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Discovering liturgy: ancient rituals and new music

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Deus Ex Musica is an ecumenical project that promotes the used of a scared music as a resource for learning, spiritual growth, and discipleship.

Discovering liturgy: ancient rituals and new music

Josh Rodriguez

In the long journey of my faith in Christ, I have mostly walked along a path set by leaders of what is termed Evangelicalism, and most of my central beliefs are centered around biblically based theology, rather than those based on tradition. However, in the last twenty years I have fallen in love with the liturgy as practiced by many of the main line protestant churches, as well as those used as the main structure of worship by the Anglican, Orthodox and Catholic denominations. I like its structure and its discipline, and love its language. I’ve found that, in the midst of a busy day, taking time out to read and pray the liturgical hours centers my focus back to God, instead of only being caught up in the typical hectic nature of my teaching days: ones that are long, very busy, and filled with the minutiae of academic bureaucracy.

Therefore, when asked by the violin-piano duo Ascending to write them a new work, I thought that I would try and compose for them a sacred work, since they are also both Christians as well. Because they had also asked for a piece that incorporated extended techniques for both piano and violin, I thought for many months what a sacred piece that encompassed those sorts of things would look and sound like. Eventually, the idea of a ‘liturgy of the hours’ emerged, both as a means of writing a multi-movement piece, but to also bring focus to the whole: a period of time defined by the individual hours of prayer and worship over the course of a day. Typically, during the course of a day’s liturgy, the prayers begin at midnight, with Matins -- dawn begins with Lauds, moving through the morning and afternoon with Prime, Terce, Sext, None, and moving into the evening with Vespers and finally, Compline. Each prayer is about three hours apart from each other, and depending on which church’s tradition you follow, will have a set of readings, hymns, psalms, and prayers which are read, sung, or prayed. This piece is loosely based on some of those readings. psalms, and prayers, with a verse or fragment of those hours listed below. The individual movements contain some shared musical material between movements but is unlike a typical violin sonata in that the violin is not always the principal instrumentalist – indeed, most of the time, the foregrounded music is an amalgamation of both instruments. The musical language, while accessible, is contemporary to the late 20th and early 21st centuries and takes advantage of scordatura violin writing (that is, an alternative tuning of the violin), modes of limited transposition, and inside the piano techniques popularized by Olivier Messiaen, George Crumb, Henry Cowell, Charles Ives and others. This piece reflects the impressions of these hours made upon me while working on it; when reading/praying the liturgical hours, I made similar connections between the texts and scripture listed below (taken from a single day’s breviary texts) and the music as it was being written.

Matins – “Lord, open our lips and we shall praise your name” – opening invocation
Lauds – “It is good to praise the Lord and to sing psalms to your name, O Most High….” - Psalm 92:1
Prime – “When I consider the heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars which     you set into place, what is man that you should take thought of him?” – Psalm 8:3
Terce – Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia. “Listen O God, to my voice; keep me safe from fear of the    enemy. Protect me from the crowd of those who do evil.” – Psalm 64:1
Sext – “This is the song I shall sing in your name, forever and ever.” – Psalm 61:8
None - Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia. “If the Lord does not build the house, its builder labors in       vain… It is vain for you to rise before the dawn and go late to your rest, eating the bread          of your toil – to those He loves, the Lord gives sleep.” - Psalm 127:1-2
Vespers – “Return to your rest, my soul, for the Lord has been good to you.” – Psalm 116:7
Compline – “The Lord grant us a quiet night and a perfect end.” – closing benediction

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Life in a monastery also informed the final part of the process of composition; Instead of using computer technology for preparing the score, I sat for many silent hours in my own scriptorium, writing with pen, ruler, and making my own lined manuscript paper to create this piece.  In so doing, I felt my spirit become more peaceful and reach out to Christ and engage in a kind of worship that was (to me) so much more fundamentally organic than if I had used the now usual tools of my trade (computer, MIDI keyboard, software instruments, and printer) to complete the work.  This was an excellent lesson for me, echoed by the text of the hours of Sext, Vespers and Compline listed above – indeed, “Lord, grant us a quiet night and a perfect end.”

The works of my musical brothers and sisters in Christ are multifaceted, well-crafted, and in many, many styles and genre – some are simple, and others are incredibly opaque and complex.  Indeed, each of them speak in their own language and every listener understands this music by their own multilingual abilities (or not, as the case may be!), but I am overjoyed to experience a facet of those scriptures that declare

… that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,

in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,

to the glory of God the Father.  (Philippians 2:10-11 NIV)

I specifically aspire to be a multi-lingual composer, one who writes simply and direct one day, and who can change my musical language to speak to a differing audience the next.  To be a composer of both secular and sacred music; to write for the concert hall as well as the church; for recording and for live performance, for the world, or just for myself… or only for God.  Thankfully, we now all live in a time where this is possible, and musicians and audiences can really pick and choose how, and to what they wish to listen.  This kind of diversity in our Spotify world allows us all to become speakers and listeners of many languages, and my hope is that all who listen to music might develop into multi-lingual listeners, especially those who believe that music is vital to the life of discipleship.  The music of God is not just for the inside of the church building (although it may arise there, eh Johann Sebastian?), but can be realized or initially be presented from a concert hall, an art gallery, a theatre, a garage, an experimental multimedia laboratory… 

Or a modern scriptorium.

Gratia Deo – soli Deo Gloria!

Frank Felice, Associate Professor, Composition, Electronic Music

If you haven’t already, please take a moment to listen to A Liturgy of the Hours, a work that invites the listener into both serene meditation and exuberant celebration. Photography: The first image is taken from the last movement of Felice’s score; the second (courtesy of Pixabay) is from a monastic retreat in Gloucestershire, UK. If you are interested in contributing an article or would like to recommend a topic for exploration, please send an email to: blog@deus-ex-musica.com