My husband and I had a great gig on Christmas Eve. We were hired to play two church services as part of an ensemble that included string quintet, flute, oboe, two trumpets, timpani, organ and choir. We played traditional carols, a few newer carols by John Rutter, and a Haydn mass. The services were traditional and beautiful, and they really captured the sanctity of the evening. And they got me thinking about tradition and relevance.
“Silent Night” was new once. So was “Away in a Manger”. There were times when most things we consider traditional were new and modern—the latest thing. They struck a chord with people and were used over and over, into a time when they were no longer part of the vernacular. Do they lose relevance once they are not in the same language as our day-to-day communication? Does difference automatically mean irrelevance?
It seems to me that traditions can be used either to draw people in or to alienate them. How do you make sure it’s one but not the other? Sometimes the jolt of a something unfamiliar invites people to see differently, more deeply, from a different angle. And sometimes when we strive for relevance we end up flattening things, losing the heights and depths of a piece of art in the name of accessibility. Then again, traditions can get stale and lose their effectiveness. We may forget the meaning behind them, or find them so foreign we don’t know where to begin to understand them. Sometimes artists shed new light on something by increasing accessibility. When Dante took a serious subject and wrote it in his common language of Italian instead of Latin he was doing a groundbreaking thing.
“Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue.” A tradition in itself—but why do you think a bride is often encouraged to include each of these on her wedding day? Should we throw out the old for the new, or vice versa? Why should we limit art to one or the other when the importance is the truth at the core? Some mediums will work, others won’t, at any given moment. At another time it may take a different medium—a different language, a different color, a different tune, a different setting, to best communicate what an artist is trying to say. Personally, I get frustrated with some of the arguments about relevance—I think it is a side issue. What we want is to awaken, to shed light, to invite a person to travel deeper into truth. And I don’t think labels like “traditional”, or “progressive”, or whatever, necessarily guarantee or deny that goal.