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September 17, 2009
In The Village
Sacrament meeting not only place to enjoy sacred music
by Orson Scott Card

For the sake of reverence, only a particular kind of music, from one musical tradition, is allowed in our sacrament meetings.

We sing from the same hymnbook, generally repeating the same hundred-or-so hymns and ignoring the same leftovers. It's disconcerting to the congregation when we're asked to sing one of the leftover hymns -- but we struggle through it, guided by the organist and the loud-singing conductor.

(It's not the arm-waving, by the way, so much as the loud singing that gives the conductor the power to lead us in song. While no one will try this experiment, I can guarantee you that if the conductor just stood there and sang, there would be no change whatever in the performance of the congregation.

(Then again, if there were no conductor at all, just an organist, we would probably do as well. But the combination of accompaniment, vocal leading, and arm-waving makes us more secure.)

If we are uncomfortable with the less-familiar hymns in the book, imagine what would happen if we had music from a completely different musical tradition!

Well, we don't have to imagine: It happened, and recently.

It came with the intrusion of pop music techniques into the performance of sacred music. Syncopation and slurring of notes, along with a more pop or Broadway style of accompaniment, started to show up in new songs that were performed in sacrament meeting.

Not that there weren't also new songs in the old tradition; and some of the pop elements were woven seamlessly into the music in a way that did not surprise us and distract from the message of the song and the mood of the services.

But we began to hear the resistance coming as the Brethren moved to protect sacrament meeting. Instead of singling out one or two songs or composers in particular (my, but that would have been discouraging, to have the prophets and apostles denounce your well-intended music!), the message came down: Stick to the hymnbook.

In some stakes this was so zealously obeyed that even pieces at the heart of our western sacred tradition were banned -- imagine being forbidden to perform Handel's "The Hallelujah Chorus" or "For Unto Us a Child Is Born" or Malotte's "Lord's Prayer" in a sacrament meeting!

Or imagine a ban on "O Holy Night" during the Christmas season!

That could hardly have been the purpose behind the reminder to use the hymnbook in sacrament meeting.

The reason these songs are not in the hymnbook is that they're too hard for general congregations to sing; but performed by skilled musicians, they are fully compatible with the tone of our meetings.

But there are other musical traditions which would be jarring to most congregations, but completely welcome to others.

For instance, in the American South, where I live, the gospel and country traditions are both able to produce genuinely sacred music of great beauty.

Obviously, they also produce music that would be completely wrong. For instance, the gospel tradition easily shades over from the sacred to the ecstatic. In the Church we try to maintain the clear distinction between the genuine presence of the Spirit and the counterfeit, produced by frenzied emotions.

So when gospel music crosses the line into foot-stomping, strutting, wailing, and weeping, it has lost the purpose music serves in our sacrament meetings. Indeed, it would effectively end a sacrament meeting on the spot, because more than dignity is lost when we forget that the Spirit comes in a "still, small voice."

Still, between the European sacred-music tradition and that frenzied extreme of gospel music, there is a great deal of gospel music that would be -- to an audience familiar with it -- every bit as conducive to the purpose of our meetings.

Many African-American members deeply miss the beautiful music they knew and loved growing up in Black churches. They often feel shut out of ward choirs, because the music is all so unfamiliar, and their traditional manner of singing doesn't fit well with the way the white members are used to singing.

When Emma Smith was assigned to choose hymns for use in our meetings, she drew upon her own Presbyterian tradition, and along with the new LDS hymns (or hymn texts), she brought in plenty of music that had long been used in the churches most converts came from.

So it's no surprise that others might wish to bring the best of their musical tradition into the Church.

The same is true of country music, which has frequent references to God and Christ. Nobody is surprised when a song like "Jesus Take the Wheel" becomes a huge hit in the country genre.

And millions of Americans -- including a lot of Mormons -- love Randy Travis's rich and rumbling voice singing hymns (Check out his albums Worship & Faith and Rise and Shine.)

I don't think we're ready to hear a sacrament meeting rendition of "Pray for the Fish," "Valley of Pain," or even "Three Wooden Crosses" (though all are wonderful songs), but if you removed the rhythm section and the twanging strings, you could still perform "Rise and Shine," "The Gift," and most especially "If You Only Knew" in a genuine country voice.

Fortunately, sacrament meeting isn't the only place where we can listen to sacred music. And Mormon songwriters and singers are dipping into those other traditions and coming out of the well with buckets brimming over.

Gladys Knight's One Voice album from 2005 did a marvelous job of drawing on many traditions and giving them a great gospel-music spin. Her African-beat version of "Come, Come Ye Saints" is gorgeous -- and feels especially appropriate considering how rapidly the Church is growing in Africa.

Jason Deere is the real thing -- a country songwriter and producer who has written tunes for some of the biggest stars in country music. So it's no surprise that when he turned his hand to writing a "Nashville Tribute to the Pioneers," he came up with the amazing Trek.

Every one of the songs works as a song, never relying on pious Mormon in-references. If you knew or cared nothing about Mormon history, these would be terrific songs all the same.

The only drawback to the album is the spoken words, quoting from pioneer diaries. They work fine on first hearing -- but later on, when you're mixing the album in with other music on a playlist, or just replaying the great songs, the talking can be jarring and annoying.

The solution is simple -- I only keep the mp3s of the tunes in my regular rotation. With one exception: the track, "Sleep," which includes actors repeating the names of the pioneers who died. I find this deeply moving every time.

Best cut? "One Who Understands."

Nearer: A New Collection of Favorite Hymns draws on the "alternative" tradition to reinvent hymns straight out of the hymnbook. The alternative tropes -- no-vibrato, plain singing -- give these performances a kind of purity and dignity, harking back to the pure-voice tradition that pre-dated the bel-canto tradition.

There are those who will not like the slight hint of stridency in this kind of singing, or will be put off by the unusual phrasing in tracks like Sarah Sample's sweet "I Need Thee Every Hour," or the flat American accent in Chris Merritt's robust "How Great Thou Art."

Most of us, though, quickly get used to the unusual aspects of the singing and instead rejoice in the freshness of it, and the way these performances throw powerful light on the words.

My favorites? Dustin Christensen's "It Is Well with My Soul," Spencer Harrison and Lauren Casper on "All Creatures of Our God and King," and Mindy Gledhill's "Be Still My Soul."

In truth I love every track on this album but one -- Kalai's unfortunately overwrought version of "Onward Christian Soldiers," which ends with such gratingly out-of-tune high notes that I thought I was listening to a Primary program.

Then -- perhaps my favorite of the lot -- there's the self-titled album from the new group Mercy River, a trio consisting of Brooke Stone, Whitney Permann, and Soni Muller -- "three moms who love to sing," according to their Facebook page.

They bring an ethereal New Age feel to their lovely songs, with an effect that is hauntingly beautiful on every track.

I doubt anyone would think any of these albums appropriate for sacrament meeting; but by drawing on many different musical traditions, they bless the listener in ways that sacrament-meeting-approved music cannot.


Copyright © 2019 by Orson Scott Card Printed from NauvooTimes.com