Something struck me the other night. I was reading this thing with the director of a film with mostly improvised dialogue. He was asked what the biggest challenge in directing that kind of dialogue, and he said, “Helping the actors understand that they don’t have to be talking all the time. Silence is powerful.”
Silence is powerful.
I was mixing sound at church this morning. I love mixing. I’m not particularly great at it, but I’m learning. And I’m learning to particularly hate when an acoustic guitar and a piano sit on the same frequencies. They’re both hitting the same chords at the same time, covering the same spectrum of notes… and it’s just a mess. It doesn’t work. Two beautiful instruments become one muddled hodgepodge.
There’s not a whole lot you can do, as a front of house engineer, to fix that. You can cut some frequencies here, boost some frequencies there, trying to make the guitar sit in this pocket and the piano sit in another. You have to fight the instruments. You have to wrestle the sound. Which might sound fun… but it’s not.
Most of the time this isn’t a big deal. I mean, it’s a simple service.
But if you’re trying to make good music (and you should want that, I think), you need to learn about silence. Not everyone has to play all the time. And when they are all playing, the parts have to work together. And for parts to work together, musicians have to think about silence. They have to think about when to be in the mix, where to be in the mix, and when to simply sit something out.
For a band leader, there’s no apology needed for this. Silence punctuated by power enhances the power. Music breaks down and builds up for a reason. You make your point, you create your emphasis with the calm before the storm, or the pause in an unexpected place.
Power depends on silence to give it form.
Silence is powerful.
Wintersleep’s Welcome To The Night Sky is one of those rare albums I found in my adulthood, long after it was released. An album I can listen to over and over again. In an increasingly song-driven world, that’s a rare thing.
I used to dream about saving the world
Now i just dream about the holidays
I used to write so many songs for my girl
Now all I think about floating away
I think I need a big vacation
That says it better than I ever could.
It’s not terrible! Hooray!
All I’ve got so far. Been working on this on and off for two weeks now.
And it’s been ordered so many times already that they’ve had to stop selling it. So that tells you something about the pent-up demand for a new Godspeed record.
I’d heard rumblings about this for a while, but honestly, I never thought it would happen, especially since Thee Silver Mt Zion Memorial Orchestra & Tra-La-La Penguin Of Doom (or whatever it’s called this week) is still apparently alive and kicking.
Either way, this is great. As you may know, Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven is one of my formative albums and will always have a place in my heart. It’s on the USB key in my car (along with Jack White, Sean Hayes, Celia::Eyes, Muse, etc).
Here’s album cover:
As always, slightly inscrutable.
Music doesn’t have to be lyrical to express its intentions. Some of the best music (in my always-humble opinion) uses a lack of lyrics to its advantage.
Post-rock can be that kind of music. It can be at once violent, celebratory, peaceful, overwhelming, and subtle.
I’d like to see some of that in our church music. I mean, not every week. But sometimes. Let the music speak in its own voice, instead of simply as a vehicle for those singing in the congregation.
Playing post-rock and listening to it are very similar experiences. It’s easy to get lost in the sound, even when you’re the one making the sound.
There’s something meditative and exploratory about certain bits of post-rock. In Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s “Static”, there’s a wonderful swell out of static into a minor-key 3/3/2 pattern on the guitar and violin (if I recall correctly, that is). It sounds to me like observing the universe being created. Suddenly from nothing there is something. The random becomes purposeful.
It’s almost monastic. In a church context it would be like practising purposeful silence. Shutting up, suddenly. Instead of always talking about how we want to worship, how we’re here to worship, how we will worship… we could just worship.
I know, it sounds like something ripped from the pages of our latest bugaboo, the
liberals emergent church, but bear with me.
We could perhaps discover some of the artistry we’ve lost in transitioning out of the Roman Catholic Church. We could maybe, every once in a while, do something different and new and unusual.
It might be nice. Or it might not be, depending.
I’m part of my church’s band. I enjoy music, so this makes sense for me. I play music, I read about music, I record music, and I can talk about music for a long, long time. Longer, I’m sure, than you’d want to listen.
It’s always struck me how different musicians can be in live settings.
Some are very expressive. The intensity of the music is mirrored in their faces, in the way they interact with their listeners, in the way they move their bodies.
Others are more passive and reserved. They let the music itself do the talking. They want to interact with their instrument and their music more than with the listener.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that this is some sort of binary thing. It’s not one way or the other. It’s a spectrum, and every musician falls on the spectrum somewhere, in different ways.
Here’s the question: are you willing to say that one side of the spectrum is wrong and one is right? Do you want to make a value judgement on this issues? Are you comfortable saying that every musician must be expressive, or vice versa? I imagine you’re probably not. If you’re like me, you enjoy music on all different points of that spectrum.
Different styles of music tend to favour different points on that spectrum. Classical music is very much more about the music than pop music, which is very much more about the artist. Rock and roll more is about the artist, but then there’s shoegaze, art rock, and post rock that tend to focus on the music. Again, it’s a spectrum.
I bet you’re not willing to make a value judgement on that, either. (Though conflating personal preference and absolute truth has always been an all-too-human problem.)
So why are you not willing to make that value judgement about musicians, and music, but you are willing to make it about your evangelical congregation?
It’s a good question.
There are different styles of music. There are different types of musicians. And there are different ways of worshipping.
This is true within congregations, across races, and throughout history.
There’s something inside of you that says if they’re not clapping, if they’re not raising their hands, if they don’t look enraptured or at least excited, they’re not doing it right.
But maybe it’s not them.
Maybe it’s you.
Maybe you’re that Type-A kind of person that is naturally attracted to modern church leadership (the same type of person that is naturally attracted to business leadership and other high-octane jobs). Maybe you’re looking to find yourself out in the congregation. Maybe you don’t consciously do it, but maybe you look others who worship like you do, to the exclusion of other types of people.
Not everyone worships with their body. I don’t. I find it uncomfortable and off-putting. And I’m not alone. I’ve had conversations about this with so many people who have told me the same thing. It’s not that they don’t worship, or feel a sense of worshipfulness, or gladly come to church every week to be part of the service. It’s just that worshipping like an athlete is not natural to them. And when there’s a tacit (and sometimes explicit) expectation that they should, they feel alienated.
No-one likes to go somewhere to feel alienated. But that’s exactly what’s happening in worship services all over North America right now. If there’s a non-Fundamentalist niche of churches that take less expressive people into consideration, I haven’t found it. Or heard of it. Or heard anyone talking about it.
We used to have a traditional, down-tempo service at my church. We don’t any more, and I miss it. I miss playing it, and I miss worshipping in it. It was slower, less animated, and felt more worshipful to me. It was, in a word, more natural. It fit my temperament, my playing style, my nature.
That sounds a bit selfish, but I’m not the only person in the world with my personality and my temperament. I think I might actually be in the majority.
Sometimes we talk in band about the first service as it stands now. It’s more reserved. I’ve heard complaints about the atmosphere of it. We’re playing clapping music and no-one’s clapping. We’re playing dancing music and no-one’s dancing. We’re playing exciting music and you don’t look particularly excited.
That’s just not fair.
Maybe the problem isn’t with the people. Maybe the problem is your expectations. Maybe the problem isn’t them… but you.
I’m not here to be a curmudgeon. (Get off my lawn!) Really, I’m not. But you need to like fewer things. You need to be more selective. You need to insist on a higher standard of quality.
If this means watching fewer films, so be it. Only go to see the few that interest you. Don’t go and see everything that comes out of the off-chance some of it might be good.
No only will you save quite a bit of money, but you’ll expose yourself to a whole raft of new things you’d never have though of finding before. After all, when you turn off your shitty radio station, you have time to fill the silence with something new. And believe me, with the amount of stuff out there, you’ll find something new and interesting before you know it.
As a society we’re quite tolerant of things that don’t last. For most things, that’s fine. History will sort it out. But if everything is impermanent, if everything is disposable, if everything is crap, where’s the 10% that history can sort out?