Art Works Blog

With a Force of Its Own: On Liturgical Music

Paul Lisicky. Photo courtesy of Mr. Lisicky

1. One voice syncs with another voice. Until the singers listen to themselves, they had no idea how much they'd missed making a single sound together. The work of it involves not just their tongues, teeth, lips, jaws, and lungs, but their whole bodies, all the way down their spines. A tenor joins in, and then the bass. Now the chord has legs. In a minute the cantor will raise his arms, inviting the assembly to join in. Out there, the trained singer in the tenth row holds back for fear that her timbre has lost its cool pure tone. Two rows ahead of her, a young man sings with a gusto suggesting he has the best voice in the pew, although he doesn't have the best conception of pitch. Soon the whole lot of them---choir, presider, assembly---are a great swinging beast, too big and joyful for the building that's trying to contain them. The friendly beast moves with a force of its own. Sometimes the beast bows down, raising its head, bowing down again; sometimes the beast swings side to side; sometimes the beast wants to get up out of there, rise through the roof, and sit with the dead, where the beast was always meant to be. Right now its spirit spills out onto the sidewalk, out the front doors, down six steps. The young woman walking by cannot ignore what comes down at her. She pretends not to feel its harsh warmth, but it holds her still for a second; it pushes all thoughts of her sick mother or her raging boyfriend out of her head, before she shakes the cellphone at her ear and walks on.

2. I've been that person who's passed a church when there's been singing inside. I used to be inside. When I wasn't in school, I spent hours inside those walls, writing music, playing music, guitar, organ, piano, percussion. I sang too, as songleader, choir member, soloist. How did I end up there? I didn't come from family especially concerned with devotion or matters of the spirit. We went to church, of course, but that was part of suburban routine, a way to mark the weekend. But suddenly a parishioner who knew of my musical abilities told the choir director that I'd make a good accompanist---they were in need of an accompanist, not just for liturgies but for choir rehearsals. That morning after Mass, I sat before the piano. I pressed the keys, I sight-read the music on the stand; I was too afraid to say no once the choir director told me to show up at seven p.m. on Tuesday. There was too much relief and satisfaction on her face, and I couldn't disappoint her now. She was already making plans. Maybe that?s how all life-changing things happen to us: as the stuff of accident.

3. I'm thinking now of a choir member from that time---I'll call her Natalie Thornton. You'd never say Natalie Thornton was an accomplished singer. If anything, she was the kind of singer who made the teenagers in the congregation redden, look away, and hold in their laughter until their father told them to knock it off. It wasn't just her tendency to waver when she held onto a low note---she always held on too long. Or her habit of flattening her A's in the upper registers.  It was her complete lack of self-consciousness, which couldn't have been more threatening to how teenagers knew themselves. Weren't teenagers always waiting for something to go wrong in themselves, in others? How could we not, with so much information coming at us, telling us what to be, what not to.  But even if you held back your laughter, it was impossible not to be stirred by the passages of animation that broke through Natalie's solo, as the choir backed her in four parts. Back in school, the music directors of our choirs would never have admitted the younger version of Natalie into the most competitive choirs. Her voice was too uncooked, too pungent, too her; her alto would never have been able to meld with the others. It couldn't have navigated the more demanding passages in Handel or Mozart, where attention to craft came first. Every Sunday morning I accompanied a band of people who shared Natalie's unique mixture of strengths and weaknesses.  It would be simplistic to say that rigor and craft are secondary to artistic expression. But Sunday after Sunday I took in something large about the beauty of process, of amateurism, of imperfection. Or maybe just this: a deep respect for doing what we don't yet know how to do.

4. Once upon a time we sang in groups, around the campfire, in the taproom, without embarrassment or awkwardness. We sang at harvest; we sang when someone in our community was moving away, to a village on the other side of the river. Song took us out of ourselves and made us know ourselves more deeply at once. It was as essential as breathing, food, sex, laughter, talk, touch. It never would have occurred to us that opportunities for public singing, group singing, would dwindle in the time ahead. We never would have thought singing would be something we'd give over to the professionals (or those hoping to be, as in the case of the talent shows on TV). Our houses of worship might be the only place left where any of us have the opportunity to sing, where we can still be too sharp or too flat, too strained or completely tone deaf. The friendly beast is greater and more alive than dogma or denomination. He can't be corrupted or contained. That might be why some of us keep walking in and out through church doors. Anyone who's felt himself to be a part of him knows.

Paul Lisicky is the author of Lawnboy, Famous Builder, and The Burning House. He received an NEA Literature Fellowship in 1990. Lisicky has taught in the writing programs at Cornell University, New York University, and Sarah Lawrence College. He is currently the New Voices Professor at Rutgers University. His next book, Unbuilt Projects, is forthcoming in 2012.

Did you know that over the years the NEA National Heritage Fellowships have honored many liturgical musicians from diverse faith traditions? Honorees include Moges Seyoum (Ethiopian liturgical musician), the Oneida Hymn Singers of Wisconsin, Amma D. McKen (Yoruba Orisha singer), and 2011 NEA National Heritage Fellow Frank Newsome (Old Regular Baptist Singer).

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