|Cover story -- Musical Pilgrimage|
Issue Date: July 28, 2006
Traveling with Notre Dame's innovative folk group
By RENÉE LaREAU
Those who sing pray twice, St. Augustine once said. If only it were that simple. These days, those who sing, direct and write church music sometimes fight twice as much as they pray. The postconciliar world of liturgical music is fraught with battles over everything from guitar use to young adult music to Latin hymns, and at times it may seem that theres no musical middle ground in sight. But a closer look at one choral ensemble offers some hints of hope. For 26 years, the University of Notre Dame Folk Choir has built a repertoire that relies on the unlikely partnership of pipe organ and guitar, a rich variety of sacred texts, and hymnody from multiple cultures and ethnic groups. Having been a member of the group myself 10 years ago, I have a firsthand acquaintance with the music of this ensemble.
In the last decade, much of the choirs published repertoire has worked its way from campus into parish choirs and hymnals around the country. This development is due, in part, to the groups yearly travels within the United States, Canada and Ireland.
Traveling along as an embedded journalist, I spent more than two weeks this spring with the 50-some folk choir members on their tour of the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. The travelogue that follows offers a window not only into a choral repertoire that transcends the typical categories of liturgical music, but also a window into the hearts and minds of a group of young Catholics, perhaps members of the generation that will help put some of these tired musical style wars to rest.
Michigan City, Ind.
We move through what seems like an endless progression of cells until we reach a cavernous, air-conditioned room thats part chapel, part auditorium. More than 300 khaki-clad inmates, some wearing kelly green knit caps, are milling about. Loud banter echoes throughout the room. One of them yells: You any good? Im wondering how one begins such a concert, and Im curious to see what folk choir director Steve Warner will say first. (Will he take his cues from Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison and San Quentin?) Hey guys, Warner begins, as he steps up to the microphone with his guitar. Good afternoon, gentlemen. Its an honor and privilege to be here -- every week when we rehearse were prayin for you guys.
The music this afternoon ranges from an upbeat and percussive rendition of Psalm 100: Alleluia! Sing Now with Gladness to a more reflective version of the Lords Prayer, during which nearly every head in the room bows low. At intermission, young coeds mingle with inmates young and old, making conversation over fruit punch and chocolate chip cookies. The whole experience thus far has been one of soulful music and affable conversation, a successful ministerial endeavor by any measure. During the second half of the concert, however, it becomes clear that something is amiss. First, a pretty senior brings down the house with a stunning, gospel-style rendition of the African-American spiritual I Love the Lord. She gets a standing ovation and thunderous applause. Suddenly, in the midst of the hoots and hollers, a big, burly prison guard in a navy blue uniform is in front of the room, his hands on his hips. The count is not clear, he shouts. Everyone back to their cells. Someone came up missing in the post-intermission head count, and for safetys sake, the concert comes to an abrupt end. The disappointment in the room is palpable, and there are shouts of frustration from the audience. Well sing you out, Warner promises, and the choir sings an African Gloria as 300 inmates drift out of the room, lingering in the back and waving. I ask one of them if this kind of thing is unusual, and he says nonchalantly, It happens all the time. Mistaking me for a student, he shakes my hand politely and thanks me for coming. We later learn that the head count was not done properly in the first place. Because of an administrative mistake, everyone has been punished.
Im starting to get to know the young troubadours on the bus. On the long ride to Washingtons Port Angeles ferry dock, from which we will head to Victoria, British Columbia, I check out the reading selections theyve brought along for the trip. From a brief survey of titles, it becomes clear that these are no literary lightweights. I see such titles as The Brothers Karamazov, The Great Gatsby and The Seven Storey Mountain strewn about, along with a few copies of more contemporary reads like Memoirs of a Geisha, Devil in the White City and Angels and Demons. I make a special effort to talk to the recently graduated seniors, many of whom ask me, with no effort to hide their trepidation, about life after college. I meet Sarah Floyd, an avid runner and aspiring financier whos moving to Philadelphia to work for the Vanguard Group. (Shes reading Global Profit and Global Justice: Using Your Money to Change the World.) I meet Erica Williams, a down-to-earth California native who will attend medical school at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles in the fall with the goal of specializing in obstetrics and gynecology. I meet Paul Van Leeuwen, a cerebral and congenial computer engineering and Spanish major who will put his technical chops to work for Raytheon Aircraft Company in Fort Wayne, Ind. All of these career plans are impressive. But further conversation with seniors like these reveals not only raw ambition, but real depth as well. Erica, who until college had never sung in a choir, tells me how much she likes the feminine imagery from scripture that Warner draws upon in his repertoire, especially from the books of Ruth and Proverbs. I went to an all-girls Catholic high school that was very good about strong women in the church, she said, so all the feminine imagery wasnt really new to me, but its nice to have Steve reinforce that. Paul tells me he wants to join a parish choir in Fort Wayne next year: With as much opportunity as Ive had, I dont think Id have an excuse to not pay that back and to not be active in it still.
In the past few days Ive also been struck by the seriousness of the music this group sings, almost all of which is written by Warner and the choirs Yale-educated associate director, Karen Schneider-Kirner. Ive heard pieces like Escucha! Put It in Your Heart, an unabashedly romantic yet assertive bilingual piece inspired by the words of the Virgin of Guadalupe to Juan Diego; O, Poor Little Jesus, a haunting African-American Christmas hymn that connects Jesus birth directly to his Passion; and Run with the Light of Christ, a rousing hymn based on the final chapter of the Rule of St. Benedict. Many of these songs are so different from the über-contemporary fare Ive heard well-meaning parish ministers say young adults need to be engaged in liturgy. I ask Warner about this on the bus. Theres a way to reach young people without selling out, he tells me. These people are going to be in parishes. If I dont pass on to them and help them appreciate the depth of what our hymns are, the theology in them, Im setting them up for parochial failure once they leave the university. Young adults need not only to be joyful but to learn how to lament. If we choose pop music to give to young adults, we dont teach them how to grieve, and that despair, as well as joy, is a necessary part of the landscape of our faith.
Another hallmark of this ensemble is its extensive use of percussion, which includes ethnic percussion like a bodhran -- a hand-held Irish drum -- and a djembe -- an African drum with a deep bass sound. Everyone thinks its cool, says Josh Stagni, the most pensive of the three percussionists. If youre going to do other cultures in music, if youre going to include other languages and voices and styles, you should incorporate the instruments. Its like adding another layer, but not taking over. If its not there, it sounds kind of dead. Learning another cultures instrumentation, Josh remarks wryly, has not been without its challenges: When Im playing drums, Im worried because Im a white guy, he said. When we went to Harlem and played, I thought, These guys are going to think Im weird or something.
Victoria, British Columbia
Even after just a few days, its struck me how serious many of these kids -- young adults really -- are about their prayer lives. Whenever were in a church, it seems that someone is kneeling before the Blessed Sacrament, and during a long, drawn-out wait for dinner at a restaurant one night, trying to remember if weve said grace yet, one young woman pipes up earnestly, You guys, I feel like its been a while since weve prayed. Establishing a practice of group prayer in a group as large as this is bound to cause some tension, about which many students speak to me freely. Ive always had a difficult time being open with my spirituality and my faith life, and in folk choir youve got a lot of people that wear it on their sleeve, says Nicholas Tonozzi, an animated, recently graduated senior, one of a handful of music majors in the group. He will be studying opera at Northwestern. They say out loud, God bless you all the time, or theyre talking about Jesus all the time. That was something I was never comfortable with. Freshman and sophomore year I struggled a lot with that. Every time someone said it, I just wanted to be like, Shut up. I get it. You love the Lord, now back off. But now Im kind of growing into an ability to acknowledge my own faith life so I can be open with that and share it with other people. Im not sure if that would have happened without the folk choir.
Josh, the percussionist, tells me: Some people are more traditional and conservative, some more liberal. There are people that arent comfortable if we decide to all pray the rosary on the tour bus. At times those differences can make for tense moments, but thats also very good. But theyre not something to talk about on a tour when we get no sleep. I take that as my cue to change the subject, and I ask him about his own spiritual influences. He tells me about joining an interdenominational Christian club on campus, called Iron Sharpens Iron. I was interested in exploring something that wasnt just Catholic, that was something I didnt have to do, he said. The prayer groups when we prayed out loud were the hardest things for me to get used to as a Catholic, but they ended up being one of the greatest parts. They made me more comfortable asking people: Is there anything I can pray for for you?
Victoria, British Columbia
I still was not able to discern exactly why women cant be priests, she said. I never found it very clear what the real theology or the real reasoning behind this choice and this declaration was. No ones been able to explain it really firmly. I think women should continue to work within the church and show were good, that we do our jobs well. Thats what they did in the Episcopal church and in other churches. They continued to work within the churches, within the system, and eventually made changes. One thing a female Episcopal priest said to me is how sad it would have been if women in the Episcopal church would have left before they were allowed to be priests. She was very thankful those women had stayed and worked within the church to bring that change. I ask Emily if she thinks Catholic women should be ordained. I would love to see women ordained, she said with a smile. I dont know that Im allowed to say that, but I went to the Episcopal Mass and saw [the female Episcopal priest] preside and that was one of the most moving services Ive ever been to, even including my own church. To see a woman up on the altar was just stunning.
I think about her words as I attend the choirs ecumenical concert at St. Aidans United Church of Christ in Victoria. We later learn that people from more than 20 denominations are in the audience, and the atmosphere is positively electric. As Im taking in the music I think of the words of the late Jesuit Pedro Arrupe, who once said, More than the preachers word, it is the musicians touch that brings the young to God again. Judging from the number of white-haired people singing on their feet tonight, I think his truism applies to the old as well.
Victoria to Seattle
Times like these remind me that these are 18- to 22-year-olds Im traveling with, something one can easily forget when listening to them sing so soulfully and seriously and witnessing them praying and speaking so profoundly. But every once in a while the reminders surface, in the form of things like the moratorium on smartass remarks issued by their director as our bus approaches U.S. customs, or his injunction before a diocesan workshop: No dozing off, no hand gestures to each other, or in the form of a freshmans diamond nose stud sparkling under the cathedral lights as she sings her solo, piously, sweetly and gorgeously. (When I told her afterward that her nose jewelry had glittered throughout her solo, her response was: Thats so awesome!)
One of the more passionate, if sometimes irreverent, future music ministers is Eric Buehl, a boisterous, energetic, recent graduate from Troy, N.Y. Next year hell be working on a masters degree in theology at Notre Dame while interning at a parish in Wilmington, Del. I have always been a liturgical music nerd, he acknowledges. (This is a self-identification that is easy to accept after observing him skillfully ad-libbing church songs during free time at most of our parish destinations.) I took over the school choir when I was in 10th grade, and I had already been to three NPMs [National Pastoral Musician conventions] before I even got to college, he says. I ask him to describe his dream job. I would love to be in a kind of nitty-gritty place, he tells me. People always say, Its not going to be the same once we leave Notre Dame, but I want there to be this big vacuum so I can try to do something about it.
St. Patrick Parish
Renée LaReau is a freelance writer living in Columbus, Ohio. She was a flautist in the Notre Dame Folk Choir from 1992-96.
Related Web site
National Catholic Reporter, July 28, 2006
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