How Long?

I heard a piece this morning, thanks to the prayer ministry Pray As You Go, and on first listening, it struck me as a beautifully enculturated version of a chanted psalm.

The thing I learned about Gregorian chant years ago, in a fabulous three week course at Goucher College — the thing that transformed my understanding of it forever — is that, unlike all the other music I’d ever heard, Gregorian chant is a musical form designed around the words and the breath, rather than the other way around. There is no steady beat, no fixed number of beats per measure. There’s a reason for that. If you’re composing to a time signature, then the music constrains the text.

In Gregorian chant, it’s the text that constrains the music.

It means you have time to breathe. It means you don’t have to insert extra space between the sung words just to satisfy the musical form. (I’m looking at you, church music written in the 70s and 80s that can’t be sung a capella without awkwardness because of all those measures of rests.)

It means that chant can be faithful to the text. If you want to sing the actual words of scripture, this is what you do.

I used to experience chant as boring, because of all those repeated syllables on the same note. It didn’t help that it was always, in my early experience, sung in an extra-special church voice — I think everyone I heard was imitating what they thought Gregorian chant was “supposed” to sound like — and usually with a rigidly even tempo, giving every syllable the same amount of time; and so it had no phrasing.

Which is the opposite of the point. The whole point of chant, they taught me, is the freedom to let the phrasing of the text be the phrasing of the music.

Which is why How Long, by Bifrost Arts Music, knocked my socks off. It’s not a capella, it’s not actually chant, and it does have a time signature. (It even has some of those pesky empty measures, which — like every folk group alum of my generation — I promptly filled with a soprano descant echoing the last words I’d heard!)

But the phrasing. Oh, the phrasing. It’s a psalm of lamentation. Even those empty measures are placed in the text at the point where my exhausted lamenting self pauses to sigh… before finishing the sentence, the question, the lamentation.

It feels like chant, but it sounds like “regular music”: that was my early morning, still-waking-up takeaway.

Listening a few more times tonight, I perceive that it doesn’t really resemble chant at all, musically. But it does for me what chant does: it lets me breathe.

I do encourage you to take a listen, either at Pray As You Go or at the Bandcamp page of Bifrost Arts, where you can buy your own copy to support their work. The album is called Lamentations, and How Long is how it begins.

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