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 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?


Incoming Links!

I had no idea this has happened, or when it happened, but I was browsing through my Google Analytics this morning and I found out that Six Maddens (a blog about Church Music, not about a half-dozen versions of the worlds most popular football video game) has added me to their blog roll.


Ubi Caritas et Amor

For the choral Offertory at my parish this week we’re chanting Ubi Caritas (out of the Parish Book of Chant, BTW). While I love the PBC, I find the translations to be sometimes a bit more distant and decorous than I understand the Latin text to be. As I was trying to explain some of the immediacy and beauty of the original text, one of my choir members suggested that I prepare my own translation for the printed program. I did so, and then I also wrote some “program notes” about the Antiphon. I thought perhaps others outside my own parish may be interested in what I wrote.

The caveat here is that I am by no means a Latin scholar or a degreed theologian. My translation, and the thoughts about the text that follow, were informed by a lot of research and reading (ok… Latin dictionaries and Wikipedia), but are nevertheless the work of an enthusiastic amateur. If you find anything here objectionable or downright wrong, please be quick to correct, but slow to criticize. (Tell me I’m wrong, but don’t tell me I’m stupid.) Comments always welcome.

Here is the original text in Latin:

Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est.

Congregavit nos in unum Christi amor.
Exultemus, et in ipso iucundemur.
Timeamus, et amemus Deum vivum.
Et ex corde diligamus nos sincero.

Simul ergo cum in unum congregamur:
Ne nos mente dividamur, caveamus.
Cessent iurgia maligna, cessent lites.
Et in medio nostri sit Christus Deus.

Simul quoque cum beatis videamus,
Glorianter vultum tuum, Christe Deus:
Gaudium quod est immensum, atque probum,
Saecula per infinita saeculorum.

And my translation for the printed program…

Where there is charity and love, there is God.

We are gathered into one, in the love of Christ.
Rejoice, and be exceedingly happy in this!
We fear, and love, the living God,
and from our hearts, we sincerely delight [in each other].

In the same way, therefore, within the congregation:
Do not be of a divided mind. Beware!
Stop your evil arguing. Stop fighting.
And into the midst of us, let Christ-God be.

Then, in the same way as the Blessed Ones (the faithful dead),
and together with them [at the same time],
we shall see your Glorious face, O Christ-God.
Joy! Joy that is exceedingly great and pure, and is for infinite ages upon ages.

And some thoughts about the words, “Caritas et Amor.”

Ubi Caritas et amor, Deus ibi est.

Those of us who know this line are so used to translating it “where there is charity and love, there is God,” that it’s hard to realize that “caritas” doesn’t really mean “charity,” at least not as we usually mean it today. “Charity” was the word used in the King James Bible (and other translations) for the Latin “caritas,” which is the Greek “Agape.” Another common Anglican translation for the idea is “loving-kindness.” It is a deep, sincere, and intimate love that has God alone as its source. The early Christians refered to the Eucharistic celebration as the “Agape meal,” and when Paul says that “Love is patient, love is kind,” he is using that same word. Indeed, the most famous verse of Scripture, “For God so loved the world, that He gave is only begotten Son…” (Jn 3:16) uses the word “Agape.”

So what about “amor,” then? Also, “love.” But our conventional sensibilties usually stop us from discussing the fact that “amor” is the Latin translation of the Greek, “Eros,” the root of our modern word “erotic.” This is love, “in the flesh,” just as surely as Jesus is God “in the flesh.” Amor, or Eros, is passionate, fiery, and bold. The ancient Greeks thought of it as “madness from the gods.” Plato, though, gave us the conception that formed the medieval poet who wrote this text: Eros (Amor) is the all-engulfing realization that the pains of desire are a longing for wholeness and oneness. In our broken
world, the desire of Eros is often poisoned with a desire to possess the object of Love. But in the classical and Christian understanding, Eros is the need, felt body and soul, to unite intimately with God, to “reach Wisdom without possessing Her.”

Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est.

Language is a reflection of the culture and society that is its source. It is not surprising, then, that there is no good way to translate this short truth into modern American English. Perhaps we might say:

Where there is love heaped upon love, where love is deep and sincere and all-encompassing, where love is passionate and bold, where love is true, where love is good and pure, where love is self-sacrificing and intimate and wholly unselfish, where love is unconquerable, where love is infinite and grand and humble, where love is glorious and overwhelming, where love makes us complete, where love calls us to service and justice, where love is the source of all we say and do, where love can not fail, where love is the greatest of all things, where love is stronger than death- where you find this love, there you have found God.

Open Letter to GIA

Dear GIA:

Despite our best efforts, some of us music directors do not plan our repertoire far enough in advance to wait for shipping. I’m sure I’m not the only one who would gladly pay 2 or 3 times the price of a printed copy in order to get a PDF download. Since that would not require printing or shipping, the margin on that purchase would be remarkably higher.

Music is information. Music is not paper. Information moves at the speed of light.

Adam Wood

The New Roman Missal

I have serious problem with the new translation of the Roman Missal. I have read as much of the text as I Can get a hold of online.

And I’m not just liberal liturgist who wants to complain about the text being hard to sing. I have studied Latin, and can competently read and worship the Latin Mass. I support an increased use of Gregorian chant (in both Latin and English) in the communal prayer life of the church.


Latin and English are not the same language, and everyone who has ever tried to translate a Bible passage, a hymn, a poem, or even basic instructional information from one language to another knows that word-for-word translating leads to confusion, awkwardness, and misunderstanding.

People come to Mass to pray, to commune with God and each other, to sing, to worship, and to receive the grace of the Eucharist. EVEN IF the new translations were demonstrably better, more poetic, and more in line with the original meaning, the change would still be an awkward interruption of the celebration of Mass. People come to learn about God, not to learn about other people’s linguistic concerns.

The last 50 years have seen Catholics all over the world, and especially in America, subjected to fads, re-interpretations, corrections, expansions, changes, omissions, decrees, experiments, and back-pedaling.

Stand now, or kneel now. Hold hands. No, don’t. Sing these songs only. Don’t sing those songs ever. Tabernacle there. No wait, tabernacle over there. No wait- it’s better to put it in it’s own room. What kind of bread are we using? Let’s have a special procession for the book of the Gospels. Quick- get rid of the glass chalices. Liturgical dance is great. Liturgical dance is an abomination. What should we call CCD? Stop singing, “Yahweh is my shepherd now.” The precious blood will give you swine flu.

Do we really want to have yet another top-down “opportunity for parish-wide catechesis?”

This post was taken from my comments on an online petition I encourage you to read and support:
What if we just said wait?