Thursday, May 20, 2010

Final "Performance Ethnography"

The musical community at Northpointe Christian church is what takes center “stage.” For those unfamiliar, many contemporary Christian churches, such as the non-denominational Northpointe, replace the long tradition of altar, pulpit & chorus with stage, microphone & rock band. The “worship band” is responsible for “leading” the service—and, along with the “teacher” (preacher-type role), the “worship leader” is the central figure of the service at Northpointe.

I have been visiting Northpointe for a few months now while working on this project. After missing a couple weeks of the services, Jordan Plumier (Worship Arts Director at Northpoint & my main contact/informant) got in touch with me about playing for a special Mother’s Day service. Jordan wanted to put together a group of musicans to play the usual worship songs but with a more intimate, quiet sound than the regular group (which includes a full drum set and a Marshall Stack). The ensemble ended up being Jordan on vocals and acoustic guitar, Jon on electric bass, James on Djembe, and myself on the violin. How a classically trained violinist paired up with someone playing a West African drum to play contemporary, American, Chirstian pop-rock songs is probably too culturally complicated for a short performance ethnography to try and explain and analyze.

For the sake of this ethnography, I was lucky to have a very direct performance role in the community with which I have been involved. The musical community at Northpointe is ostensibly focused around the musicians in the Worship Band, however, the congregation always can participate by singing along to the lyrics (projected on the screen of the movie theater). Additionally, the members of the Worship Band change from week to week and are typically culled from the congregation—James and Jon both go to Northpointe and aren’t professional musicians—one is auto-body mechanic and the other is a biology professor.

For the first time, Northpointe was planning on having two services on Mother’s Day, an early bird flight at 8:45 and then another at 10:00. This meant the call time was close to 7:00AM, for which I admit to being considerably late. Every Sunday, the team of around 10 people who make the Northpointe services happen arrive at the church’s theater at the Lincoln, RI Cinemaworld before the crack of dawn to load-in PA and A/V equipment for the sound and projections used during the service. When I arrived, I was handed a minute-by-minute schedule of the morning’s setup, rehearsal, and two services (The band was already behind schedule, on my account…), and we did an abbreviated run-through of the entire service. Then church leader’s gathered all of us who were participating in the service in a neighboring theater for a prayer, a “team-meeting,” and a communion. Most of this set-up leading up to the service feels like setting up for a rock n’ roll show—there are soundchecks, lighting checks, monitor mixes, video/projection tests

The day before, I had rehearsed the songs with Jordan and Jon (the bass player). Some of these I recognized from earlier services, and a couple I had played (when I played at an earlier Northpointe gathering). We practiced 4 songs for the service: “Cannons” by Phil Wickham, “My Deliverer” by Chris Tomlin, Daniel Carson, Matt Maher & Jesse Reeves, “Mighty To Save” by Reuben Morgan and Ben Fielding, and “Glory to God Forever” by Steve Fee. All of the songs have a poppy structure—3 verses with choruses in between and usually a bridge. The tunes were in easy keys—“A”, “D”, and “G”—for Jordan to hit all of those “high notes” and for the congregation to easily learn and follow along.

The first service went off without a hitch—the sound was full and clean—and although there were not as many people as usually attend the 10AM service, the theater felt reasonably attended and attentive. Parishioners weren’t as keen on singing along as one would expect, but maybe that was because it was earlier than normal. The band takes a break while Jerry, the “Teacher” for the day, gives his long talk or sermon. He was in the midst of his “ATM” lecture series, and the services was broken up by a short video of kids from the congregation talking about their mothers, and then again by a video of a newly baptized family from the church.

In between services, we tweaked some of the sound, changed some levels, then we threw on some “house” background music of other contemporary Christian songs via iPod. For the second service went along much in the same fashion. I noticed several faces from the first service who stuck around for round two, but overall, there were more people and more families, which ended up meaning more singing. For some of the quieter parts in songs, I could hear the many voices in the congregation overtaking the output of the PA speakers. It’s typically too loud to hear anyone other than the band—whether you’re sitting out in the seats or up on stage. Hardly anyone sits up close to the stage/screen/altar, because, as Jordan points out, it’s really just too loud.

When I established Jerry’s talk was the same as in the first service, I stepped outside of the theater to relax with the band and have a cup of coffee and a bag of popcorn. We talked about “the sound” of our performance, Iron Man 2, a reliable nearby auto mechanic, and how attendance panned out this week considering there were two services instead of one. When we heard the baptism video come on, we made our way back in to finish up.

Personally, I received positive feedback on my playing and participation. I think people were mostly happy to see another new face playing an instrument they don’t usually hear. As always, everyone on the Northpointe staff as well as the folks in the congregation was overtly friendly and helpful. As a playing experience for me, playing at Northpointe was something very different. I’m a classically trained violinist who ended up playing in bluegrass bands and some honky rock n’ roll. Stylistically, it was inappropriate to play up either of the sounds I had most the most experience playing—I had to fashion a middle ground that wasn’t flowery like classical/orchestral music but also wasn’t flashy or twangy like the bluegrass/fiddle sounding stuff I have done. In a way, the genre or sound of the Worship Band is hard to pin down as well. Apart from calling it pop music that features lyrics with Christian themes, it is maybe easier to define it by what popular forms it is not… Surprisingly, the four of us made a relatively cohesive product, considering we had only had minimal practice. Jordan’s voice and guitar playing so distinctively fit into the particular genre of music he was trying to communicate to the Northpoint congregation that if the rest of the band played to him, we were able to make it sound natural. Even with a djembe, violin, and electric bass on the same stage.

It was valuable to have the opportunity to participate in this performance and help cultivate the “worship sound” at Northpointe. This type of music has never been an interest of mine before now, and throughout the course of my project I had a lot of learning to do to become familiar with what exactly “Contemporary Christian Worship Music” is and what kind of music Jordan et. al. are trying to make at Northpointe. Clearly, they are using this very distinct, bounded, and mainstreamed sound to carve out their own identity as an infant church, and how much they choose to change or build on the existing contemporary Christian foundation will be up to the church leaders and congregation. Nevertheless, my relative outsider status allowed me to start from the ground up in terms of shaping my knowledge and opinions.