The theme and problem of sacred music in our time is complex. Sacred music has many meanings to different people, intrinsically, and depending on the context of creation and performance. What makes “sacred music” sacred? How do we engage our congregations into performances that unite us in service but are also beautiful and uplifting to all? How do we communicate through music the spiritual values we treasure to any audience? We recently posed ourselves these questions and came up with these topics will be addressed in the conference panels:
There are some types of music that are used mainly for prayer and worship, such as Jewish cantillation, Gregorian psalm tones, and Muslim prayer calls. Have you composed music intended strictly for worship and does this determine your approach to its composition?
Many works of sacred music are not different from secular music in style, except that they have religious texts. The most sung texts in the Christian tradition are the Psalms, and they have been set in countless styles. Have you worked freely with Christian psalmody? Why have you selected these texts for a free musical setting?
Music sung in places of prayer for communal worship, no matter its style and origin, becomes sacred. How do you meet this challenge, one that affects all Christian congregations, regardless of denomination and resources? How do you, as a composer, assist congregations and amateur musicians to embrace the practice of performing sacred music?
Much music that is sacred in origin is sung and played today for secular occasions, from concert halls to the cinema. The film Say Amen, Somebody!, based on African-American gospel music of sacred content, has crossed over into the mainstream of secular entertainment. Gregorian chant and Renaissance sacred polyphony have transcended into a popular culture that has attached to them a broader meaning. Do you have any personal views on this phenomenon or take advantage of these extended meanings in your own music?
From the dawn of time, human beings have expressed their relationship with the divine through their music. When you write for the concert hall, are you thinking about nurturing the spiritual lives of people who may be non-believers? If so, how does this drive your work and your ideas?
Many composers in our time have the freedom to employ materials and styles that vary widely in terms of origin and configuration, from worldwide religious and musical traditions, and in so-called high and low streams. Do you access a wide variety of materials or not? What would be your reasons why and the benefits of either approach?
Is the objective of Sacred Music to create a sense of non-hierarchical participation in the congregation, or rather, to evoke a higher spiritual plane of abiding values transcending the crass realities of our world? Are these objectives mutually exclusive? Can the training of children in sacred music works assist in saving classical music and the arts in general in our society? Is the decline of sacred music in certain congregations a result of financial stress or lack of musical education? What is the impact of multi-cultural music in a sacred service beyond the immediate advocacy for inclusiveness? These and other important questions arise from the contemplation of the role that sacred music has played in all cultural traditions, and the impact it can have in today's society.
The Practice: Composing Sacred Music:
What are your motivations and priorities when composing sacred music? What compositional techniques must be mastered? How do you select and set a text? Do you have specific levels of singing ability in mind before you conceptualize the work? Do you advocate certain compositional languages or restrain yourself from others? can sacred music be non-vocal or not sung?
The Practice: Conducting and Teaching Sacred Music:
Should masterful pieces of sacred music (such as Bach's B-Minor mass) be conducted and taught any differently than a secular work when presented in a concert context? How do you teach sacred music at different levels to ensembles of different skill? Are there specific techniques to be used with the uninitiated? Some thinkers say beauty is the face of truth and therefore the face of God. Is objective beauty of presentation a requirement for a successful sacred music performance?