Music and cultural change in UUism

Late Saturday evening, I sat down with Nick Page and Jeannie Gagne, and asked them what they saw as the major cultural changes facing Unitarian Universalism today. Jeannie Gagne is a composer and UU musician, as well as Associate Professor at Berklee College of Music. Nick Page is a UU composer, songleader, and he conducts the Mystic Chorale and other vocal ensembles.

“The huge epic battle” in Unitarian Universalism, said Page, “is between those want to feel something, and those who want to think. And the other battle is liberal fundamentalism, where people believe that they are right, and everyone else is wrong. That’s dangerous, and it could kill the faith.

“Musically,” he continued, “I see things moving away from classical [music] in a way that I don’t like. It is possible for churches to absorb a purely Africentric music program, which is false unless you are an Africentric community. It’s dishonest, and it doesn’t honor our [classical music] past.

Page offered his thoughts on appropriately incorporating various types of music into congregational life. “Someone who knows how to do gospel, and Jeannie and I both know how to do gospel, would treat it with respect,” he said. “We would never trivialize the tradition.”

Page paused for a moment, then said, “One more thought: the music must be alive. That means treating everyone like they are great musicians. And then challenging them to do amazing things.”

Then it was Gagne’s turn to answer my question.

“I agree with Nick first of all,” she said. “Our inclusiveness can become exclusive. Our desire is to be inclusive, and it is important to respect and honor other [musical] traditions. But when it’s at the point where that process [of inclusiveness] is pushing other people away, that will be killing off the faith.

“For me,” Gagne went on, “our faith is about diversity, and we really need to embrace diversity. But not everyone is in the same place in their life’s journey. We need to be a little more compassionate to people in their journeys, and be more compassionate about their mistakes.”

She went on talk about her own path as a UU musician. “I’ll tell you what my personal goal has been since I first became active as a UU musician,” she said. “When I first walked into a UU church, I saw the representation of eight religions on the wall — and heard one kind of music. I was a classically-trained musician who grew up on jazz, R and B, blues, and opera, in the culturally rich musical city of New York; I was a musician who studied Chopin on piano, and who sang Joni Mitchell on guitar. I asked, how can a church be diverse in its religious principles, and be welcoming to all kinds of people, and have just one kind of music?

“So it became my personal mission to embrace a wide variety of musical styles, to reflect the diversity of the faith,” she said. “Yet while we need to find a way to do that, it has to be honest, and it has to fit in with the rest of the worship service. To echo Nick, doing a style of music one is unfamiliar with, just to do it, that is disrespectful of that style.” She laughed. “And it would sound bad,” she said.

“It’s about balance,” Gagne concluded, “it’s about continuing education, it’s about listening more talking less.”

I’ve given you just the highlights of our conversation. Page told some hysterically funny jokes, and both Page and Gagne offered more insight into the thought processes of UU musicians as they try to match their musical choices not only to our religious values, but also to the cultures of the people in our congregations, and to the various kinds of music Unitarian Universalists listen to every day outside of our congregations. I was struck by how much thought these two UU musicians put into their work as they strive to meet the challenges of diversity.

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