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Thursday, May 31, 2018

SongStories 54: What Is This Love? (OCP, 2016)

St. Agnes Senior Choir. Founding members (of 50 years)
are standing for recognition at the anniversary mass.
About eleven years ago, Terry and I were invited by the music director at St. Agnes parish in Thunder Bay, Ontario, to come up and do a concert and workshop for them. It seemed like a great opportunity to see part of Ontario I hadn’t been to before, and so we said yes and went north and had a great time. Our hosts, Marcia Vaillant (the director) and her husband Ted, also a fine musician, trombone player, and big band arranger and conductor, showed us around, and had a son (Giorgio) about our son Desi’s age, so the time we spent not rehearsing or performing was relaxing and comfortable.

Marcia came to Music Ministry Alive in 2015, the year Terry and I helped out on the team, and later asked me if I’d consider coming back to Thunder Bay for another concert and workshop, but she also wanted to commission a piece for her choir for the 50th anniversary of the founding of the choir in their parish. We conversed about the kind of song she wanted, and settled on a communion processional. The mass was going to be held in June of 2016. The most fun part of all was that several of the members of the choir were actually members of the choir when it was founded fifty years earlier! Our time in Thunder Bay in 2016 was as much fun as nine years before, and Ted and Marcia have been to Barrington and Lake Zurich to visit us as well.

Through this particular time period, I was leading a two-year program of soup suppers, videos, and book discussions on James Alison’s wonderful “course on Christianity,” a look at the whole enterprise of Church, scripture, and faith through an almost entirely new lens, called Jesus, the Forgiving Victim. Though I had been a fan of Alison’s work for years, and before him, of his mentor, René Girard, Forgiving Victim really affected me, and helped me, much like Alison pictures Jesus doing on the road to Emmaus, to reinterpret my life as though I had never really understood it before, like it was happening around me, but not to me. The most important thing turned out to be that the interpretative key for my life is Christ himself, who Christ is, as he is, or as best we can understand who he is from the New Testament: the forever-presence of God made human in a specific person who is so much different from our expectation of what a god is like that, in Alison’s words, he is much more like no god at all than our expectations of a god.

I like to write what I’m passionate about at the time I’m writing. I want to write about whatever moves me inside, and try to communicate that passion in the song. So when I got down to writing this song, trying to say something, in a question, about who Jesus is, in the surprising way that he reveals who God is to us, and invites us to join in that wonderful, creative energy:
Who is this God who comes to dine,
Whose life is broken into pieces,
And shared with us like wine?
What is this love spread before us a feast?
Let us gather at God’s table,
And learn there the ways of peace.
The verses find different ways of expressing that: all are equal in God’s eyes; all are entitled to freedom and respect; and that the source of all this outpouring of accepting, generous love is God, giving us the Spirit of Jesus, the crucified Lord, risen and present among us. There's not really much "logic" to it, it's a cascade of images and exhortations under the impetus of the moment, when under the sign of shared food, this God "who is not like the other gods" comes to dine, and is consumed by us, empowering us to...what? Be consumed by others, if we dare to be like God, and give ourselves away, or rather, be given away by Christ's hand.
For friends and strangers,
One God, one Spirit.No foes nor rivals,
One crucified Lord.No wall nor borders,
One God, one Spirit.For all the lost:
One Christ risen, present with us here.
The song's introduction (and interlude) starts on the 7th note of the scale, a little unusual, but even more so against the subdominant bass, so a tritone. This was an accident, but as I reflected on the numerology of it, 7 being the "perfect" number, the tritone being the "devil's interval," dissonant, begging for resolution—but also 3, a number we use to describe the trinitarian nature of God, its dissonance may be alerting us to the insight that God is not what we imagined God to be. Where we want intervention, we get indwelling and cooperation. Where we want power, we get service. Where we want domination, we get community. Where we want victory, we get surrender. That's the paschal mystery. It's not just about Jesus, or even about us. It's the paschal nature of Godself.

“What Is This Love?” was picked up pretty quickly by OCP in Portland, Oregon, one of my publishers. I think it’s a nice addition to the communion repertoire, with a singable refrain, and verses that allow participation, along the lines of “May We Be One,” or Marty Haugen's "Within the Reign of God." Maybe you received a copy earlier this year in OCP's choral packet, and tabled it for later consideration? Please give it a listen and an audition, and see whether it might be right for your ensemble and choir. Thank you!

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

For Liturgical Composers Forum: Putting the "Sing" into "Fundraising"

My awesome colleagues and friends, mostly from LCF,
now surround me in my office and bring me joy
and inspiration. I think that's what they bring me...
One possible downside of being a published composer is that it's never a secret how old you are. No matter how many times I ask them to change my birthday to, say, a decade or two later than it seems to be recorded as, my publishers, bless their hearts, keep writing 1952. My birthday is May 29, so on that day, I will be 39. Well, for the 27th time. 66, if you want to be all scientific about it.

On the upside, I still just have one date, as in (1952 - ). So things could be worse. Or maybe better, for you. (See my rant about "The Dash" here.)

With first communions and confirmation taking place almost entirely in April this year, Deo gratias, I've had a more reflective May than I expected to have, and that kind of leisure around one's birthday almost inexorably leads to thinking about one's blessings and the amazing good fortune life has brought me. Let me clarify: not a fortune, exactly, lucre-wise, but I've been able to live my life among wonderful friends and family, I've made something like a living doing what I really love, and I've been affirmed in my work over many years by the people whom it has been my pleasure to serve.

Music is a grand collaboration, a school of cooperation and surrender. I've said a million times, and I believe it, that there is a sense in which I am so aware that I have no business doing what I do, that almost everyone else I know in the ministry of music and liturgy knows more or is more gifted or practiced and studied more. In a room full of my colleagues, everyone is better than I am at some aspect of ministry. But I know also that I've been given enough, and that it's not about me anyway, but about the collaboration, about building musical communities, about reminding people that Christians were "born singing," in Pere Gelineau's wonderful phrase, that God is love, and that people in love make signs of love, like singing, even nonsense syllables like ahhhh❤️---lehhhh---loo❤️ooo----yaaaa😍ah, and so on. It takes a village to make a musician, and all the unselfish friends and mentors and teachers I have had since I was a child at St. Vincent de Paul School in Phoenix, with the wonderful Daughters of Charity for teachers and choir directors, have given me a high bar to stretch toward in music ministry, and a constant reminder that, again, it's not about me, it's about us, and it's about God-with-us.

The last time I wrote an article about the Liturgical Composers Forum (though I did post a set list of a concert in other years here and here), I mentioned that they had somehow miscounted the ballots and elected me to the steering committee, where I was able to work with Tom Kendzia, Carol Browning, Jaime Cortez, Feargal King, most recently Tony Ward and Christian Cosas, and the St. Louis executive committee members Betty Halley and Paul Hasser for four years, trying to envision our future as a group and shape it not just for survival but for growth. This past January, in what had to be some kind of lesson in both humility and the need for better communication, I was re-elected to the steering committee and made chairperson in absentia. I took this as you might expect, that it was a sign from God that no one else wanted to do it, and as a punishment for missing the meeting to have lunch with my local friends from St. Vincent's church. But I also took it seriously, in the sense that, something wonderful had been given to us all—to us composers and to the church—by the work that had been begun by John Foley, SJ, from the Center for Liturgy at St. Louis University, and then by all the team members who have served the Liturgical Composers Forum (LCF) since, under the various members of the steering committee, led by Roc O'Connor SJ, and then by Tom Kendzia.

The Forum's membership, from our point of view, has always been anyone and everyone who has a "significant body of work" published by a major publisher. After some discernment about this while we were writing up and discussing some bylaws a few years ago, the membership came up with a few wrinkles on that original idea. We're still working through some of these, but one that we did implement was that people whose goals and ministries align with ours are now admitted on a case-by-case basis as "associate members," with all the rights and privileges (such as they are) of full members except the right to vote. We welcomed some of our first associate members this past January, and we look for others in the future. We imagine that composition and liturgy students, text writers, publishers, and people who might liaise with other similar groups (NPM, AGO, FDLC, etc.) might also become associate members. We've consciously tried to recruit and welcome more Hispanic composers, and we are also quite conscious of trying to encourage more women composers to attend. We had our largest turnout so far this year of women composers, but certainly are looking for more parity as we grow.

Costs are always a concern. Four years ago, we added a concert to the last night of our meeting, an option for those members who are able to stay. We invite the friends of Composers Forum and the church of St. Louis to an evening of our compositions led and sung by the members. This has been of benefit both to us and to the Mercy Center, the conference and retreat center where we meet each year, run by the Sisters of Mercy. We manage to (at least) break even every year through a combination of (modest) dues and a conference fee. We did a book project, edited by John Foley and published by Liturgical Press, a three-volume series of essays by the membership on aspects of liturgical music and composition. Under the umbrella title The Heart of Our Music (link above), the three books explored various aspects of our craft:
The Heart of Our Music: Underpinning Our Thinking: Reflections on Music and Liturgy by Members of the Liturgical Composers Forum 
The Heart of Our Music: Practical Considerations: Reflections on Music and Liturgy by Members of the Liturgical Composers Forum 
The Heart of Our Music: Digging Deeper: Reflections on Music and Liturgy by Members of the Liturgical Composers Forum
The royalties from all three volumes were donated by the members to the LCF.

Two areas where we currently need funding are scholarships for composers unable to pay registration costs and stipends for our two hardworking executive committee members. In the latter case, we voted that a stipend for them is a matter of justice, and we're currently working on getting grants to help cover these costs. But guess who's trying to get the grants? You guessed it: our hardworking executive committee. We think that in a year or so we may have this under control. But we feel that underwriting worthy but needy members who can't afford to come to our meetings will be an ongoing ministry of the group. We need everyone's voice. The  publishers really help underwrite our costs, we closely watch our budget and our yearly fees, but things happen. Each year we work toward better communication with each other, sharing ideas and strategies for writing and balancing the demands of family, work (most in parishes or academia), and faith, we work toward new ways of mentoring and helping each other make our work better.

This is why you may have noticed that I have a birthday fundraiser going for LCF this year. Already, less than a week into the two-week drive (and it's not even my birthday), we've far exceeded my expectations, making me wish I'd just asked everyone to send ME money, and I could have had a much better vacation this summer! But instead this has been put through the fundraising arm of Facebook, and over fifty people have already contributed.

If it's possible for you to contribute via Facebook (link here), please do. LCF is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, so your donations are tax deductible. If you aren't a Facebook user, you can make a donation directly to LCF by sending your donation to
Liturgical Composers Forum
c/o Betty Halley
1355 Kraft Street
St. Louis, MO 63139

You don't have to worry: this won't be a yearly event for me! I just wanted to try to give us a small financial cushion going into the 2019 meeting, when we hope to give a push for women composers, and make more inroads welcoming the wonderful Spanish-language composers working for the church.

Look, I just want to say "Thank you" to all of you who support your local church musicians and especially composers and text writers. I want thank everyone who teaches music and poetry and language and theology and inspires young(ish) people of faith to want to be songwriters. I am so very grateful to people like Rev. David Windsor, CM, and Sr. Georgianna and Sr. Thomas Anne DCs, of my first parish, SVdP in Phoenix, and to Bob Klimek, Bill Fraher, Mike Javor, the late Jim Mahoney, Sr. Anthony Poerio IBVM, who has also gone before us into glory, Cyprian (Daniel) Consiglio OSB Cam., the late John Gallen, SJ, Tom Kendzia, Gary Daigle, Tom Conry, every choir member or cantor or instrumentalist who ever worked with me, my mom, my grandfather, Terry Donohoo and everyone else who inspired me, encouraged me, taught me, helped me learn to be more generous and broader in my lyrical brush strokes. There are dozens, maybe hundreds more of you, of course.

At 66, I know that my life is nearly half over, and it's about time to pass the torch to the next generation of church musicians so that they, too, can know the special kind of anonymity that comes from writing songs, the joy of teaching a pew to sing. But to borrow a couple of phrases, "to you who bow," "we will make music to you while we breathe." It's so worth the effort. It's such a joyful, rewarding ministry. It is a great honor to be a part of the Liturgical Composers Forum, and I hope you will join me in making a gift this spring for the health and longevity of our ministry!

Monday, May 21, 2018

SongStories 53: Song of the Chosen (Psalm 33) - OCP, 1985 and 1998

When we were working on our first trio album for North American Liturgy Resources in 1985, I was very excited because since my You Alone album the previous year, an album which had a lot of music I’d written over the previous 10-15 years, I had written a number of new songs that reflected some new insights I’d gotten in my classes with John Gallen SJ in Phoenix. I was “beta-testing” these songs at my "new" parish (since 1983) in Phoenix, St. Jerome Catholic Community. Gary Daigle, Terry and I were very excited about doing a recording together, and maybe starting to work together as a trio.

The album that eventually came out was called Do Not Fear to Hope, and in addition to the title song, there were several songs that were anthologized from the collection in hymnals and worship aids for many years: “Come to Us,” for instance, is still published in OCP’s Glory and Praise, Third Edition and in GIA’s Gather Third Edition three decades later, as is “We Will Serve the Lord. “Faithful Family” was on that recording, as were some of my responsorial psalms like “The Lord Is Kind (Psalm 103)” and “Psalm 98, Psalm for Christmas.”

Tom Kendzia was the producer. Tom and I had been friends for about five years since we'd first met when he came to work at NALR and invited me to help introduce his music at an NPM in Detroit. Tom brought in to the sessions a former college roommate of his from Manhattanville College in New York, a fellow named Stacy Widelitz. Tom wanted Stacy to play synthesizers in place of a lot of “real” instruments, and among his keyboards Stacy had brought a state-of-the-art synth called an Emulator, which boasted a wide range of beautifully sampled orchestral and rock instruments. I had written a setting of the 19th century text “Save the People,” or “The People’s Anthem” by Ebenezer Elliott, a contemporary of Charles Dickens, that had also been used in Godspell. I had imagined the accompaniment as a woodwind quartet. Stacy played the flute, bassoon, and oboe parts separately on the Synergy, and we were all amazed at the authenticity of the sound, especially when a "real" instrument or two was added into the mix. Stacy had played an Oberheim OB-8 during the sessions.

I was new to the whole synth scene, but like everyone else had been amazed by the use of the Mellotron by the Moody Blues and other bands since the 1970s. Wendy (nee Walter) Carlos had made synths mainstream with recordings like Switched On Bach, Vangelis had a huge pop hit with the soundtrack from Chariots of Fire that featured synth as well. Tom's interest in using computers to arrange and sequence music got me mildly interested for a while, but his expertise showed up in his use of sequencing in some of his liturgical music, which was always surprising and energetic to me. I went to a workshop on the Synergy system, that Carlos had used for his performances, but the price aside, the recording studio metaphor that computer recording was based on just eluded me, and I was happy to cede all that to Tom and later to Gary in our work together. 

But this whole lead-in is oriented toward the first song on the record: “Song of the Chosen.” This was a setting of Psalm 33 I had written on a private retreat at my former high school seminary. It found its way into later editions Glory and Praise hymnals and is still in the 3rd Edition, and was in Gather Comprehensive, the 1989 reboot of the Gather series published by GIA. "Song of the Chosen" had an energetic refrain, “We are God’s chosen people, we are saints. We are God’s work of art, signed and set apart: let us sing!” Later, I added the refrain, “Happy the people you have chosen, chosen to be for you alone,” so that the psalm could be used on Trinity Sunday and the RCIA Rite of Acceptance. This later refrain was featured when we re-recorded the song with alternate verses on our 1996 recording, Cries of the Spirit, Volume 2.

Stacy was experimenting with synth pads on the song, and had an idea to start the music before the downbeat with an upward-moving “portamento,” an effect that slides the tone of a note or chord upward smoothly, to land on the opening piano chords as the rhythm starts. It sounds incredibly eighties, but makes me smile every time I listen back to it. (If you haven't already done so, listen to the beginning of the SoundCloud track above.)

We wouldn't be able to afford Stacy any more, I’m sure: he went on to co-write the song “She’s Like the Wind” with the late Patrick Swayze for the movie Dirty Dancing, and did music for Beverly Hills 90210 and other television and movie scores. 

"Song of the Chosen (Psalm 33)" was, when I wrote it, an attempt to write a song that would help me and others to sing into being a belief in ourselves as God’s beloved children, God’s “work of art,” against the sometimes prevailing thought of ourselves as rejected and sinful. This may be less so now, but it was a strong current in popular pre-V2 Catholicism, and as a songwriter I just wanted to offer a way, out of scripture, that might present a way out of that mindset. The refrain comes from 1 Peter 2:9 and Ephesians 2:10, combining the ideas of the chosen and the saints (Peter) and God’s work of art (Ephesians), while the verses are a metric paraphrase of almost all of Psalm 33. 

The record Do Not Fear to Hope was on cassette and vinyl, and was never digitized, but I did have a friend at St. Anne's, Mark Karney, at whose studio most of our albums since 1995 (including Cries of the Spirit Volume 2) were recorded, digitize the vinyl for me so I’d have a copy.The SoundCloud track above from “Song of the Chosen” was digitized that way.

In those days, I was using the Jerusalem Bible for most of my work, and it was an approved translation in the US, with its own lectionary. Admittedly too, I wasn't sensitized yet to the way the use of the divine name (Yahweh) being used in public prayer can be insensitive to some. As one friend of mine put it, "It's like repeating a joke you don't get." Over the years, I've changed the original text which used "Yahweh" like the Jerusalem Bible did to more generally acceptable terms.

Song of the Chosen (Psalm 33)
words and music by Rory Cooney
We are God's chosen people,
We are the saints.
We are God's work of art,
Signed and set apart:
Let us sing! 
1. Rejoice, you saints, in God, for praise from you is right;
Music makers, sing by play, and play with all your might!
Sing God a new song, play well upon your strings,
For God loves truth and righteousness, God's word does wondrous things. 
2. God's kindness fills the world, whose word the heaven forms,
Whose singing mouth, to north and south, as spoken stars and storms,
Whose might forbids the waves to trespass on the land,
And gathers all the oceans up to cup them in a hand,
Who gathers all the oceans up to cup them in a hand. 
3. God speaks and it is done, whose word existence gives,
So let the world its God revere, and hear the One-Who-Lives.
Your wondrous plan, O God, is known to you alone,
And happy is the people you have chosen for your own. 
4. From heaven, God looks down upon all humankind,
God knows the dwellers of our globe, and probes the heart and mind.
No, none escapes the glance of God who reigns on high:
No secret can creation keep on earth or sea or sky,
No secret can creation keep on earth of sea or sky. 
5. No king is safe from death, though armies guard him well;
No warrior armed and mounted strong can long escape from hell.
But see! The eyes of God look earthward west and east
To snatch the poor from famine's thrall, and call them to the feast. 
6. So wait upon the one who is our help and shield.
Rejoice, you saints, to sing the Name. Proclaim God's might revealed.
May your blessings fall upon us all our days.
We hope in you, we trust in you. To you be endless praise.
We hope in you, we trust in you. To you be endless praise. 
Copyright © 1985, 1989, 1996 OCP, Portland Oregon. All rights reserved. 
Alternate refrains:
1. Happy the people you have chosen, chosen to be for you alone.
2. Lord, let your mercy be upon us; we place our trust in you.
Lord, let your mercy be upon us; we place our trust in you.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

SongStories 52: This Very Morning (GIA, 1998, "This Very Morning")

Sometimes people ask me what my favorite song I've written is. There are a lot of answers to that question. My favorite answer is, "the next one." The truest answer is, "whichever one I hear people singing really well." But another answer is that there are a few songs where I think the words and music fit together really, really, well, and both words and music represent about the best that I can do. One song like that is "The Wilderness Awaits You," which was on our Today album. Another is "Let Us Go to the Altar of God," from Christ the Icon, and I think I'd include the title song of that album too. "To You Who Bow" is another, and there are others. I never publish anything that I think is less than the best I can do at the time, but some just stand out for me. This may sound weird, but I sometimes will be singing it, or hearing people sing it with me, and I'll think, "I don't know how I did this. I don't know where this came from. How did it happen?" There's a sense, and by no means do I mean this is infallible or not completely subjective, that it's better than I am, that I literally "outdid myself," because I can't trace its origin.

One song like that is "This Very Morning," which is a song we use in the Easter season, especially as we approach the feast of Pentecost. The song was commissioned by Fr. Stanley Szcapa, a priest friend of mine from my years working on Remembering Church institutes (or "The Reconciling Community") with the North American Forum on the Catechumenate, for his 25th anniversary of ordination in 1996. (Wow! Stan, that means you're just 3 years away from 50 now! I guess the "ad multos annos" superscription worked!) The date of his anniversary was on Pentecost, so I wanted to pull together the Easter season with some Pentecost imagery that would embody what in the Forum we used to call the "Pentecost perspective," a way of looking at the paschal mystery from the perspective of mission, the outward impetus of the Holy Spirit.

The paschal mystery calls us to see everything through Easter eyes. Everything that ever was is present to God right now, and so the story of God told through us, told through the revelation of scripture, told through creation, is all one story that helps us understand who we are and give us hope and momentum as we struggle to learn to love better in a world that is often nothing less than hostile to love. The presence of God, the reign of God, is here right now, this very day, this very morning. God made this day, this moment, as God made every day and moment. Here's how I did that, in stanza one, for instance:
As though this breeze were born of hovering wings,
As though this singing were the breath of God,
As though this world were wet from recent birth,
As though these thankful tongues were all the tongues of earth,
As though our eyes were lit by tongues of fire,
As though on clover paths God spoke our name,
As though a slave awoke in freedom's light,
As though from death a dream might leap as day from night,
Let us rejoice! This very morning,
This is the day that God has made: Let us rejoice now! (1)
I wanted to express this in a way that suggested the past, the present and the future were all in one moment, so I used the phrase "as though" at the beginning of each image that suggests a scriptural moment, so that each verse is constructed, "As though..., as though..., as though..., Let us rejoice! This very morning, this is the day that God has made. Let us rejoice now!" So the first line of the stanza above suggests that "this breeze" that we feel now might come from the wings of Pentecost; this singing might be God's breath, and this singing might somehow be all people everywhere. Each line refers to a reality that has been, or might be possible, carried with us in this present moment.
As though all chaos hushed at God's command,
As though earth's bounty might be shared by all,
As though from human sin a promise bloomed,
As though we wept, and saw though tears an empty tomb,
As though no power might hold God's own in thrall,
As though no human grip could grasp and hold,
As though a king could fear a baby's cry,
As though a god might hang a strongbow in the sky,
Let us rejoice! This very morning,This is the day that God has made: Let us be glad now!
As though a God might kneel to wash our feet,
As though new wind and flame might rout our fear,
As though a gift were given for every need,
As though this bread we break might all creation feed,
Let us rejoice! This very morning,This is the day that God has made: Let us be glad now! (1)
I set the music of "This Very Morning" to a simple hymn tune, with just unison choir with a soprano descant, in order to make participation as immediate as possible. Each four-line stanza has the same tune, with the eight-bar refrain happening three times. Lifting the final half-stanza by a half tone would, I hope, inspire some to take up the strain with a little more gusto. In a sense, you'd better, because the refrain ends on the highest note in the song, so unless you're going to cheat, you'd better belt.

Just because these songs make me, in a way, feel like a stranger to my own work, doesn't mean that I'm not grateful for the opportunity and the task of creating them. So many influences on my life over a lot of years made songwriting possible for me: certainly the music and poetry of others, the love I've experienced in family and friends, the expertise of teachers and mentors, the gifts and opportunities I've been given and the impetus and urgency to share them. I feel like I must be doing what I'm supposed to be doing, for better or worse, because so often it's as though these things happen not because of me, but through me. The good they are comes from above, any weakness or flaws or unworthiness are my own. I'm surprised, humbled, and delighted by the mystery of it. And I'm grateful for those who have taken risks to support me, publish and distribute my songs, and especially grateful for the affirmation and love of those who sing them, especially Gary Daigle and my wife Terry Donohoo, and my wonderful choir friends now and through the years. Thank you all. What a wondrous journey it has been, and continues to be.

This Very Morning. More information at GIA Publications. 

(1) Copyright © 1998 GIA Publications, Inc. 7404 South Mason Avenue, Chicago IL 60638.
All rights reserved. Used with permission.