Attended mass in one of the number of little town that grew up in the gold fields of California along State Highway 49 back in the mid 1800s. Some of these towns have lovely churches build a hundred years or more ago, but most have structures thrown up in the last 60 years or so.
The builders of this church evidently salvages some stained glass from a much earlier church – the tabernacle was flanked by some beautiful windows, including a lovely Madonna and their patron saint. The sanctuary itself was nice, simple but lovely woodwork everywhere. The body of the church was the by now traditional linoleum floored barn with unnecessarily ugly walls, ceilings, and fixtures.
An annoying and never ending susurrus greets one upon entering. Look like a barn, expect to sound like a barn, it seems. The ‘band’ was stationed to the left of the sanctuary – one guy might have been in his 50s, the other three, one woman and two men, had plenty of gray hair.
To be fair, while younger people were fairly represented, the congregation skewed older. (Two lovely young women in the pew behind us wore chapel veils, but that was certainly not the general vibe. )
I had just been discussing with (more like monologuing at) my long-suffering wife about how great music, upon a first hearing, at first sounds subtly surprising, but quickly becomes inevitable. Beethoven, to take the poster boy, will hit you with brisk, often startling, material and quick modulations – that, once played and heard, become impossible to imagine otherwise. Think the 2nd movement of the 7th Symphony – that is a surprising piece of music, but after a single listen, it’s hard to imagine changing a single note – it is that profoundly right.
Church music does rise to that level. Think ‘O Sacred Head Surrounded’ or the Jupiter hymn tune by Holst – any notes out of place? Any chance you’re forgetting those tunes? Not for me, at least. Some chant and polyphony are also that way.
Alas, we heard none of that today. Our aging quartet of folk guitarists and singers went to the usual shallow well people their age and skill level always draw from: St. Louis Jebbies, Toolan, and OCP stars. Nothing unexpected in that, but I guess my hope springs eternal.
Two of the pieces were familiar from decades of repetition: while hardly memorable on their merits, they perhaps rise to the level of least bad of their kind. Two pieces were especially unmemorable: the responsorial Psalm 23, and the completely forgettable closing hymn.
How many real composers have set Psalm 23 – “The Lord is my Shepherd”? Yet this band managed to find a setting so bland and forgettable that I had a little difficulty remembering the repetitious refrain between verses. Neither surprising nor inevitable.
The closing song was another completely forgettable ditty call (I asked my wife if she remembered, because I certainly didn’t) “Take up your cross”. Directionless, repetitive, random. Used a variation on the same set of four chords every praise and worship song has used for several decades now.
So, alas! Our Laetare Sunday was not brightened by beautiful music. On the plus side, we have several musicians working to add a little quality to local parishes. My son and I joined the local parish choir, because the director is trying, and having a couple of men who can carry parts has got to help. But I was out of town today.
Perhaps liturgical music, like science, advances one funeral at a time.
1.Still crazy busy. The realtor says: you want anything the prospective home buyer is likely to touch to work. Seems reasonable. Trying to fix everything that a prospective home buyer is likely to lay hands on is proving expensive and time consuming – go figure. We’ve lived, sometimes for more than a decade, with:
doors with glitchy nobs, like there is a trick to getting them to open and close;
a downstairs shower that is broken – have been stashing the cat food, kitty litter and back-up TP in it for so long, we’d almost forgotten it was there. Do have two working showers, but
other showers have tricky ‘features’ as well, like one which drips if you turn it ALL the way off, but doesn’t if you turn it ALMOST all the way off, and another which has lost the relationship between the ‘H’ and ‘C’ settings and the actual water temperature.
broken light fixtures
And so on. And. of course, a plethora of broken stuff, including
broken cabinet doors
And on and on. PLUS – the Endless Brick Project of Doom. On which I’ve made huge progress with the help of my youngest son, younger daughter and her husband. Pics to follow soon. I even added a project, because of course I did:
None of this repair/replace/finish work compares in magnitude to the sort/clean/pack work. Can’t even think about it. That’s coming up soon.
2. Turned 64 on St. Joseph’s Day. Threw myself a pizza party, invited some friends and our younger daughter’s in-laws. Big family, in both senses – a good sized batch of kids, and dad’s a about 6’5″ and built like the former college offensive lineman he is; a couple of his teenage sons tower over 6’2″ me. Nice folks, we had a blast. Our youngest son took over the pizza making duties so I could socialize more, and did a great job. Torch-passing ahoy!
64 seems old in a way 63 or even 60 did not. This, despite my being in better physical shape this year than the last several. Lost 35 lbs so far; got another 65-70 to go. I’m feeling the obligation to get healthy and stay alive to help my kids and grandkids in any way possible. Granddaughter #1 is a little over 4 months old, and a real sweetheart. I expect more will be on the way, given our kids love of kids.
3. Realistically, if I can get into shape and lose the weight, I might have another 10 years of more demanding physical projects in me. This is good, as we hope to buy a ‘hobby farm,’ which sounds like a LOT of back-breaking work, if one is to make it work as one hopes. Big garden, big orchard, some chickens, maybe a pig. Youngest daughter wants a milk cow – fine, if she takes care of it. I want a hobbit-hole style root cellar, with a walk-in fridge and freezer space in the back. Because I’m insane, why do you ask? Then get some solar power to make sure it stays cold….
Then, God willing, I might have as much as another 10 years to work on less strenuous hobbies. My mom and dad made it to 87 and 88, respectively; my mom had her complete mental faculties to the day she died. Dad, not so much. So, best case, music and writing can continue for another 20 years.
The take-away: do it now. Don’t stop. Push. Get it done. And thank the Lord for every single day.
4. On the writing front, I’ve begun to pack all my education and history references up into boxes to be moved to our next abode, almost certainly a rental. No plans to do any writing until we get at least a little settled.
Musically, however, I’ve been greatly inspired by the almost 40 year old music I dug up while packing. It’s both inspiring and depressing – I think I have some real talent which, instead of being developed over the last 4 decades, has moldered. So, now, as an old man, I’m trying to rekindle the fire. All I really want is to give it one big try, finish a small set of compositions, and send them off to some real musicians for feedback and – a guy has got to dream – perhaps performance. It either works or it doesn’t, but I owe it to myself to give it a shot.
So, I’ve been working on some pieces, usually in the morning after breakfast before I get going on home projects, and in the evening after I’ve cleaned up the day’s work. So far,so good. We’ll see.
Further bulletins as events warrant. Both Severain and Briggs have been on fire lately, but I have little time to comment. And I still want to comment on the comments made here lo, these weeks ago now. Maybe after the move?
On a positive note, at Mass today were more people than even OCD I could unobtrusively count, so don’t have numbers, but it looked like over half were unmasked. Progress, of a sort, but we can’t let this fraud and tragedy simply vanish as if it never happened. People MUST face the facts: the news is now 24/7 war in Ukraine (even though 6 other equally tragic and atrocity-filled wars are going on elsewhere at this moment- ever hear about them? Why not, do you suppose?) just as the news media, especially outside the US, is starting to acknowledge the tragedy and farce that was the COVID response. Masks? Never worked. “Vaccines?” Not so safe and effective. Deaths? Overcounted. And so on.
Overall, the obvious is coming out: the lockdowns, masks, panic, “vaccines”, and all the terror and disruption and destruction they inflicted did nothing to stop COVID, but caused irreparable physical, psychological, and political harm.
Nuremberg trials, or bust. We must not forget, and forgive only once people are in jail or dangling.
Next, as mentioned, in amongst a set of old papers were some compositions I’d started back when I was 25 and a private composition student of Susan McClain in Santa Fe. I transferred the music to one partial piece into MuseScore, a setting of the liturgical text
Domine, non sum dignus
ut intres sub tectum meum,
sed tantum dic verbo
et sanabitur anima me
In English (literal)
Lord, I am not worthy
that you should enter under my roof
but only say the word
and my soul will be healed (and healed will be this soul of mine)*
I’d only set the middle two phrases. Somewhere, unless I threw them out, are pages and pages of draft settings for the first and last phrases. I really liked the settings of the middle two, but could not come up with anything satisfying for the beginning and end.
After hearing what it sounded like sung on ‘ah’ by MuseScore, found I still liked it, enough to want to finish it. So I got on it.
I imagine this happens in writing or any art: one’s style or taste changes over time. I remember one piece I wrote in college, where it went through 3 or 4 style changes over the course of a 3 minute piece, such that the ending sounded nothing like the beginning – that piece never saw the light of day. It’s not automatic that one can recapture the style from almost 40 years ago. But I’m trying. Lots of fun, really want to finish this.
On a less fun note, we are now having to deal with stuff and memories packed away almost 10 year’s ago: our late son’s things. We didn’t have it in us to do anything more than pack it away at the time, but now we’re needing to at least put it into storage.
Yesterday, we moved out a bookcase he had made. He was maybe 18? 19? when he made it, with little help from me. He was our oldest, I had no other experience at the time working with my own children. I knew it was good – at least as good as the ones I make – but didn’t realize how amazing it is for a kid with very little woodworking experience to crank out something that nice first try. Very simple design, but the fit and finish are excellent. He went with a dark stain, and sanded between numerous coats, so it was very smooth and even.
No pictures, didn’t think of it. When we move his desk he made just before the bookcase, I’ll try to remember. Kid was a genius and a saint, with a craftsman’s soul. I miss him.
Anyway, bound to run across many other bits that trigger memorie3s. 27 years in the house, with 5 kids raised here.
Our youngest and I and hoping to finish at least the walls on the last planter today. there are also 4 little towers and a sort of connecting wall to be done, don’t know that we’ll get to them today.
I got to get out of this place. But it’s not like all the memories are bad.
* Doing a lot of word painting, so the words in the order they occur matter.
Yesterday, in preparation for putting our house on the market, put the first minivan load of boxes into storage. 90% books. Many of these boxes had gotten packed up 17 years ago when we moved out of our house for the remodel/addition in 2005. They were then rifled through at various times over the years as kids heading off to college looked for particular books. (Mom and dad both did Great Books, one of the advantages of which is that you’re not spending stupid money on disposable textbooks but are instead buying enduring classics – that your kids and grandkids can then use when they go off to a Great Books school.) So old, tattered, torn open boxes of books. This is in addition to the 20 or so bookcases worth of books we did unpack. Sigh.
Had to rebox them into sturdier boxes. The great risk here is in looking at any of this. A yawning rabbit hole with a serious gravity gradient.
I mostly resisted, but I’m only human. The worst find in this respect: a box (one of several, I fear) of cassette tapes and CDs. I was in a number of rock bands over the years; I also wrote some songs. These activities seem to spawn any number of tapes and CDs. This box also contained a Discman (with MEGA BASS!) that, it turns out, a couple fresh batteries brought back to life!
So, here I am, standing outside the side door of the garage at a makeshift table of an old door on two sawhorses, with 20+ year old tapes and CDs spread before me, with a Discman and some old cheap headphones. I made the quick decision to ignore the tapes – had no handy way to play them back, and what would be the point? So I just sorted through and threw out empty cases (how one ends up with empty cases but not loose tapes is a mystery). Started putting unlabeled or mysteriously labeled CDs in the Discman.
Threw out a bunch that were bank. I don’t know if I even have a device to burn them anymore. Kept the unopened packages just in case, not sure why. Then found some huge set of carefully labeled boxes which at first I couldn’t identify or remember. Turns out a friend from way back had recorded a whole bunch of live performances of various bands he was in – and I was in a bunch of them as well, so I guess he gave me a set. (The last band I was in with him is also the only band I’ve ever gotten fired from. Boring story – skip it.)
Anyway, I put the first disc on, not knowing or remembering exactly what was on it. Turns out I had performed at the local Walnut Festival (don’t laugh – actually pretty nice paying gig) with a band I don’t remember – as in, AT ALL. The frontman seemed to have been a harmonica player. I have no memory of this. I don’t ever remember playing in a band with a harmonica player.* I had to listen for a while to make sure it was me. The piano sounded like me; eventually, the band did Feelin’ Alright, which is, I suppose, is my signature song. I sing and play. So, I was there, I played and sang.
I don’t even have the excuse of doing drugs. And it’s not like I played out so much that playing the Walnut Festival would be utterly forgettable. One of my fondest memories is playing that festival the first time – they had a team to set up your equipment and sound check and all that, first time I actually felt like wow, I’m in like a *band* band! But this other time? Total blank. The reality: my total earning from playing out has not covered the cost of my equipment. Totally a pay-to-play dude. Hey, it was fun!
Then there were backup tapes and CDs for songs I wrote or worked on, with the unmixed parts. I don’t have the equipment to play them back on. Well, somewhere out there is a old 4-track cassette recorder, so, if it works, in theory, I could play those back. I won’t live long enough, but I didn’t throw them away.
Spent an ill-advised hour or two on that box. Most were not that bad. One place I failed: I have hundreds of old SciFi magazines. I couldn’t pull the trigger. Instead, I used them to fill in in boxes so that they, the boxes, were very full and survive stacking without damaging the boxes or the books in them.
Then there was the box of music, as in, written music, and personal notes. That was the wow box for me. Among other things, it contained:
Complete mimeographed sets of the lyrics to the first high school play I was ever in, called Cruisin’, written by our drama teacher, a Mr. Anthony. He anticipated the 50s revival by exactly one year. Great tunes.
A piece I wrote for a junior college music class, voice and piano. The teacher, Dr. Williametta Spencer, liked it.
Pieces I was working on with a voice teacher at Whittier College, circa 1978. These are tied to what in retrospect was a monumental decision on my part: he offered me one of the leads in a Gilbert and Sullivan production, and it was tempting, but I was all set to head back to New Mexico to finish up at St. John’s. So, if I had accepted, I would have spent another year pursuing music, and who knows what might have happened? Instead, I went back to New Mexico, worked for the Church for a couple year upon graduation, and met my future wife. A mystery.
A partial setting of the text Domine, non sum dignus, written around 1983. I was taking composition lessons from Suzanne McClain in Santa Fe at the time. I had written a piece – a Kyrie – for her Santa Fe Women’s Ensemble, and this was the next thing I was working on. It is a setting of only about half the text – I ran into a wall trying to get it finished – but I really liked the part I had written. This was around the time she assigned me to write a string quartet after the style of Mozart – I remember not having any idea what that was like, and going to the library to listen to some. Not sure what her point was in assigning that to me, but I ended up heading down to Albuquerque right around then to study art and piano, so that was end of that.
Two brief diaries. For crying out loud! One from college, one from my art school trip to Italy. I don’t think I could stand to read them now. Needless to say, I have no memory of writing them.
Finally, a scathing (and never sent) letter to my dad. I didn’t remember how upset I was with him circa mid 1990s. Reading that was not pleasant.
And a boatload of other stuff.
On a happier(?) note: found some mix CDs I’d burned. Lot of Keith Jarrett, lots of 60s and 70s pop – and some Tonio K. Apropos of nothing, here is one of my favorite songs of his, the always topical Funky Western Civilization:
*Not entirely accurate, as *I* was the harmonica p0layer in several bands for a few songs, like Long Train Running, where the skill requirements are low and the harmonica solo indispensable. Still have a box of harmonicas in all the good keys, somewhere.
Foxfier shared this metal version of Angels We Have Heard on High. This singer actually sounds like he’s seen some angels – after recovering from being terrified out of your wits, you’d not be singing about the vision like some whimpy kid’s choir. You’d be belting it out like you mean it!
Finally, at Midnight Mass the choir sang Victoria’s O Magnum Mysterium, which I have written about before. This polished gem of a work may be the most perfect motet ever written. It’s certainly among the most beautiful and profound:
I’m going to use the following feeble excuses for not writing here for over a week:
Younger daughter is getting married in 3 weeks;
I’m ‘working,’ mostly in the sense of worrying about and planning, the sale of our house in (we hope) March;
It’s the week before Christmas.
Volunteered to help the Caboose execute his Eagle Scout project, which tied up the better part of the last 2 weekends.
Other than that, I got nothing. What I have been doing:
A. Making Christmas gifts for the family. They are coming out nice, but, since it’s possible some of the recipients might read this blog, I’ll have to skip the pictures and of course any further details until they have been delivered.
B. Finishing the Gloria I’ve been working on, and working on the Kyrie. I’m at the point where I need to let the Gloria sit – I can keep tweaking it forever, but I probably will just let it go.
I switched over completely to composing in Musescore. It – just works, and revisions are so, so, much easier. Sigh. All that time mastering buggy whip making writing fair score by hand is now useless. My son-in-law swears by Musescore as a composition tool, as you can get instant playback as you go and the fair copy is a print command away. Beats stomping stuff out on piano, which is my usual method.
Sheepish request: any musicians out there with Musescore who would like to hear it/offer feedback? It’s all of 4 minutes long. If so, send me an email at yardsale of the mind (without the gaps) at G-mail dot etc. and I will email you the file.
C. Watching a Youtube series on counterpoint and fugal writing, based on Fux’s Gradus ad Parnassus. On the one hand, I know some of this stuff; on the other, I’m largely an ignorant fool. As I think Nadia Boulanger once said: composition is not theory, but technique, and you get technique by practicing. Will I live long enough to work my way through all of Fux’s and Gran’s exercises? Writing in this style – counterpoint and fuges – is highly technical and mathematical – there is structural stuff you need to work out before you get very far . I’m very bad at that part. Don’t know how many times I’ve written myself into a corner…
D. Had this very vivid idea for a story. Of course, I’ve got half a dozen other writing projects I have not been working on, so now I get another idea. Saw a meme the other day, where this writer is musing something like: “Some people got to bed and *sleep*? They don’t toss and turn working out the plots for a 7-book series? And then they wake up *refreshed*?” I haven’t slept well in years anyway, seems I just need to get mor4e productive about it. I may throw up a chapter as semi-flash fiction when I get a minute.
F. 3 years into involuntary semi-retirement. I need to get a job. Don’t need the big bucks anymore, just something reasonable.
Aaaand – that’s all I have time for at the moment. Tomorrow and Friday begin the annual Great Christmas Cooking & Baking Event. With married kids, we have multiple Christmas/New Year’s/Epiphany parties to go to/host, my beloved is in demand as a pie maker, and I’m always making something, too. So, maybe catch y’all next year.
Have a happy, holy, and blessed Christmas season, not to end before Epiphany at the earliest!
A. First of all, gratitude to all the readers of this blog. Not sure why the beloved 100 readers (on a very good day) come back for more, but thanks. Just know that you’re only encouraging me.
The writing here has come out even more unfocused than my original intent, which was pretty broad. “Culture. Religion. Politics. Science. Philosophy. Music. Art.” was the original charter 11 years ago. We do do that here, but also a lot of Home Improvement Projects and blithering about the books I intend to write. Which brings us to:
B: The ‘I should write a book about that’ books I’ve worked on here on the blog, ones where I might be qualified to have an opinion, are:
A book on the origins of the Catholic schools here in America, and how they have arrived at their current sorry (with very few exceptions) state
A more general book about the origins of schooling in America, circa roughly 1700 – 1940. An expose of the clowns and poseurs involved, and the paper-thin fantasy world that constitutes the foundation of all modern ‘scientific’ education.
The How to Think About Science book.
Starting with the last one first: as the Crazy Years progress, it’s painfully clear that ignorance of how science works is so far downstream from the real problems as to be all but irrelevant. The best case scenario, where someone reads my book, reexamines his world view, and changes how he thinks about things – sigh. Not happening in the real world.
And it’s not even the rejection of logic, which you have to have at least some grasp of in order to begin to understand how science works. Underlying both logic and the science is the notion that the world makes sense. That the world IS. Our well-schooled contemporaries specifically reject the very idea of shared objective reality in favor of a world willed into being by their own narcissistic selves. That any such world is definitionally inconsistent, and conflicts necessarily with anyone else’s similarly constructed world is not a problem for the dedicated narcissist. That they hold both to the sacredness of people’s self-constructed reality AND bow and scrap before the altar of social and political conformity isn’t a problem – they never expected the world to make sense. It’s Will all the way down.
When my teeth are set on edge by patently anti-science claims of ‘settled science’ and ‘scientific consensus’ or people doing as they are told claiming they are ‘following the science’ which they haven’t read and wouldn’t understand if they did, I imagined the problem was the general lack of scientific literacy, and thought I might be able to help a little by writing a book about basic science.
Therefore, I’ve reconsidered the point of this proposed book, why I would write it and who it is for. I’m readingKreeft’s Socratic Logic now, and perhaps will write this book as a sort of follow-on with a focus on the specific application of Aristotelian logic used by modern science, insofar as it has any legitimate claim to our acceptance of its conclusions.
So, basically, a high-school level book. (Kreeft’s book is also supposed to be a high school level book, but it’s pretty tough. He, an expert, isn’t leaving much out, and there’s just a lot of logic that’s not obvious or simple. Good, but tough.)
Time frame: Once we’re moved and settled.
The other two books I get bugged by my kids to complete. They’ve heard some of the points I make about schooling from the cradle, and have found them to be true in the world. They’d like there to be a book (or two) summarizing these things. These works have been in the works for years now. It is time.
Time frame: Once we’re moved and settled. I’ve recommenced reading source materials. as evidenced by the last post.
C. Then there are the fun books I’m supposedly writing. Well, I set a goal for this past June for the first of several speculative fiction books I hope to write, and got thousands and thousands of words into them…
But I didn’t finish. May 2021 was when the insanity finally began to get me down. It started taking work to just get on with it, whatever ‘it’ happened to be at the moment. As it became clear I wasn’t going to get any of the spec fic done by June, I got distracted by a musical composition. Why? I have no idea. Writing music and writing stories really are very similar: you get an idea, you pound it into some sort of shape, you write the next part and the next part and so on, sometimes skipping ahead to more fun/clearer ideas, and then backtracking to write the connecting scenes. Then read it out loud/play or sing it, rewrite as needed, then get other people to read/listen, and take their feedback…
And I’ve gotten maybe 5 minutes of a 6-part Gloria written, with a minute or so more to write, plus outlines/sections for a Kyrie and Agnus, and a idea or two for the Sanctus. Haven’t even thought about a Credo yet.
Why I found it possible to write music and not possible to write fiction is anybody’s guess.
Time frame: I’ll keep working on the Mass while we pack up and prep the house; the books I’ll take up again once we’re moved and settled.
D. We gotta get out of this place. We had the house tented a month ago; getting quotes for painters. Spoke with the Pods people, looking to start loading out in January.
Yesterday, picked up 10 bags of ready mix; today used 8 of them to put in what I intend to be the last segment of the vast, endless front yard home improvement brick project. Scaled it well down from the original plans – no grotto, less fancy brickwork. Sigh. Need it simply not to look ugly and unfinished. So, simple wall topped by some redwood lattice.
Aaaaand – a million other things need to be done. Not to mention the final pack what’s left up and get out of Dodge push in a couple months. Then finding a new place to live….
E. In a somewhat round-about way, I’m looking for a job, specifically, seeing if a new Chesterton Academy that is to open near where I’d like to live might hire me to corrupt the minds of our youth, after the fashion of Socrates and Aristotle. And quote a lot of Chesterton. It would be nice to teach, and have a little income.
F. All in all, I’m very grateful, and have gotten past letting myself get too down about the current insanity. For the most part. I used to pray in thanksgiving for getting to live in a land of plenty in a time of peace. Now? I pray that God will remember His promise of mercy, and, for the sake of His Name, for the sake of the Blood shed by His Son, and in the power of the Holy Spirit, He will not judge us as our sins deserve, but rather forgive us yet again. That He will send Mary, who crushes the head of the serpent, Joseph, the terror of demons, and Michael the Archangel to lead the heavenly host down to cast Satan and his minion out of our lives, our nation, and our world, bind them and cast them back into Hell where they belong. Then, that He may grant us the strength to endure whatever we must and the grace to die to ourselves and live only for His Will.
Listen to this Mass here. Utterly beautiful music that plumbs the emotional depths of the Requiem Mass, this masterpiece deserves to become as much a part of the repertoire as Faure’s Requiem.
Background: The Benedict XVI Institute is part of Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone’s efforts to return a sense of the sacred to the Church and the world. We have reached a point where, of the holy triumvirate of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful, only the Beautiful can get a hearing, so to speak, in the modern world. The Beautiful can get around the defenses set up under the dictatorship of relativism to keep the Good and the True at bay, can catch people off guard, and surprise them.
So the Archbishop created an Institute to provide resources to parishes to help in the beautiful celebration of the Mass, and to promote sacred art. The Benedict XVI Choir, a sixteen member professional choir under the the direction of Richard Sparks, is among the very best choirs I’ve ever heard. Sparks has one of those impressive musical resumes, having directed choirs and orchestras and founded ensembles and taught and written for decades now.
Frank la Rocca is the Composer in Residence. I am reminded of reading about how, under one of his patrons, 16th century composer Orlando de Lasso had a top notch choir (plus copyists and assistant directors) at his disposal. He would roll out of bed, compose all morning, ring for a servant to take the draft to the copyists with orders that it be rehearsed by the choir that afternoon, and he’d be down to give it a listen later that day. Composer heaven, in other words.
While I don’t imagine la Rocca has it quite that good, he’s got the best part: a fine choir and orchestra to perform his works in appropriate and often beautiful settings with appreciative audiences.
On November 6, in St. Mary’s of the Assumption Cathedral in San Francisco, la Rocca’s Requiem Mass for the Homeless was premiered as part of a requiem mass celebrated by Archbishop Cordileone for the repose of the souls of the homeless who died over the last year. My family attended.
The mass was very beautiful. First and foremost, I was there to pray, so my attention to the music was not what it would have been at a concert. I wasn’t taking any notes. I have yet to give the recently posted YouTube videos the listen they deserve. So, mostly, I’m merely recording general impressions here.
That said, the music was wonderful, beautiful, sublime. I was hearing echoes of Faure, Barber, and a little Britten in there, on top of his obvious roots in chant and the polyphonic giants of the 16th, and, especially, the early 17th centuries – more of the expressive emotionalism of Victoria and Byrd, less the jewel-like but comparatively cool perfection of Palestrina.
Faure and la Rocca do things with dissonance I need to study more. Their voice leading results in what might be expected to sound like harsh passages (and definitely would have gotten them in trouble with the sacred musicians in the 16th century!) but is instead supremely beautiful and expressive. The Barber comparison comes from some of the sonorities la Rocca loves (and I love, too!), closely-spaced, luminous, and moving. Every once in a while, a hint of the sort of repetition and sequences Britten uses so well seemed to be peaking through as well.
Yet the overall texture of the melodies remain very chantlike for the most part – there are exceptions. And he shies not away from the grand chorale cadences of the 16th century masters, even if he’s getting there via the 20th century masters.
None of this detracts at all from the originality and vigor of the music. La Rocca can remind one of many things without ever sounding like anything other than himself. That’s the beauty of real creativity: you find yourself by forgetting yourself in trying to do the most beautiful job you can.
The only other la Rocca work I’m at all familiar with is his Mass for the Americas, which is also very beautiful and profound. This is a very preliminary judgement, but having just listened to that earlier mass and comparing it to the Requiem heard Saturday, the Requiem is the more profound work. There’s a depth to it, a plumbing of human sadness and redemption, that takes this newer work to a higher level – and that’s saying something, because the Mass of the Americas is a very wonderful piece. I hope a recording of this Requiem finds its way onto a CD, so that I can listen to it with more focus.
Of the various Mass commons and propers, the ones which stand out in my memory are the Sanctus, the Agnus, and the Meditation after communion. Typically, one thinks of the angels surrounding the heavenly throne singing in glory at the Sanctus. La Rocca makes even that glorious cry into a journey through pain to redemption. The Lamb of God being sung about in the Agnus is a sacrificial lamb, the supreme Sacrificial Lamb dying to take away the sins of the world. This setting managed to capture something of that, a recurring theme throughout this Mass setting. Finally, the Mediation on Lamentation 1:12 summed up, if possible, the emotional content of the mass. We were praying for the souls of the least of the least of our brethren, those who had nowhere to lay their heads, who it is difficult to even acknowledge or tolerate – yet, they are given to us to love.
I must mention the excellent performance of the Benedict XVI Choir under Richard Sparks. They gave this work the inspired, beautiful realization it deserved.
Ten years ago, I had not heard of Morten Lauridsen, Avro Part, or Frank la Rocca. These are by any measure among the greatest composers of our age. But they write religious music. Film scores get you noticed; religious music ignored. If by any chance you get the opportunity to hear this piece performed, do it. I will post here if I find any recordings.
40 years ago, in my callow youth, I wanted to be a composer. Now, in my dotage, I’m writing some more. Why not?
As in so many areas of my life, I got really good at some aspects of this, while totally neglecting most of it. Thus, my ear wouldn’t get me out of a sophomore level ear training class, my sight-reading chops are pathetic, my knowledge of music theory is very spotty – but my music script is very nice. Observe:
I wrote this out, so the date on the cover page says, in August, 1983 – 38 years ago. The Santa Fe Women’s Ensemble was willing to perform this at an actual people-pay-to-get-in concert, so I thought it my duty to write it up nicely for them.
This was all before music transcription software, of course, so the only way to get it this nice was to do it all by by hand. Music paper didn’t come (as far as I could find) in systems of four staves, but just in pages of 10, 12, 16, 20 or whatever staves, and you just had to work around it. This would not do – spacing was all wrong, the space left for text and dynamic marking too small.
I hunted around and found these:
These – they came in sets of, I think, 5 nibs – are for inking staves. With these, and a nice cork-backed metal ruler, one can make one’s own music paper with whatever groupings and spacing one desires! For example:
What I did: made a single page laid out exactly as I liked, then took it down to the copy shop and had them print up a bunch. I even had them create tablets out of them, to keep the sheets together. Then, wrote the piece up, took the finished good copy back to the copy shop and had them print out copies on nicer paper, enough for the singers and director (and a few extras for me).
Time-consuming as all heck, but strangely satisfying.
For the lettering and dynamic markings, one needs another set of special pens. I used architectural pens (CAD was not a thing yet, in 1983, so architects had to learn how to letter, and so there were pens for that). They still sell them:
Mine – I have 2 – have been drying out for over 30 years in the cigar boxes I kept them in. In a departure from my normal practice, discovered that I’d saved the folded piece of paper that came with the pens describing how to disassemble and clean them. Their state went beyond anything mere cleaning was going to fix, so I took them completely apart, and soaked them and scrubbed them with a toothbrush, then soaked them some more over night in vinegar water.
Somehow, I had not lost the cigar boxes I kept all my inking supplies in. Various nibs and pens, nice pencils and erasers, little rulers, and two bottles of ink, one of which was still good! The other, nicer bottle with the dropper cap, was dried solid. Nonetheless, I was able, after a bit of cleaning up, to use at least the stave nibs. They were – not so good. Only after cleaning and fiddling with them for some time was I able to get them more-or-less working. As you can see in the example from 1983, it is possible to ink very nice staves with these things, and from the examples from yesterday, not so much now. But, with continued use, the results kept getting better. So – I will keep trying until I get good enough results or frustrated enough to throw them away.
Might look into getting some new stave nibs, if they still make them. They were cheap, back then. Hope I can salvage at least one of the architectural pens. Don’t even want to go there with the other fountain pens, which have also been drying out for almost 40 years. I have fancier calligraphy nibs and pens as well, but find them not so useful for music.
How things stand: as I near completion of the Gloria I felt compelled to write, I also felt compelled to drag out my tools for making fair copies. Before anybody tells me: yes, I know they make software for all this now, I even have some and have even used it a little. But: the software is very frustrating! Sure, once I master it, it will be much faster than writing it out by hand, and I can go right from the screen to fair copies. I get it. Maybe I’ll even do it, some day.
I learned how to write out music competently just in time for that skill set to become obsolete. Perhaps buggy whip making will be my next hobby.