Date: July 16, 2012
(This article by Bryan Black will appear in a forthcoming issue of the ACDA Southern Division newsletter, Southern Harmony.)
Conductors are always eager to add new repertoire. New repertoire finds its way into our libraries and, over time, becomes the collective record of musical experiences shared by choir, conductor and congregation. Depending on circumstances you may have access to a handful of CPDL photocopies or an entire room of octavos and major works. And, if you serve a congregation that has already filled a room, you may someday be faced with the task of discarding old repertoire to make space.
Discarding selections from a choral library is a solemn occasion. It risks the loss of some forgotten gem or slighting memories and traditions once held dear. One should not undertake it with a sense of arrogance or disdain, but consider the entire catalog with a certain spirit of pragmatism that acknowledges changes in culture, language and scholarship. (After all, with passing years a younger musician may groan at what you added to the shelves!)
When discarding selections is acknowledged as an affirming creative process and not careless rejection, it balances and refines our sense of what is most essential and worthy of effort. We begin to sense subtle qualities that appear as a shared contour across the musical landscape, learn the art of discernment and appreciate the necessity of making space just as someone who tends a garden must occasionally thin and prune to promote vigorous growth. Knowing there is “… a time to plant and a time to pluck up” and understanding their mutual necessity is a fundamental understanding for any conductor aspiring to something more vital than comfortable nostalgia or popular approval.
Are there guides to mark the way? Yes. Consider this observation made by the editor R.P. Blackmur referring to the poems of John Berryman: “His (Berryman’s) work adds to the stock of available reality.” If the music you choose does likewise, it will undoubtedly be pleasing both to God and humanity. It may even invite us into a transformative experience where seen and unseen mingle as one.
Perhaps you have actually been through the process of removing scores from your library and know the effort and reward firsthand. Or maybe you have avoided taking responsibility for an overgrown collection owing to self doubt or fear of uninformed criticism. It is not a task to be “… entered into lightly,” neither should it paralyze us from shaping the space where we are called to lead worship through music. Seek good counsel, welcome new music and make space within the past to grow what you and your choir can offer to the world in God’s name.