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Thursday, February 20, 2014

TBT "Nonconformity or Extinction - Simple Choices for Pastoral Musicians" (1997, GIA Quarterly article)

or, How to alienate friends and lose influence with people, by Rory Cooney.

I'm not going to print this entire article again, because even though the events I describe at the beginning of it actually happened, I found that reporting them alienated some people irreparably and probably made the rest of what I had to say unreadable. I excised three paragraphs at the ellipsis about a page down. I have criticized others at times for "telling their truth" without love, or, as Paul Simon put it, "there's no tenderness underneath your honesty," so I don't want to continue in that vein. But I think other parts of this article, while maybe not participating in undying or unchanging "truth", whatever that is, may be worth revisiting 17 years later. Or not. You certainly don't have to read it. 

This article appeared in GIA Quarterly in 1997, under the title:

Nonconformity or Extinction:
Simple Choices for Pastoral Musicians
by Rory Cooney
Copyright © 1997
“...Older writers should find younger writers inimical, because younger writers are sending them an unwelcome message. They are saying, “It’s not like that anymore. It’s like this.” In the present context, “that” and “this” can loosely be described as the thought-rhythms peculiar to your time. Implicit in these thought-rhythms are certain values, moral and aesthetic.”
Martin Amis “Buy My Book, Please” New Yorker, June 26-July 3, 1995.

Malcolm’s reply was immediate: “What makes you think human beings are sentient and aware? There’s no evidence for it. Human beings never think for themselves, they find it too uncomfortable. For the most part, members of our species simply repeat what they are told—and become upset if they are exposed to any different view. The characteristic human trait is not awareness but conformity, and the characteristic result is religious warfare.…We are stubborn, self-destructive conformists. Any other view of our species is just self-congratulatory delusion. Next question.”
From The Lost World, by Michael Crichton. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1995, pp. 7-8.

You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile. (Locutus of Borg, STNG)
Caveat lector! To continue reading, you will be asked to join me in sliding down the razor blade that is the axiomatic paradigm shift of our ecclesial time. GIA has asked me in these few paragraphs to offer some reflections on the state of musical liturgy in the United States. To the extent that my travels, experience, reading, and observations allow me, I am undertaking that request.

Do not expect detachment. I am not dispassionate about this subject. Occasionally, someone wonders aloud to me why I do my own music in my workshops and in liturgies I help prepare. The answer is simple: I began as a Catholic and a songwriter, not as a liturgist. What I believe and what I know and what I love is in my music. Why would I write it otherwise? It is precisely the passion that I feel for the gospel and for the ministry of the Church that drives me both to write the way I do and to do articles and workshops that expand those poetic attempts to express the mystery. I can no more be detached or “objective” about liturgical music than I could stop loving my children.

In the caveat lector department, this is me and my
spiritual director...
I get some validation for this unscientific lack of detachment in an unlikely source: another passage from The Lost World, in which Ian Malcolm, the mathematician/complexity theorist played by Jeff Goldblum in the movie Jurassic Park, declaims, “‘That’s the greatest single scientific discovery of the twentieth century. You can’t study something without changing it.’…It became clear that all scientists were participants in a participatory universe which did not allow anyone to be a mere observer. Objectivity is impossible.” The “Heisenberg uncertainty principle” ought to reassure those sainted architects of theConstitution on Sacred Liturgy that they were inviting Catholics out of a post-Enlightenment faith and into the twenty-first century, to the fractal edge of chaos. Perhaps closer to our own discipline, Ched Myers writes in the introduction to his enthralling exegesis of Mark called Binding the Strong Man, “There is no such thing as a ‘neutral’ site from which to interpret the (biblical) text, although it is widely feigned.…To make matters worse, professional exegetes have rarely been able or willing to address the text to their own historical situation. Because of this, the academic theological establishment has become deeply complicit, however unwittingly, in the ideological maintenance of the locus imperium.” (p.10). The same can be said, I think of some liturgists and some musicians. I would go so far as to say that, by and large, complicity with the American status quo continues to be our greatest sin as worship leaders....

There is certainly a lot of good singing going on in a lot of churches. Furthermore, that singing, thanks to a broader base of music available in hymnals and missalette programs, is of a broader ethnic and stylistic range than ever before. The kind of singing that was once reserved for “Holy God, We Praise Thy Name” and “Glory and Praise to our God” can now be heard on “Digo Sí, Señor” and “Soon and Very Soon.” Hymnals are better, and along with missalettes and other resources are learning to be more diverse. Publishers seem proactively concerned about cost, about beauty, and about quality. There is evidence in this archdiocese (Chicago) of more trust between pastors and musicians: certainly, there is a great number of full-time liturgical musicians around, and they are as dedicated as they are underpaid. Thousands of musicians show up yearly at NPM, AGO, and HSA meetings, and judging by their salaries, they’re not all paying their own way. Music ministries take on pastoral projects outside the parish, visiting nursing homes and sharing time and talent with less prosperous parishes, helping other musicians acquire some liturgical skills that might otherwise be inaccessible to them.

But significant challenges to pastoral musicians and pastors remain. The challenge of beginning to sing the liturgy has largely gone unheeded. Gathering rites continue to be a suite of three (or more) unrelated songs. The Eucharistic prayer continues to be a roadblock to “full, conscious, and active participation” rather than its apogee. It may be the case that at gatherings like the NPM, when one sees a sung liturgy modeled, it seems so numbingly “high church” (think antiphonal trumpets, dueling choirs, half a dozen cantors) or impossibly dull (think bitonal ritual exchanges in “the glory that was chant”) that the “ritual” baby is thrown out with the “model” bath water. We get overwhelmed and begin to believe that sung ritual is impossible.

As ex officio mystagogs and catechists, we musicians have generally failed to instruct our assemblies as to why we ought to sing (participate in) the liturgy whether or not we feel like we’re capable. Members of the assembly are hard-pressed to articulate that the ministry of music is primarily an assembly ministry, and only entrusted to us musicians as servants and stewards of their song. Singing is everyone’s responsibility, as is ministry of the word and Eucharistic living. As musicians, we just organize the assembly’s song. Perhaps we haven’t been good mystagogs because that might give the assembly too much power. Or perhaps we don’t yet, as a group, believe in their song. We think we can do it better, and therefore we usurp their song. If this is the case, we need a mass call to repentance. We are wrong. We are possessed with an unclean spirit. We need an exorcist, and now. No matter how lovely the song, it is not the song of the prophets and martyrs, but of the king, the banker, and their minions.

There is still a lot of “show” music being done during liturgy. Some of it is by Amy Grant and Michael Card, some of it is by Orlando di Lasso and John Rutter. It’s all lovely, it belongs in church. It just doesn’t belong in liturgy. It needs to be rooted out relentlessly and transplanted to concerts and days of renewal where it belongs.

As is the case with this article, most of what little attention has been paid to the dynamics of ritual music has been paid (and rightly so) to the Eucharistic liturgy. Many musicians have taken the responsibility for learning the dynamics of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults seriously as well, but I am afraid that the attitude among many musicians is like that of their pastors: that the rites are an intrusion into their Sunday program. I am aware of a case in a parish in which the paid, full-time music director refused to lend any choral or instrumental resources to the Easter Vigil because they were all too busy on Sunday morning, so the Vigil was done with a cantor and accompanist. Other ritual celebrations suffer from this Sunday-Eucharist syndrome too. I know of otherwise peerless liturgical musicians who will do anything at weddings. Yes, they will tell stories and complain about it, but they’ll do anything. Some will justify their excursion into Phantom of the Opera or The Lion King by saying, “Well, it’s ‘pre-service’ music,” as though they had never heard anything Eugene Walsh had ever written about gathering rites “beginning in the parking lot.” Well, let’s just say the seventies weren’t that long ago and I’ve done my share of pandering, too, but how about it, folks. When are we going to grow up? And by the way, “can you feel the love tonight?”

Pastors have failed, too, to use their influence with the faithful and their education and privileged position in the church to intercede on behalf of sung liturgy with their congregations. Priests need to take what they know—for instance, that the Eucharistic prayer is, with the communion rite, a high point of the liturgy—and help musicians translate that into ritual practice, the time be damned. To use Tom Conry’s phrase, we “cooperate with the pathology” of convenience-based Sunday worship, and are afraid that assemblies will “vote against” necessary reform in the collection basket. It won’t happen. We like being Catholic. We are hungry for the presence of God. And “good celebrations foster and nourish faith. Bad celebrations…destroy faith.”

Perhaps worst of all, in my belief we have continued to promote the status quo and the stranglehold of the ruling powers of maleness, capital, and beauty by not making a conscious effort to prune our repertoires of mindless (and heartless) “praise” songs, of “power” and “glory” songs and their macho paramilitary imagery. Friends, this is not part of the problem: this is the problem. Until we can rid the liturgy of unmitigated personal-salvation, praise-the-Lord, isn’t-it-great-to-be-together music with no referent to the salvation of the whole human tribe, with no suggestion that we are praising One who casts down the powerful from their thrones and raises the miserable to high places, with no apparent awareness that being-together is a death march against the winds and tides of human greed, territorialism, and narcosis, then our liturgy is in danger of being “assimilated” into the very culture which it has been given the commission to change. If the message of Jesus was just “Praise the Lord,” no one would have crucified him. No one would have noticed him. Lyrics are liturgy. Language is symbol. They are elements of celebration. “Good celebrations foster and nourish faith. Bad celebrations…destroy faith.”

I may be as guilty as the next person here. I have a song called “We Will Serve the Lord” which is very macho and tries to conjure the spirit of Joshua and the tribe at Shechem with its martial cadences, sort of a liturgical “When Johnny Comes Marching Home.” I won’t take that song back—it has other redeeming qualities!—but what I will do is try to come up with another song that might be called, “We Will Not Serve the Lord,” because, I might say, that our God is a servant, not a “lord” as human beings know lords. I have quoted before theologian David Powers’ Berakah award acceptance speech, wherein he said that in saying “Jesus is Lord,” Christians do not define Jesus by human lordship, rather, they define lordship by who Jesus was. That may be true at Catholic University. In my heart, I believe it. But it is not the experience of the church and the world for the first two thousand years of Christianity. Leadership in the church is modeled on human structures of power. The mosaic of Christ Pantocrator in the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., is not of a footwasher or the Crucified One. It is the picture of an emperor. Specifically, a Roman one.
I suggest to you further that, again, as ex officio catechists and mystagogs, we need to spend more time studying the scriptures and praying in small groups with the lectionary as we are preparing music for the Eucharist. By studying, I mean reading commentaries by the distinguished scholars of Catholic and Reform tradition who are helping us get a clearer idea (not infallible, but clearer) of what the original context might have been of the distilled texts that we have today. They further help us to clear away the grammar-school (or worse) baggage we’ve brought with us to understanding the core documents of our faith. This is a discipline, but it is one we must begin to practice together or risk singing and dancing idiotically around our sacrifices while the prophet next door calls down the real fire.

If you have reached this point, gentle reader, you have reached the end. Thank you for your time. If you find that what I’ve written resonates with your experience, then you and I have allies in each other, and we can go about our work knowing that we are not alone. We’ll keep pushing (gently, gently) for “full, conscious, and active” participation of the whole assembly and have our concerts outside of liturgical time. We’ll not be seduced into doing new music every week because we know that the assembly sings a song once for about every thirty times that we or our choirs sing it. We will not be misled by those who continue to judge the quality of musical art by the printed page and not
Dinosaur skull, embedded in the marble communion
rail in a 17th century Italian church. Coincidence,
or cosmic irony?
by the performance event itself, judging formal music to be be “better” than popular music, a “Western classical bias,” in Fr. Ed Foley’s words, that does not duly respect folk and popular art forms. We’ll do our homework in other important church rituals, particularly initiation rituals, and recognize that a great Easter vigil music program is more important than the Christmas program preceding midnight mass. And we’ll keep a wary eye on our texts and music to be sure that we aren’t saying “God is great and all is right with the world” when in fact the truth is that God is great, but maybe not "great" in the way we want to think, and all isn’t right with the world.

If you are angry and disagree with what you’ve read, well, you may be right. It’s just liturgy, after all, so let us reason together. CSL itself confesses, Deo gratias, that “the liturgy does not exhaust the entire activity of the Church” (no. 9). Let’s live the Gospel together, and see what happens to our discussion. For now, I insist that we must resist. Christianity must not be assimilated, lest justice recede like the glaciers, and hope go the way of the dinosaur.

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