Newsflash: Contemporary P&W songs don’t really say much

NPR carries the story of the abysmal quality of many contemporary praise songs, and about one pair of musicians who are trying to do something about it (by writing new contemporary praise songs that are better).

“I think it’s to the church’s poverty that the average worship song now has so few words, so little truth,” he says. “[It] is so focused on several commercial aspects of God, like the fact that he loves our praises.”

Kristyn Getty says that some of the most popular music doesn’t show God the proper reverence.

“There is an unhelpful, casual sense that comes with some of the more contemporary music,” she says. “It’s not how I would talk to God.”

http://www.npr.org/2013/07/08/200013769/modern-hymn-writers-aim-to-take-back-sunday

There are important lessons here for us in both the nature of their complaints and the commercial success they are achieving in attempting to address them.

I like chant for all the wrong reasons

People say we should sing chant because it is more solemn and dignified.
I disagree.
I think chant melodies are wild and ecstatic.

People say that we shouldn’t sing chant because it makes it hard for the congregation to sing.
And too many chant-supporters agree with that, but say, “Well- that’s okay, they don’t need to sing.”
I disagree.
While some chants are soloistic in nature (just like some contemporary songs), the chants which are intended for group-singing (hymns, psalm tones, short antiphons, acclamations from the Ordinary) are much easier to sing than any pop or folk song.

People say we should sing chant because it is Traditional.
I disagree.
I think we should sing it because doing so is revolutionary.

People say that we shouldn’t sing chant because people need familiar music at Mass.
And too many chant-supporters agree that chant is unfamiliar, but say this is a good thing, that people don’t need Mass to be “comfortable.”
I disagree.
I think that the constant changing of musical styles to fit the trends is a constant source of unfamiliarity and discomfort, and that a stable repertoire of chants would provide the comfort and familiarity that all people long for.

People say we should sing chant because the texts are orthodox.
I disagree.
I think the scriptural message and the medieval poetry is more radical and liberating than any modernist manifesto.

People say that we shouldn’t sing chant because the texts are not understandable (being in Latin) and therefore the people cannot understand the liturgy.
And too many chant-supporters agree that the Latin makes the liturgy impenetrable, but say that this is a good thing, that it acts “like a veil,” that the liturgy really is impenetrable, and that lay understanding of the Mass is neither possible nor particularly desirable.
I disagree.
I think that all the faithful should be encouraged to understand the liturgy as fully as possible and that the veil of mystery that separates the elite clerics and the general population should be torn down, as on the first Good Friday, and that only by providing the faithful with the real, actual texts and traditions of the Mass can this be accomplished.

People say we should sing chant because the correct ars celebrandi reinforces the appropriate ecclesiology.
I disagree.
I think that the monastic tradition in which the chant flourished and matured has always stood both in partnership with and also in opposition to the authority of the hierarchy.

People say that we shouldn’t sing chant because it is too elitist, too hierarchical, too academic. They say that it does not harmonize with the teachings of Jesus, or with the “Poor Church” of Pope Francis.
And too many chant-supporters essentially agree with this view, but say that this is a good thing, that there is nothing wrong with being elitist, hierarchical, or academic.
I disagree.
I think that chant’s simplicity and plainness is one of its essential qualities, and that it stands in contrast to the elitism of music that requires special training, special instruments, and specialist musicians with the time to plan and rehearse it.

People say we should sing chant because it is “Apollonian,” appealing to the mind and reason, rather than the baser, “Dionysian” emotionalism.
I disagree.
I am deeply moved by chant generally, and by specific pieces in the repertoire in particular, to excesses of emotionalism that many people would consider completely inappropriate for a solemn liturgical celebration, and in ways that defy all reason or rationality.

People say they can’t do chant, because its too hard.
And too many chant-supporters agree that it is hard, but say that it’s okay for to be hard or that its difficulty is one of its virtues.
I disagree.
I think that it is hard to pick out four or five meaningful and appropriate pieces of congregational music which also illuminate the texts of the lectionary every week, hard to keep track of trends, hard to please people with divergent tastes in music.

People say we should sing chant because it will help return us to a more pure or more devout faith from our glorious past.
I disagree.
I believe that there really has been no glorious past, only a constant glorious ideal.

You Must Read This Book

This book has been mentioned here before, and reviewed at least once already. But it is very much worth revisiting…

When Christopher Page’s book The Christian West and it’s Singers: The First Thousand Years came out, the print run was fairly small. I don’t spend a lot of money on things (even books, though they are my favorite thing) so by the time enough reviews were out that I knew I wanted to read it, the book was sold out, and used copies were being listed for over $400 on Amazon. Can you believe it? A book so valuable, full of so much insight and information, that more than a few people thought it was worth over $400 to have a copy on their own shelves- even in an age of mass communication, easy transport, and inter-library loans. I tell you- it’s that valuable.

But I didn’t have $400 (not to spend on a book, anyway), so I was thrilled late last year when a second edition was published, and new copies were again available. Considering what most of us have paid for textbooks at various times in our lives, $55 retail isn’t just reasonable- it’s freaking amazing.

This massive book (400 pages, almost 5 pounds) is one of the most amazing things I have ever read. It took me six months to get through (I got it as a Christmas present last year, and just finished it yesterday).

This is not a book about music, exactly. It’s not for musicologists or chant geeks in particular (although they will no doubt appreciate it). The story of Christian Music is really the story of Christianity itself, the story of the Church. And, of course, the story of the Church, particularly in the first millenium in Europe, is the history of civilization.

I’ve realized more and more recently that history- real history- is not just the story of a series of kings and wars, a clean narrative written by winners to bolster their poltical ambitions. Real history is the history of specific things- the history of salt, or the story of the invention of the computer. This book is the history of music and musicians. But as I said- it is the story of Western Civilization.

So many misconceptions, so many misunderstandings and mythologized versions of the decline of the Western Roman Empire, of the rise of the Church’s secular power, of the development and spread of Roman-style liturgy- so much of that was cleared up for me in reading this book. I’m now finding that in conversations, blog posts, and forum threads how pervasive and embedded many of these misconceptions are- ideas I either took for granted as true, or suspected were not quite right, but had no way of knowing.

One of those I’ll briefly mention – chosen because I think it is fairly non-controversial – is the way in which the Western Empire fell apart. This isn’t news to people who study these things, but to the vaguely-interested layman such as myself, the story you get from school-history is that after the seat moved to Constantinople, Rome was left to its own devices, was sacked by one or more barbarian tribes, and that was it- the dark ages had begun. Even if you know it was exactly like that, it’s hard to get an image of what happened. Because Page isn’t trying to explain in a few pargraphs “How the Roman Empire Fell,” but rather weaves the story throughout the historical development of the entire book, I finally saw how the Empire (like the Latin language itself) decayed and morphed into the Europe we see today. I had never considered how Roman governers and military leaders at remote outposts would have seen a slow, hardly noticeable decline in tax collection and tradeable goods, how these provincial rulers evolved from Roman puppets into Royal Dynasties, how the importation of Roman liturgy was used to continue a sense of Empire out in the badlands.

I also have to mention another aspect of this book which impressed me. Because of the time period and the subject matter, there is no way to deal with these issues in way that is neutral on the very question of religious, spiritual, and supernatural things. The only written history from the time period comes from people who believed in miracles and visions, in demons and angels. Even dealing with the less spectacular aspects of religion- sin and salvation, doctrine and authority – there’s really no such thing as “unbiased critical distance,” because critical distance is itself a position of bias- a bias toward modern conceptions of rationality, and against what secular scholars would consider unrealistic superstition.

I do not know Christopher Page’s religious affiliation or beliefs. But his book reads as if he is a serious believer, a scholar and devotee. He seems to take the Medievals at their word, offering no caveats or scholarly disclaimers to the accounts of visions and apparitions, of saintly miracles and healings. When an appropriate “alternative explanation” is relevant (such as an increase in miraculous healings coinciding with increased economic activity within a region) he offers them as if they are complimentary aspects of a unified phenomenon. He does not attempt to convince you that these things happened, or didn’t happen; he doesn’t belabor alternate theories in order to explain away someone else’s perception of spiritual reality. Whether Page believes in the mystical and supernatural or not (I suspect he does), he takes the beliefs of his subjects seriously, and also the beliefs of his readers.

To sum up (because I could go on and on), this book is a marvel. Truly, one of the most enjoyable, informative, and inspirational books I’ve ever read. You need to read it. Really- go buy it now.

Lauda Sion: My first chant

Other than some vernacular hymn translations (“Sing, My Tongue” on Holy Thursday), The Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ is the anniversary of my introduction to Gregorian Chant.

When I was in High School, the Diocese of Orlando had a Gay and Lesbian Ministry, sort of a support-group/social-club that had grown out of the diocesan AIDS Ministry. The group had a monthly Mass together, which was held at my parish, and my brother planned the music for it until he left for college, at which point I took over. Of course, it was the 1990s, so I didn’t know anything about Propers or chant or traditional sacred music or anything. (Kids these days have it so easy.) The funny thing is, for what you might assume is a fairly progressive, 90s-typical ministry, most of the people who came to the CGLM Masses appreciated traditional music, and probably would have wanted to be singing Gregorian Ordinaries and Propers. (More than a few of them had been in a monastery or seminary earlier in their life). At any rate- we did pretty conventional 1990s LitPop as you’d probably imagine.

Then, one June (or May?), I was dutifully studying the Lectionary texts so that I could pick out four appropriate songs (you know how it is), and discovered that there was this optional Sequence for Corpus Christi. I knew what a Sequence was (we did some vernacular setting on Easter and Pentecost), but I didn’t know there was one for Corpus Christi. I had to ask around- where do you even find music for this?

A wonderful old Servite priest (the Order staffed our parish at the time) named Fr. Damian informed me: you need a Graduale Romanum. I ordered one from GIA (okay- my mom ordered it). When it arrived, I went over to the rectory and Fr. Damian taught me how to read this weird four-line notation.

I sang the shortened version (from “Ecce Panis”) at the CGLM Mass. Sadly, our regularly-scheduled weekend Masses did not have the sequence, nor do I think they ever have in all the intervening years. I still have my Graduale Romanum, and it is just as mysterious and beautiful to me now as it was then.

I think about Fr. Damian, now asleep in Christ, every year when this feast rolls around. He was truly a holy man, perhaps one of the holiest I’ve ever met. I’m sure he would be thrilled to know that more and more people are learning that weird four-line notation than ever before.


Hymn Text Competition

Our Lady of Perpetual Irresponsibility, an American Catholic Community in the liberal Presbyterian tradition, is seeking new hymn texts to celebrate its 7th semi-annual experimental-worship conference, tentatively titled “Forward Together At Last: Walking Hand in Hand with Foot and Mouth.”

Hymn texts should explore the scriptural connection between genetically modified oat products and the devastating increase in preventable livestock maladies. Texts which frame the political and theological issues of GMOP in a specifically post-feminist cultural space of sub-Christian liminality will be given special consideration.

Texts should avoid archaic linguistic constructs, such as verb-pronoun agreement, apostrophatic contractions, and semi-gendered gerund clauses. Additionally, only unpublished texts written in 7676D will be considered.

By entering this competition, you are assigning the rights to the entered text, and all other texts written by you, to the board of trustees of Our Lady of Perpetual Irresponsibility ACC*P, Inc.

A non-refundable entry fee of $75 is required. Checks may be made out to OLPIACCP.

First place: $75 prize and inclusion in the disposable leaflets printed for the concluding liturgiscope of the conference.

Composer: Choose thyself

Several conversations at the Forums recently (about hymn competitions, about mainstream publishers) and a few private conversations have made me want to refer everyone to this article written by Seth Godin back in 2011.

Read it, it’s very short:
http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2011/03/reject-the-tyranny-of-being-picked-pick-yourself.html

Those of us with even a moderate amount of notoriety are often sent manuscripts and recordings- “what do you think? Is it any good?” Jeffrey Tucker has told me he gets emails like that just about every day. Having a way smaller profile, I only get them about once a month or so.

What do you want us to say? “Yes it’s very good. You have my blessing to continue working.”

Mainstream publishers have the same problem- though at least, if they like something, they can do something about it.

There’s an unfortunate model of the world at work here. The model is that there are gatekeepers and there are artists. An artist’s job is to produce things, and the gatekeeper’s job is to decide which products are worthwhile. Makers and pickers.

If this wasn’t a religiously oriented blog, I would express to you precisely how I feel about this worldview. As it is, I can only say: this is no longer how it is. In fact, I’m not sure it ever was this way.

The names that fill contemporary mainstream hymnals- the folkie heroes like the SLJs or the P&W gurus like Maher- they weren’t “picked.” They didn’t mail a lead sheet into OCP every week hoping they would get selected for the next edition of Breaking Bread. They made music where they were, spread music through their professional and personal contacts, and got so popular that it would be a mistake not to include their music.

The Wesleys published their own hymns and hymn books. And the reason we have so many excellent tunes and harmonizations by Vaughn Williams is that he was the editor of The English Hymnal.

Whether you want to release your stuff open source, or retain all the rights; whether you want to give it away for free, or setup a shopping cart and charge for it; whether you want to let people download PDFs or use Lulu for print-on-demand services; whether you want to set up your own website or post things to a forum like MusicaSacra- regardless of the philosophical or business model you follow, it is time to stop expecting other people to pick your music.

Pick yourself. Only then will other people pick you.

Colloquium Scholarships apparently still available

The deadline is June 1. Write to Arlene Oost-Zinner at programs@musicasacra.com
I understand you have to convince her that you are worth the money.

I won’t be able to attend, but I really like getting picked for things, so I decided to save time and combine my application with my letter of decline:

If I attend colloquium
how fortunate would be
the many traddie chanters there
who got to talk to me.

I’d wow them with my discourse
and astound them with my smile.
They’ll giggle at my funny jokes,
succumbing to my wile.

I’ll even have an impact
on the quality of sound-
my perfect elocution
will inspire vowels round.

And did I mention prayerfulness?
Why, some call me a saint!
My thoughts have so much altitude
it makes a sinner faint.

I’m probably the smartest person
I have ever known.
My mom thinks I’m a winner, and
she’s likely not alone.

So you should let me come to your
colloquium of chant.
But even if you picked me, well-
I’m sorry but I can’t.

I’m soon to have a baby,
and I think the baby’s mom
would object to my departure,
so to keep domestic calm

I will have to stay in Texas
where the cattle horns are long,
while my friends at the colloqu’um
raise their voice in solemn song.

Actual abbey music more popular than Downton Abbey music

As reported by the Catholic PR Wire:

ANGELS AND SAINTS AT EPHESUS from the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles, has debuted at No. 1 on Billboard magazine’s Classical Traditional Music Chart. The album also earned the No. 2 spot on Billboard’s new-artist “Heatseekers” chart, which encompasses all music genres. ANGELS AND SAINTS AT EPHESUS topped a group of classical albums that includes Fifty Shades of Grey: The Classical Album and Downton Abbey: The Essential Collection.

h/t Mark Shea, via Facebook

How and why The Chant Café was in Wired

At the risk of looking like I am trying too hard to cling desperately to whatever fame I have recently garnered  (which I would totally do), I thought I should tell this story for at least three reasons not having to do with my own narcissism:

  • It’s funny (well, I think so).
  • It demonstrates the value of modern technology for the spread of Sacred Music
  • The article does not mention any of the other people involved in this sort of work, which makes me look like a either a hero (if you don’t know any better) or a publicity hog (if you do).
You probably know that about a month ago I wrote an article announcing that we have created a CMAA account at GitHub, and that I am hopeful it will become a useful tool for collaboration on larger projects (like an Open Sourced set of the Propers, or something…).
I had (and have) high hopes for this, but it’s still just an idea- a first step. I have some plans, I hope some other people have some plans- but the whole thing is just an unrealized potential.
Then, last week, I got an email from Bob McMillan at Wired. Wired has something of a thing for GitHub (I know the feeling). Somehow or other, the people at GitHub (I am told) had read my article here at the cafe (they must Google themselves prodigiously) and thought it was a good explanation of how GitHub might be used in a non-software context. Also, I guess they thought it was cool. (Gregorian Chant is very cool, if you didn’t know.)
So Bob gets in touch with me, asks me some questions about what we’re trying to do. He thinks it’s cool, but- there’s really no story if there’s no active project- which at that point there wasn’t. Oh- and he’s got a deadline.
I rush around trying to find something worthwhile to post to Github with just a few hours notice. The only thing I have access to and permission to use is a handful of Lilypond transcriptions from the Nova Organi Harmonia. Forum user “cantorconvert” (who I still haven’t heard back from…) had posted these a couple weeks ago and had already given me permission to post them on GitHub.
I sent a quick email to Jeff Ostrowski, asking him to call me. I had no idea about the copyright status of the NOH, and I didn’t want to make a major blunder here. His words: “You couldn’t pay people to care about this stuff.” Apparently back in 2008 when he and some others worked to get the set online, they tried without success to track down anyone who might have a copyright interest in it, or even anyone who might know who did. I gathered from our conversation that they found no one.
So I posted what I had, which wasn’t much. I tried to explain to Bob the significance of the NOH and Gregorian Chant generally. (“Do you know anything about church music?” “Not really.”) We talked about the general reception Open Source philosophy has had among the community around CMAA. We talked about the nature of text-based music engraving.
I sent him the only decent pictures I had of myself (the one he used is over six years old, and my wife thinks its ridiculous… but I like it), some links to the NOH and as much background info as I could muster together quickly.
And now there’s this article over at Wired.
I’m particularly excited that we’ve managed to open our weird little church music echo chamber enough to get some outside attention. I really believe that the beauty and power of Sacred Music can change people’s lives and be a source of grace for them.
The not-great part of this 15 nanoseconds of fame is that the article, by it’s nature as a narrative profile, didn’t address the fact that I just happen to be the current moment’s loudest voice on the matter of Open Sourcing sacred music. I’m an evangelist, not a pioneer. People have been working on making this music ever more available and free for a good long while now- even a few who have already been using tools like GitHub.
Jeffrey Tucker has been beating this drum for awhile, and a growing number of composers, editors, and publishers have been contributing to the Open Culture movement, which itself is a continuation of the long history of social sharing at the heart of Gregorian Chant’s history.
It’s all very exciting, humbling, and not a little ridiculous. Ah well… back to work.