It's me or the vacuum
I recently attended a meeting of fellow liturgical laborers. It was a meeting of singing specialists who were not yet familiar with programming music for the Catholic Mass. I attended the meeting too, hoping to network with my fellow church musicians, maybe get a cantor gig here or there. Since I moved here I've heard a depressing sameness in the music in many parishes I've visited. There are organs, but they are all set to tremolo, which makes every hymn sound like it's coming out of a flocked-wallpaper funeral home. (I used to sell Lowrey organs, back in the day.) Hymn selection is heavily weighted towards folk tunes with lyrics my piano teacher used to jokingly call "Jesus-Is-My-Boyfriend." The cantors charged with performing this music are unpaid and untrained. One cantor I heard recently sounded like she had asthma, her voice was so small. The microphone had to be turned way up for her, so in addition to hearing her pitches, we could also hear every wheezy breath she took too. I was actually kind of worried for her.
Yep, I'm complaining, but this situation is not news to anyone who works in sacred music. Parishes everywhere have moved away from more classical sounds, and have embraced more contemporary sounds, rendering folks like me nearly obsolete. We dinosaurs have to sigh and admit that many people prefer contemporary worship music to what we would offer them. Even musicians trained in Bach and Mozart will program more Marty Haugen than George Frederic Handel -- it's easy, it's poppy, it makes people perky. Folks like me -- who go happily prostrate at the sound of transcendent Chant and powerful choral polyphony -- are fewer and farther between now. Prof. Thomas Day of Salve Regina University wrote a really funny book about this situation: Why Catholics Can't Sing.
Full disclosure: Even I like some contemporary music -- in very small doses. I like Gospel music in a Gospel church, and I love the traditional Gospel station on Pandora. But I don't want it at Mass each and every week. I just think if you're going to play music that sounds like Jesus whispering in your ear, play it on headphones or in a small space, not in a majestic, stone-built Catholic church. The church is a place for majestic music. I like to feel "out" of myself at Mass, and I feel very "out" of me and very close to God when I hear well-trained singers and organists playing centuries-old music expressly created for His praise in His temple. I like knowing that I am singing the same music that centuries of the Faithful have used to praise God -- it makes me feel connected to the saints. I fall right back to Earth when I am forced to watch cantors make YMCA signs at the front of the church while clunking loudly around the microphones.
I can't seem to find musical transendence in a Catholic church in my area at the moment, and it's very frustrating. I worry that I'm never going to find it.
I know there are many roads to God and that's a good and necessary thing. I like to imagine the road to God as a long, gold-paved majestic highway, that starts out as dirt and gets more golden as you get closer. The music helps keep me focused on the road ahead. When I hear music like this, it makes me imagine a road to God that meanders past a bunch of strip malls and county fairs, the kind of detour where you're forced to spend an hour watching someone demonstrate a fancy vacuum and then wheedle you for a sale. You can get distracted from looking forward. To me, it's distracting to the point of annoyance.
Even though I find the current music situation extremely frustrating, it's not going to keep me away from Catholic Mass. Sometimes I think that's the lesson that God is trying to teach me: Stay focused, Eden. The Eucharist trumps anything and everything. So I turn my focus to the readings, to the homily, to everything but the music, and I try to remember that it's not about me, it's about God. And there's always Adoration. And, I'm working on developing a small group of local, like-minded singers (yep, it will be a small group) who want to get together and sing a little traditional sacred music. If we're welcomed into a parish occasionally to share what we can offer, well, that would be nice but I'm not going to sit by the phone waiting for an invitation. Those vacuums are really loud.
Sometimes when I get out of Mass, I get in the car and crank up my iPod, and screech out of the parking lot to music like this. It helps.