Thursday, January 27, 2011

Will the Mystery Mass Setting Please Sign In?

Name That (Source) Tune! Can you name it in a tetrachord? Actually, this shouldn't take anyone longer than a phrase.

Okay, okay! Tyler (of course!) and Adam (ditto) nailed it, with the Pres chiming in on their heels. But Ron, the pride of Utah, more or less called into question the point of this exercize by simply declaring it "tedious."
Coming on the heels of Jeff Ostrowski's marvelous new Gloria that has already orbited the world in about, say, a nano second, I tried to fathom the depths and distances and variances of understanding among those composing "new" sacred settings  to adhere closely to the culture of chant. Many of us have briefly and/or seriously examined both the revised ordinaries available at the Big Three websites. And I was somewhat surprised that the marketing blurbs for a number of them ascribed "chant" or "chant-like" as a selling point.
And, of course, many of the revised and new settings staunchly use the heavily metered, nee syncopated melodies that are S.O.P. for the liturgical ensemble. So coming off of the joyful success of teaching and praying the ICEL (Mass XV) English "Glory to God" with my parochial school classes, I just took literally five minutes to concoct a metrical quote of it. Just as the ICEL setting references the original Latin XV inexactly, I immediately decided that a metrical retrofitting of it in its original mode 4 wouldn't stand a chance of getting a hearing from the local strummer or piano-bar player. So, using "E" as the tonic/final, I simply decided to set in in E Major, but to try to maintain as much intervallic data authentic within a time signature. I also tried to keep a rhythmic similarity to the values indicated in the ICEL chant, but not slavishly so as to have general chaos in the movement and at cadences.
To what end? Well,  for me, a banality and connundrum. Whether it conjures up an "O when the Saints" or Rogers and Hammerstein association or not, I'm pretty convinced that the Church wants new composition to contain honest and real "invention" in relation to chant, rather than concoction and convention. Assigning meter to stressed/unaccented syllables within a chant melody isn't all that difficult. Changing said melody's modality to tonality, same. But, using this Edsel-like retrofitting strategy, can it stand up to scrutiny as a melody alone? If not, then why go another step and gussy it up with some nebulous chord assignments such as EMaj9, F#m/E, G#m/E, AMaj7, Bs7/E etc.?
That we will be soon auditioning perhaps hundreds of new settings, I tend to think that congregations ought to be given the opportunity and relief of singing non-metrical ordinaries, propers, hymns and sequences. As we have seen with my mentor, Frank LaRocca, and the prodigious talent of folks like Kevin Allen, the melodic and harmonic vocabulary of chant does not inhibit or constrain true artistic invention. And I have a local, new friend up the freeway in Fresno who has set the new ordinary texts exquisitely, and have encouraged him to network with CMAA/Cafe colleagues.
But whether the forces that resist the inculcation of more traditional and native Roman Catholic musical art forms relent and create space and respect within weekend Mass schedules for both traditional and newer forms of chant-based music to be planted and flourish remains a dubious question.

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