“Singing an eclectic repertoire”

One of the best short essays on singing in worship just went up at the Alban Institute Web site. In the essay, titled “Singing an Eclectic Repertoire,” authors Bruce G. Epperly and Daryl Hollinger point out that singing in church “is not about aesthetics — about what we like or dislike. It is about singing our faith in our local community while opening ourselves to new possibilities for singing and worship.” With that principle in mind, they offer some really great ideas for singing a wide-ranging repertoire that includes the following types of sacred song: early American, Irish folk, Hebrew traditional, African American spiritual, gospel, African, Latino, Asian, and contemporary musics.

For example, check out this suggestion for singing Irish folk melodies: “Most people don’t know that the origin of the song ‘Be Thou My Vision’ was an Irish folk tune. If you play it directly from most hymnals, it will sound more like a traditional Germanic hymn. When we simplify the harmonies and change chords primarily only once a measure, the mood changes drastically. The tempo can be lively. Adding a triangle, tambourine, and hand drum will enhance the Irish flavor.” Obviously, you could use similar ideas with English folk melodies as well.

Epperly and Hollinger don’t cover every type of music we sing as sacred song. They don’t cover Welsh tunes, medieval music, or contemporary North American chant, for example. But the authors don’t need to give us precise instructions on singing (and leading) every different type of sacred song. Once we realize that most congregations tend to make every song sound either like (a) old Germanic hymns, or (b) contemporary praise music — we can deal with that tendency, transcend our present narrow approaches, and become truly eclectic singers.

How about Tuvan throat singing in church? Would that be going too far? Umm, OK, I guess something like this might drive some people out of a worship service.

6 thoughts on ““Singing an eclectic repertoire”

  1. Amy

    On the way to the church camp weekend, I heard an interview on the radio with a very eclectic singer. One thing he’d incorporated into his music was Tuvan throat singing, and the interviewer asked him how he’d learned it. He said if you go into a small, resonant space–a tiled bathroom is perfect–and pick a note at the bottom of your range, and sing the word “bird,” with a good, strong “r” (he said, sing it like you’re from Texas), the overtones will just start to emerge. A car isn’t as resonant as a bathroom, but I was so excited at the thought that I could actually learn this that I tried it right then.

    It’s easier said than done; I didn’t get overtones, but I was surprised how close the buzz I got came to that sound. It made me think it really is something anyone can learn.

    None of which answers the question of whether it’s what we want in worship. I love Tuvan music; when I told my wife this story, though, she said “ugh, I hate that stuff”; which in a nutshell is why we need eclectic music in worship. Different notes for different folks.

  2. Dan

    Amy @ 1 — I want to hear you try Tuvan throat singing some time…

    Jean @ 2 — Who are you trying to kid, you’d come to a worship service that had anything to do with horses.

  3. Philocrites

    Of course, the preference for incorporating diverse musical traditions into a worship service is about aesthetics. It’s an aesthetic choice, and, like all aesthetic choices, it conveys a bunch of meanings. The essay you quote seems to use the word to mean “taste,” but music—no matter how formal or informal its performance standard—is always aesthetic.

  4. Paul Oakley

    I’m trying to remember who to attribute this to but can’t at the moment. Anyway, the interpretation was given that incorporating diverse music into worship services does not work to appeal to a diverse crowd but appeals, instead, to the significantly smaller crowd who value eclecticism.

    That eclectic-valuing crowd includes me. I, for one, would not hesitate to incorporate Tuvan throat singing in a service I put together, provided it was in some way applicable. I would not usually include it simply to bring in something different.

    As for Epperly and Hollinger’s example of “Be Thou My Vision,” I have to ask what difference it makes that it is of Celtic origins. It is used in worship because its tune is pleasant enough and its words suitable enough that a certain portion of UUs like it. Nothing other than a decree of stylistic eclecticism is added by bringing in the tambourine or bodhran or uilleann pipes or a chorus line from Riverdance. Now if that style has spiritual significance in a congregation, great! But if not, that shouldn’t affect whether or not we use a piece of music that our congregation relates to. For that matter, if people get off on Celtic stuff, you could reorchestrate Ein Feste Burg Celtic-rock style. Yep, already been done…

  5. Patrick McLaughlin

    As presented, the throat singing wouldn’t be appropriate for a service, I think (I say that as a fan; I have 3-4 albums, have been to a concert…). Now, if the lyrics were in English, and helped make the song accessible…

    But then, like Paul, I appreciate eclecticism (even to synchreticsm). But given that our tradition is overly (too narrowly) devoted to a musical tradition that’s gotten narrowed in its appeal, we need to break out….

    (Having just been told the story of an older UU who moved to the area, started showing up… and bitched about the music. Not because it was classical, but because it wasn’t ALL classical. Which led him to make a scene, and then leave. Which, I’ll have to say, was not a loss for the congregation…)

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