Sunday, September 21, 2008

The devil doesn't always have the best songs!

It turns out that the devil might not have the best tunes after all. Although I run a secular choir (I don’t have a religious bone in my body!) we do end up singing a lot of sacred songs. This is purely because some of the tunes and harmonies are fantastic! In fact, because the sacred songs go down so well, I even created a one-day workshop called Sacred Songs to Soothe the Soul.

In a comment on my last post (Singing together) Deb said:

“I gather that many choirs had their roots in religious settings. Where that is the case, it would not be surprising if some choir members and some audience members were less than happy if the choir’s repertoire is extended to secular pieces.”

I guess the opposite applies also: if a choir is purely secular and then starts including a lot of religious songs, some of the choir and audience might be a bit upset! I know of several secular choirs that strongly object to any religious songs being sung. Some exclude them entirely, whilst others simply change the words. (I have even heard of one musical director changing all occurrences of the word ‘God’ to ‘dog’!).

I’ve covered the subject of the joys of community singing and why so much singing happens only in religious contexts (Singing from the same hymn sheet), and also the difficulty of finding suitable venues so often ending up performing in churches (Not enough venues to go round). I’m always surprised by how strongly people feel about solely religious or solely secular choirs and repertoire. I know of many non-religious people who simply won’t come to see a musical performance (of any kind) in a church since they assume it will be overtly religious. I also know of people who will only go to concerts if they have strong religious content. I remember going to see the Harlem Gospel Choir expecting an evening of superb music, but it turned out to be more like an evangelical meeting!

There is a more general issue here other than just secular vs. religious: how much can a choir change its repertoire and still keep it’s members and audience on board? When you join a choir, you sign up to its particular style, approach and repertoire. If that were to suddenly change, then you would be justifiably upset. However, all choirs need to grow and develop, and as long as such changes are gradual, there should be no problem. The difficulty comes when a choir (or band or song-writer) becomes associated strongly with a particular style or genre and the public expect them to always deliver in that style. A problem of becoming too successful?!

Deb goes onto say:

“I’m a member of a “world music” choir — while I don’t think we have consciously avoided religious or praise songs, the pieces we have sung so far have virtually all been secular. I don’t know for sure, because I haven’t asked, but I would expect this is one of the reasons why we have one of the most visibly diverse memberships I have ever seen, including people from several continents and with a range of beliefs.”

We, too, are a world music choir. Whilst being clearly secular, we do have a lot of sacred songs in our repertoire. We don’t do overtly ‘praise songs’, we tend to avoid any ‘Jesus’ references (‘Lord’ is OK as it’s more inclusive), and I always try to cover a range of different faiths. I guess it may be a bit easier in my choir since we sing in the original language so the meaning is not to the forefront, rather it is the beauty of the music and harmonies. The main difficulties are in gospel and South African church songs when the lyrics are in English. I try not to change lyrics, but I do select songs carefully.

The fact is, the harmony singing tradition of countries such as South Africa and New Zealand arose in the first place from christian missionaries bringing harmonised hymns with them. These harmonies were then appropriated by the indigenous people and assimilated into their own music. However, many of the resulting songs still revolve around the church. So if we want to sing harmony songs from certain cultures, we will inevitably come across religious songs.

Like Deb’s choir, I try to encourage as diverse a membership as possible. Since the choir has no allegiance to any particular faith or culture (I try to cover songs from as wide a range as sources as possible), it should be equally attractive to all. I like to think that our choir is neither secular nor religious, but just celebrates good songs whatever their source.

go to Chris Rowbury's website

Chris Rowbury


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