Enfolding Sounds: Sacred and Profane Music in Concert Programming

What is the difference between a concert programme and a liturgy? As the planner, and one of the performers in the Transept 2023 music event “Enfolding Sounds” (a concert? a meditation? an encounter?), I’ve found myself troubled by this question.

Evidently, the expectations of the listener—a concert audience and a congregation are different collectives. However, if a concert takes place in a church, and in particular, if it uses liturgical and scriptural texts, the listening experience may not be simple to disentangle from memories of being in that space, at different times, for worship.  Listening to serious music, and listening to liturgy, may take the mind to similar places. The imagination looks for spiritual resonance.

This truth is widely acknowledged in critical literature.  For example, Elena Ungeheur, in her essay ‘Concert Formats: Liturgy-Ritual-Power?’, compares the ‘formative characteristics of classical concerts, as well as those of pop concerts with ‘characteristics of Christian liturgy’.[i] Both demand a special kind of non-everyday listening, and an orientation towards what is heard that suggests many concert audiences are listening out for signs of spiritual enlightenment.

Some composers who compose from a place of faith have intentionally used these correspondences in their work.  James Macmillan, for example, writes both for liturgical contexts and the concert hall, including pieces that invite what might be called a sacramental approach to listening in secular contexts.  Hugh Pyper, in a recent article on audience reception of Macmillan’s Passion of St John in its premiere performance in the London Barbican concert hall (on a Sunday), writes compellingly about the cognitive dissonance involved in applauding a performance of Christ’s crucifixion, even when Macmillan clearly takes care not to over-dramatize the narrative.[ii] Pyper concludes that Macmillan was setting ‘not the New Testament but the Good Friday liturgy of the Catholic Church; or perhaps more accurately, he is seeking to communicate the spiritual and emotional effect on him of participation in that liturgy.’ The secular Barbican audience might struggle to understand where Macmillan is coming from; in an open hall, what does their applause convey? That they have been entertained (surely that is the wrong word)?  That we admire the ‘job well done’ by the musicians (perhaps more reasonable in this professional environment)?  What has been given, and what has been received?

So, here am I, trying to design a programme of music under the banner of ‘Enfolding Sounds’ for the Transept 2023 exhibition, to take place albeit not on a Sunday but in a church, and which includes a lot of liturgical and scriptural text. The programme will not comprise a single, unifying work; it won’t even represent a carefully selected list of items by a thoughtful programme planner.  No; it will be a radically randomised folded-together gathering-in of material from whoever feels moved to pitch into the empty space.  The ‘concert’ is the enfolding mechanism; some kind of inspiration is called for in managing the fine detail. How will I order this?  What will I be expecting from the audience (assuming we have one)?  What will they be expecting from the encounter and how might I give them freedom to take or leave what they encounter without any awkwardness (we are not professionals in the Barbican).

There will be a new piece by two young artists from outside of St Andrews—Hayley Hodges and Jamie Powe’s The Gun Mass (2023).  I don’t know anything about the piece or either of the artists at the initial time of planning the concert, although from the outset it’s obvious there will be discussion of a gun, maybe more than one, and a nod (at least) to one of the eucharistic liturgies. (As it turns out, the piece uses the text of the Anglo-Catholic Missa Brevis, intersected by a poem by Hodges about mass shootings in the US, with textual echoes from Job, Lamentations, and the psalms of exile). This will be recorded in Oxford and played from that recording; we will be asked to grieve for the anonymous dead at two stages removed from the front line. It will be powerful and angry; it’s critique of gun crime will make the point that murder is a form of sacrilege; but will its use of liturgical text also feel sacrilegious in a different way, at such a remove from live performative encounter? It will at least be carefully rehearsed and produced: recordings tend to be polished.

There will be liveness: a selection of vocal music, selected and sung by St Andrews masters students (led by Hester Greatrix), on a general theme of ‘enfolding sounds’ (well, sound is acoustically enveloping, so that could go anywhere). The live vocal music, when the list arrives into my email inbox, speaks from places of faith and hope: Hildegard of Bingen’s O Virtus Sapientie (12th century) sings of the bird-like ‘enfolding’ power of the Holy Spirit; Cecilia McDowall’s ecstatic motet on the text I Know that My Redeemer Liveth (2009), and Kenneth Macmillan’s advent motet, O Radiant Dawn (2007), both speak of life renewed in Christ.  That could be useful, I think.

And woven around this, there will be some improvisations by me: a classical musician normally dependent on other people’s scores, using a variety of instruments to respond to a blend of found-sound soundscapes and fragments of psalms from the Liturgy of the Hours.  I think this could either be interesting, or upsetting, or profoundly cringeworthy, possibly all of this, and I won’t know which until after it’s done. Because that’s the nature of improvisation. Oh dear; what could possibly go wrong (a lot …).

I decide to sequence the programme like a day-in-the-life, thinking about how human time might intersect with moments of prayer and scripture, and be interlaced with both sacred beauty and the profane. That could give me wriggle room for whatever happens.

So, we’ll start with the first three bits of found-sound from me: Before, Waking and Dawn, tracking the Hours of Matins, Lauds, and Prime.  The soundscapes I’ve prepared for these include sounds of the North Sea recorded under the cover of darkness; the sounds of the wind in the trees and rooks calling behind my house as winter sun begins to tint the eastern horizon; and the sounds of walking to work through the garden of St Mary’s College with early spring birdsong and a distant bell ringing.  Fragments of text—‘the shadow of the Almighty’ (Psalm 91:4), ‘I lay my request before you and wait expectantly’ (Psalm 5:3); ‘blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked’ (Psalm 1:1)—will accompany my setting out, optimistically.

Then we will play Haley and Jamie’s Gun Mass—which is more a Requiem Mass than a Missa Brevis, of which I cannot speak more here—which ends with a prayer for peace.

Then silence—for reflection—which doesn’t normally get programmed into a concert programme, but which gives a nod to liturgical listening. I think we may need it.

I’m never sure when to stop silence.  Something will prompt me to resume normal programming. Possibly to the audience’s relief, we will now listen again to live music, with Hildegard of Bingen’s words hopefully ringing in our ears: que circuiens circuisti, comprehendendo omnia, in una via que habet vitam (Whirling, you encircle / and enfold everything / in one life-filled pathway.)  

The 4th and 5th of my soundscapes are scheduled to follow (was I thinking this was like a 5-act play?), which will plunge us back into what probably will sound like noise with the odd moment of semi-coherence.  Track 4 is a Perpetual Motion, mashing together the Hours of Terce, Sext and Nones with sounds of typing, traffic, cafes, street noise. Fragments of text (excerpts from the psalms from the relevant Hours liturgies) hold on to the idea that God is there somewhere in the noise (his love endures for ever… I cried to the Lord … I will not die but live … you have searched me, Lord, and you know me…)  Welcome to my life; please do not applaud. Track 5, Recreation and Rest, map to Vespers and Compline: the sounds are of another walk, home, and along the Lade Braes to the sea; real water always mobilises thoughts of the Holy Spirit in me, and I guess the metaphor of ‘living water’ could be accessible to most folk likely to be present.

Psalm 51 vs 10: Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.

Psalm 4 vs 8: In peace I will lie down and sleep, for you alone Lord make me to dwell in safety.

Part of me wonders if this will be a bit like extemporised prayer. Sometimes the words meet what the congregation (sorry, audience) needs. Sometimes, cringingly, listeners wonder what kind of a bad week the prayer leader has had. Inspiration may or may not have arrived in time to synchronise with what my fingers are doing on the piano keyboard.

The audience will be released by more live music—McDowall and Macmillan, off the bench and landing the ball at the back of the net. Oh, again, sorry—that confuses the metaphor. This is a concert, not a football game. A different sacred space entirely. Although also, I’m led to believe, a game of two halves: Sacred, and Profane.

[i] Elena Ungeheuer, ‘Liturgy-Ritual-Power?’ in Erik Dorset and Martin Tröndle (eds.), Classical Concert Studies (New York: Routledge, 2020).

[ii] Hugh S. Pyper, ‘Crucifixion in the Concert Hall: Secular and Sacred in James Macmillan’s Passion of St John’, in Literature and Theology 23(3), (2009), 344-355; 348.

Author

  • Jane Pettegree teaches music history and ethnomusicology at the University of St Andrews Laidlaw Music Centre. She has also sung professionally, specialising in early and very contemporary music, and is choir director at St Andrew’s episcopal church, St Andrews.

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