Come, Holy Spirit

As a test of the new commenting system, let’s discuss which one of these is not an appropriate piece to program as the sequence this coming Sunday.

(Nah, I’m just kidding- use whichever one you feel moved to. 🙂 )

Amazing Gregorian Chant Tool

GABC Transcription tool as a browser extension in Chrome. Awesome.

Tons of features (well, considering it’s for Gregorian Chant engraving), including a really fast and easy way to produce notation for chanted readings.

These tools are also available in an online, in-browser version here. (For those of you who don’t use Google Chrome.)

Built by Benjamin Bloomfield, and apparently it’s been around for a couple years now- I feel so behind for just now finding out about it.

Very cool.

A Firm Foundation

I recently had the joy of reconnecting with a group of very close friends- a small, non-denominational house church community that my wife and I were a part of when we lived in Massachusetts. I’ve written about them before, in relation to how singing with this group influenced my thinking in regards to Gregorian Chant. The founding members of this community had grown up in the Church of Christ tradition, where unaccompanied congregational singing is the norm- one of the primary identifying aspects of their worship culture. Singing and praying with them, in their “native style,” provided food for thought about issues like simplicity is music, the need for accompaniment, the nature of musical notation, and the degree to which traditions of musical practice shape and identify a religious tradition.

I could go on and on about the lessons learned and wisdom gained from my experience with this wonderful group of people (and I do have several article-seeds in my head already). But for right now I’d like to address how reconnecting with them this past weekend and singing with them again has brought to mind some thoughts regarding the transient nature of contemporary religious music, and the difficulty that this transience presents in the life of a modern Christian.

The music that we sang together as a group tended toward the “Praise and Worship” style (the CoC people call it “Devo music” as in “Devotional,” and as opposed to traditional “hymns”). Songs like Greatest Commands, I am a Sheep, Hide Me Away, and so forth. There were also plenty of good-old traditional Protestant hymns and some old-timey Gospel songs. My wife and I taught the group some of the Catholic Folk songs we knew from growing up, and even a couple chant hymns that we happened to know. I even wrote a few songs. The specifics of all of this aren’t all that relevant. The point is- we sang together. We became very close, like family in many ways. And the music we sang, and even the way we sang it, was unique to that time and place and situation.

I want to be clear about something before I go on here: I would not change anything at all about my time with this community, and (despite the typical opinion about the above-mentioned genres prevalent in this blog’s readership, and also notwithstanding the point I’m about to make below) I found a great deal of depth and meaning in this group’s music-making.

But here’s the problem with that experience: it was transient, fleeting. Of course, all mortal things are. But, in reference to music, there is a specific problem created here. The musical experience of worshiping with that group does not exist anywhere else in the world. Any attempt to recreate it on purpose would be futile, resulting in a pale copy at best. All of us who were a part of that group will forever have an unfillable longing for what we experienced there.

We were all reminded of this when we were able to reconnect this past weekend. We talked, we prayed, and we sang. And then some of us got in airplanes and flew back to places like Texas and Arkansas, knowing it would be a long time (if ever) before we were all in the same room again.

And all of that is okay. We all need, at various times in our lives, to develop prayer-practices that speak to our needs, and to build communities that strengthen us for the Christian journey. We need to step outside our own traditions and see how other people have understood the Gospel. And we also need to know that our individual lives are fleeting, and that God calls us to mission, not to comfort.

Now I ask: what would happen if “regular Sunday worship” – that is, whatever the normative congregational gathering for a community (whether Roman Catholic Mass or Episcopal Eucharist or non-denominational sermon-and-sing-along) – what would happen if that service was replaced with this sort of build-as-you-go, community-specific worship and music?

I think that (apart from some grumbling curmudgeons like those of us who hang out at the Chant Cafe) it would look amazing… for a while. But what happens when the children who grow up there move away to other places? What happens when the demographic of the community shifts, and the style of music and liturgy changes as a result?

We don’t have to wonder- we’ve all seen it happen. Kids move away and can’t find a parish that “feels right,” and eventually stop going altogether. Newly married couples from different communities, even with a shared denominational background, have a hard time finding a church they want to raise their children in. Long-time community members drift away as the liturgy drifts away from them. (If it gets really bad, some kids who grow up this way end up turning against the whole thing, and spend their adult lives promoting traditional sacred music on underground web logs.)

I’ve seen this in my own life and in the lives of other people who grew up in the same Folk Mass parish as I did. Most of the “contemporary” liturgies in that town have turned from Haas and Haugen to Protestant Praise & Worship (from Breaking Bread hymnals to Spirit & Song). I have literally heard people I grew up with lament the lack of “traditional Catholic songs,” by which they mean “The Servant Song” or “You Are Mine.”

Now, one would hope that someone’s faith and religious identity would not be quite so tied up with preference and style. But we all know that isn’t true. Even the people who claim to promote Traditional Sacred Music for “legitimate” reasons tend to have an underlying preference which makes it difficult for them to participate in completely valid but off-putting liturgical experiences. The fact of the matter is that, for many people, if they cannot find a way to experience liturgy in a way that connects with their aesthetic preferences, they simply will stop attending altogether.

This pastoral understanding of the intersection between people’s liturgical desires and their need for the grace and formation provided by the traditions of the Church is one of the strongest arguments against an abrupt and unprepared shift from current common practice to a program of Traditional Sacred Music. But it is also one of the strongest arguments for moving toward one, however long and difficult the transition is. Only a widespread implementation of the Church’s own native music can provide a solid-enough liturgical foundation for our increasingly mobile and rootless population.

When faith is difficult, when it is hard to see or feel the grace of God in life, or when the shenanigans of the Church’s imperfect ministers makes the whole enterprise seem pointless, it is often the comfort and the familiarity of the music and the ritual that gives people something to hold on to while God works in their lives. If cultural trends cause parish music to change every few years, or even every generation, we are abandoning people to their own ability to remain steadfast in the faith- a feat worthy of sainthood, not a burden to be placed on every believer.

The spontaneously ordered, personalized prayer forms and musical styles that have come to dominate Christian music are not without value, and the human need for comfort and familiarity is not a trait to be scorned by serious-minded musicians. Indeed, it is precisely that need which should be a driving force in the spread of a Universal liturgical culture. And it is precisely the value found in personal expressions of faith that argues for giving these practices their own space and time, apart from the primary Sunday Liturgy.

Lay people need to be given the tools and the sense of permission needed to develop these prayer and worship experiences for themselves, instead of relying on Mass and professional ministers to provide it for them. This way, their prayer life can adapt to the changing circumstances of their life, and can move with them wherever they go. And at the same, we need to provide a firm foundation for faith- a Sanctuary against the ravages of a changing culture, a refuge wherein “Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young.”

Go ahead and chant – It’s Ascension!

There are many ways to begin introducing the chanted Propers into your parish’s liturgical life, and it seems CMAA has been building something of a cottage industry devoted to exploring these possibilities.

Due to the cyclical and holistic nature of the Propers, and the aversion to treating Gregorian Chant as “just another option among many,” there hasn’t been (that I’ve noticed) much discussion about occasional use of the Propers. This is understandable, but there are times when, even in the context of a non-Propers-oriented program, one or more of the Proper chants are a particularly good fit, and could be introduced as a special choir piece. While this may run the risk of reinforcing Gregorian Chant as either “for special occasions” or “one more choice among many,” I have to think it’s better than never singing these pieces at all.

The Feast of the Ascension (tomorrow and/or this Sunday) seems to me to be one of those times where the text and the style of the chants from the Gradual Romanum seem to be a perfect fit, even in a conventional “contemporary” parish liturgical setting where the texts of the lessons provide the “theme” for musical selections.

The Ascension is an event in which the Apostles (and we with them) witness the marriage of Heaven and Earth as Jesus, in His living body, is lifted from this world to His Throne. The angels come to testify to this event, asking the twelve why they are standing there “looking at the sky.” The earthy heavenliness of unaccompanied chant provides a particularly apt aural framework for experiencing this event in our present time. The otherworldliness of Chant, especially Chant in Latin, is evocative of the voice of the angels (especially since the Introit and optional Offertory are both the words of the Angels themselves).

Gregorian chant is unmetered, that is, there is no forward movement of rhythm (or of harmony, for that matter). The musical effect of this is that Chant feels set apart from Time- we do not experience the passage of time with Chant the way we do in metered music. This characteristic of Chant evokes the words of Jesus in the first reading, “It is not for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has established by his own authority.”

Another characteristic of Chant, it’s very nature as anonymously composed music of the Church (as opposed to music written by an identifiable individual) evokes the epistle’s sanctuary not “built by human hands.”

If you are of a mind to do some Chant, and have been trying to find a way to “work it in,” Ascension might provide the perfect opportunity to try out a little Chant in your community, and gauge its reception.

Viri Galilaéi, quid admirámini aspiciéntes in caelum? Hic Jesus, qui assúmptus est a vobis in cælum, sic véniet from Corpus Christi Watershed on Vimeo.

CMAA: Now with 100% more GitHub

tl;dr —

I’ve mentioned before that I think we (that is, creators and users of Sacred Music) should adopt some of the tools and techniques of Open Source development. Differences of opinion in the Free vs. Copyrighted realm aside, I have to assume that most people ’round these parts have seen the value of free resources made available by or through CMAA.

Unfortunately, up to now, all the resources that have been made available publicly have been finished products- PDFs and/or printed books. These have the greatest immediate impact, since they can used right away by almost anybody. However, the problem here is that anyone wishing to expand upon any particular project or source has to spend time and energy to needlessly re-create the work of someone else.

In many cases this is unavoidable: We don’t have source files for a book printed 100 years ago- we just have the book, and now (thanks to JT’s scanner) we have a digital copy of it. But in many cases, there are files- or there could be. If you have typeset a piece of music in square notes using Gregorio, you have a source file. By all means, publish the compiled PDF- most people wouldn’t know what to do with a GABC file in the first place. But someone who does know might be able to use it: to re-set the music with a translation, to re-compile it with an improved rendering engine, to resize and reformat it to fit the style of their own publication or congregational worship aide.

Gregorio and Lilypond files are probably the most prevalent of the existing works that could be made available publicly. Simple text files of hymn texts and translations (either in the public domain or released via Creative Commons) would also be helpful to people. There was a discussion on the CMAA forums a while ago related to setting music for Braille- a process which requires (if I remember correctly) having the music in XML format. And heck- even though text-based version-control doesn’t work all that well for it, there’s nothing all that wrong with making Finale or Sibelius files available as well.

So- to that end, we now have a CMAA account at GitHub. The rest of this post is an explanation of what that means and how to use it, not (mostly) about why.

What is GitHub, anyway?

GitHub is a version control platform with built-in social and collaboration features. Yeah, yeah- but what does that mean?

Version Control
You want the latest version of a file, right? But maybe you want to see an earlier version. Maybe one of the other people working on it messed it up and you want to revert to an earlier version. Maybe you’d like to see the evolution of an idea through multiple iterations of the same file.
A Version Control system (in its simplest form) stores each version of a file, going back to the creation of that file. A group of files is stored in a Repository (or “repo”), and you can go back and see (or use) the repo as it was at any point in the past.
For more information, see this article about the idea of Version Control in general.
Built-in Social Features
A little bit like Facebook, GH allows people to follow each other’s projects, get updates on changes and releases. This brings the possibility for the type of communication and community that we’ve come to know at the CMAA forums into the actual process of resource creation.
Built-in Collaboration Features
Issue tracking, repo-specific wikis, the ability to fork/branch/merge repos. The ability to easily see diffs (what has changed from one version to another).

How is this organized? Do I just upload my stuff somewhere?

GitHub uses “repos” (Repositories). A single repo is a single project, which might contain several, or several thousand, files. If you wanted to use GitHub to keep track of a project to transcribe the entire Gradual Romanum into Gregorio notation, that would be one single repo.

Since it is likely that many people have small, one-off projects that don’t need an entire repo to themselves (“I wrote this one hymn… you can use it if you want.”), we will probably create one or more “catch-all” repos for those items.

If you are moderately savvy at this sort of thing, go create a GitHub account. You can create your own repos (which CMAA can then follow, to let people know where they are), or if you have a project you’d like CMAA to house, send us a note through GH and we’ll make it happen. This is still a little new (obviously) so we’re trying to work out the best way to handle it- so just drop me a line and we’ll figure it out together.

If this whole thing seems totally confusing, but you want to make your stuff available- just email me or post it to the forums. I can easily GitHub-ize your project and post it myself.

Once something is at GitHub, what can happen to it?

The whole point of GitHubbing (yeah, I verbed it) is that it allows people to collaborate, fork, and merge.

Suppose you have a giant project- like doing a Gregorio transcription of the entire Graduale Romanum. With GitHub, people could just volunteer to do a couple pages or a single chant, and it’s pretty easy to combine that effort so that everyone is contributing to a single source.
Forking a project means (in essence) making a complete copy of it into a new repo, so that you can take the project in a different direction without interfering with the original.
A merge is the opposite of a fork- bringing back together two different lines of a project.

Any specific big plans for GitHub?

So far- just see what happens. I’m sure it will be wholly unimpressive for the short-term. I’m hoping to start creating repos out of some of the work already available, though scattered around a bit, on the Forum and the CMAA website. If you have source files for anything you’ve worked on or are in the middle of, which you’d like CMAA to host, please let us know.

I’m hopeful that, once a critical handful of people get comfortable with GitHub and (more importantly) text-based music engraving, we’ll see some cool things come out of it.

In the meantime, I’m also trying to put together some general “development guides” that would be helpful for all of this- suggestions for project organization, file formats- that sort of thing. Obviously, nothing like “you must do it this way” – just some evolving thoughts on how to use these tools. This article is part of the first commit to that repo.

Where can I learn more?

I wrote two lengthy articles about Open Source Sacred Music at my blog. The first one lays out the foundations of my thinking on the matter. If you want to skip all my anti-IP propaganda, go right to the last paragraph which has links to other educational resources. The second one covers my thoughts related to specific projects which might be useful, so if you’re thinking of starting something, but don’t know what, check that out.

And, just to be clear- you certainly don’t need to agree with me about issues like Intellectual Property law (or anything else, really) to get involved with any of this. The tools of Open Source are just that- tools. Good ones, in my opinion.

EDIT (5/16/2013)

Check out some of the other awesome Sacred Music projects using GitHub or other version control and collaboration tools. (List courtesy of forum user olivierberton).
by Jakub Pavlík
by David Gippner

or other version control systems:
by Albert Bloomfield
by Br. Francis Therese Krautter
by Veronica Brandt