Wednesday, May 07, 2008


I think I have it.

I have figured out what “feels wrong” to me about, say, Tom Booth “Find Us Ready” at Mass, or even just “One Bread, One Body”:

here it is.....

What is at odds between some types of music and the nature of the liturgy is the lack of formality present in the environs that society associates with the music’s characteristics.

Even a cursory glance at the Roman liturgy will reveal a great deal of formality in these rites. Almost everything is structured and planned. Vestments are described in the documents with words like “dignified”. Even the materials to be used for the vessels are specified.

In how many environments in American society do we find guitars in use in formal environments? Some, to be sure, but they are the exceptions rather than the rule. Guitars are “cool”, and formality is rarely “cool”.

How many people would hear Tom Booth’s “Like the Bread” and think of something as formal as the text of the Gloria? (And even the current English translation uses language quite far removed from everyday speech!)

It’s not a value judgement of the music, but these are sounds that don’t really accord, in our society at least, with the formality of the liturgy.



At Wednesday, May 07, 2008 5:44:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Too much of what you're describing is wrapped up in the musician's interpretation of the pieces used, not to mention the quality of the players and instruments themselves.

Roman liturgy is known less for "formality" than for a noble simplicity.


At Wednesday, May 07, 2008 9:30:00 AM, Blogger Cantor said...


It doesn’t take much interpretation to identify certain musical characteristics and to associate them with certain social settings. Some, I’ll grant you, but not very much. There is a widespread tendency, I think, to dismiss our own social conditioning as irrelevant, to which I am incresingly saying, “Oh, come on.”

I think the quality of the players and instruments has nothing at all to do with it. The Booth recording that I linked is a polished, professional recording, but it still doesn’t sound like anything you’d normally hear in a formal setting in our culture.

Formality and simplicity are not opposed to each other. You can’t really argue that the Roman liturgy is not, relative to how most people live most of their lives, very formal.

At Wednesday, May 07, 2008 4:41:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've never seen formality considered a value across the board in Catholic liturgy.

Yes, when the pope's in the country, or the bishop is there, or at a wedding or funeral.

I think formality fails in small groups: Communion to the sick for example. That's not to say a situation like Viaticum couldn't be serious if it lacked a certain formality one sees with large group liturgy.

And yes, liturgy as ritual contains a formality mostly unexperienced in ordinary life these days.


At Thursday, May 08, 2008 11:20:00 PM, Blogger ScholarChanter said...

The formality should reflect the seriousness of .. anything, really. That can be said of what you wear to mass (perhaps I should dress better for mass). How else could we convey seriousness - perhaps that's a discussion for another day. When we are celebrating the holy sacrifice of mass, what we do should reflect the seriousness of the event. Formality is definitely one way to do it - wear special garments (vestments, "Sunday best"). During the pope's white house visit, they had the fife and drum corp, which was apparently a super-formal thing, although it looked silly to me. So cultural conditioning can't be ignored. The secular society has ways to be "formal" - think prom, Oscars, white-house dinners, graduations. So I guess we don't want to use formality cues from those things, but rather we have to find solemnity in other places? Tradition certainly provides a source, ritual does also. During the Easter season last year, we had sprinkling rite all throughout the easter season. Making use of ritual seems to be helpful. In terms of picking music? Things that are dark and heavy? things ethereal? I guess it is left to the taste and discernment as to what reflects the solemnity of the event.

At Saturday, May 10, 2008 12:02:00 PM, Blogger ScholarChanter said...

I recently attended a meeting of "School of Community" of the Communion and Liberation (CL) (a lay movement that started in Italy). We are reading Luigi Giussani's book "Is it possible to live this way" and talked about having an encounter (with God) (carryover from the previous week), and it being "exceptional" - this exceptional encounter you experience in your daily life is not just a "coincidence" but Divine - Christ makes His presence. It is exceptional because it somehow addresses your deepest desires of the heart.

Then we talked about the issue of is exceptional-ness different from newness or novelty. Then it got me thinking about the whole issue of piano vs. organ, and all the other discussion about liturgical music - certainly exceptional-ness, or that exceptional encounter with God, can come from the novelness of the encounter - but it does not have to. Perhaps this "tension" we see in liturgy music comes from whether we seek exceptional encounter with God by pursuing novelty or not? Are we trying to "force" an "exceptional" encounter with God by seeking novelness? Perhaps we can understand those trying to promote "new" or secular music in liturgy are motivated by this.

If this doesn't make sense, that's ok!

At Sunday, May 18, 2008 9:01:00 AM, Anonymous catholicjourneyman said...

The "formality" of the music style is subjective. If it is Liturgically compatible, and Booths work is intended to be, then the instruments playing it should not be subject to judgement.
"Wherever 2 more are gathered" is all that needs to happen, really.

At Sunday, May 18, 2008 11:02:00 AM, Blogger Cantor said...


In a culture-free liturgy, yes, “wherever 2 or more are gathered” works.

However, liturgy is never separate from its surrounding culture. I would venture that if you just took a poll on the street, very few in our culture would identify the melody or the typical instrumentation of this song as very “formal”.

In other words, yes, formality is subjective, and I think there’s not much room to argue that drums, bass, and piano really connote formality in our culture. Look at the singing styles that go with these instruments in our culture: sloppy diction and vocal technique. I mean, imagine singing “Find us Ready” with a pure “ah-ee” diphthong on that first syllable, a tall “us”, clear “eh” and “ee”, and a pure, closed “o”.

At Wednesday, April 01, 2009 3:00:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

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