Friday, July 24, 2009

The Danger of Profiling

This is a hot topic, especially today with all the hullabaloo about the Cambridge MA Police Department arresting an African-American breaking into his own home, Obama commenting, etc. But that's not the application I wish to address.

In perusing Catholic blogs again (as I convalesce from a wretched tooth extraction) I become a little weary and wary when the soundbytes start to fly. I tend to believe that anything worthy can't be so simplistically reduced. Yet, I find myself continually disappointed.

I find myself in an awkward position for a couple reasons:
1. I am a Catholic musician who is converging on a music degree
2. I am a Catholic musician converging on a music degree living in an extremely conservative/neoconservative/orthodox? diocese who considers graduate studies at Notre Dame.

Regarding the first: There is an apparent chasm in Catholic culture, specifically in liturgical matters. Language has been duly appropriated, terms politically charged. This is unfortunate. For example: parish pianist vs. parish organist, choir director vs. choir leader, parish/pastoral musician vs. music director, pastoral musician vs. sacred musician, sacred musician vs. liturgical musician, Latin vs. no Latin.

I understand there may be substantive differences with these, particularly sacred vs. liturgical (Anthony Ruff distinguishes the two well in his homerun, landmark book). However, it's the political connotations that make this silly. Should we be confortable with making these profiles more from politics than informed theological positions (of which many are valid I must emphasize)!

I can't recall at the moment where I read this but apparently an Episcopal Church Musician once said that "pastoral musician" was essentially a synonym for "bad musician." I'm sure plenty of Catholics who read NLM, CMAA, Fr. Z. etc. would wholeheartedly agree and happily supply anecdotes. "Pastoral musicians" could easily retort with a wholly valid argument: the primary purpose of liturgy is not to showcase art.

On the other hand, I've read many a blog where "pastoral musicians" express disgust for the idolatrous aestheticism that can overtake the highly schooled musician or artist. One may simply counter, however, that the Catholic Church has perhaps the largest tradition of any institution to encourage the development of art. Bug off with the iconoclasm.

I'm not sure precisely where it appears I fall. I'm not sure that I have a choice. Currently the cards are stacked against me: organ is not a favored instrument in many Catholic parishes, organ literature holds even less relevance or prestige, degree holders are increasingly rare in church music. Thus, due to my love of something associated with the past and high artistic standards, I'm probably an elitist- and that's a bad thing.

Regarding the second: There are few places to pursue a sound, well-rounded liturgical/sacred music graduate degree in the US- especially with a Catholic twist. Notre Dame stands out as a rare and notable exception. Problems arise though. As one acquaintance recently put it, and he didn't mean it well, "Oh, you mean the newly christened University of Obama?"

This vexes me. People would be all too eager to make assumptions about my politics, albeit via flawed reasoning (the whole post hoc, ergo propter hoc thing.) This becomes a problem for no other reason than it can create tension with parishioners where I work- parishioners who happen to be both nosy and politically zealous. No, I don't love ND because the President spoke at graduation. No, I wasn't disinterested before he came either. Neither statement reflects my thoughts on the President or politics. Think carefully on that one.

It alarms me, however, that even bishops will encourage this kind of thinking. At a recent conference I helped with an attendee queried Bishop Jackels of Wichita regarding the preservation of "Catholic" identity in our "Catholic" colleges and universities. His answer was to boycott them- not just Notre Dame, but most others too. He suggested several alternatives.

The problem, however, is that the 4 alternatives probably have a collective 1500 students and 3 programs. That's great if one wishes to study philosophy, theology, or youth ministry. What about the novel idea of studying one of the world's many other topics at a Catholic school? Apparently, that's not a concern.

And really, all music schools are full of flitty, feather-brained liberals. "Birds of a feather flock together." Read: Orthodox Catholics beware of applicants armed with graduate music degrees! Thus, I'm probably a theologically dissident liberal.

But what ever happened to letting people speak for themselves? What about the possibility of a "both...and" solution. Can a person with a degree be a relevant "pastoral" musician? Yes. Can one without a degree be a competent one? Yes, as well. The answer truly varies from person to person, from situation to situation.

We all know the stereotypes, but what use has invoking them? Ultimately this calls for an explanation and explanations of stereotypes inevitably devolve into polemical rants or fierce anecdote wars. It's like a conversation I had this morning:

Me: I didn't realize Rush Limbaugh was fired from FOX for racist comments
Party 2: He only said that black quarter-backs were better.
Me: Which is meaningless and, like I said, racist.
Party 2: No, he's just stating the fact that blacks are better athletes
Me: really, we're going there?

Who knows if that stereotype really means something? It's possible, but the truth lies deeply buried in a myriad of converging explanations and a tangled web of sociology. In short, like most generalizations, their ambiguity and offensiveness far outweigh their usefulness.

So, I've been called an elitist— wholly due to my zeal for learning. In this case, I'll wear that badge with honor. If music school teaches me how to write a singable melody and that's "elitism" we're in bad shape. I'm not, however, going to go into a Byzantine fracturing of "Eagle's' Wings" or "Be Not Afraid" and tell 100 reasons why these are poorly written. They are. Yet, people sing them- however incorrectly. This is proof enough for me but winning an argument isn't the point. Improving the situation is- whether that's teaching the songs correctly, writing new ones, or resorting to the "Treasury of Sacred Music" when possible.

Elitism is not what you know but what you do with it- if I learn something I plan to share it with my parish and choir. Beauty and Truth will always be hot commodities. Conscious mediocrity might be second to dishonesty in things that set me off.

Do I have aesthetic standards? Yes.
Do I wish to engage people in the liturgy? Yes
Is it possible to maximize variables? No
Is it possible to optimize variables? Yes

Wow! Fancy that. As long as I don't turn into a philandering AGO grouch someday I'll consider myself marginally successful.

But, really, Vatican II got rid of that old music and Purgatory...

Just kidding.

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