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Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Liturgical Composers' Forum: Making Music Together

At concert rehearsal, "Be Not Afraid," L-R John Foley,
Bob Dufford, and Roc O'Connor, piano, Tom Kendzia
I spent last week at Mercy Center in Frontenac, MO, just west of St. Louis. During the last week of January, every year since 1998, the Liturgical Composers Forum has gathered there for a few days of learning, praying, strategizing, and networking.

We arrive on Monday from really all over the country, and, in the case of Paul Inwood, at least, other countries. Paul happened to have been in the US attending the SWLC study week last week, so the trip from Beaumont TX was a slightly shorter jaunt than it might have been, but Paul is one of the most consistently present members of this band of rhapsodes. After a welcoming cocktail hour, we have dinner, and spend a couple of hours getting reacquainted by updating each other in an informal way on what has been going on with us personally and musically since our last gathering, after which we celebrate some kind of night prayer, and, if I remember correctly, another cocktail hour. Or so.

Each year features one or two guest speakers who address us on some aspect(s) of our work about which we can all benefit. Over the years, we have heard from musicians like Alice Parker and John Ferguson, poets like Brian Wren, theologians like (CF member) J. Michael Joncas, spiritual leaders like Ron Rolheiser OMI, liturgists like Paul Turner, Anthony Ruff OSB, (CF founder and member) John Foley, SJ, and the late Lucien Deiss C. Ss. P., and many others. The website says that even I made a presentation one year, but I'll be damned if I remember when it was or what the subject was. This year, we were treated to presentations by the great scripture scholar Walter Brueggeman on two scriptural laments and on the nature of lament in general. It was an eye-opening and soul-baring experience to hear the song of Anna and the lament of David broken open in such a way that it invited us to reconsider what the subject of our songwriting is, and who the One is who inspires it. We also got to hear some of the doctoral work of CF member Ricky Manalo CSP on intercultural issues and the way they impact the way music is created and received by different cultural groups.

We've been working over a period of five or six years on a book about the art of writing liturgical music from a wide perspective of topics, and that book is very nearly ready for publication, although its final form has morphed from a single volume into several smaller volumes grouped by similar topics. I don't really have anything more to say about this other than to express my excitement about its publication, and my hope that it will be of some value to the church at large in some small way.

We spend time praying together as well, with mass in the morning for those who are early risers, morning prayer and some evening worship for all of us, and a conference Eucharist on the last evening and a formal dinner with entertainment. We take turns preparing the various prayer services and liturgies under the organizational eye of CF member Carol Browning from California, a member of the Collegeville Composers Group who produced the wonderful collection of music called Psallite. This year, for instance, knowing that Dr. Brueggeman was presenting on the subject of lament, I adapted a rite of lament for our group that I had used in parish missions and Forum workshops about reconciliation. One of our priest members presides at the Eucharist for us; this year, it was Roc O'Connor, while Janèt Sullivan Whitaker organized the music for the Eucharist. In this group, you can be sure, there are plenty of wonderful singers and musicians to bring the music to life.

This year's dinner entertainment featured the jazz stylings of CF member and Chicago area musician Larry Harris. In previous years, we've had musical revues created by the likes of members Kevin Keil, Barney Walker, and Gael Berberick, and performances by St. Louis chanteuse Erin Bode, as well as by one of SLU's pop a cappella groups.

With a rare lapse of judgment and even good sense, the members elected me to the steering committee this year, along with Bob Hurd, to replace outgoing committee members Roc O'Connor and Paul Inwood. Tom Kendzia will be the new chair of the steering committee, on which John Foley serves ex officio and of which Jaime Cortez and Carol Browning are sitting members. Most of what we do will be to prepare the event for next year, attend to the progress of our website development being created by member Fergal King, and follow through on other business matters that arose in our meeting this year. My highest priority will be to seek grant funding for moving the January site to a more work-congenial location, like Bora Bora or St. Bart's.

This year's meeting ended with our first benefit concert, held Thursday evening in the chapel at Mercy Center. Looking both to thank Mercy Center for their ongoing hospitality and to provide some seed money for next year's programs, we asked Tom Kendzia to organize a concert for the area, which was sold out of the 250 available tickets weeks in advance. Members of the Composers Forum performed with a small ensemble and choir made up of ourselves and some ringers from local CF member Peter Hesed's musical forces and Forum friend flautist David Brinker. I felt this was an historic concert in that so many of two or three generations of composers and songwriters led performances of their own songs in the same concert. I do not recall an event of this kind, featuring artists from all the different US publishers of Catholic music, ever. Attendees got to hear Michael Joncas lead "On Eagle's Wings," Marty Haugen lead "Shepherd Me, O God," and David Haas lead "You Are Mine," as well as John Foley leading his "One Bread, One Body," Bob Dufford lead "Be Not Afraid," and Roc O'Connor lead "Lift Up Your Hearts." I think that, all told, we performed all or part of about thirty songs in ninety minutes.

We have well over a hundred members, though not all are able to attend every year, their presence and influence in felt even in their absence. One of the things I certainly hope to inspire is a dialogue-by-dining, a companionship, with more of those who write in praise-and-worship genres and more of those who write in classical church styles. We certainly have members and attendees in both of those genres, but we could use more to cross-pollinate our ideas, to learn from each other. The Forum invitation to membership is to all composers who have published a "body of work" for the church. With the publishing business changing quickly, even that kind of language will need to be investigated to be sure we don't leave out people who should be in our group as new technologies and distribution channels are embraced.

That's about it. Here's the link again to the Saint Louis University Center for Liturgy's web page about the Composers Forum, with a little bit more about the origins and history of the group.

This is a really hard-working bunch of really fine people, I want you to know, who take their work seriously but who are grounded in real-life ministry in many different churches and denominations. I celebrated 20 years in my parish this week, and I thought that was good, until I started hearing how long some of my colleagues have been in their communities, including the great Steve Warner, who has been over thirty years with the Notre Dame Folk Choir, which he founded in 1983. Several members mentioned being in musical positions longer than I've been at St. Anne's in Barrington. That's not just inertia, friends. That's symbiosis, I think: the community that is generated by life in the Spirit. It's not always easy; in fact, it's characterized by "cruciform beauty," and the pattern of the cross. But it is sustained by song, by the psalms of lament and the alleluia of Easter, as it makes its paschal journey. Let's keep to the road together, praying for each other, and singing our songs in the church's prayer with full, conscious, and active participation.
"And did not Jesus sing a song that night
When utmost evil strove against the light?
Then let us sing, for whom he won the fight!
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!"                                                                                              ("When in Our Music God Is Glorified," by Fred Pratt Green, © 1972) 
Ricky Manalo, Janèt Whitaker, Paul Inwood (photo, Jaime Cortez) 

Yours truly, warily eyeing the turista with camera, and Tony Ward  (photo by Jaime Cortez)

Marty Haugen, Paul Hillebrand, and Michael Joncas (photo by Jaime Cortez)
David Haas and Walter Brueggeman (Jaime Cortez photo)

Some of the folks at rehearsal - first row, Fabing, Hillebrand, Ward, Demny; Second row, Cosas, Haas, Ridge; Third row, Soper, Joncas, Haugen, Mellis. 

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