Random Thoughts on Liturgical Style

Everything communicates something. Everything.

Noble simplicity and liturgical minimization are not the same thing.

Traditional beauty and Noble Simplicity are not inherently antithetical.

Minimalism and minimization are not the same thing.

Minimalism and Noble Simplicity require thoughtful absence. They cannot endure an absence of thoughtfulness.

Cheap and simple are not the same.

Neither is expense an indicator of quality.

Solemn should not be confused with sad.

But sadness is a legitimate spiritual experience.

Seriousness and joyfulness are not opposites, nor are they exclusive of each other.

Sometimes, less is more. Often, less is less.

Symbols half-done are not symbols; they are talismans and witchcraft.

One should not confuse habit with tradition.

One should not confuse tradition with Tradition.

“It has always been done this way” is either the exact reason to keep doing something, or the exact reason to stop doing it.

“It’s never been done before” has a similar quality.

Black is the new black. It is also the old black.


Open Source for Sacred Music Infrastructure

In exploring the benefits of Open Source Sacred Music, the only reasonable model for comparison is, of course, Open Source software. While the analogy breaks down at some critical points (music is content, while software is a tool), I believe there is still much to be learned from the Open Source software movement, particularly in terms of commercial business practice and community involvement.

That being said, this comparison tends to draw some immediate criticism along the lines of “most people don’t really use Open Source software.” The relative market-share of Open Office vs. MS Office, Linux vs. Windows and Mac, or LilyPond vs. Finale and Sibelius are shown as examples proving that Open Source is inconsequential- buggy software used by people who can’t afford the “real thing.”

Regardless of your views on Intellectual Property, or how much legitimate analogy you see between software and music, the idea that Open Source is relatively inconsequential in the world of software is simply inaccurate, a gross misunderstanding of the Open Source software ecology.

While there are a handful of moderately-successful consumer-oriented Open Source projects (Open Office, for example), the real success of Open Source has been among developers and infrastructure. By this I don’t just mean that computer geeks are more willing to put up with bugs and glitches and uncompiled source code (although that’s true, they are). What I mean is that Open Source software has become the de facto “standard” for the infrastructure that runs modern computing and development.

The vast majority of websites are run on servers with an Open Source operating system (Linux). The web-server software running on most of those machines is also Open Source (Apache). The database software running the vast majority of dynamic websites is Open Source (MySQL). The most popular languages, development tools, frameworks, content management systems and testing suites are all Open Source. Even the most closed-down, vendor-controlled marketplace ever conceived, the iOS App Store, has been infiltrated by Open Source development tools, thanks to the PhoneGap project, which allows developers to write native iOS apps using the most common and popular (and Open Source) web development languages and tool sets. (Not to mention that fact that most Apps communicate with a web server during operation, which is most likely running on Open Source software.)

So what? What parallel might be drawn between this and the needs/realities of the Sacred Music world?

While I am specifically NOT saying that Open Source Sacred Music has no consumer-oriented application (it does, and the handful of Open or almost-Open projects existing are all consumer-oriented), I would suggest that the biggest need for Open Source Sacred Music (tools and content) are within what one might call “infrastructure.” That is, projects with output that might be used in secondary products and projects with a definite consumer orientation.

For example, an Open Source collection of hymns might form the basis for a pew hymnal. We see this sort of thing already (the use of Hymnary.org as a central reference point for CCW’s Vatican II Hymnal), but the individual projects tend to be narrowly focused, designed or implemented in a way that does not lend itself to re-use. For example, the collection of Public Domain English Hymns hosted by CMAA (the Parish Book of English Hymns) is a nice collection for reference, but anyone wishing to use those hymns in their own publication would almost certainly need to re-engrave them. This continuous need to recreate work already done puts a drag on new development, sapping energy that could be better spent on other aspects of Sacred Music promotion.

The solution, in most cases, is to adopt the tools and practices of Open Source software development. If the PBEH, for example, had been notated in an Open format (LilyPond, MusicXML, ABC or other) and made available in a version controlled source code repository (such as GitHub), it would be possible for other projects to incorporate that work into their own products.

That is: Many people have already come to terms with the idea that they should ALLOW other people to use things. Now we need to start ENABLING them to do so.

But what types of infrastructure does Sacred Music need? Here are a handful of specific ideas. For each one, imagine the ability to easily sift through details, programatically include source code in other projects, mathematically analyse musical content, collaborate on extensions and translations easily, adjust styling consistently with a few changes in one place. Imagine what would be possible with truly Open Source repositories of the following:

  • Complete GABC (Gregorio) of the Graduale Romanum.
  • Clean, well-formed LilyPond files of Public Domain hymn tunes.
  • GABC version of every hymn and chant in the Parish Book of Chant.
  • Metered, well-rhymed, modern(ish) English translations of every strophic hymn from the Divine Office.
  • The entire Latin Psalter, pointed for chanting, in a form (JSON? XML?) that would allow programatic extraction and display in any style.
  • The same, with the Anglican Psalter (Coverdale) or another Public Domain English Psalter approved for liturgical use.
  • A large body of Anglican chant tones, which can be programatically inserted in other projects without having to reconfigure or re-engrave to suit the style of the receiving publication.
  • The entire contents of the Catholic Choir Book, notated in a standard format, includable in other publications or as single editions, without the publisher having to re-engrave for style reasons.

This is just a handful of ideas off the top of my head, with some additional thought about how and why these projects could be useful. But the real benefit of Open Source, of the free sharing of informaiton and tools, is that no one person can conceive of the things that are possible. An easy-to-access media database with performance examples of every chant in the Gradual? An algorhthmic analysis of the melodic structure of Office hymnody? A simple web-service that allows you to print Anglican Chant tones with Psalm verse without the user need to do any formatting? A drag-and-drop tool for assembly programs? Hard-bound Vulgate-Coverdale side-by-side psalters for devotional and study use? A tool that finds liturgical texts based on grammar or vocabulary, for use by Latin-language students?

Who knows?

Open Source Sacred Music

It has been a (relatively) long time since the software world managed to come to something like a consensus on the nature of free and open source software. To someone who is more-or-less fluent in the language of copyleft and open licensing, the accounts of the early days of figuring out how to distinguish between “free as in beer” (no cost) and “free as in speech” (no restrictions) seem a bit quaint. In software, this stuff now seems inevitable.

But when you move outside of the Open Source software movement, into other fields of creative endeavor, the culture of Open Source – its language, ethos, and tool set – are still a non-inevitable early stage. The translation of concepts from Open Software licenses such as GNU General Public License into Open Culture licenses such as Creative Commons has not been without misunderstanding, even among strong advocates of Open Culture.

While examples of this can be found in a number of endeavors, this blog (and this writer) is concerned primarily with Sacred Music, and so I’d like to speak directly to the issues, problems, shortcomings, and successes of Open Source and Copyleft within the Sacred Music (and, by extension, the traditional liturgical) movement.

The Successes of Free Culture in Sacred Music

I could write an essay about each of the major contributions to Sacred Music made in the last few years in a Free Culture context. As a reader of this blog, you are probably familiar with most or all of them. Just to mention a few:

Choral Public Domain Library
A gigantic (over 15,000 score pages) library of free choral music, built by over 800 contributors in a manner similar to Wikipedia.
The Church Music Association of America has produced and published a number of important Gregorian Chant books, perhaps most notably the Parish Book of Chant. Along with producing new work (or new editions of old works), the CMAA has also made a number of out-of-print resources available for free download, working to secure copyright permission to do so when needed. Most influentially (in my opinion) the CMAA has promoted and advocated the use of Free and Open resources in Sacred Music and provided a shared space for working (and hopeful) church musicians to discuss the issues they face in real life. This activity has furthered the cause of Free and Open culture almost as much as it has supported their stated cause of traditional Sacred Music.
The Catholic Choir Book
A curated “freemium” resource for choral anthems in English and Latin, that offers free-to-download-and-copy music along with the option to purchase books.
Corpus Christi Watershed
Primarily the undertaking of one incredibly ambitious and over-working musicologist, Corpus Christi Watershed also straddles the line between Free and conventional publishing. CCW sells a number of IP-protected resources, and also has also worked to provide both Free and Open materials. While they are currently most famous for their “Vatican II Hymnal” (a fine undertaking, also in the freemium model), I am most impressed with the effort that has gone into the St. Jean de Lelande Library of Rare Books. Also, the (unusually so, for CCW) Open-Source approach to the Chabanel Psalms and Garnier Alleluia projects has been inspirational.

These, and many other projects and undertakings large and small, have greatly reduced the cost and difficulty of implementing a traditional Sacred Music program in a real parish. For this reason, all of the projects and their creators are (in my mind) heroes to Sacred Music.

Moreover, the success (in terms of mission, if not finances) of these works have spurred interest and (somewhat hesitant) acceptance of the principals of Open Source and Open Culture.

The Weakness of Free and Open Culture in Sacred Music

Unfortunately, even some of the strongest proponents of a Free and Open approach to Sacred Music resources (Jeffrey Tucker, for one) seem to have a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of “Free and Open.” Some of these misunderstandings mirror the confusion and fuzziness of the early Open Source Software movement. Some of the confusion stems from naïve or incomplete understanding of copyright law and its Copyleft alternate-universe. Finally, some of the confusion and hesitancy stems simply from issues particular to music creation which are not present in other forms of creative work, such as computer programming.

Freedom isn’t Free

I alluded to this above, and anyone who has spent time in the Open Source community will be familiar with the phrases “Free as in beer” and “Free as in speech.”

Many of the Sacred Music resources offered for free online are only free in the way beer is free at a frat-party: it doesn’t cost anything to get it. This form of “free,” also known as “gratis,” is incredibly helpful for church musicians on limited budgets. In fact, it is so incredibly helpful that many content-creators (composers, arrangers, hymnists) think they have contributed to Free and Open Culture by providing their work as a free download on the web.

Without denigrating the usefulness of these no-cost resources, it’s important to realize that they are not truly free in the “freedom” sense of that word, also known as “libre.” This “free-as-in-speech” concept is as important as no-cost, because it is the component of “Free and Open” that allows a culture of remix and adaptation to thrive.

Suppose I write a hymn text in Long Meter (four line stanzas, eight syllables to each stanza), set it to a tune I like (let’s say, Conditor Alme Siderum), and then release that hymn for free download on my website. Now suppose another musician finds it and likes the text, but wants to sing it to another tune (let’s say, O Waly Waly). If all I’ve done is provide a free-to-download pdf of the text set to a particular tune, and not made any other specific claims or releases in terms of copyright, that other musician will need to specifically request and receive my permission before re-setting the text to another tune.

Now- that might not seem like too much friction to some people, but it is. The requirement to ask permission deflates the moment of inspiration when someone suddenly finds or realizes exactly the thing that is needed. Some people know so little about copyright and permissions issues that they become hesitant about asking for permission, worried that they don’t know the right protocol for doing so. Some may worry that the original creator will say no, or request a fee of some sort- and so they either don’t do anything at all or (rightly assuming they probably won’t get caught) go ahead and use the work, but never mention publicly that they have done so, keeping their new creation to themselves and away from the benefit of others.

This tiny bit of friction is multiplied out over the entire network of Sacred Music, hindering the possibilities of creative expression in tiny, almost imperceptible ways. A single hymn text not sung. An SAB arrangement not composed. A Spanish translation not written. The missing-but-not-missed pieces multiply over time, creations that never were leading to adaptations that can never be.

The only solution to this, the only defense against the ever-growing lacuna is for all creators of content to specifically allow adaptations of their work, and to communicate that allowance through the use of Open Culture licensing.

Not all freedoms are created equal

More and more creators are understanding the issues I mentioned above in relationship to the freedom to remix, re-use, and adapt. The practicalities of real parish work have provided many of us with a strong understanding of the need to modify existing material, often on short notice.

However, there continues to be one single giant stumbling block in terms of creative freedom within the Sacred Music community: the freedom to use work commercially.

Since most of us are operating in a church-and-school paradigm of religous-music programming, it does not occur to to us in any obvious way that restricting “Commercial Use” (usually done with the Non-Commercial modifier on the Creative Commons License) is a problem. But it is a very serious problem, and works that have been restricted with a non-commercial license are NOT FREE.

The (cultural) problem here is a misunderstanding and mischaracterization of what “commercial” means, and the role commerce plays in art and culture. This is compounded by a (often deserved) distaste for the major commercial publishers of church music, combined with a residual and (for most of us, false) hope that we can make money through licensing our own works.

I myself struggled with the notion of allowing commercial use for a long time. Specifically- I release all of my work for free because I believe I have a moral obligation to do so. I thought that this moral obligation extended to also preventing others from commercializing my work. The explanation provided by freedomdefined.org changed my way of thinking about all of this. I encourage you to read their explanation, which I will try to summarize and expand upon.

The simple fact of the matter is this: if there is something restricted, then the thing isn’t free. Restricting commercial use, by definition, makes a work less than free. For some people, that’s enough explanation. For others, for whom freedom itself may not be a goal, this is not sufficient reason to specifically allow unrestricted commerical use of their work.

Commercial doesn’t mean Big Industry

When most of us think about restricting commercial use, we imagine big, greedy companies (or fly-by-night internet scam publishers) exploiting our work without remunerating us. That’s generally not what is being avoided.

Big publishers don’t understand Copyleft- they understand royalties and payments and contracts. It is extremely unlikely that GIA or OCP are going to republish and sell your music just because they can. Hundreds of thousands of works of sacred music in the Public Domain are studiously avoided by the big publishers already. If they aren’t “stealing” that music, they probably aren’t going to steal yours, either.

Commercial includes a lot of things…

Suppose I adapt your work for use at my parish. That’s non-commercial, right? Now suppose I put a PDF of my adaptation onto my website for free download. Still non-commercial, right?

Now suppose I have ads on the sidebar of my website to help defray the cost of running my blog, and maybe to make a little extra money. Is that commercial? Yes, as a matter of fact it is, and it means that this is technically prohibited by your well-meaning non-commercial restriction.

Commercial has nothing to do with for-profit or non-profit (which are designations having to do with corporate tax-code, not the intentions of human beings). Commercial (in relationship to Creative Commons, anyway) has to do with “commercial advantage or private monetary exchange.” New Liturgical Movement runs ads on their site; that probably makes them commercial. Noel Jones sells books; that definitely makes him commercial.

Fundraising concerts are commercial. YouTube videos are commercial. Even Wikipedia is commercial.

Commerce provides an incentive to redistribute

I can get a printed copy of The King James Bible for a few bucks on Amazon. I can get a gorgeous, leather-bound display edition for a few more. This is made possible because someone, somewhere, has figured out how to make money by providing it.

If no one could make money doing so, such low-cost editions of creative works would likely not be available. Sure, I might still be able to get an oddly-formatted e-book from Project Gutenberg, but I’d have to print it myself if I want to read it without recharging my iPad.

By restricting the commerical-use of a creative work, we are cutting that work off from the eco-system where it can be distributed by any means that seem expedient at any time. Like the lacuna of non-existant work mentioned above, this restriction creates a lacuna of presence. The work may exist- but not as many people will have the chance to be touched by it.

Commerce is a good and wonderful thing

Commerce, the ability to trade things for other things, is the basis for all but the most spiritually-oriented human achievements. And it isn’t just big huge companies that profit from commerce. Besides the generalized benefits we all receive from commerce, it’s important to realize that many of the practicioners of commerce are small- very small.

Small-scale commerce provides billions of people the ability to feed themselves and their children, to make a better world than the one they have been left by tyrants and do-gooders. Some have figured out how to sell Coca-Cola products from the back of a bicycle, others have learned to arbitrage the price of grain in two neighboring villages. And yes, some- few now, but increasingly more – have figured out how to make money by reprinting free works available on the internet and selling hard-copies of them.

It may seem implausible that a third-world subsistence-seller would be interested in hymn texts or Latin motets or Anglican chant settings. But much weirder things have been known to happen. Restricting commercial use of one’s work either stops this from happening altogether, or (worse) criminalizes behaviour that cannot be stopped.

To quote freedomdefined.org:

The people who are likely to be hurt by an -NC license are not large corporations, but small publications like weblogs, advertising-funded radio stations, or local newspapers.

Just say NO to non-commercial

I encourage creators who are truly committed to the development of a thriving Sacred Music ecosystem to stop appending the “NC” modifier to their Creative Commons licenses.

Free doesn’t mean Open

The least obvious (and – in my mind- the most important) shortcoming of the burgeoning Free Culture movement within the Sacred Music community is the almost complete abscense of anything that is truly “Open Source.”

Free (gratis) has to do with price- there is plenty of material available at no cost. Free (libre) has to do with restrictions- and there is more and more work being produced with fewer and fewer restrictions.

But Open Source has to do with the method of distribution(and, by extension, the method of creation).

Even Jeffrey Tucker has gotten this wrong on a number of occasions, referring to free resources at CMAA and CCW as “Open Source,” when they were, in fact, no such thing.

“Source” is the key word here

For something to be “Open Source,” the “source code” behind it has to be open and available. Almost nothing within the CMAA-community meets this qualification.

Suppose I write a hymn text and set it to Conditor Alme Siderum, and publish a PDF of that setting on my website. Even if I release it completely free in terms of licensing, I haven’t really released it as Open Source.

If someone wants to harmonize my hymn, they’re going to need to re-create the work I already did, typing words and music into their music-editor of choice. Even if I make the Finale notation files available, I still haven’t really remedied the situation. Finale is proproetary software, so someone would need to purchase it before they could benefit from my “source file.” Further, they would need a compatible version of the software- which can create serious hassle. This hassle makes it more difficult (and therefore less likely) for others to adapt or remix content in value-adding ways.

File format matters

Most of the Free work available in the Sacred Music community is distributed in the form of PDFs. This is analogous to a software endeavor that only releases compiled binaries- it is not Open Source, regardless of the permissive nature of the license.

To quote from the Open Source Initiative’s definition of Open Source:

The program must include source code, and must allow distribution in source code as well as compiled form. Where some form of a product is not distributed with source code, there must be a well-publicized means of obtaining the source code for no more than a reasonable reproduction cost preferably, downloading via the Internet without charge. The source code must be the preferred form in which a programmer would modify the program. Deliberately obfuscated source code is not allowed. Intermediate forms such as the output of a preprocessor or translator are not allowed.

This requirement may be difficult for those of us who have grown accustomed to proprietary tools such as Finale or Sibelius, or who use semi-arcane graphics-based methods for music typesetting. However, the discomfort of learning to use tools such as LilyPond (for conventional music notation), Gregorio (for Gregorian Chant), and LaTeX (for document and book publishing) is a very small investment each one of us can and should make in service of the development of a truly thriving Open Source Sacred Music community.

Why Open Source matters

The two obvious reasons that Open Source matters are alluded to above- the relative ease of modification and the freedom from proprietary software requirements. But there are much more subtle, and just as important, reasons why a robust ecology of actually Open Source material is desirable.

Greater adoption means better tools

The larger the community of people using tools like LilyPond or (especially) Gregorio, the higher the chance that these tools will be further developed and improved upon.

The Code is the Content

An interesting difference between Open Source software and Open Source music is that software is a tool, while music is a product. Software creates, stores, or manipulates information. Music is information.

Thanks to computers and the internet, musicologists and music theorists are within grasping distance of the ultimate tool for conducting their work: the ability to programatically analyse vast quantities of music at once. I recently read a comparison of Gregorian Chant with Jewish Temple music- showing examples of shared melodic motifs and other points of (possibly) shared origin. Up to now, and even today, this type of comparative work can mostly only be conducted by scholars who have spent lifetimes enmeshed in the literature of two or more traditions. A human being can’t randomly search for “things in this giant body of work that are similar to things in that giant body of work” – it’s impossible. But imagine what we could learn if the analytical tools currently employed by Wall Street trading algorithms were instead being deployed on behalf of musicological research.

This kind of work – from comparative studies to harmonic analysis to structural mapping – is only possible if music itself is made available in ways that are standardized and computer-readable. PDFs and images and Finale files do not meet this criteria, but LilyPond and Gregorio files do. Every score published in source-code format is one more step in the direction of understanding the fundamental underpinnings of the world of Sacred Music that we inhabit.

Lone-rangers are not Free and Open

Finally, the last piece of the Free and Open Sacred Music puzzle is an increased sense of collaboration, and the use of tools which enable it.

With the exception of CPDL (which is a repository, not a workshop), all of the Free resources I know of in the Sacred Music world are the work of dedicated and over-worked individuals. This is not surprising, and can never not be the case.

However, by effectively hoarding the means of production, creators are cutting themselves off from the ability to spread the effort to other people. This is caused, I think, by a combination of factors.

Use of collaboration-unfriendly creation tools

It’s a little difficult for three or a dozen people to collaborate on a single Finale or InDesign file. The best one can hope for is chunking-out specific sub-tasks (one person writes text, another sets the text to a melody, another harmonizes, another typesets), but this usually has to be done in a fairly linear way, which means one person with a sudden lack of free time can hold up the entire process.

Moreover, these graphics-based tools require on-the-spot judgment during creation, and often have difficulty implementing any kind of automated custom-style guide. For these reasons, the simple task of document creation has to be done by someone with a complete vision of the work and an eye for the minutiae of kerning and beaming. This generally means that whoever is “leading” the project is the only one who can actually do substantial work on it.

This is unfortunate, as there are many willing-and-able “workers” within the community who have the time and talent to contribute in large and small ways but who, for one reason or another, are not leading major undertakings of their own.

However, with code-based creation tools such as LilyPond, Gregorio, and LaTex the minutiae of layout and style can be left to the automation of the rendering engine, or programmed a single time for the entire work. This allows contributors to work in a non-linear fashion, on whatever portion of the overall endeavor they wish, at any time.

Lack of collaboration-enabling tools

Besides the use of specific creation software (LilyPond instead of Finale, LaTeX instead of InDesign), the other techno-challenge for Open Source is collaboration a robust collaboration and distribution platform.

Most Free Resources are only made available on individual’s websites. Some people take the time to post their end-product at an online forum or CPDL, but there is usually no inside view of the process itself, no source for the Source.

Sacred Music creators need to adopt the collaboration tools that have been pioneered and perfected by our friends in the Open Source Software world. Specifically, I mean version-controlled source-code repositories.

While there are a number of options and competing services (even competing paradigms) I am personally of the opinion that GitHub is the best solution for Open Source collaboration. To be somewhat over-dramatic: GitHub should be the future of Free and Open Sacred Music.

Where do we go from here?

In online forums, blog comments, and in personal conversations, we can see a wide range of incredibly useful large-scale projects that should and could exist in the real world. Cycles of Propers, bilingual chant resources, translated motets, organ accompaniments, new hymnals.

And the list of existing, but not online, materials- ancient manuscripts, out of print books, public domain artwork- is staggeringly long.

Some of these resources will be built by dedicated and over-worked perfectionists laboring on their own. That’s fine- it got us the Simple English Propers and the Vatican II hymnal and the Parish Book of Chant.

But unless more of us adopt the ethos and practices of the Open Source movement, a great number of these resources will never exist, will never benefit anyone, will never advance the cause of music that is truly Sacred, Beautiful, and Universal.

How do I help?

Learn more about what Free really means…
…at FreedomDefined.org
Learn what Open Source really means…
…at the Open Source Initiative.
Learn how to write music in source code…
…with Lilypond for conventional music.
…and Gregorio for Gregorian Chant
Learn to use version-control software…
…at GitHub.
Continue the conversation
…by sharing this article with your friends.
…by reposting this article (or a link to it) on your own blog.
…by talking about it at the MusicSacra Forum
…by leaving comments below.

The Music I Need More Of

This is both a call to composers/arrangers to write more of it, and a request for knowledgeable folks to help me find what exists already.

I am sure I am not the only choir director in the world who works under the following circumstances:

  • Aging soprano section that cannot sing well in the upper register and has trouble being heard over the rest of the choir.
  • Decently strong alto section.
  • Male singers of varying number- usually 1, sometimes 2, up to 4.
  • Limited rehearsal time.
  • Difficulty with rhythmic complexity, including contemporary (syncopation and groove) and classical (polyphony, staggered entrances).
  • Difficulty with diction, especially as tempos increase.
  • Breath problems
  • Singers with a good ear for common hymnal-style harmony, but difficulty with late-Classical and Modern dissonance.
  • An organist who does not come to choir rehearsal.
  • Congregational antipathy for Latin plainchant (In my case, my parish is Episcopalian, so the strong preference is harmonized, metered, and in English.)

Even as much as each of these problems may be corrected, or at least improved upon, the reality is that these issues dominate my repertoire selection criteria, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

And I know I’m not the only one!

Moreover- this is not some “problem” of defective choirs. This is the REALITY of normal choirs, filled with good, hard-working amateur musicians all throughout Christendom. The “ideals” of traditional Sacred Music – chant, polyphony, and choral- grew up in circumstances very different from the small provincial parishes that make up the bulk of Liturgical worship, and my lovely “old white ladies” should NOT be made to feel bad because all the “good” choral music is three whole-steps out of their range.

So what should composers do about it?

More than anything else, I need more “anthems” (choral pieces) that have as many of the following characteristics as possible (some are mutually exclusive – this is not a description of the perfect piece, but a direction-line I need to pursue).

3-part, SAB.
A single male line, in the middle-baritone range (solidly on the staff) is a big help. The hegemony of SATB as the standard for all choral arranging is a bit of an albatross around the neck of traditional-minded choir directors in smaller, aging parishes. I often end up dropping the tenor line of SATB chorales anyway- it would be nice if it was just written that way in the first place.
SAB arrangements that work well with “extra” males doubling the melody at an octave.
I call this SA(T)B. The need for this stems from a multitude of factors, mentioned above:

  • We often have an “extra” male at Mass who can’t make it to rehearsal. I am loathe to turn away singers, and it is easiest to just say “sing the melody” so that I can focus on musicality rather than note-learning.
  • The strongest singer in our choir is… me, a male (Tenor 2). I know, I know- choir directors shouldn’t sing with their choirs, but the difference in end-result when I do vs. when I don’t means it’s a crutch we will rely on unless and until we get more singers.
  • Sopranos have a hard time with both staying in tune and being heard over the rest of the choir. If they are alone on the melody, it causes problems. Shifting a strong voice (usually me) off a harmony line to the melody helps them stay on track and better balances the sound as a whole.
Melody in the Alto with the Sopranos singing a “non-essential” descant.
For similar reasons to the last point. Also, the Alto section is just plain louder than the Sopranos. Yes, yes- I can get them to back-off for blend and so forth, but it really helps keep the peace (and peace of mind) if the altos could have the melody a little more often than never. It sounds good, and it makes them happy to sing something other than D-D-D-EEEEEEEEEE-D-C#-DDDDDDDDDD-D— D.
“Fauxbourdon” harmonizations that work with one strong male singer on a melody, with a Bass/Baritone below and one or two female lines above.
Obviously, related to above points. I have had decent success with taking a “song” (melody with piano or organ accomp) and turning the accomp. into an SAB vocal harmony under a melodic solo.
This goes without saying, really- a lot of choral music already is unaccompanied. But most of it is SATB, TTBB, or (egads) SSAATTBB. More music that has the above characteristics AND ALSO is a capella would be very helpful.
Hymn-based structure with variations in voicing and/or harmony
You know what makes my life super easy? Teaching 8 to 24 bars of a choral arrangement one time and then being able to say something like “Unison on v1; women on v2 with a couple altos on the Tenor part; men on v3 with me on melody; v4 in full SATB.” It sounds like we have a whole, real choral arrangement. It takes as much work as learning a new hymn.
Hymn-based text setting
Homophony is my friend. Full-on polyphony is VERY difficult, because it requires strong, independant, self-leadership within each section. That’s close to impossible if two of your three Sopranos don’t show up one morning.
Even short departures from homophony in an otherwise homophonic piece are problematic. “When we come in before everyone else, it sounds like we’re making a mistake or something.” Yeah, it does- particularly if it’s a one-person section.
Also, even if all of that could be solved, the nature of most vocal polyphony requires a clean, clear straight-tone. Robust homophony covers a multitude of vibratic sins.
Straight-forward harmonies
I know, I know- composers and well-trained musicians get bored with common-practice harmony. But it’s pretty, normal people like it, and average-skilled choristers can sight read it.
Limited vocal ranges
Yes, yes, I know what the range of a Soprano should be, and yes- we ALL know that everybody can sing a D just fine in the middle of “All Creatures of Our God and King.”
But, in reality, amateur voices have a real hard time singing WELL as they approach the top of their range, especially in a choral (as opposed to congregational) setting, where voices are more exposed. (Doubly so if unaccompanied).

In my opinion, the practical ranges should be:

  • Soprano Middle C up an octave to C. BRIEF moments of C# or D if well-prepared by step-wise motion and/or aural precedent in prepatory chords, and NOT during a dissonance or other over-exposed situation. And DO NOT hang out around the C, either. The bulk of the line ought to be about Eb – Bb.
  • Alto Ab below middle C up to about Bb above. The bulk of the line ought to be about Db – Ab.
  • Baritone Middle C down just over an octave to about Bb. The bulk of the line ought to hang around C below middle C up to A. This makes Key of F Major a real good choice, BTW.
I’m sure that real choir directors would turm their noses up at such a limited vocal range, and some would either fire the choir members (for not being professional enough) or me (for not training the choir better), but those ranges are the reality I deal with week after week. Composers and arrangers would do the liturgy (and our singers’ self-worth) a great deal of good by respecting the singers’ abilities instead of making them feel bad about being shaky on an unprepared high Eb entrance.
Easy (square) rhythms
For all the usual and obvious reasons.
Phrasing that lets singers breathe
I’m all for the long line, and I work as best I can to improve breath support and capacity. But I don’t have a choir full of Westminster-trained pearl divers. (I bet you don’t either).
Texts based on scripture, particularly Psalms and Canticles
As much as I love the Protestant hymn tradition, I could really use fewer rhyming doctrinal treatises and more settings of commonly used Psalms and Canticles. One or two flexible settings of the most commonly-used Psalm texts and Canticles (having the above-mentioned characteristics) would make programming throughout the year MUCH easier.
Texts based on the Propers, especially the Simplex (Common) Propers and in-season (Advent, Christman, Lent, Easter) Offertories
This is largely covered by the above request for texts based on Psalms, and the reasons should be obvious.
Harmonizations (see above criteria) of popular/common Gregorian Hymns, in good, modern English
Go through the Parish Book of Chant. If I had easy, SAB (et al, see above) settings, of all those pieces in non-weird, well-rhymed English, I would use them ALL THE TIME.
Unharmonized plainchant (which I love) has its own problems, not the least of which being that my choir and the rest of the parish would turn on me if we did monophonic (they would say “unison”) choir pieces with much frequency. (It’s not really the Anglican aesthetic.)
Anglicans have good reason to prefer English over Latin, so let’s not get into it. But (sadly) even many Roman Catholic parishes suffer from Latin-aversion. I can get away with about 3 or 4 Latin pieces a year- your mileage may vary. But the point is, we need good English versions of all those chants. Many of them exist in translation already, but many that do are in some kind of weird archaic English that dosn’t play well with some folks or (more often than any of us admit) doesn’t rhyme anymore. I’m all for hieratic language, really I am- but e’en I mayst not long-suffer the wrathful countenance of mine enemie and brethren which shew forth yponen mee the whyle of singing divers songs and hymns among my fellowe clarks and quires.
Work decently well as both Choral “Anthems” and Congregational “Hymns”
If I can introduce a new hymn to the congregation by first having the choir sing it, that helps.
Flexible in length
Related to the hymn-like strophic structure I mentioned above. Try as I might, I just never know how long the collection is going to take.
Feast-day appropriate and also easy
You don’t want to short-change big (or even small) Holy Days, but you also don’t want to spend loads of time working on something that will only be sung once a year.
It’s particularly helpful when these things are sturdy, robust, and resist aging. If you’re only going to do something once a year, it’s nice to build a tradition of doing them every year.

If I had more time to compose/arrange, this is all I would work on- the need is (I believe) huge.


  • If you are a composer, please write more of this.
  • If you are a publisher, please publish more of this and also promote it better so I can find it (I have a comments section for a reason).
  • If you are a knowledgeable church musician and can point me (and the rest of us) toward existing resources for the above, please do so (again- I have a comments section; please use it).
  • If you have additional thoughts and/or criteria, please share them below (you know, in the comments).

Richard J. Clark – Sacred Musician and Composer

I’m not sure how I became FaceBook friends with Richard J. Clark. Somehow through the MusicSacra forums and our mutual (FaceBook, at least) friendships with Jeffrey Tucker and Jerry Galipeau, one of us “friended” the other one.” I wish this had happened before I moved away from Boston- for the three years I lived there I never once knew that I should go visit St. Cecilia’s. Ah well.

At any rate, Richard makes a habit of posting his compositions to FaceBook, and I have developed a habit of taking the time to listen. They have struck me over and over as extremely beautiful and moving- full of faith, familiar without being sentimental, serious without being distant.

He writes sacred music for liturgy, and also sacred music for the concert hall. I’m drawn to both, and I think both are needed in this time (as in all times). I particularly love his vocal solo pieces and his choral work (I’m a singer, you know), but I even like his organ compositions (and my general antipathy to the organ is, I think, well known).

But to say “I like it,” is a bit beside the point. His music is incredibly well-crafted and suited at all times to the venue, the performers, and (most importantly) the text. He is inspired (as you will read) by the great classical composers, by traditional American music, by the great body of Gregorian Chant, and by texts ranging from Sacred Scripture to Romantic Poetry. He approaches his work, both as a composer and a church musician, in a spirit of service.

With a growing appreciation for his work, I contacted RJC a few weeks ago and asked if I could interview him for this blog. I was thrilled to find out that he was a regular reader! He enthusiastically agreed. Since neither one of us is particularly excited about speaking on video (we don’t mind, just not our preference), we decided I could write some questions for him to answer in writing as his schedule permitted. The result was wonderful, and (I think) much deeper in content than a spoken interview would have been.

If you have time, you should skip to the full interview here. It’s a little long, but well worth the investment. Below are a few highlights and pull quotes, for those of you who don’t have time to read all of it, or are still trying to decide.

If you’re really short on time, scroll down until my headlines tell you that you have to read this part. Really, you need to read that part if you read nothing else.

Quick Bio
New York native, born in Greenwich Village and raised in Seaford, Long Island.
Studied at Berklee and Boston Conservatory.
Studied with Dello Joio and James David Christie
Music Director at St. Cecilia’s in Boston, near Berklee, for 22 years.
Compositional Style
I am fascinated with nuanced dissonance, and at times bending harmony very nearly to a breaking point, but always pulling back to achieve the intended purpose. Dancing on the edge, but to still engage musically and spiritually is a fascinating challenge.
Biggest musical influences
JS Bach
Thelonius Monk
English Romantic Poets: Byron, Shelley, Keats
Gregorian Chant, especially the Mass Propers
American Jazz
General approach to composing
I don’t have a singular approach but the music is always driven by the text.
The hard work and process of composing is itself a prayer, and each piece/prayer a different experience.

You really need to read this part if you don’t read anything else from this interview…

RJC on the new translation of the Roman Missal
The new translation of the Roman Missal has given us an opportunity to be evermore mindful of the preeminence of the Word. Music serves the text, not the other way around. Chant does this exceedingly well. This is an ideal, not always possible in every circumstance.
RJC on how to effect change in the liturgy
Change and reform will only take root when implemented carefully and with sensitivity. The seed sown on the rocky ground of mandates and sweeping change will not bear fruit. Problems that need addressing must be worked through and not around. Only through thoughtful, but persistent education can the ideals of the Sacrosantum Concilium truly take root and gain traction. This is the work of a lifetime.
RJC on the Reform of the Reform and young people
I am greatly energized and inspired by the great new work done by so many young people to achieve the ideals of the Sacrosantum Concilium. My choir has seen a new infusion of young college students hungry for our Church’s traditions. Chant belongs to the people. These are our ancient birthrights. This “reform of the reform” or whatever name it is given, is the great servant work of the church musician. It is now infused with new life in the new generation.
RJC on Gregorian Chant
Prayer through chant is the food we eat and the air we breathe. Chant doesn’t truly need (although it deserves) the classification of “pride of place.” This is because it is a natural reality with or without that moniker. Chant is intrinsically Roman Catholic music. Gregorian chant unites us and is the most universal way of expressing shared truths— those things that we share as members of the universal Church and as believers in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Go read the whole interview…

Really, you should read the whole thing.

And check out Richard J. Clark’s music.


Richard J. Clark – Full Interview

For some context, please see the intro to this interview here.

Quick Bio

Where from? Where studied / who studied with?

Where have you worked previously and currently?

I am a New York native, born in Greenwich Village and raised in Seaford, Long Island. While studying as a chemistry major at New York University, I also studied classical piano and composition with Justin Dello Joio. I matriculated at Berklee College of Music to study jazz piano and composition and received the bachelor of music degree in 1991. After Berklee, I began several years of study with James David Christie, organist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and received a master’s degree in organ performance from The Boston Conservatory.

Six months into my studies at Berklee I was hired by Saint Cecilia Parish in Boston, a dying, inner-city parish, located on a small side street directly behind Berklee’s main building. After two years at Saint Cecilia, the new pastor, Fr. Michael Groden, expanded my position to full-time Director of Music. I was 23 years old. It was a leap of faith on his part, as my modest salary and benefits were still a large percentage of the offertory budget at the time. That trust placed in me, along with the importance placed on music in the life of the parish, was never lost on me.

To my continued astonishment, twenty-two years later, I am happily still working at Saint Cecilia Parish. I like to tell people I haven’t gone very far in my career; the organ is approximately fifty feet from my old dorm room. Since 2004 I have also been the organist and cantor for daily Mass at Saint Mary’s Chapel at Boston College, a jewel of a chapel with an exquisite one manual, eight rank Flentrop organ. [AW: See NLM’s 2009 article about the chapel.]

It should be noted that as a child growing up in the 1970s, I was exposed to few of our great musical traditions. One of my most vivid memories was as a nine year old attending Mass in a gymnasium. I remember, like it was yesterday, shaking my head and muttering to myself, “Being a church musician has got to be the lowest musical aspiration possible.” Well, God is just full of surprises, isn’t He? A decade later, Fr. Thomas Leavey (a most patient saint, bless his soul) gave me my first professional opportunity to play organ at Saint William the Abbott Parish and develop my skills. The workings of God in our lives is most fascinating.

How would you describe your compositional style?

Given my eclectic history and background, I am unequivocally a “musical mutt.” I live in various musical worlds: classical concert works, works of sacred music, liturgical works, and various popular styles. Regardless of the outward style, I am fascinated with nuanced dissonance, and at times bending harmony very nearly to a breaking point, but always pulling back to achieve the intended purpose. Dancing on the edge, but to still engage musically and spiritually is a fascinating challenge. It allows for the expansion of boundaries, but hopefully will bring hearts and minds along.

What/who are your biggest musical influences?

The list is endless, ranging from J. S. Bach, to Thelonius Monk – from Dante to the English Romantic poets, Byron, Shelly, and Keats. Additionally, there is Dylan Thomas, who could compose and proclaim his words better than most anyone. (Let us also not forget the venerable Irish poet, Brendan Behan.) These poets, and the poetry of the Word of scared scripture have been profound musical influences.

I became quite obsessed with Gregorian chant while studying with James Christie and he recommended the Gregorian Missal for Sundays published by Solesmes. I obtained my first copy in 1995 and immersed myself in the propers from the Graduale Romanum. These beautiful and ancient chants have been an endless source of compositional and liturgical inspiration. Starting in the 1990s, at Saint Cecilia we were singing the communion propers nearly every Sunday. We also often sang various chants for the Ordinary. Part of the beauty of this music is its timeless quality. It never feels dated or trendy. It is uniquely Roman Catholic and a part of our patrimony. Gregorian chant has withstood the test of time and has the ability to sustain and nourish us throughout a lifetime. Unlike other forms of music, we will never outgrow what this particular marriage of music and text has to offer. It is one of the Church’s treasures and one of her finest teachers.

Jazz has certainly been a huge influence on my classical composing, if not externally, most certainly internally. Furthermore, just as jazz is a distinctly American style of music, so Gregorian chant is distinctly Roman Catholic. As an American Roman Catholic composer and organist, this connection is inescapable.

[AW: While he didn’t mention it here, I have been speculating that RJC’s music has been influenced by early-modern French composers like Ravel and Vierne. RJC said this was “definitely not wild speculation.” On the other hand, it might simply be part of his “best of all worlds” combinatorics: to my ears his keyboard harmony sounds French, his choral writing British, his vocal solo work modern American opera, and his melodic motivation Roman Catholic.]

Do you have a philosophy or general approach to composing?

I don’t have a singular approach but the music is always driven by the text. That doesn’t always mean the text comes first. It might even come last as a final apparition. The hard work and process of composing is itself a prayer, and each piece/prayer a different experience.

I also find most every work takes on a life of its own, often going in a direction far different than first conceived. Composing for me isn’t rapturous work; I’m not talented enough for that! It is often grunt work, with even the simplest of compositions coming to life purely by sheer will, repeatedly editing and combing through the finest of details to rid the stench of bad writing.

Your vocal solo pieces are very… theatrical/operatic in nature.

I wonder what your thoughts are about their liturgical appropriateness.

An excellent question. Although based on sacred texts and sometimes Gregorian Chant, most of those works were composed for concerts rather than for the liturgy. On the rare occasions that they were sung during a liturgy, (e.g., Heart, my Heart for the Solemnity of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus) the text and some of the melody is taken from the propers of the day. [AW: Gregorian score. Gregorian recording (with organ accomp). Simple English Propers score.] Also, the chosen singer is not only an opera singer, but a person of deep faith and prayer. This style, performed reverently, can from time to time act as a bridge to make important texts accessible.

How does your own faith and theology affect/inform your work as a composer?

I don’t claim the ability to express my faith with any great eloquence. I am a sinner, no doubt! My friends will delightfully point that out. In Thomas à Kempis’ De Imitatione Christi, he writes of praying for those who drive us crazy, yet with full acknowledgment that we drive others crazy with our own faults (I paraphrase, of course). The great richness of scripture will last me more than a lifetime as a source for musical inspiration, spiritual development, and reflection. If the Word drives the music, then the music has the potential to become a prayer, strengthening our faith and calling us to Christian service. For me, composition flows directly from and is completely integrated in faith. In a similar way, faith is the foundation from which the works of mercy, justice and forgiveness proceed. Finally, what is most enlivening about our praise of God in prayer/music is the potential to experience God’s desire for involvement in our lives. United as we are in the love of Christ, the growth of community is the fruit born by our worship and praise. Congregavit nos in unum Christi amor.

All I can acknowledge is that that without God, I am nothing. To quote Thomas Aquinas, all I write is “so much straw.”

Do you have a particular vision or ideal of liturgical practice?

If so: (a) describe it & (b) how are you working toward that ideal/vision in your work as a parish musician and composer?

Musicians and liturgists tend to be somewhat particular about their ideas! Our role as liturgical musicians is becoming increasingly complex. Many dioceses have faced parish closings. It will soon be the norm for every pastor to be responsible for multiple parishes. How does a music minister unite and lead an increasingly diverse and sometimes divided people? During the last decade, uniting the music ministry of three parishes has been the daily task in my position at Saint Cecilia Parish. In my role as a liturgical musician, I have often learned a great deal more about human nature and the human condition than about music.

With the structure of many dioceses changing, a music minister must be pastorally sensitive and acknowledge that losing one’s parish is akin to experiencing a death in the family—there is mourning and the need for a time of healing. Yet, we are all one in the Universal Church and are called to move forward in new and sometimes difficult ways. After several years of upheaval I feel a great love, respect and affection for musicians with whom I do not always agree. They in turn have shown extraordinary patience in putting up with me. These pastoral issues are very much part of our jobs and are unlikely to go away anytime soon. Here is the good news: challenges make us better musicians. Challenges make us more thoughtful in how we educate and lead and they offer us opportunities to become better people.

My vision doesn’t live in absolutes, but in general trends. The new translation of the Roman Missal has given us an opportunity to be evermore mindful of the preeminence of the Word. Music serves the text, not the other way around. Chant does this exceedingly well. This is an ideal, not always possible in every circumstance.

Working in a parish, where music is, by necessity, a hybrid of different styles, the one constant is the goal of achieving reverence and prayerfulness throughout. People often respond well to styles they may or may not prefer if done well and done prayerfully. Regardless of style, choral singing must still be choral singing. Clear diction must still be clear diction. Proper phrasing and proclamation of the Word must be done well regardless of style.

Change and reform will only take root when implemented carefully and with sensitivity. The seed sown on the rocky ground of mandates and sweeping change will not bear fruit. Problems that need addressing must be worked through and not around. Only through thoughtful, but persistent education can the ideals of the Sacrosantum Concilium truly take root and gain traction. This is the work of a lifetime.

Finally, my liturgical approach to composition is ever evolving. After spending a great deal of time with the ICEL Chants of the Roman Missal, recording them and giving workshops around the Archdiocese of Boston with Fr. Jonathan Gaspar, my appreciation grew for the aesthetic of austerity and simplicity of music serving the Word. This is not a new revelation, but one that bears constant repeating. The great energy poured into preparation for the new translation gave opportunity for pruning, in order to bear more fruit. (John 15:2) This is embodied by the great work of Richard Rice, Jeff Ostrowski/Watershed Christi, Kathleen Pluth and countless others. There is a renewal of what you have so eloquently termed “the servant model of composition.” This idea has had great influence on my planning and more recent composition.

What is your opinion on the current “Reform of the Reform” and do you see your work (composer and parish musician) as a part of that movement?

Regarding the “reform of the reform,” I am reminded of conversations with friends in many years past who have suggested the need for a “Vatican III” to reform music and liturgy. My response was that we don’t need a “Vatican III”—all we need to do is implement Vatican II as intended. I am greatly energized and inspired by the great new work done by so many young people to achieve the ideals of the Sacrosantum Concilium. My choir has seen a new infusion of young college students hungry for our Church’s traditions. Chant belongs to the people. These are our ancient birthrights. [AW: YES!] This “reform of the reform” or whatever name it is given, is the great servant work of the church musician. It is now infused with new life in the new generation.

Do you see a connection between liturgy/music and the (so to speak) non-liturgical life of the Church (that is, our call to serve the poor, visit the sick and imprisoned, love our neighbor, do justice, love mercy, etc., etc.)?

St. Cecilia Parish’s Social Justice outreach is perhaps the most significant part of the parish’s identity and mission. It is driven by self-motivated everyday volunteers. Likewise, a strong music ministry is highly valued as a significant part of the parish’s identity. Feeding the poor and hungry is undoubtedly more important than singing even the most beautiful work of sacred music. God is at the center of this important work which is sustained and energized by prayer. Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi [AW: Don’t forget Lex Vivendi!] reminds us if we believe what we pray, we must respond to God’s call by that way that we live. Music is prayer. Prayer strengthens our resolve to serve God and to minister unto His people.

Finally, we do not always know the pain and suffering that others live with. One never knows how deeply our prayer/music will affect someone. Prayer/music has the power to be transformative in someone else’s life. We can never presume to know what crosses those in the congregation carry nor will we ever fully know the personal and communal impact brought about by our work.

Could you identify a few of your favorite pieces and share a little about their inspiration and backstory?

“I Am Risen, Resurrexi” is a recent favorite. This is an example of a piece that took a very different direction than originally intended. It was composed for a memorial Mass for the daughter of some dear friends. Sadly she was on this earth for a very short time. Having composed hymn tunes named for my own children, I thought I would write something simple and in a similar style. After only a few measures, it became clear this was not going to be a simple hymn tune. Much of the thematic material is based on the on the name “Emilia Marie.” Only later did I insert sections of the Easter Sunday Introit, “Resurrexi” at the beginning and end of the piece. Although the music took a different direction, I was absolutely certain from the beginning that the text had to be the Easter Sunday Introit: “I am risen, and I am always with you, alleluia…” The Mode IV chant that announces the resurrection is nothing like the exuberant and rousing “Jesus Christ Is Risen Today.” Rather, it lives in the space between joyful and hopeful, and seems unresolved in the mystery of everlasting life. Not simply a piece of lament, it is a piece of joy, reminding us of God’s great intervention, comfort, intimate love and mystery. I don’t personally know the cross my friends shoulder, but I know God is with them always as is their beloved daughter.

An organ work of five movements, “Ascent to Freedom” was composed over a period of great difficulty and change and serves as a reminder of hope. (It’s also just fun to play!) It is also dedicated to beloved friends Billy and Gena, who faced very tragic and challenging family hardships. The final two movements in particular draw from American themes, “Go Down Moses” and “How Can I Keep from Singing?” As musicians, often our greatest lament is a perceived lack of freedom. However, it is the limits placed upon us that make us better musicians, better composers, and hopefully better human beings. In the score I wrote: “True freedom does not rise from the capacity to fulfill all desires. Freedom is captivity, followed by battle, followed by faith, followed by wisdom and compassion as seen through the eyes of love. Of this struggle, true liberation is born.” Perhaps I don’t really know what I’m talking about, but I suppose that to live in the love of Christ must lead to true freedom.

Can you describe your Mass of the Angels?

[AW: This setting of the new translation is based on the Missa De Angelis. My opinion is that this is one of the best congregational settings of the new texts.]

[RJC: Ordering info, and Gary Penalka’s description, are here.]

To compose based upon the beautiful and once-familiar melodies of the “Missa de Angelis” was like spending time with an old friend. The Mass parts of the Missa de Angelis were something we sang at Saint Cecilia with some regularity. My Mass of the Angels contains a great deal of the melodic phrases from the chants. For example, even the invocations of the Kyrie/Penitential Act C display much of the melismatic phrases in the invocations. The Agnus Dei melody is almost completely intact from the original. The organ and choral harmonies are fairly lush and relatively traditional, but with some occasional “bending.”

This Mass setting was highly influenced by Theodore Marier and Richard Proulx in two areas:

  1. I wanted to adapt these beautiful chant melodies in an accessible manner and to be mostly in English.
  2. That the piece could translate well liturgically, whether in
    • the grand setting of a choir of forty with a fifty rank organ of French Romantic design in a European acoustic
    • with the austerity of an eight rank organ and a single voice or unison schola.

Several of the recordings represent the former. However, I have been very pleased with the success of the latter. In fact, at times, I find the unison singing with smaller accompaniment to be preferable liturgically and more helpful to the congregation.

An example of this flexibility are these two recordings:

Does the idea that Gregorian chant should have “pride of place” have an impact on your work as a composer in primarily a contemporary art-music style?

[AW: RJC and I talked a little back and forth about how to “label” his style of composition. “Contemporary” is somewhat problematic, since he isn’t writing pop/rock/folk. It isn’t really “traditional” either, in the way new compositions by Kevin Allen or Jeffrey Ostrowski are written in an older style. “Modern” in the sense used by classical musicians is close, but I’m of the opinion that the “modern” era is over (good riddance). The best I can say is that it is “contemporary” in the sense of “new, right now” and “art music” in that it is serious in intent (as opposed to popular).]

The “pride of place” of Gregorian chant always has and likely always will play a role in my composing, regardless of outward style. Prayer through chant is the food we eat and the air we breathe. Chant doesn’t truly need (although it deserves) the classification of “pride of place.” This is because it is a natural reality with or without that moniker. Chant is intrinsically Roman Catholic music. Gregorian chant unites us and is the most universal way of expressing shared truths—those things that we share as members of the Universal Church and as believers in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

I’m truly grateful to Richard for his thoughts, his music, and his service to God and God’s people. I found the above very inspiring to read, and feel it a privilege to be publishing it.

Please check out RJC’s music at his website.

Hymn for Ascension

This hymn reflects thoughts I’ve been ruminating on for some time regarding the meaning of the Angel’s words after the Ascension: we, the Church, are not called to stand and stare in wonder at the Risen Lord who has left our sight, but rather to do the work he called us to do while he was with us, and to understand his ongoing presence.

Gregorian Chant is For Radicals: Part One

In my last post, I made the claim that Gregorian Chant, and traditional sacred music, is “radical.” I said that it should be embraced by those of us with liberal, progressive, unorthodox, or even heretical beliefs, not just because it is a part of our shared Catholic faith tradition (which it is- and that’s reason enough, really) but also because of the inherent qualities of the music itself and the accumulated properties of its history and tradition.

This post begins a series of posts explaining what those qualities are and discussing why it is that this music should resonate in a particular way with people who could be described as theologically liberal, liturgically progressive, or heterodox in their beliefs.

Before that, it is important that I put a few things into context. Some of the comments and reactions I’ve recieved on previous articles about these subjects make me think that not everyone understands where I’m coming from or what it is I’m actually trying to say.

So, to begin with, here are few things to keep in mind…

  • I consider myself a theological liberal, in most cases. However, even inasmuch as I think my beliefs are correct/right, I don’t think liberality or progressivism (or any other particular worldview) is the only legitimate one within the Church.
  • Much like my friend Jeffrey Tucker, my strong belief is that sacred music is (or should be) essentially apolitical. That is- how you feel about something like women’s ordination (just for example) SHOULD have nothing to do with whether you think Gregorian Chant is proper to the Roman Rite, or that traditional forms of sacred music are better suited to public liturgy than are pop or folk based genres.
  • HOWEVER, the unfortunate truth is that, generally speaking, the champions of truly sacred music tend to be conservative. This is clearly not true in every case, and it would be wrong to assume the world of Catholic music is filled with only two groups of people- liberal folkies on one side signing petitions in favor of gay marriage while they listen to their David Haas CDs , and on the other side traditionalist conservatives streaming Palestrina on Pandora while they make angry comments on Fr. Z’s blog. Obviously, the reality is that there are many of us who find ourselves either in the middle of that spectrum, or off the narrow chart completely. But we know that many, maybe even most, of the people who would self-identify as liberal or progressive; the peace-and-justice, power-to-the-laity, why-aren’t-we-ordaining-women, get-rid-of-that-gaudy-gold-chalice kinda people; the people who talk about singing a new church into being… those people are not generally into Gregorian Chant, except perhaps as occaisional “mood music.”
  • I do not believe that the liturgy is the place to pursue agendas or hash out theological or ecclesiological disagreements. However- what I’m attempting to say in this article is that those agendas which could be called “liberal” are better served by traditional sacred music than they are by the music usually associated with them (folk music, faux-ethnic, pop/rock). It is my personal opinion that this point is NOT the primary reason one should do traditional sacred music. But it is still a worthwhile line of thought to pursue, for intellectual interest if nothing else. Also, if it helps convince even one of my fellow folkies to move toward a more traditional approach to liturgical programming- all the better.
  • None of this should worry or be considered an attack against my more conservative brothers and sisters. This article is not about how liberals are right. It is about how Gregorian Chant is right.

Well, that was a lot of preamble. No doubt some of my readers will still go out of their way to misunderstand me, but that’s going to have to be their problem, not mine.

And now, some content-related preamble:

As I started to write, I realized this was too much for a single post. So it is becoming a series (please, subscribe for updates so that you can stay involved with the conversation). It’s a little unbalanced to do so, but part 1 of the series begins with this post, starting exactly… right… now.

Not in the dark of buildings confining, not in some heaven light years away

I grew up in a liberal, folk-Mass-singing kinda church. Like most kids, I wasn’t really aware that there were alternatives to the “style” of religiosity we practiced. But eventually, I began to learn that there were (more or less, for purposes of this example) two kinds of Christians. We, the super-cool liberals, believed in “building up the Kingdom here on Earth.” This was in opposition to the conservative view that was something more like “waiting for the reward of Heaven after death.” The obvious group in that second camp was the fundamentalist mega-church down the street, but it was also evident in the more boring, more conservative, more traditionalist (it seemed) Catholic parish in the next town over. We sang vibrant songs about Social Justice, and Change, and Helping the Poor. And we also actively participated in working on those causes. I continue to be amazed by my home-parish’s efforts in community work: they run a soup kitchen and a free clinic, provide shower facilities, help people pay bills and stock their pantries, advocate and demonstrate on behalf of the poor, protest at executions, visit prisons and hospitals, and bring the sacraments- from Baptism through to Last Rites- to as many people as they possibly can. That’s what I was taught it meant to be a Christian, and (it seemed to me growing up, and still today) that this particular vision of Christianity was, well… liberal. That is not at all to dismiss either the piety or ministry of those who call themselves conservatives. It is just that these things were, and continue to be, the focus of the post-concilliar understanding of Catholic life. We were taught that eternal life is not something we wait for in the next life, but something that starts now, in this life. We were taught that this, indeed, is what is meant by “on Earth as it is in Heaven.”

And, of course, as liberal Catholics, we weren’t quite content to simply mumble through the Liturgy like those boring, organ-playing, slow-hymn-singing conservatives over at Our Lady of Perpetual Ennui. We lavished the liturgy, and its participants, with what we thought was beautiful and meaningful. Our Easter Vigil fire was a huge bonfire, lighting up the night. Baptisms were an abundant drenching of blessed water. Annointings at confirmation were not a slight daub on the brow, but a generous outpouring of Chrism Oil on the head (and shoulders and face and chest) of those who were being sealed with the most-generous gift of the Holy Spirit.

I realize that there is no accounting for taste, and that beauty is a fairly subjective topic. However, I believe that Gregorian Chant is the among the most beautiful music in the world. There is certainly music that is more fun, music that may be more joyous, or has some other quality that is to be preferred or desired. But, having experienced almost every style of music in the world- from reconstructed Greek theatre choruses to Gamelan gong cycles, from steel drum bands to Indian ragas, from Beethoven to Lana Del Rey- I have found that there is no music as beautiful as Gregorian Chant, and that its closest rivals are also its closest companions: renaissance polyphony, Orthodox chant, Anglican choral music. Anyone has a right to disagree with me on this point, of course, but I would challenge those who do to spend a few days singing Gregorian chant, not just listening to it on CDs. It may never become your favorite music, but it is unlikely you will be oblivious to its beauty.

If, then, we are concerned with the business of building up the Kingdom of God on Earth, why would we not include this music of such deep beauty in our Earthly life and work? Following in the footsteps of Jesus, we do our best to lavish love on the world- on the poor, the downtrodden, the displaced. We pour out our energy, our time, and our money to provide food and shelter and comfort to those who are unable to provide it to themselves. And rightly so, for this is our call as Christians- to do for “the least of these,” the things we would do for Christ Himself. We are also right to understand that all of us are “the least of these,” and to act accordingly in love and service to each other within our communities. Because we know that we “do not live on bread alone,” we use the liturgy (as, I think, it was intended) as an opportunity to show God’s great love for us, and we do that by showing our great love for God and for each other- in the care we take with our furnishings, the richness of the bread, the sweetness of the wine, the generosity of our annointing, the prodigous torrent of baptism, the brightness of our flames, the sensuality of our incense.

Radical communities of love, like the one I grew up in, are in a constant process of growth and improvement- we know that we can never love as we ought. We have to learn how to love each other, we have to learn how to raise our children to love better then we do. We know that change is hard, that it involves sacrifice and pain- which we also know is a part of love. Therefore, I am continually heartened to know that a small, but growing, number of communities are adding such an important dimension to the love they show God and each other. Namely, singing the great love songs of the Church, to the Glory of God, and the comfort of God’s people.

The poor, the broken, the sick in body and soul need us; that it to say, we need each other. We are both nurses and patients in this Hospital of Sinners. Medical care? Yes. Advocacy? Yes. Financial assistance? Yes. Again and again, yes- the need is great and ever growing. But these people – us people – need also the comfort and peace of the ancient, beautiful songs. Do we also need rousing gospel tunes and inspiring praise choruses? Probably so- and I certainly wouldn’t suggest otherwise. But Gregorian Chant is one of the best gifts the Church has to offer, a “treasure of inestimable value.” It is exceedingly beautiful, it exudes peace, it announces and creates the Kingdom.

Let us pour out this gift, liberally and generously, on all who walk through our doors. Let us train well our tongues, so that we may sing to the weary a word that will rouse them. Let us not be frugal or conservative about how much art, how much beauty, we provide to the poor in spirit, the prisoners of sin, the sick of soul. Let us sing ecstatic love songs to the widows, to the orphans, and to God. Let us sing and sing and sing until we drown out the ugliness and despair of the music of this age. Let us sing until the music of the angels is heard loud and clear everywhere on Earth, just as it is in Heaven.


This post is part of a series on Gregorian Chant for Radicals. Please subscribe to this blog to stay involved as this series develops.

Reclaim Gregorian Chant!

I’ve joked before about why liberals and heretics should sing Gregorian chant, and regular readers might have seen my personal essay at PrayTell about how and why I think progressive/liberal theology fits well with traditionalist liturgical practices.

But a recent story at the Friends of Jake Blog (regarding a homophobic presentation at a Catholic High School in Minneapolis), reminded me of the strained relationship between liberals and conservatives (however they define themselves) within Christianity generally, and the Catholic Church specifically. Moreover, I continue to be troubled by the fact that the apparent resurgence of traditional liturgy and music is tied (in both real and imagined ways) to an increase in political and theological conservatism.

In short, I think the glories of traditional music, much like the glories of Christ Himself, are being co-opted by political and theological conservatism; I also think that the liberal establishment (not all liberals- just the establishment ones) are letting them do this, pretty much without a fight.

This is wrong.

The sacred music of our heritage – Gregorian Chant and Polyphony (and, I might include, Anglican choral music and traditional hymnody) – this music belongs to ALL OF US. It is “a treasure of inestimable value,” and allowing it to become the possession of a single sub-group (Conservatives) denigrates both the music itself as well as any other groups (non-conservatives) who are, apparently, not Catholic enough to sing the most Catholic of all music.

In the name of activism or active participation, liberals and progressive-minded types have spent the last forty (or more) years fighting against a culture of elitist liturgical practice, “reclaiming” the Liturgy from the hierarchs, the clerics, and the general fuddy-duddies.

But what has been reclaimed by the liberals? Not the liturgy itself, but only the time-period on Sunday mornings when the liturgy is going on. The hour (mas o menos) has, in large part, been taken over by progressives. Even in parishes teeming with conservatism, the use of mainstream Catholic hymnals means that 4 or more pieces of music each Sunday were pre-selected by a (likely progressive or liberal) committee or editorial board at one of the major publishing companies.

That’s not a victory to be over-proud of. We took the hour, but we left the Liturgy (the WORK) alone. We created an alternate way of doing Mass- something seperate from the traditionalists, and imagined that it could be equal in value.

How, then, can we be surprised that the point-of-view associated with this “separate but equal” liturgical pracice is marginalized in the institutional Church, and will likely become marginalized within ageneration by the laity? How can an ideology long survive if it yokes itself to a passing fad (popular music), while its opposition is anchored firmly in the oldest extant musical culture on Earth? Shouldn’t we build our liturgical lives on a solid bedrock of music that will ALWAYS EXIST, instead of on the shifting sands of WHATEVER IS POPULAR RIGHT NOW?

Well, yes of course we should.

But there’s more!

It isn’t merely survivalism that lobbies for a greater adoption of traditional music. It isn’t only that we deserve an equal seat at the table of REAL liturgy.

From a liturgical standpoint, traditional sacred music has in it everything that liberals and progressives have been looking for. It accomplishes what the liberal reforms set out to do. In a sane world, it would be embraced by the liberals, and feared by the conservatives.

Or, to put it another way:

Gregorian Chant is radical.

(Stay tuned for more on that.)

Tribalism in Catholic Music

Jeffrey Tucker writes…

Compositions like this are just beyond me. I don’t get why anyone would want to do this instead of just chant the thing.

So… there was a time in my life when I would have thought this was really great.
So, let me try to explain what it is I used to like about this sort of thing…

The Easter Vigil has a certain primordial, primeval, even tribal sensibility to it. Fire, smoke, water, rites of initiation. It is sacred in a way that no other time is, and its timing is tied to natural phenomenon that were celebrated long before the dawn of modern religion: the changing of the season, the full moon.

The reading of the Genesis story, the flood, the Exodus- these (if proclaimed well, to a congregation prepared by prayer and catechesis) make the ancient past, the stories of our people and our God, present in a way that, while not the same as, is comparable to the present-making mystery of the Eucharist.

Music like the link above plays at these understandings- it gives a sense of shared “tribal” identity, a feeling of participation in some ancient rite. We can imagine ourselves drumming round the fire in some Julie Taymor epic. (Perhaps not incidentally, this is the same impetus for those ridiculous mask/puppet liturgies).

Conservatives and traditionalists, however, misdiagnose the problem- attempting to de-tribalize the meaning of the liturgy (Easter Vigil or otherwise), making a lot out of how these emotions and so forth are not the point.

But I believe that those emotions, that sense of “tribal” identity and connection with the “ancient ways,” and all of that is a huge reason for the particular forms of our Catholic liturgical heritage. The problem, though, is that these sorts of things (the recording here, the suburban drum circle liturgies, the puppet insanity) are really bad ways of creating that identity and that connection.

They are bad because they are too easy, and they are false. Our sense of what is truly tribal and ancient is completely skewed by our entertainment and artistic industry’s re-imagining. From the Rite of Spring to the Lion King, from the African Sanctus to The Mummy franchise, from EPCOT center to Karl Jenkins, Enya, and Avatar- our sense of “tribal identity” and “ancient forms of worship” is completely manufactured… which is perfectly fine if you’re going to a concert, a movie, or a theme park.

But the people who love these faux-tribal beats would be BORED TO TEARS if they had to sit through (or stand through) an Ancient liturgy from any culture- whether it’s the Death and Resurrection plays of ancient Egypt, the Greek theatrical rituals, the Early Christian catacomb Masses, or even a contemporary hours-long drum-accompanied, dance-infused Divine Liturgy in the Coptic Orthodox Church. Real tribalism, real ritual, is ghastly boring to modern sensibilities- that’s why the movies dress it up the way they do.

The Catholic liturgy has two sets of “benefits” as it were- the supernatural benefits which we cannot “mess with.” That is, the grace we receive through the sacraments- we receive it regardless of how poor, weird, or ill-conceived things like music or vestments are.

Then there are the (for lack of a better word) psychological benefits- community cohesion, inspiration to live a Godly life, instruction in the knowledge of God, a deeper emotional connection to the faith, etc, etc. These are the things that religion has always done for people, even among the pagans- and they are worthwhile benefits to cultivate within the community.

The progressive, folk-driven, faux-tribal approach to liturgy is trying, very earnestly, to maximize those secondary benefits. This should not be seen as a bad goal, as it so often is by the traditionalists. However, it should be understood that the approach of the last 40 years has been… well, not the best approach.

If we are interested in recovering a sense of our “tribal” identity as Catholics, we need to recover the music that truly belongs to our tribe- not steal some music from another group or try to imagine our own ritualism. If we are interested in entering into the ancient mysteries, we need to realize that time moves at a much slower pace than 180 bpm. If we are going to experience the universal cycle of death and rebirth, we need to embody the liturgy entrusted to those who walked with the man who actually did die and was reborn- not copy some movie recreation of a pagan misunderstanding of that mystery. If we want to feel connected to the Ancient Israelites, we need to fully, actively, and consciously participate in the real (not invented) liturgical structure that was the fulfillment of all their hopes, using the music that evolved directly from their Temple practices.

When you hear music like this, or see misguided white people dressed up in Kente cloth, or hear someone suggest liturgical dance, or any of the other seemingly bizarre practices of the “progressive liturgical movement,” have some compassion for what it is they are trying to accomplish. Their focus on community over hierarchy, experience over doctrine, celebration over sacrifice, emotion over intellect… these are not unworthy viewpoints or emphases. They are needed in our Church- we ARE a community, we NEED to experience the mystery, Mass IS a celebration, emotions DO help us understand God’s great love for us.

But it is the authentic liturgy of the Church, the real traditions of music and prayer, that bring us those “secondary” benefits. The movie music presented here has the best of intentions- but, in the final analysis- it is lacking.

It is lacking because it fake- an inauthentic copy of the truly ecstatic. It is lacking because it is easy- the emotionalism proper to our worship of God should be a fiery, deep, unquenchable passion, not a surface veneer of momentary infatuation. It is lacking because it is alien- not alien to the liturgy (which is universal, and admits of inculturation) but rather alien to (most of) us- it is not the music of our ancestors, and so it can exert no great pull on our genetic memory. It is lacking because it is produced- refined and composed and written down and edited by artistic and commercial interests- it has nothing of the earthy sincerity evident in the devotees of any venerable religious tradition.

For the sake of our “tribal” identity, we need to reclaim the music that is rightfully ours: the ecstatic melismas of the Cantorial tradition, the strophic hymns of the early and medieval church, the mystical organum the late middle ages, the psalmody of the monastics, the truly exotic sequences of Hildegard, the hallucinogenic polyphony of the high Renaissance. That’s the music of “our people.” Those are the base-pairs of our genetic memory, and the soul of our collective consciousness.