Monday, February 03, 2020

Interviews with Catholic Composers — (2) Mark Nowakowski

Today we interview a Polish-American composer, author, and professor of music Mark Nowakowski, whose articles NLM readers may recall seeing especially at OnePeterFive.

Tell us about your musical background: when and how you began singing or playing instruments, your most influential teacher…

I grew up in Chicago and began my musical journey in the Catholic school band system there, which was about the only decent musical thing happening in the diocese at the time. Years later I entered Illinois State University and in a round-about and somewhat amusing fashion became a music major. The initial formation I received was very good in many ways, but it was, as most programs at the time, almost entirely dominated by academic modernism. As my reversion to Catholicism began to take place I concurrently began to perceive more clearly the link between the spiritual and aesthetic, and how modernism was a dead-end in both respects. At this time I also began questioning whether or not my musical work might be a professional vocation.

The first major answer to my discernment prayers came when I discovered the music of Henryk Górecki. I still remember listening to his Third Symphony at a record store and trying not to weep at this astounding music. It captured the national character of war and tragedy in Polish history but also moved upwards towards the universal, while sweeping past modernism like a bad dream. (Meeting Górecki personally at his home many years later was a similar spiritual homecoming of which I will have to write one day.) Digging deeper I discovered that Górecki was part of an entire movement, and I subsequently discovered the music of Tavener, Pärt, Kancheli, and others. Tracing backwards from their influences into the sacred, classical, and folk music that helped form their unique voices, I received quite the revision in my understanding of the authentic endpoint of music history.

O Beauty Uncreated – O Pieknosci Niestworzona (2012)

How was your interest in sacred music stirred up?

As I moved through my studies I never had a sacred music teacher (they hardly exist, even now), but still managed to find strong teachers who were tolerant – and sometimes even loosely supportive of – my emerging views and goals as a composer. While attending various institutions to get those all-important academic credentials, I spent as much, if not more, time learning from the aesthetic patrimony of Holy Mother Church. Nadia Boulanger and her astounding legacy also inspired me deeply, though I never met her.

In many ways, in our time, you’re tracing your lineage back to either Boulanger or Arnold Schoenberg. At a particularly crucial time when I was negatively questioning my vocation as a composer I was convinced by a colleague to attend a conference of former Boulanger students. Expecting yet another droll academic affair I found myself instead shocked by what I encountered, because in the middle of the hyper-modernist University of Colorado, sitting in the midst of politically “progressive” Boulder, hundreds of people were suddenly talking about God and the spiritual power and purpose of music. I realized then that I was not alone, and I realized that Boulanger – a daily communicant and a sort of unmarried secular “nun” of compositional pedagogy – had evangelized her students through her work in music.

Is there a sacred music composer—or are there several composers—whose work you find most captivating, either as a source of delight (however different in style from your own compositions), or as direct inspirations and models for your own work?

The names I mentioned before form my bedrock and constitute the “original” influences I continually return to. Górecki, for his unapologetic musical honesty and folk spiritually. Pärt, for his unabashed Christian mysticism. Tavener, for his powerful yet simple tuneful simplicity. Other composers who continued this new stream of authentic music have exercised a similarly profound later influence: MacMillan, Lukaszewski, many others, and here in the States our mutual friend, Dr. Frank LaRocca. I lead with the modern composers in my answer, because they show us that it is possible to look forward still in what we do in an authentic way. Of course one must look backwards before moving forward, and many names emerge as our great teachers. For me, individuals such as Dufay, Byrd, Lassus, Mozart, Schumann, Mahler, and Holst come to mind (at least in terms of those who wrote a substantive body of clearly sacred music).

tu autem Domine (2018)

If you were given an unlimited budget for musicians for a solemn pontifical Mass, what works would you put on the program?

What a fantastic question! Obviously as a composer, I’d want to compose most of it myself. For a solemn pontifical Mass, I think that I would try to resist the desire to go “all in” with everything and the kitchen sink. Instead I would advocate for a very tightly rehearsed ensemble of about 16 singers, along with organ and strings (perhaps oboe and horn to round things out, not unlike some of the great Mozart masses). This is because I think that this is a time for the Church to look inwards. Our most vital evangelization, it seems to me, must be amongst our own members, and consist of a pointed spiritual and liturgical house-cleaning and re-ordering. Therefore I think that art capable of encouraging such inner focus is so potent and necessary in our times. I’d want such sacred music – whether it be liturgical or non-liturgical – to aid in such contemplation, and my choice of instrumentation would have to reflect that. If I were to curate a mix of music, I might explore clear intersections between medieval compositions and modern works.

What are your thoughts about the place of Latin in vernacular liturgy and the place of the vernacular in Latin liturgy?

I am a native English speaker and also fluent in Polish, so I have a bilingual experience which I think allows me to sometimes more deeply discern the strengths, weaknesses, and personalities of various linguistic expressions. My family also has a personal experience of the ravages of Communism – including the insidious changing of the meaning of language to reflect that evil ideology – and therefore I’m also sensitive to the ways in which language has once again been attacked for ideological and propagandistic reasons.

Latin is a language I keep returning to in my writing not only because it is still the Church’s language, but also because it is a singularly beautiful language. It is inherently sing-able and seems to have the necessary structure and gravitas to bear the full weight of both liturgical solemnity and spiritual contemplation. Let’s be honest: “Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world” is just not as beautiful or sing-able as “Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi…” – and we have an entire failed post-conciliar repertoire to prove it. And now that composers are in an age where English settings are still the Church standard, they mostly want to compose in Latin! That should speak for itself.

How about the objection that it’s a “dead language” that no one can relate to?

I adore the fact that Latin is a so-called “dead language.” It’s our dead language, however – meaning, the Church’s. And it is static in a way which allows for meanings to remain constant, and for the language to not take on new negative cultural associations.

I can give a potentially controversial example of what I mean here. For instance, to this day I wince a bit inside when I hear the name “Jesus Christ” in English. Obviously for nothing to do with Him, but rather because, as a native English speaker from the USA, the cultural baggage associated with the Holy Name – everything from terrible curses, to the Lord’s name taken in vain taken every three seconds in movies, to televangelists yelling about “Jayzus Kuh-riiiist!,” to saccharine invocations of protestantized “personal relationships with Jesus” have attached itself to that name for me. As a result, during my reversion to the faith, I found that I had to speak Jesus’s name in Latin, or Aramaic, or even my other language – Polish – to be able to pray more freely and peacefully and not wrestle with negative cultural baggage.

Linguistic distance and purity allowed me to approach our Lord anew. While I think Christ has rehabilitated this somewhat in me, it left me wondering: if the Sacred Name could take on such negative cultural baggage, what of more common language? We have no shared negative cultural or propagandistic memories of Latin (or Biblical Greek for that matter), and therefore the language automatically becomes a purer vehicle for both composition and prayer.

As to the liturgy itself, I now know as a full Latin Mass convert that the general Latin (and Greek) of the TLM is entirely learnable even to somebody who does not technically speak Latin; even children can learn it. This is as much Latin as we practically need, while the benefits to the beauty and unburdened cultural aspect of the language is a very powerful vehicle in our spiritually turbulent times. The surface is beautiful, and for those who elect to go deeper, the spiritual and aesthetic payoff is unending.

Usquequo, Domine? (2019)

Many have been pointing out the strong generational dynamics in the Catholic Church: older people seem to want the popular or secular styles of art, while at least some younger people are intrigued by traditional forms that have an archaic feel to them. Have you encountered such dynamics in your own life and work?

Yes and no. I’m not sure that young people think of these things as archaic as opposed to “authentically new,” “deeper,” “more fulfilling.” As a musician, I don’t experience Palestrina or Bach or Mozart as archaic, nor do I listen to Górecki and think “that was the mid-70’s in a nutshell.” No. The music, being what it is, has been composed in a way as to have a value which exceeds the constraints of style in any given time. Our traditional Mass is an even more powerful version of this phenomenon. In my experience, those who turn this into a generational battle simply don’t understand what they are really arguing about. It’s about getting to a more authentic spiritual reality, one that transcends time, culture, and place. I believe you made a similar argument, Peter, during the last Catholic Art Guild conference.

Aesthetic sickness is also a very real and dangerous consequence of our popular culture at this time, and it can block a person from experiencing the ineffable in the liturgy and liturgical art; coupled with unconfessed sin, a person can feel even revulsion towards a traditional liturgy. These are serious manifestations which generally speak more to the issues needing to be addressed by those who feel such revulsion than to anything in the Mass of the ages. A person in this state has no business making aesthetic decisions about the Mass.

You obviously have experience with the traditional movement. What are some strengths and weaknesses you see in it — particularly from a musical point of view?

I am enthused to see the growing realization of the central importance of Beauty and the authentic fine and sacred arts in our movement. As a corollary to this, I see a lot of devoted Catholics now recognizing the corrosive influence of popular media of various forms, and shutting it off. This is a great beginning, but it is only a beginning, because a clean swept house will only invite more severe demons than the first, as Christ teaches us.

Catholics – especially those of us seeking to be so-called “glad trads” – need to be more proactive in terms of aesthetic formation as part of raising spiritually healthy children. For instance, if you don’t want your children to fall prey to the messaging of popular music, the best way to inoculate them against such things is to not just turn off the filth, but to form them musically. Deal Hudson supposedly makes a similar argument on a macro-cultural level (while including great music as a component of this) in a book he just released a few days ago titled: How to Keep from Losing Your Mind: Educating Yourself Classically to Resist Cultural Indoctrination. He could have easily called it “how to keep from losing your soul.”

Now we must admit that most Catholics – especially those with larger families – don’t have the time or financial resources to make sure their kids get music lessons and sing and play in quality groups; or they are involved in volunteer-based programs that don’t really give good formation. And yet given our nature to congregate in communities and parishes, there are potential solutions. There can be children’s choirs taught via the Ward Method, or group lessons in string instruments within the excellent Suzuki method. I’d go as far as to say that any parish school or homeschooling group worthy of the name should have access to at least one such program.

Nowakowski’s setting of the “Ave Maria”  (audio only)
Nowakowski’s setting of “O Sacrum Convivium”  (audio only)

What about kids with serious talent — is there a college or university they can go to that will support a Catholic vision of music?

In the realms of higher education, there is unfortunately no authentically Catholic institution offering an undergraduate or graduate formation in music composition in the Catholic tradition. The end result is that those called to be Catholic composers end up having to supplement their secular educations with guesswork and self-study.

While many great Catholic Universities can now put out students who can pontificate philosophically on the nature of Beauty, they have no sustained or practical experience of it. They don’t know the tradition – the “aesthetic magisterium” and the great secular works which grew out of its fertile cultural soil – and that’s a major handicap if you have the pretension of wanting to rebuild Christian culture.

One place that I think offers a wonderful model is The Lyceum in Cleveland. This Catholic 6th-12th grade institution, last I checked, makes every student sing in their choir. And if you’re not familiar with this group, go and listen: it’s shocking how good they are, considering that this is a compulsory activity! Clearly there is more going on here than just “every student has to be in choir.” There is real Catholic aesthetic formation happening here. And from what I hear from my own friends who have been around this program, generally the kids embrace being an active part of this tradition. The Chesterton Academy system has a similarly rigorous musical formation.

“Before I formed you…” (2018)

Tell us something about your sacred music.

For me, if a work contains a sacred text, it is sacred music, even if the piece is not intended for the liturgy. I’m working on several motets that could have liturgical application.

I’m also doing my third commission for a wonderful group run by a recent Catholic convert (straight into traditionalism, I might add), the violinst Fiona Hughes. This group – Three Notch’d Road – is a historical performance practice group, and we joke that I’m the only living composer to have written for them. This new project is called “Quo Vadis,” and it is a setting of the early Christian legend where St. Peter is fleeing persecution in Rome. The tradition is that he encountered a vision of Christ on the way out, to which he asked “Quo Vadis, Domine?”, where Christ replies: “I am going to Rome to be crucified in your place.” Wherein of course Peter gets the message, turns around, and returns to face his martyrdom. The text is taken from the famous Sienkiewicz novel of the same name, and has been translated into Latin appropriate for that time period by an FSSP priest friend of mine (who has asked not to be credited, as opposed to only his order being named). It is being composed for three singers (soprano, countertenor, and bass) and Baroque ensemble. The premieres are in various areas in Virginia between March 6th and 8th, 2020, and I’d love to speak there to anyone who heard about this collaboration from this interview.

Liturgical music is a tougher nut to crack in our field: there are no more than a handful of full-time composers worldwide making a living at it. Traditional Churches usually lack the resources to commission and adequately perform new liturgical works, while more “mainstream” Catholic parishes simply have no interest in such things. I hope for a positive change to this dismal situation, and it may be a part of the task of artists and patrons of our generation to rebuild these bridges between Church and artist, so that future generations can more easily get about the vital work of evangelizing the culture through art.

You have written a lot of instrumental music. How does this fit into your identity as a Catholic composer?

I think many traditional Catholics think that “sacred music” must have a vocal element, but this has not been my experience at all. For instance, if we look at two of the composers I mentioned previously, they have each written works without vocalists that are profoundly transcendent expressions of Christian mystical contemplation. Arvo Pärt’s famous Fratres doesn’t have a word in it, but you’d be hard pressed not to call it sacred music. Or Górecki’s Third String Quartet: it is a profound spiritual elegy by my estimation. So the realm of instrumental music, perhaps because of its greater abstraction and ability to explore more complex tonal and timbral relationships, can be particularly suited to the activity of religious contemplation.

With their names upon their arms... (2018)

Interestingly enough, you are listed as a professor of music technology. How does that fit into your work in composition?

I’ve been surprised at how natural a fit this is. Music technology is in such a place now that a student with access to a modicum of the available tools can compose, produce, and release music of any style. I can sit down right now and begin composing: when I touch the keys on my keyboard I can hear not only piano tones, but a great German organ, string players from the BBC Orchestra, or the great choral singers of our time; my choral software will even accurately sing the words that I program in to it! Imagine sketching a violin concerto, and the player executing your ideas is none other than Joshua Bell! Or did you ever wonder how Mr. Bell might sound with a women’s chorus and a chamber string group all together in the midst of Notre Dame? It’s not hard to find out. It’s also very easy to send performers high quality mock-ups of works to aid them in the learning and rehearsal process. Furthermore, being able to edit, mix, produce, and master my own traditional recordings also allows me to more easily and cheaply release material.

I’m working on my second album of sacred and instrumental works at the moment, and it is entirely edited and produced by me. I think that such tech knowledge should be required of composers in their primary education. It’s also a great opportunity for Catholic education: smaller institutions without great performance resources can also now have a composition program where students can hear their counterpoint exercises sung by professional singers or their orchestration realized by top quality musicians. It’s an incredible opportunity, and something we need to embrace and become very good at if we hope to re-evangelize the culture musically. To be against music technology or the new capabilities of virtual instruments makes as much sense as being against the internet in this time. Could you imagine where the Church – and the movement for Tradition – would be today without the powerful communication tools at our disposal? Music should be no different.

What are some of your future plans as a composer? 

As mentioned, I’m working on that setting of the Quo Vadis legend for the Virginia based Three Notch’d Road. I’m also in the early stages of a sacred choral commission from the Benedict XVI Institute for Sacred Music and Divine Worship. For the future, I have a fully sketched Symphony of Sacred Songs for orchestra, choir, organ and vocal soloists that I hope to get recorded and performed. I’m also looking for an excuse to write my third string quartet.

How can people get in touch with you?

They should visit my website, where they can also find other music recordings.

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