I have now reached the point of my life when I’m starting to get serious about the items on my bucket list. In just a month and a half I’ll be hitting one of those “milestone” birthdays, the kind that makes you think about your life and all the things you’ve wanted to do and haven’t done yet and my goodness, I could be dead soon and wouldn’t have accomplished a single thing! People in my generation weren’t even supposed to grow up, much less think about what home your kids should send you to when you can no longer figure out the tv remote. A quick look in the mirror confirms my suspicion that my modeling career probably won’t happen, so I can cross that one off. I think I can also cross off buying a cute little convertible and touring the west coast. These days I’m built a bit more “for comfort than for speed” and my back would probably hurt for days if I tried it.
There is one item on the bucket list; however, that I’ve actually been working toward accomplishing. Years ago it meant nothing to me, but now it’s become something that I really want to do – or at least attempt. Perhaps it’s a desire to leave a piece of myself when I do go, a kind of proof that I did manage to do something useful with my life. I’d like to have one of my compositions accepted by a publisher. They wouldn’t have to actually publish it – just accept it. The problem is…I’ve thought about this many times before and even made one or two swipes at sprucing up some manuscripts, but at a certain point I just stop.
My mother always drilled it into my head that I should never, ever complain about something anyone else did unless I could do it better, so I started composing and arranging music to be able to legitimately complain about others. And why not? Church musicians and choir directors have been doing their own material since before Guido d’ Arezzo. If you need a psalm or canticle for a liturgy and can’t find one that’s right you sit down and scratch one out. If you’re really in a hurry you pull up an old tune everyone knows and likes and retrofit new lyrics to it by using the meter of the song and tweaking the lyrics until they fit.
Years ago, when I was first starting out, I had a nice little choir but almost no money in my budget to purchase music. So one night I started working on a canticle. I tried to remember everything I had learned in my composition classes – avoiding parallel fifths and octaves and all the other deadly sins of music composition that was guaranteed to have the professor send your project back with big red circles. The choir has good naturedly taken on the responsibility of being my tune testers ever since. I can usually read the looks on their faces and hear in the tone of their voices and know right away if they like it or if it’s not working.
An artist friend of mine addressed her own bucket list by learning iconography. I was told that the ‘writing’ of icons entailed a lot more than just pulling up to a canvas and choosing a color, so I asked her to explain the process she goes though to create an icon. She told me about how she begins with prayer, immersing herself in the scripture, about the meaning of the materials and the colors, and how each stroke of the brush is a prayer. I found it interesting that the artist prays for the blessing and protection of all those who will view the icon. It struck me then, that the creation of sacred art and sacred music is very much alike; prayer, meditation on sacred scripture and the desire to express the profound truths that are revealed in them through the visual or aural media. The process of “creating” unites the artist or musician with God, the “Creator” in prayer, and the result is the visible or audible manifestation of that union.
Although I’ve been known to work fairly quickly when there is an immediate need, there are certain pieces that have a much deeper meaning for me, for they were written because I needed to write them. And there between the lines and spaces of the staves lies the intimate expression of the relationship between the created and her Creator; the sounds of the conversations and silences of the soul that give birth to hymns of joy and thanksgiving, songs of tenderness and love, of begging for mercy and forgiveness, and that music that was composed through the tears of a heart broken with grief, doubt and confusion.
This is usually the point where I get scared and pull back, uncertain if I should continue. Do I really want to hand out glimpses of my bared soul to someone who will take it and stack it with all of the other works that they audition each week? They examine and evaluate dozens of hymns and octavos composed by those who, like me, must use the sterile, precise black and white symbols of music to manifest the prayer that cries out to God from the deepest recesses of their spirits. The music of prayer is tender and personal like the poetry a young lover sends to the beloved, yet I would be taking this song – this expression of eternal love and longing, putting it on paper and giving consent to a stranger to play it out loud. After that would come the wondering if, when the moment comes for the notes and rests on the staff to be freed, the prayer locked within them will be heard. Will those who listen recognize the sounds of love and forgiveness and comfort and feel the warmth in the silence between them? Will it resonate within them and make them want to sing it, too?
I have waited, waited for the Lord, and he stooped toward me and heard my cry. And he put a new song into my mouth, a hymn to our God… When I sing of your rightousness in a vast assembly, see I do not restrain my lips; as you, O Lord, know. I do not conceal your righteousness within my heart; I speak of your loyalty and your salvation. I do not hide your mercy or your faithfulness from a vast assembly. Ps. 40: 2, 4 & 10, 11. This was the responsorial psalm for the Second Sunday in Ordinary time. I played four weekend Masses and rehearsed this psalm with the cantors, so I must have listened to it at least eight times yesterday before I really looked at it.
I’ve decided which manuscripts to send. I’ll revise and revise them until I’m certain that there isn’t a single parallel fifth or octave and check to be sure that grammar and spelling are correct. I’ll put them in an envelope, stick a stamp on it and say a prayer for the blessing and protection of all those who will listen to it.