Ordinary Time 2017

13 June 2017
administrator - parochial

The new Roman Catholic bishop of Memphis, Tenn. appears to be obsessed with power and control.

It's not uncommon for RC bishops to re-assign priests periodically, but what's unusual about Memphis is 1) the number of priests being reassigned and 2) the remaining priests have had to effectively hand over their letters of resignation to their new boss.

As many of two-thirds of the priests in Memphis are being reassigned, according to yesterday's article in the Memphis Commercial Appeal.

Of the third who remain they are given that great historic title that ordained presbyters have held for centuries: parochial administrator.

On priest explains: "As Parochial Administrator of St. Francis of Assisi, I still have all of the duties and obligations of a pastor, but I can be removed and reassigned at any time."

Something is rotten in Memphis.

12 June 2017
covenant - the complexity of

We live in a complex world.

Two choral works that the St. Peter's Choir have sung in recent months offer a kind of musical, choral complexity that invite further reflection.

Charles Ives's father, George Ives, encouraged Charles to think differently about music and to explore new sounds, new effects. The quintessential image that I hold is that of young Ives on a summer day in Connecticut, on the town green, where he has positioned himself so that he can hear the co-mingling sounds of two concert bands simultaneously.

This unexpected nexus of traditionally separate materials is fertile creative ground for Ives. At the symphonic level, it becomes Mahlerian with the addition of jocular American hymnodic snippets ricocheting through the orchestra. But in Ives's The Sixty-Seventh Psalm, the coalescence of disparate key areas create a new harmonic gravity, one hitherto unexplored.

In this eight-part choral work composed around the turn of the century, Ives sets up the men in one key and the women in another. Even within these confines, Ives does not shy away from angular chromaticisms.

The resulting interplay between the music in these two keys is thick, dense, rich. It is surprisingly luminous, weightless.

Timeless. Eternal.

Composed less than four decades later, Olivier Messiaen's O sacrum convivium offers a different kind of harmonic complexity. Here the resulting sound is not from a deliberate mishmash of two conventional keys, but from Messiaen deliberately crafting the music in his own idiosyncratic tonal language.

Messiaen had synesthesia, a neurological condition which allowed him to "see" sound – to perceive sound as color. The resulting music of O sacrum convivium, if we may read into this unique element of Messiaen's biography, is one of shifting color.

In fact – and I hope that a close analysis of the harmonic sequence might bear this out – I wonder if it's not meant to be a rainbow, the symbol of the covenant in the Hebrew Bible? After all, the words that Messiaen chose for his single liturgical motet are also about covenant, the "New Covenant", et futurae gloriae nobis pignus datur (a "pledge of future glory"). For someone who saw sound as color, wouldn't the ability to forge this connection in music hold particular appeal?

Both Ives and Messiaen create new harmonic territory, and in the particular alchemy which is choral singing, a good deal of rehearsal must be given over to learn how to dwell in these musical spaces. In our recent experiences with these pieces, this is not an unpleasant enterprise. It is the familiar sensation of choral singing, contributing an essential part to an integral whole, but taken further.

There is something "static" about both works. Both are generally slow moving, though there is a quicker central section in the Ives. In the case of Ives, the work returns to the exact same chord with which it began. In the case of the Messiaen, the final chord is different in that the final soprano note is lowered. In fact, it would be possible – in a Shenkerian vein, I suppose – to see the various harmonic meanderings of O sacrum convivium as a "resolution" of the first chord. The logic of the Ives is self-contained by its own devices, but the logic of the Messiaen is contained by his particular harmonic language. The "resolved" Messiaen chord is still a dissonant one in a "common practice" sense.

There is something captivating about both of these pieces. Messiaen, the mystic, shrouds the sacrament of Holy Communion in its attendant mystery and ecstasy. Ives, the maverick, bends the rules of music to craft a hymn of praise like nothing that had been heard before.

But maybe it's not enough to stop with an appreciation (whatever that means) or analysis of these two pieces. Maybe we also need to examine the unrelenting human impulse for increasing complexity in music as well as in our day to day lives.

O sacrum convivium stands alone as Messiaen's only liturgical motet. I imagine he wrote it because he had something very meaningful to say. It's completely understandable that he did not write another given that he believed plainsong to be the true (and simple) choral music of the Church. And yet, Messiaen would compose some of the most complex music of the twentieth century, harmonically and otherwise. In fact, his O sacrum convivium is rather tame by comparison.

Where does the increasing drive toward complexity end? We see in "minimalism" the movement toward un-complexity: a rejection of the academy's elevation of hyper-complexity (as beautiful as it may be; listen to "New Music Fight Club" from Meet the Composer for a deep dive on this).

I wonder if in the Church "praise music" could be a stand-in for "minimalism", the latest in the series of rejections of perceived hyper-complexity in the history of church music (think Palestrina and the legend behind his saving polyphony).

Within the Hymnal 1982 the service music of Richard Felciano and the William Albright hymn tune PETRUS show that we are still highly susceptible to the tendency toward maximal complexity. And I know that both Ives and Messiaen have also been accused of going too far.

In the case of the two pieces under discussion, however, I think the resulting complexity is just right. We're talking about music for a choir, mind you, not a congregation.

And its music that has something to say about our relationship with the divine.

There is a complexity to it.

"O sacred banquet!
in which Christ is received,"

"Let the people praise thee, O God; let all the people praise thee."

"the memory of his Passion is renewed,
the mind is filled with grace,"

"Then shall the earth yield her increase; and God, even our own God, shall bless us."

Alleluia (a complex one, of the Messiaen variety).

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08 June 2017
Gowers, Richard & Patrick - at Evensong

We draw your attention now to the most recent webcast of Evensong from King's College, Cambridge. It is the service sung on Sunday 28 May 2017.

Richard Gowers, one of the King's Organ Scholars, introduces the service. He speaks of the music of his grandfather, Patrick Gowers. He also touches on Count Basie and William Walton. Charmingly, he notes that any mistakes he makes in the "fiendishly difficult" Patrick Gowers Trio Sonata are "still Gowers".

Patrick Gowers pieces in this service include the fairly well-known Ascension anthem "Viri Galilaei" (let me clarify that by "fairly well-known" I don't mean to suggest that it is within the grasp of many choirs. For one thing, the piece requires two organists!), the Toccata, and the above-mentioned Trio Sonata.

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16 May 2017
Aquinas, Thomas - on electronic organs, part 2

In part 1 of this essay I introduced the three constituent elements of beauty according to Thomas Aquinas: integritas, consonantia, and claritas. And we examined the first element, integritas, or integrity, as it relates to electronic organs.

Do Thomas's two other aspects of beauty have something to tell us about the nature of electronic organs?

Consonantia - consonance or proportion.

Proportionality is a common problem with electronic organs, and I think a big strike against many of them. One of the reasons that a parish might be attracted to an electronic organ is because of their ability to acquire a "larger" instrument than the realities of a pipe organ would allow. The perceived advantage of an electronic instrument is that it has greater versatility than a similarly priced pipe organ. There would be more variety of tone color, perhaps even an additional manual, and more "toys" for the organist. But in reality, the tonal scheme is too "big" for the space it is trying to fill.

Too often we see these extra elements in the electronic organ blown way out of proportion. The gimmicks and flexibility allow it to sound like an English "cathedral" organ one minute, and a North-German-style instrument in a historic temperament the next. This is just disingenuous. Just because you've decided against a traditional pipe organ doesn't mean that the congregation should be sonically disoriented by hearing many hundreds of stops, and several different style organs in the same space. This is a bridge too far, as is the MIDI harpsichord that comes standard. The increasing technicization of the electronic organ makes this kind of variety a selling point, but it destroys the consonantia of the instrument.

(Really, who would have any reason to use a harpsichord coming through those same loudspeakers? Absurd!)

Is it possible to build a real pipe organ out of proportion with its space? Absolutely! But it's much easier to do this with an electronic installation.

Claritas - "the power of a thing to reveal itself to the mind"

This is a little trickier, but I think it affords us an opportunity to speak of an element of organ design that we have neglected in this conversation: the organ's visual design.

Pipe organs are very physical installations. The placement of pipes in some kind of chamber in relationship to the placement of the choir (or other instruments) and to the rest of the worship space (or hall) is all navigated with great care. The resulting layout also has implications for how the organ looks from the "outside".

In electronic instruments there is no need for any substantial physical or visual design. On the contrary, most electronic organ installations go to great lengths to hide their loudspeakers from view. And because loudspeakers are more easily placed than ranks of pipes, these sounds can be generated from locations that would be unrealistic for pipes. This is a principle that creates great cognitive dissonance and works against the element of claritas. ("That sounds like a room full of pipes!" "It's not, it's just a couple loudspeakers.")

In the very worst cases, claritas is confused by placing loudspeakers behind a facade of fake organ pipes. (I'm still thinking about the purely electronic organ here, but I think that a hairsplitting discussion of "hybrid" organs is also probably worth our time.)

Pipe organs, with few exceptions, have their pipes on display to some degree. The Werkprinzip of North German organ design meant that the claritas of an instrument was fully visual as well as auditory: the divisions of the organ could be fairly easily seen and understood.

An Americanized version of the Werkprinzip occurred with many 1950s and 1960s organs by Holtkamp, and I have a real soft spot for these instruments. Though others may find them too angular and passé, I find them distinctively beautiful. They make my heart skip a beat. Two that I would single out for particular praise are the organ at Setnor Auditorium, Crouse College, Syracuse Univeristy and Battell Chapel, Yale Univeristy.

Different styles of organ facades have been in use throughout different periods of organ building. But in every period of organbuilding, the organ's facade has remained a facet of pipe organ construction. Unenclosed pipes of polished metal usually adorn the case of the organ and serve as a visual cue to the location and size of the instrument. (The Fisk at Benaroya Hall, Seattle is a late-twentieth century organ that also uses wood pipes in the facade.)

This is an important element in this discussion because organs are truly inspiring instruments. And, after hearing fine organ music, one of the first ways that young organists are inspired to study the instrument is by seeing one.

With the electronic organ, however, there are no pipes of any type to see. And if there are pipes on display it just furthers instrument's inherent dishonesty.

There is no claritas in the electronic organ.

The emperor has no clothes, and he is not beautiful.

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11 May 2017
Aquinas, Thomas - on electronic organs, part 1

For too long we have let the electronic organ manufacturers set the tone and substance of this conversation ("It's less expensive!" "It sounds just as good!" "Not even organists can tell the difference!" "The technology will amaze you!"). The substance of the conversation really revolves around a sales pitch rather than theological considerations.

But I think there has to be something more to this, especially when it comes to acquiring an instrument for a church. What about theology? What is our theology of art, architecture, and beauty in the church? Are electronic organs truly beautiful?

Lately I've really been enjoying a podcast called The Liturgy Guys, a podcast on liturgy from a Roman Catholic perspective from the Liturgical Institute in Mundelein, Illinois.

I went back to re-listen to Episode 25: "Beauty and the Feast, Part 1" because I thought it might be able to inform our thinking on electronic organs.

This episode offers an overview of medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas's theology of beauty.

Beauty, according to Aquinas, has three constituent parts: integritas, consonantia, and claritas.

In part 1 of this essay I would like to address the first element: integritas

From the Liturgy Guys podcast:

A beautiful thing reveals what it is, and a thing can't reveal what it is if it doesn't have all the things it's supposed to have. I mean, imagine: it's the first time you've ever seen a car and there are no wheels on it. You haven't seen the fullness of "car" because wheels are a component element of "car".

…Anything without all of its stuff, all of its parts, is not revealing itself to you. That's what Thomas calls integritas or "integrity" – wholeness.

…A thing has to have everything it has to have in order to reveal what it is.

So, according to the Thomasian definition of integritas, are electronic organs beautiful? Do they have integritas?

An electronic organ cannot reveal what it is because it is pretending to be something that it's not.

In my essay about electronic organs last week I chose the word integrity to draw attention to what I see as the fundamental problem with these instruments; according to Aquinas's definition of integritas electronic organs are not whole.

Even though electronic organs attempt to mimic the sounds of pipes, they lack pipes themselves. An electronic organ doesn't "have all the things it's supposed to have". It doesn't have all of its parts. It cannot reveal what it is because it is pretending to be something that it's not.

Now, before you and Thomas Aquinas accuse me of being a Luddite, or aloof, or arrogant, or impractical (all accusations I probably deserve), let's acknowledge the reality that many churches already own and use electronic instruments in their worship. And others are considering purchasing them.

And furthermore, let me state unequivocally that this line of amateur theological inquiry is not meant to be a personal attack on those who preside over electronic organs. The instrument doesn't make the musician.

I believe we are all – together – seeking to "perfect the praises offered by your people on earth," as the famous prayer on page 819 of the BCP puts it.

God can be praised with whatever we have at hand.

But in spite of this, I think it is high time to take a bold, principled stand in defense of beauty in the liturgy, including the preference for real pipe organs.

In her recent essay on the topic of electronic organs Mary Davenport Davis asks,

"What if that's what God wants from us in this generation: to choose what is ugly and real over what is beautiful and fake? (I don't believe that's actually the choice, most of the time; I trust the ingenuity and wisdom of the church musicians in my life to create beauty from whatever God gives us.)"

Ultimately Mary comes down on the side of the real – but could something be "ugly and real"?

My mind flashes once again to that archetypal 1999 film of the Information Age, The Matrix. After taking the red pill and seeing the "real world", the cinematography and the costumes are drab, dull, gray, dirty. But the point here is that the "real world" is devoid of illusion. The illusion provided by "the Matrix" is certainly attractive, but part of its purpose is to mask the illusion itself (it is the "beautiful and fake"). And the arrival into that "real world" with all of its "realness" is something to be celebrated.

From the Liturgy Guys podcast again: "…Properly speaking, there's no such thing as ugly. There's beautiful and there's less beautiful. The only ugly thing is non-being."

When we choose the fantasy provided by the electronic organ, we choose just that: a fantasy. An illusion.

The electronic organ, then, cannot be ugly. We are talking about it, and it is, therefore it must be. And we have to admit that digital technology hooked up to loudspeakers does still deal with the laws of physics of this created sphere. But given that the electronic organ does not have integritas in the Thomasian sense it is lacking in beauty. It is something less beautiful.

When we choose the real, however, we choose the beautiful.

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