One thing I really like about Christmas music is how strong standards really provide a basis for showing diversity.
Everyone who does a Christmas album has to include something like The Christmas Song (Chestunuts Roasting. . .), but they have to do it their way. In other words, they have to follow the rules of that song while making up their own rules at the same time. By doing a standard, they immediately make us comfortable because we know the content, but they also challenge and enlighten us with the personal flavor they add to that standard.
One particular favorite of mine is Amazing Grace. I can tell how good I think the performance is by how quickly I start laughing. This isn’t a mocking laughter — I pretty well don’t do mocking anymore — but rather a response to the power of joy from redemption that the particular artist conveys. If I laugh, I know that the power is there in the interpetation, that the slice of style has exposure and power.
I have seen anumber of people talking about William Hung, the American Idol castoff who has had a few pretty successful albums. They usually say that his success is freakish, an abberation, and suggest it’s about laughing at freaks.
William Hung doesn’t say that, of course, He says that his success comes from believing in dreams, in committment, in purity.
I think he is right. I have been listening to some music from The Portsmouth Sinfonia, a 1970s era British sensation who played classical music with an enormous amout of heart but with a rather noticible lack of discipline. Everyone played the best they could, they played their heart out, but without the benefit of classical training — or maybe the curse of classical training. That training may have made the performances technically better, yes, but would it have also drained them of heart?
The standards are important, because when we know the text so well, the context, subtext and pretext can be identified quickly. Instead of showing novelty, you have to show virtuosity with whatever your best gift is. Sometimes, yes, that is technical proficency.
Other times, that’s just a big open heart.