As Sarah noted, Saturday and Sunday bring us our Fall semiannual General Conference.
As part of our twice-yearly ritual, we’ll hear the Mormon Tabernacle Choir up to three times: one session of Conference Saturday, one session Sunday, and the Music and the Spoken Word broadcast before the first Sunday session. The Tabernacle Choir, which made its entrance onto the world stage in 1893 at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago,1 is made up of 360 volunteer singers. It is excellent. And, frankly, I am not a fan.2
It’s not just the Mormon Tabernacle Choir; in general, I prefer small ensembles to large. That was hit home to me this last winter. The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center has a three-year residency at Chicago’s Harris Theater, and I was able to see two of their three performances this last year. The first was a series of clarinet trios.3 The second was the “Masters of the Keyboard” performance, featuring solo piano, duets, and up to four performers on two pianos.
There’s something powerful about the interplay between a small number of musicians; you can hear each part, and each performer’s nuance can shine through. It’s hard to do if you’re one of 360 people.
Still, the Tabernacle Choir only performs at two of the sessions. Who performs at the others? Basically, various groups that try to imitate the sound and size of the Tabernacle Choir, whether it is the combined Institute choirs of somewhere near Salt Lake, the combined BYU choirs, a choir of MTC missionaries, or even a children’s choir.4
So here’s my immodest5 proposal: let’s diversify our General Conference music.
Note that I’m not suggesting disbanding the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, or even reducing the number of sessions at which it performs. That it doesn’t uplift me doesn’t mean that it doesn’t uplift anybody; I suspect, actually, that my dislike of the Tabernacle Choir puts me among the minority in Mormondom.6
But for the other four sessions, why not mix things up a little? A nice double quartet of singers, accompanied by a piano, maybe. Or a normal-sized choir. We don’t need 360 voices to reach everybody anymore; today’s amplification is excellent. And, I assume, the choirs are already amplified—they have to be mic’d, at least, or I couldn’t hear them over the internet in Chicago.
But I don’t see any reason every session has to feature vocals. Why not a string quartet, a brass quintet, woodwind quartet, a piano duet, a trombone choir, or a saxophone quartet?7 The Spirit can touch us even without lyrics. Moreover, these smaller ensembles could accompany the congregational hymn as well as an organ can.
The advantages, I believe, are at least a couple-fold. First, with diversity in musical styles, arrangements, and instrumentations, the music at Conference can touch a wider range of people. Second, switching up the style of music surprises those of us who expect the same thing every time and listen on autopilot, and may just surprise us out of a spiritual stupor.8
Will it happen? No idea. I kind of doubt it. But a guy can dream, right? And, in the meantime, you can find me listening to some essential string quartets.
- See Michael Hicks, Mormonism and Music 152 (1989). Quick tangent: if you haven’t read Mormonism and Music, get it, now. It’s worth the price of admission just for Chapter 11, which traces the Church’s take on music from jazz through the Beatles. (Spoiler: the Church was a fan of neither.) Seriously, the book is awesome. ↩
- A friend tells me that what I’m not a fan of is actually Mack Wilberg‘s arrangements. Sadly, though, he’s wrong: I don’t like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. ↩
- That is, clarinet, cello, and piano. ↩
- Which I swear I’ve heard at least a couple times. ↩
- Not that immodest; the word gets narrowly defined in Mormon life enough without my contributing to it, and the Mormon narrow usage of modesty gets debated enough in the Bloggernacle without my help. ↩
- It may even put me in the minority outside of Mormondom: in 2007, it apparently sold out Ravinia just outside of Chicago, and I’m entirely sure that the sold-out audience wasn’t just local Mormons. ↩
- Okay, maybe that last is pie-in-the-sky. But this is my immodest proposal, and I’ve heard amazing classical saxophone quartets before. ↩
- The only disadvantage I can think of is that the Conference Center was designed with seating for these overly-large choirs in mind; with smaller ensembles, there will be a bunch of empty chairs. But I’m sure that something can be done to prevent the empty chairs from being distracting. ↩