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Chanting the Psalms 11

The final section of Cynthia Bourgeault’s Chanting the Psalms deals with some radically new experiments in Christian chant. In chapter 14, “Is There Chanting beyond the Psalms?” Bourgeault reminds us that classic Christian psalmody “is an art of high intelligibility requiring focused attention and a willingness to engage with the images and emotions that the psalms offer up as the working laboratory for personal transformation” (163). As such, it is fundamentally different than the chanting traditions of most other world religions in classic spiritual terminology, it is a cataphatic practice (i.e., engaging the faculties or reason, memory, feeling, etc.) rather than an apophatic one (i.e., transcending into “formless or unboundaried selfhood,” 165). In classic Christian spirituality, it is meant to lay the groundwork for contemplation by “purifying the passions and awakening the heart’s capacity to feel deeply about spiritualities” (164). It is not intended to evoke the contemplative state itself.

Where, then, does that leave those of us who do not have the time, resources, or inclination to join a monastery in order to devote ourselves to the rigorous discipline that traditional psalmody requires? One solution, explored in great detail in chapters 7-13, is in the direction of simplification: opting for simple, uncomplicated psalm tones or for an increasing use of refrains for the choral parts. Even in simplified settings, however, psalm chanting takes a great deal of diligence.

Another, far more radical, option is presented in the chapters to follow. This option is more of a fundamental revision of the spirituality of Christian chant, bringing it more in line with how chant functions in other religious traditions: as “a primarily apophatic practice intended to transcend ego consciousness rather than purify it” (168). In chapters 15-17, Bourgeault briefly describes four current experiments in just this sort of Christian chanting.

Chapter 15 deals with perhaps the most widely known example of the revision of the spirituality of Christian chant, “Taizé Chant.” Bourgeault defines the chant tradition of the Taizé Community as a form of “ostinato chant” which has been elevated to a whole new art form. As she describes it,

A traditional ostinato is a simple tune or harmonic progression repeated continuously throughout a composition. Typically, it’s found in the bass line (usually played instrumentally by an organ or a cello); its major purpose is to serve as the harmonic foundation for a more complex musical expansion in the upper voices. Like a cinder block foundation, it is useful but not terribly appealing in itself.

But Berthier’s use of the ostinato form [at Taizé] essentially stood tradition on its head. In Taizé chant, the ostinato becomes the center of interest, the main place where both the action and its deeper meaning unfold. The entire congregation sings the simple, repetitive melody (usually in two- or four-voice harmony or in canon), while optional vocal and instrumental soloists add the musical variety and expansion. (171-72)

Chapter 16, “Songs of the Presence,” describes a form of spontaneous, improvisational singing based, as at Taizé, on the repetition of a simple text: “Rather like a flock of birds all swooping together in flight, this is an experiment in spontaneous presence to a guiding intelligence deeper than the mind” (184). This form of chant has been popularized by Lynn Bauman, director of the Praxis Retreat and Learning Center in Elwood, Texas. According to Bourgeault,

Like Taizé chant, this new body of chants works on the principle of repetition. A short phrase or sentence is sung continuously, creating the ostinato chant effect of drawing the prayer deeper. Unlike Taizé, however, the Songs of the Presence are intentionally improvisational. The chant tune is a simple melody set within an implicit harmonic pattern. The full realization of the chant’s potential depends on each group hearing the harmonic possibilities and unfolding them spontaneously in the synergy of the moment. Every chant is its own unique and unrepeatable event. (186)

This strikes me as in some ways similar to the ancient practice of jubilation, and I wish Bourgeault had helped connect the dots between the two forms of improvised singing.

Finally, in chapter 17, Bourgeault deals briefly with “Iona Chant and Gouzes Chant.” While chapters 15 and 16 dealt with experiments in a more apophatic approach to chanting, in the approaches discussed here, we are firmly back in cataphatic territory.

“Iona chant” is, technically speaking, a misnomer, as the Protestant Iona Community understands its music to be songs, not chants. Still, this new musical genre has an obvious contemplative spirit. Bourgeault describes it as follows:

Iona chant tends to be much more rhythmic than Taizé, in keeping with its African and Latino influences. Dotted and syncopated rhythms abound, and frequent use is made of a call-and-response format, both between cantor and congregation and within the musical voice parts themselves…. While the songs are not primarily contemplative in their intent, they have earned a place in the hearts of contemporary contemplatives because of their profound musical and mystical beauty (195-96)

Finally, Gouzes chant is classic psalmody, yet in a distinctly different form. Gouzes chant originated in France within the Fraternités monastiques de Jérusalem (FMJ), one of the fastest growing young monastic orders in Europe. The form takes its name from André Gouzes, a Dominican priest and composer. Again, I’ll let Bourgeault describe this form of chant in her own words:

On a first hearing, Gouzes chant can sound deceptively straightforward, as if the choir is merely singing simple harmonic progressions. But one soon realizes that these “simple” progressions do not emanate from a northern European harmonic base (as with Taizé). Instead, they echo the modal system of Byzantine chant and the pentatonic flavor of much of Near Eastern and Islamic chant; in fact, they sometimes echo them simultaneously, for Gouzes can marry these two distinct musical color palettes with astonishing effectiveness. The most striking musical signature of Gouzes chant is that the voice parts tend to operate in close harmony, with frequent accidentals and dissonances. (199)

Gouzes chant is still largely a Francophone phenomenon, but its “musical genius” is already well attested in Europe.

Next: Part 12

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