Music at Mass Review: Polyphony as Catholic

The music at Saturday’s Mass prior to the Walk for Life was good to excellent, sung by a good choir, some chant, some polyphony, English, Latin and Spanish.

I am grateful. The mass, with a dozen bishops, dozens of clergy, processions, incense, candles – the whole smells and bells routine – was beautiful. The homily edifying. One interesting aside: in a congregation made up of pro-life people, the songs get sung, the responses get said, and everybody kneels for the Domine, non sum dignus (it has somehow become customary in our neck of the woods to stand). It’s almost like believing in what is going on makes one more inclined to fully and actively participate, at least in the ways that can be seen.

That was Saturday, at the Cathedral in San Francisco. But then, as you may have heard, Sunday kicked off Catholic Schools Week. This had failed to register until we showed up for the 10:30 mass at our parish 5 minutes early as is our custom and found the church in general and, more important to us, the areas set aside for people with mobility issues (grandma uses a walker) already all but filled up. I will generously assume that all those kids and their families usually go to another mass, and the crowd at the 10:30 was offset by lighter-than-usual turnout at the other masses. Not easy, but I will assume this.

Here’s the obligatory note: these are some good and dedicated people, doing their best to the best of their understanding. It’s that understanding that I’m criticizing here, not the people, who have been formed over their lifetimes in a way not of their choosing. There may well be some personal blame to be laid somewhere, but not at the feet of these good people. My goal is to try to elevate the understanding.

Thus is came to pass that the music was provided by a children’s choir. Somehow, by some unwritten but iron law, music sung by children in Mass must evidently be infantile both musically and theologically. This is done, presumably, because the little dears are not up to singing good music with theologically sophisticated lyrics. The only theological messages their little brains can process are along the lines of let’s be nice to each other, Love is God and, for the more advanced, ‘alle alle allelooooia’.

One suspects there might be a little bit of that soft bigotry of low expectations, at the very least, going on here. One would not want to suppose the kids are purposely being dumbed down, despite Catholic Schools Week being, essentially, a celebration of how our parish schools are kinder, gentler public schools with a little optional Jesus thrown in. Those public schools, after which true Progressive American Catholics have long pined and to which they have aspired, exist to dumb as down, as has been discussed and documented here over the years. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.

What should we expect? For context, here are a bunch of young ruffians, orphans even, *boys* even! doing a bit of light singing under the direction of meddlesome adults:

I had the honor, 40 years ago, to hang out for a week with Monsignor Francis Schmitt, founding director of the Boys Town Choir, may he rest in peace, and have also read about him. He was an imposing man, radiating a manly strength, yet warm and easy to talk with. Two things became clear: he was an unapologetic taskmaster, insisting young boys learn some moderately complex music. He also loved the boys and was greatly beloved in return.

It’s as if boys like to be challenged, especially by men they can look up to and who care about them. It certainly is clear that these boys responded gloriously to Msgr. Schmitt’s challenge.

A subsection of the same law mentioned above requires, at least in local usage, the children to gather in front of the altar (backs to it and the tabernacle, naturally) and sing a pre-dismissal song after which all are expected to clap. And so it happened.

As the unruly gaggle of adorable kids congealed around the altar, my 14 year old, wise beyond his years, nudged me and pointed at his Padre Pio wrist band: Pray, Hope, and Don’t Worry. I smiled sheepishly, and whispered: “count how often God gets mentioned in this song”. By my count, zero times. Lots of talk about Love, which, assuming some degree of theological understanding, could reference God. But the song failed to remove all doubt.

The teacher ‘leading’ the singing sang loud, as did a few of the kids. I’d say about 90% were whispering, mouthing the words, or engaged in pulling the hair of the kid in front of them or some similar kid activity. But they were adorable, up in front of the altar, in their little school outfits.

Finally, after the kids had dispersed, the congregation started to do likewise – while the priest was still at the altar. In their defense, the Mass + the extracurricular activities had run almost 90 minutes, some people were getting antsy. He and the acolytes then made their way through the milling crowd. Seems the people’s sense of order had been disrupted.

On to the songs: I didn’t know most of what might generously be called ‘tunes’ and there was mercifully not a program, so I can’t comment on most except to say they were simplistic and insipid. No self-respecting kid would be caught dead humming such tripe on their own time – they’re rappin’ or singing pop tunes, which by comparison are freaking Mozart.

I guess the memo that went out with the new translations a few years back about how these are the words, use them as is, no freestyling does not apply to the clap clap Gloria, the text of which is only loosely based on the liturgical text.

And so on and so forth. It hardly needs mentioning that that most sacred and feverishly pursued goal of active participation, beat into our heads over the last 5 decades, which here might be thought to include singing the songs, was jettisoned without comment. The kids choir was performing more egregious than any aloof and aloft choir loft dwellers of yore, which we were told was bad when we were chased out of that loft.

There was effectively zero singing by anyone except the children and their keepers. I’d never heard most of the tunes before, or my brain’s self defence mechanisms purged all memories of them. In any case, nobody but the kids and teachers sang them.

One exception was the old chestnut ‘One Bread, One Body,’ a song older than the grandparents of some of these kids, sung as a communion song. I learned this song in high school, and learned the harmony part – very minimal, Row Row Row Your Boat level musical skill is required to sing it. So, here was an opportunity: a music director could kick the kid’s musical experiences up a small but critical notch just by having the boys, say, sing one part while the girls sang the other. They could have a small taste of the thrill and glory of singing in parts, where you do your best on one thing, others do their best on another, and the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. But it didn’t happen.

One underappreciated glory of the ancient Catholic liturgical music is the way it mirrors the structure of the Body of Christ. Chant, especially sung antiphonally, requires real cooperation and focus. There are parts for you, parts for others, and parts for everybody. Some chants are easy, some a difficult, and a few are quite challenging.

The better everyone does his part, the better the whole. It is in each accepting and executing his part to the best of his abilities that the whole comes to its fullest expression.

Polyphony has the same logic, but in a greatly enhanced form. Those kids at Boys Town learned to not only sing their part, but to *listen* very carefully to all the other parts, and to follow the director, the blend and and balance and stay together. As with the chant, each had to learn how to confidently execute his role and make it fit. But the result – the harmonies created by the blending of several independent and independently beautiful parts – far exceeds their sum.

And this is the lesson learned:

If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be?
If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be?
But as it is, God placed the parts,
each one of them, in the body as he intended.

Sometimes this truth – that it is by doing our part to the best of our ability that we most belong to God, and that we must always respect and encourage all other parts – is hard to see. A great piece of polyphony teaches us that sometimes, we are front and center, sometimes we move tightly with others and sometimes seem to be going it alone. Most often, we are supporting others, who in turn support us. It is a great blessing, and not at all hard to see how each is differently blessed for good of all, when singing great music in a good choir for the glory of God.

2018: Let Me ‘Splain…

Image result for inigo montoya let me sum up

Life is good. Having breakfast (Huevos Rancheros with both red and green New Mexico chile sauces – the only way to fly) with our kids and their grandmother on a cold, crisp Sunday morning after attending a lovely Mass together – what more is there to life in this world? I am indeed blessed.

Elder daughter is off being courted at the moment. Nice young man. Elder son is studying. He had a meeting yesterday with his thesis advisor – at our home! Seems he and his wife were up in the area to visit a brand-new grandchild, and so came over to visit. Charming an intelligent conversation ensued.

Younger daughter is having that experience I’ve warned them about: the reward for competence is getting more work. We are for the most part a competent family, and end up organizing, executing and cleaning up after a lot of things. It’s worth it, but can get exasperating at times. Beats the alternative. She (both daughters, actually) is an excellent seamstress. A young lady who teaches at our school and has been staying with us for the last 2 years is getting married, and younger daughter volunteered to make her wedding dress. She loves doing this sort of thing, but it’s a big job.

Wedding dresses tend strongly toward the ‘more involved’ end of the dressmaking spectrum. So, this being our daughter’s only real break between now and the wedding, as she will be writing her senior thesis during the 2nd semester of her senior year, she is trying to get it done this week. So, since she should be doing her seminar readings now, my beloved wife is reading aloud to her while she sews.

Younger son, the Caboose, is indulging in some video games. I need to take him Christmas shopping, since he’s the only one who can’t drive himself and we will be having our gift-giving on January 1. We had it on Epiphany for many years, but recently the kids have been drawn away to jobs and school, so we tend to have it on the last day everybody is here – New Years Day this year.

On Thursday, we met up with a young family visiting San Francisco. College friends of elder daughter. After lunch, we had only a couple hours to show them around, and chose the Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park. This is a 140 year old large wooden greenhouse stocked with rare tropical plants and flowers, the oldest public collection of its kind in America. They have dozens of different carnivorous plants, including some pitcher plants whose traps could hold a good size bird or rat. Funky looking.

I took a few pictures. They aren’t very good. If you want to see good pictures of flowers, check out Zoopraxiscope.

Wacky-looking yellow spirally flowers on a typically weird tropical plant. You know, I suppose I could have taken a picture of the little placard, and thus told you what this here thing is. I’ll try to remember that in the future…
Tiny yellow orchids. And plenty of ’em. They have lots of orchids, too, in the less sweaty/drippy rooms.

2018 was an interesting year:

  • Our middle two kids completed the first half of their senior years at Thomas Aquinas and Thomas More. Have two graduation to look forward to in 2019 – on opposite coasts one week apart. Of course. I’m a happy daddy.
  • Singing in a Sunday choir for the first time in over a decade. The relentless poor quality of the music and the lack of any aspirations to sing anything better drove me off. But a friend got a twice a month job doing the Saturday anticipatory mass, and she’s doing chant and Watershed stuff, so I’m now in. Didn’t realize how much I missed it.
  • Youngest son progresses with violin. He can fiddle up a storm. He also decided on his own to join Boy Scouts. The particular group he joined seems good, and has not yet completely fallen to PC nonsense. He needs 3-4 years to make Eagle, so if the troop can hold out that long… He loves the outdoor activities and getting to hang with some relatively sane kids his own age.
  • Home Improvement projects proceeded at a crawl. Got a few thousand more bricks to lay out front, and some wrought iron-style fencing and some rails and steps to put in. Did make the carcass for a king-size bed platform out of oak veneer plywood. Unfortunately, had to press it into service before I had time (and decent weather – have to work on projects this large outside) to finish it. Therefore added another threshold to overcome before finishing it: taking it back out of the bedroom. In my mind’s eye it’s very nice, sort of reminiscent of Mission style. As it is, it’s a big plywood box.
  • Didn’t read nearly as many books this year as the last couple. Plan to remedy that.
Collected in one pile the reading materials I’ve pulled off the shelves over the last few months to read or reread. Now located next to a comfy chair by a window. That helps.
  • Did get almost done (what is with me and getting near the end of books and not finishing? I’ve not always been this way…) with Polanyi – what a load! – and a couple education books (dreary for the most part). Did read – and even finished! – a half dozen SciFi books this year. But, man, gotta pick up the pace. I spend an unproductive amount of time reading materials on the internet. Some are critical, such as source materials on education. Others – not so much. Must remedy this as well.
  • Continuing with an hour or two of piano just about every day. Got Beethoven’s Sonata Pathetique to the point where I can hack my way through it. Only took me about 12 months. Now, if I’d just put in another 6 months, I might get it to the point where I’d not be embarrassed to play it for somebody. Also worked up some rag time and a couple fugues from the Well Tempered Clavier. Tried a little Chopin, but – looks like a lot of work. So, maybe. Or maybe some more Beethoven or some Shubert. It’s fun
  • Over the last 6 months, made a miserable effort to get disciplined about writing. I could blame a series of minor injuries/illnesses, and there would be some truth to it, but many people have written through as bad or worse, so – no escaping it. I tried and failed.
  • On the other hand, did finish at least rough drafts of 3 stories, wrote several thousand words on the Eternal Novel of Infinite Enertia, and did a ton of blogging. There is that. But it’s not enough, not by a mile.
  • Lost my job June 30. I’m 60, 4-5 more years and I could have retired. Now? Got to come up with some way to get us through the next decade financially. No call for sympathy here, we’re doing way better that most people, it’s just I thought I had it licked, and – not so much.
  • Medically interesting year, which one does not want. Gone are the decades during which I never missed work and rarely had so much as a cold. Again, nothing worthy of sympathy – I’m just getting old and paying the price of letting myself go. I suspect regular exercise, eating like I’m sitting around all day instead of like I’m heading out to plow the south forty, and the related loss of, oh, 100 lbs, and I’d be a lot better off.

All in all, life is good. Good marriage, family I’m very happy to be a part of, no more than the usual amount of issues and problems. Can’t complain.

For 2019: We’ll see about writing some more. I could use a spiritual director. A job or some other income would be very good. Some discipline around food and exercise is required (hmmm – this sounds strangely familiar…) Reengaging a systematic prayer life would no doubt help. Pray, hope, and don’t worry, as St. Padre Pio put it. Yea, like that’s gonna happen. But nothing is impossible with God.

We wrap up 2018 tomorrow by finding an Adoration chapel to spend the last moments of the old year and the first of the new, then Mass, presents, breakfast and teary goodbyes to the older 2 kids. *sniff*.

Then we run it back for 2019! Interesting times. Good, but interesting.

2018 Simbang Gabi & Update: Happy, Holy & Blessed Christmas

(Yes, It’s still 5 whole hours until 1st Vespers/Vigil Mass, but it will be less than that by the time you read this, and possibly even already Christmas proper, so I don’t care. After getting up at 5:00 a.m. to attend the closing of Simbang Gabi at the local parish, Advent has been right properly celebrated here at Casa de Yardsaleofthemind.)

We were discussing this morning with a lovely couple at our table how many years we’ve been doing the 5:30 a.m. Masses of the Simbang Gabi advent novena, and we came up with 6? 7? 9? Somewhere in there. I have never made all 9 mornings myself in any of those years, caught 5 this year, I think 7 or 8 is my best effort, but Mrs Yardsale and one or two of the offspring have attended all 9 once or twice. Straight to Heaven go such folks.

Brief recap: stories differ, but the one I like goes like this: centuries ago in the Philippines, land owners would not make time for their field workers to attend mass, even in Advent. The only chance to attend mass before spending the day in the fields was to have it before dawn. Locals asked their priest if he’d be willing to say a pre-dawn novena of Advent masses for them, he of course said yes. Everybody brought gifts of food for the priest (all they likely would have had to give) and he turned right around and invited them to breakfast. So now the tradition is for a predawn Mass followed by a traditional Filipino breakfast:

Certain aspects, such as plastic plates and processed cheese seem to be part of more recent tradition. The roll is split, and cheese and meat put on it (pineapple-fried ham this morning – yum!):

Completely lacking this year in pretty pictures of the more religious aspect of this lovely tradition. It will have to suffice to say that the Sacrament works by working, and its efficacy is aided by Mass said at an awkward time with many devoted people present.

Onward, update wise: Did some caroling Saturday at a local nursing home followed by a potluck. It was fun, kids all got to come. Eldest daughter and I try to throw in a harmony part or two – funny, for as long as I’ve sung these carols, I’m still real sketchy on the harmonies, partly because there are lots of different settings, but mostly because of my very meager musical talents.

Speaking of which, for the first time in over a decade, I will be singing at a Christmas morning Mass. A wonderful lady and excellent musician has taken on the task of reintroducing some good music at a local parish, in the quiet, humble way such things are required to be approached. She’s been after me to sing with them, in a very gentle way. My meager musical talents do extent – barely – to being able to learn and carry a hymn part in a couple passes. A little chant, a little Latin, some hymns and an occasional honest to goodness choir piece. No risk of heresy or musical stupidity. Cool.

I didn’t know how much I missed singing in a choir. It had come down to having to either sing insufferable ‘contemporary’ music of dubious orthodoxy or drive for a half-hour or more to a real choir. Inertia won. But this church is 5 minutes away. So here goes nothing.

Next up: Listening to music made by a family in Napa. Beautiful stuff. CD was given to eldest daughter on a first date with a young man whose family has been in Napa for five generations. That sort of permanence and roots is rare these days, and to be admired.

Lingering cold moved on to maybe a sinus infection, which seems on its way out. I’d really like to feel well for a few months at a time, just to mix things up.

Have no idea why anyone would be reading this on this day, or any of the next few, but if you are, God bless you and yours, and have a Happy, Holy and Blessed Christmas – all 12 days of it!

Russian Cover Band, Hieronymus Bosch, Bach, Western Civ, and all that

There’s no telling what people will find fascinating. A while back, I mentioned Hieronymus Bosch, who is for me a little like a train wreck – can’t justify looking at him, but can’t stop looking, either. Many people these days are fascinated by Bosch’s weird and disturbing pictures, but evidently not as much or any more than his contemporaries. It seems Bosch’s works were copied, and those copies displayed all around Europe. Many of his works were intended as personal devotionals, not big public displays. Public demand to see them evidently led to their being widely copied and publicly displayed.

Bosch died in 1516. That means he was a contemporary of Dürer, Botticelli, and Raphael, among other objectively superior artists. Those artists were copied plenty, too, surely – but people dedicated many hours to copying Boch as well. Bosch, though no slouch, possibly was easier to copy, as Dürer is one of the very greats draftsman of all time, and Botticelli and Raphael are Botticelli and Raphael. Be that as it may – really? You’re an art student or practicing artist, and it’s Bosch you’re going to painstakingly copy? Okey-dokey.

Raphael detail
Botticelli detail
Durer detail
Bosch detail

But it wasn’t just the copyists. Artists went there because it was where the money was. Contemporary reports are that people flocked to look at those copies. Maybe the local cathedral provided all the needed beauty to calm their beauty jonesing, but the gargoyles failed to meet the demand for the disturbingly hideous? 

I mention this to illustrate that popular taste being inexplicable is not a new thing. 

Spending too much time on Youtube. There’s this Russian band that covers songs by the band Chicago. So? Couple of things: Chicago is not an easy band to cover. The musicianship of these Russians is excellent, and their enthusiasm is off the charts. They don’t fake anything – they have the full horn section, a string section, excellent backup vocalists, killer lead guitar player and an awesome drummer. These things alone make them unusual for a cover band. Check this out:


They do Chicago better than  Chicago does Chicago. (1)

Leonid, the mastermind, and the guy who has transcribed all the parts for the players, retired 4 years at the age of 60 in Moscow and decided to do something for fun. So he started getting together with his friends and covering 1970s pop tunes from an American band. As you can see, the ages range from at least their 60s on down to kids in their 20s if not younger – in other videos, the crack string section has some pretty downy-faced kids in it. 

This is not the project of some young, self-identified ‘ironic’ punks. What we have here are people – highly skilled people – spanning three generations, many of whom grew up in Soviet Union, dedicating A LOT of time and energy into mastering the music of of an American band popular when Brezhnev ran the show. 

I admire and have affection for these people. They look a lot like my relative. In fact, you could stick me in a family photo with most of those guys, or them in mine, and we’d fit right in. I suppose the music of Chicago might strike them as embodying everything that’s cool about the West. You could do worse. Their clothing – English language t-shirts, jeans, and the drummer’s ball caps – he  even sports an LA Dodgers’ hat – suggest the music of Chicago isn’t the only Western thing that appeals to them.  

But still, very Russian. I amused myself fantasy casting a Russian revolutionary era film with these guys – you got convincing Bolsheviks and peasants galore, party officials, thugs, an Orthodox priests or two. You’d need to find some stern Russian matrons somewhere. That one chick singer (‘chick singer’ is a term of art) is almost a parody of Slavic beauty, she’s so gorgeous, and so Russian!  Obvious double agent/love interest.

Raining on this love parade – really, just a light drizzle – was the thought that all this care and artistry lavished on some pop tunes is a bit like those souls who carve accurate copies of the Statue of Liberty out of a grain of rice. Or those who copied Bosch. Fascinating, I suppose, but – why? Wouldn’t it be much better if, inspired by Chicago, they spent their efforts creating some kick-ass Russian pop music? Assuming pop music is their thing. Maybe aim a little higher? These folks come from the people who built things like this: 

Related image

While it would amuse me to no end if kids in America became obsessed with Russian pop music – a ‘Russian Invasion’ we could live with – I’d be much happier if we instead imitated them in a mania for building over-the-top cathedrals. 

I’m still mulling over the claim that Western culture has effectively stagnated since the late 1980’s, with nothing truly new and life-altering either in the arts or technology. We just make copies and tweek things around the edges. The whole generation gap idea came about when there really were life altering changes between each generation. One generation was the first to grow up with cars, a revolution in personal travel that marks the line between before and after. Before, people lived at home and rarely traveled more than a few miles in a day, and even then, were limited to destinations along train routes. After, people could travel hundreds of miles in a day to an exponentially greater number of places.  It’s routine. Same sort of thing happened with telegraphs and phones, airplanes and trains, the green revolution and computers. One generation could only communicate slowly if at all, the next is wiring messages near instantly to nearly anyone around the world. 

Now? Despite all the claims of ever increasing progress, this generation has nothing much dramatic to separate its routine experiences from the last generation’s. (Note I’m not convinced here, but this is the argument.) Phones, cars, video games, CGI – all we’ve seen is improvements around the edges. Even the internet is over 20 years old, meaning it already existed when the last generation was coming of age. 

Be that as it may, what is clear is that we live in the Age of Cover Bands. Hollywood is legendarily cannibalistic, or, perhaps more hip: they recycle diligently. Pop music is a formulistic wasteland. New houses are these weird Frankenstein’s Monsters of stitched-together traditional parts  – and they’re better than the new commercial buildings! At least the so-called Renaissance often did a better job copying better examples. After they slandered the true creative genius of the middle ages, they simplified back down to what they fancied to be Roman and Greek examples, while incorporating Medieval advances without footnotes. 

Among the most successful sources being copied today are comic books. I understand that we are not to look down on them, as they contain (or until recently contained) strong stories with dealing with the eternal themes of good and evil, weakness and strength, and beauty and ugliness laid out in a popular, easy to digest format. And comic book writers, for the most part, were inspired by the classic epics and tragedies, so that works derived from comic books could be said to be derived second hand from very great sources. But still – we are not strong enough to demand our very own epics and tragedies written for adults? 

Finally, I am reminded of the curious fate of Bach. By his death in 1750, the classical music style (not ‘classical music’ as a general term, but specifically music written after the fashion popular from the early 1700’s until Beethoven’s death) had taken over, and Bach, with his dense baroque fugues and cantata, was dismissed even by his own sons as being an old-fashioned fuddy-duddy.  Note that until the later works of Mozart, classical music did not get within the ballpark of how sophisticated and adventurous Bach routinely was. Instead, the new classical style introduced during Bach’s lifetime was a simplification, structurally, harmonically, melodically, and emotionally much less complicated than Bach. Early classical music tends to be more emotionally sunny, sometimes relentlessly so. Compare the works of his sons with Bach’s famous Toccata and Fugue in d-minor. While beautiful, the early classical works do not compare for emotional depth. All that counterpoint and elaborate structure in the Bach are not there to show off. Themes come around again and again, never quite the same, building, like the working out of the soul’s salvation. Awesome is an overworked word. Too bad – that’s what this work is. 

Bach took what he found as the current state of music, and did not set out to refute it, but rather to push it to its ultimate perfection. Bach might roll his eyes hard at that last statement, or maybe punch my lights out (that boy had a temper on him!). He might have put it: I am a musician. By the grace of God, I will do the best I can. It just so happened that he was one of the very few truly great musical geniuses in all history, so that his best was really, really good. 

Bach’s fate was to be disparaged by his own kids and forgotten by his contemporaries, only to be rediscovered by – the great classical musicians! Hayden and Mozart each studied his Well-Tempered Clavier; Beethoven had it down by the age of 11. (I’ve been working my way through it off and on for the last few decades. At the current rate, I’ll have Book I complete by around 2050! Have I mentioned I have very meager musical talents?). These giants were working off hand-copied manuscripts – the WTC was not published until 1801! 

It’s so common to think of Bach as  – correctly – this giant, this colossus tower over the world of music, that it’s sobering to think he was once dismissed and nearly forgotten. Part of the great legacies of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven is that they would not let him be forgotten. 

So, there is hope. Hollywood could have a revival by simply rediscovering the pulps, which tend to share the story-telling and moral clarity of comics, but with more room to expand on them. Or, more likely, Hollywood could be put out of business by others who rediscover them. 

The curious pointed often missed about Bach: by sticking to what he loved about music and ignoring the current style, he paradoxically become one of the most creative artists of all time. Musicians are always marveling over the harmonic and melodic twists he routinely comes up with, not to mention his ability to stealth-structure things so that they always sound perfectly complete and satisfying, even though it’s hard to say why, sometimes. Sometimes, to look at it, a piece seems an increasingly complex fugue going round and round and round, not going anywhere. Then you hear it, and it’s perfect. This experience makes complete amateurs like me strongly suspect that when I don’t get Bach – there are some long minor fugues in the WTC that seem a little amorphous, for example – that I’m just not smart enough. 

The lesson I get from all this: stick to your knitting, do what it is you do as well as you can, and, not only will you, by the grace of God, produce good and worthy work, you might even end up being very ‘creative’ and ‘original’ without trying! If you’re a genius, that is.

The late John Taylor Gatto assures us that genius is a common as dirt. 

Wouldn’t it be great if I would follow my own advice? 

  1. The reason they do Chicago better than Chicago does Chicago is that they patently LOVE this stuff – those people are having a blast. I seriously doubt Chicago could muster that level of enthusiasm after a few years of playing these songs in concert over and over and over again. Assuming enough of the band is alive and able to try. Train does Zeppelin better than Zeppelin does Zeppelin for the same reasons.

Silly Video: Garage Band Division

Upfront, I admit this silly video, The Privates, which is my current favorite among the Sci Fi shorts I watch by the dozens on Youtube, may not be to your taste in humor. Me, I’ve laughed out loud each of the half dozen times I’ve watched it so far. 

Why? If you’ve ever been in a garage band (I’ve been in several over the years), you will recognize the personalities and dialogue. The drummer in particular avoids being a stereotype while ringing completely true. 

The over-serious sci fi elements just make it funnier.

“Do you have any idea how many Kelvins we must be generating to do something like this?” long pause. “A lot.”

And:

“Short term, more like for Friday, what are we dealing with, survival wise?”

“Us, or the crowd?”

Watch this, and I’ll put my comments below. 


SPOILER-ISH STUFF BELOW

The clueless lead singer is something almost every band deals with. That there’s one person who actually knows how the equipment works is another. The drummer, operating on an alternate plain of existence is yet another, as is the one worry-wart. What makes it great is how they nail each role, but in an unexpected ways. Having an over-serious woman rhythm guitar player be the tech geek, a hard rocker, and be totally detached from the possibility they might accidentally kill people – brilliant. Bass players tend to be the 2nd most out-there people in bands, after drummers – so making Ben the responsible one – smart. 

Max, the lead guitar player/singer just wants to rock, has little interest in and no idea what’s going on, but he’s also the guy always calling “band meeting” and poling the others. Max’s role reversal with Ben at the end is a hoot.  Ben, worried about safety and ignored by everyone else, is also a familiar riff – there’s always one guy in the band who, in the opinion of the others, overthinks things and worries too much. 

There’s always a Pool Party Eddie, a guy who can get you gigs, even if they’re terrible gigs. The ‘nobody came’ refrain – rite of passage for every band. It doesn’t feel good.  

The final scene, where Max is finally convinced something is wrong, while Ben is jazzed out of his mind, to hell with safety – awesome. The panic moment when they don’t see Roka, the drummer, is a small but critical touch. You get it that the band members care for each other, which adds a note of feeling that keeps the film from just being slapstick. (A tiny detail I didn’t catch until like the 5th viewing: Roka and Kep are sisters.)

Roka stumbles in carrying her cymbals and a smoldering backpack, explains how she and “sound guy” had to escape the fire by crawling out the bathroom window, but then says

“That was the best show ever. that’s the most fun I’ve had since probably Kep’s birthday party.” 

“That was a good party.” 

“It was the best party.” 

Max sums it up: 

“OK, who wants to keep going and see about burning this house down on Friday?” 

Maybe you had to have been in bands, I don’t know. Cracks me up. 

The Deus Vult Hymnal, part the third (a): Lord of the Dance

Proposed by aetherfilledskyproductions. Amazing, but I don’t think this tune has yet come in for brotherly correction on this blog. We will need to fix this oversight before giving it the Deus Vult treatment. Thus, Part the Third (a) shall review this song; we shall see what can be done to properly weaponize it in (b). 

Lord of the Dance: This needlessly long song suffers from a couple obvious flaws:

  1. Speaks in the person of the Lord. Whether we like it or not, whether we can intellectually justify it or not, on a direct simple level we have a hard time thinking or feeling like we are praying when we speak in the person of the Lord all song long. We may be charmed, or even inspired, but this practice all but prevents prayer. For a song used at Mass, this is not a good thing. (Before you mention the ‘thus sayeth the Lord’ parts of the psalms, merely note that the Lord sayeth his peace, and then the psalmist gets on with it.)
  2. It is too cute by half, and is trying too hard. It would take far deeper poetic gifts than are on display here to make this work.
  3. Salvation is likewise portrayed as a dance. In the hands of a great mystic, this might work. In the hands of Sydney Carter, not so much.

This concept – Jesus as Lord of the Dance – possibly traces back to a song written in the Middle Ages. Based on internal evidence, it is supposed to have been associated with mystery plays. This is believable. Tomorrow Is My Dancing Day, which I append to the end of this post,  is a masterpiece after the fashion of the didactic purposes of mystery plays. Each verse lays out in 4 lines some fundamental teaching, yet frames it as completely personal. the refrain is:

Sing, oh! my love, oh! my love, my love, my love,
This have I done for my true love.

…where we, each one of us, is the beloved of Christ, Who expresses his love AND explains what His Dance entails through the example of His life, death and resurrection. He is Crucified for us – AND that Crucifiction is part of the Dance that He is inviting us to!

In other words, as you will see when you peruse the medieval text, quite a bit deeper and more challenging than Sydney Carter’s Lord of the Dance.

Speaking of Mr. Carter, it seems Shiva, the original Lord of the Dance, was as much an inspiration as Jesus:

In writing the lyrics to “Lord of the Dance” in 1963, Sydney Carter was inspired partly by Jesus, but also partly by a statue of the Hindu God Shiva as Nataraja (Shiva’s dancing pose) which sat on his desk,[3] and was partly intending simply to give tribute to Shaker music. He later stated, “I did not think the churches would like it at all. I thought many people would find it pretty far flown, probably heretical and anyway dubiously Christian. But in fact people did sing it and, unknown to me, it touched a chord … Anyway, it’s the sort of Christianity I believe in.”

The sort of Christianity Mr. Carter believes in is not what the Church believes – it is a sort of syncretist Jesus-light Hindu flavored Arianism. So, in the last song, we had a Church of Christ heretic, not to put too fine a point on it, teaching us about the Eucharist. Here, we have a syncretist teaching us about how Hinduism and Christianity are a lot alike, especially Hinduism.

What could possibly go wrong? It’s not like he’d be inclined to equivocate on Jesus’ unique divinity or anything….

[Aside: a perhaps unintended consequence of Vatican II was the driving out of many folk devotions in favor of ALL devotional activity needing to be included in the Mass. Thus, while previous ages had songs for pilgrimages and processions, oratories, and devotional activities such as the mystery plays explicitly for use outside the Mass, we seem to think it essential that any and all devotional fervor find expression in the Mass itself. Much of the less heretical stuff we do today at Mass, from rock bands and their goofy songs, through liturgical dance, to many of the more scripturally based St. Louis Jebbies songs would be perfectly fine things to do – outside of Mass – for the people who like that sort of thing. Indeed, this extending of our personal devotional lives to our time outside Mass is one of the good things to come out of the Charismatic renewal, it just has as yet to spread far enough. Lord of the Dance might be acceptable accompanying a mystery play or sung on a pilgrimage. It just doesn’t really belong at the Eucharist.]

It is set to a modified Shaker tune, perhaps best known from Simple Gifts. Shaker tunes do have a certain charm, and are not as utterly inappropriate for use at Mass as many other styles, but – maybe I’m a snob – they are not great music. We can do better, but, hey, we can and certainly do do much worse. In the folk tradition, the tune is merely beaten into submission whenever the text doesn’t quite fit it.

Let’s go verse by verse again.

Lord of the Dance

I danced in the morning
When the world was begun,
And I danced in the moon
And the stars and the sun,
And I came down from heaven
And I danced on the earth,
At Bethlehem
I had my birth.
Dance, then, wherever you may be,
I am the Lord of the Dance, said he,
And I’ll lead you all, wherever you may be,
And I’ll lead you all in the Dance, said he
This has a rustic charm to it, and is not strictly heretical. He echos the first chapter of John, except that Jesus here dances in creation, instead of *creating* creation. The world was not just passively ‘begun’. Weak. His Divine Nature is omitted, as one would expect from a syncretist.
 
I danced for the scribe
And the pharisee,
But they would not dance
And they wouldn’t follow me.
I danced for the fishermen,
For James and John
They came with me
And the Dance went on.
Ever wonder why pharisees don’t enter into our Mass songs much? As Chesterton brilliantly points out in The Everlasting Man:
 
We have all heard people say a hundred times over, for they seem never to tire of saying it, that the Jesus of the New Testament is indeed a most merciful and humane lover of  humanity, but that the Church has hidden this human character in repellent dogmas and stiffened it with ecclesiastical terrors till it has taken on an inhuman character. This is, I venture to repeat, very nearly the reverse of the truth. The truth is that it is the image of Christ in the churches that is almost entirely mild and merciful. It is the image of Christ in the Gospels that is a good many other things as well. The figure in the Gospels does  indeed utter in words of almost heart-breaking beauty his pity for our broken hearts. But they are very far from being the only sort of words that he utters. Nevertheless they are almost the only kind of words that the Church in its popular imagery ever represents him as uttering. That popular imagery is inspired by a perfectly sound popular instinct. The mass of the poor are broken, and the mass of the people are poor, and for the mass of mankind the main thing is to carry the conviction of the incredible compassion of God. But nobody with his eyes open can doubt that it is chiefly this idea of compassion that the  popular machinery of the Church does seek to carry. The popular imagery carries a great deal to excess the sentiment of ‘Gentle Jesus, meek and mild.’ It is the first thing that the outsider feels and criticises in a Pieta or a shrine of the Sacred Heart. As I say, while the art may be insufficient, I am not sure that the instinct is unsound. In any case there is something appalling, something that makes the blood run cold, in the idea of having a statue of Christ in wrath. There is something insupportable even to the imagination in the idea of turning the corner of a street or coming out into the spaces of a marketplace, to meet the petrifying petrifaction of that figure as it turned upon a generation of vipers, or that face as it looked at the face of a hypocrite.
Here we have the interjection of the gentle side of Jesus that the Church rightly presents to her children the vast majority of the time into a situation in which He was not gentle. A modern pharisee or hypocrite, confident that he is unlikely to run into the “petrifying petrifaction” of Christ’s face in wrath just around the next corner, might very well comfort himself with the idea of Christ merely dancing an invitation to the pharisees, rather than rebuking them and – gulp! – judging them. 
 
Can’t have that.  It is too horrible to contemplate. The nice syncretist Jesus of our cowardly imaginations would never rebuke us! He is our brother! Our Friend! 
 
Our ultimate Judge, too: 
 
That Guy. The One His Holy Mother is diverting her eyes from. He appears to have smiting on His Mind, and doesn’t seem too interested in excuses.
Verse 1 has watered down Jesus of the Scriptures to an acceptably tepid level. 
 

I danced on the Sabbath
And I cured the lame;
The holy people
Said it was a shame.
They whipped and they stripped
And they hung me on high,
And they left me there
On a Cross to die.
In a similar vein, note how it’s not the hypocrites who “said it was a shame” but the holy people. We needn’t stretch too far to see the blanket condemnation of anyone even trying to be holy in any conventional manner in favor of those who are simply willing to dance – as equal partners, of course – with Christ. 
 

I danced on a Friday
When the sky turned black
It’s hard to dance
With the devil on your back.
They buried my body
And they thought I’d gone,
But I am the Dance,
And I still go on.
While the ‘devil on your back’ image is certainly evocative, I note that this lyric does the opposite of what the Church does when it commends the Crucifiction to our contemplation: we are urged to focus on our role in Christ’s death, how He died for our sins. 
 
But that would be, like, a total buzz kill. Better to redirect attention to the devil. 
 

They cut me down
And I leapt up high;
I am the life
That’ll never, never die;
I’ll live in you
If you’ll live in me –
I am the Lord
Of the Dance, said he.

“Cut”? Odd word. 

In general, this is just not a good song, not overtly heretical, but subtly so. I would find better things to complain about if it were sung around a campfire or as part of a procession, even though even then we could do better. But as part of Holy Sacrifice of the Mass – no. Just no. 

Next up: give it the Deus Vult treatment. 

Appendix: Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day

Tomorrow shall be my dancing day;
I would my true love did so chance
To see the legend of my play,
To call my true love to my dance;

Chorus

Sing, oh! my love, oh! my love, my love, my love,
This have I done for my true love.

Then was I born of a virgin pure,
Of her I took fleshly substance
Thus was I knit to man’s nature
To call my true love to my dance.

Chorus

In a manger laid, and wrapped I was
So very poor, this was my chance
Between an ox and a silly poor ass
To call my true love to my dance.

Chorus

Then afterwards baptized I was;
The Holy Ghost on me did glance,
My Father’s voice heard I from above,
To call my true love to my dance.

Chorus

Into the desert I was led,
Where I fasted without substance;
The Devil bade me make stones my bread,
To have me break my true love’s dance.

Chorus

The Jews on me they made great suit,
And with me made great variance,
Because they loved darkness rather than light,
To call my true love to my dance.

Chorus

For thirty pence Judas me sold,
His covetousness for to advance:
Mark whom I kiss, the same do hold!
The same is he shall lead the dance.

Chorus

Before Pilate the Jews me brought,
Where Barabbas had deliverance;
They scourged me and set me at nought,
Judged me to die to lead the dance.

Chorus

Then on the cross hanged I was,
Where a spear my heart did glance;
There issued forth both water and blood,
To call my true love to my dance.

Chorus

Then down to hell I took my way
For my true love’s deliverance,
And rose again on the third day,
Up to my true love and the dance.

Chorus

Then up to heaven I did ascend,
Where now I dwell in sure substance
On the right hand of God, that man
May come unto the general dance.

Chorus