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The Quietus Essay

Why There's More To Christian Music Than Tepid Praise Songs
Mark Brend , December 20th, 2018 10:47

As Christmas approaches, Mark Brend looks at the recent compilations of Gaelic Salm singing and argues that the music of the Christian faith in the UK has more to it than orange squash weak modern praise songs

On most Sundays, in a church hall in Devon, you can hear a repetitive, communal hallelujah chant, descending down a micro-tonal scale to the pounding of a drum machine. This praise music of a small Indian church that uses the hall for its meetings has an intensity, conviction and sheer oddness that challenges the assumption that church music in this country is a mere choice between 'traditional' pre-20th century hymns or 'contemporary' soft rock.

Although a recent Church Times article explored the present dominance of soft rock worship songs in the evangelical and charismatic wings of the mainstream church, just as in that meeting hall there are intriguing songs of praise to be found on the margins. One of the surprise releases of 2018 (and number two only to Todd Barton and UrsulaK Le Guin on this Quietus list) are the Salm albums of unaccompanied Gaelic psalm singing, recorded on the Isle of Lewis and released by the Arc Light Editions label. With a back catalogue including Arthur Russell and post-minimalist composer Ingram Marshall, Arc Light has previously operated in what we might broadly term experimental music, an admittedly vague category but one into which the Salm albums simply shouldn't fit. Indeed, they are a very rare phenomenon: Christian worship music appealing to a mainly secular audience. This is not art music, or concert music, or performance music, but the sound of a congregation of Christian believers singing to God. The music is motivated by the faith, and cannot be separated from it.

This poses some questions. What is it about these Salm records that appeals to people who don't share the faith the music expresses? Why is this unusual? And is there more Christian music hiding in the fringes of culture, deserving of renewed attention because of the faith it expresses, not in spite of it? Let's say that there are three categories of what we might term 'Christian music'. The first is worship/devotional music created to be played/sung communaly in church (Salm fits here); the second is music intended by the composer/performer to glorify or communicate something about God, but not necessarily in a church context (Olivier Messiaen, for example); the third is music made by people with some faith that explores, questions or otherwise engages with that faith.

Back to the Salm albums. Recorded in Back Free Church over two evenings under the direction of Calum Martin, they document a form of unaccompanied call and response singing known as free heterophony. A precentor sings words from a psalm to one of several simple drawn out melodies that would be familiar to the congregation, though they're not told in advance what the melody will be. They then echo him, the space in the tune allowing each member of the congregation to add grace notes and their own phrasing. The result is a clearly discernible core melody, expressed simultaneously in multiple voices, each of which adds its own subtle variation. It's a sound that demands metaphors from nature. The Quietus review of the Salm reissue appositely plumped for the murmurations of birds. I go for the sea breaking on the shore, an ebb and flow of sound, with immeasurable variety within each wave.

So what's the appeal? Authenticity is an over-used concept devalued almost to the point of meaninglessness. But in the Salm albums you hear conviction, commitment - a sense that people really believe what they're singing. It is not music made to impress, or make money, or attract attention. It is not a product, nor even really a performance. It overwhelms. In this respect it bears some comparison to early African-American gospel: music so intense, raw and powerful that it compels an audience that might not share the faith that drives it.

The Salm albums are a trend-bucking exception that proves the rule that Christian music is way off limits to secular audiences – a terminally uncool, watered down copy of whatever secular style was popular about five years before. That's the popular conception, anyway, and there's much to be said for it. In Britain and America and elsewhere, the church now tends to follow culture, whereas once it led. I came of age musically in the punk and post-punk era. My recollection is that punk was received with considerable suspicion and fear by the church – as it was by much of mainstream society – yet fast forward a few years and sure enough, a few rather tame Christian 'punk' records began to appear, long after the cultural moment had passed.

It really shouldn't be like this. Taken on its own terms, the Christian faith is a deep mystery going to the heart of the human connection with the divine. It follows, then, that you'd expect it to inspire art of depth and challenges, rather than bland mediocrity. Often it does, of course, in Blake and Dostoyevsky, for example. The Old Testament reports King David dancing with such abandon to the music of “castanets, harps, lyres, timbrels, sistrums and cymbals” that he caused offence (2 Samuel 6 v1-19). Where do we find that music now? If we're to find it we need to adjust our prejudice and broaden our cultural outlook.

Even when the terminally uncool caveat is removed, it seems we need some insulation from the uncomfortable and awkward aspects of Christian faith before we can accept its music. Jen Allan of Arc Light wonders if the very fact that the Salm recordings are sung in Gaelic helps provide that insulation. “Have mercy on me, my God, have mercy on me, for in you I take refuge” (Psalm 57 v1) becomes more palatable when sung in what, for most, is a foreign language.

Much of the classical canon (in the broadest sense) is borne out of, or addresses matters of Christian faith, something that feels far more acceptable to secular taste. Here the insulation comes from long established convention. We can listen to Bach or Hildegard of Bingen, or later composers like John Tavener, and not feel threatened by their declared intention to write music that points to God, because of an historic integration of the language of faith into the vernacular of classical music.

This is why we can accept Messiaen saying “My faith is the grand drama of my life. I'm a believer, so I sing words of God to those who have no faith” without the sense of unease that would accompany a similar pronouncement in popular culture.

Classical music, though, is as culturally remote as the church for many people. Where else can we locate pockets of faith music that might appeal the the audience that stumbled across Salm? A few singer songwriters of the late 60s and early 70s have form, all operating in my third 'faith exploring' category. Judee Sill spoke of attempting to “…musically induce God into giving us all a break.” And while it seems likely that her faith – if indeed she thought of it as such – was unorthodox, the devotional aspect of her music is unmissable. Note her seven and a half minute epic, 'The Donor', from Heart Food:

"Leave us not forsaken"
Kyrie eleison, kyrie eleison
Kyrie eleison
Eleison, Eleison, eleison
Kyrie eleison, kyrie eleison

The great David Ackles had a Protestant background that never left him, and which surfaces from time to time through his unmatched four albums. 'His Name Is Andrew' from Ackles' eponymous debut is a hauntingly earnest story of loss of faith, later reimagined by Martin Carthy as a stark ballad on Landfall.

British enigma Bill Fay's second album Time Of The Last Persecution presented a fiery apocalyptic vision referencing the Biblical books of Daniel and Revelation, inspired in part from reading the Catholic thinker Teilhard de Chardin. This interest survived the 40 year hiatus in Fay's career to surface in Life Is People and Who Is The Sender? – the latter including a memorial to Christian martyr William Tyndale on the album's best song, 'Freedom To Read'.

Moving through the decades we come to the long-running Liverpool based collective The Revolutionary Army Of The Infant Jesus. Founder member Jon Egan talks about “Christian exploration”:

“Christianity became a shared vocabulary and a source for re-connection with something deeper and something absent … It's an ineffable quality - an insight into what Thomas Merton called 'hidden wholeness' or what the contemporary Christian writer Michael Martin called 'submerged reality'.

“At a very early stage we became fascinated by the radically different aesthetic philosophy of the Eastern Church. Sacred art is not illustrative, but intrinsically transfigurative. Icons are images of a restored creation, glimpses of divine beauty … We set out to create performances and recordings that in some way overturned the secular perspective, that recovered a sense of mystery. It's in this sense that faith has shaped our creative methodology…”

The Salm records document a musical worship tradition that stretches back beyond living memory. There have been similarly absorbing reissues that provide evidence that the church's more recent tendency to copy culture doesn't always fail.

'Children Of The Future Age', the opening track of Jazzman's compilation of early 70s Norwegian Christian folk jazzers That's Why combines Blake-referencing lyrics, Swingle-like close harmonies and time changes. After which things get idiosyncratic. Even more peculiar were The Trees Community. Starting out as truth-seeking hippies in a Manhattan loft, they coalesced into a religious community based at The Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine in New York City. A Dark Holler/Hand Eye reissue of their 1970s recordings reveals a profoundly unusual and sometimes unsettling Christian take on what we'd now call acid folk. In 2018, perhaps the musical form that is both radical, popular and frequently features Christian themes is grime - there'll be a Quietus feature on this in the New Year.

The church always generates its own music, usually influenced by the prevailing forms it hears wherever it plants roots. Perhaps, then, it's not so surprising that much contemporary Christian music sounds insipid, reflecting as it does secular music from slap bang in the middle of the road. But it isn't all like that. There's the Salm albums. There's the Indian church in Devon. There must be so much more.