Tuesday, July 05, 2016

It's My Birthday and I'll Ply if I Want to-
Part the First

After forty-five years in the biz (so to speak), I believe there’s only one certain conclusion I’ve reached regarding the sacred/liturgical/pastoral music wars: there will never be a substantial, empirical treatise defending or excoriating the “state of church music,” whether in the Roman Church or denominations. This article in the online periodical NEW LITURGICAL MOVEMENT (July 5, 2016) does nothing to alleviate that discomfort. Heavy and heaving fisking thus ensues….

Why Do So Many Choir Directors Have "Van Gogh's Ear for Music (July 5) by author Michael Clayton is just one of a number of salvos, er, screeds decrying the state of current worship music composition and performance. Indeed the primary associate whom Mr. Clayton cites often therein is our mutual friend and composer, Dr. Peter Kwasniewski of WCC, whose music I have utilized often out here in California for parish Masses. The title’s cleverness also unwittingly unveils the author’s lack of acumen, familiarity as well as a hearty prejudice regarding the corpus of modern ecclesial-related musical genres and performance practices. Ignoring that the broad base of so-dubbed “choir directors” flapping their arms and gums at their choral charges includes flotsam/jetsam, tangled jungles of seaweed, unknown tons of krill, sardines and anchovies and other minutiae among the blue whales, orca and dolphin pods, albacore and great whites who haunt the ocean depths of church music waters. If you just subtract the lower life forms from that aquarium, Clayton’s red herring of a question presumes that even studied and schooled “directors” lack sufficient discretionary ears to distinguish gold from iron pyrite as they craft their repertoires. Say it ain’t so, Joe! “It ain’t so.” So how does Mr. Clayton advance his premise that the gen-pop of directors got no ears? He, like most consumers, relies upon his own taste buds, to whit-

The choice of music at Mass matters to me. It was hearing polyphony and chant done well that contributed to my conversion.” Mr. Clayton heralds his epiphany from a reverse (and curious) bias perverted from a famous (paraphrased) declaration by SCOTUS justice Potter, “I can’t define it, but I know what pornography is when I see it.” Claiming the gold standard of chant and (whose?) polyphony is a noble gesture, but it remains purposefully ignorant of fraught and overwrought dialectic of musicological evolution in the history of church/music relations. Many philosophers, notably Dr. Peter and my friend Jackson Osborn from Houston strenuously argue that the intrinsic merits of beauty, purity, nobility and suitability of “certain” musics must be acknowledged as pre-eminently superior to all others that would pretend towards the throne of catholic worship. And my colleagues are truly irritated that this realization isn’t shared universally among even the cognoscenti. And this mystery is also unveiled by Mr. Clayton’s curt dismissal of 19th c./Victorian hymnody as insufficient for evangelization. Well, somewhere between cantus firmi and parody Mass settings, the Lutheran chorale, the Singmesse and four-square hymnody of all stripes is the realization that the aesthetic appeal of art music (though not known as such in its era) such as Roman polyphony at many points gave way to various forms of gebrauchsmusick (pardon from Hindemith) whose genesis stems from the primordial archetype of “FULL, CONSCIOUS AND ACTIVE PARTICIPATION,” the great Vatican II albatross. But more to Mr. Clayton’s point, if you take him at his word, who’s to say there isn’t an equal and opposite soul out there claiming that the quasi-Hillsongs ditties of Matt Maher contributed to HER CONVERSION? Stats and even anecdotal data can’t reconcile that reality. (But aren’t we all so convicted that if Maher-fans would only hear Morales’ motets they’d change their tastes and stripes post haste?
Whether it’s the Woodstock-throwback-with-added-sugar of the standard pew missalet (sic), candied Cat Stevens presented by a cantor in a faux operatic or Broadway-musical style, or the more recent equivalents, imitations of the pop music of the moment to “get the young people in,” it’s all the same to me.
Well, first of all, it’s not all the same in reality, Mr. Clayton. In my circle of friends and colleagues there’s plenty good room full of studied, able, inspired and brilliant composers crafting works that more or less defy and negate your caricature. Even the author of the interminably pilloried “On eagles’ wings” has the wherewithal to craft 12 part choral motets of exquisite beauty on his latest collection. The local, pony-tailed guitar crooner will be stopped at the door, or the key signature of his recent works. The era of the Birkenstock-clad Conry’s and Haugen’s gave way quite some time ago, and not only to the effusive Catholic contemporary fresh faces of Hart, Booth and Maher. Artisans like Gael Berberick, Janet Sullivan-Whitaker (who like me, studied composition with Dr. LaRocca) and a host of others craft worthy if tactically inspired smaller works that are not unlike the works of conciliar era pioneers Deiss, Proulx, Peloquin, Hughes, Savoy and other folks of merit. For every hymn/tune by Lambilotte or Faber that is consigned the banal dustbin there is a likewise gem by Vaughn Williams, Wesley or Herbert. The same maxim is at work today. But arch-critics don’t want to acknowledge this because it detracts from their premise. And the work of such talented contemporaries stands way above some of the fare that attends papal Mass events in recent decades, much less the Youtube Samba or Gospel or Jazz (Berlin) Mass that infests Catholicworld in the Ethernet.
It is an attempt to appeal to young people that feels to me like an imitation of the foolish parent who tries to hard to be liked by his adolescent children by adopting inappropriate teenage fashions; he inevitably misses the mark, and loses self respect and the respect of the younger generation in the process.
I’ll be brief: what sort of predilection does Clayton have believing that this is the impetus for every composition that neither apes or augments the polyphonic repertoire? No, if I compose a Gloria (as I’ve done in the last week), pleasing the youth or any demographic isn’t even on my radar. I won’t speak for any fellow travelers, but my criteria is pretty simple- does this have obvious integrity as well as credibility?
But my thought when I hear this is that for every person who is enjoying the music in Mass, there are a ninety-nine more who don’t like it,
And I’m happy for you to have that thought. But I fear you, Mr. Clayton, believe your thought is empirically sound to edify your contentions. Again, it ain’t so. END OF PART ONE.

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