Thursday, August 09, 2007

Secular Music

Back in May a letter appeared in the Humanist Network News the "ezine of the Institute for Humanist Studies" signed by one "Tenor with Reservations" regarding the conundrum of being an atheist or agnostic struggling with misgivings about performing religious music. "Tenor" had been asked by a neighbor to join a local civic chorus. He told her that owing to the strong religious content of much of the music the chorus performed, he couldn't in good conscience join such a group.

I responded with a letter which appeared in the same publication a few weeks later stating that I too had been faced with a similar problem. I wrote: "As it happens, most of the greatest music in the western world is, like it or not, religious. Bach, Mozart, Palestrina, Bernstein, etc. - virtually all of their choral works are religious. While the inspiration for this music originated with belief in a god, it was, nevertheless, composed by and for us lowly humans to play, to sing, and listen to."

I had a three year tenure with a choral group in Indianapolis. Not all, but most of the music we performed was religious in nature, mostly Christian. I didn't embrace the message provided by the mosly biblical texts. I just reveled in the greatness of the music.

As atheists or agnostics, we still marvel at great cathedrals, sculpture and paintings of religious subjects. Remember, this life is the only shot we get. I say. . . go for it. Embrace the music and sing out."

As it happens, the 'Tenor with Reservations" is a member of the "Brights, the humanist organization."
"Tenor" sent me an email thanking me for my comments and suggested that since we appear to have a common interest - singing, music, etc. - that I might consider becoming a Coordinator of Musical Development for the freethought community. While intriguing, such a task seemed a bit ambitious for the likes of yours truly.

But Tenor voiced his frustration at the "dearth of music" heard at various humanist gatherings, conventions and the like. I may be wrong here, but what I believe Tenor is looking for is accessible music with a humanist bent - music that would be appropriate for such gatherings, but that is of such a nature that the audience could relate to and/or actually participate in. (Humanist karaoke?)

Obviously, there is a great deal of what is considered to be "secular" music. But, for the most part, few of us know of music specifically inspired by and written as a celebration of humanity as opposed to music composed through supposed "divine" inspiration. I am aware that many 20th century composers had either openly or covertly broken with the church and some came to deny any belief in a god - Stravinsky, Shostakovitch, perhaps Mahler among others, just as many writers and other artists did. Although many of these composer's works are highly respected, little of it is accessible to the average person.

So, what am I getting at here? A response from any fellow "Brights" or anyone else pausing to read here who can offer suggestions regarding what's out there. Are there individuals or groups of whatever genre who are composing and/or performing music which is in whole or in part focused on humanity, on the human condition, living without god, or consideration of some "higher power?" Perhaps music focusing on the struggle between belief and non-belief?

I know I am not conveying this very clearly. Perhaps it's because many of us, myself included spend a great deal of time detailing who we are NOT, what we do NOT believe, as opposed to defining who we ARE, and what we DO believe. Words fail me.

If you do understand what I'm getting at, and know of such music or musicians, let me know here. In the near future there should be some kind of notification in this regard at Nothing is set up there as yet owing to some health problems with one of the director's families. If we can be directed to this type of music and their creators (not of the heavenly type,) perhaps it could be beneficial for all.

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