Monday, June 19, 2006

Harps are called for...

I think it's because we respond so automatically to the sound of the harp that when events are significant enough to formalize in ceremony that the suggestion of having a harp there usually elicits a “my how perfect” response. Weddings are the most common but funerals are right up there.

Given my state of non participation in any religion it sometimes strikes me as odd that I end up as part of the show for many religious ceremonies. I blame the harp. My banjo only gets me roped into 2 or 3 services a year. The guitars, well, there are lots of guitar players out there that believe in what's going on so I am more than content to allow them free reign over that arena. Sometimes a singer who knows me will insist by appealing to my skills as an accompanist and prevail upon me to perform with them, but, mostly, church gigs for guitarists go to the believers.
Then, there's the harp. First off, we have that primal response thing to the harp. So when you're talking about something fundamental like a wedding (harps are romantic), a christening or baptism (harps and babies are angelic), or, as is the case today, a funeral (more of the angel stuff) harps are called for.

I try not to do weddings if I can help it. That's a whole other post. I do funerals for friends. Yesterday, an old friend, who two weeks ago became a new neighbor died in a private plane crash. This is a small town. My sister knows the family even better than I do and called me over to stay with her kids while she and her husband went to be with the family. She came home late, after telling me how the family was doing she told me “I told them you'd play.” Normally that gets an automatic, hair on the back of the neck standing up “How fucking dare you” moment, but not this time. Harps are called for.

I can only hope that some of the more bizarre requests for funeral music won't happen. I don't anticipate much along those lines. These are country people. The worst that can happen is to be asked for some Garth Brooks (and I've played enough country and know enough solid old folk hymns to make a counter proposal that has a good chance of being picked up). They, even though they lived fairly sophisticated lives, will gravitate toward the familiar sounds of faith for comfort at this time. Sometimes I've been asked to play “our song” when a spouse dies, or a song that has nothing to do with faith or religion but meant a lot to either the deceased or the surviving family. Since my perception of the ceremony is that it is more for the surviving community than the deceased anyway, it's usually no problem. Because I have no personal core belief in the supernatural or emotional investment in dogma I can be pretty flexible. But, here's the deal, the reason “Amazing Grace” is the most popular hymn around, even though it was written in 1779, is that it speaks a simple story of human truth. Some of the worst crap out there is “contemporary gospel.” They take bad religion and package it with bad music and the crowd goes wild. Give me a track record of 200 years any day. I also try to go with cultural traditions too. For the Europeans there is a huge body of folk music to draw upon, and it's all work that can speak directly to the people that will be there. But you can't beat something that rings true. Spirituals from the days of slavery resonate at times like this. “Jacob's Ladder, Swing Low, All My Trials” all speak truths to us.

Even a casual study of anthropology will show that one the main criteria for being classified as humanoid is ritual burial. When planes fall out of the sky, when the storms or the seas rise up to remind us how very small we are some kind of ceremony or ritual helps to ease the fears and blur the clear indications that, in the grand scheme of the universe, we don't matter much at all.
One of the things that keeps me out of church except as a professional player is the vision of Aztec priests ripping out hearts to appease a sun that didn't even know they were there.

I'm going to close for now. I need to go and be with my friends. We have things to plan. And yes, I'm taking the harp with me. It's called for.

5 Comments:

Blogger maurinsky said...

Some of the worst crap out there is “contemporary gospel.” They take bad religion and package it with bad music and the crowd goes wild.

That's a piece of truth right there.

I've sung a couple of pieces with harp accompaniment - my favorite was Britten's Ceremony of Carols. I never knew how mournful the harp could sound until I heard it on "That Younge Childe"

I'm sorry about your friend.

8:06 AM  
Blogger litbrit said...

SB, I am so sorry for your loss. I wish I had known you when my best friend Cynth died--I would have insisted you play at her memorial service. I can hardly bring myself to write this, but the music that wound up being played was a recording of Amazing Grace.

A fucking recoring.

I wrote, and gave, her eulogy. And if I'd known they were using a recording, I'd have volunteered to sing that beautiful song (every heard Jeff Beck's version of it, on the Merry Axemas CD? Okay, so yeah, that one is recorded, but I don't hear it at funerals....).

Not that I sing all that well (my range falls somewhere between tenor and baritone). Still.

Listening to beautiful music is, to me, the best and most authentic way to be spiritual. Whenever I doubt there is a benevolent Creator (I belong to no organized religion, but I do think there is someone, somewhere), I listen to a few of the greats--the list of which is too long to write here--and thank whomever/whatever for that brief contact with Something Greater.

8:19 AM  
Blogger The Minstrel Boy said...

try bach's du bist du bie meir it's sublime. ceremony of carols is pure genius.

8:19 AM  
Blogger litbrit said...

(Aaargh! That should be recording, not recoring, which I'm not sure is even a word...)

8:20 AM  
Blogger The Minstrel Boy said...

i've heard the jeff beck. jeff's not only a hero, but i've been able to work on some projects he's produced. i love the guy. he's consistently ahead of his time, doesn't care, doesn't compromise. recorded music? gad. in a situation like that, even a lousy live voice is preferable. the idea being to get the people singing together. there is something that happens, not measureable or quantifiable, when people of like mind and purpose gather. singing "amazing grace" or any familiar song (this is why national anthems work) will solidy and intensify that alignment. that's why hymns and such work. p.s. some of my favorite singers are not technically sound, or even pleasant. what they are is effective. listen to randy newman's "i always will love you marie" and you'll know what i'm saying. next time don't be timid, get up, sing your truth out, they'll join in, i promise.

8:33 AM  

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