Perhaps the easiest way for me to give the visitor to this site an appreciation of the works presented here and their purpose is to explain how they came to be written:
In 2009 I was asked to put together a Taizé service for the 20th Anniversary Conference of Contemplative Outreach in the UK. Fr. Thomas Keating himself was to be the key speaker at the conference. The service was to consist of readings, chants and, of course, silent prayer. As I went sifting through the book of Taizé worship looking for material that would support the silence a thought came to me, “Wouldn’t it be cool to provide a musical setting of a well-known saying of Fr. Thomas’ especially for the occasion.” To find an inspiring text I skimmed through Open Mind, Open Heart and the aphorisms in Active Meditations for Contemplative Prayer but came up against a paradox. I had been drawn to Fr. Thomas’ work in the first place precisely because he expresses himself in North American demotic language; here at last was a mystic whom I could read and come away feeling that I had understood what was being said. But it transpired that, although I find his language spiritually inspiring, I didn’t really connect with it from an artistic standpoint. Nothing jumped off the page and said, “Sing me!” as I had expected it would. As a result I concluded that I was unequal to the task I had set myself.
Reasons for Chanting
Although I’d had to shelve the idea it didn’t go away, probably because some morphic resonance was involved. Unknown to me at that time Cynthia Bourgeault had already suggested it in print some years earlier. There are sound reasons for this which is why chanting is an important practice in most, if not all, of the world’s spiritual traditions.
- At a purely practical level chanting is a valuable teaching tool. Most people find that singing words makes them more memorable. A good melody can spring up in your mind when you are relaxed doing something else, bringing the words with it. This gives you additional opportunities to ponder their meaning. The repetitive nature of chant amplifies this effect.
- Appropriate music has a calming effect on the mind. This makes chanting an important practice for the “vestibule”, the brief period of settling into stillness at the start of a Centering Prayer session. Many group facilitators and retreat leaders routinely use a Taizé chant, or something from Songs of the Presence, for this purpose. Here I have adopted the term “stilling chant” for this type of piece.
- It is commonly said that we have no means other than music to express certain emotions; music contains meaning beyond words. To my mind this is consistent with the view that, far from being an outgrowth of language that is not easily explained by the theory of evolution, music is in fact the evolutionary precursor of language. To set words to music, then, is a simultaneous appeal to both mind and heart and speeds the process of carrying meaning from the mind to the heart.
- Performing music with others, especially by singing, builds a strong sense of community.
Even with these considerations as an incentive it took at least another twelve months before some suitable ideas began to arrive. What I discovered then was that, rather than any particular saying from Fr. Thomas’ teaching, it was the imagery in the Centering Prayer literature – migrating swallows, the crumbling walls of a fortified city, waiting for your eyes to become dark-adapted on a summer evening – that set off my imagination. I found I was able to express these images in my own lyrics or adapt appropriate scriptures which connected with a particular concept in the teaching. When I had a good lyric the music would follow. In this way the original idea of setting Thomas Keating’s own words morphed into that of encapsulating some of the key concepts from his teaching in chants.
These early inspirations helped clarify some artistic objectives. My primary aim was to create something beautiful that would draw listeners in to give attention to the words and encourage them to participate. The main melody had to be easily caught and accessible to someone who didn’t have a high level of musical skill as well as being of practical use to someone working on their own. I envisaged the bulk of the pieces being used as stilling chants but it turned out that sometimes the point being made called for something more energetic.
To enhance the beauty of the chants I turned to the use of harmony. This is frowned upon in some quarters where it is believed that only unison singing can symbolise oneness. My feeling is that we must not confuse unity with uniformity. I prefer the view of Teilhard de Chardin that unity leads to more diversity; we develop our individuality so that each has something to give the other. This is my justification for using rich harmonies although I have mostly used block chords rather than polyphony so that everyone is singing the same words at the same time. The use of close-harmony chords means that each singer needs to be aware of, and feel very secure in, their own part to create the desired musical whole where melody and harmony together add depth and meaning to the lyric.
Whether any of these objectives has been met I leave it to the listener and performer to judge.
The Wisdom of Chant
The reasons for chanting cited above should be enough to make a case for its usefulness but, as yet, we haven’t taken the spiritual dimension into account. When we do, the possibilities become quite electrifying. Could it be that chant provides a tool for putting the mind into the heart – the wisdom work? By ‘wisdom’ in this context I do not mean the fruits of accumulated experience or deep knowledge of any particular philosophy but a whole new way of perceiving and relating to the world; such wisdom is the outcome of the divine transformation that Thomas Keating speaks of so often.
In her book Chanting the Psalms Cynthia Bourgeault answers an unequivocal ‘yes’ to this question, at least with regard to the Christian Contemplative Tradition where the chanting of Psalms has been considered a core practice. The Rule of St. Benedict stipulates that all 150 Psalms should be sung in the space of a week which takes up between 3 and 5 hours of each day. In the centuries after Benedict this gave rise to the Gregorian Chant which Cynthia likens to a Christian form of Yoga. Singing is an act of embodiment; it requires careful breath control and an attention to pitch which brings us out of our heads. If we take account of the meaning of the words as we sing, that meaning finds its way more easily into the subconscious. A prayer said silently in the mind remains in the mind; a prayer sung involves the whole body as well as the mind and heart.
Sad to say the singing of Gregorian Chant fell into disuse and had all but disappeared by the mid-twentieth century (along, it would seem, with the concepts of wisdom and divine transformation). We may lament the passing of such a beautiful artform but let us not forget the Sufi dictum that, to be effective, a spiritual practice must speak to the society in which it is offered. We might then expect that with the disappearance of Gregorian Chant something new would arise to fulfill the same function. It now appears that this is exactly what happened in the Burgundy village of Taizé during the 1970’s. The brothers at the ecumenical community there devised a new form of chant tailored for use by a constantly changing congregation of pilgrims. Rather than a whole psalm this takes the form of a short phrase of a verse or less that is sung over and over again for 5 or even 10 minutes. This has the effect of creating a deeply meditative atmosphere. Taizé chant, as it has become known, has since been adopted enthusiastically by Christian communities of every stripe all over the world.
This is particularly true of those involved in the revival of the Contemplative Tradition that has taken place over the last 50 years. Within this particular community the outpouring of the Spirit has lead to extensions and adaptations of the basic Taizé repertoire and dozens of new chants specifically for use as a preparation for contemplative prayer.
The Purpose of this Website
The primary purpose of this website is to disseminate the music presented here as widely as possible. I have done as much as I can within the time and budget available to make it easy to learn to sing these chants which are intended for public and private worship and are therefore provided free. One weakness in my system for those with no knowledge of conventional music notation is that it’s difficult to match the words to the notes. The obvious next step would be to make some recordings of real performances. Time will tell if that will become possible.
Another motive was to publish a definitive version of each chant. Within the contemplative community chants tend to be passed on aurally which makes them vulnerable to corruption. Lyrics can become garbled and melodies have the corners knocked off. This can lead to wasted rehearsal time if there is disagreement (as there sometimes is) about what should be sung and how. Of course, this doesn’t mean you have to stick to what’s here on every occasion; change what you need to for ease of performance or to match the resources you have. With the baseline provided there can be no equivocation about what the originator intended.
Each chant in this collection is laid out on its own webpage in the following way:
- The lyric.
- A computer generated playback of the choral score to listen to.
- A brief description of what it is about with particular reference to relevant points in Thomas Keating’s teaching.
- Any notes about how to perform it, especially if this is not apparent from the score and/or playback;
- An image of the choral score.
- Playbacks in which each part in turn is accentuated. In these the voice to be emphasised is panned across to the right while the other voices are on the left side at one third of normal volume.
- A PDF file of the choral score to download for printing with layouts to fit either A4 or US Letter paper.
- A short score for keyboard as a PDF file for printing, again with paper size options.
A Note on Copyright
Given that my intention is to make this material available for use in public or private worship I didn’t want to hamper anybody’s use of it through copyright. On the other hand I wouldn’t want anyone else to claim the intellectual property rights to it and so undermine that objective. Accordingly, I have issued each work under a Creative Commons licence for non-commercial use. This allows you to make as many copies as you need for your particular purposes provided they are not for commercial distribution. You can also perform the music in unlicenced premises. Full details of the contract can be found at the link in the footer of every page on this site.