Saturday, October 16, 2010

The Triumphant Return of the Melisma

Since returning to New Orleans, I’ve had the opportunity to tune into my favorite Christian radio station again: Lifesongs 89.1 FM (God is good, all the time…) and am thoroughly surprised by the return of that medieval eccentricity so prevalent in Gregorian chant: the Melisma.
What is a melisma? According to, a melisma is “an ornamental phrase of several notes sung to one syllable of text, as in plainsong or blues singing.” If you’re having trouble picturing (or, rather hearing) that, think Aaron Nevilles’ style minus the falsetto. In western culture, it was originally employed by Christian hymnographers to accent the significant theological word or liturgical phrase of the song. Since the enlightenment, it had gone out of vogue with mainstream music, being erroneously associated with the more affected operatic style of singing. As with all such corrupted simplicities, the melisma has since only been used by the lower class folksong-writers, singing “with full and naïve conviction that the whole meaning of a song lies in the words and that the tune comes of itself, and that apart from the words there is no tune…”(I quote Tolstoy, War and Peace, 7vii) After all, the blue collar bard’s pedigree is of that noble breed of artists who believe that style is at the service of substance and not the other way round.
Yet in our day, when art-for-art’s-sake seemed to have reached its triumph, the melisma is making a return! Matt Maher, Chris Sligh, Sufjan Stevens, and Regina Spektor are just a few of the Lord’s singers who’ve resurrected this device in their worship. This reappearance of the melisma is a consoling sign. In the very least, it demonstrates that there are songwriters that have more concern for communicating their message than emphasizing their vocal ability. After all, the melisma is a silly device and would never make a diva out of anyone. My fellow schola members can attest that something of your ego dies when, instead of singing a simple Ave Maria, the chant notation forces you to sing AveeEEEEeeeEEEEeee MaaaAAAaaarIIIIiiiiIIIIAAaaa. In addition, it’s much easier to picture the Blessed Mother smiling benevolently at something melismatic in comparison to, say, the belting of Shubert’s AAAAAAAAAAve Mariiiiiiiiii----iiiiiiiaaa (which, I am convinced, usually leaves her rolling her eyes.). In short, the Melisma strikes down any attempt by the cantor to shift focus from the meaning of the song to the sound of his/her voice.
The other advantage to the melisma is that it leaves little room for variation outside of its own leaping and bounding. A group using melismatic chant is forced to listen to the words and listen to each other if the singing is to be successful. This focus plugs the individual into the community’s attempt at worship and translates into an encounter with the transcendent.
With the falling and rising of the notes, one must let go of the internal ups and downs that plagues one in the moment and, as a result, is connected to the rhythm of the rest of the room. Physically, this effect results in the uniting of breathing, pitch and even bodily movement. Spiritually, there is that amazing realization that occupancies all profound worship; namely, that the whole body (both one’s own and the Body of Christ) now stands before God in harmony.
Then there is this third attribute of the melisma, namely, that it is unnecessary. The very sight of its notation makes this evident. Over an ‘a’ or an ‘e’ there is this besplattering of ink that looks like a doodle from high school algebra class. Only this doodle represents, not daydreaming, but its close kin: contemplation. For nothing so confronts and defeats the utilitarianism of our day quite like prayer. And when substantial prayer is made long and frilly, our hearts, purified of our stresses and schedules, are left to bask in that most unnecessary action of God: His overflowing love for us.

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