Thursday, March 26, 2009

Talk on Gregorian Chant at Mt. St. Joseph High

I just came back from a talk on Greogorain chant in the all boys' high school. The religion teacher invited me to talk about Gregorian chant to 13 high school seniors. I talked briefly about how the Gregorian chants are developed, how they are used as integral part of the liturgy, and showed different chant notations, had them listen and sing. I ended the talk with the Colloquium video clip. They had a big screen in front of the class and the projector was connected to the computer. They were able to see it from the big screen and hear. It was very effective. I don't think any of them knew about Gregorian chants very well, but they were very receptive. They try to understand what I'm saying without any preconceived ideas or negative feelings. I hope we can help and introduce Gregorian chants to these young minds by making more chances like this. (I might conctact some more religion teachers in the nearby high schools and offer the talk.)

St. Benedict and our schola

The following is from an email of our schola member, who reminded me that St. Benedict was singing with us at our first 'concert' last week (3/22/09). Very beautiful. (also there was a church bell ringing when we sang the communion proper 'Qui manducat carnem meam', he who eats my flesh...I am in him)

"... Who would have guessed in advance these things come to pass? I am humbled in awe today by the convergence of facts: almost 9-months to the day that our wedded schola began its paces under your true leadership (june 24th 08) until this appearance yesterday bringing forth the fruits of a fervent 'pregnancy'. Where? at St Benedict's church run by Benedictine monks. When? the day after this great saint's feast day! Hosted by whom? a venerable monk who sang with us from the pew many of the chants presented. Who is scripting all this stuff?? ; )

Most blessed of all was the gift of the children. Gregorian chant is the hoped for slice of heaven on earth; but when children sing as they did, it is heaven on earth.
When sound is made, it never dies, the echoes go on indefinitely. Making this intention of musical prayer starts the ringing of holiness onto the earth. Seeds of cleanness scattering into the din of rampant impurity in our time..."

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Heroic Generation by Jeffrey Tucker

Today's Gregorian scholas, mostly founded within the last several years, and almost entirely consisting of non-professional singers, face a task unlike most any in any previous age. They confront the largest single reserve of music of a certain type and are determined to make it live again in liturgy. The style is unknown in today's popular culture. The notation is not taught in music school. The language is neither a living vernacular not a familiar liturgical one. Even experienced singers can look at a page of chant and find themselves completely unable to know what the tune should sound like or how it should be interpreted. But they forge ahead in any case. They buy the books, study the tutorials, attend the colloquia, read the forums and post on them, join email lists, share recordings, gather with others as often as possible, surround themselves with pronunciation guides, learn the musical language of solfege, all in what is really a heroic effort to make something that had been all-but-banished from our Catholic culture live again in our times. I'm struck by this remarkable fact in light of an experience we had a few weeks ago. Our schola was preparing to sing Te Deum for a special parish event. The chant is very long. The language is quite difficult. Intonation troubles are endemic. The rhythm of the piece calls on every skill that chant requires, and the style must be free and familiar or else it just wont' sound like Te Deum. This piece ranks among the greatest and oldest and most persistent of all Christian hymns, and it can't be sung with caution and shyness. It has to be sung like it has been sung for all time. Working off and on with this piece, in scattered rehearsals whenever there was time remaining when other demands weren't pressing, we would keep plugging away. Our schola director would have us speak the words, then sing the piece on one tone, alternating between high and low voices. We would focus on particular spots, and iron out pitch and language problems when they appeared. It took us the better part of a year working at this pace, two steps forward and one step back, but it finally happened. At the end, the piece began to seem joyful, effortless, inevitable. Then we had some outside singers join us for the event for which this was being sung. They were from the local Baptist, Presbyterian, and Unitarian churches. We only had an hour to rehearse all the music, which left about 20 minutes for Te Deum, sight-reading. They stood among twelve singers who knew the piece perfectly. In twenty minutes time, they were up to speed on the chant: the words, tune, and style. They were impressed at how much easier chant was to sing than they had thought. In the performance, all the new singers did a wonderful job! So how is it that our schola took nearly a year to learn this, while new singers took only 20 minutes. If you have ever sung in a choir, you know why. Singing with people who already know a piece requires only that you attach your voice to theirs and move forward. On parts on which you are unsure, you can back away, and hearing the correct version next to you means that you can fix it the next time through. The difference is immense. The first singers to confront unfamiliar chant are like people facing a forest of trees and a thicket of brush and are attempting to make a new trail with machetes and their own feet. Those who come along later to take the same route need merely to walk on the trail already made for them. In most past Christian generations, the trail was already there, and one generation rolled into the next so that most singers were in the position of those visiting singers on the day we sang Te Deum. From the 7th or 8th century forward, singers fit into a structure of something that was already there. Not that chant was sung in every parish or every cathedral, but the sound and feel—if not the tunes themselves—were part of what it meant to be Catholic. The music was in the air. Scholas still had to work hard but they didn't have to blaze completely new trails. Even in modern preconciliar times where the chant was not sung, there were Libers around and priests who knew the chant, and always some parishioners who had a sense of it. In the best situations of the past, new singers were always in the minority among experienced singers, and they fit into an existing ensemble. What singers confront today is something incredibly daunting and probably nearly unprecedented. They are conjuring up a two-millennium-long tradition that was abruptly stopped for several generations and trying to make it live again. To do this is roughly akin to a scene from a dystopian novel in which it falls to a few to reinvent electricity or make clothes from cotton and wool for the first time. It is a heroic effort, something far harder for us than for most any Christian singers in the past. I can recall only several years ago standing in a rehearsal room staring at a complicated chant and trying to make it work note by note. It took me up to an hour to become familiar with a new chant and even then I would sometimes get on the wrong track and sing a wrong note again and again. It would take someone else from our schola to correct the mistake and make it right. We discover from these experiences that learning chant from scratch requires both private study and group effort. We have to learn to sing on our own and then we must also learn to sing with a group in which we all teach each other. You find very early on that recordings are helpful but they only get you a little of the way there. Ultimately you have to learn to render it on your own, and experience the chant physically within your own voice, ideally standing next to a person who knows it well. But that person isn't around, so you have to conjure up the entire piece on your own. There is no shortcut. This is the great difficulty of the chant. It is not so much the chant itself but its novelty that makes its recreation so daunting. The chant is not intended to be novel. It is a tradition that is supposed to be continuous from age to age, entrenching itself ever deeper into the culture and inspiring every form of elaboration. It never should have been abandoned, especially not after a Church Council that conferred on the chant primacy of place in the Roman Rite. But it is a fact that the existing generation must deal with and overcome, carrying the tradition to the future. For this reason, this generation of chanters really does deserve the title heroic. The challenges they face and the tradition they rescued will surely be recorded in the annals of the history of liturgical art.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Problems of "On Eagle's Wings"

Thanks Priorstf for the Bible quote. I could not have found this. So the Bible do mention 'Eagle' and the 'wings'. But it still seems to be a different concept from the song, "And he will raise you up on eagle's wings." (Also my Bible has a slightly different translation of this verse.) I read further and what follows after the verse 4 in Exodus seems to be important though,
Exodus 19:4 "You saw what I, the Lord, did to the Egyptians and how I carried you as an eagle carries her young on her wings, and brought you here to me.
5 "Now, if you will obey me and keep my covenant, you will be my own people.."
The song "On Eagles Wings'' doesn't seem to imply the verse 5, 'if you will obey.." Maybe Fr. Joncas meant it in the song when it says "say to the Lord " my refuge, my rock in whom I trust." To the people who trusting God means also following and obeying Him, this makes sense, but to those who just want to 'trust' Him, no matter what they do or (did in the past especially in the funeral) can give a false idea of 'trust,' the idea of 'trust 'that they will be ok, because God is generous and merciful. Somebody mentioned in the other thread, because we feel sympathy at the funeral for the loss of loved ones, we might be making everyone a 'saint' when s/he dies. And this song seems to be highliting that idea. Maybe that's why it is popular, very 'comforting' in disguise for many, besides having a pop-style tune. (which I found too much of 'saccharine,' as someone said above. Plus each verse starts with a different rhythm and whenever we have this, the congregation cannot really sing together well. They kind of mumble away, especially the beginning of verse 2, 3 and 4, even the cantor gets very confused. Everyone sings with a different rhythm. I remember banging at the notes to keep them together. Also remember to go to 'coda' at the last time. What if you have to cut the verse, what do you do? I remember making different 'nodding' contract with the cantor as an accompanist, but still didn't agree on how we end this song. What a nightmare. And the pitch range of the song. I really don't think this is for the congregational singing. Fr. Joncas, I believe, said this song was from his personal devotion. He never intended this song to be for a congregational singing, which I agree 100%. (I can see a small group of people who are attracted to this type of music, sing together for their devotion, with the correct understanding of the texts and with mutual agreement in musical aspects, but outside the liturgy.)
Anyway, in the interview I read, Fr. Joncas didn't want this song to be in his funeral, neither do I. The MD should be able to select liturgical music for the mass, and I don't believe this is a liturgical music to be in the Holy Mass. Should we have this kind of music in the liturgy, just because people sing and has some familiar words from the Bible? People might sing, but most likely very poorly. Because those who 'actively sing' would not be bothered by others around make that 'joyful' (or rather painful) noise, and misinterpret the easy sing along texts. How long do we need to continue this? And since when the liturgy is seen as a shouting and cheering parade?And why the 'noise?' when we can and should spend time to learn to make beautiful prayers. It really doens't matter whether you have a 'unique' voice of not. We can all learn to sing as 'one voice.' It's the idea of how you take music seriously and take time to put effort to make it beautiful. I think that effort is more beautiful, because you sacrifice your time for God. Sacrificing time seems to be one of the most difficult thing for modern people, especially when you have to make a fairly long time commitment, such as music learning. Music learning cannot be happened instantly even in an amature level. I think the local churches should really start taking music seriously, starting with the pastor and MD, and support music literacy and music education for the congregation.
(Well, in the situation where you will be out from your job if you don't, because the pastor insists of having this kind of song, which is very sad but seems to happen a lot, I guess you have to make a situational decision? I really cannot say much about that.)

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Top Ten Unknown Truths about Sacred Music

Top Ten Unknown Truths about Sacred Music by Jeffrey Tucker

In the last week, I've spoken before two groups of Catholics about sacred music and taken questions and observed on their faces looks of confusion and enlightenment (I leave aside the case of the heckler who exhibited red-faced anger). From this experience, I again learned the lesson that I somehow never fully grasp: it is not possible to underestimate people's level of knowledge of the basic facts of liturgy and music.For decades, Catholic music publishers have been cranking out liturgy workbooks, hymnbooks, guidebooks, book books, and sending well-meaning but woefully uneducated workshop leaders to thousands of parishes, while well-heeled organizations have held hundreds of lucrative national conferences designed to somehow get Catholic musicians up to speed.Incredibly, the results of all this "education" – which has had no unified theme and has been more about marketing expensive, copyrighted music than actually doing what the Church asks – has been to scramble the brains of Catholic musicians around the country to the point that most have not the slightest clue what they are seeking to do. Lots of money has changed hands but we are further away from understanding than ever before.So here is my list of the top ten musical unknowns of our day:
The music of the Mass is not of our choosing; it is not a matter of taste; it is not a glossy layer on top of a liturgy. Liturgical music is embedded within the structure of the liturgy itself: theologically, melodically, and historically.
Hymns are not part of the structure of Mass. Nothing in the Mass says: it is now time to sing a hymn of your choice. Hymns are permitted as replacements for what should be sung but only with reservations.
The sung parts of the Mass can be divided into three parts: the ordinary chants (which are stable from week to week), the proper chants (which change according the day), and the priests parts that include sung dialogues with the people.
The music of for the Mass is found in three books: the Kyriale (for the people), the Graduale (for the schola), and the Missale (for the priest).
To advocate Gregorian chant is not merely to favor Latin hymns over English ones, because chant hymns make up only a small portion of chant repertoire. It is to favor a sung Mass over a spoken one, and to favor the music of the Mass itself against substitutes.
Cognitive pedagogy is not the primary purpose of music, so, no, it is not important that all people gathered always and immediately "understand the words."
The music of Mass does not require an organist, pianist, guitar player, bongos, or microphones. It requires only the human voice, which is the primary liturgical instrument.
The Second Vatican Council was the first ecumenical council to decisively declare that chant has primacy of place: "Ecclesia cantum gregorianum agnoscit ut liturgiae romanae proprium: qui ideo in actionibus liturgicis, ceteris paribus, principem locum obtineat." (And ceteris paribus does not mean: unless you don't like it. It means even if chant cannot be sung because of poor skills or lack of resources, or whatever, it still remains an ideal.)
There is no contradiction between chant and participation. Vatican II hoped to see that vernacular hymnody would decrease and the sung Mass would increase. Full, conscience, active participation in the Mass means: it is up to the people to do their part to sing the parts of the Mass that belong to the people.
The first piece of papal legislation concerning music appeared in 95AD, by Pope St. Clement. It forbid profane music in liturgy and emphasized that Church is the place for holy music. All successive legislation has been a variation on that theme.It's going to take more than one-hour lectures to undo all the misinformation that has been spread for decades, and the publishers of these popular liturgy guides need an education more than anyone else. But let's be clear what we are talking about here. The paradigm of sacred music amounts to a complete overhaul of what most Catholic musicians think belongs in Mass. And the first step to education is to have an educable spirit.Will musicians and publishers that have been working for decades in a spurious paradigm—the billions involved do not confer liturgical legitimacy—be willing to rethink matters?