Sunday, November 6, 2005


Ever ponder this question? What REALLY is contemporary?

You always see that debate amongst Catholic music circuits: "traditional versus contemporary". You always see that help wanted ad in NPM's website from some parish looking for a music director that's well-versed in both "traditional and contemporary styles of music". Or there's that parish who has one Mass that used to be known as the "folk Mass" that's now called the "contemporary Mass".

But is contemporary really a style/genre/idiom? Or is it a time frame?

Consider the works of fine modern composers like Richard Proulx, John Rutter, and the late Alexander Peloquin (+1997). All three, Peloquin especially, did many fine works with modern harmonies (whether it be tensions or just plain cool-sounding dissonances), based mainly on the organ. Does that make it traditional, because they're organ/orchestral/choral-based?

Or even consider the story of the familiar Christmas carol "Silent Night". Due to the organ cutting out, they needed some quick music, and had a guitar to fill the void - thus the birth of "Silent Night". Obviously, it's no longer contemporary, despite using a guitar to write (and play) the long-beloved carol.

A former worship department head in my diocese, a priest, did a big flyer in the mid 1980's promoting the then-forthcoming inaugural edition of GIA's "Gather" songbook (I call it a "songbook" and not a "hymnal", because, in my opinion, there are really no "hymns" in it). Despite his big brag about the book, he did use a couple of terms that may sound better in terms of "style wars". Those terms are "cathedral style", which pertains generally to organ-based music in the "Worship" and "Adoremus" hymnals (which really ARE hymnals), and "pilgrim style", which pertains to the happy-clappy fare in "Glory and Praise" and "Gather". Gather really caters to the pilgrim style! the priest proclaims.

"Traditional/contemporary" or "cathedral/pilgrim"? You be the judge. Let me know whatcha think! :-)

+In Christ,

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