For me a living tradition in art (and the argument would apply equally to music), is not simply one that preserves and hands on the great work past, it is one also that reapplies its core principles to create new art or music. But one might ask, why bother? With the standard of reproductions in art now, you could have a Fra Angelico in your church at a fraction of a cost of commissioning an original work of art. Similarly, there is so much chant and polyphony already composed, you could have something different but of the highest quality every Sunday for several lifetimes.
Sometimes the modern expression is not something never seen before, but a re-emergence of an old style, that has its time again. Fra Angelico is an artist who seems to be liked a great deal at the moment, and so any artist who could capture the qualities of his art would do well I think. Having said this, however closely we follow a past form, that time-bound aspect will never be absent altogether. Each artist is a unique individual and even the most cloistered monk will susceptible to the culture of his day. This individual aspect of the work cannot be quashed altogether. The task for the artist, or composer, is to direct it so that it conforms to what is good, true and beautiful. To certain extent this will be an intuitive process but creativity is directed by conscious reason as well. When the artist is responding to a clearly defined need then this latter aspect comes into play particularly.
I think the music of composer Paul Jernberg does this. You can hear is music here. We have been collaborating in developing music for the liturgy of the hours at Thomas More College for the last year and we will be working together at the summer retreat at the college in August where the aim is to teach people how to sing it. What is so great about this is first, how appealing it is and second how easy it is to sing at a satisfying level. This is what the ideal of noble simplicity is all about.
Here’s another example. We had a priest who visited regularly and even if celebrating a novus ordo would always lead us in reciting the St Michael prayer after Mass. He used to turn to the tabernacle as he said it. I thought that it would be great if we had an image to focus on, so I painted one for the back wall. Then I then asked Paul if he could come up with an arrangement so that we could sing the prayer. Very quickly he adapted a traditional Byzantine tone to it. In this case there is minimal change musically, because he felt it didn’t need it.
This arrangement has been very popular. The students have picked up on it and completely on their own instigation now sing it in four-parts harmony every night after Compline. Dr William Fahey has asked that we sing it after each Mass in response to the attacks on the Church in connection with the new healthcare legislation. Dr Tom Larson, who teaches the choir at the college is so enthusiastic about it that took this up to his men’s group in Manchester, New Hampshire. Within 15 minutes they learnt it and enjoying it so much they decided to record it on a mobile phone. Next day it was up on YouTube, and this is what you see here. As you listen to it remember that this is a cell-phone recording of an amateur choir of 5 men of varying ability (including myself on bass – right at the bottom in more ways than one) singing it virtually unrehearsed.
Paul Jernerg has just been made Composer in Residence at Thomas More College. He will be composing music for us to showcase and visiting to give master classes in performance and for those who have the ability, composition. One of the things we have asked him to do is to compose a Vespers of St Michael the Archangel and I can’t wait to hear it.