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ash wednesday

Ash Wednesday. My favorite holy day from a time before I can remember (and that’s saying something), due in no small part to this passage, which I later learned is from the Sermon on the Mount. It made a huge impression on me from the very first, and continues to be my favorite passage to this day. I will leave it here; you can do what you like with it. (Do not attempt to engage me in a religious discussion. I will not respond. You must meet me in person and buy me coffee before I will take the bait.)

Matthew 6:1-8, 16-18. NIV

“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in Heaven.

“So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”

“When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”

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crash into jesus

Even though I have an iPod, whenever I arrive in a new city my first order of business is to find a good variety radio station. Or better yet, a 90s station. I mean, we’ve met; you know me and 90s music. The best one I ever found was in Tallahassee. It broadcast out of Albany, GA, and I could only get it in my car, but man was it heaven. GenX Albany. Played all 90s, all the time. Until they killed it and turned it into a Top 40 station.

So now that I’m in Cincinnati, I’ve found three acceptable stations – two variety and one rock. One of the variety stations is clearly superior to the other two (read: plays more Hootie and La Bouche), but it broadcasts out of Norwood, and as far as I can tell, unless you’re physically in Norwood the station is pretty weak. Unfortunately, the other (much stronger) station on that frequency is a Contemporary Christian station. Sometimes it’s a battle – how much cheesy Jesus love do I want to put up with while trying to get my Deep Blue Something fix?

And then, something amazing happened. I tuned in to find the Norwood station and the Jesus station locked horns in a stalemate that left them essentially alternating phrases. The best part: it was some cheesy Jesus song versus DMB’s “Crash.” That’s right, the song about voyeurism. This, to the best of my artist’s rendering, is how it went:

“Touch our lips just so I know… you’re my salvation, you’re my redeemer… Hike up your skirt a little more and show… your mercy and grace are all that I need, and…  I watch you there through the window and I stare at you wearing not a thing… Jesus, you’re my everything… the king of the castle, you’re the dirty rascal… touched me and now I’m free.”

I nearly drove off the road from laughing so hard – it could not have happened with better songs. I don’t know that I will ever again be fortunate enough to hear something like this. Eric Cartman would be proud.

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suspension

My guide then led me to the lowest level. Though by sight it appeared much less torturous than the previous levels, the air was thick with extreme unrelenting anguish. We were in a brightly lit hall housing rows of tables as far as the eye could see. Every few meters along each table sat a man or woman, hunched over what seemed to be stacks of paper and pencils. Along each row walked a man in a powdered wig. It was eerily quiet – indeed, the proctors’ footfalls were the only thing to be heard – but occasionally the silence was broken by a wail or a moan. Among the seated could be seen a man gnashing his teeth and rending his hair.

Instinctively inching closer to my guide, I said, “Herr Bach, what is this awful place?”

“Ah, my child, you have now reached the lowest level of Musicians’ Hell. This is Suspension, reserved for only the greatest crimes against music.”

I turned away from the hall and looked up at him as he nodded to one of the proctors. “But sir,” I said, “I don’t understand. What did they do?”

Looking into the hall, he sighed. “They are guilty of writing bad liturgical music.” The proctor gave him a sideways glance, but said nothing. He looked back at me and said, “They are writers of what you call ‘Worship Songs’.”

A shudder went through my body and I slid even closer.

“These composers, for lack of a better term, are guilty of the most blatant disregard for good music. They have cast aside artistic integrity and solid craft in the name of ‘accessibility,’ of producing great quantities of music at great speed, and caring nothing for the quality of what they produce. Their individual crimes are numerous, but the sum of these crimes is nothing compared to the whole.”

“Sir?” I asked, not daring to finish the question as a wail split the silence.

“These writers are perhaps best known for their abuse of the modulation. For lack of ability to write anything musically captivating, or even interesting, they modulate, and almost always upward. It is not unheard of that a piece should end a perfect fifth higher than it began, simply from modulating toward the heavens. Contrary to their beliefs, these modulations did not actually get them to heaven,” he said with a grin. “Furthermore, they believe it interesting to begin a new unrelated key in the middle of the previous one, with no preparation whatsoever. It is not interesting, it is jarring and painful. There are pieces documented having upwards of twenty-one modulations.”

I shook my head in disbelief.

“But that is not all!” he continued. “Far from it. The sin that pains me most is their ludicrous syncopations. One rhythmic side-step to make things interesting is all well and good, even desired! But these people write insanity. Not a single note on a beat. The music falls over its own feet! It cannot stand up, much less dance. And they expect people to play and sing this nonsense – particularly untrained musicians! An abomination.”

He drew several breaths, looking at the floor, and gathered his composure. “Voice leading,” he said quietly. “They have no regard for voice leading.”

“But sir, aren’t the rules not rules, but conventions?” I asked.

“Yes, conventions that make it better for the singer! Hence the name: voice-leading. These parts are anything but easy to sing. Why should anyone be required to jump from a B-flat to an E at a final cadence? That is, quite simply, a crime. But besides that, their reliance on parallel fifths alone could earn them a place here. Parallel fifths, in and of themselves, are not necessarily terrible. But when a string of seven of them, being the bass of seven parallel major chords, comprises the entire phrase…” he trailed off. He needn’t say more.

I interjected. “Sir, B-flat to E? A tri-tone? At a cadence? Surely…”

“I assure you my child. It has happened. One time is too many, but it has happened far more than once. Why? Because these ‘composers’ have a complete disregard for harmony. Their love of unresolved suspensions is despicable beyond language.” He passed his hand over his brow. “They believe that so long as a section (never a whole piece!) begins and ends in the same key, they have the freedom to wander whither they will without consequence. It does not sound interesting – it sounds what it is! Aimless wandering! My child, the tri-tone at the cadence results from the favoring of the lowered seventh in major modes. Some unnameable cluster of notes including the B-flat comes just before the final blaze of C major, and the poor tenor must negotiate this leap because the ridiculous composer didn’t think.”

“Sir, that’s awful!” I said as I looked out over the masses. Still hunched over, still scribbling, gnawing on pencils, erasing furiously.

“Yes. It is. But so are the accompaniments they write for their vocal music.” He looked aside in disgust. “Many of them have a pre-recorded CD, so no instrumentalists are needed. These CDs, I assure you, are some of the most awful things produced. The CDs with live accompaniment are of some poor garage band or pick-up orchestra playing along to a click track. Every single one has a drum set, and rules of orchestration never enter the equation. Let us not mention the MIDI CDs. In the event that a piece comes with an actual instrumental part, it will be banal, awkward, or both. None of these composers understood that there was else a pianist could do besides arpeggios, octaves, and full chords.

“And the annoying tempi! There is no difference between a dotted quarter at sixty ‘steadily,’ or an eighty-four quarter ‘worshipfully,’ or a one-oh-six quarter ‘joyfully.’ They should all be obliterated and marked ‘Moderato: droll’ so as to not delude anyone into thinking they warrant energy or excitement.”

A proctor stopped at a man in the third row from us, bent over his work. The proctor pointed to a place on his paper; the man wept. He reached for a new piece of paper; the proctor moved on.

“And the thing you will perhaps find most disturbing, my child, is their bastardization of existing pieces. All that I have said before, all these terrible things, are applied to pieces already in the canon. I hope you never have to hear the worst that was done to the Star-Spangled Banner, or any number of hymns, or – I am sorry – the beloved theme from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the so-called ‘Ode to Joy.’ These people change keys, rhythms, meters, harmonies and texts absolutely recklessly, without any regard for the original composers’ intentions, completely changing the meaning of the piece.”

Bach looked out over bowed heads with a mixture of loathing and pity. I swallowed the lump rising in my throat. “Sir, what could possibly be fitting punishment for so great a crime?”

He turned back to me with a glint in his eye.

“Species counterpoint.”

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