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Saturday, June 22, 2013

So you think you want to write liturgical songs? (Part 2 - the "other hand")


Musician friends between rehearsals at an ancient
Los Angeles RE Congress
My most-read post in this blog, now five months old and with over 26,000 page views
(thank you!) was one entitled "So you think you want to write liturgical songs." There's a link in the right hand column, if you haven't seen it yet. I did not mean for it to be upsetting, but it clearly was for some people. I answered them, sometimes privately, as best I could, to let them know it's worth the effort of trying to break into the field. But lest you think I was just all about negative experience as a songwriter in this genre in which I've chosen to spend my life, don't think that! Let me try to widen the perspective.


Kendzia, Cortez, and Warner misbehaving at dinner
I can honestly say that, through the many years I've spent in liturgical music, I've always been impressed by the care and integrity with which the current owners of the publishing houses have treated me. They have received a lot of bad press because of the competitive nature of the business; some specialize in hardbound hymnals, some in paperback subscription "missalettes," but they all take very seriously their calling to provide singable music to Catholic Christian assemblies. Not just that, but they treat me, and I assume other composers, with respect and collegiality, and on some level, over the years, some relationships there have developed into friendships. 

My original publisher (after the two I wrote about in earlier blogs, the Composers' Forumfor Catholic Worship and Resource Publications, who published my songs but not as recorded collections) was North American Liturgy Resources. It was there that I got to know people like the Bruno family, David Serey and his wife Jody (who co-authored the book of my musical, Lost and Found), Tom Kendzia, the irascible but hilarious Henry Papale, and Paul Quinlan, a dear man who as a Jesuit seminarian had written a number of energetic and excellent guitar versions of psalms. His "Brand New Day," "Sing to God a Brand New Canticle," and "How I Rejoiced" were three of my favorites in the early days of the guitar mass, and I'm talking 1969-1970 here. These songs of his appeared in the FEL Hymnal for Young Christians, which antedated NALR's Glory and Praise series by several years. Mark Mellis and Rick Hardy, longtime colleagues who worked with me at St. Jerome in Phoenix when I was the director of music and liturgy there (1983-1993) also were part of the staff at NALR.


Roc O'Connor trying to straighten us out at a recent
Composers' Forum dinner in St. Louis
Around 1990,  NALR and all its copyrights were acquired by Oregon Catholic Press, and Ray Bruno's son Bruce moved to Portland with his family to be vice president of marketing. Bruce's daughter Mandy had been in the children's choir at St. Jerome at the same time as my daughter Claire, and they were both cantors and leaders in the group.  Mandy made news in high school when she was un-cast as Jesus in Jesus Christ Superstar because of fears of community backlash (I believe that they did, however, let her play the part of Judas!) Mandy has since gone on to be a regular in the daytime serial All My Children, and was nominated for an Emmy in 2006. Bruce and Diane Bruno still work with Oregon Catholic Press, and I always look forward to hearing about their family when we see each other at this or that conference during the year. John Limb, the president of OCP, is a very genial man who has gone out of his way on several occasions to ask my opinion on various matters affecting composers, and I am grateful for their continued support of my older material, and ongoing friendships.

The people at GIA have been really good friends with us for over twenty years as well. When, for a number of reasons, in 1989 our trio decided to publish our next collection of songs, Safety Harbor, with GIA, we couldn't have been happier with the freedom we were given to deliver the music in a way that we felt did it justice. I still keep a letter from GIA's then-marketing-director Michael Cymbala on the wall of my cubicle at work, written just before the release of the original Gather Comprehensive hymnal, in which he can barely contain his pride with the new book, while welcoming the three of us into GIA's group of artists and thanking us for our trusting them with the music. And it has been a mutually beneficial relationship over the years, one in which we've been treated fairly, as valued colleagues. The Harris family, Bob Batastini, Michael, longtime editorial honcho Kelly Dobbs-Mickus, and many others over the years, some of whom have moved on to other work and ministries have been and continue to be good friends. Kelly's crack editorial eye made every piece of mine that GIA has published better than when I sent it in, and I try to be sure she knows how grateful I am for that.

Most recently, I've become acquainted with the team of editors and folks at World Library Publications, though I have to say that when I came to know most of them they were doing different work, and all managed to emigrate to WLP over the years as the now-retired-but-ever-fabulous Mary Prete began to assemble a staff of well-known and talented musicians and liturgists to work with the great people already in place at JSP/WLP. Mary we had known for years when she was the manager of Alverno Religious Bookstore in Chicago, and she and Alverno were an ubiquitous presence at conferences around the country for as long as I was involved in this work. She joined WLP, and then, with Alan Hommerding, names like the late John Wright, Jerry Galipeau, Steve Janco, Mary Beth Kunde-Anderson, Lisa Bagladi, and many others made up the team that drove the company. I've never worked with a more attentive text editor that Alan. Generally, I have to say, I've been cut a pretty wide path in the area of text, but Alan has been tremendous in helping me make my texts better with his mind for theological nuance and his ear for musicality. The music editors, especially Keith Kalemba, have been so helpful in making sure that what's on the page is actually what I mean, so that the end user can have a chance to play the song the way I wrote it. Thanks to all of them for their enthusiasm and hard work on my behalf.

So what was the big deal in the first posting? Obviously, it's a big tent. There are lots of singers and songwriters. We don't see eye-to-eye on a lot of things. Resources are strained, time in constrained, the precariousness of the church economy is kind of a drag on everyone. I still think that we writers aren't all treated the same, that there are a few writers whose work gets green-lighted without the rigorous processes to which most of us are subjected. A lot of teen-oriented music clearly doesn't get theologically or liturgically winnowed with as fine-toothed a comb as mine does for reasons that are still unclear to me. The publishers' investment is the same. The praise-chorus crowd doesn't need texts that make sense, or music that's appropriate to liturgy? Someone will no doubt explain it to me.

Those perceptions of mine might be mistaken, or dated, or just me turning into Abe (Grampa) Simpson. 

Still, it's such a privilege to be involved at all in the work of creating the music by which so many people in many places praise God, learn a vocabulary of faith, teach their children to pray, celebrate the paschal mystery, marry, and bury their dead. It's this reality upon which I try to focus when my pride and vanity threaten to sap my energy for the journey.

I got to a point with my last GIA project, Today, (2006) where I just said, "Whatever!" You know? The world doesn't need more Rory Cooney songs right now. When the time is right, nothing will stop their publication or people from singing them. When the time is wrong, no amount of cajoling or manipulation or conniving on my part will get them heard or into people's hearts. It's all in God's time; God, who works through human agents who have good days and bad days, who are over-worked, underpaid, and sometimes choose badly. It's better to keep friends than to worry about the traffic at the intersection of liturgical song and free enterprise. Help me remember that, Lord, and thanks for all the work that my friends at OCP, GIA, WLP, MorningStar, Augsburg-Concordia, and everyone else does to keep the song alive in the heart of your people.

As I mentioned in the original posting, I think we're ready now. We have good music to share. It's a matter of weighing options (like the various publishers' musical products and how they fit our target audiences) and realities (like our limited ability to concertize, and publishers' need to sell our product), making some decisions among ourselves (Gary and Terry and I) and then submitting a proposal to one or more of our publishers, and seeing what ensues. Maybe what we need is a "tribute" band to tour for us, like the "Fab Faux" do for the Beatles. Let's see, we'd need a beautiful woman with a voice to die for (like Terry), someone with a black belt in guitar, an unerring musicality, and no attitude (like Gary). Those would be hard enough. But where on earth would there be someone who could abuse the piano and sing as such a stranger to actual pitch than I? Feel free to send your application: you can always use an assumed name, and wear a fake nose and glasses.