A few Café folks asked for more than my very brief criticism of what I thought to be a wrong-headed editorial from Jeffrey Tucker.
First, perhaps a few things need to be re-stated. I think Jeffrey is one fine fellow. Those of us who know him somewhat know the worlds of difference between his online persona and what he presents in the real world.
On his blogs, he is audacious, anarchic, railing at the gates. He exaggerates and paints caricatures, and he is very definitely a man of American politics: playing to his base and whipping up foment. His latest focus on flame as fish is typical. Like him or dislike, he gets attention in a big way. Personally, I like his dapper crisp suits and bow ties, but most of all the kindness, generosity, and friendship he has shown me over the years.
So when he starts off an essay suggesting that to strive for a singing assembly is an “obsession that has crippled serious work in sacred music for forty years,” I’m not surprised.
Maybe JT knows that he lives in a country that is not strong in the serious arts. Celebrity is the religion of choice in this country, and the trinity includes sports, entertainment, and politics. (The lines between these three, you understand, are blurred.) And even if you get to what is acknowledged as an entertainment medium like rock music, garage bands don’t play in garages anymore. Garage band is a software. Or a video game. Music is something to be watched. Watched more than listened to. Listened to more than learn an instrument and play it yourself. Today, music is played on computers. Sheesh. And JT thinks an NPM panel is a threat to Western music?
Western culture in general, and the US in particular have very serious factors working against serious music. NPM talking heads chatting it up about getting people in pews to sing is most definitely not the biggest challenge to the musical arts in the 21st century.
But if Jeffrey and his reform2 pals discussed the real problems, they might be echoing a lot of what their perceived opposition outside the chant-n-propers-only crowd might be saying. And politically, we can’t have that.
Jeffrey suggests that congregational singing happens when musicians are faithful to the traditionalist ethic. This is an example of magicalism, the notion that if fanboys and girls follow the rules as laid down by the most-favored authorities they will achieve all that the demonized opposition desires. Plus they will prove their loyalty. Ahem: something more is required. That’s church teaching.
Congregational participation is an undeniable thrust of post-conciliar liturgical reform. Some communities haven’t achieved it. Some have gained it and lost it. Others have accomplished it. Who accomplishes good singing? Generally it’s to be found in parishes that commit to good leadership.
Speaking for myself, I wouldn’t attend an NPM seminar on congregational singing. I know how to achieve it. My last several parishes sing, and as far as I know, they still do. My personal concern is something Jeffrey skirts around: how to make the deeper connection from participation in the liturgy into participation in the life of Christ. Between people who sing at Mass or promote it and those who follow the strictest rules on sacred music, neither has an inside track to grace.
There are people who sing at Mass who make these connections. They sing because they have faith. Their faith feeds their singing. They sing because they have a spiritual reason to sing. They sing because God asks, not because a songleader flaps duck* at them.
The spiritual issues of individuals are largely beyond the abilities and knowledge of music leaders. Most of us can only hope to present with integrity a stable repertoire of meaningful music in a singable range.
And indeed, some people, even musicians and (gasp!) clergy, sing, but lack the inner focus of faith. Can’t do anything about those folks, either.
One must first focus on making the liturgy beautiful so that people have some sense of genuine personal inspiration to make their voices part of it. People will not be hectored, manipulated, pushed, rehearsed, badgered, or hornswaggled into raising their voices if the reason for doing is not apparent. Shuffling endlessly through strategies, tricks, and repertoire has not worked and will not work.
“Beauty” is oft-cited. I happen to think that spiritual beauty is paramount. It goes something beyond little kids singing and being praised just because the parents are oogling. Many children, and many new converts to Christianity have a quality about their singing that is more enforced by faith rather than artistic excellence. In other words, average voices using average technique will shine above professional singers because of the interior quality they bring to presenting music. And this is sometimes true of assemblies at prayer.
Jeffrey and many of his reform2 confreres hector, manipulate, push, rehearse, badger, and hornswaggle the rest of us in suggesting that interior participation is superior to outward. Interior illumination is, I believe, a consequence of grace. The best an ordinary music director can hope for is to facilitate the grace and block it as little as possible. Getting people to sing from the heart of faith cannot be imposed. As a music minister, my goal is to ensure that acoustics, bad examples, poor repertoire, and unsingable music don’t get in the way.
What we desperately need is discussion about the musical structure of the Roman Rite and the place of everyone and everything within that. That discussion is not here taking place.
We live with a Church that doesn’t choose to conduct that discussion. It hectors, manipulates, pushes, rehearses, badgers, and hornswaggles people from bishops on down. Canon lawyers talk about liturgy from the cathedra, but where are the spiritual directors, the musicians, the artists, the poets, and others who facilitate and create spiritual beauty?
Count me as a serious skeptic on the true interest in some quarters for having a discussion beyond the political base of traditionalism. But that discussion is always welcome on this site. Any Café regulars want to chime in?
* “Flap duck” is my wife’s term for songleaders who feel (sometimes insistently) that people need an arm wave from the singer. One of our apocryphal conversations from long ago might have gone like this: She said, “Do you need me to flap duck on this litany?” I said, “No flapping; the people will get it.”