Alice Parker

The Conrad Grebel Review 25, no. 3 (Fall 2007)

Marlene Epp and Carol Ann Weaver, eds. Sound in the Land: Essays on Mennonites and Music. Kitchener, ON: Pandora Press, 2005.

Oh, the echoes of Mennonite singing that arose in my memory while I perused these pages! Brought up in the New England Congregational Church, I experienced a musical epiphany when I first heard the a cappella sound of familiar and unfamiliar hymns sung with such beautiful tone and such radiant intensity. I’ve always felt that it compares favorably with the most sophisticated choral singing in the land.

This book contains many references to Hymnal: A Worship Book, published in 1992. Its fifteenth anniversary occasions a looking back from both data-based and anecdotal sources. Among the conclusions drawn is the inescapable fact that these hymns spring from many different traditions and reflect the trends at work in all Christian music-making. There is both a strong and healthy respect for past tradition, and a welcoming of international and living voices, without kow-towing to the fripperies of our commodity-driven culture.

In articles by and about contemporary composers, we find that they do not share a Mennonite “style” but are torn between the demands of concert/academic circles and of community churches. Those interviewed confessed a deep love for the sound of unaccompanied voices that persists through years of performing and teaching in the secular world. That doublegrounding, I think, results in a paradoxical tension which bodes well for the music of the future.

An evocative poem opens each of the four sections of the book, making it clear that Mennonite poets are also flourishing in creative tensions. Well-written articles about young folksingers, orchestral musicians, peace texts in the Ausbund, and trying to define “Mennonite” as a people and/or a music demonstrate both the breadth of the field that the book surveys and the vitality of its probing.

In addition to Mary Oyer’s valuable opening overview of Mennonite Hymnals from the Ausbund to the present, I particularly enjoyed the viewpoint on Mennonite thinking in Allison Fairbairn’s article, “Mennofolk Manitoba: Cultural, Artistic, and Generational Perspectives in a Music Festival Setting.” She quotes Hildi Froese Tiessen from “Beyond the Binary: Re-inscribing Cultural Identity in Mennonite Literature” to the effect that “Mennonites tend to view the world in terms of binary categories or opposites such as community/individual or insiders/outsiders.” She notes that Mennonite folk festivals in Manitoba and Ontario operate in a “grey area” between these opposite poles, bringing together both insiders from the cultural and religious tradition, and outsiders drawn by the music into new fellowships. I would add that Mennonites are not alone in attempting to transcend this binary worldview: one of the dominant themes of this age is the tension between the traditional and the new. We all need to explore the grey areas that invite new openings and fruitful overlappings.

Another provocative idea is expressed in “Encountering (Mennonite) Singer-Songwriters: J.D. Martin and Cate Friesen” by Jonathan Dueck. He quotes Arjun Appadurai’s “characterization of the world as a set of overlapping ‘scapes,’ routes that are traveled rather than places that are inhabited.” [Arjun Appadurai, Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1996).] Five “scapes” are listed: “finanscapes (money), ideoscapes (ideologies), mediascapes (sounds and images), technoscapes (technologies), and ethnoscapes (people) … [that] are disjunct—they are not moved through at the same time.” This disjunction is again especially characteristic of this age, where people move about the world so frequently and change the focus of their lives almost as often. I find it fascinating to contemplate my own life (or any other person’s) through this lens, as if the five categories were discs floating on an oily surface: They move apart, collide, coalesce and move on, constantly changing. What a change from a settled farmer two hundred years ago! No wonder we moderns feel dislocated – and look for connections that make life meaningful.

A final essay by Laura H. Weaver, entitled “Pleasure Enough: Four- Part A Cappella Singing as a Survival Strategy for a Mennonite-in-Exile,” eloquently states the place that singing holds in the Mennonite imagination. Little more than the thought of such singing, the memory of a song, can bring one to tears, experiencing a joy that over-rides all the contradictions and stresses of our confused society. We’re transported back to a world where we can “sit in a circle and sing” – and rediscover our true identity. Even for those of us not born Mennonite!

Alice Parker, Artistic Director of Melodious Accord, Inc., Hawley, MA