Wednesday, July 02, 2008

A New Model of Musicianship

Following the Sacred Music Colloquium, many people said that something very special happened but they weren't entirely sure what it all meant. It seemed like some kind of new era in Church music, a new model for the future perhaps but even more than that. It was something magical, mystical, and transforming. You can tell it from the image galleries. Everyone is smiling, filled with joy, people gathered in groups talking and laughing between rehearsals and liturgy. They are clearly happy and at peace with what they are doing.

You have to know something about the world of musicians to know why this is a bit unusual.

My own experiences in the world of professional music seem to be confirmed by enough people to warrant reporting here. I think back to my days in my late teen years, idealistic and in love with the power of music to make the world more beautiful, the capacity of music to embody and improve the whole of the human experience and point to something higher and more wonderful.

And yet: there was a problem. The world of professional and academic musicianship did not live up to expectations. Idealism was the exception rather than the rule. The cultural ethos of the students seemed to put a premium on disgruntlement. Individual players and singers believed themselves to be too good for the groups to which they belonged. Composers felt that they were throwing pearls at swine. The professors complained constantly about low salaries and lack of funding. The sole goal of the creative types was to somehow stun the sensibilities of the bourgeoisie. The loathing of the audience was commonplace, like a doctrine that no one doubted.

The mismanagement of their own lives was sad to witness. The classical musicians—totally dedicated—were nonetheless filled with bitter angst and self-loathing. The jazz musicians reveled in personal financial irresponsibility and self-destructive behavior. The choral musicians were better but encouraging words and a bright outlook on life was not the norm. Money worries consumed everyone and this bred a refusal to engage in non-remunerative music making. They were stingy with their talents, all of them. They demanded a union wage or higher. They would frequently turn down gigs because the pay was too low and then sit at home bemoaning the state of the world and its refusal to embrace (pay for) true art.

The combination of all these traits created a downcast spirit that struck me as integral to the whole scene, which seemed to worsen by the day, shielded from hope in a dome of discontent. Backbiting and viciousness towards colleagues was pervasive. To congratulate others was a tactic, not a sincere impulse. It mattered not how successful a person became. Even the famous and rich among them—who were regarded by less successful musicians as sell outs—lived insufferable lives and look down on their fans and turned up their noses at the music people really wanted to hear.

Knowing all this began to affect the way I heard performances. A chamber group would be playing Mozart and I would know that, in their hearts, these musicians on stage were secretly disdainful that this is what people wanted to hear. They would look out at us, the audience, and think: what a bunch of half wits with their bourgeois sensibilities and consumerist ethics. Most of what the professionals sang or played was not for art's sake but solely to put food on the table, and they resented this to the point that it ate away at their souls.

I've searched for years to come to understand why the ethos of professional musicianship is this way, why this spirit of disgruntlement and demoralization is so pervasive. I have many theories, none quite capable of explaining the whole of it, but I knew in those days that I couldn't stand it. I had to get out, and I did. I went as far as I could from it, to business and economics, a profession in which people are happy to deal with the world as it is, with an ethos that sees barriers as challenges to overcome and knows the meaning triumph and accomplishment, and seeks them out.

But enough of this sad tale and onward to that thing that seems completely and radically different, namely the cultural ethos of the church musicians gathered at the Sacred Music Colloquium. Here there was a spirit of joy, of collegiality, and common purposes, and love, true love, for the music and the opportunity to be part of it. Quite frankly, in all my years in the professional music scene I never experienced anything like it. People would compliment each generously and sincerely. We would listen to other choirs and congratulate them with all our hearts. There was a humility that was pervasive. In a full week of rehearsals and liturgy, dawn to late night, I never once heard a discouraging word or saw evidence of discontent.

Why? I wish I knew for sure, but it has something to do with the purpose of the art, which is not for its own sake but for the sake of the higher purpose of liturgy itself. Here was the source of unity, a common purpose that required submission to the true source of beauty. The ego is necessarily buried in the form of music we were involved in making. Gregorian chant and its stylistic descendants was created not to show itself off but rather to serve, and those who sing it absorb that sense of service, seeing themselves not as the creators of music but merely as privileged instruments through which the music was given voice.

The attitude of optimism and exuberance was infectious and irresistible. It's not the case that everyone there lived ideal lives. Every last person could tell a tale of woe if he or she wanted to: about pastors, Bishops, unappreciative parishioners, and the like. We've all heard it before and a million times over. These tales were not the news. The news was instead the miracle that 250 people were gathered together from around the country to improve their skills and work together to permit sacred beauty to blossom amidst this vale of tears. The gaze was upwards toward heavily glory rather downwards toward earthly imperfections. The result was a bright and awe-struck outlook that one can detect among new converts to the faith.

The venue of holy, beautiful, and universally minded liturgy had much to do with it. So did the music, I believe. It is structured to elevate the senses. Chant when sung well takes flight and never quite touches ground. The art of polyphony generates complex pictures of heavenly glory, as if the composers were only passing on visions they saw in states of pure spiritual ecstasy. To assist in making this music is to add one's own voice to the choir of angels in which no single voice dominates but every voice works with every other, and this is surely the highest privilege a musician can experience.

Everyone at the colloquium knew this and felt this. It was magnificent on its own. But remember that these are all musicians who have probably experienced something along the lines of what I've experienced in the world of music. The contrast is striking, even disorienting. What the sacred music movement offers is not only a radical change in the way we think of the role of music in worship; it holds our an opportunity for the profession of music to become what it is supposed to be, even to live up to its highest ideals. Perhaps there is more in store for this burgeoning movement in the Catholic music world. It may not stop at raising the level of liturgical art. It may have a mission to convert the culture of the music profession itself.

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