Comparing two styles of music

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Based on a few things I observed on Facebook last week, saying anything negative about the royal wedding is generally off limits.  Consider this blog a safe zone for a few days.

I want to talk about music I have watched recently and get you guys talking about its strengths and weaknesses.

To start, a lot of people are talking about this piece from John Rutter that was performed at the Royal Wedding.  If you have not watched it, take a few minutes:

Now, here is a clip you probably have not seen of pop star Jennifer Hudson singing a bit of “His Eye is On the Sparrow.”

Which one do you like better and why? And what are the strengths and weaknesses of each?

Now, some of you are wondering if I have lost my head because the answer seems obvious to you one way or the other.  But here are some thoughts to kick this off.

1) Where is God? Well, I am not sure God is in either of these performances.  John Rutter is either an agnostic or an atheist (depending on who you ask),  the royal family is not exactly known to be God-fearing and Jennifer Hudson seems in this clip to mock her Christian past at least to some extent.

So, let’s leave that aspect of the debate out of this as well as the debate on motives and whether these performances are self-focused or God-focused.  I have my suspicions, but they are only suspicions.  There are cultural elements at play that I do not even understand that cloud my judgment.

2) The John Rutter piece seems to me to be like all John Rutter pieces: controlled, safe, pretty and fairly bland.  It is interesting that Rutter gets the accolades he does in the US because strangely enough, he is more controversial in Europe and other parts of the world.  Some actually think he does not write serious enough music.  I think the opposite.  I do not think his music connects with average people and I think it is important that music does.  Is it well-written though from a technical standpoint? I think the answer is yes. But I still feel like something is missing.

3) Regarding the Hudson song, a few things jump out at me.  First, I am a huge fan of African American church music; I think in general it is light years ahead of what we typically see in Caucasian churches.  My one complaint about it is its current trend toward over-singing.  The technical ornamentation that Hudson does here gets way excessive.  It is like playing a piano arrangement with arpeggios the whole piece. Really, when someone has a voice like Hudson, you just want her to sing and only occasionally throw in the fancy stuff.

On the other hand, there are things about those few lines of His Eye is on the Sparrow that made me want to watch it several times (to the dismay of my wife).  First, did you notice that Fallon’s band (who has probably never even played with Hudson) jumped in on the first line in the right key and then did a highly interesting and sophisticated arrangement?  That might have been a planned thing, but it did not have to be.  There are certainly musicians of the caliber to be able to pull that off.

And then, there was the fact that Hudson makes something of every syllable of every phrase.  That is why you feel after watching her sing half a verse that you have watched something special.  There is a lesson for all of us musicians in that.

And lastly, there was a connection there with the audience and the host that was surreal, especially when compared to stand-offish performance at the royal wedding.

So, those are some initial thoughts. What are yours?

20 thoughts on “Comparing two styles of music

  1. Sarah J. says:

    First of all, thanks for establishing a safe zone for criticizing anything that has to do with the Royal Wedding. It is long overdue I assure you.

    However, you are off your rocker. I suppose you could call it taste, but one of these performances is just not my cup of tea. Hudson does not just overdo the ornamentation; she way overdoes it to the point where it is just annoying. I cannot watch it.

    But I see your point with Rutter too. I have never felt his music was like “WOW” when I hear it. Safe is a good way to describe it. I wonder if this piece would have been as popular if you took away the pomp and setting. I think not.

    I do appreciate your putting these ideas out there. That was definitely not a “safe” thing to do.

  2. Joel Carruthers says:

    Lance, it is no great secret that Rutter is agnostic if not an atheist. Google it.

    Here is my struggle Greg. Yes, Jennifer made a huge connection with the audience. But the connection seemed to be not because of the message of the music but rather her technical showiness.

    I laughed at your comment about the safe zone. I was thoroughly bored by the music of that wedding. It was stiff and I am no organ lover.

  3. Another Greg (not Howlett) says:

    Good observations.

    Rutter said in a 2003 interview that he is not particularly religious (according to Wikipedia). I have also heard that elsewhere. Some of his pieces have given me goose bumps, but others seem bland or formulaic, and I have to admit wondering why people get so enamored with it.

    This raises an interesting question. Can music that honors or glorifies God be written by non-believers? I have an opinion, but I’d be interest in what others think.

    I like Jennifer Hudson’s vocal sound, but too much embellishing for my taste. Don’t particularly care for the breathing in the middle of words, either. It is a totally impromptu performance, so maybe we should just take it for what it is and not get too critical.

  4. Shelia Simmons says:

    I agree with the earlier poster Greg. You ARE off your rocker. You have managed to break two taboos in one post: criticizing the Royal Wedding and John Rutter.

    Don’t you know we are supposed to pretend that Kate is a real princess and she and William are going to live happily ever after? Isn’t that how it always works in their family?

    And then don’t you know that Rutter is the great living composer and all his music either a) gives you goosebumps or b) exposes you for the country bumpkin you obviously must be?

  5. Joel says:

    So I am sitting here trying to figure out what this about. Greg is trying to make a point, of this I am sure. Comparing a pop style to John Rutter is very interesting. Could it be he is trying to say we need could learn a few things from the pop side and just reminding us there is a pile of talent over there?

  6. Chris says:

    First of all, to an organist, the music was glorious!

    Secondly, perhaps one should google Lillie Knauls or Lynda Randle and actually listen to someone sing that song who has conviction.

    It seems to me that Jennifer just made a mockery out of the piece.

    I’ve always been a fan of her, but that definitely took away a star for me.

  7. Greg says:

    Interesting. Nobody likes Jennifer’s vocal antics. I tend to agree. I don’t mind technical aerobics in moderation as accents, but not every single note.

    But, are we willing to accept that her style is a reflection of a culture that we don’t really understand? In other words, is it possible that what to us may seem like mockery or self promotion might just be the way it is done in African American church music?

    And is there anything that we can learn from her?

    Again, I am not referring to her spiritual condition and I am not referring to her motives. I am referring to the music only.

  8. Ayesha says:

    Great topic! I’m not a Jennifer Hudson fan, but do enjoy the black gospel version of that particular song.

    I agree that repeated repetition of accents is a turn-off for the listener. Unfortunately, it seems to permeate much of the black gospel style.

    For the vocalist however, it may be a different experience altogether. I liken it unto a preacher when he comes to certain rift in a sermon wherein he can’t contain his emotion and may get a little ‘happy’, excited, loud etc….Likewise, the vocalist, at that point in the song, has been moved by the message to the point of perhaps too much ad lib for some tastes and just right for others.

    Personally, there is no way the first video could move me to do anything but sleep. Is it because I am black? I’m not sure.

    I do wish that the second example was not Jennifer Hudson—she seems silly to me. But overall, music that lets a little emotion bleed through touches my heart more. Just as a heartfelt shouting sermon would be preferred over a monotone, stiff monologue. Just sayin…..

  9. paul says:

    I recently was reading that the writer of the lyrics of His Eye is on the Sparrow was inspired to write the song after visiting a sick believer bedridden for 20 years. She had said that she could endure because “His eye is on the sparrow and I know He watches me.” Maybe that’s why the lyrics to that song seem to have more impact to me than the Rutter lyrics. The words of the Rutter song don’t seem to have any personal impact although they are biblical -they seem disconnected from life. While the music to both songs seems acceptable to me, the performance of the Rutter song seems unnatural and the Hudson performance seems overly focused on the emotional expression of the performer both by the performer and the audience.

  10. Greg says:

    Actually Paul, you hit on the thing that I was hoping someone would mention. One delivery feels natural and one does not. Rutter’s music tends to strike me as unnatural. The use of the triplets in the melody line is a good example. That is not the way we talk so why sing that way?

    I believe that the Hudson example is far more natural. Actually, almost too natural. The pendelum has swung in the opposite direction to the point where the naturalness seems forced. She is indeed trying to ride the emotion too much. But what I like is that in general, the delivery is a somewhat exaggerated but still natural expression of African American culture: emotional, energetic exhuberance of a truth. Even though Hudson may not be a believer, that music is coming from the heart.

    The need to be natural in music is important I think. Performed music is of little value if there is no connection with the audience. I question whether the Rutter piece connects to normal people on any plane whether it is spiritual or emotional.

  11. Greg says:

    BTW, Ayesha, could you give some of your favorite African American singers?

    Do you like Mahalia Jackson for example? Though she sometimes falls into the trap of way overdoing the vocal aerobics, at other times, she is very restrained.

  12. Jim Barnes says:

    This is a great idea Greg. A place to safely critique the Royal Wedding! I learned the hard way that Facebook is not such a place.

    The music was snoozerville. Of course, I am sure Westminister Abbey is a dead church anyway. It just is a good reminder that high church music and a beautiful building is not enough for true worship.

    Was it just me or did anyone else find it ironic that the music was so conservative and yet the bride and groom are anything but? In fact, I wonder if 90% of those guests even attend church, but there they are singing old hymns with an organ. Elton John included by the way.

  13. Ayesha says:

    Hmmm….. Here’s a few I like:

    Actually, my favorites are not any artist you could youtube, but just plain church folk that love God. The above songs touch my heart and I enjoy the delivery, but do not necessarily agree with the artist beliefs and whatnot. (oh, some aren’t black…sure sound like it though lol…)

  14. Joan Zimmerman says:

    An interesting idea Greg. Do I understand correctly that you believe “naturalness” is key to getting that connection to the audience that performers are always looking for?

  15. Ross Lampe says:

    If God is not in your heart and you are not “right” with Him, your talent is nothing. Singer or musician, if God is not your audience and He is not your director, it’s just noise. Some of the best singers I’ve heard are not the best at being on key but they close their eyes and you can see they are sining to God on His throne.

    The wedding-talented, formal, stiff, cold
    The woman-talented, forced emotion, entertaining, no feeling.

    Thank you.

  16. Greg says:

    Joan, yes, to a large extent I do believe that. People are starved for performers who believe what their music says and don’t “perform”. For example, in my niche, pianists used to have smoke coming out of the piano and all kinds of showy stuff. Those days are thankfully gone. I am pragmatic to believe that while God is part of the audience, performers are supposed to touch people. And you cannot do that without a connection. That is why I am not impressed by music that is supposedly high quality but performed in a stand-offish, arms-length way.

  17. toddt says:

    i didn’t get to see the whole segment with hudson, but it doesn’t appear that she is trying to worship, it sounds like she was just demonstrating. That being said if she performed like that at my church people would be shouting all over the building. I thought the wedding music was absolutely beautiful. Hudson is always awesome. I’m just a fan of all kinds of music. I don’t think God was anywhere near either performance.

  18. toddt says:

    By the way, I loved Anthony Burger’s “smoke” days, and what Dino did too. I believe you can have Christian entertainment that contains an inspirational message and that even has segments for worship also.

  19. kevin fiqueroa says:

    First of all, to compare these 2 styles of music with eachother is in itself a very confusing thing to do or ask and also something unfair . The singing of Jennifer Hudson is not that much of a style if you only take the singing of Jennifer Hudson in account.

    Let me first start to say that I cannot say that God is not present at both of these two singing, since God is omnipresent. If the question was :Which of these glorifies God? I would be compelled to say the first one does so indirectly and the second also indirectly and still not. Let me explain.
    I totally disagree with Gregg that (if I understood him correctly) that the first one does not connect. When I listen to the first song without watching the video and only listen to the instrumental and lyrics It is a potential peace that could glorify God with and I do connect with it because of its solemn way of singing and rich biblical verses. Unfortunetly in this video one gets the impression that it does not since it seems they are singing it TO the married couple. Now even if this composer is an atheist or whatever he might be this is not a reason for not listening to the song or use it as a medium to glorify God. This would get messy cause there have been composers who also wrote many beautiful hymns and songs who sadly left the Lord. Would this mean that we would not sing their songs? Afcourse not. We have to jugde the lyrics and the instrumental. When these both are compatible and in harmony with eachother it is a means to use and listen.

    To ask everyone which piece one loves or likes is also a loaded question. Cause everyone has different taste or preference in music and this is includes music styles as well. And also there is a varitation of persons who have a more trained ear for music then others and others are only exposed to either the first type or second type of music and others are more jugding the music to what it does to them then how it feeds the spirit. Just as you can ask a child if he likes candy or sprouts so it is possible to ask a person who likes types of songs then other types of songs. Research also shows that we all have our different tastes and that the brain is benefited in a particular way when we listen to songs we like. So we can’t enforce songs on one another.

    Gregg much love bro but when you listen to this type of songs or compositions it does not mean You have to be connected to the song! There are songs you can connect to and others that you do not. What connects one does not connect others. So it is unfair to say that this music of John Rutter does not connect to one, cause I do connect with it.

    Although the first song is directed to the couple on the moment they sung it It is still a song that is composed very neatly and contain scriptural verses.

    Why do I feel discouraged…. Why do the shadows falll… Why is my hearts… so weary…. these are examples of the lyrics of the second song which gives a more personal feel to it. The lyrics of this song are one mixed of personal to indirectly and directly singing.

    I sing because I’m happy,
    I sing because I’m free,
    For His eye is on the sparrow,
    And I know He watches me.

    Now when you look at the Lyrics of this first composer
    This is the day, the day which the Lord has made
    We will rejoice and be glad in it
    This is the day, the day which the Lord has made
    We will rejoice and be glad in it
    This is the day

    O praise the Lord of Heaven
    Praise him in the highest,
    Praise him all ye angels of his
    Praise him all ye souls
    Praise him sun and moon
    Praise him all ye stars of light
    Let them praise the name of the Lord

    For he shall give his angels charge over thee
    To keep thee in all thy ways
    To keep thee in all thy ways
    To keep thee in all thy ways
    The Lord himself is my keeper
    The Lord is my defense upon my right hand
    So that the sun shall not hurt thee by day
    Neither the moon by night

    The Lord shall preserve thee from all evil
    Yeah, it is even he that shall keep thy soul
    The Lord shall preserve thy going out and thy coming in
    From this I know
    From this I know
    From this I know forever more

    He shall defend thee
    He shall defend thee
    He shall defend thee under his wings
    He shall defend thee
    He shall defend thee
    He shall defend thee under his wings
    Be strong
    And He shall comfort thine heart
    Shall comfort thine heart
    And who shall I trust?
    I trust in the Lord
    Whose power I trust in, the Lord,
    In the Lord

    We see there is more quotes of bible verses to this songs and one song that is which a collective group can sing type of song vs one that is more personal type of song.

    The lessons we can learn when we compare these two video songs is that:
    1. We can sing solemn and express reverence in our singing and also playing.
    2. We can sing more personal and loose and add allot to the singing which leads to one singing in a more selfish type of way glorying oneself
    3. You can use a very complex composition and still not worship the Lord if the song is directed to one that is not God.
    4. You can use a very easy song and still not glorify God because of your way of adressing God through singing.
    5. Singing correctly or making a more complex piece of music does not mean one worships the Lord because worship is not centered in lyrics songs nor instruments. We are called to worship in Spirit and in Truth thus the Rational mind/heart must be exposed to the Truth as we come to the ONE that is a rational Being and is Truth.
    Music does not move the soul or worships, it is an act of worship just as prayer it can only move the emotions.
    6. Another lesson we can learn is that one can be in the church and still not worship the Lord and one can be singing about the Lord in a secular place and still not praise or worshp the Lord.
    7. Easthetic type of making music or singing does not worship the Lord nor does one singing to his own honour. What honours the Lord is when the heart is sanctified and softened and that ones heart is in harmony with the songs sung.

    And the last lesson I could give is that you can do allot of ornamentation with your voice in this case what Jennifer Hudson does to impress either herself (talent) or others OR do allot of ornamentation with your music and impress humans with rather then God!

    God bless everyone,


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