Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The voice of the organ alone

Before the Choral Evensong service at the Byrd Festival, we were treated to a revealing and powerful organ concert by Mark Williams of London, at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral.

The title of the concert: “From Byrd to Bach,” and it included selections from Cabezon, Byrd, Titelouze, Sweelinck, Scheidt, Rossi, Bruhns, Couperin, and the concert ended with Bach’s D major Prelude and Fugue.

At the organ concerts I’ve been to in the last years, there was much in the way of explanation, announcement, and commentary by the organist. All of this is very enjoyable, but this concert was completely different, and it gives us a reason to reflect on the different modes of communication and what they mean.

The concert was set to start at 4:15pm. People began to arrive at 3:45, and there was much milling around, with people still arriving just on time. At the appointed time, the organ just began without announcement. There was no introduction, no grand bow of welcome, no demand that we turn off our cellphones, or anything else. There was nothing to see other than the pipes, because the organist was hidden.

As the music started, you could see that people were just a bit confused as to whether it had indeed begun. But after a few minutes, people settled in and they listened very carefully. The organist let the music call the people to order and narrate the event.

The selections sampled a range of stops, tempos, and styles—as if to show us what had led to Bach and why it matters. No one could possibly doubt after this demonstration the merit of this early organ work or why the organ has been given such a privileged place in liturgy.

Mercifully, there was no applause between pieces. The whole focus was on the music. The splendor of the pieces built and built, and the tension grew and grew to the point of astonishment, until the last notes of the Bach selection 45 minutes after the concert began. Then people in the audience burst into applause with genuine love, appreciation, and respect. Mr. Williams, now clearly established an amazing talent, rose from the bench, walked from behind the sanctuary that hid him, and humbly bowed and walked off.

Here is a model of concertizing that other organists might consider. Actually, it seems that a great model generally. The complete absence of any discussion or explanation led the listener into a different realm of understanding, away from the words of casual conversation and into a higher sense of letting the notes and music speak for themselves.

Now, I'm not somehow against narrated concerts. I like the idea of communicating with people and anything that helps people more fully appreciate music is great by me. So there is no "snob appeal" to me for not having announcements, jokes to put people at ease, and the like.

And yet now I see that there is a point to completely eliminating verbal communication and verbal audience engagement. Without words, we are compelled to make sense of what is happening on its own terms—not merely rely on conventional modes of cognition to be led to a higher means of comprehension. I believe that this is what happened at this concert.

There is a lesson here for liturgy. Sometimes we believe that when people come to Mass, they should be greeted by the celebrant and urged to greet each other. We give them a song to sing that we call (with no basis in history) the "gathering song." The idea is to put people at ease, make people happy to be there, and help people feel at home.

The problem with this approach is that it doesn't ask anything of our hearts and our higher sense. If we let the Mass be the Mass, on the other hand, we see that it also begins with a slight "discomfort." We fall on our knees and we pray. The introit begins, and the purpose has nothing to do with greeting each other. It is the beginning of a procession to the risen Lord. We are drawn, almost against the will of our lower sense that drives our everyday lives, into a higher spiritual mindset that prepares us for contemplating mysteries that are not part of our everyday life.

There is great wisdom in this tradition. Let's face the truth that sometimes we really don't want to be at Mass. There are other things we would rather do during this time. We are thinking about all our troubles at home and work or wondering about mundane issues that consume us day to day. We aren't really prepared. A zippy bouncing processional hymn plus a greeting is a way of saying: don't worry about it, just be yourself!

In fact, that is precisely what we do not want to be. Mass needs to convert us and change us. It should take us away from the mundane, away from our selfish desires, and show us the divine. When we arrive at Mass and don't really want to be there, we need the environment and the music to compel us into thinking differently and praying. This does indeed produce something uncomfortable, as we leave the passage of time and enter into the eternal realm. Then we truly do leave renewed.

This concert took something of the same approach. I'm grateful to Mark Williams for showing how the middle voice between temporality and eternity can be heard in the music alone, provided we let it speak uninterrupted.

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