improv chant (that makes community)

This is the third post on Music that Makes Community XX.  

Today, I want to explore an unlikely equation.

Lectio Divina + ancient chant + Scary Improv = a stunning way to sing psalms.

As a priest, I have always found psalms tricky.  I love Anglican Chant, and am thankful that there are places (not too far from here) that do it well.  I love plainsong, and have had fabulous experiences of small groups of people singing Compline in dark country churches.  But often, congregations set out to sing psalms in ways that just don’t work.  I’m not sure, yet, how well what I’m about to describe would work in most churches.  It would certainly take courage to try. But we can do courage, right?  For a liturgy that shimmers, it is worth it, yes?

So, on we go.

Scary Improv Psalm began simply enough.  We were invited to say together Psalm 23 — in the authorized version (which I suspect was meant to be reassuring).  In fact, this was verbal mirroring, another form of the morning improv.  The leader began, and we matched his rhythms. As we went on, leadership moved around: other voices, other rhythm emerged. Sometimes there were ‘mistakes’ — words multiplied as memory took over and we slipped into alternate versions. Then, we would come together again, speaking as one.

At first, it was our mistakes that ornamented the psalm:  an embellishment here, a collective swirl and pause there as we found our way together.  Then we were invited past accident, into deliberate action.  This is where Lectio comes in.  In the same way that you ‘listen for a word’ in Lectio, we were invited to listen for the words that spoke most deeply to us.  To listen, as the leader spoke — and then to echo the words that jumped out.

The Lord is my shepherd

I shall not want

He maketh me to lie down in green pastures

lie down
lie down
maketh me

He restoreth my soul.

And on we went.  At first it was forced: deliberate echoing.  Hesitancy.  Then, we fell into prayer. Words rose and fell — awe-filled, reserved, angry, fearful, weary, hopeful.  Sometimes, stripped of emotion: pure word.  It seemed that many of us were equally lost in our own prayers and wholly caught up in the group.  The energy rose and spines tingled.  Yet all we were doing was speaking a psalm…

When we were done and had spoken about what happened, we were invited to do it again — this time singing.

The leader began to chant the psalm — neither Anglican Chant nor plainsong. The chant seemed to owe as much to the mosque as the church, and yet it was also born in the moment.  Notes came as the leader prayed.  We were asked to join in: echoing the words that spoke to us, illuminating the text.

Before we had started, we had been given a drone: a note held as a  ‘home base’, which offered both safety and energy.  For me it was mannna. I could not imagine making up melodic lines or harmonies — though in fact, I’d had to do that earlier, in Most Scary of Improvs — but it is possible to sing back a note, to echo a word just offered.  (Really, it is.)

For much of the psalm, that is all I did.  I echoed the occasional word, on the drone, probably inaudible to all but my nearest neighbour. Then — it should not have surprised me really — what was happening in the group became more engaging than my fear.  I began to hear patterns:  there was a woman behind me with a lovely light soprano voice who embellished the text with fine filigree of gold. There was a man near by who rumbled out of the depths of the earth.  There was someone who echoed in thirds, and another who multiplied the chant with rhythmic repetitions.  It began to make sense, and I started to hear where I could fit in.

The different voices helped me find my own.  The power of the psalm and the unity of the group deepened as each person found a way to be themselves.

How many times have I said something like that?  written it?  read it in a church profile? “We find our voice as we listen to each other.”  But never had I seen the concept come so vividly to life.  Music that Makes Community also makes very good theology.

And I have I mentioned, yet, that it was also great fun?

Next post: leadership.
This is a work of evangelism.  We are not done with this yet…