Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Good Music for Mass

As some may know, I have an abiding interest in liturgical music. And like most folks with such an interest, this means that I have clear preferences. (Check out the last post to see the irony in that.) Or perhaps I should say that my best judgment about what would likely enhance prayerfulness in a worshipping community runs along definite lines.

In any case, I've noticed with interest that the National Association of Pastoral Musicians (NPM) is sponsoring a contest for musical settings of the new English translation of the Mass, which will soon be published in the new Roman Missal. (Those blue links will take you to the websites with the details.) By next July interested composers may submit new settings for all of the major parts of the Mass that can be sung, and the attendees at the NPM convention in July 2010 will vote for the winner.

Clearly a side benefit of this project is that both publishers and the church will be good to go on the music end of things when the new Roman Missal is fully approved and implemented. For composers, even the self-proclaimed ones, it's an opportunity to take on a project that would be good practice, if nothing else. For publishers, it's a chance to "graze the field" for their missalette resources and the like without putting up a lot of fuss or funds.

My view, as if anyone asked, is that proven composers should be commissioned to write new Mass settings. In fact, wealthy Catholics might be approached to underwrite such a venture. However, the commissions should be specified in such a way that the resulting Mass settings may be sung both a capella (without any accompaniment), or with one or more easily sung harmonic lines, or with full choir, organ and accompaniment. In other words, the music should be layered onto a fine melodic line - such as many of the Latin chants were composed in the past. One of the problems with current Mass settings is that when you sing them a capella, you sort of have to imagine the accompaniment in your head just in order to make any sense of them.

I've got some folks in mind for the job; people such as Morten Lauridsen of UCLA. If you haven't heard his stuff yet, go online and listen to excerpts of his music. A fine example is this CD: Lux Aeterna. And near the beginning of this blog entry is a video clip of one of his compositions. When I was in LA last week, and visited the USC Catholic Center about vocation programs and resources, I also found out that the music department was just around the corner. So I wandered around the office buildings until I found Lauridsen's office. Hearing music through the door, I knocked and found myself face-to-face with the composer, who gave me a friendly "Hi" through a half-opened door. I immediately noticed that he was tutoring a student, probably about the music that was loudly playing on his speakers, and so I quickly mumbled some excuse and left. However, later that day I emailed him, describing myself in the subject line as "The guy who showed up at your office this morning", told him a little about myself and my experience with liturgical music and invited him to take part in the contest. He was very gracious and wrote back that he would take a look at the websites I'd included, but he was also full of commissions already, etc. So it was a fairly harmless venture on my part, but it was finally without probable results.

Nevertheless, I think that it was worth making the gesture. Perhaps my work in vocation ministry makes me much more willing to "make a pitch" in all sorts of different circumstances, knowing that even without an immediate positive response, such an invitation or gesture or effort or acted-upon intention may be of some unknown benefit down the line.

There's a Christian principle involved here. Had Jesus been a "realistic" guy, he should have seen that his speaking venues, his choice of followers, and his recruiting methods (not to mention his succession plans) were all questionable at best. Yet he planted many small but potent seeds - in the things he said, the things he did, the people he met, and the example he gave - the fruits of which are still being harvested and in fact continue to grow. Would that only one of our small seeds were to become as bountiful. And that is why, even today, we hope and pray and work, planting small seeds of kindness, making small gestures of appreciation, sharing small invitations with those we hardly know. It's the solid example of Christians (and saints) throughout history. Not a bad lot, that group, even if they would never make the cover of People or Inc magazine.

As Archbishop Oscar Romero famously said: "We are prophets of a future not our own."

Sidenote: This blog will generally be published two or three times a week. Doing so every day is a bit much..... for everyone concerned. That way I can do other writing on the "non-blog" days, still faithful to my resolution to do some writing every day.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Power of Preferences

For reasons that I cannot fathom, early this morning I awoke with a thought or insight that I believed was really important. And then it proceeded to flitter away and hover just outside the realm of comprehension, teasingly close yet maddeningly far away.

The thing had to do with the choices that we make on a regular basis. All of those small choices and decisions that we make every day - and their number is probably over a thousand - emerge through a set of preferences that are often unexamined. They're simply accepted and perhaps even relished. But the interesting thing, to me at least, is that these "preferences" are probably not the ones that we think we have. This is not to join those who say that our "animal" or "primal" or "Darwinian" natures are really in charge, whatever all that is supposed to mean in popular culture, but rather to recognize that we often act out of motivations, attitudes, and perspectives that are not only silly, when seen independently, but more importantly are hardly ever subject to direct scrutiny. They're generally unexamined, and like unruly children have the run of the house.

Of course it was Socrates who said that the unexamined life is not worth living. Maybe he knew what he was talking about. But who sits down and says: "I think I'll examine my preferences now, right after I organize my sock drawer."? Taking a deep and serious look at our inner life is just not part of my regular routine. Well, generally it's not. Actually, there is a human activity that's specifically geared to do just that, to look directly and regularly at our preferences and attitudes and motivations. A whole bunch of folks have been recommending this human activity for centuries. In fact, when such quiet intentional examination is done within a specific social context and follows a prescribed structural pattern of attention, the results are said to be quite dramatic. Guessed what it is yet? Starts with a "p" and ends with an "r", and I'm talking about the interior kind; not the public kind. Our Founder, De La Salle, became quite good at it and wrote lovingly about the experience.

Those who come to embrace the deeper dynamics of the apparent preference jungle, by means of the discipline of interior p....r, come to describe their life experience with words like "acceptance", "following Providence", and "self-abnegation". It's as if they've come to know that preferences just get in the way. Many years ago, I'd read a short phrase from a 4th century Buddhist text, and it's always stayed with me: "All things are possible for the one who has no preferences."

I don't know why that quotation captured me then and holds me still. But I think I know where it's drawing me toward.

At least I prefer to think so.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Time to start again

Sometimes you just have to start something in order to move ahead. Over the last couple of weeks I've been thinking of doing more writing, and I've decided that the best way get into the habit of doing so is simply to take advantage of having this blog. Even if nobody really reads the thing, it will at least be something that will structure a discipline of intended activity on my part.

Some time ago, I'd read about an organizational method called GTD (Getting Things Done) by David Allen. For what it tries to do, the method is fairly good and I currently use a number of his suggestions. One of the major "rules" is to figure out, for every and any goal that you have, one specific question: "What's the next step?" What's the next physical or practical thing to do in order to move the thing forward? Well, for me and on this topic, the thing to do is simply to start spending a half hour a day writing something on the blog.

Another story I'd heard is also a motivator for me. The prolific novelist James Michener, it is told, wanted to be a writer from a very young age. When he was in high school, his father told him to get a job for the summer. But James argued that he'd wanted to be a writer and go to a class about writing, or some similar activity in pursuit of his interest. His father said: "Okay. If you want to be a writer, I'll help you out. I'll hire you as a writer, but only on the the condition that each day you write 10,000 words. I don't care if it's the same word, or jibberish, or whatever. But it must be 10,000 words each day. If you can do that for the summer, I'll pay you the minimum wage per hour for your work." James agreed to do so and brought out his typewriter. For the first week, he wrote whatever came into his mind, without thought or grammar or sense. By the second week, he'd become bored with all that and he began writing things that made sense. And, he said, by the end of the summer, he was pretty well on his way to being a writer. Nice story.

I don't pretend to be anywhere near writers like Michener, but the principle stuck with me. If you want to do something, you just have to start the damn thing and see where it leads. For me, this is what I'm drawn to do right now - even in the midst of many, many other things that demand my attention - and so I'll make the time to take the time, and we'll see where it leads.