Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Don't Reform the Reform, Says a Folk Musician

From the keynote address to the National Association of Pastoral Musicians, by Steven C. Warner:

Nor will you hear me advocate a particular style of music as being better than another. Our faith communities, particularly in America, are as diverse as any in the world. To make judgments about the worthiness of songs based on their genre would also, I feel, be a false direction in our maze. Some might accuse me of abandoning my own choir’s modus operandi by saying this: I’m in charge of a FOLK choir, right? But really, the Notre Dame Folk Choir’s name (as I have explained for many years) is not about advocating a style of music. (Although my friends swear there are two trinities at work in my world; the first is, of course, the Father, Son and Spirit – and the second being Peter, Paul, and Mary!)

But no, the “Folk” in the choir’s name references a vision, not a genre. It is the vision of a repertoire that, by and large, is the property of the assembly. It is a vision, a “job description,” of the choir as leaven, and of the singing assembly – the “folks,” if you will – as the natural extension of the choir. That vision cannot be contained in one, or even a handful, of musical styles....

Can musicians creatively move outside their normal repertoires without creating a stink among the choir and assembly alike? With my own ensemble, in order to avoid this trap, I routinely and constantly mix genres and styles, deliberately attempting to find just the right place for everything: bilingual responses, African and African-American songs, Taizé ostinato chorales, contemporary compositions, traditional hymnody, Irish and Mexican and French sacred songs and, yes, both English plainchant and Gregorian chant! In the words of the challenging hymn text by Marty Haugen, “All Are Welcome.” We speak here not of just the overt welcome of the human person, but an even more profound gesture of hospitality: the welcome of the human person’s attempts to capture her own, his own, experiences in song. In this vision, the rich, pluralistic, diverse fabric of human expression becomes a normative thing....

We have not yet begun to taste the profound fruit of the Second Vatican Council. We do not need a “reform of the reform.” We need to embrace this reform, and meet head-on the gifts of the Holy Spirit that continue to flow from this miraculous flowering of the Holy Catholic Church. To retreat from this vision, from the creative, tangible,
expressive wonder that has flowed from the Second Vatican Council, would be one of the most serious dead ends we could choose.

What we have in this speech an elaborate, and not very focussed, attempt to defend what has happened to Catholic music in the last several decades, and protect it against the rise of a new generation that is alert to a point that is never really mentioned in this talk: that the liturgy is not primarily about us but rather about God and thereby requires that a certain level of prayerful decorum have primacy of place in the production of art. The idea is not to capture our own spirit and experiences in song (that's a pretty good definition of what popular music is) but rather to permit the liturgy to convert and conform our spirit to the ideals of the faith.

It is also striking that someone could talk so much about Vatican II without ever mentioning what the Council demanded concerning music. This point continues to be the great unmentionable fact in modern discussion of this issue.

Let me finally take issue with the strong inference that anyone who doubts the merit of Christian folk-rock in Mass should be likened to a prison guard whose heart is frozen cold and who actions and words are mainly motivated by fear. Is it too much to ask that, for example, Mr. Warner at least grant that Pope Benedict XVI has legitimate concerns that don't stem from hard-hearted fear? Why does Mr. Warner feel the need to deliver such insults (however subtly)?

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: