[Repost] The Best of 2011-12: What Arcade Fire Can Teach Us About Text Painting

Just over a year ago I began blogging.  This is the fourth of five posts that will be re-posts of the top five blog posts this past year.  Thanks for making this year great by reading what I have written and commenting.  I appreciate it!

This weekend at Lakeshore Community Church we are performing Modern Man by Arcade Fire. Initially I chose this song for the service because the text so clearly depicts a generation struggling to find purpose and direction (check out the review of their album Suburbs, which includes Modern Man, in Relevant Magazine), and the service has to do with commitment and maturity and the link between them.

Here are some of the lyrics:

So I wait in line, I’m a modern man
And the people behind me, they don’t understand
Makes me feel like
Something don’t feel right

Like a record that’s skipping, I’m a modern man
And the clock keeps ticking, I’m a modern man
Makes me feel like
Makes me feel like

And later in the song:

If it’s so right
Then how come you can’t sleep at night
In line for a number but you don’t understand
Like a modern man

Arcade Fire paints a picture of a world where we are going through the motions without knowing why, a world where a generation is lining up behind the previous generation in lock step without any real purpose. Here “modern” becomes more than just a moniker for today; “modern” also defines the current generation – modernity – and the upcoming generation – postmodernity. Everyone in the “postmodern” culture is in danger of simply walking in the footsteps of the “modern” culture without a thought as to why. Every generation through the ages has been in danger of simply doing things “the way they have always been done” without properly questioning and, ultimately, owning ways of life as their own.

Beyond the brilliant poetry, however, is something which only the music can tell. Listening to the song for the first few times I was puzzled by the changes in meter until I started seeing the music itself through one particular line in the song:

Like a record that’s skipping

The entire song is a skipping record. Truly genius. Most of the public will never catch on, I am sure, because it is subtle. The vibe of the music itself, without this consideration, already paints a picture of a grayscale world going through the motions. With this detail, however, Arcade Fire puts themeselves into a higher level of songwriter, employing the time tested technique of text-painting.

During the Renaissance text painting most referred to madrigals, defined as part songs for several voices without instrumental accompaniment, especially English and Italian songs of the late 16th and early 17th centuries “in a free style strongly influenced by the text.” [Thank you, Mac dictionary.] Text painting in this context was blatant: trills for birds, ascending melodies for climbing images, “fa-la-la” sections for fun and “indescribable situations,” etc. Here is a link to the King’s Singers performing Now Is the Month of Maying, by Thomas Morley. Please forgive the atrocious outfits; these guys are the best. Great lyrics:

Each with his bonnie lass
Upon the greeney grass
Fa-la-la-la-la

Hmmmmm. Wonder what that is all about. Probably exactly what you’re thinking. Those salacious songwriters . . .

We digress. Arcade Fire is somewhat more subtle and turns text painting to a higher task of describing the transition from one generation to the next.

Enjoy. You just had a music history lesson. Hopefully you didn’t fall asleep.

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What Kind of Music Charts Should I Use?

If you’ve spent any time with worship teams you’ve probably touched on the topic of chord charts and notated music. Musicians take this topic personally, so approach with care!

First of all, I want to clear up one thing: every worship team uses notation. The question is simply what kind of notation. “Notation” is a system of symbols designed to communicate to the musician what to sing or play. Chords over lyrics are notation. Chords over a notated melody line with the lyrics is notation. Exactly written out parts for violin, bass, drums, and so forth is another kind of notation.

If you are rolling your eyes with this “beginner” definition of notation, hang with me a moment. There is a method to my madness.

I compare musical notation with the primary kind of notation every single person on the planet uses: written language. The two are really no different. Authors use a specific collection of words and illustrations to evoke or communicate a truth or a feeling. Composers use a specific collection of symbols and lyrics to communicate truths and feelings through the medium of music.

So how do we choose? What is the deciding factor? Do we let dear Mary who loves playing the autoharp determine what kind of notation we use?  Uh, I don’t think so.  Or you don’t know me very well.

Here are a few things to consider.

Precision. How precisely do you want to communicate? If you are writing picture books you will only be able to reach a certain level of precision, but picture books are not meant to be precise. They are meant to be enablers for beginning readers and open to interpretation. In the same way chords over lyrics provide general direction with large amounts of room for personal interpretation. Chords over lyrics are also an easy step for beginning musicians. If, however, you are trying to specifically craft a musical moment, and especially if you are working with a large group of musicians, precision is going to require a more developed kind of notation.

Time. How much time do you have to prepare the music? If you have a several months to prepare a song and lots of rehearsal time for a rock band, less notation is going to be necessary.

How much time does your team practice each week? Do you even have a mid-week rehearsal? (If you don’t, quit reading this and call one. Now. You will get no where without one! And, no, Sunday morning does not count!)

If you do lots of music, you will need to choose between the following:

  • lots of easy music with simple charts
  • medium difficulty music with moderately complex charts
  • difficult music with complex charts
  • repeat the same tunes over and over and over so that you do not have to learn much new material.

If you have one shot to put something together in rehearsal, the chart needs to contain as much information as possible to assist the musician in preparation.

Ability. If your team is only learning to play their instruments and have no clue what it means to play together (You mean I have to listen to the other musicians?), it will not matter what you put in front of them. They are going to have their hands full starting and stopping together on Sunday, let alone providing interest throughout the song.

The team who is playing together well on standard worship repertoire (Tomlin, Brewster, Hillsong United) is ready to move to another level of notation and to reach another level of excellence in their musicianship.

Motivation. Eventually someone asks, “But why do I need to learn notation? Only the heart of worship matters, and when notated music is in front of me I can’t worship.” The kernel of truth here is that the heart of worship is what matters, but that is where the truth ends.

If your heart is all about worship, consider this. God calls each of us to give our very best to him as a sacrifice, something given not because it is easy but because he is worthy. If you have been at the same level musically for years, either you have reached the ceiling of your talent or you are staying comfortable.

If you have reached the ceiling of your talent, are you holding the team back from moving forward? If so, humbly admit it and decide if you should move on to allow the team to grow.

If you have not reached your ceiling, why are you not growing? This has everything to do with heart. Do not bury your talent. For the senior musician out there, God has no retirement plan. When your life purpose is finished he will take you home. Until then, keep growing.

Commitment. The final hurdle to taking growth steps in music can often be the musician’s level of commitment. Beware: challenging someone on their level of commitment is tantamount to asking them whether they have stepped out on their spouse. This is very personal, and you have to earn the right as a leader to speak about this. You also have to be modeling commitment. Otherwise, forget it.

Ultimately, a musician has to set aside extra time at home if he or she is to grow in their musicianship. If a musician says they want to grow but is unwilling to spend the extra time it takes, one of several things is at work. Either they truly are committed but their family life prevents them from spending more time, or they say they are committed but are change averse and refuse to put in the effort.

Vision. Ultimately, though, the decision comes down to you and the church’s vision. As a friend of mine used to say, does the church have a “minor leagues” or “all-stars” approach to arts? If they want all-stars, everyone on your team is going to have to step up or step down if you want to bring the church’s vision to fruition. If the church is about minor leagues and providing a place for everyone to serve and grow as long as they have a certain threshold of talent, then your approach is going to be completely different.

Conclusion. There is no silver bullet. Every situation is different, but I hope that you have a sense of the bigger picture when you are deciding what kind of notation to use. Don’t choose based on what is comfortable. Personally I will always lead my teams towards notated charts; I will talk about that later. I believe everyone can learn to read music, just like everyone can learn to read more than picture books (and once they do, they are usually glad they did!).

What Arcade Fire Can Teach Us About Text Painting

This weekend at Lakeshore Community Church we are performing Modern Man by Arcade Fire. Initially I chose this song for the service because the text so clearly depicts a generation struggling to find purpose and direction (check out the review of their album Suburbs, which includes Modern Man, in Relevant Magazine), and the service has to do with commitment and maturity and the link between them.

Here are some of the lyrics:

So I wait in line, I’m a modern man
And the people behind me, they don’t understand
Makes me feel like
Something don’t feel right

Like a record that’s skipping, I’m a modern man
And the clock keeps ticking, I’m a modern man
Makes me feel like
Makes me feel like

And later in the song:

If it’s so right
Then how come you can’t sleep at night
In line for a number but you don’t understand
Like a modern man

Arcade Fire paints a picture of a world where we are going through the motions without knowing why, a world where a generation is lining up behind the previous generation in lock step without any real purpose. Here “modern” becomes more than just a moniker for today; “modern” also defines the current generation – modernity – and the upcoming generation – postmodernity. Everyone in the “postmodern” culture is in danger of simply walking in the footsteps of the “modern” culture without a thought as to why. Every generation through the ages has been in danger of simply doing things “the way they have always been done” without properly questioning and, ultimately, owning ways of life as their own.

Beyond the brilliant poetry, however, is something which only the music can tell. Listening to the song for the first few times I was puzzled by the changes in meter until I started seeing the music itself through one particular line in the song:

Like a record that’s skipping

The entire song is a skipping record. Truly genius. Most of the public will never catch on, I am sure, because it is subtle. The vibe of the music itself, without this consideration, already paints a picture of a grayscale world going through the motions. With this detail, however, Arcade Fire puts themeselves into a higher level of songwriter, employing the time tested technique of text-painting.

During the Renaissance text painting most referred to madrigals, defined as part songs for several voices without instrumental accompaniment, especially English and Italian songs of the late 16th and early 17th centuries “in a free style strongly influenced by the text.” [Thank you, Mac dictionary.] Text painting in this context was blatant: trills for birds, ascending melodies for climbing images, “fa-la-la” sections for fun and “indescribable situations,” etc. Here is a link to the King’s Singers performing Now Is the Month of Maying, by Thomas Morley. Please forgive the atrocious outfits; these guys are the best. Great lyrics:

Each with his bonnie lass
Upon the greeney grass
Fa-la-la-la-la

Hmmmmm. Wonder what that is all about. Probably exactly what you’re thinking. Those salacious songwriters . . .

We digress. Arcade Fire is somewhat more subtle and turns text painting to a higher task of describing the transition from one generation to the next.

Enjoy. You just had a music history lesson. Hopefully you didn’t fall asleep.