Friday, December 17, 2010

Who Sings Prays Twice

Anonymous writes: 'I did not know names like Byrd and Couperin and have been inspired to learn more about them. . . .please consider a little tutorial for people like me who love silence but would also love to learn more about sacred music that will support us as contemplatives.'

Music and our responses to it are very personal. Augustine says, 'Who sings prays twice,' but that saying might apply to any music that conveys us to liminality. At the same time, there is no substitute for singing, which unifies the whole person and sets up vibrations that gladden the heart.

It is thought that music stimulates a different part of the brain than speech, a more primitive area, and it has been shown that animals respond to the rhythms of music. A friend sent me a UTube clip of a particularly joyous cockatoo dancing, really boogying, in near ecstasy. Drumming can stimulate trance, but the question Anonymous asks is particularly about contemplation, which is quite different from trance, although the attention is focused in a similar way, and perhaps at times there is some overlap.

Music has played a critical role in my life at various times, and music was involved in the event that determined the course of my life at age five. I attended a primary school attached to a cathedral that had a choir of boys and men, so it is not surprising that I have always loved that repertoire—and as a child was saddened that as a girl I was not allowed to sing it. Thankfully this barrier is now mostly a thing of the past.

Music is like anything else in contemplative life: to be had in moderation—and what speaks to one heart will be dust to another, so what follows is purely subjective. In monastic life, music plays a critical role in helping to seat the psalms and other texts in the psyche so that there is, as it were, a sort of continual prayer-wheel turning in the depths. One can take ones own spiritual temperature, as it were, by tuning into what psalm phrase is turning in the depths at any particular time. That most modern people don't have this internal concordance is a tragedy, because many ancient and medieval writers—and modern writers too—count on their readers' having a sort of echo-chamber in which their texts can resonate.

Chant, especially the Night Office, plays a significant role in contemplative life in other ways: the pace of chant allows about four breaths per minute, and the controlled breath helps to calm and focus. There is as much listening as singing, as the music comes first from one side of the choir, then the other; chant is cooperative. If you visit a monastery you can often tell what the state of the community is by the way its members chant. In the long Night Office there is an opportunity like no other to settle into the chant; images arise from the text or don't; a train of thought is begun or isn't; one fades in and out of liminality and probably in and out of what Isaac of Nineveh calls 'prayer beyond prayer'. In the Night Office one has the sense of plunging into an ever-flowing stream of prayer that is outside of time. The Night Office is itself liminal: it is neither yesterday nor tomorrow; it is suspended between death and life, darkness and light being both alike. The loss of the Night Office is in calculable, both for monastics and for scholarship that works on the texts that are formed by it.

But listening to recorded chant in small doses can be useful, and of course there are lots of different kinds of chant. My favourite chant is Carthusian, but there is very little of it available on CD. My favourite chant recording is one for Advent by the monks and nuns at Bec, in France. On it is a combination of Gregorian and Orthodox chant, very beautiful. As I recall it won the Grand Prix du Disque, but having just looked at the Amazon website, I don't think it's available any longer.

There is a lot of variation in the way Western chant is sung. I find some of Solesmes' chant a bit precious. The more natural and less perfect singing of the Monasterio de Silos, for example, which hit the top of the charts some years ago, is more to my taste. I like Orthodox chant, too, but a little goes a long way: it's a very rich diet.

Early medieval music also is lovely; much of it has what I think of as a hollow centre—there isn't much use of the middle note of a chord, for example in a C-major chord C, E, G, the E would be missing; I also like the melismas that come from Arabic music, and the use of ground-notes, or drones.

But my favourite sung church music is that of the renaissance and baroque, with some modern music thrown in, what is thought of as the 'English choir repertoire'. This contains a lot of renaissance polyphony (Purcell's 'Hear my Prayer O Lord' is one of my favourites, as is Byrd's 'Justorum animae') and baroque composers (Bach, Mozart, Gabrielli, Monteverdi, Victoria and others), but there are some glorious modern composers as well: Poulenc, Vaughan Williams, Patrick Hadley, Messien, Herbert Howells, Joubert, just to name a few. I didn't come across a lot of this music until I was in high school and after, and it was a revelation.

And of course today we have the contemporary music of Arvo Pärt (his Cantus on the Death of Benjamin Britten is right up there with Purcell's 'Hear my Prayer' in my book), John Tavener, and others. So far my remarks have been mostly about sung music, but the 'Cantus' is instrumental. Instrumental music can also feed contemplation, although I find flutes irritating and too much harpsichord makes me impatient. Just about any of what Bach wrote, or that of the composers that surround him is music you can lose yourself in. I don't much like Victorian organ or choral music but there most certainly are exceptions, such as Widor's famous toccata from the 5th symphony, when there is something to celebrate, or some of Vierne, or the Verdi 'Requiem'.

In the end you just have to pick and choose. It's worth doing a bit of musical research such as Anonymous is doing, and can be richly rewarding, if not revelatory, especially to someone who knows only the howl and thump of contemporary pop.

Finally a word about bells. Bells are in a class of their own, not handbells, but swung bells. A big tenor bell sounding my bones invariably brings tears to my eyes. I love English change-ringing, especially the half-muffled peals around Remembrance Sunday, but give me a European town or cathedral with every bell set in motion, jangling and clashing and making indvertent harmonies. I once heard a recording, which I tried unsuccessfully to copy—I think it had been made on someone's phone—of all the bells at Strasbourg Cathedral ringing at once. I have no idea how many there were. The tenor began, and gradually one bell after another joined in until the listener was somehow taken inside all of this thick sound—there are no words for it. Then a small, clear tinkling bell rang, one that cut through the resonances of the other bells, a signal to the ringers to begin to stop. One by one the bells dropped out until, again, only the tenor was left ringing and then, it, too, stopped, leaving a silence alive with windrush from angels' wings.


Anonymous Ian Duncan said...

Just to add a little bit to your rich advice, Maggie. Along with music is bodily movement - swaying, even dancing, etc. - which also has a spiritual aspect. Even the swinging gospel singing! At least, that's what I understood from years in India and attending temple chanting and hymn singing.

7:59 pm, December 18, 2010  
Blogger MikeF said...

I was struck by a sudden thought: the "hollow centre" in medieval music you describe, with just the root and the 5th of the chord, is identical to the "power chord" beloved of heavy rock musicians. What is it about the major 3rd that there can be such power in leaving it out?

1:02 pm, December 20, 2010  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for these comments in answer to my request.

I spent a lovely evening in the mountains listening to "Scala Dei: The Scale of God by Choir of the Carthusian Monastery of the Scala Dei" which is a beautiful but mysterious CD, since it is sung by women.

I lived for a long while in Istanbul, and your description of the choir of bells reminded me so much of the choir of prayer calls that propagates across the city, starting from the mosque at Eyup Sultan and being picked up one by one by every mosque in the city. Almost all of them still have live callers. From the right vantage point, listening-wise, it can be breathtaking to hear them join, merge, and part again.

And again in Fez, I was priveleged to sit at the tomb of Moulay Idriss during the recitation of a litany that occurs every Friday before the communal prayer for the week. This remains truly a secret. You must be Muslim to enter the neighborhood, let alone the mosque/tomb, and this is not taken lightly. (There is, for one thing, no YouTube video of it, which I think must show something in today's world.) You sit in a small and ancient room with small and ancient men whose chant is the most transporting thing I have ever heard. Around the walls are extremely antique grandfather clocks. I asked the guardian of the site why they were there. He said they were sent as bribes or gifts or some similar sort of effort to purchase the good regard of the Sultan in the 17th and 18th centuries when Europeans were trying to secure rights to establish free trade zones on the Moroccan coasts. There was great consternation about the sorts of demons that might have been cast to inhabit them, and so the clocks were sent to the tomb, the holiest spot in Morocco, where the power of no demon could ever prevail. shows a view of the tomb but you can't see the clocks.

There is only one recording I know of that even approaches the splendor of that litany in Fez: see

7:49 pm, December 20, 2010  

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