Thursday, March 11, 2010

Does performance intent matter?

Who would have thought that an organ recital could cause a tempest in a teapot? Musicians and clergy in the area have been debating the appropriateness of Cameron Carpenter's performance this week, especially following yesterday's Plain Dealer article. Some members of the American Guild of Organists are giddy at the chance to see him perform live, while others are ambiguous about whether he is all style versus substance. Some clergy are eager for the attention he brings to church music, while others fear his personal religious beliefs (or lack thereof) make his performance inappropriate.

I don't want to delve into the details of this debate. Frankly, I don't know him well enough to make judgements (and I think few of the people embroiled in this debate do either). What I find much more interesting is the question of whether a performer's traits, beliefs, and intent truly matter in a recital or in a worship setting.

Many organists play at churches of denominations other than their own faith. Personally, I've played for many Catholic services, including one year as a music director at a Catholic church, as well LCMS, Methodist, and other denominations. Clearly, I have beliefs and personal characteristics that are not in harmony with some of their doctrine. Does that make my music less effective or less appropriate?

Furthermore, there is a school of thought that interpretation is king in the arts. To take one popular novel as an analogy, consider Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code. Is the book an indictment of faith? A radical historical theory or revision? Perhaps it's a rollicking thriller? Or do you enjoy reading it for the history, art, and architecture? Could the author possibly have imbued the book with each of these levels with complete intention? Which one does he consider primary - and does it matter? If Dan Brown meant to attack religion, but you simply enjoy the story, then surely your interpretation trumps his intent.

Similarly, there are people who find faith in all kinds of unorthodox places. (This blog alone has mentioned Broadway shows, film and television, poetry and books, though most of them had no intent to preach.) Some people find more religious meaning in a trip to Severance Hall than a church.

Meanwhile, not every piece of church music will hold meaning for every listener. Some members of our congregation love to hear the harpsichord, some love to hear ancient chant music, or the original Latin mass parts. And for each of those styles, there are other members who find no joy or meaning.

So to return to Cameron Carpenter for a moment - should we care about his religious belief (or his outfits)? I say no. He won't be preaching; he'll be performing music. Don't the listeners' reactions to the music (from sublime prayer to indifference) outweigh anything he ever said in a newspaper interview?


  1. i wonder how Jesus would answer this question

  2. An interesting question - I'm pretty sure that most people would agree that God prefers sincere music and prayers. But my point was that congregants/listeners/readers can have genuine and sincere religious experiences, even if the organist/performer/writer didn't intend it. Does Jesus care about the background or motivation to my music or prayers? There I'm not so sure...

  3. I think Jesus frequently said things in the scriptures like let them all come unto me. Especially since you could most often find him preaching or teaching among the sinners or those who were the most prepared of heart and mind to hear his messages. Far be it for me to judge his individual life. If his music takes me to a higher place, he has inspired spirituality and reverence.

  4. da vinci code is a good example of a crazy author with antireligious intent but inspiring a backlash and an interest in religiosu history and travel to rome and paris. god works in mysterious ways!

  5. It would seem to me that each of us has a unique experience with God, and we can relate to Him from a variety of perspectives. Some find God in music, others in literature, still others in natural phenomenon. Try reading "Einstein's God" for an example. When we ask if someone's personal attributes prevent them from sending God's message, then how could anyone ever be good enough to send that message? We often hear people suggest that they won't go to church because they "don't like" the pastor. It is the same bad excuse.