Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Just Suppose. . .

You bought the tickets, cleared your work schedule, hired the babysitter, and finally you and the madamina head to the theater. Phantom. Smoke, mirrors, chandeliers. Oh boy! Unfortunately when you arrive, the theater has been "renovated." Now the seats encircle the stage and you can see past the it to the people across. They yawn, chew gum, shift in their seats, but you can live with it. It's Phantom, after all.

So the curtain goes up and you await the overture, only to hear the march from Raiders of the Lost Ark. There's nothing wrong with the Raiders theme, but it's in the wrong key, the wrong genre, the wrong meter, and thematically it doesn't relate. Sure it is rousing like an overture, but it's completely out of place. The "overture" ends and you, avid connoisseur of the theatrical arts, persevere.

So the chorus comes out dancing and twirling as all seems well. Then the prima donna steps out and strides to center stage. Her whole body is poised to let forth a torrent of bravura virtuosity and at last she opens her mouth. . . and tells you the piece you are about to hear is in D major, common time, and at allegro tempo. "It can be found on page 75 of your score," she adds. Now you're pretty ticked. Is this a rehearsal? You glance at your wife in disbelief, but what are you to do? Walk out? Of course not, so you sit and nod off as the show goes on.

Eventually the Phantom himself stalks onstage, his ivory mask glinting under the theater lights. Your spouse nudges you awake. The titular seducer coos:
Night time sharpens, heightens each sensation
Darkness stirs and lessens consternation
Silently the senses walk out on their defenses
Slowly, softly night uncurls its splendor
Touch it, sense it, tremulous as ever.
"He changed the words. Why did he change the words?" You think to yourself. "They're not bad words, but they are the wrong words. I don't get it." Then the Phantom looks up and starts singing at the audience instead of at the leading lady. What's going on?

You're so focused on the oddities that the song is over before you realize it. The two bickering theater owners have entered for their scene, but something is off with them too. At first you can't place it. They're speaking and their words make a certain sense, but something is missing. There's no direction to what they're saying, they're ad libbing. And badly, at that. Eventually they're just rambling. At this point you're hoping the chandelier will fall on you and end this madness. Instead, the choir enters (late and off key, because they didn't rehearse) and starts singing the finale to Les Miserables.

Just suppose any Broadway performance went so awry: it would make the newspapers. Yet similar liturgical follies occur weekly, daily even, at churches everywhere and parishioners don't kick up much of a storm. Explanations of the phenomenon abound: indifference, philistinism, Sandinistas. It is possible, however, some virtue lies at or near the heart of this curiosity.

On the one hand, art is an aesthetic experience. If the execution fails, the purpose fades. The purpose of the liturgy on the other hand, is not primarily aesthetic. Its execution may be poor, but excepting outright abuses, its purpose endures, hence people go to church despite the exceedingly poor art of celebration. In this respect, the faithful permit the aesthetic degradation because there is virtually nothing the priest can do which will turn these parishioners away. Why sing Palestrina when the status quo will do? Why prepare a homily when off the cuff remarks will suffice?

The faithful who would express the liturgy through the transcendent power of art have a few fates. Some are democratically stifled, others learn to stifle themselves. Some will sit and seethe, others will leave for greener pastors. A handful of crusaders may take up arms against their priests, organists, and music directors, making a lot of enemies in the progress. What seems to me the most productive path is likewise the most challenging. A few thoughts.

First, people will be persuaded by different arguments. Some will find liturgical laws compelling, others will find them onerous. Some will be roused by paeans to beauty, others will find them highfalutin. Choose the appropriate argument and remember you need not persuade someone on all accounts.

Second, do as much as you can. Make phone calls, make appointments, make reservations, make copies. This will relieve other people of the responsibility, which many people welcome, and it will in many cases give you the liberty to make decisions. That said, don't angle for more authority or other peoples' jobs. Just do as much as you can as well as you can, if you carry out those tasks well, others will come.

Third, do everything as well as possible. Neglect no detail, aim for perfection. Some people will notice right away, others will notice when you aren't the one arranging matters.

Fourth, get creative. If you don't want guitars at mass, then organize some other event at which those individuals can perform. If rehearsals for that new event should happen to coincide with rehearsals for mass or mass itself. . . Find a way to keep them involved, but not crooning through the liturgy.

Fifth, be the alternative. Always have your plans ready to go at a moment's notice. When there's a blip in the status quo or when nothing else is ready, you'll be ready to jump into action, pulling someone's fanny out of the fire while giving people a taste of your vision.

Sixth, think big and small. It's all very well and good to aim for an EF or Latin NO, or a piece of polyphony at mass, but think small too. Sometimes a grand gesture is needed, sometimes a subtle one. Aiming to add or remove one piece of music, better train the altar servers, or improve the website might be the falling of stones which starts the avalanche. The better you can make any one part, the worse the shoddy elements around it will look and the more others will be amenable to tweaking them.

Seventh, thank people. Everyone, preferably. Bring them into the game. If they don't do anything, ask them a question and then thank them "for their guidance." Also, if you mention a group or committee, then you better know the names of the people in it.

This is no small task, but what more could be at stake?

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