Friday, February 17, 2012

essentially vocal

17 February 2012

Humility does not consist in hiding our talents and virtues,
in thinking ourselves worse and more ordinary than we are,
put in possessing a clear knowledge of all that is lacking in us
and not exalting ourselves for that which we have.

I came up from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur (KL) on the Aeroline bus. Someone figured out that it was cheaper, more comfortable and––with traveling to and from the airport, checking bags, and security on top of the flight––not much more time consuming to take a really nice bus on the well-worn path between Singapore and KL than it would be to fly, hence these kind of luxury bus lines with comfy seats, a nice meal and touch screen entertainment. This is the second time I’ve taken one from the port in Singapore, which is a whole ‘nother world too, surrounded by luxury liners and scores of sailors, western tourists in brightly colored vacation clothing, and local young people working as guides and helpers.

I stayed the first three days and nights with the Capuchin Franciscan friars who have a parish and retreat house/formation center––St Francis of Assisi (SFA, the Malaysians seem to like the acronyms even more than we do) where my young friend is heavily involved. It is he who was the major impetus to get me back here this year, as I mentioned earlier. He had a few things scheduled for me. Monday night he and another friend of his, James, who was acting as my escort during my first days here in KL, took me to a nice restaurant and we filled in a bunch of gaps from our e-mail correspondence over the past two years, about yoga and meditation, about music, and inter-religious dialogue. Really another one of those amazing rare conversations when you meet someone who is interested in almost everything you are involved and seems to get it too. I then had a couple of luxurious mornings off to myself in my room at their new retreat house, a simple but clean room with private bath and optional air-con. After a few days in Singapore to adjust to the climate and time zone (16 hours difference!) I now felt ready to out myself to the tasks at hand, inner and outer.

Tuesday night we had a sort of informal gathering with a group of young musicians, for which I was over prepared. Ian wanted me to share with them my specific approach to liturgical music, so I had brought with me all kinds of samples of what I call “essentially vocal music,” the “popular chant” that the pioneers of Vatican II hoped would arise out of the “native genius.” (Oh, someone please tell me that it has not all been in vain!) I explained to them the concept that I got from none other than Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger back in the 1980s encouraging liturgical musicians to spend as much time in the “antechambers” of liturgical music. This simple phrase was a huge inspiration to me as I was exploring some way to break out of the rock/pop sound and yet not merely succumb to the temptation to fall back solely on Gregorian chant, Renaissance polyphony, and hymnody. (The operative word there is “solely.”) I emphasized that the music that we got “from the streets” still had to be converted and baptized, but that there were already sacred sounds all around us in maybe-not-so-obvious places. I talked about music having a language all its own, and why it was not impossible but difficult to use things like rap and straight on rock n’ roll for the liturgy, just as it was difficult to use polka music––because the music is already saying something before we force words on top of it. At the same time I said that I thought that there was a sort of “ax laid to the root of the tree” John the Baptist energy to rock n’ roll that I didn’t want to lose. And I told them that at some point I realized that it was from other cultures and other religious traditions that we had the most to learn, because often these cultures and religions had music that was essentially vocal and rooted in ritual and word. I forget abut the fact that I wrote an article based on a talk about this when I first started on the road in 2003, called “The Future of Liturgical Music,” since when I first came out of the monastery I thought I was mainly going to be involved in liturgical music. And lastly, I emphasized that in looking at these other cultures and traditions I didn’t want to be an African or be a Buddhist, but I wanted to learn from them, maybe catch some of the energy and sensibility of their music, and let it teach me about my music. I often also forget that I this is probably the root of my studying other religious traditions, and I wound up with the same approach––looking at my own tradition from another house, finding the universal, learning from someone else. I remember back in about 1988 having an argument with an evangelical Protestant musician about this, him telling me that nothing good could possibly come from another tradition that wasn’t Christian; all that music and ritual had to be wiped out at conversion. This was also the Catholic missionary approach at times too. But the best of the Roman Catholic tradition (and I cling to this!) is that grace builds on nature.

So anyway I pulled out for and taught them “The Canticle of the Three Young Men,” and “Praise to You,” inspired by Nigerian and Ghanan music respectively; the Pavana/Holy and Children of Jerusalem” obviously from India; “How Great is Your Name” and “This is My Body” from Psallite inspired Afro-Caribbean music. And then various things that seemed to come out of nowhere or everywhere––“Live on in My Love,” “There Is A Light,” “Shine on Me.” It was almost all done a capella, emphasizing the voice and the “essentially vocal” nature of it all, and the fact that we were singing the Scriptures. Also emphasizing the fact that this all was also “chant” to me, not just Gregorian. We had so much fun. And I think that they really got it, maybe in a way that most Westerners would not. This was a group of naturally ethnically-culturally mixed people, inter-racial Chinese, Indians and Portuguese, Christians living in the midst of a Muslim majority with many Hindus and a few Buddhists thrown in for good measure too. As Archbishop Murphy said to me a few days later, “In Rome they talk about inter-religious dialogue. Here we live it every day!”

Then Wednesday I had the first of what will be seven “concerts.” I put that in scare quotes because the main organizer here, Dr Pat Por has wanted to emphasize these as evenings of music, prayer and reflection, specifically in preparation for Lent. They’re pretty much concerts with a little more talking. She also asked that I stick to Christian/liturgical music for these, and at that mainly music from “Awake At Last,” the album of music for Lent and Easter that I produced in 2008. It’s been interesting for me, since I rarely do concerts of all Christian/liturgical music anymore, even in church settings I’m always throwing in a Sanskrit chant or a Metta Sutta or a “moon in my body.” But I have complied. The first two have gone very well. I’m trying to do the same program each night (I might get bored and start improvising at some point) and Ian prepared a Power Point so that the refrains are projected overhead so that people can sing along, and I’ve got an outline of some lesson to teach from each song.