A Liturgy of the Hours New Music and Improvisation
inspired by a piece by Frank Felice as performed by Ascending
A funny thing happens to evangelical Christians as they grow older. They become interested in tradition and liturgy, because so often the evangelical life, with all of its zeal, lacks depth and quietness of heart. They discover that liturgy offers a kind of grounding they lacked and needed. And yet, if they are of an adventurous mind, they don’t want to leave behind the freshness and freedom of an evangelical worship service and the love of novelty that such services presuppose. They don't want to stifle the Holy Spirit. Moreover, if they are musicians like Frank Felice, they want to combine liturgy with the new music, sometimes harsh and strange, that they have grown to love. So they create a liturgy of the hours in the spirit of new music for anyone to enjoy – anyone who likewise seeks roots and wing for a life well lived. And perhaps they become open to the possibility, made clear from open and relational (process) theology, that the very God in whom they place their trust, the One revealed but not exhausted in the life of Jesus, is, and always has been, an improviser: improvising responses to the situation at hand in a spirit of steadfast, improvisational love. To their several names for God -- Loving Presence, Tender Mercy, Inclusive Power, Deep Listening - they add still another, Wondrous Improviser.
- Jay McDaniel, October 2020
The Improvisational Jesus
One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter's brother, said to him, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish, but what are they for so many?” Jesus said, “Have the people sit down.” Now there was much grass in the place. So the men sat down, about five thousand in number. Jesus then took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated. So also the fish, as much as they wanted." John 6:8-11
When Jesus said "Have the people sit down," he was improvising. The existing situation -- a boy with five barley loaves and two fish -- was unique, and he had to figure out how to respond. Accordingly, in the moment at hand, he imagined the possibility that they might share the food with one another and instructed his disciples to have them sit down. This capacity to improvise was part of his leadership style. We do well to follow his lead. A life of faith is always improvisational, responding to the call of the moment. This is its risk and its beauty.
Does God improvise, too? Yes, I think so. Just as Jesus improvised in his response to the boy with five barley loaves, so God does the same. In responding to what happens in the world, God makes up responses to the world that he or she did not know in advance. Every situation has its calling.
Of course this presupposes that there is something like novelty or creativity within creation, and that God works with the novelty. The idea of a God who improvises makes sense only in light of a corollary belief that we live in an organic and evolving universe that creates new things for God to experience. These new circumstances may be happy, tragic, peaceful, violent, just, or unjust. In any case they are new to God, and God best responds through holy improvisation: that is, imagining fresh possibilities by which we ourselves can respond to what is happening.
I do not know if the composer Frank Felice believes in a God who improvises. I know he believes in a cosmic Mind of the universe, in God. At the bottom of the home page of his website, he writes: "and whatever you do, do all to the Glory of God." I know that his path is shaped by evangelical Christianity. He writes: "In the long journey of my faith in Christ, I have mostly walked along a path set by leaders of what is termed Evangelicalism, and most of my central beliefs are centered around biblically based theology, rather than those based on tradition." And I know that he has written a beautiful liturgy of the hours in contemporary (new music) form.
But I don't know if he thinks that God must improvise responses to the situation at hand. In any case, that's how open and relational (process) theologians like me see things. We trust in a God who responds to new situations in loving ways that are not planned in advance, not even by God, because the future is open, even for God. Our aim is not to belittle God but rather to honor God with an open faith: a trust that no matter what happens in life, no matter what hour of the way, there is a possibility for responding to the situation at hand with love, courage, compassion, and playfulness. This possibility is God's improvised response to that situation and our faith is openness to the possibility. The situations we create are the ingredients from which God improvises. It's a little like cooking.
We supply the ingredients and God makes something of it, again and again and again, forever, in a spirit of love. I'm not saying Frank Felice believes this; I'm just saying that his remarkable music and career inspire the idea, including his liturgy of the hours, as performed by Ascending. Of it he writes:
"The musical language, while accessible, is contemporary to the late 20th and early 21st centuries, and takes advantage of scordatura violin writing, modes of limited transposition, and inside the piano work popularized by Olivier Messiaen, George Crumb, Henry Cowell, Charles Ives and others....This piece is not a straight programmatical work – rather, the work reflects the impressions made upon me while working on it, and when reading/praying the liturgical hours, I made similar connections between the texts below (taken from a single day’s breviary texts) and the music as it was being written."
From what materials did he improvise? He tell us: scordatura violin writing "inside the piano" work of Charles Ives and others, traditions of prayer and liturgy, and the Bible. He made connections between these and other sources, and this 'making' was improvised into a musical score.
And so it is with us. At every moment of our lives we are called to respond to new situations by making something from the materials of our past actual worlds. The good news, I believe, is that we are nourished by a God who likewise improvises. One role of liturgy is to provide contexts in which we grow in our improvisational skills, as illustrated in the liturgy of the hours. By walking us through the hours of the day, we walk through the daily contexts in which we must improvise our lives. Liturgy is not the opposite of creativity, it is a context for creativity. We learn to live our lives, as best we can, through liturgies, all of which, in their beginnings were improvised.
In the long journey of my faith in Christ, I have mostly walked along a path set by leaders of what is termed Evangelicalism, and most of my central beliefs are centered around biblically based theology, rather than those based on tradition. However, in the last twenty years I have fallen in love with the liturgy as practiced by many of the main line protestant churches, as well as those used as the main structure of worship by the Anglican, Orthodox and Catholic denominations. I like its structure and its discipline, and love its language. I’ve found that, in the midst of a busy day, taking time out to read and pray the liturgical hours centers my focus back to God, instead of only being caught up in the typical hectic nature of my teaching days: ones that are long, very busy, and filled with the minutiae of academic bureaucracy.
Therefore, when asked by the violin-piano duo Ascending to write them a new work, I thought that I would try and compose for them a sacred work, since they are also both Christians as well. Because they had also asked for a piece that incorporated extended techniques for both piano and violin, I thought for many months what a sacred piece that encompassed those sorts of things would look and sound like. Eventually, the idea of a ‘liturgy of the hours’ emerged, both as a means of writing a multi-movement piece, but to also bring focus to the whole: a period of time defined by the individual hours of prayer and worship over the course of a day.
Typically, during the course of a day’s liturgy, the prayers begin at midnight, with Matins -- dawn begins with Lauds, moving through the morning and afternoon with Prime, Terce, Sext, None, and moving into the evening with Vespers and finally, Compline. Each prayer is about three hours apart from each other, and depending on which church’s tradition you follow, will have a set of readings, hymns, psalms, and prayers which are read, sung, or prayed. This piece is loosely based on some of those readings. psalms, and prayers, with a verse or fragment of those hours listed below:
Matins – “Lord, open our lips and we shall praise your name” – opening invocation
Lauds – “It is good to praise the Lord and to sing psalms to your name, O Most High….” - Psalm 92:1
Prime – “When I consider the heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars which you set into place, what is man that you should take thought of him?” – Psalm 8:3
Terce – Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia. “Listen O God, to my voice; keep me safe from fear of the enemy. Protect me from the crowd of those who do evil.” – Psalm 64:1
Sext – “This is the song I shall sing in your name, forever and ever.” – Psalm 61:8
None - Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia. “If the Lord does not build the house, its builder labors in vain… It is vain for you to rise before the dawn and go late to your rest, eating the bread of your toil – to those He loves, the Lord gives sleep.” - Psalm 127:1-2 Vespers – “Return to your rest, my soul, for the Lord has been good to you.” – Psalm 116:7 Compline – “The Lord grant us a quiet night and a perfect end.” – closing benediction