Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Why I’m Wildly Optimistic about Catholic Music

The new English Missal in begins shipping in a few days. Sometime next week I’ll be holding the new text with the liturgy for Mass. It is a vast improvement over anything experienced by anyone under the age of 60, and it is going to change the religious life of millions in the process, not immediately but gradually over time.

The language itself is a dramatic upgrade, much closer to the Latin, and much more formal and liturgical in its tone. The music of the Mass is embedded in the text as integral to the Missal’s presentation of the Mass, and the reports of the sheer dignity and beauty of the Missal music have been sensational so far.

This alone is a good reason to be optimistic about the future of Church music. But even if when Advent comes, you are underwhelmed by what you hear at your local parish, and it seems like the same old thing as it ever was, know that there are forces at work today in the Church and in the world that are moving toward change.

There is theological improvement all around, a sounder sense of purpose among the clergy, and young generation of priests that is very alert to the liturgical question, and of course the changes made in the pontificate of Benedict XVI are having an effect. All of this will be heard in the music you experience in the Catholic liturgy of the future.

But there is another dramatic change that Charles Culbreth brought to my attention yesterday, and I wanted to share his point of view, because I think it is extremely important. It comes down to this: new communication technologies have provided new opportunities for liturgical musicians to share with each other and learn from each other, and this creates the conditions for continual improvement going forward.

Charles pointed out that a quick arrangement that he wrote for a chanted Gloria is now being used in Canada by people he has never met. This gave him a real kick, and he noted that this would have been impossible back in the day. Working from his laptop computer, and without even leaving his desk, he can be a provider of liturgical music for the whole world. The supply and the demand once lived in isolation. Now they can come together. Amazing.

Another example. It was only six years ago when the Liber Usualis went up online for the first time. It was the first major book of Gregorian chant to achieve that universal and limitless level of distribution that the Internet makes possible.

How well I recall the hysteria! There were threats of lawsuits. People said that I was going to bring the world crashing down on my head. I had anonymous emails telling me that because the “ictus” (if you don’t know, never mind) is a copyrighted marking added by Solesmes that Interpol was going to come to my house and drag me away in a burlap sack. (I called the Library of Congress to ask if a tiny tick above a square note could really lead to legal penalties, and the lady on the phone couldn’t stop laughing.)

None of it happened (and I knew this was not going to happen because I had done about 12 months of homework before going live). Instead, vast swaths of the Catholic world had its first look at the amazing reality: the Church has assigned specific music for all liturgical action that takes place throughout the year.

We don’t have to make up music every week. Every feast, every Sunday, every prayer throughout the day had an assigned song and Psalm attached to it. The Liber Usualis, a brilliant book that served the Church well for a century before a generation of know nothings gathered them all up and threw them in the dumpster, was our own Dead Sea Scroll, the text now digitized that opened up a new window to our history as worshipping Catholics.

That was just the beginning. Hundreds of books followed. Then there were new opportunities. These efforts connected with others around the world that had long been in operation - and chant lovers around the world began to feel a sense of belonging to something on the move. People made shirts of the chants, and large-scale poster to enable an old-fashioned method of singing. There were iPhone and iPad applications produced for profit. And then individuals starting making recordings of their versions of the chant and posting them on audio and vidoe. Then tutorials went online, and then databases of chant, and then other aids to make the music of the faith ever more accessible.

People who only knew of the chant through legend were suddenly surrounded by it and they imagined for the first time that they might be able to play a part in its revival. They flocked to workshops, seminars, and colloquia. Scholas sprang up all over the country, from the smallest rural parish to the biggest big-city Cathedral. It was a beautiful scene, and, if you think about it, it all happened very quickly.

Then there were new tools created to enable people to create their own chant editions. At first, this involved recreations. But over time, it became obvious that more was needed. The vernacular had come to the Catholic liturgy in 1965, and yet there was a gigantic shortage of chant music in English. The entire liturgical year was crying out to be translated into song! And these efforts began in earnest.

People who had been quietly working for decades along suddenly emerged out into the open, and their work put online. People like Fr. Columba Kelly and Fr. Samuel Weber became overnight heroes, as the corpus of their work was given away for free.

The International Commission on English in the Liturgy was watching all this very closely, and, when it came time to produce music for the new Missal, a visionary there had the idea of putting that music online and giving it away for free. And this was done - and it was something truly revolutionary and incredible. The methods that were used by the folk musicians of the 1960s - distributing free of charge and uses any and every technology possible to evangelize - were now being used by the establishment to promote truly beautiful renderings of the Church’s own corpus of work.

In the latest steps in this direction, and based on the discovery that most of the Church’s most beautiful hymnody was legally in the public domain, new websites started appearing to distributed hymns as well. Now we are even seeing masterful hymnals being produced on single desktops and being distributed through digital channels.

And keep in mind that this is all in the last five years. Ten years ago, such things would have been unthinkable. This truly is a new world and it is refashioning the Church that is ever old and ever new.

This is all glorious but this is not just a story of the triumphant of one side of the debate above music. Just as crucial is that everyone involved in this world has left their respective isolated sectors and started talking to each other and thereby drawing from each other’s experience to improve what they are doing.

Think of all the material progress that came to the world in the mass migrations out of the countryside and into the city. Since the early middle ages, this has been a trend that coincided with the rise of new levels of prosperity. This not because the city automatically makes wealth. It is because people in the city can talk, learn, share, and test new ideas against old ones. Ideas flourish in the city because their is a larger pool of thoughts that everyone can draw from and apply. The end of intellectual isolation is the beginning of progress.

In the digital age, all Catholic musicians have moved to the city. We are newly aware that there is a huge Church out there and we are all desperately in need of stimulating conversation so that we can do a better job at what we do. Praise musicians have found themselves talking to chant experts and being forced to come to terms with Church legislation and history, as well as the demands of the liturgy for decorum and dignity. Chant musicians have realized that if they wanted to make progress they had to do more than hold implacably strict poses; they had to speak to the whole Church in the modern world and adapt their message and their presentations of the music in light of current realities.

In the course of all of this, we have made new discoveries of our relative ignorance of this huge area of the faith, and found that we need to draw on the insights and experiences of everyone else. We have found new opportunities to learn and to listen to each other. The chant expert has realized that perhaps the guitar strummer is on to something with his or her desire for the music at Mass to connect with people in a meaningful way. The strummer has realized that the text of the Mass does indeed matter and that style is not something wholly arbitrary and external to the liturgical structure.

All this talking and communicating has been good for us all, personally and spiritually. It has led to more tolerance, more civility, more humility. We no longer need to proceed forth with the secret desire to destroy each other; we have a much greater appreciation of our mutual dependence on every point of view in the course of finding our way toward the ideals that the Church has laid out for us.

Back in the 1960s, Msgr. Francis P. Schmitt would often express profound frustration that serious chant musicians spent more time arguing with each other over rhythm theories and other minutia than they did actually working toward their larger goals. Msgr. Richard Schuler often echoed this concern.

They were absolutely right about this. As the musicians argued with each other, their world was falling apart around them. It’s almost as if they could not see the big picture for the focus on their own tiny slice of life. The only way this could have happened is for their communication and their awareness to have been limited. They had sealed themselves off from the larger Church and world, thinking that all would be well so long as they burrowed down and kept propounding the teaching. Meanwhile, everyone else moved on.

A similar kind of myopia affected the musical establishment as it came to be in the 1980s and1990s. The big publishers kept producing their copyrighted manuscripts and collecting their royalties while figuring that their was no credible opposition to the domination of the liturgy by pop music of their own creation. They fooled themselves into believing that anyone who complains about what had happened to Catholic music was surely some old codger who will be dead in a few years. Unknowingly, they too had sealed themselves up into a tiny sector that was sealed off from larger trends in the Church and the world.

Now they wake up to a new world in which their paradigm is being seriously questioned by Catholic thinkers and musicians of all ages and at all levels of the Church. At first they bristled. But now they are listening. And this is the first stop to genuine learning and improvement. In fact, we now live in a world in which Catholic musicians from all over the world are listening, sharing, learning, improving.

We all need to do this. This does not mean that all points of view will be compromised to become a giant opinion blob or that everyone must avoid arguments and differences. Communication can also mean sharpening a point of view, improving in in light of criticism, refining an intellectual point of view or a practice in light of objections that come our way. I know that my own convictions concerning chant have only intensified as I’ve tangled with its opponents, and, in this sense, every interlocutor has been my benefactor.

In the end, we musicians must all strive to be servants of the liturgy and its divine purpose. No one person has the one correct way that applies to every cultural context, every parish, every person in the pew. We must stay engaged, talk to each other, test our dogmas and theories against practical realities, be open to new approaches, and maintain the broadness of mind that keeps us all thinking about the future.

We’ve never been presented with better opportunities to share. This is why I’m wildly optimistic about the future of Catholic music. May we all continue to use communication and openness to ward off pride, myopia, and sectarianism, those great killers of progress.