Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Gearing Down

As that part of the Church Militant that can actually think is more and more beginning to realize, Vatican Two, that gathering of bishops and other supposed experts in the life of grace that was intended to breathe new life into the one, holy, etc., has been in so many areas honoured much more in the breach than in the observance. I used to think our diocese of Nelson was a unique leader in this hooliganism, as not only have I for decades avoided travel as much as possible, but I also lived in those decades beside the archdiocese of Vancouver, which under Martin Johnson and then James Carney well knew a hawk from a handsaw and were very much aware that new brooms were more likely to sweep in more dirt than they took out. I knew that our diocese was a disaster area, but thought of it as more unique than it was. As more and more evidence, thanks to the Net, rolls in, it seems quite safe to say that most of North America, if not the world, is a disaster area, in the sense that so few of hopes of Vatican Two have been realized, except, perhaps, for the collapse of Russian communism.
Most certainly, the simple command to conclude the great liturgical study  of previous decades and restore Gregorian Chant to its pride of place has been rarely obeyed, and every child raised in an orderly family knows the result of disobedience. Over this issue alone, God must be royally picked. And then there is the other side of the same coin, whereby bishops who do not make use of the called-for chant go on to further abuse of the truth by declaring that congregations who sing the modern garbage are "vibrant", "faith-filled", "united in their communal blessedness" and so forth. This they have been known to commit to print, moreover, for which there will be even greater penalties in purgatory, if not worse. "Thou shalt be held accountable for every idle word," and these have been some of the most idle words ever spoken. He who is the Truth, as well as the Way and the Life, can have no part of such lies against the ordinary standards of art, which are supposed to teach us about beauty, which is one of the five transcendentals, and even more important, one of the things God is most certainly. It's amazing how many Catholics think that Country and Ugly is virtuous, and the alarming thing is to find this attitude very often more virulent in clergy and religious than in the laity.
Yet, to be fair, where are the most significant sources of such misdirection and imbalance, such moronic misplacing of the energy and emphasis that is essential to real education? Can any of this be traced to the home of education standards, Rome itself?
Oh, my, yes.
When I first bought my copy of the complete Hanon - the "infamous Hanon" as Dr. Athina Fetyka of Florida has called it - riding on God's graces of long-term inspiration more than science, I assumed I had discovered the perfect answer to my frustrations over learning to read music for the keyboard. It most genuinely was a lovely blast of grace, filling me with the uttermost confidence in both my native faculties once instructed, and the God-given ability of men to sort out the most difficult problems of art and science simply by using their education to put their heads to honest work. Such a big book, and so full, seemingly, of true musical authority.
That's God for you. Talking all that stuff about a people of God to Abraham, or a child born of a Virgin to Isaiah, leaving those poor men so cranked up and full of confidence that they thought these things were to happen on the immediately following Wednesday.
I certainly had no idea that God was talking about something that would not happen to me for half-a-century, and certainly not because of  Hanon. And I even more certainly had no idea that I would quite quickly discover that Hanon was basically more harm than good, and in spite of that allowed to claim on his title page that he was quite the mover and shaker in the very Vatican itself.
All the above written in one burst on Friday, after Wednesday visit to the cathedral to try my new skills on the Allen Organ. (Not quite a pipe, but not so bad either, and anyway, in my books, the goal is a singing congregation.) I essayed a little reading, which in itself necessitated realizing that there is a drill for dealing with an initial third - in the left - which immediately changes to an octave. My thick skull suddenly understood the easy way, using two and four for the third and one and five for the octave. "On This Day the First of Days." Back at home, I kept working on this new insight, and somehow by Saturday evening, walking to Mass by myself, had expanded it to what has never before been plain to me, how to use all five fingers over an octave and-a-half in such a way as to not only have an extremely good time, but also to exercise the mental faculties in the fashion the original creator of music obviously had in mind for the sake of actually understanding theory.
The Great McDaniel tried it out yesterday morning and loves it. This morning I sent the initial chart to my blogging youngest.
How long will it take the world to ask an intelligent question?
For the time being I'm not giving out any clues except to say that  Hanon's preface to his Sixty Exercises contains as much blatant error as it contains very useful insight, and once you know what I know, Hanon's intentions can be met. But not before. By no means, not before.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Saint Thomas' Prologue

It was many months ago, starting to feel confident that it was only a matter of time, not too much more time, before I was down to the bedrock elements of music instruction, that I told myself that there would be a definite milestone of such progress the day I took up to the study the first volume of Aquinas' Summa Theologica and tapped out his immortal prologue.
Now as Providence would have it, that moment in the unfolding of the history of culture has fallen on today, June 11, which happens to be the feast of the Sacred Heart this year, but ordinarily the celebration of Barnabas the Apostle. It is also the day in 1987 when I managed to write a full 20 pages of Contemplatives. That was my most quantitative day of all with that work, although still almost a year before I was done. June 11 was also the date in 1980 when, as I thought about publishing the fiction, the Lord said: "Make no decisions until September." I assumed He was talking about the autumn of 1980. It's more likely he was talking about this one. Infinity can always afford to take the longest possible view. In 1980, for one thing, I had no ideas whatsoever about the World Wide Web and its possibilities. So here goes.

"Because the Master of Catholic Truth ought not only to teach the proficient, but also to instruct beginners . . . we purpose in this book to treat of whatever belongs to the Christian Religion, is such a way as may tend to the instruction of beginners. We have considered that students in this Science have not seldom been hampered by what they have found written by other authors, partly on account of the multiplication of useless questions, articles, and arguments; partly also because those things that are needful for them to know are not taught according to the order of the subject matter, but according to as the plan of the book might require, or the occasion of the argument offer; partly, too, because frequent repetition brought weariness and confusion to the minds of the readers."

I would doubt that Thomas also had music texts in his mind when he penned these words, because music instruction texts were not prolific in his time, as far as I know. Learning music was pretty much by rote, and not only used numbers more logically, but had little of the massive complications produced after Thomas' time by the growth of polyphony. Also, the use of solfage had been flourishing for a couple of hundred years and no one had yet found reason to get rid of it, or pervert the sense of it.
But for a long time his words have rung in my head as the first thing to be said if ever I were able to put out a text on music instruction. The criticisms apply, in varying degrees, to every music text I have ever seen, and they apply even more critically in works aimed at children and other beginners.The utter collapse, in all Western vernaculars as far as I know, of the primacy of numbers in initial music education, has created more harm, frustration, discouragement, and a wrongful sense of the individual's own innate ability, than any other branch of learning.
Well, as a contemplative I know that instruction on the real possibilities of the prayer life is also pretty lousy, but we'll leave that for another time. This is one of those posts that comes out in sections, and this morning, a few days after the start of the the above, I trotted over to our local cathedral to have a good practice on the electric organ. It's not quite a pipe, but as an Allen it's pretty good, and anyway it's not really in the building to entertain the masses, it's there to provoke them to raise their voices in worship, and in the right hands it can most certainly do so.
My hands are not quite right, yet. I did some good stuff, a lot smarter than I used to be forty years ago when I mostly boogied on its predecessor, in those days in the gallery, with an octave/fifth cadence in the left hand, but I also found out that I need more work on thirds in the left, using fingers 2 and 4 more often than has been my wont. This simply doubled my reading chops. Technique, technique, but away from all that confusion and boredom and neglect Thomas would have found in today's texts of scales and studies. I merely started playing  a hymn in Catholic Book of Worship Two and applied the recent investigations to my difficulties. Something more to practise, of course, but we're getting close to the end. I'm reminded of the spring of 1988, when about four or five chapters before the end of Contemplatives I felt like the pressure to finish was over. Winding down is a good feeling. Yet I also have to ponder how come all these finishing touches are coming so fast, and with the price of feeling so stupid about not realizing for so long how obvious it all is.
Symbols, symbols, symbols. I have been recalling that it was back in the middle 90s that I said to the good lady who ran the restaurant in the Hume/Heritage/Hume Hotel in Nelson that so much of the time all I really knew in those days was that I lived on the symbols of symbols. I had so many ideas that rarely turned concrete in the ordinary worldly sense. I was by no means depressed, just surprised and amused. Or bemused. But so much of the time I had to think that I was waiting for some major external event.
God uses that term somewhat regularly these days: Event. Or events. Well, we're having the event of having two nuns, who have been around for years, and done everything they could to degrade the standard of liturgical music, finally get out of town. Whatever use they were in other areas, and that may have been considerable, they were nothing but harmful to the liturgy. Altar girls, inclusive language, the saccharine whining of music group after music group, all based on ignoring or disobeying what Vatican Two actually said.
The Church change is interesting, because the growth of interest in the music theories continues in the "real world", so much so that to get booted to the church by the Usual Suspects was something of a surprise, and I don't think it was only for the sake of learning more about left hand thirds.
Of course one follows signs of some sort or another. Yesterday Marianne picked up her latest purchase of a book related to the liturgy, Dr. Christopher Page's The Christian West and its Singers (The First Thousand Years). Yale University Press, New Haven and London. Smack dab on a first glance I found a most arresting statement about the importance of singers to the growth of this and that. It possibly even gave me a bit of a glance into what the Almighty has been plotting the last while. Would I have been able to proceed to the cathedral without it?
Well, I also have to admit that with a new guitar student I was able to sketch out some radical new charting methods, and with Tim McDaniel this week finally got to using the treble and bass staves in a way that actually made sense.
Dr. Page's book weighs five pounds, just about right for thumping on the heads of the purveyors for a lot of what we have to listen to these days.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Poems, Chiefly Purgative

If only to keep my own ego under as many wraps as possible, I long ago began to study the process of rejoicing in, and promoting, the virtues of other people's talents and accomplishments. I have to be honest and admit that this sometimes required a deliberate act of the will and did not always arise with spontaneous generosity. I would discern certain motions of envy within myself and then get on with the appreciation and the praise, simply because I had the grace to realize that a little pain now was a lot better than the lingering resentment that would later follow not taking these steps. Being a quick study with bookish things - except Latin and Chemistry - I rarely had the chance to practice such common sense in academic matters, but it came up often in sports when I was in elementary and high school, and then, as if these instances were merely warm-ups for the more significant future, it really blossomed at university when I discovered that a couple of very good college journalist friends of mine were absolutely brilliant at writing satirical songs and created a duo that left no room for me except as an appreciator, and eventually something of a promoter, inasmuch as I could also perform the songs once I learned half-a-dozen chords on the ukulele. And of course, once I continued a little further in the necessary business of growing older and wiser, I realized that for all that I liked a good joke, and more and more understood the divinely appointed office of the court jester, the heart of my calling was in the epic and romantic, which on fretted instruments comes out in the folk songs. And ultimately in liturgical music, especially chant.
So, it was decades ago, with utterly no vision then of the practical future, that I was schooled to deal with the question that is before us now: my own personal presentation and promotion of Marianne's sudden explosion into a consistent flow of utterly wonderful short lyrics. As John of the Cross says in his preface to The Living Flame, even after we are so lucky as to land in the Seventh Mansion, we can still improve, still find things to sweep out of the spiritual closets left by original sin. Yes, I can hold my head up by admitting that I can come up with an image or two as sharply incisive as the kid's; I just can't find a plot for it, and as Aristotle said, plots matter. Her plots are magnificent in their brief intensity, like the javelin style prayers hurled by the old desert monks of Egypt.
People who are not poets or creative writers, of course, are not really bothered by this problem of  "what about me?" when they come upon great writing. They can just appreciate the God-given skill and let its blessings flow over them. But we are bugged by activity in what we consider our own back yard, our turf, until we get the large view, and see where the new kid on the block fits into the overall design.
As a person, of course, as a contemplative, our humble cook, house manager, and in-house doctor has always fit into the overall design impeccably. God never charted a human course with more precision and spiritual efficiency. I suppose part of that plan was keeping the talent of the poet hidden from everyone except me, and occasionally, a bishop or a pope. But the Net has sent her forth into the world, and the world, or at least that part of it that can take such an intense spirit, will only be the better for it.
This post has been percolating for some time, of course, but it could not come out this way until I noticed, a few weeks ago, that not only had the Ranger become noticed in Russia, but the fiction that has found its way to it was also being read there. When I happily told Shawn this, she wondered out loud how the computer translation facilities would handle my idioms.
My immediate reaction to this was that of the completely unaware, so-called, theologian. "I don't write idiomatically," I said.
She laughed. (She laughs a lot.Especially at my not infrequent pronouncements.)
I thought about it, and realized that I am actually relentless in using the idioms of my culture. Thus, for my beloved friends in Russia, let me say that when I was high school, when my wife was in high school, we had a volume of poetry called Poems, Chiefly Narrative. They were good stuff, largely, but as I was to learn from A.E. Housman decades later, so much of British education had been aimed at making good little servants for the British East India Company, and in those days, the tail end of the Stalinist era, good little Canadian students were still under the influence of such empire building.
Thus the genesis of my title for the mystic's poesy.
So now, what to do with promotion? Her blog title, From George, gets drowned by other Georges. George Bush, George Cloony, Lake George, and so on. This she determined last night. On the other hand, when she Googled the title of one of her latest poems, Mary Magdalene, she was fifth on the list, and wonderfully content. So should have been the reader who found it.
It was in my last year of ordinary pedagogy that she became my apprentice. Then, this was for the sake of theology, mysticism, and, I thought, perhaps for a short story career. She had written an awfully good one, with myself starring as the adult protagonist, a credit to an mature professional, let alone a twelve-year-old. But that success was never repeated, except in a minor way in our two bouts of correspondence.
But the poems, of course, are also stories, and stand on their own, without the director-client relationship to give them a meaningful structure. An interesting shift, and one I would not want to be without. Poetry rarely meets the peak of the spiritual life, outside the Scriptures, and when it does, as in the case of John of the Cross, I don't think anyone would think of those verses standing alone. They were most fundamentally written for the sake of the commentaries, which is by far their most valuable reason for existence.
I suspect that we have a sui generis, and note should be taken by more than our beloved bishop, John Corriveau, ofm cap, although we gratefully recognize that he is by no means your average cleric, and, probably, bishop.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Lights, Camera, Action

For a good week now, the Lord has been somewhat flamboyant around my shelf of journals. They've always been an excellent mental and spiritual exercise to write, even if the first of them is quite amusing, being the awkward jottings of a mystic still ignorant of his own condition, and they've also been much consolation, and of course, butresses to the failings of human memory. Especially as to dates. I once put in a phone call to the Assistant General Secretary to the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops that was immensely useful politically, in a very quiet sort of way, and subsequently thought of it as having been done in the early spring, as the day was dark, cold, and wet. But there in my journals the note states, I think, July. That's the interior rain forest for you.
You can imagine the novelist, raging with sudden, irresistable, inspiration: "It was a stormy day, in March, the snow barely gone from the lawns of the substantial domiciles of ______, when Edgar left the house to ramble about the town and ponder the significance of what he had just heard over the telephone from the nation's capital." Especially when the note for the next day spoke of a change in the weather and a youngest daughter counting her nickles and dimes to see if she had enough money for a trip to the Dairy Queen, at the same time getting out bathing suit, towel, and suntan lotion.
Just about every time I sit down in my chair - the journals to my left, at eye level as I sit - there is a modest, fairly brief, display of light, as if the Virgin Mary were actually winking at me. Those mostly hard-backed books of many colours are hers, by the way, as she periodically reminds me. It's consoling of course, but it has also been mystifying. Why this externalism? The journals never fail to radiate instruction, new and old explanation, strengthening, when I open them up, so why this cheerful display that has been happening without my even laying a hand on them?
The answer came this morning, while I was still not quite clear of wondering if I should write another post about male hysteria, this time the result of too much physical exercise. (No, not mine this time. I've been admirably moderate of late, yet the weight continues a modest slide.) I had run into a lad who seems to have failed to read Saint Paul adequately, in respect to exercise, and cannot put the spiritual in its proper priority. I had some pretty good ideas going, but not a balanced order to them, so I commenced the second half of the daily reading of the date in the journals. I prefer to break them up into at least two parts. Like the breviary, then can be pretty heavy reading and I don't like to skate over the surface if I can help it.
The clue to the light show came right at the beginning of what I think of as the second half: June 2, 1994. Sixteen Years ago, as in one of Bob Dylan's longer songs. I render the text:

Yesterday aft an image of bishops, quite a column of them, 2x2, in mitres, on the streets of Dublin.

The Pope, of course, has just named the archbishops who will lead the visitation of the Irish Church, including two from Canada, over the question of the cover up of child abuse.
Sixteen years. Well, no one ever said that contemplation was life in the fast lane. But I hope the solution to the oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico doesn't take that long. I've only been able to pray for it recently, in any of the spirit I can feel any confidence in. This was after realizing that the Providential aspect of this unmitigated environmental nightmare is its tit for tat reponse to the recent habit of America  - and others - dumping its toxic wastes on other continents. This is unlikely to be of any comfort to the poor citizens on the coasts of the afflicted states, but it is a consideration that cannot be avoided, and should be considered part of the guilt package.
Inevitably, the Lord does hear the cry of the poor, no matter how young and helpless, or far away and desperate for food at any price.