Melanie Spiller and Coloratura Consulting

Escapades in Early Music, Writing, and Editing

A Medievalist in a Modern World

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I’m sort of a semi-Luddite, I suppose. I mean, I really enjoy modern things like stoves and electricity and such, but I’m annoyed by our culture’s obsession with the Next Great Thing.

I took a long walk last Saturday, for instance, wandering through a popular neighborhood in downtown San Francisco, and I could easily count the number of people who did NOT have a phone being scrutinized or sprouting from their ears. Maybe I could count them on one hand.

I used to have the same thought about iPods and other MP3 players: Can’t people just enjoy their own thoughts about their surroundings without being plugged into something and constantly entertained?

There’s a little bit of resistance to change going on here, but it’s more than that. It’s dismay at what I perceive as a kind of corruption of our ability to process information as individuals, to be entertained by whatever is in front of us, whether that’s a bird landing in a tree, traffic passing by, or something more traditionally considered entertainment, like television or a movie or a book. And to appreciate what came before as much as what will come next.

This thinking crosses over into people singing along at concerts. I can understand the pleasure of singing along, believe me. It’s just that you kind of spoil the listening aspect of a concert for everyone near you, even if you’re some sort of singing genius. People paid to hear the people on stage, right? There are proper sing-alongs (for classical music, anyway), and if you want to sing along to more modern music, the radio or a recording in the privacy of your own home or car seems like an ideal place to do that. Even worse, if I shush you, I’m the bad guy, even though everyone else is glad to hear the live performance instead.

Lately, some of the groups that I sing with have taken to doing modern music. These are groups filled with classically trained musicians; I’m not saying that they should not forage in the wilderness of modern classical music. It’s just really odd to see a bunch of formal-gowned, tuxedo-laden prim and proper people singing spirituals and cereal commercial jingles, you know?

Most of us are not inclined to sing jazz or spirituals—that’s why we joined the groups that sing classical music. What bothers me is that there is some amazing music that isn’t going to get performed if, say, the gospel groups, the spiritual groups, the pop groups, and the classical groups are all doing spirituals. And just as someone trained to sing opera is going to have trouble singing motets or blending in a choir, someone who really feels classical music might struggle to sing pop. A whole gaggle of awkward pop singers is not a beautiful thing.

It is very interesting to do pairings of related music (perhaps all based on the same Gregorian chant or Biblical passage or poem)—Palestrina and Polenc with Lauridsen or Whitacre or someone else who is still writing music today. I’m not suggesting that classical groups pick an era and stick to it (although I love that). I’m suggesting that they stick to a genre. Or hold auditions to replace the whole choir, if the conductor has other ideas. (Or maybe replace the conductor?)

I am a bit of a musical Luddite, then. I prefer to do truly ancient music, and I get all grumbly when I’m asked to sing something I can’t relate to those good times.

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Written by Melanie Spiller

April 21, 2011 at 3:24 pm

Posted in Music

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