One of my great friends, Fr. Michael Driscoll, once left me with a simple insight that has stayed with me since I first heard it. Michael is one of those rare individuals who possesses great skills as both a scholar, a liturgist, and a musician. So, given my own interests, the two of us have absolutely nothing in common....
When it comes to churches and music, Michael's insight is direct and to the point: "If you get into an argument with the building, the building always wins."
How true are these words! One of the greatest difficulties in bringing a choir on the road is the fact that you never know, from place to place, what kind of acoustic landscape is going to rear its ugly head. Even with the best of plans (the Folk Choir often sends ahead an "intake page" that asks for specifics regarding the organ, the design of the sanctuary, and so forth) – even with all this, you just never know what you're going to get until you step into said House of God.
How a song "sings" in each environment is a crucial consideration to the conductor. On tour, the choir has a standard repertoire every night – a concert program. But no song is ever sung the same, because the church building itself is part of the equation. And no two are alike.
Here's an example: when the Folk Choir offers a concert to the monks of Gethsemani down in Trappist, Kentucky, we must be careful to choose music suited for a tremendously resonant space – it was designed in such a way as to support the beautiful English plainchant of the community.
But a lot of parishes either have carpeting in the aisles, or padding on the pews, or both. And in these "dry environments," chant and a cappella settings can be downright dangerous.
So it was with a great deal of joy that we were introduced into the choral area of the Cathedral of Saint Jude. The whole layout was designed like a choral shell, with one sole purpose – naturally projecting the sound of the singers directly into the nave of the church. Furthermore, it wasn't removed from the assembly, high up in some gallery. The principal level of the singing area was only about three feet higher than the floor of the cathedral – something I'd never encountered before.
And there were acres of space! Room enough for two choirs, really, and ample breathing space for strings, winds, brass, and percussion.
But the best part of all was that moment that I've affectionately called "the volley." It's that amazing instant when you conclude a song, and then savor the ending in the silence that ensues. In this magnificent building, that choral sound traveled straight down the nave like a cannon shot. And over the weekend, our 50 singers and half-dozen instrumentalists had a field day, reveling in a building that was designed to help, not hinder, our praise and thanksgiving.
Thank God that there are people out there that understand acoustics, how a building can be crafted in such a way as to serve the Word, both in its spoken and in its musical form!
- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad