So the last few days I have been thinking a lot about the relationship between jazz and chant. A friend and chant scholar used the term “licks” when we were discussing a schola learning new chants, especially singers that are used to “reading” rather than “singing”. Instead of reading “note note note note note” and sounding like we’re singing a bunch of squares in a row, our singers need to hear the notes in their groupings, the “licks”. This makes perfect sense if we consider that chant was passed on in the context of an oral tradition, not in square notation.
There is a lot in common with the oral tradition of jazz, and the “toolkit” of licks a musician must have ready, practiced, heard, etc to be able to improvise well. It is not about intellectually thinking through every single note of a solo, it is about the idea, the motive, about the group of notes. The compositional methods have a lot in common.
So, in thinking a lot about this, I wrote to the great chant expert Fr. Columba Kelly, OSB to ask what he thought. He said, “Chant and jazz are first cousins!” and sent me a link to this video. Check out this project he was a part of with the Thomas Merton Society. I hope you enjoy!
The Third Sunday of Advent takes its name from the entrance chant at Mass:
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice. Let your forbearance be known to all, for the Lord is near at hand; have no anxiety about anything, but in all things, by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be known to God. Lord, you have blessed your land; you have turned away the captivity of Jacob.
— Philippians 4:4–6; Psalm 85 (84):1
Read up on an excellent series of articles about Gregorian semiology, hosted over at MusicaSacra.
I was rereading this series of articles this morning, and thought I’d post a link to it for those who are interested in a solid introduction to Gregorian semiology and the history behind this “new” movement in chant. Dom Cardine’s work is invaluable to the study of Gregorian chant, and how much information these early semiological signs can convey once we understand what their meaning. In the end though, he urges us also to move beyond the signs and the analysis to once again see the whole:
If all music begins “beyond the sign,” this is even more true of Gregorian chant. Its notation is as supple as its rhythm is free. After having pleaded for respect for the sign, we must beg gregorianists to surpass it!
In paying attention to the analysis, will we miss the synthesis? To prevent this, we must so greatly assimilate the result of our work that we end up by forgetting technique so that the listener does not hear it
either. This ideal will not be achieved from one day to the next and perhaps never completely, but we will have to try for it as much as possible. May good sense guide us and keep us halfway between inaccessible perfection and a routine which is too easily satisfied with anything at all! Let us accept this obligation willingly because it will reward greatly both those who look to Gregorian chant for pleasure for themselves, their students or their listeners, and those who consider the sung liturgy as praise of God and a source of spiritual life.
Of course, any serious student of semiology would do well to consult Dom Cardine’s treatise Sémiologie Grégorienne (1970). How much my world has been opened after reading Cardine…
…on today’s Solemnity, the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary (this year moved to today because of the 2nd Sunday of Advent). This is my most favorite setting of the Ave Maria, and I love how Franz Biebl set a portion of the Angelus text with its Hail Marys. I hope you enjoy this one of many online recordings of this gorgeous work.
Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us.