Michael Emmerich’s Response to “Save the church! (kill the organs)”

“Incline your ear to me, rescue me quickly”
– Psalm 31:2

Jennifer Graham’s op-ed piece “Save the Church! Kill the Organs” (Boston Globe, 25 October 2012) gets one thing right—we have plenty of problems to tackle in the church. Beyond this she’s mistaken. With a tenor that obscures the boundary between sincerity and hyperbole, she proffers deeply flawed diagnoses of ecclesial pathologies and prescribes remedial iconoclasm. These claims motivate my commentary and critique.

The organ has virtually nothing to do with lapsed Catholicism, as Graham intimates. Likewise, mere inconvenience—fatigue, busyness—doesn’t lead to lapse. No one passively drifts. And, even if one did, we would care (Matt 18: 12-14, Luke 15:  3-7).  Worship has never been convenient. Ever. Arguably, it was much more inconvenient in times and places that enjoyed packed churches. Which is to say: this is more than incidental Sunday morning lethargy. Something else is going on here. This piece continues a long tradition—replete with contributions from both left and right—of diverting attention from the actual and deep-seated socio-political, philosophical, and theological problems that catalyze the mass exodus (no pun intended). People believe something else. Accordingly, I find Graham’s casual dismissal of Baptism-Marriage-Burial Catholics alarming. No conscientious pastoral minister will proclaim satisfaction with this mediocre status quo—least of all the “church leaders” cited by Graham! Realistically, Graham’s distinction between “driven” and “drifted” is a false barrier erected to facilitate a good, old-fashioned red-herring rant. She gives the organ too much credit.

Yet, we know that some people dislike the organ. I happen to love it. There are many people somewhere in between.  Where is Graham coming from? Her experiences and observations offer some clues—if not to the sentiments of many then to hers alone. I discern three complaints:  the organ scares people; the church uses the organ stubbornly out of convenience (in spite of popularity); it drives youth away.

One fears what one doesn’t understand.  The timbral complexity of the organ makes it a steep learning curve for many who don’t understand its sonic anatomy. A friend once remarked that hearing the organ at Notre Dame de Paris on Christ the King Sunday made her feel like the world was coming to an end. I doubt that she meant the triumphant eschatology celebrated in the feast! The organ is an acoustic synthesizer. An organist manipulates the overtone series. The instrument itself is a machine of breathtaking complexity—for centuries an unsurpassed technological achievement.  From my own journey to the organ and from comments gathered from non-musician friends I can say that knowledge helps.  Comprehending the source of sound not as some massive bleating bagpipe but as a complex concord can liberate the mind from silly horror-movie bindings.

The second and third complaints drag deeper and perennial problems into the limelight. Graham’s experience in Boston may be exceptional—most parishes I’ve visited do not have pipe organs. If there’s no organ now, one is not likely to appear.  Many parishes—among the relatively few that had them—dispensed with their instruments in recent decades. Some instruments simply died due to inferior craftsmanship. Some were mishandled. Many were murdered. The cause and time of death are powder kegs and Graham mentions them:  the sixties, Vatican II.  I’ll skim and tread lightly.

Vatican II was an ecumenical council. As such, it didn’t do or “birth” anything. However, human beings did all sorts of things in the wake of it. These activities were more or less warranted by the documents and experiences of that council. The question of whether the so-called “folk Mass” was indeed “earnest, soulful, and completely right for the 1960s” lies beyond the purview of this commentary.  However, I would like to problematize Graham’s musical model.  Firstly, the “folk Mass” is something of a misnomer—where’s the folk music? Secondly, I’m suspicious when anyone gets going and glossy about the sixties. In a recent presentation on psalter translation, an even-handed Benedictine monk (is there any other variety?) put it well:  “the sixties were a time where you just had to be there for it to make sense now.” And then there’s that line of disputed authorship:  “If you remember the 1960s, you weren’t there.” A true paradox! I certainly wasn’t there and I know that people play fast and loose with memory. I prefer Peter Jeffery’s quip:  “there was this thing called the sixties, most of which happened in the seventies.”  Probably more on the mark.

More likely than not, death threats to the organ came from those partisans who peddled rupturous novelty in a wide swath of troubled time—nothing new. That said, I think Graham’s metaphor of evolution is spot on—we just happen to have radically different notions of what that means.  She suggests that the sudden advent of the “folk Mass” fits within a Darwinian paradigm.  Not really. Marxism make more sense here—revolution not evolution. Graham thus misuses the metaphor for evolution cannot entertain such teleological fantasies as she constructs.  Homo heidelbergensis no more needed to lead to Homo sapiens than pianos need to lead to guitars. Evolution follows a path, pushed by need. Development accommodates the exigencies of life and survival.

And we’ve all heard a good deal about development in our time of renewed conciliar hermeneutics, particularly the organic variety. So, a question: did the church of 1969 need Peter, Paul, and Mary? Who knows? It happened. Let’s not tempt contrafactuals but rather the more germane question prompted by Graham’s model:  does the Church need to kill organs in 2012?  No.  Artifacts bear marks of their time and place.  If the liturgical environment of the “sixties” was more volatile, less formal, and more colloquial than ours, today, by contrast, is relatively cool and hieratic—at least in theory. Graham’s portrait doesn’t fit in our frame. Again, the evolutionary non sequitur.

Nevertheless Graham’s observations uncannily uncover the truer sources of pathology. Firstly:  execution. Here her discontent is warranted.  As church musicians and anyone in a pastoral role can readily say, we fall short—a lot! The American bishops wrote in “Living Stones” about the importance of building materials that “bear the weight of mystery” (136, 148). As I write, sitting in the Basilica of Conception Abbey in rural Missouri, I feel brick underfoot. It is literally earth, fired and hardened—a vivid metaphor for our predecessors’ tenacious faith as well as an image of the durability of sacramentally proclaimed truth over it. As we sang the Divine Office, it reflected our voices—intelligible but unique, sustained through time like the psalmist’s words as they’ve been dutifully and (hopefully) lovingly declaimed by the Church and Jewish people for millennia. Such experience is compelling! Does our music likewise “bear the weight of mystery,” like so many sonic stones? Without risking vacuous elitism or solipsistic professionalism, we must devote energy to training cantors, choirs, and organists so that their offerings do not ring in our ears as a “can opener in full swing.”

Graham never disavows the organ’s unique capacity to support singing. But quality and quantity of sounds are hardly the same thing!  Our churches frequently fall victim to short investment horizons when it comes to building instruments for worship. My concern for the quality of music that Graham has endured immediately precedes my curiosity about the nature of the instruments used. I echo Joe Vitacco in saying that I believe America is home to the best organ builders in the world. Today is an exciting time for our parishes to duc in altum and make a musical statement in worship that parallels the quality of experience that our other senses more often enjoy.  To be clear:  this is no nostalgia—and Cameron Carpenter is no prophet of that.  Across this country we have talented and accommodating craftspeople building sophisticated, modern instruments for churches with virtually every kind of logistical and liturgical need.

If execution lies within our control, then pervasive desensitization may prove to be the greatest hurdle for organ appreciation. We gorge on media. We are gluttons. Our gadgets give us precisely what we want almost precisely when we want it. For a self-legitimizing dialectic of commoditization and consumption, this filtration is a strength—it feeds our fattening beast.  For Christians who live and die by the profession that we are a communion of saints—sinners in pilgrimage—across time and space, this is disastrous. Our “intensified consumption habits” (Hesmondhalgh) have inflated our capacity to appreciate beauty more rapidly than the Zimbabwe dollar spiked since 2006.  Music, like faith, is quite a mystery—it requires listening, patience, and attentiveness. To quote James MacMillan:

Music can transform our lives…But in order for music to do that, I think the human soul has to be ready to sacrifice something, sacrifice a certain amount of our time; something of our attention, something of our active listening. Music’s not something which can just wash over us. It needs us to sacrifice something of ourselves to meet it…

How to cultivate this virtue—and I mean that as a habit of being—stands as the greatest challenge to emerge from Graham’s lament.  Technology has yet to erase the metaphysical magic of live music-making—the kind we need in liturgy.  Car stereos can’t touch humans with flesh and blood and instruments.  Yet Graham can’t tell the difference, locating the “banal” in the organ but the “stirring live symphony” in the pickup truck. Thus the desensitization claims a victim. And the organ per se bears no culpability.

Not only must we—as musicians—cultivate a taste but also we must somehow cultivate the patience that sustains it. This is a doubly difficult program. Is it feasible? Yes. Is it remotely easy? No. But neither has Christian life ever enjoyed renown for its facility. I’d say we’re in the business of tall orders. Edification nags us eternally, confronting the demons of spiritual lethargy who always seem to say:  “He told you that his kingdom is not of this world—be realistic!” What would our relationships, our morality, our politics look like with such thinking? In terms of music, we know the degree of our investment by its fruits. Many of them are ugly.

All told, Graham’s condemnation of the organ flows more from ignorance than malice. Rather than erecting expedient distinctions between “driven” and “drifted” Catholics I wish that she had distinguished between substance and style. Style’s the problem. Yet, she counsels full-fledged iconoclasm of Zwinglian proportions. That is the last thing my generation needs. It is the last thing liturgy needs.

Since the momentous events of Vatican II agonistic strains have surpassed the four walls of our parishes. Woodstock’s euphoria waned, the Cold War cooled, the machines networked, communities withered, and the towers fell. But we still worship. We are “mourning and weeping in this valley of tears” even as “we wait in joyful hope.” And we are starved for beauty—for authenticity—all the while. Within the Church, we’ve had bones to set (to borrow John Baldovin’s extension of the bodily metaphor): linguistic barriers, ecclesiological limitations, ecumenical stasis, gender gaps, a legacy of anti-Semitism, and a whole culture of clericalism—to name a few. The organ is not the problem and so canning it is not the answer. In fact, its capacity for beauty may help healing.

Kenneth Burke wrote that a human is “the symbol using, making, and mis-using animal.” Jennifer Graham tangled with a worthy symbol, however abused. Our work is cut out for us.

The opinions expressed in this post are those of the author and not necessarily those of Sacred Music at Notre Dame.

[Michael Emmerich, MSM ’12 is currently pursuing a D.M.A. in Church Music at the University of Kansas. He thanks colleague Laura Rau, MSM ’11 for taking dictation while he responsibly but quickly drove a state van down the interstate.]