Why Not Silence

Author: Karoly Kope


Here's perhaps our last hope for saving the liturgy: eliminate all music! Why not? Why have any music at all?

Historically music was justified. It represented solemnity, ritual, joy. It lent any event it assisted an aura of "specialness." Silence was the normal state; music was the festive or ceremonial exception.

Today silence has become the exception and music the rule. In our homes, in restaurants and supermarkets, in cars and airplanes and taxis; on the street, in elevators, hospitals and lobbies and dentists-even in restrooms-everywhere we go we are subjected to the same curse: omnipresent music.

It takes nowadays greater effort and time (and sometimes wealth) to find some silence, than it required once to have music. Music is everywhere. It has lost all meaning. It has become like traffic noise or like the wallpaper in our living room: we no longer even notice it. What we do notice, though, is silence. For it has become so rare that now silence becomes the treat, the rare thing that music once was. If, therefore, we are to be with the times, ought we not try to create a special atmosphere in church through an absence of music?

Let us start with chanting by the celebrant. Why were things chanted in the first place? For a practical reason, among others: chanting has greater carrying power than reciting. Reading a text, even in a loud voice, never projects as chanting it does. Look at the Moslem muezzin. For centuries he has been chanting his call to prayer from the top of a minaret. His instructions were only to send forth his call "in a clear and audible voice." The call is still chanted (sometimes with elaborate flourishes), and it is heard at considerable distances, which would never occur if he only shouted it. Another good example is the street vendor in the Near East. He announces himself and his wares by hawking in a chant-like fashion, and he is heard from afar.

Today's celebrant uses the microphone. He no longer needs to project through chanting. Besides, one needs a good voice and some training in order to chant well. Today's priests are no longer trained for that. Why, then, should they continue to chant, and to chant often so poorly? Wouldn't reciting with devotion make more sense than chanting badly?

One could also suggest that the "readings" be done in silence. Reading aloud made sense when few could read. Most were unable to acquaint themselves with the scriptures except through those readings. Today we all can read. Would it not be better to let the faithful read the lessons in silence? Read them at their own pace and with a better grasp than when an amateur lay reader delivers an often obscure text in a manner that confuses more than it enlightens? Doing it in silence might even envelop the readings in an aura of greater reverence. Silence during the readings (as formerly silence during the consecration) would certainly heighten the sense of awe of the moment.

Responses. They are desirable. Why must they be chanted? If we look around us we find no other occasion, not even at solemn events, when people chant public utterances (allegiance to the flag, swearing-in oaths). Why expect a non-singing crowd to chant what they could just as well recite, nay, what they could recite better, since most have no singing voices and never sing anywhere anyway? Whoever saw Moslems pray in a silence broken only by an occasional (God is great) and felt shudders at the sudden rumble of hundreds of voices between silences, will appreciate silence more than music.

Hymns and the like? Let's face it: American Catholics, unlike their Protestant brethern, never had a singing tradition. I speak from experience. During my organist years I struggled long and in vain trying to overcome the congregation's aversion to singing, although traditional hymns were known by most in those days. Today, with the invasion of new and manufactured hymns, things are even worse: how can people sing what they don't know, what they never heard before and probably never care to hear again?

And now we come to what affects my own trade as a musician: the organist and the choir leader. What is the choir's function? We might get a clue from looking at the Eastern (Byzantine) Church. In their liturgy, a group of psalters (singers) chant certain responses or hymns. They represent the congregation, but they perform a task they are better equipped to do than the average believer. They must have good voices and be trained in their work. I have often observed that the congregation quietly hummed along with the psalters, especially during a better known hymn, but I have never heard anyone say that "the people" would prefer to do the chanting themselves. On the contrary, they put great value on the psalters' performance, since the psalters were more inspiring in their singing than the congregation would be. The same is true of Jews, who would not dream of abolishing the job of the cantor, to whose singing they listen with devotion and whom they would not want to replace with their own singing.

Our own choirs performed more or less the same task. Choirs can bring to the ceremony a greater artistic and esthetic contribution by praising with the tongue of a Mozart or a Palestrina. Today the choir seems obsolete. In a misunderstood interpretation of "participation," it has been decreed that "the people" should do as much of the singing as possible, never wondering if "participating" meant forced singing by people who never sing otherwise, instead of devout listening to a beautifully sung prayer.

What can we say about the organist, that orphaned heir to the mantle of Frescobaldi and Daquin and Bach and Franck and Bruckner and Messiaen? He was never more than a necessary fixture in Catholic America, much like plumbing or air conditioning, and he has now become a misfit in an environment where the guitar player and a "song leader" are the fashion. Why bother to be a fine organist any more? Where is the place for good music during Mass? Give the poor devil some silence. Let him use at least that opportunity to fill the air with sounds that he knows how to produce, sounds that would at least underline silence with appropriate commentaries. Give us some silence.

In any act of devotion, one needs to collect oneself. Again, I think of Moslems. Their prayer (five times daily) begins with a ritualistic touching of the ears, the closed eyes, the forehead, the lips. This symbolic act insulates them from the outside world-closing off their ears, their eyes, their lips, their thoughts to the world-the better to immerse themselves in prayer. They thus create a silence in which to concentrate on God alone. They know that there can be no intimacy with God, not even with our own selves, without silence. Where do we stand by contrast? It seems that we can no longer endure silence. People are scared of it. They must have some noise, they need something in order to feel protected against what they are not used to: silence. Would it not be a salutary thing if we introduced silence in the one place we need it most, during our worship? Instead of hearing sounds that remind us of the world we live in and being drawn back into it, might it not be better to observe a silence that would force us to look inside ourselves and make us see the need we have of Him?

The "reformers" thought of everything to break with tradition, yet they failed to take note of what was traditionally meaningful but no longer is: music. And since music of the streets is all they knew, they have achieved what defeats worship altogether: they turned worship into an occasion for worldly noises. What has become of silence?

Would I really want to see all music banished from church? Of course not. But if music in church is to be no more than what it has become today, then I would welcome silence in its stead. One can at least pray in devout silence, while I personally find it impossible to worship to the sounds imposed on me on too many occasions. I'm afraid, though, that even the most revolutionary reformers would shy away from what I suggest. They think they are novel, while they demonstrate their inability to be really with the times and use what can no longer be found in normal life, silence. Becoming more like the world will not be conducive to better worship. Insulating ourselves from the outside world through silence might. I should know. I am a musician.


This article appeared in the Spring, 1994 issue of "Sacred Music." Published by the Church Music Association of America, 548 Lafond Avenue, St. Paul, MN 55103.