The PrayTell blog post “Prayers of the fA.I.thful” caught my attention last month, and I wondered briefly at the time how A.I. would do writing sacred hymn or song lyrics. A couple weeks later when I read Noam Chomsky’s opinion piece “The False Promise of ChatGPT” (note: it’s behind a New York Times paywall) another brief period of wonderment occurred.

When it comes to technology, it’s not that I’m resistant, but I am inert. I’m usually at the tail end of every “slow adopter” curve, which is why not only was I among the last to own a smartphone, but is also why I still have what I’ve come to call my Jurassic SmartPhone.

It was while working on a new Lenten text for my composer colleague Ed Bolduc that my wondering came to an end. Ed had asked ChatGPT to:
—Write me five lines of hymn text based on the Year A reading from the Catholic Lectionary for the season of Lent.

And ChatGPT agreeably responded:
Sure! Here are five lines of hymn text based on the cycle A reading from the Catholic Lectionary for the season of Lent:

“I come to the cross where mercy is found,
And find my salvation, salvation abound.”

“In the shadow of the cross, I lay down my pride,
And lift up my heart to you, my Savior and guide.”

“From the ashes of sin, I rise with new life,
Through the grace of Your love, free from all strife.”

”I walk in the footsteps of Jesus, my Lord,
As I journey through Lent, trusting His Word.”

“Through the sorrow and pain, I find hope and new birth,
As I cling to the cross and the promise of new life on earth.”

I here publicly confess, since we’re still in the season of Lent, that my first reaction was relief; it seemed like there was no immediate danger of human hymn/song text writers (including me) being replaced any time soon.

A second reaction was more along the lines of trying to figure out what source(s), exactly, these five lines had been based on. Since these A.I. programs “take huge amounts of data, search for patterns in it and become increasingly proficient at generating statistically probable outputs” (Chomsky), I presumptuously wondered if my own “Ashes to the Living Font” was partly submerged under the third verse of this text.

Looking at ChatGPT’s text, I immediately noted the some of the same missteps that I frequently encounter when working with or coaching/mentoring first-time or novice text writers. It was a little surprising to me that something as mathematically-related as meter seemed to be a stumbling point. The text also answered the question of what the top five Lent/Easter rhyming couplets are.

As with the Prayers of the fA.I.thful from last month, the focus with this lyric seemed to be largely on content, not on any sort of poetic finesse apart from rhyme, or how these words would sound out in the air, prior to being set to music (a commonly-missed step among human prayer/lyric authors as well). Personally speaking, I view this technology’s potential as being more akin to an online rhyming dictionary (a technology I use for very nearly every hymn text I’ve written in this century, which has merely replaced the earlier technology of the printed book).

Of course, all of this has addressed only the topic of A.I. and writing lyrics. ChatGPT’s musical cousins (such as AIVA) have been at music-composing for quite some time, writing everything from “new” pieces by Bach—who I’ve learned is easier for A.I. to imitate than Chopin is—to working with pop musicians and in live concert situations as well. The potential for A.I. to compose everything from new chants to choral works to congregational song creates its own labyrinthine network of questions. (SciFi seems to have—in my limited experience—a hesitancy to explore the relationship between A.I. and music. The Hal 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey only learned an existing song; Commander Data’s participation in a chamber music group on Star Trek TNG was, at least to the eyes/ears of this musician, handled rather tenuously.)

These current A.I. machine learning programs are, we need to remember, truly early and initial steps in what will, no doubt, be a long process of a technology continuing to evolve. They are cave paintings, not papal chapel ceilings. For those of us working in the realms related to liturgy, this technology will likely join (exactly how, I do not know—homilies?) other technologies—printed books, sound systems—and will be woven into the fabric of liturgical practice until we aren’t consciously aware of them.

Will this be another “New Song” that the psalter refers to? As with all other gifts given to us by God, the real development will be to discern how we ought to use this gift as wise—if sometimes wary—stewards.

Anything you can sing, I can sing … correcter.

If you’ve not yet read Paul Inwood’s excellent PrayTell post “Can we sing just anything at Mass?” (from this past July), I recommend that you do so. Even if you have, a re-read would likely be a good thing.

In the post, he makes reference to people who have said or written that there’s no liturgical rule stating that the song of the day needs to match the [Lectionary] scriptures of the day. Since I am someone who has made statements similar to that (though not precisely like it), this led me to do some further reflection.

The early decades of post-conciliar reform in the U.S. often found parish musicians and/or music committees searching each week for a song or songs that directly quoted (full disclosure: “parroted” is the term I’ve often used when referring to this phenomenon) a scripture of the day. Most often it was the Gospel, but if a favorite prophet—often Isaiah—or St. Paul had ended up as the lyricist, then that was the song to be done! There was a flurry of Lectionary-based songs and hymns writing, which was a good thing. In my view, the effort got derailed in the quest to essentially set every Lectionary reading, verbatim, to music. We ended up with a sola lectionarium or sola evangelium approach, which (to use a favorite term of mine, learned from Fr. Lucien Deiss) is an “unnecessary impoverishment” since it frequently doesn’t encourage a more thoughtful opening up of the scripture passages.

Annie Get Your Gun:
Anything You Can Sing …

Yes, the weekly song of the assembly needs a connection to the lections of the day. But that connection doesn’t need to be outright—or even close to—repetition. Perhaps to think of the assembly’s song as having resonance with the scriptures may be a better (and more sonic) way to approach it. Sometimes that resonance will occur in the propers of the day in the Missal or one of the Graduals. Sometimes it doesn’t. Let’s search, then, for that resonance outside the propers on those occasions. If the theme of mercy is woven through the readings, find a sung text that amplifies that theme—perhaps quoting another scripture on the topic of mercy, or opening up that focus in a new or different way.

I realize that the advocates of always/only using prescribed texts are correct that these texts don’t (or rarely) run the risk of error. While I wholeheartedly agree, it simultaneously occurs to me that their use likewise doesn’t run the risk of creativity. If we only allow new (or only allow inherited) musical settings of the same fixed texts, then we have—to an extent—quenched the Spirit. (This attitude, for example, would have discouraged Aquinas from writing his eucharistic hymn texts.)

Our attitude in this matter certainly cannot be cavalier, for we know the power that music has to help people embrace things “by heart.” I will, however, likewise trust that Spirit to guide us in avoiding, correcting, or occasionally forbidding error when or if it arises.

No, we cannot sing just anything at Mass. But, on the flip side, neither can we be certain that our mere correctness, or accuracy, or purity alone—much less our inflexibility—will guarantee that the song of the Body offering the sacrifice of praise will truly lift our praise to the living God.

Behold, I Tell You a Mystery

A couple of months ago, I sang in a community chorus presentation of John Rutter’s Requiem. Like the Deutches Requiem of Brahms, Rutter didn’t stick strictly to the liturgical outline or texts of a particular tradition, but largely cobbled together his own series of movements for the work, from the pre-conciliar Roman rite and the Book of Common Prayer (1662).

This was the fifth time in my musical life that I’ve performed this piece, and one thing that has consistently struck me as odd is that Rutter—a man who’s made his livelihood in the world of choral music—did not set the In Paradisum, a text featuring a choir of angels. He doesn’t set the Dies Irae either, which has led me to wonder—since Rutter has publicly acknowledged his atheism and atheistic upbringing—if those texts that necessitate a stronger use of the religious imagination would be avoided by a post-Enlightenment/rational humanist composer. (The big caveat, of course, being his evocative setting of the twenty-third psalm in the work.)

This all was very much on my mind when I encountered the March article in Baptist News about the mysterious disconnect between the ongoing—and increasing—popularity of choral singing in the U.S. alongside a statistical decline in church choirs. (The Baptist News article drew upon a lengthier, more in-depth report from Chorus America on the various impacts and benefits of lifelong singing.)

Part of this decrease in church choirs—but only part of the decrease—can be explained by the overall decrease in churches and church attendance, perhaps even by the decrease in the general population belonging to any type of social organization or club. Another substantive contributor is the widespread rise of praise band ministries in white evangelical Protestant churches as normative. This may be why Roman Catholic churches, along with Black Protestant churches, rank highest in having choirs. Yet there is still a mysterious disconnect.

Some of my musical colleagues whose ministry includes the recruitment, formation, rehearsal, and overall guidance of choirs have spoken about the difficulty of getting volunteer singers to make and maintain an ongoing commitment. (Though the Chorus America study found that people who commit to choirs also commit more readily to other volunteer roles.) It’s no secret that our day-to-day lives (even pre-pandemic) place enormous demands on time, and household schedules frequently have a daunting complexity to them. I’ll admit that I’ve wondered from time to time what would happen if other liturgical ministries—lector, eucharistic minister—had the commitment of an hour or two per week of rehearsal or preparation time.

Beyond some of the nuts ‘n’ bolts issues like time and scheduling, I have found myself looking to less tangible things, especially the effects of the surrounding culture. TV and other media certainly have promoted the literal idolization of solo singers and—in the best U.S. fashion—have pitted them in competition against each other. Two things that run 180 degrees counter to the group cooperation a church choir demands. Individuals also increasingly come to the conclusion that if they don’t have a voice of idolization caliber, then they have nothing to contribute (including singing in the pews on Sunday). We also have become a culture that consumes music much more often and readily than we make it—I’d suspect that even the 54 million chorus singers mentioned in the study spend more time in passive consumption of music (from public spaces to hours with earbuds in) than they do in the making of music. As far back as the late 80s, after dinner with choir members and their three kids (all five in the household sang in my choirs), I suggested we gather at the piano and sing a few songs together. They looked at me as though I’d said we all should ride our bicycles through the car wash.

The Baptist News article also mentions the visual element that choirs provide, in being a visible (as well as sonic) sign of the unities that should characterize Christian life overall. In addition to being an ongoing visible sign of unity, choirs can also be a sonic foretaste (“Metaphors are for mixing.” Robert Hovda) of the heavenly choirs to come, and our own full, conscious, active, and eternal participation in them. I fear that for many of the faithful, as for Mr. Rutter, the choral aspect of the afterlife isn’t engaging their imaginations. While the imagination may still engage in sensate understandings of heaven, it is often as the fulfillment of earthly personal tastes.

When Shakespeare wrote of “bare, ruined choirs” he was likely thinking of churches emptied and destroyed by Henry VIII. There is a current likelihood that a monarchy of a different kind may be at work today, setting about the same task at a slower pace. Ironically, while those around us still continue to sing as choirs, in our own houses there may be greater risk of them becoming bare and ruined.

Singing Properly

Every year when celebrations of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross come around, I have a flashback to a liturgical music conference a number of years ago, at which I was a speaker. The flashback involves one of my speaker colleagues that day. He began his talk by describing what had happened one morning at a Sunday Eucharist for which he was to preside and preach. It had been the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, celebrated on a Sunday. Unbeknownst to him, the musician had switched the opening song to “Morning Has Broken” because it was a rainy day (“Sweet the rain’s new fall…”). After he had knocked over the straw man and the chuckles subsided, he lamented this change, since he’d based his homily on the proper entrance antiphon: “We should glory in the cross of our Lord, Jesus Christ” (cf. Gal. 6:14). He was using his story to illustrate the importance of using the proper entrance antiphon at Sunday liturgy.

It seemed to me that his tale simultaneously illustrated the importance of communication between musicians and clergy. Had he and the musician done a quick check-in that Sunday morning, the situation could have been avoided. I’d think that if a priest knew the parish musician had a propensity for making such changes, he’d check to make sure the proper antiphon was still in place.

We were never told what opening song had been originally scheduled; based on the story, I presumed it was the proper antiphon, since he seemed to have been expecting it while preparing his homily. This led me to surmise that the musician at this liturgy wasn’t the same musician who’d scheduled the proper antiphon. In my experience, musicians who utilize the proper antiphons tend not to replace them on the basis of meteorological conditions.

One incorrect assumption this story might have led to, however, is that the proper entrance antiphons always make this kind of direct connection to the day. If we look ahead at the calendar this year, this coming Sunday (the Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time) has the entrance antiphon “I am the Savior of all people, says the Lord. Whatever their troubles, I will answer their cry, and I will always be their Lord.” (cf. Psalm 37). The Lectionary scriptures are Wisdom 2 (the persecution of the just), Psalm 54 (“The LORD upholds my life”), James 3 (conflicts in the community), and Mark 9 (the greatest in the kingdom must be like a child). The proper entrance antiphon—the same in both the Roman Missal and Graduale Romanum, itself not a terribly common occurrence—doesn’t have a particularly strong connection to the lections of the day (perhaps to the first reading and psalm). I am not sure if its connection would be better in Years C or A, but this points to another sticking point with using the proper antiphons: they largely remain fixed, against our Lectionary’s three-year rotation.

The speaker’s account also illustrated the need for the solid liturgical/pastoral formation of musicians. Such a musician would have known that a well-chosen entrance song, such as “Lift High the Cross” or “We Acclaim the Cross of Jesus,” would have been preferable to a singing weather report that day. If the parish begins the Sacred Triduum with this same antiphon on Holy Thursday, a Sunday celebration of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross on a Sunday would have been a marvelous opportunity to give the Triduum some musical resonance as the heart of the whole liturgical year.

In any event, we cannot say that 1) only the proper entrance antiphon text could have accomplished the speaker’s purpose (a number of selections from the familiar hymn repertoire could have connected to the homily that day) or; 2) the text of the entrance antiphon cannot possibly be useful for preaching if it is not sung (easy enough for a homilist to quote the text, cite its reference to Galatians, or even describe its role as our entry into the Triduum).
There was a general sense in his talk that the word “proper” means “mandatory” (or that it ought to). But it doesn’t—it merely is a way of contrasting these texts to the fixed or “ordinary” texts of the eucharistic liturgy. I’m not opposing the use of the proper entrance antiphons in the eucharistic liturgy. I am in full agreement with those who say they are a sadly unknown, under-utilized treasure of our heritage. Our worship truly would be richer if we used them more frequently, even as a reference or starting point when selecting another option for the entrance chant.

I write the following in full “it takes one to know one” mode: That day there was, in my view, quite a bit of passive-aggressive behavior on display in one conference presentation. (For example, no time for question/comment or follow-up was allowed at the end of the talk.) Other, healthier behaviors might serve the faithful better.

Yes, let us glory in the Cross. Let us also keep channels of communication clear and open. Let us strive to bring the gifts of our various ministries together for the service of God’s people. Let us continue to learn and reflect on the richness of our liturgical heritage, using every skill to offer its richness for a deepened spirituality in the Paschal Mystery.

A blessed Exaltation of the Holy Cross to you!