Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Harmony and Unison

The other day at choir practice, our director was trying to decide if she would prefer a certain hymn in our Christmas program to be sung in parts or in unison. In a sort of offhanded way, she asked, “I wonder if the heavenly choirs will be sung in parts or in unison?”

I responded to the effect that I didn’t dare open that particular can of philosophical worms in a choir practice…

So I’ll blog about it instead.

I mean, there’s all kinds of levels here. On the musical side of it, there’s plenty of fodder for both sides. Parts bring lush and rich harmonies, counterpoint, and fullness to a piece. There’s a depth to it that you simply don’t get with one single melody line.

But there’s a power to unity, too. For example, when I was in high school, as a cellist in our orchestra, we played a piece, an arrangement of “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”. I don’t even remember who did the arrangement. After the exposition, it went into so polyphonic explorations, typical of a good development section, but the recap was absolutely amazing. The entire orchestra, including the winds, all played the entire thing. Loud, slow, and in unison. Maybe it was the contrast that made it feel so big and powerful.

Another example. Many years ago, when I was still living in Indiana, my friends and I took a roadtrip to see Yes in concert in Champaign, Illinois. It was a great show, but one part stuck with me as a monumental moment in my life’s ongoing musical experience. That was Chris Squire’s bass solo. Now, typical bass solos are a time when the bassist really gets to show off his chops. Hands are dizzy and notes fly like snowflakes in a blizzard. And Chris Squire was certainly no slouch. He could match fury with the best of them.

But he comes out, and with a single light on him from above, plays “Amazing Grace”. He plays it easily, slowly, and I might add, very loud and low. The house shook. No flashy embellishments. Nothing but the song.

And it was INCREDIBLE.

But then look how often a pop singer sings without accompaniment, or how often true unison orchestral performances happen. Look at great inspired works like “The Messiah”, which expertly flips from monophony to homophony and polyphony at the drop of a baton.

So, the big philosophical question that is the extension of all this is: Does God want us lockstepping together or does he want us individually adding to the whole?

Personally, I feel that if He wanted us lockstepped, He would have backed Lucifer’s plan in the first place. I like the thought of many different voices combining together harmoniously to add to the whole. But it seems that there are a lot of us Mormons who don’t take to kindly to differences. To our credit, there are a lot of us who do, too.

And I also admit that, in music, there are times when a single melody can communicate very strongly.

Just a thought… or two…

Mark Hansen

1 comment:

  1. Wow, this is tricky. Just as you have, I've been greatly moved by something done in unison as well as parts.

    Now that I think about it, unity, for me can apply to both. Singing in unison, unites the voices in a single purpose, stating "We are one", but singing in multiple parts unites people by stating "We are many, but we live in harmony".

    Hmm... definitely something to ponder.



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