Monday, March 3, 2008

Films as Hymns/A Cinema Hymnal

For all the whining I do about Mack Wilberg and his role in the Choir (for those of you who have as of yet not been so privileged as to hear my rants, I feel that Craig Jessop is the greatest aesthetic shift in the history of the Church and that Mack Wilberg is the worst—we're always most critical of the present), I must say that he has allowed us to revisit the Hymns in a new way. I hope to do that with this entry, though I'm hopeful our outcomes may be more beneficial here.

The Purpose of Hymns
For those of us familiar with the Church handbook or anyone who's stopped to notice the order of things in our meetings, it is obvious that hymns most often come before the ordinance. The reasons for this, thank goodness, are not specified, but I will list a few observations and a little guesswork to clarify my perspective.

The hymn, is one of the most curious of all Christian phenomena. I will admit my ignorance as to the history of hymns and the singing of them, but as far as I can tell, it is a practice that most non-Catholic, Christian congregations entertain. Hymns are not simply choral music. Most religions make use of music as a part of their religious practices. Partly to praise, partly to reify, partly to teach. As with all music, there is always an emotional element (even if it is anti-emotional) in religiously-based choral music. But much choral music is simply sung to the congregation, while hymns are sung by the congregation. In an ideal meeting, there would be no listeners, and only singers; no audience, only performers. Yet 'performers' is the wrong word describing a hymn-singing congregation. We do not 'perform' for anyone, unless we consider God our audience, or ourselves a simultaneous audience.

It could be argued that the heart of every hymn is the text sung, but this text is unique to any other in our or any church. Any preaching is, like choral music, delivered to the congregation. But in singing, all parties are unified. In many instances, even the conductor becomes all but obsolete. The only real distinction comes through which line of music we choose to follow. Our role, then, as members of the congregation is to recite the text in unison with our neighbor, but varying, if we are able, from the melody— choosing, instead, to harmonize. This choice requires us to listen, both to the music, and to ourselves, and to the text we are singing. So in order to be singers, we must also train to be listeners.

This text, then, becomes a unique unifying experience, while the music itself and the singing of it becomes an opportunity for variation and diversity to coexist, amplify and compliment the other expressions. Truly, the singing of hymns is a glorious ritual.

Yet its purpose, in official church meetings at least, is not self-sufficient. The hymn (which does not include 'musical numbers') is sung to prepare us, its singers, and us, its listeners, for the ordinance: be it the opening prayer (where we all are praying, but only one is speaking), the sacrament (again, a prayer), or the closing prayer. In other words, either direct communion with God, or a ritual where his power is manifest. The only exceptions are rest hymns, of which could be argued that they further prepare for further direction from the closing speaker. Thus, I argue that the use of hymns is primarily two fold: its effect is both unifying (while allowing for as well as calling for complexity and harmonization within bounds), and preparatory for a greater act, often a covenant.

The Similarities to Cinema
Film, like music, is one of the few mediums which can experienced with other people. Reading is incapable of unifying groups, as it is a wholly individual activity. Likewise, viewing of the plastic arts is one wholly separate from time and does not require the attendance or attention of a group for its duration — an aspect so key to the unifying nature of both music and film.

But aside from their duration, group nature and other obvious similarities, hymns, and I would like to suggest film, require the participation of everyone involved.

The participation of those viewing the film (a pre-composed hymn waiting to be sung) obviously cannot be as verbal or as set as with hymns, but nonetheless participatory. One version of how is listed in a link at the side of this site entitled "Abbas Kiarostami—An Unfinished Cinema." I know I write often about Kiarostami, but few other filmmakers have affected me as deeply or changed my world view more. However, his essay linked on Gary Tooze's DVD Beaver is only one way to create this kind of film. Another take on the same subject might well focus on the act of "listening" to the 'recitation' of our neighbor and carefully comparing it to see how well we are harmonizing with our own 'recitation.'

Mostly I am advocating a more engaged viewing than we might currently practice. I fear that we let the movies we watch do things for us that we should be doing for ourselves. This week, I realized that thought I consider myself quite proficient in the Polish language, I have still come across a particular word some four of five times this week, asking the person each time to repeat the work and describe its meaning for me, only to find later that each time it is the same word. Yet today, I found myself ashamed that I cannot for the life of me remember more of the word or its meaning than that it starts with a 'z.' Yet had I done the work myself and looked it up the first time, I most likely would have been proficient in using it by now. I do believe that most of the responsibility of what I'm talking about her lies with us the viewers. I believe that we need to be more engaged, more responsible.

Most importantly I hope to propose that our 'ordinance' should be after the film, and not in it. This could be something very literal, such as kneeling after we've left a film (preferably once we're at home or someplace private), but I mostly have our work in mind. I mostly mean changing those ghastly diapers, going home teaching or finding our own widows, children, or ill to visit. A viewing model that encourages to action certainly seems more in tune with gospel teachings to me.

A Cinema Hymnal
Perhaps I am taking this too far but the prospect intrigues me too much to leave it with out mention here. In order to have a cinema hymnal (a collection, a canon of sorts that we are all tuned to), we must first have a hymnal cinema. Our films must require the singing of the congregation and it must lead to the ordinance. We must remember that ordinances are always participatory and require action. It is true that the true priesthood is required, but for the purposes of this analogy, I think it best to leave that point.

One option coincides, as I mentioned above, with Kiarostami's 'unfinished cinema.' The clearest example of this to my mind is his 2003 film Five created in commemoration of the anniversary of Ozu's birth. As he discusses in his 'making of' feature (arguably the superior film, and I have listed it on my personal list of favorite movies under my personal profile at the bottom of the page) the five takes are each a chance for the viewer to discover the mysteries of nature. None of them are traditional narratives that focus around a moral lesson, instead they simply observe a process which exists in nature. The insight and lessons learned from such an experience invariably come dependent on the person viewing them. (The clearest example of this I can think of, though not the most profound, is the hymn "Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief." No matter how beloved or oft-sung it is, it will hold a different meaning for someone who is endowed, than for someone who is not).

Though this idea of an "unfinished cinema" seems to be at the core of what would make film ultimately more participatory and preparatory, both, Kiarostami's filmmaking is but one way. I think of Peter Greenaway or Peter Brook (as a theatre director more than as a film director) both as examples of artisans who create in such a way as to open up their scripts in ways so as to allow them to require participation as well as preparation. Also, this "opening-up" allows for the harmonization of those viewing, and in that way, also allows for a unique form of complex unification.

In closing, I believe that our perception of film as a kind of hymn could greater enhance both our viewing and making of films. It will teach us great skills about 'listening' to our neighbors, and about harmonizing with them. Likewise, I believe it will give us more tools with which to judge and evaluate cinema. We do not criticize a hymn for its harmonic simplicity or its repetition or cliche. We rejoice in the ritual and familiarity of it. We focus on our horizontal relationships with the others singing with us, and find new pleasure simply in the recitation. It is these ideas I hope we can further expound upon.


Kayela said...

I read a book last week for class about Islamic listening practices. The thesis is basically that in Islam, listening becomes an act of audition, never passive and always involving the entire body. These acts of audition constitute a major portion of the work involved in the creation of an ethical self. The discussion in class got me thinking about the way we listen. Often in church or general conference, the goal is to listen to what the spirit is teaching you rather than to the auditory voice. You're not supposed to get bored in church, right? I'm interested in the way visual and auditory stimuli in the physical world relate to the Spirit, a force that's not quite emotional but not really physical in the same way as your voice is either.
Also, in the CES fireside yesterday, Sister Beck played a tape of President Hunter? I've already forgotten who it was but it was long enough ago that he didn't have a prompter and was reading his talk off (It was President Benson, I just remembered) a paper on the podium. I'm just wondering how the cinematic aspect of broadcasting general conference changes when the speakers can look around and are always facing the audience.

Trevor said...

Fascinating on both counts. I do wonder what exactly "always involving the entire body" entails.

I've also wondered what General Conference would have been like when it lasted until those presiding felt the Spirit direct it was enough, sometimes days in all, I've read. Length as well is a factor when it comes to visual and aural stimuli, especially since attention span is crucial to both.

thanks, Kayela.

Kayela said...

Listening with the whole body as far as I can tell is supposed to be a kind of yearning toward the sound. You're supposed to sit still and focus. There are also situations in which you respond to some of the words on the tapes or have discussions with others as a part of the listening practice, at least as far as the theorist I read discussed it.

green mormon architect said...

I’m curious about your critique and praise of Wilberg/Jessop. Could you expound on your reasoning? Obviously a lot has happened in the last two days. As young as Wilberg is and now in charge of the Choir, he will probably be around for a long time.

I’ve always wondered about the lack of hymns in the Temple, especially prior to ordinances there. Last time we were in the Celestial Room, I challenged my wife (who has a beautiful voice) to sing a hymn. She didn’t feel comfortable doing it and didn’t want to disturb others. So I asked if she would sing when everyone had left except us and the Temple worker. She still was hesitant. To me the Celestial room is the perfect space for singing hymns. But we are so trained up to thinking reverence equals silence, that it is hard for us.

In my opinion, a film, like going to Church, is best done sitting in close proximity to others. The experience becomes much more satisfying when done with others. Movies are not as engaging at home or in an empty movie theatre. Likewise, a worship service with everyone spread out or in the back is not as spiritually fulfilling. It’s all about being together and being a community at that moment - the simultaneous unity and harmony that you spoke of.

Trevor said...

green mormon architect:

I was completely unaware that Craig Jessop had announced his retirement and I thank you for alerting me to it.

I have thought a lot about the decision I made to start this post with a reference to the two men, and I don't know if I would do it again. I know that their positions are callings, and that comes scarily close to evil speaking of anointed. But if Craig Jessop is announcing his retirement, them it is probably in order to treat it as a job more than a calling, isn't it?

As for what I said: The choir before Craig Jessop was a respected institution, but one that was so entrenched in tradition and conservativism that he music became over-wrought and boring to my teenage mind. Yet when Jessop took the reigns, he brought a vitality and fervor to the choir that I had never yet associated with hymns. The most noticeable administrative difference was that Jessop allowed choir members under thirty to join. This was a huge difference and still is a rather progressive move on the part of a church so focused on age. Yet this, to my (truth be told) uneducated ears is only a fraction of the difference.

I remember Brother Jessop spoke at a devotional at BYU on the topic of Brahms. I happen to be in the building early for some unknown reason and I heard a recording playing from inside the Marriot center. I decided it was the Tabernacle Choir, because of its richness and passion in singing the hymns. But the the recording kept singing the same song over and over again with a voice speaking in between. I realized that it was live and the BYU concert choir not the Tabernacle Choir. I must also explain that I have never heard a performance by the concert choir that I liked. Their music has always seemed forced and out of their range to me. Yet nothing had changed but the conductor. He brought vitality and wisdom out of a choir that I've rarely been able to listen to.

In my view, Brother Jessop reduced everything down to its core essentials and filled that core with power. Gerald Ottley's choir seemed to have more doilies and fills than fervor. Jessop gave the choir energy, and focus by streamlining it.

Mack Wilberg, almost by definition has done the opposite. Though his arrangements are not boring or 'traditional' per se, they seek to make the hymns froofy and John Williams-esque. Every arrangement I feel is not only identical to each previous arrangement, but is designed (like most modern film music) to be utterly forgettable. There is nothing powerful, piercing, still or small about the Mack Wilberg arrangements I know.

I see Craig Jessop as a symbol for simplification and poignancy, while I see Mack Wilberg as a symbol for frills and superficiality. I think Craig Jessop had a deep respect for the hymns and sought to portray that respect, while Mack Wilberg seems embarrassed of the Hymns and seeks to hide them behind his schmaltzy dazzle. I think he thinks they are boring and the need to be spruced up. But you can only do that so much before you realize that the hymns have a charm because they are often the simplest of harmonic strategy.

It seems like that device of arranging hymns is simply the wrong route to take. the wrong direction.

This, remember comes from a lover of Arvo Part, Steve Reich and John Cage (as a philosopher, not as a musician). I love Bach, but can't really enjoy much of Beethoven's larger works. But this is the end of my credentials as a music theorist. I was asked to quit piano lessons by my teacher. Once by one teacher, once by another. Not a good track record.

green mormon architect said...

Sorry if this seems like a derailment on your original post, since we should be talking about film, not music. But I do believe that all the ‘arts’ deal with the same issues, just with different applications.

I’m pretty sure the MoTab director is a full-time employed position, rather than a calling. I agree about Jessop – probably the best albums the Choir has ever put out were under his watch. It is amazing the difference a good director can make (in film and music). Even with such talent-starved institutions as ward choir, a good director can breath life into it at least.

I do like certain things about Wilberg, and I can see what you mean about identical arrangements, or I should say, the same move done with every hymn. Everything feels overdone – the mens’ chorus at BYU was always very overbearing and in your face. But interestingly enough, it was the most popular ticket on campus. Also, since he came to the MoTab, they have done all the same songs and arrangements that the Men’s Chorus did.

Have you seen any of the architectural work of Tadao Ando or Luis Barragan? They have some impressive work where everything unnecessary is stripped away. Everything is very clean and you are left only with the essence of the thing. This is similar to your reference of how Jessop deals with hymns. Also, I ran across an elegant bridge done by John Pawson, who used film to represent his project.

Trevor said...

Its fascinating that you could pull in architecture to the discussion. I am even more uneducated in your field than in music, however. but you've intrigued me and I will take your recommendation.

please keep those observations coming.

I tried to look at that John Pawson
link, but my connection has been less than reliable for movie watching, so I'll try to catch up to in from another location.