Chanting vs Opera

music-notes-on-pageIt was the day before Christmas Eve. The single busiest day of the year for a clergy person. And instead of printing bulletins or polishing a sermon or even rushing around the over-crowded mall to pick up those last few stocking stuffers, I was sitting at the piano, plunking out the notes to a brand new piece of music. I hadn’t done this in years—hunching over the keyboard, pencil in hand to mark beats and breaths. I used to do this all day, working through opera scores trying to make little black notes into music.

Now I am a priest, and my days are mostly spent plunking out a different sort of keys—sending emails, drafting newsletters, writing sermons. I dust off my singing voice only on occasion. But this Christmas, my boss had given me a “present”—a new tone setting for the Christmas proclamation that opens the Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve: mov_6043-mov-1

As chants go it was complicated, but nothing like learning an opera aria. I knew how to do this, and in a matter of just a couple hours, I had sung the notes into my throat. But something felt different. Vocally chanting is a different physical production of sound than operatic singing—void of vibrato and emotion. But this felt different on a deeper level.

Singing has always been the most vulnerable of art forms. There is no instrument to serve as intermediary between you and the music. You are the music. Air and flesh working in concert to produce tones, which (if done well) can be astonishingly beautiful. It is an act of incarnation: Spirit being made into sound through your body. When you sing you are exposed. Perhaps this is why the human voice remains so transfixing: it is an act of revelation. Perhaps that is why so many people resist singing. When you sing, the unanswered question that electrifies the air is, are you capable of making something beautiful with nothing but yourself?

This level of exposure is all the truer for chanting, where the singer is alone, sent forth with just a single note to make art from nothingness. It is the barest of music. And the most pure. There is no place to hide. At the Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, I was alarmed at how nervous I was as I prepared to put off from the shore into the sea of silence which I was to fill with my voice, and my voice alone. By all rights this should have been an easy piece of music to dispatch. Yet as I stood there, heart racing, breath elusive, I stood “naked” before God and my fellow man. The Cope could not protect me. It was terrifying. Perhaps this is why chanting has so long been a practice of the Church. Vulnerable, naked, exposed, fear and trembling, these are proper postures to begin our prayer and worship. It is the way God entered this world and the way God left it.

Normally, we live our lives as characters in an operatic drama, burying our true selves beneath all manner of distractions: the costumes we wear to work; the flashing lights of our fancy toys and big sets of houses and cars. We let the orchestra of daily living drown out the dangerous realm of silence and self-reflection. But our true self is more like a chant, than an aria. A simple song, made up of a few notes. Breath and body. Spirit and flesh. It is fragile, and rarely put before God and others for their judgment. But ultimately, we live as we sing. Hoping beyond hope, to make something beautiful of our selves. That we can, is God’s greatest gift to us. That we do is our greatest gift to God.