Curating Sacred Music

One of the wonderful things about the digital revolution is the almost obscene abundance of content.

One of the most frustrating things about the digital revolution is the almost obscene abundance of content.

How many recipes does a person need for Chocolate Chip Cookies? I’m pretty sure the answer is somewhat less than two and a half million.

Similarly, how many individual pieces of church music does a music director need? Whatever that number is (a few hundred, maybe?) it is a tiny drop in the ocean of what is available. Even if you were to limit your choices to a particular style, like traditional sacred polyphony or Anglican choral music or early American Protestant hymnody or punk-rock praise band devotionals… using nothing but free scores off the internet you could probably go a year or two without repeating a piece.

So where does one even start?

We need some help here. We need someone to help us through this glut of abundance. The secular world’s digital philosophers have been talking about this problem for a while, and have coalesced on a job description (or at least a title) for the required role: Curator.

We need curators.

A curator helps set standards for what is good and useful. They are the sherpas up the mountain of content. Some accuse curators with censorship (they didn’t include X, they must be Y!), but I rather think they serve the opposite of censorship- they give freedom to information by providing it enough room to have it’s voice heard. They do not supress anything, but only highlight some things; anything else you might want is still available, and probably more accessible by virtue of the network of connections from the surfaced items to the deep storehouse down below.

The major publishing companies purport to be curators, through their hymnal editorship and their general publishing ethos. In some cases, they do an excellent job (see WLP’s approach to new Mass settings), and sometimes they do a not-so-good job (see your least favorite mainline hymnal). But regardless, even with the best intentions, the major publishers have a bit of a conflict of interest, because they are not just curators but also creators. You might also have issues with their liturgical agenda or their approach to Church music generally, but it’s that central conflict of interest that makes them bad curators, not their various philosophies and approaches.

In fact, good curators need to have an approach, a philosophy. It doesn’t need to be MY approach or YOUR philosophy. They just need to have one which is consistent and clear. If you’re looking for the best music from the Early American tradition, it’s not going to do you much good to consult the help of a curator who believes that the only two styles of music appropriate to liturgy are Gregorian Chant and Polyphony. On the other hand, if you agree with that stance, or (regardless of your opinion) find yourself having to plan music for an Extraordinary Form Solemn High Pontifical Mass, that’s probably exactly the person you want to be talking to.

I’m sad to report that I have not yet found a good curator for either contemporary (pop/rock/folk) liturgical music (maybe that’ll be me eventually?) or for traditional Protestant hymnody (Oremus is trying, but it’s disorganized and somewhat arbitrary). If either of those genres is going to survive a widespread Reform of the Reform (which may or may not happen anyway), we need curators to help bring the cream to the top.

I’m happy to say, though, that in the realm of traditional Catholic sacred music, there are a handful of quite stellar efforts either completed or in the works which will seriously advance the cause of high quality music for every parish.

First, let’s not ignore what might be the greatest work of music curatorship ever undertaken: the Graduale Romanum (current and predecessors). Hundreds of chants spanning centuries of practice, organized and arranged by days, seasons, and liturgical function. Eat your heart out, OCP planning guide!

Moving to more contemporary efforts, the Parish Book of Chant has been an overwhelming success. It brings together orders for sung Mass (in both forms) and an amazingly rich corpus of (congregational participation friendly) Gregorian chant hymns. I will never again have to search through five books and a dozen websites trying to find an easy to read edition of Pange Lingua. I will never have to wonder, “What other old chant hymns should I look at?”

I understand the PBC has sold over 12,000 copies. Just astonishing. You can buy your copy here, or download it for free.

A less well known, but almost as important, curatorship effort is underway in the form of Noel Jones’s Catholic Choir Book series.

Have you ever tried searching for new (to you) Anthems and Motets? CPDL is great if you know what you’re looking for, but otherwise its a shot in the dark. Catalogs tell you nothing. A music store (assuming you can find one with a good sacred choral section) is usually a headache-inducing exercise in trying to judge a book by its cover. Those nice choral subscription packets from the major publishers are about as informative as a politician’s press release. So what do you do? Most people end up doing stuff they already know, and (by complete chance) they run across a new worthwhile piece at a conference or convention (inevitably too hard for your home choir), or while visiting another parish.

But the Catholic Choir Book has made that whole process a breeze. Noel, who seems to know every piece of church music ever written, has chosen some of the best choral pieces from the Roman and Anglican traditions and made them available in a superbly edited series of collections (plus an anthology). The music has been vetted for use in NORMAL parish choirs. It is musically solid and theologically sound. There are a handful of feast-day-specific pieces, but the majority of the music is general purpose texts of Praise, Eucharistic Adoration, or Marian devotional. This makes the collection an excellent resource when you just need something appropriate and easy to learn. Some pieces are a bit of a challenge, but not outside the realm of possibility for a hard-working director and a team of committed amateurs. There are a variety of scorings, from solo to double-mixed, with a healthy dose of standard SATB and SSA. (Public note to Noel: more SAB would be very useful. I’m sure I’m not the only choir director short on men.)

You can buy your copy, or download it for free, here.

I expect to see more and more of this kind of sacred music curatorship happening in the near future. If the secular world is any indication, we’ll eventually need curators for the curators. CC Watershed, for example, will be releasing a new hymnal vey shortly. And the Musica Sacra forums act as a sort of curatorship-on-the-run clearinghouse as musicians from across the English (and sometimes Spanish) speaking world share literature, reasearch, and new material.

I remember thinking when I was a teenager that movies today should be the best in all time, because movie-makers are able to do all the things they did in the past (when the best movies were made) plus all sorts of new things, either because of new technology or because of a relaxation of censorship. Alas, there will never be a movie as perfect as Casablanca. Just because something should be the case, doesn’t mean it is.

We have a similar situation in church music. We have access to EVERYTHING, from the riches of the Renaissance to the gems of contemproary writing. For the first time in the history of Western Sacred music, anything is truly possible.

With the help of curators, our music programming can be a small taste of the Kingdom of God, as we bring out of our storehouse treasures both old and new.