… sacred song in Australia …

So what's this topic got to do with church music, or cantor ministry? Quite a lot, actually.

As readers who follow my blogs and my music will know, I have Noongar (Western Australian) indigenous heritage. In October 2016, I was recommended for and awarded a mentored Composition internship under the Australian National University / Australian Music Centre / APRA AMCOS Indigenous Composers Initiative (ICI) Program. Since then, I've been composing a series of pieces on Australian indigenous themes. All of my ICI indigenous compositions have church-related content, whether liturgical, or social justice related. In that that sense, they are a continuation of my church music ministry, but unconfined by an institution that has been slow to recognise the unique value, presence of Australian indigenous music and musicians.

Church music is not Ensemble Offspring's usual bill of fare, but virtuoso vibraphonist Claire Edwardes and her talented colleagues welcome all genres of new music, by any composer who's willing and able to explore contemporary music making. This group Workshopped some of my compositions on February 25 at Eora Aboriginal College. On June 22 the five intern ICI Composers – Brenda Gifford, Troy Russell, Timothy John Edward Gray, Rhyan Clapham and myself – gathered at ANU Canberra to hear our compositions recorded at the ANU School of Music Studio. It's fair to say that all of our indigenous compositions have strong spiritual elements. Christopher Sainsbury of ANU School of Music, Kevin Hunt of Sydney Conservatorium, and John Davis, CEO of the Australian Music Centre, have encouraged and supported the ICI Composers throughout the Program.

At 6.00 pm this Thursday at Eora Aboriginal College, 333 Abercrombie Street, Chippendale, Ensemble Offspring will premiere my three movement instrumental Kooranginy Suite, as part of the 2017 ICI Premiere Concert. Kooranginy includes my musical setting of the Aboriginal Noongar Prayer text. The Noongar Prayer is a translation of the Our Father prayer into Noongar, the Aboriginal language of South West Western Australia. My Kooranginy setting of this prayer text (entitled Walken Rainbow) will be performed without words to symbolise the years of enforced cultural silencing endured by Noongar people, and the suppression and exclusion of Aboriginal languages in Australian missions and churches. Over many years the Noongar Language of Western Australia has slowly been reconstructed and revived, and is now taught in Western Australian schools. Recently, due to the dedicated work of many Noongar Elders and researchers, including (among others too numerous to mention) Father Bernard Rooney of New Norcia Abbey, Kylie Farmer, Gina Williams and Clint Bracknell, Noongar speech, stories, poetry and songs are re-emerging.

Last night I attended a seminar organised by Reconciliation for Western Sydney, on Aboriginal Justice, Language restoration and Spirituality,  at Parramatta, Western Sydney, Australia, and heard sacred songs sung in Darug Aboriginal language by Jacinta Tobin, a Darug Elder who is a descendant of Yarramundi, a chieftain of the Boorooberongal clan of the Richmond NSW area., and a Christian. Her presentation was followed up by Pastor Ray Minniecon from Redfern, who spoke about Australian indigenous spirituality and its connection to singing.

The enthusiastic audience, who braved freezing weather to attend, were delighted by Jacinta’s songs, and appreciative of Pastor Ray’s careful, patient explanations of complex indigenous spiritual concepts such as “skin”, “songlines”, and clan relationship laws. Jacinta has recorded three CDs of her Darug songs, and they will soon be available for online purchase.

Jacinta and Ray, and many Australian Aboriginal people, express their Christian faith in complete consonance with their indigenous identity and song. So why don’t Australian churches include more Australian Aboriginal music and ceremony in their parish worship? There’s plenty of brilliant indigenous church repertoire, and many great indigenous church musicians, out there, but most Australian parish church communities do not include and welcome indigenous church musicians sufficiently, or include indigenous church music in their worship repertoire.

Maybe someone at the upcoming NSW Sacred Music Festival can enlighten me as to the reasons for this shameful situation. Including indigenous church music in church worship is a proven method of reversing racism and educating non-indigenous people, but none of my church music friends / colleagues seem to care a hoot about this issue. I’m not at all happy to settle for the unspoken / unwritten, but in effect, policies of enforcing church music apartheid from Australian Aboriginal Christians. An optional annual token Sorry Day or NAIDOC service is not enough. All cultures and genres of non-indigenous music have found prominence and supporters in Australian church worship, why not Australian indigenous church music?

In 1963 my Anglican parish priest in Adelaide, South Australia, purchased a tape recorder for our parish. My church youth group tried it out: we were amazed to hear our recorded voices singing back at us. The miraculous tape recorder served our parish well, but we never thought to use it to replace our valued organist, or our singing voices. Our worship was off limits to technology. We used the tape recorder to produce plays and concerts, entertain at social events, and raise money.

Over the last twenty years, with digital technology ever present, many Australian churches have relaxed previously strict rules banning recorded music and audiovisuals during Church worship services. The digital church has now come to stay, whether device-phobic parishioners like it, or not. There is a sensible way of using recorded music and audiovisuals, but sadly, in some churches, nonsensical practices have taken over. Sensible, moderate inclusion of recorded and enhanced music can help churches to teach and promote sung worship.

Some church communities have gone too far, and totally replaced singing with recorded music and recorded singers. Such communities, who seem to be either unwilling or unable to provide music instruction, music staff, and equipment, wrongly teach that total silence is superior to sung  worship. I am one of many actively worshipping Christians who deplore this practice. We should not set up a contest between silent worship and sung worship: each has its place in different stages of worship. God can be present with us in both silent prayer, and also when we sing with heart as well as voice. The best worship always includes both silence and song. Church singing, valued and taught in all Christian churches, is an important and effective way to proclaim our Christian faith publicly, and to introduce curious new members and children to prayer and worship.

Recorded church music, when used, should support sung worship, not totally supplant it. Using recorded accompaniments for some services can quickly reduce parish music budgets stretched by weekly organist fees and organ maintenance. But churches who value their music heritage adequately will always make room for skilled organists and choristers, and firmly connect recorded music with sound church music teaching and practice.

Recorded accompaniments have their pitfalls, one of these being the cost of a good sound amplification system, and regular sound technicians’ fees. Reliable and skilled recorded sound supervision and cue coordination during worship is just as important as real time music performance supervision. A blaring and blurting sound system, uncoordinated hymn lyric slides, and selecting disliked recorded songs sung by non-local performers in non-local accents, is a sure way to drive a congregation away to a more musical parish that welcomes and promotes local church musicians and composers..

Following the example of media adulation of “winning” secular star singers, Australian churches have jumped holus-bolus on to the Church Music Idol Bandwagon. Australian Church singers are no longer music ministers, but merely music repertoire and performance specialists, who are not expected to do pastoral care or ministry training. In some parishes, refusing to idolise the current church music star risks clerical condemnation. Refusing to admire and sing endorsed church music is often condemned as sinful by churches who commodify their in-house church music, composers and performers. Clerics regularly condemn rival church music as sinful, in lengthy articles detailing musical offences. Evangelical Christians produce films about devil-worship using Catholic Gregorian chant soundtracks, and tell their members that Catholics are not Christians. Roman Catholic priests, totally ignoring the vast repertoire of Protestant church music for the dead (e.g. from composer Johann Sebastian Bach), spread the persistent slander that no Protestant Christian ever prays for the dead. Each commercially successful Australian male church musician has his fan club, and is signed up to a corporation that exercises absolute power over his church music career, income and output. Many Australian church musicians, following the example of their commercially successful music contemporaries in the rock, pop, country and rhythm and blues genres, and abandoning long held church music traditions, have imposed secular compositional styles on church texts, to cater for commercial market demand.  This is not a new thing in church music: secular themes have always been used by church musicians to attract, but today the scale and speed of the demise of church music traditions, with the assent of church authorities, has been startling. In Australia, this forced demise of traditional church music forms and exponents has included severe censorship of the education, performances and compositions of women church composers and musicians. The very few women church musicians who ascend to the heights of star church music performer status in Australia enjoy only momentary glory, before they are ungraciously booted out of the church music pantheon.

Sounds like sour grapes, I know, but I have experienced working in a fine church music system in the past, and today’s commodified church music is a travesty of what good, honest, heartfelt, free local church music can be. Even free-wheeling French Taize chants, which were composed as templates to be shaped and enhanced by local music styles through prayerful improvisation, has become a poor shadow of itself in many Australian churches who have banned local creativity and congregational education in church music.  So please excuse me for expressing my disgust at this anarchic church music mess, which could have easily been avoided by establishing an inter-denominational National Centre for Australian Church Music, and conforming to Australian anti-discrimination employment laws. The Wesley Centre in Canberra was a good start, but it didn’t go far enough. And guess what, God values every sincere church singer, just as he values every tiny sparrow that sings God’s praise from its heart. I’m still singing for God!

To express your views you can vote in my poll.

You may have noticed that the title of my blog has changed from neocantor to neocantrix. This is because an online troll registered the word neocantor in his name on Twitter, and I am not the author of his @neocantor Twitter posts.

In Australia, Church cantors minister to thousands of congregations, enriching worship with the music of many Church traditions. They work within many different church structures, and their work may be supervised, or not. No inter church agreements on the work of Christian musicians exist, although corporate church music conferences often claim dominant governance roles. Church denominations treasure their particular Church music tradition, which always contains and communicates their doctrinal position within the wide spectrum of Christian belief.

image

Yet despite being consigned to what is effectively a management limbo, where individual competition is not only promoted, but mandatory, Christian cantors are surviving. Their ministry survival strategies are varied. Some cantors have chosen to enlist with Church music corporations, and so are paid by parishes affiliated to these church music licensing corporations. Some work as part-time casual employees, and some choose to work as unpaid parish or emerging church  volunteers. But more and more trained, experienced Church cantors are choosing to establish independent online cantor ministries, presenting church music workshops, singing for selected liturgies, composing church music, recording their compositions, and speaking at Church music conferences. Whatever survival strategy these Christian religious singers adopt, they are still serving the Church as cantors dedicated to Church music ministry.

There are thousands of skilled female Church musicians in Australia. Two of the most skilled and dedicated practising Church musicians I know are my friend Antonia Deasey, an Anglican music teacher at Trinity Grammar School, Sydney, who also has private pupils and sings in a Cathedral choir, and my Anglican sister Anne Speer, who teaches violin at three Church schools in Western Australia, takes private pupils, directed her local parish choir until recently, and plays with a regional orchestra. These two gifted, talented women are well employed by the Church, but are owed much greater recognition as professional Australian Church musicians and teachers. The private recognition they receive is not comparable with the public adulation regularly heaped upon their male Church music colleagues. Among many others, Rosalie Bonighton (now deceased) is another under-recognised Australian Church musician who springs to mind, together with my Presbyterian aunt Jean Fullard nee Simpson, who served as the organist of St Andrew’s Peace Church, Wonthaggi, Victoria, for many years, and Robin Ruys, current Music Minister of the Anglican Parish of Hunters Hill, Sydney NSW.

In Australia, it is not unusual for fully trained, qualified female Church musicians to be undervalued, underpaid, and grossly overworked. Reform of this aspect of Church music ministry is overdue. Part of the problem is the assumption that technical skill is all that is necessary to be a Church musician. In reality, much more is required, including ethical Christian conduct. Male Australian Church musicians seldom show concern about neglect of female Church musicians – on the contrary, indulgence in tasteless jokes ridiculing female Church music performers and composers, while basking in mutual male praise, is common among Church men. I was fortunate, in my own Church music work, to be regularly employed as a Cathedral Cantor, and I learned much from the professional example of Catholic Cantor Kathleen Boschetti of St Francis Church, Melbourne, Anglican Church music composer Rev. Elizabeth Smith, and Catholic Cantor Donrita Reefman of St Ives Cathedral, Sydney, about working with clergy and lay ministers and requiring their respect. I trained entirely at my own expense. In 2013 I wrote a blog about my positive experience of being a Cantor – see

http://australianchurchmusic.blogspot.com.au/2013/02/the-growth-of-women-church-cantor.html.

MF2-2005

Elizabeth Sheppard vested for Church Cantor ministry, 2010

I loved Church Cantor music ministry and was praised for my success at it. In addition to musical, liturgical and compositional skills it required tactful multi-skilled liturgical coordination with a large group of male clerical and lay supervisors and female assistants. When liturgical worship is smoothly coordinated and the whole community is in tune with the Holy Spirit, Cantor ministry has its own very special rewards and fruits, not the least of which are enduring community friendships.