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When Cultures Collide

I’ve taken pains on this site to explain the differences between high culture, folk culture, and pop culture. Last night my wife and I witnessed a very enlightening collision of all three types of culture.

Some friends of ours invited us to join them for an evening at the Rockford Symphony (incidentally, we had front row seats!). We didn’t know what was on the program until we arrived, and discovered that it was a concert featuring a unique “band” called “Time for Three” made up of two violinists and a double bass. They played several numbers accompanied by the Rockford Symphony, and several by themselves.

I’ll get to them in a moment. The symphony played alone at the beginning of each half, playing first music from Aaron Copland’s Rodeo, already a masterful mix of high and folk cultures. They began the second half with The Legend of the Arkansas Traveler by Harl McDonald, again, an American folk tune set in a high culture classical form.

But “Time for Three” is where the real collision occurred (and I don’t mean “collision” as a derogatory comment). One of the group’s promotional blurbs said it all:

Leaping with a single bound from Bluegrass to Bach, Brahms to the Beatles, these high-voltage virtuosi electrify audiences everywhere, leaving a wake of infectious joy.

And that’s no exaggeration. We heard some really fun bluegrass — legitimate American folk music — played amazingly by very talented Classically-trained musicians. We also heard the Bach Concerto for Two Violins (the best piece on the program!). But then there was everything else; mostly bluegrass/country-western forms with definite jazz and blues influences and some tiny hints of Rock ‘n’ Roll, R&B, Hip Hop, and even Heavy Metal.

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It wasn’t overt or even necessarily offensive, but that’s what made it interesting. Because it was all packaged in either classical or folk forms, the potentially offensive elements were kept to a minimum. Some of it was hauntingly beautiful (they opened their first package with a stunning rendition of Shenandoah), some was just down right fun (such as Forget About It or Orange Blossom Special), and some amazingly rich and technical (such as the Bach duo). They even played an arrangement of Blackbird by the Beatles (or “Bluebird by the Roaches” as the double bass player joked), clearly a pop piece, but played in a classical style.

What was made more clear to me was (1) the clear distinctions between the three kinds of culture, but (2) the potential for blurring those distinctions, especially in our Postmodern, eclectic society. As the world grows smaller through mass media and a global culture, these kinds of issues will become more prominent and difficult to navigate. In this case — a concert hall — it wasn’t a problem. Maybe more “entertainment” than one might expect at a Symphony, but the high and folk packaging made it intrinsically enriching and good nonetheless.

What is particularly instructive, though, is a interview that I watched of them this evening, in which they explained their motives. In essence (although they didn’t use exactly this language), they are trying to get people to appreciate high culture by using folk and pop. I’m with them for about half of that. Vaughan Williams tried to get people to appreciate high by using folk, and it works because it’s made of the same “stuff.” But pop culture by its nature is intrinsically transient — it cannot of itself lead to anything better.

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But the fact is, what they were playing wasn’t really pop. It was pop to the extent of association only. But the fact that they played it in high or folk forms rendered it no longer pop. So maybe they will succeed in their mission, if they keep playing Bach as well.

But as the Church has to face these kinds of issues, the question of appropriateness and intrinsic worth of given forms will be one that must be on the forefront of church leaders’ minds as they wrestle through collisions of cultures

Scott Aniol

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is Chair of the Worship Ministry Department at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.

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