Testing the Music, Some Examples

Tony commented on the other “Testing the Music” thread about a curiosity. What if the SLJ’s tossed a piece of theirs because it was “pure unadulterated crap.” I can’t speak for other composers, but I can offer a few examples of my own.

When I was a grad student I wrote about a song a week. I wrote a lot, and much of it was “puc,” as Tony phrases it. About half of what I wrote never got to another ear besides my own. You will never hear my setting of the Lord’s Prayer, for example, the first liturgical song I ever wrote. Even my wife will never hear it. With the failure bin, sometimes I would try again with the same text, and sometimes I would just move on to something new.

My music director would only even consider about 20% of what I wrote useful for liturgy. I quickly got over being miffed because while some of my ideas of setting Scripture or the liturgy were cool (or so I thought) the music just wasn’t up to our group’s standards. Mostly, I appreciated the feedback. Even when I printed a special book and dedicated it to him and his wife on the occasion of their marriage. I was still batting about .200. I recall reading that when Bruce Springsteen went to the studio to record Darkness on the Edge of Town, he had thirty songs. He and the E Street Band only released eight. Heck, if The Boss only bats .267, why should I feel slighted at one-for-five?

What about pieces that were accepted? Some pieces I wrote before 1985 were later edited for inclusive language after they had been used. Sometimes cantors would complain about range or comfort, and I might tweak things here and there. My wife gets upset when I update a piece for a new parish.

Here’s one example of an early attempt at jazz-influenced liturgical music. Another choir director I knew looked over my setting of Psalm 27 and said the refrain was very catchy and singable, but that the chords on the verses seemed to go nowhere. The refrain was in C-mixolydian and the verses started off with an Ebmaj7 chord and went from there. Good use of a jazz-third over mostly chanted verses. But my friend gave it a thumbs-down and suggested I rework it in the Taize style. So I did. It was easily the most popular of my liturgical pieces I wrote in the 80’s. I frequently used it at Evening Prayer until a few years ago when the tetragrammaton became liturgically passe. It was difficult to adapt “Yahweh Is My Light” otherwise, so I’ve retired it.

These days, I attend to the ease at which a cantor learns and sings verses. Sometimes a repeated mistake becomes a better melody or rhythm of the text. If I hear a congregation not singing one of my psalm refrains, then I usually junk it outright. I don’t provide the manuscript because I think that part of the Mass, even when new, shouldn’t be too difficult to pick up after one statement on a melody instrument, followed by a psalmist’s intonation.

Ideas that didn’t work?

– A set of hymns for the Lenten scrutiny Sundays, especially since David Haas had the same idea in 1988, and I wasn’t going to be a copycat.

– An Advent Mass that didn’t make the 20% threshhold. It was the only complete Mass I ever wrote, though I’ve adapted Appalachian tunes for two partial settings since.

– A Taize-style Communion song that I really liked, but congregations and especially my choirs found boring.

There’s a challenge with writing for a faith community that knows me. They will put the extra effort in to sing something, but mainly because it’s me. They will go out of their way to praise a setting, but again: it’s someone they know. Positive feedback outgains constructive criticism about ten to one. People might think something is “puc,” but they justify it by thinking, “But the ‘puc’ comes from one of our own.”

From the commentariat, any of your own adventures in testing the music?

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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2 Responses to Testing the Music, Some Examples

  1. RP Burke says:

    I’ve written a few scraps, here and there, mostly responsorial psalms using church modes. More like doodles than anything “written.” Nothing I’d dare submit to a publisher.

    A sidebar:

    An urban legend about contemporary church music is that Sr. Susanne Toolan chucked “I am the Bread of Life” into the trash can only to have someone fish it out.

  2. Patti says:

    It’s sad the hear that you retired “Yahweh Is My Light”; it was a terrific piece.

    We still treasure the book, btw.


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