It’s Colloquium Time!!

It’s that time of year when everyone in the world of sacred music is thinking about the Colloquium, held this year in Salt Lake City as sponsored by the Church Music Association of America. It’s never been held on the West Coast before, so this is something entirely new. And it is an interesting choice because every convention of thought holds that the serious energy in the Catholic world of music is on the East Coast.

Well, here’s the news. This is the largest Colloquium that we’ve ever held, and easily so. There will be more people in attendance than ever, more priests than ever, and more of everything than ever. The structure is innovative from previous years. There are more breakout sessions of a great variety. The faculty is assembled from a wider range of expertise. There are more opportunities for experts and more opportunities for beginners.

The time of the tiny remnant of chanters — a situation that persisted from 1965 or so until very recently — is certainly at an end. Chant has arrived as liturgical art within the mainstream of American parish life. It is not yet in every parish. But if ten years ago, it seems to be completely banished from liturgy, now we are seeing a return in new places and in new ways.

It appears that half the attendees this year are new, and half are actually from the West Coast, which is very exciting. What they can expect is a week-long full-immersion experience in sacred music. The liturgy is done according to the Gregorian idea, straight from the Church’s Latin music books. The breakouts explore everything from English chant to the sung Divine Office and more.

The training that takes places lasts a lifetime and prepares people to sing in groups or start groups in their own parishes. This is important but I don’t think it is the greatest contribution of the week. The real achievement here is to socialize and acculturate musicians in the sound and feel of true liturgical music, so that they can begin to trust the power of sung prayer to accomplish the great task of liturgy itself.

There is some irony here. People come to gain expertise as performers and musicians. But they leave realizing that it is not their musicianship and expertise that is most important at liturgy. Rather, sung prayer can only emerge in the context of a submerged ego when the performers become a servant rather than a master of the craft.

This means that the musician should stop trying to make the music happen through fancy and conventional vocal techniques and applications of unique talents and instead learn to defer to the inherent brilliance of the tradition so that the true spiritual voice can emerge. We are not the makers of the music but merely the vessel through which the music is given a voice. That is a completely different attitude from what you find in the secular world.

Even after only one week, the attendees gain an appreciation for the complex emotional tone of a liturgical event. I have a friend in music school who says that true musical maturity comes from realizing that not all music is either happy or sad or has a scripted and programmatic story to tell. Sometimes the message of the music cannot be reduced to obvious emotional categories.

This is always the case with liturgical music. Easter is not just happy. Lent is not just sad. Christmas is not just celebrating a birthday. The richness of the musical framework defies all these popular conventions and obviously canned feelings.

This becomes an unavoidable fact given the modal character of the chant, which, by modern standards, contains tonal surprises throughout, sounds that are mysterious and challenging, filled with difficult-to-describe feelings: joy through suffering, suffering within triumph, a gift from seeming loss, and the like. And when you reflect on the text of the propers of the Mass, you realize too that not every liturgy event contains some preset “message” like a short story or episode of a show on television.

Mostly, the musicians gain a sense that they are not making the liturgy happen but rather letting the liturgy happen to them and through them. We learn to defer. We learn to experience awe in the presence of such a mighty and beautiful tradition. We stop being the final judge of what we like and don’t like and come to realize that tradition itself is more brilliant and spectacular than any one person or even one generation.

We feel a more profound sense of gratitude just for the opportunity to do what we do.

I say this every year, but this event is something like a miracle in itself. There is no earthly reason why it should happen at all. The sponsoring organization is not rich. It is not even well institutionalized. There are no guarantees year to year that anyone is going to register and show up. The entire thing is an act of faith, and yet it comes happening and keeps producing fruit, against all odds.

Had I been around in the late 1960s to say to people: in fifty years time, there will be a massive event in the Catholic world where everyone will be learning Gregorian chant and singing it as part of Mass, no one would have believed me. In those days, the view was widely held that the whole tradition had been exhausted and was being permanently wiped out. But there it is again, flourishing and thriving and attracting new singers and enthusiasts every day.

This year we have new material to distribute. We have a masterpiece book by William Mahrt. We have a new set of children’s book by Wilko Brouwers and Arlene Oost-Zinner. We have amazing success to report on several English chant projects.

What I expect to experience mostly in Salt Lake this year is the charge one gets from being in a huge crowd of people who are all united in a deep love of beauty and truth. Nothing can quite compare with that. Make it last an entire week and you have an event that is truly unforgettable and inspires change for many years to come.

Thank you to everyone who has made this dream a reality. See you at the Sacred Music Colloquium!