by J.J. Wright
I recently had the opportunity to interview Jeffrey Tucker, who runs the Chant Cafe and New Liturgical Movement blogs, and also has a close affiliation with the Church Music Association of America. Here is part one of the interview:
JJ: Can you start by telling me a little bit about yourself and your musical background?
JT: I came from a very musical family: my father was actually a director of music at a Baptist church, so I was raised very much in the hymn tradition, and I was learning how to read and transcribe music from a very young age. I paid my way through college by playing trombone in jazz orchestras and dance halls, etc. I had kind of lost any interest really in Christianity in general because I don’t know, because that happens I guess.
JJ: How did you start getting involved in sacred music?
JT: At some point, I pursued a career in economics and I think I kind of began feeling lonely for something to happen. I ended up one day at the crypt church at the National Shrine in Washington D.C. at 1:00 PM, why I happened to be there at that time, I don’t know. In retrospect, I now realize that this was one of the few Masses in the country where you could hear the new Mass chanted in Latin. I didn’t understand a word of it, but the purity of the music, the high-level spirituality of it, the sheer simplicity of it, and the kind of vulnerable exposure you get with a single voice chanting a single text struck me as awe-inspiring. This is music that, to my ear, sounded at some level much simpler, but at the same time was infinitely more meaningful than the most elaborate music I had ever heard: Brahms, Mahler, Chick Corea, Charlie Parker, etc. All of this other music just seemed to kind of fade in light of these simple notes sent from the altar. So I fell in love and began to go to Mass there all the time. In those days there weren’t any CDs or recordings of chant that you could get anywhere, so I would just take my tape player and record the Mass and take it back to my apartment and listen to it all week as my casual listening. It sounds a little crazy but that’s what I did!
So, gradually I became a Catholic, even though at first I didn’t believe a word of it. I thought it was some kind of pagan religion, and that might actually have been one of the reasons I was drawn to it (laughs)! So my experience of Catholicism was very much bound up with the sense of liberation and newness I experienced in hearing the chant. My whole outlook on music shifted away from everything I’d always known, to something that was completely new because I had found in the chant and polyphonic traditions an astonishing integration of eternal truth and the most pure art that exists anywhere.
There was no reason for me to know that this wasn’t the normal Catholic experience, so when I began going to a regular parish I was like, “well this is weird, why aren’t you doing my thing?” I would attend liturgy and have a sense that there was something missing; something that people didn’t know about that is so Catholic, so embedded in our history; and aside from that, something so perfect and so wonderful! I couldn’t figure out why the parish practice was not availing itself of this treasure. It doesn’t require, you know, great skill. The simplest voice, it doesn’t even have to be a good voice, can accomplish chant and do amazing things with it. So I began to advocate for it: I’d go to the priest, and a lot of people did this and they would say: “Hey let’s get a little chant around here.” But it’s unfair to do this to priests, because they might not even know what that means. Are they going to go to the music director and say, “hey can we start chanting?” The music director may not even know how to read the stuff or where to get the books; they might not know anything about it either. So I decided to take it upon myself. I said: “if I can’t lobby for this stuff, I might as well just start learning this myself”, and that’s what I did. Now remember, this was at a time before you had Internet resources; there were no books online and no YouTube, etc. The thing I discovered is that there was a tremendous dearth of information out there and even the tutorials that were over 50 years old presented a level of knowledge that no longer existed. So gradually, working with some colleagues that had similar experiences, we started pouring ourselves into this world. And over the last ten years we’ve made available over 80 books, commissioned all kinds of English chant to get people going; we’ve done everything we possibly can through the CMAA to make this happen. We established the Chant Café blog and I’ve taken over the New Liturgical Movement blog and this work has become a huge very and important part of my life.
JJ: One of the things that we are constantly asking ourselves at Notre Dame is how to take the repertoire that Catholics have grown up with since Vatican II and use what’s already there to build off of towards a full experience of the Church’s musical tradition. Where do you think the inroads are?
JT: I think what we are doing has to build off of the current experience and repertoire. I can tell you from long experience, because the question you are asking right now has been at the core of my strategic and theoretical thinking for the last ten years. It cannot begin with Latin; it has to begin with English. The reason is that language is absolutely essential to the way we think, who we are, and how we regard ourselves as a people. It’s so closely tied to our identity that it’s non-negotiable at this point in history. The church gave us the gift of vernacular with the Second Vatican Council, and it’s not a point to regret, but something we have to deal with. For me, the ideal is always Latin, but it’s ridiculous to think you could start there. You can try to implement the singing of the Mass in Latin and there will be a core of people that will love everything you’re doing, but it will not last because there will be a different core of people that will be deeply offended because they just aren’t ready for it.
This is the great mistake, I would say, that was made in the years following the council. There’s a reason why this didn’t happen, but there’s also a tremendous confusion about how the vernacular applies in the liturgy. On one hand you had Vatican II clearly elevate the role of Gregorian chant above which it had ever been elevated in the history of the Church. On the other hand, you had the council give permission for the vernacular, but it was left open exactly how this was to be applied. It is obvious to me that the tension between these two things was not fully anticipated and the Council Fathers were not aware of the tremendous difficulties this would create. Suddenly all the Gregorian chant seemed irrelevant, mainly on the grounds of language.
There were spotty efforts in the mid-1960s to provide some English chant, but you had two sides resisting this: the left wing basically thought all the music that you ever heard in Mass ought to be one or another form of pop music and the right wing was absolutely intransigent on the question of vernacular chant. They regarded putting the chant in English as a grave abuse, and they refused to compromise on this. There were one or two people out there at the time that said: “look, we better do something about putting some chants in English out there”, but they were shot down, attacked, and criticized with equal vehemence by the left and right. And that was the beginning of the end of the situation, which was where it stood for about forty or fifty years. So as incredible as it sounds, a half-century later, and only in the last 18-24 months do we have a viable, coherent, and accessible body of English chant that can be used in parishes. At some level, I think we need to get away from the situation where everyone is blaming each other for the problems of music in the church, because I don’t even think anyone was really at fault. This was a problem of really bad management; this was a series of errors and a failure to anticipate the problems that would emerge from seemingly small changes, but those seemingly small changes had a devastating effect on the liturgy. But you can look back or you can look forward, and I think it’s time that we look forward.