Fourteen and a half years ago, in the emotional aftermath of 9/11, my small, Northeastern Kansas wind band and I created an aleatoric composition and performed it. It was titled Cataclysmos and used no musical notation¹ but rather used only verbal instructions. The actual composition is included under the footnote at the bottom of this post.
Three students who were part of the performance, now Facebook friends, might even remember the music. There were progressions from soft to loud, from high to low, and from “sparse/thin to frequent/heavy sounds.” The concept was to create a sonic representation of the growing chaos that was the result of the three plane crashes that day.
I’m not sure whether we achieved what we wanted to achieve aesthetically and expressively, but I think some sense of human chaos was present.
As is the case with beauty, whether something is chaotic is somewhat a matter of opinion. (9/11 clearly was chaotic — no reasonable person would controvert that.) Below I’ve described a couple of mini-chaoticisms in the Christian assembly.
1. “The Barn” Vineyard church, located near Newark, DE, just over the PA line
Seeking inspiration and newness, I visited this fledgling church group on a few occasions in the mid-90s. I was attracted to certain elements but somewhat cautious, having read of the excesses of the church that became Toronto Airport Vineyard Church. (If you’re interested, you too can read here of some of the history and particulars.)
On one occasion, someone was sharing a quietly impassioned, heartfelt, penitent confession. It was touching, and I was “in the moment.” And then the mini-chaos ensued. Someone else barked out loud like a dog. No matter whether you’re in the minority that thinks such eventualities can be works of the Spirit of God, a sound mind would have had to admit that this particular barking sound was way out of place. It created confusion — spiritual and emotional chaos.
2. “You are My All in All”
This good song, written by the prolific, exceptionally repentant Dennis Jernigan, is quite singable by a cappella churches — ones with the capability of handling the rhythmic element, that is.
Now, I am no proponent of instruments-gone-wild in churches, but I often long for the rhythmic solidity that can be offered by a sensitive drummer or bass guitarist. In the case of “You Are My All in All,” the counterpoint (dueling melodies, if you will) is the issue. Groups typically divide into men and women: one half sings the chorus “Jesus, Lamb of God” while the other intones the verse “Taking my sin, my cross, my shame . . .” or “You are my strength when I am weak . . . .”
Whether one knows the terminology or not, he simply must be able to ensure that “Jesus, Lamb of God” starts on the downbeat and the other words start on beat 2. Otherwise, sonic/rhythmic chaos will ensue. And it has. Many times. Really. In more than half the a cappella churches that attempt this song, I’d wager.
Technical recommendations (if this song is new to your church, or if chaos has been part of your experience with it):
- Use two leaders — one to lead the women, and one to lead the men. (And make sure both leaders can execute the rhythmic element accurately.)
- Or, practice your lefty-righty coordination, using one hand for the downbeat group and the other for the beat-2 group.
– B. Casey, 4/13/15
¹ Music can be defined as “organized sound” — as opposed to random sound — and this musical performance, although not traditional, was aleatoric and not chaotic in the random sense.
Here is the composition: