18 June 2020

(Even) More on Music – The Vice-President’s Playlist Re-visited

You may recall that I provided a playlist of music that was used during Conference last year. Various pieces of music were played at the beginning and end of each day, and before and after sessions. Some of the thirty-three tracks were even used within worship. The full list is still available online.

I did, though, invite anyone to send me suggestions – not simply ‘your favourite tracks of all time’, but music that you thought could have been used. I received about 100. All I’ve done is made a full list of them, without making judgment or comment, and added them to my own. The list is here:  I simply I included all the tracks that people suggested.

The only comments I’d make now are that people’s recommendations didn’t always bear in mind the context or timing of Conference (Kate Rusby’s Christmas Carols, for example, are great…but in June?!). And there was a bit of lobbying from the folk contingent and the country quarter. But, hey, I said I wouldn’t judge! So have a look at the list, explore and enjoy the music for yourself, and please, please, please move on to examine, from the perspective of your own location and background, what’s missing. Because this is a vital exercise in the Church reflecting back to itself the cultural worlds in which we move. Or, rather, this is a cross-section of people who are (and the term is not mine!) ‘Conference animals’ imagining what would be good at Conference, plus a whole host of music-lovers who may or not be ‘Conference animals’ giving expression to what has moved, and does move, them deeply, in the hope that others will respond likewise.

Believe me, I’ve had many, many more conversations about music during the year than is reflected in the expanded list. It began at Conference 2019 itself (‘are you going to be playing any….?’ ‘what, no Mozart?’ ‘you’re really weak on choral music aren’t you?’ ‘why are there not more tracks from beyond the West?’). And people would buttonhole me during the year and tell me what should have been included. So it’s been a fun thing to do. But let’s remind each other, too, whether or not you’re musical yourself, why it’s important as well as fun, because music does work in the following ways for many people.

Music expresses and helps us affirm our identity. We listen to music which helps consolidate ‘the kind of person I am’ because it affirms us and the people with whom we usually mix. Here, though, music can also become a flashpoint and a source of division, and partly through the stereotyping that can go on (‘they’re young…[or old]…they’ll like that sort of thing’; ‘Black members always like that kind of music, don’t they?’; ‘but it’s African, so it’s bound to be OK for our members from overseas’; ‘why do we have to have any songs in a foreign language?’; ‘only proper hymns should be used in worship’).

To help us get beyond all that, whilst acknowledging there are real issues at work here, we can also see that music can help us grow as people through being a way of connecting with cultures different from our own. It’s a challenge – really hard work at times – to listen to music which is not of our own culture (be that ethnic, class, economic, geographical). It continues to stagger me that it is often not recognised how White and Western (and often ‘classical’) it is assumed that church music culture should be. I had thought those days were long gone. Acknowledging Christianity’s global character is hard work (for everyone!), but music can help hugely here.

Music provides solace, comfort and support – lockdown has shown this profoundly. Desert Island Discs has opened itself up to all (have you chosen your eight?). Radio station after radio station, and web-site after web-site, has been offering playlists of varying kinds, and opportunity for discussion about what will help us during lockdown. To say that such exploration has been interweaving with religion and spirituality would be an understatement. Can we as a Church pick up on all that in creative ways? It won’t simply be about adding Charles Wesley to the playlist. But what the current equivalents are of what both the Wesleys were up to in their own day would be a good discussion-starter. For they wouldn’t only be about ‘providing solace’. And the Wesleys would need to be challenged more than they were in their own day to think about how the music they thought could be enjoyed by Christians might include not just religious music.

Music can express our passions and our politics. The Wesley brothers are relevant here too. What really matters to us? How is that to be voiced, and not just for our own benefit? How are convictions to be articulated and carried in memorable ways? How are emotions to be caught up in what we hum, sing, bawl through the day? It’s sometimes said that so-called secular singers and song-writers might currently be more courageous, and less cautious, than Christian/religious composers, lyricists and hymn-writers in what they explore and express. In case you haven’t caught up with this yet, there is a beautiful symmetry to our Presidential year in the fact that I introduced some music at the start of the year and self-confessed non-musical person Barbara ends her year with the launch of a CD! Some of her words (poems and prayers written during the year) have been set to music by Artey Williams, a professional singer Barbara met at the Tolpuddle celebrations last Summer. Head for arteywilliams.com to find out more.

So as our year of blogging comes to an end, let me wish you many more happy musical hours. May the music you listen to not just comfort you, but also prove exhilarating, challenging, foot-tapping, spine-tingling, and deeply and richly resourcing. God’s Spirit energizes and feeds us in all sorts of ways.

Clive Marsh


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