Move over monks. Gregorian chant is not just for monasteries these days.
Melodies that pre-date the Middle Ages are becoming more mainstream in modern Catholic Masses.
This week, dozens of musicians from across the country have been studying the ancient art in a conference at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Macon.
With men and women sequestered in different buildings, instructors have been going over the basics and beyond.
“It’s challenging,” said instructor Richard Rice, a composer and music director for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. “The melodies do strange things.”
With its origins in the first century, chant is not metered. The familiar music staff and metered measures came a couple of centuries later.
“The problem with this music is it’s not all there on the page for you,” Rice said. “You have to have an organizational system.”
Singers at the conference are learning a rhythm technique developed in the late 19th century during another chant revival at the Abbey of Solesmes in France.
“We don’t know what it sounded like in 800,” instructor Arlene Oost-Zinner of Auburn, Ala., said. “Some don’t adhere to the method. They think it’s artificial.”
Her students made their own notations on the music to help set the rhythm.
“Don’t ever say beat with chant,” Oost-Zinner told her female students Wednesday. “It’s pulse -- (like) the beats of the heart, waves of the ocean, the flapping of angels’ wings.”
In the men’s session, Rice spent about 20 minutes working on three Latin words of a Psalm translated “Arise, shine Jerusalem.”
“We spend a lot of time figuring out the music,” Rice said.
The singers sound several notes in a singular vowel sound for just one syllable.
“Arise. We linger on that word 15 seconds,” Rice told his students of varying ages. “You’ve meditated on one word of scripture, and that’s an amazing thing.”
Chant enthusiasts say the slower pace and fewer words allow people to engulf themselves in worship.
Father Jonathan Venner, a 30-year-old priest from South Dakota, said there is a resurgence in chanting among people of the younger generation.
“Young people are looking for anything that has depth,” Venner said.
At St. Joseph, a Latin Mass is chanted the first Sunday of each month at 2 p.m. in a much simpler form than traditional Gregorian chant.
Five years ago, Pope Benedict allowed for the older form of the Mass to be celebrated with the priest facing the altar.
“I seized the opportunity,” said Father Allan McDonald, St. Joseph’s pastor.
Although the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s encouraged chanting to remain in the liturgy, the focus shifted to English hymns instead, McDonald said.
Latin was intended to remain the language of the Mass, but the council allowed for some English.
“But it almost went to all-English overnight,” McDonald said.
There was criticism that non-Latin speaking congregations were too passive in the Latin Mass and let the priest do the worship, he said.
Those who attend the voluntary Latin Mass at St. Joseph enjoy it, McDonald said.
“If I did one of those Masses at 9:30 (a.m.), there would be a riot,” he said.
The conference concludes Friday at 11 a.m. with a special Mass incorporating Gregorian chant. The public is invited.
Does lingering on one word for 15 seconds evoke greater spiritual meditation?
Rice said that’s a question the faithful have to decide for themselves.
“Clearly the writers of chant thought it was important to meditate on a word or two of scripture for that amount of time,” he said. “I don’t think it’s so far away from people’s sensibilities of what is spiritual, really, this idea of meditation, of stopping in our busy world to refuel, reflect on one moment, one beautiful thing.”
To contact writer Liz Fabian, call 744-4303.