Saturday, 26 February 2011

The Volunteer Organist

Last Sunday I rolled along to Christ Church Wanstead as I often do for Evensong; it's usually quite a small service and I enjoy turning up, singing, and going away again without having to worry about messing anything up. Evensong doesn't have to be all cathedrals and choirboys and processions and Stanford; it can be an intimate, quiet occasion, comfortable like an old coat -- even if, for me, it's an old coat I've only recently acquired, somewhat by accident.

It wasn't quite like this Victorian parlour song, but I arrived to find the organist was absent, and somehow I ended up volunteering to play.


The minister's decision to say rather than chant the psalm was the right one, given that the congregation was also small that day. I don't have enough experience of chanted psalmody to be able to do this without at least being able to play through the chant a few times. The canticles were okay though, because the text is more familiar.

My sight-reading isn't as bad as I thought! But, it isn't good enough yet that I'd really be happy to do that for a "main" service. I didn't do myself any favours with tempo and I might have taken things a bit more slowly, especially as at previous services there I've found the hymnody leans toward a more stately pace. On the whole I think I would be better off playing the first line or even just the starting notes and then singing: people would likely find that easier to follow than an organ or piano. In fact (and I did discuss this with the minister afterward) there's a strong argument for two-note chanted psalms and canticles, and unaccompanied hymnody, with so few people and without the usual organist.

Next time, it would be better to spend more time rehearsing the unknown hymns on the electric piano and less time trying to work out how to turn the organ on... and I really should get around to doing some practice at Christ Church, as a change from the instrument I'm learning on at St Andrew's.

Saturday, 12 February 2011

Building a Case for a Serpent, Part I

In order to attempt longer and more adventurous Snake On A Bike journeys, I want to build a better case for Charlie the Serpent. The existing case is a box, lined with blue muppet pelt, with some padding on the two largest sides. But there's nothing that really holds the instrument securely within the box, it is very heavy, and the box itself is worryingly flexible. It has all the weight of a hard case with the reduced protection of a soft one, and while it is well-made, I'd worry taking it very far on even the most loyal and reliable bicycle.

So I'm out to build something better. This is going to be interesting -- most of the tools (and expertise) I need are at London Hackspace, but I want to cycle there rather than taking public transport as it is a much more convenient journey. And I won't take the serpent that far on the bicycle. There's a hole in my bucket... To reduce much to-ing and fro-ing with a serpent case in varying stages of completion strapped to my bicycle, I've made a cardboard dummy I can fold up and take with me:

My plan is likely to change as I go along and may end up adapted as I find or think of better ways of doing things. The general idea is to make a hard shell, then half-fill it with expanding foam insulation, carve a serpent shape out of the foam, cover that with film and repeat for the other half which will be attached to the lid. I'll line the expanding foam with some softer foam padding and either muppet pelt or some other soft cloth. Then I need to attach the lid to the case -- I am thinking a cloth cover for the whole lot, with a waterproof zip around the edges as well as some webbing straps, would be good. It will need a handle, too. And of course I'll put reflective strips on, and places for attaching bike lights.

In addition to this case being stronger and more protective than the old one, I'd like it to make better use of space. The rectangular box is a good shape to work with (and great for busking as the lid can be used to display information while the bottom collects money) but as the serpent narrows at one end there is a fair amount of wasted space. I haven't decided whether I should make a trapezoidal case, potentially easier to fit onto a bicycle, or stick with rectangular which will be much easier to build; most of the bits and pieces I need to carry on a regular basis with the serpent can fit inside the largest curve of the instrument, except a music stand, but that won't quite fit in the "wasted" space in a rectangular box anyway.

Here are the materials I've gathered so far:

  • Three (3) plastic underbed storage boxes to be cannibalised for the outer shell -- Tesco, £10 the lot
  • Two (2) bamboo trellises to be cut to size to fit into the outer shell to aid rigidity and protect from impact -- £11.49 each, Homebase
  • Medium duty garden wire for holding the trellises to size if necessary -- £4.59 for 30 meters, Homebase. I'll be really surprised if I use 30 meters of this!
  • One 300mL can of fast-setting UniBond NO MORE BIG GAPS -- £7.49, Homebase. It says this will make "up to 15 litres" of cured foam, which may not be enough, so I might pick up some more of this. I only found the little "How far will it go?" bit on the label after getting home.
  • I suspect I will also be using significant quantities of masking tape and gaffer tape.

Here is a picture of the three lids fitting over the bottom half of the existing case:

As you can see, I'll be able to overlap the plastic considerably.

The storage boxes and lids have lips which will get in the way, so the first thing is to cut those off. The resulting angular bits of plastic can go inside the shell, at corners and vertically around the edges, to provide additional reinforcement.

That's all for today; I'm not sure when I'll next have a chance to work on it, but will try to take pictures along the way.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Snake on a Bike! Snake on a Bike!

On Sunday I tried an experiment. Carefully, gingerly, I manoeuvred the serpent case onto the back of the bicycle, and used several bungee cords to secure it there. The plan was to then walk the bicycle to St Mary's Wanstead, where the London Gallery Quire were providing music for Evensong. It seemed a better option than taking the Tube one stop, and a more comfortable one than walking with a heavy case on the end of my arm.

The whole set up seemed quite secure, though, so I decided to cycle instead. I was cautious at first, not wanting to take too many risks, but I do know the route to Wanstead quite well and the traffic on a Sunday afternoon is not exactly heavy. So off I went, like some sort of low-budget sequel to a certain film, and sure enough we got there all right. The journey back was in the dark but I have lots of lights (some would say I'm excessive in this, I prefer to think of it as "highly visible", which is surely a good thing!), and I was feeling confident enough to take a detour to a friend's house for a visit.

I didn't take any pictures, so you'll just have to imagine a great rectangular box with a red light on it sticking out off the back of the pannier rack. I'd definitely do the same again for short journeys -- but I'm still not happy enough with the case to try this method for getting to and from Quire.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Warmer wrists!

On Saturday a pair of these arrived in the post:

They were knitted for me by my aunt, and my mum sent them along to keep my wrists warm while I'm practising at church.

St Andrew's, like many church buildings of its time, was built with not much regard for temperature regulation. Once upon a time there was some kind of underfloor radiator system but that has since been replaced by radiant electric heaters, which are a lot of good if you're standing directly where they are pointed (preferably wearing something dark), but not much help elsewhere. This hasn't been the warmest winter, and while indoor morning temperatures at the moment are around 9ºC with the milder weather, over Christmas it was sometimes as low as 3ºC. I do have a radiant heater pointing at the organ keys, which does help, but the organ itself is part of the problem as a fierce draught comes down from behind it! I can't really wear gloves, even fingerless ones, because they interfere too much with playing. Practising I can leave my coat on, but services are another matter as I can't fit very many warm jumpers underneath cassock and surplice. Brr!

This week hasn't seen much organ practice at church yet, and the weather is warming up here now, but I'm looking forward to trying out the wrist warmers tomorrow morning. If I can use them for playing then my work in the winter months will be far more pleasant. Many thanks, Aunt Pat!

Now to figure out how to keep my feet warm while wearing my organ shoes, which fit very closely and are just a thin layer of leather... I'm thinking fuzzy gaiters or legwarmers.

Saturday, 5 February 2011

A Response to that "CCM praise songs we can't stand" meme:

"There are two musical situations on which I think we can be confident
that a blessing rests. One is where a priest or an organist, himself a
man of trained and delicate taste, humbly and charitably sacrifices
his own (aesthetically right) desires and gives the people humbler and
coarser fare than he would wish, in a belief (even, as it may be, the
erroneous belief) that he can thus bring them to God.

"The other is where the stupid and unmusical layman humbly and
patiently, and above all silently, listens to music which he cannot,
or cannot fully, appreciate, in the belief that it somehow glorifies
God, and that if it does not edify him this must be his own defect.
Neither such a High Brow nor such a Low Brow can be far out of the
way. To both, Church Music will have been a means of grace; not the
music they have liked, but the music they have disliked. They have
both offered, sacrificed, their taste in the fullest sense.

"But where the opposite situation arises, where the musician is filled
with the pride of skill or the virus of emulation and looks with
contempt on the unappreciative congregation, or where the unmusical,
complacently entrenched in their own ignorance and conservatism, look
with the restless and resentful hostility of an inferiority complex on
all who would try to improve their taste – there, we may be sure, all
that both offer is unblessed and the spirit that moves them is not the
Holy Ghost."

- CS Lewis
In response to this meme.

As I've said in comments on Phil Ritchie's blog, I do think that some modern music used in worship is pretty awful. So is some of the older stuff. But this isn't really about "old" vs "new"; new music doesn't need to replace more ancient offerings but can exist alongside it, with a bit of liturgical and musical sensitivity. I am definitely not a worship band kind of girl, but that doesn't mean I don't want to include as many people as possible. In addition, there are some real theological and aesthetic bloopers among older music, too. Some of it has been sifted out through decades or centuries of persnickety musicians and clergy saying "no more" but some of it is remarkably persistent.

There are significant challenges to anyone trying to create new liturgical music. These include the passive, consumer-oriented nature of many people's primary musical experiences today, the huge breadth of styles available in popular music (so that emulating one style really won't make more than a fraction of listeners feel "at home"), the deplorable state of many church instruments (organs are the main things allowed to fall apart, but church pianos can be pretty horrendous too) and the expectation by many churchgoers of not having to engage with anything that doesn't fit them exactly.

These challenges are real, but they are not insurmountable.

I believe:
  • people will always respond better to good music, performed well and with some liturgical sensitivity, than to bad music that is not in context
  • there is a lot of really good music, old and new, that people simply don't know about because they only ever experience what happens at their local parish church or at larger gatherings where the music is chosen for familiarity
  • the fact that people are complaining about the music at all, in any capacity, shows that they care... there must be a way to harness this enthusiasm!
So I ask:

  1. What is your favourite piece of music for congregational singing? Why?
  2. What is your favourite piece of music for performance by a group of specialist musicians within a liturgical context? This might be a worship band or a cathedral choir or just a very snazzy organist or something else entirely, but the point is that it is not congregational singing and it is live music in liturgy.
  3. What is your favourite piece of music which makes you think about God to listen to outside of your place of worship? Why? This could be secular music.
  4. What is one thing you like about the music at your usual place of worship? Have you told the musicians about this lately?

Thursday, 3 February 2011

The Singer and the Song

Maggi Dawn, looking for debaters on the subject of scripture and translation, asked some questions on Twitter this morning which got me thinking.

@maggidawn: The Message: do you love it or hate it? I'm looking for debaters on the subject of translation
@maggidawn: The King James Version: beautiful or incomprehensible? I'm looking for debaters on the subject of scripture and translation
@maggidawn: who have you read/listened to that has most influenced you on translation and interpretation of the Bible, tweeps?

I have very little familiarity with "The Message" as a paraphrase or translation, and my familiarity with the King James Version is by no means complete. But I am also acutely aware that my Hebrew is very poor and I don't understand Greek at all. When I read the King James Version I think I understand the language fairly well, but I know that isn't true for everyone. If we are going to have scripture available to everyone that means we will need to renew our translations and interpretations as our use of language changes. So I find a certain irony in the existence of groups which believe the King James Version is the only valid scripture, given the Reformation value of accessibility of the text -- despite the situation surrounding the actual translation, which I understand was made with certain goals regarding the status quo in church and politics.

A few years ago I read various books by Karen Armstrong, and was struck by her repeated assertion that in many faiths there has at some point been a tradition of compassionate exegesis. That is, the "rules" are that any interpretation of scripture which is harmful, violent or cruel, is necessarily incorrect. That helped me a lot in coming to terms with a collection of texts which is often contradictory. Indeed, learning to see the Bible as an anthology rather than as one coherent book was also helpful.

As far as interpretation is concerned, there's a great post by the Three Minute Theologian which illustrates the difficulty of scriptural literalism. A musical score contains a certain amount of information about which notes are to be played when, and if you're lucky you get instructions about volume and articulation, too. But all of that must be interpreted in the context of the performance expectations of the time: in some periods there is a great deal that nobody bothered to write down because it was just the done thing, for example repeated phrases having some variation in dynamic. Debussy and Brahms are both composers who wrote a huge amount of what they wanted on the page, so that it is possible to follow their instructions exactly and get a half-decent musical result, but both still require a sense of line and direction, and the knowledge to interpret things like the time signature, which doesn't only tell the performer how many beats there are in a bar but how they should be stressed in relation to one another. Bach left much more to the discretion of the performer. As I commented there, an historically accurate interpretation of music requires study of contemporary performance practice, but an informed contrast to that tradition of interpretation also requires some understanding of how the music would have been performed. Performers always end up interpreting, too.

What is important in the interpretation of music, in the end, is not how correctly one interprets the dots and squiggles, but the impact of doing so on the listener. A very historically authentic performance and one that departs drastically from traditional performance practice can both be moving and inspiring; it is likely that neither will consist only of what is written on the page. The creative interpretation of the performer or performers is an intrinsic part of the music, whether the performance consists of singing, blowing air through tubes, drawing a bow across stretched strings or even putting together instructions for robots to play the music (I refer to various forms of digital music, most of which are so far outside my own area of training as to be incomprehensible to me in their performance techniques).

I'm not a theologian, but I'll go out on a limb here: I believe that how people present scripture in the way they live their lives is a more important interpretation issue than which translation or tradition of interpretation they might use to read it. That doesn't apply only to Christianity, either. Actions speak louder than words and actions are more important than which words you read.

What do we say in our daily actions?

(edited slightly for clarity)

Wednesday, 2 February 2011


By Window: workshop of Franz Borgias Mayer (1848–1926); Photo: Wojciech Dittwald (my own photo) [">GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

When to the temple Mary went,
And brought the Holy Child,
Him did the aged Simeon see,
As it had been revealed.
He took up Jesus in his arms
And blessing God he said:
In peace I now depart, my Saviour having seen,
The Hope of Israel, the Light of men.

Help now thy servants, gracious Lord,
That we may ever be
As once the faithful Simeon was,
Rejoicing but in Thee;
And when we must from earth departure take,
May gently fall asleep and with Thee wake.

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Bucket Bass at London Hackspace

Tuesday night after teaching I wended my weary way to London Hackspace for their social night. I recently joined, since I always have a few more making-random-stuff projects than is good for me and not quite enough time and space to work on them; the idea is that if I can get there regularly enough, I might get on with some of them.

I was locking up my bicycle and saw someone else arrive with some sort of thing on a bicycle; at first glance I had no idea what it was and wondered if it was some sort of carrier. Inside it was explained: this was a bucket bass, strapped to a bicycle. It was duly unstrapped and assembled, and I had a few tries.

I don't really play any string instruments so it was hard going at first. Another London Hackspace sort had very carefully marked the neck of the instrument with lines to show where the semitones would be; that's okay, if you keep the neck tension absolutely constant, but I found it difficult to use this visual aid without losing my bearings. When I stopped trying to do things visually and just listened, I found it easier going. It's certainly an instrument that anyone with a good ear and strong hands could learn, though I think for now I shall resist the temptation to add another instrument to the list of things I feel guilty about not practising quite enough...