04. May 2013 · Comments Off on Wild Music · Categories: N. Grail School Year

I go to all the daily schola rehearsals right after supper.  Sometimes I even conduct the rehearsals, but I have not actually conducted in church.


One night just before lights out, Angela comes to my room and tells me that I am to conduct the Introit in the morning.  She will lead the rest of the Mass.

Angela is the Director of the Music Center.  She seems only a few years older than I.  I think she is the most inspiring of the conductors.  Her soul is in her music.  She writes music for numerous antiphons and passages from the psalms and scriptures, all in English.

She set to music a hauntingly beautiful version of Psalm 136.

Upon the rivers of Babylon

There we sat and wept

When we remembered you O Sion

O Sion! 

Upon the rivers of Babylon

There we sat and wept…

That drawn out O Sion! That cry of universal longing of the exile will stay with me forever.

The next morning after Mass, Angela takes me aside.  She says with a trace of amusement, Those eyes!  You almost hypnotized me with those eyes!

That is as close as she would come to giving me a compliment.  At the same time, I know that I have to capture the choir with my hand movements more than with my facial expressions.

By the time I am conducting whole Masses, both in church and in our hall with the priests facing us, I am also called occasionally to lead folk singing, and sometimes Vespers and Compline.

One evening a week, a professor from the Conservatory of Music in Cincinnati comes to give us a session on polyphonic music.  It reminds me that most music is not written on a 4-line staff.

In polyphonic music we sing in harmony but in distinct parts.  I am a soprano as are many of us.  The rare treasures are true altos like Eva.  In this music you can throw in all kinds of instruments like organs and trumpets and even clashing cymbals.  They add to the splendor.

In Gregorian Chant there are no parts.   We sing together as a single voice.  That voice was perfected out of hundreds of years of men living in monasteries.  For these true believers the world had become a wilderness, one way or another.

They created a complex liturgy weaving the sacred texts of their faith into the seasons, into every day of the year.  They sang this liturgy every day and every hour of the day, all year. Then they repeated the cycle.

It is an alternate world, but it is not an alternate reality.  There is a wilderness in every one of us.  Most of us do not live there.

I think there is enough of a monastic life here to bring that voice to something close to the monks’ cry in the wilderness.   It isn’t all about pain and loss either.   It is also about longing and anticipation and hope.  In the many alleluias, particularly, we found subtleties like peace, acceptance, even whimsy.  Sometimes it is just all out joy.

It was always about the voice.  One voice, stripped of all embellishment.  Add anything to that, and you make it harder to find that voice than to chase a unicorn in the desert.

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