression. And the more we hear in the media about new understanding of the lasting effects of games like football on the human body, the more I wonder how it can be justified. Singing in a choir doesn’t cause concussions or brain damage, and it exposes students to the history of our culture in an important way. I’d say “it’s a no-brainer,” if it wasn’t so very brainy.

 

Tools of the trade

American jazz pianist Benny Green said, “A jazz musician is a juggler who uses harmonies instead of oranges.” The development of harmony is a fascinating story of evolution. Pythagoras lived on the Greek island of Samos from about 570 BC to 495 BC. It was he who, listening to the blows of blacksmiths’ hammers on anvils, first noticed and described the overtone series, which is the root of all intervals. He must have had terrific ears, and his deductions about the math that became music are no less spectacular than Galileo and Copernicus sitting on a hilltop at night for long enough to deduce that the earth rotates on its axis while orbiting the sun.

The identification of the overtone series led to organum, where two voices chanted in parallel motion. Then, maybe an inattentive monk made a mistake and went up instead of down, creating a dissonance that demanded resolution. It only took a few hundred years for that brotherly slip to turn into the harmonies of Dunstable, Dufay, Ockeghem, Lassus, Sweelinck, Schiedemann, Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and the rest is history.

Our tyrannical music theory teacher helped us understand the tools and the building blocks of music—those rules that define the difference between the music of Josquin des Prez and Felix Mendelssohn. Major and minor, diminished and augmented chords are arranged in sequence—progressions—that lead the listener from start to finish of a piece. They are analogous to the ingredients that are combined to produce a luscious dish.

 

Make it up as you go along.

Last week, I was preparing an organ in New York City for a colleague’s recital. But since it was to be a program of improvisation, we agreed it couldn’t be called a recital. Taken literally, the word implies “reciting” something that has already been written. In the hours before the concert, he received themes submitted on-line and in person, and a program was distributed that listed the compositional styles he would be using: Classic French Suite, Baroque Prelude and Fugue, etc.

Improvisation is the realm of the jazz musician and the organist. There’s something about the organ that lends itself to monumental improvisation, and there’s something about improvisation that propels a musician to a different level.

There’s a parlor-stunt aspect to improvisation. Sometimes the themes are humorous, like that for The Flintstones, which was submitted by the audience the other night. We chuckle as we hear a tux-clad performer using the clichés of classic French organ registration to warble that tune, invoking visual images and lyrics associated with childhood Saturday mornings. Imagine Fred and Wilma wearing powdered wigs. But we marvel at the skill, and the knowledge of harmony, of regional and historical compositional styles, as he conjures up a never-heard-before majestic piece of music right before your eyes, or is it your ears?

It’s easy to figure why the organ, so deeply rooted in the history of the church, would be such a perfect vehicle for improvisation. The musical heritage of the church, of any church, is based on simple melodies such as plainchant and hymn tunes. And how much of the literature of the organ is based on tunes like Veni Creator Spiritus, or Nun danket alle Gott?

While improvisation seems like magic, it’s based on solid knowledge of the tools and building blocks of music. Don’t think for a moment that Fats Waller, Dizzy Gillespie, or Ella Fitzgerald are just doodling. Charles Tournemire or Pierre Cochereau are not doodling. They’re serious, carefully constructed, thoughtful pieces of music.  If they weren’t, they would never survive the relentless scrutiny of recording, or of reconstruction for “re-performance.”

 

It’s not a frill.

Music. There’s something about it. Is that a trite thing to say? How did any of us get involved in music enough to bother with reading this journal? No musician purposely sets an educational course to financial success. It’s the love of it, the caring about it, the need for it. In choirs, we find community without parallel, human cooperation and collaboration that can serve as a model for everything else we do. In improvisation, we create masterpieces for the moment. When the last echo dies away, it’s gone, making space for another.

Hundreds of generations of scientists, philosophers, and artists have collaborated to give us this music, which inspires, thrills, and soothes us. It’s not a frill. It’s not an elective. It’s essential. Don’t waste your vote. ν