Friday, August 20, 2010

Home Brewing: Starting a Schola from Scratch

In our merged parishes, we have a number of choirs, coros and cantor/song leader/psalmist resources. We have only one exclusively Latin-language schola, and that was founded and is led by a truly wonderful, talented, dedicated-Catholic, but musically untrained amateur. I interviewed my friend, Mr. Ralph Colucci, recently about the origins of his chant enterprise, and this is a condensed version of that interview. Just for the record, Ralph's group, the Gregorian Schola of St. Francis, will provide the music ministry for my Requiem Mass whenever that need arises!

CC Ralph , every new endeavor or enterprise results from someone’s perception of a need. Could you sketch out when and how you came to realize there was a “need” and how you processed that and you began your schola?
RC I came back to the church in 1995. Several factors brought me back to the sacraments. I was baptized as a child and kind of fell away from the church. Many factors brought me back, especially the Eucharist, which was the driving force behind my (re)version. I’ve always had a love for singing. My sisters dragged me to church, most often at the 10 AM Mass.

CC
The Ensemble Mass?
RC Yeah, you were directing. I starting following along in the OCP Missalette.
CC So, you didn’t like my music? (laughter)
RC No, no I did like your music! But my sister introduced me to Gregorian chant. She had some cassettes and couple of CD’s and I started to listen to those. I was commuting to Fresno every week for business, and I just listened to the chant during that time, and it was just so beautiful. It was so different, though I liked the contemporary music as well.

CC So you had never had any exposure to chant because you’re, age-wise, roughly a Gen-X’er? You never knew there was such a “thing” as chant?
RC My sisters knew, as they’re a bit older than I. I don’t remember this, but they claim when I was a kid I sang “Sons of God.” And I remember singing “Drummer Boy” for Christmas and other stuff like that. But I didn’t have any experience with the Pre-Vatican II Church. Fast-forward to my conversion, I fell in love with Gregorian chant around the time that the “Chanto Gregoriano” CD came out by the choir of Benedictine Monks of Santiago de Silos. I was able to find a book with text, as I wanted to know the texts they were singing and the translations. So I just started learning them on my own.
At the same time I was encouraged to sing in church for the first time (in front of a mic) with Mario at the late Vigil Mass on Saturdays. Then I joined the choir at Holy Family Church (directed by your sister-in-law) and it was still contemporary music. But in my “free time” I was still learning chant on my own. Not very well, but I knew it. So, when I had the opportunity to sing with Mario or Susan I would ask “Can we do Gregorian Chant? Can we do Gregorian Chant?”
CC Were you still using modern notation or did you start with neumes?
RC At that point it was all by listening. I had no music at all.
CC So it was more like the aural tradition from the early church then?
RC Yes, the first chant I learned was “Veni Sancte Spiritus,” the Sequence for Pentecost. I just memorized the melody first, listening to it over and over again in the car, but I still had no square notes whatsoever.
CC Did you realize that your method is almost a universal formula that is still used in acquiring proficiency in chant, melodies first, overlaying texts afterwards? Once you learn those melodies and have them firmly planted in your brain, and you know the basics of Latin pronunciation and enunciation, retro-fitting the texts becomes a fairly simple exercize?
RC Yes.
CC So, you’re learning these chants and gradually started unveiling them yourself at some of the Masses at both parishes?
RC Yes, but I found that there was little opportunity to actually use them very often. Mario gave me a little leeway to do them as solos. For the most part, there wasn’t a lot of opportunity to sing chant.
I remember asking Fr. Jerry (a former vicar) “Are there any monasteries that still sing Gregorian Chant?” And he said to the best of his knowledge, “No, there aren’t.” Apparently now there are.
CC Oh, there’s lots!
RC Yes! But for several years I continued helping in singing hymns and contemporary music at Mass. Then I finally got this idea about six years ago to get a few guys together who are, like me, third order members of the Franciscan Order. We began to prepare by rehearsing hymns for Evening Prayer. I realized, “Hey, these guys sing pretty good.” So, then I thought I should try to get these guys interested in Gregorian Chant. We had a practice a short time before there was to be a profession of a new member of the order at our retreat center. And I managed to get one guy from the fraternity to join me, along with Ray (a choir director from another parish near Visalia) and we practiced for the ceremony at my home.
CC Well, that’s interesting. I know Ray has a gorgeous voice, but I’ve only ever known him as a proponent of contemporary music.
RC Yes, he does primarily sing that, but he has a deep appreciation of chant as well. And he wanted to do it with us, though that was the only time as he’s so committed to other parishes regularly.
I then recruited a few more fellows that I knew from the Vigil Choir, and George (a fraternal member who's since passed away) was interested in helping to restore traditional Catholic music joined as well. So then we started meeting at George’s house and learning Propers, though we didn’t actually have a place or Mass at which to sing!
CC So what source book were you using, like the Simplex or…?
RC We used the Gregorian Missal.
CC When did you all come to, sort of, discover the “architecture” of the modes? Did you study the introduction?
RC No, we weren’t quite that far along. Mostly, we used the way I was comfortable learning the chant through listening and repeating from the recordings that I had.
CC Kind of like the “listen then modeling what you’ve heard” method?
RC Yes. We started with most of the chants I already knew and gradually taught them to the other guys. And then we did get to the point where we all had to learn “new” pieces all together. Most of the Propers we do now, they are as familiar with them as I am.
CC Because you’ve been through the liturgical cycles at least a few times.
RC Yes, but at the same time we’re relying less on our original formula for learning chant (by rote imitation) and we’re relying upon using the actual music notation. So, learning to read the music has been a gradual procession.
CC I know you’ve been so kind as to let me join you on occasion. Have you had other singers join you from time to time?
RC Yes, we’ve had some members who’ve stayed with us for substantial periods.
CC Do you still take advantage of the increased availability of audio recordings, such as the complete cycles recorded from the Brazilian monastery?
RC Oh certainly, and also the Jogues Chant Site, which is so much clearer.
CC That’s great. That site is part of a huge effort by the group, Corpus Christi Watershed, which was co-founded by a young, great chant scholar, Jeff Ostrowski. And they’re doing some amazing work in increasing chant literacy, by having the chant score “scrolling” in perfect timing with the audio performances.
Have you entered into the more scholastic concerns that the chant “communities” engages, such as semiology, interpretational issues, historical or authenticity research? Issues that inform scholas how to basically interpret the chant scores.
RC Not really. Our philosophy is that “It has to sound like one voice.”
CC Well, you’re in good company. That’s precisely the bottom line approach that Jeff Ostrowski articulated to those of us who sang in his schola at Colloquium XX.
RC Sometimes that takes several rehearsals before you get “it” right. And then it’s simply beautiful, you know immediately when you’ve got it right. It just all comes together and there’s this beautiful feeling.
CC It’s a kind of physical reaction more than an intellectual realization. And that edifies the souls of the performers spiritually, I believe. As conversant as I am in all forms of vocal and choral traditions, at some point last summer I just had this epiphany sweep over me, “I was born to chant.” Even though a singer can be attuned spiritually and “connect” to the divine through many musical forms, none of those seem to be as viscerally apparent as when the singer is chanting in total unison with others and, by extension the Church on earth and in heaven.
Anyway, what have the guys in the schola said about their experiences? How do they self-regard the effort?
RC Well, we really don’t talk too much about the experiences. All of us are just committed to the promotion of Gregorian Chant. We sing other types of music, we all do it. But we really don’t want to very much anymore. Chant is our focus, this is what we want to do in music ministry. And hopefully we’ll continue to have more of the opportunities we have now in the future.
CC How do you go about choosing which Mass Ordinaries you use during the seasons? Do you use the ones historically assigned by the Church?
RC Originally we stuck with the Jubilate Deo version, and continue to use that often as the people are becoming more familiar and joining in steadily. We do the Gloria now in another parish outside of Visalia. We don’t use it currently at Holy Family. We hope to restore it soon.
CC Yes, absolutely. The cantillation of texts are fluid, without the “stop/start” effect that is present in recitation. So, it actually makes more sense to chant the longer chant movements, though that makes some celebrants wary. Chanting the English “Snow” setting of the “Our Father” makes the prayer more intelligilble than the “I pledge allegiance (beat) to the flag (beat) of the United States…” recitation.
RC There are several factors involved with those decisions. The congregation at this particular Mass were not used to singing anything at all. So, it was a new challenge for them to sing period. But they’re coming along, and I think that they’ll be ready for more in a year or so. And they’re singing the Kyrie, Sanctus and Agnus Dei quite well now.
And, on occasion, we do the Credo and the Pater Noster in some parishes.
Our second, “Go-to” Mass setting is “De Angelis.” And we’re starting to use “Orbis Factor” occasionally.
CC Have you found that having a celebrant chanting all of the priestly orations is of tremendous assistance in helping the congregations to respond likewise in chant, and that bolsters your efforts with Propers and the Ordinaries?
RC Oh yes, absolutely. I would say that is much more effective than a celebrant just joining the congregation visibly or audibly in singing the Entrance or Offertory hymns and such. And the celebrant can be so effective whether he chants his collects and prayers in English or Latin.
CC Or alternating both, such as done at the EWTN daily televised Masses?
RC Yes. That’s right. We also are anticipating (in a parish not in our town) that the pastor is going to try to establish a primarily Latin-language Mass in the Novus Ordo (OF) on a regular basis.
CC It’s been recently reported that more Catholics attend more Latin Masses in the Extraordinary Form than in the Ordinary Form, and that this could be a bell-weather for the “death” of the Latin N.O. What do you think of that notion?
RC It would be a sad situation. We need both, and I think the Holy Father’s intention from reading both his letter and the motu proprio is that his whole intention is to help both forms of the Mass. By giving more exposure to the EF there could come a result of more solemn or reverent OF’s by the use of Latin, chant and polyphony. I think there are some people who are so tired of irreverence at some Ordinary Form Masses that they leave parishes to seek out EF Masses. And I don’t see that as a larger solution to the liturgical problems. And I think there is also another fear on the other side: that if the more traditional forms of the Mass take root in parishes, that the contemporary forms of liturgical music will suffer. I don’t think that would be a natural outcome. I think there’s plenty of room for reverent worship using a variety of musical styles. But, at the same time there needs to be a Mass that Catholics can regularly attend at each parish that are culturally Roman or Latin in nature. That is an ideal for all of us.
CC Thank you, Ralph, and God bless you.
(Comment moderation is now in effect for this site.)