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the light in st. ignatius

(This is the ninth post in a series of posts on the Tallis Scholars Summer School 2013, held in Seattle. For the previous post, go here; for the next post, go here; complete series, go here.)

There is a topic that deserves even more careful attention (and words) than the miscellaneous topics of the previous post. Of the many things that were new and challenging to me at the Tallis Scholars Summer School, the most unique and immediately rewarding was perhaps Compline. Pronounced KOM-plin by the English, this is the last church service of the day, and has been observed as such for many centuries. I am not sure what led to the adoption of this service into the summer school, but I imagine that choristers around England are familiar with it, all the Tallis Scholars have done it at some point in their lives, and knowing what a sense of satisfaction and closure it brings, it is perhaps unsurprising that they included it in the summer school schedule.

At Compline on the first day, I may have been the most clueless person around. I had no idea how to read the notes, when to turn to which page of the “Compline booklet,” when to make a sound and when to be silent. Luckily, the student sitting next to me was a cantor at an Anglican church, and like all little kids, I learnt by imitation. Deb, who led Compline on most days, even asked if some of us couldn’t read the notation, and when we raised our hands, she said something to the effect of “No worries, you can learn by listening.” (That’s my kind of attitude!) There is a local Anglican church where I often go to attend concerts, and I flip through their hymn book in the intermission sometimes, so I had seen that notation before, but did not even know that it was called neumes, much less know how to read it.

It turned out that the service consisted of  a set pattern of text and plainchant, including call and response passages, with some parts that depended on the day of the week, but most parts that were the same everyday. And in there somewhere there was a Marian Antiphon, and at the end was Nunc Dimittis, and these could be sung in a particular setting, or the traditional chant, as written in the Compline booklet could be used directly. We had a different cantor each night, and we sang different settings of at least one of these on most nights. One day it was the men who prepared a piece, another day it was the women, both under Deb’s tutelage, and on some days it was one of the small groups. (Some my co-conspirators on the Rore Ave Regina suggested it for Compline, but I was secretly glad when it was shot down because it was “too long and boring”.)

In each case, the piece that got sung it had been put together in a relatively short amount of time, and this was a real test of sight-reading abilities. I have to wonder if the sight-reading practice it provides is another reason Compline is included in the TSSS schedule. The English are perhaps the most fluent sight-readers in the world (I’m not the only person to think so), and one main reason, I suspect, is the amount of music their choristers go through at church from a young age. They think nothing of putting together a Marian Antiphon or a Nunc Dimittis within half an hour, and performing it immediately. I am not sure we managed to learn new music and perform it as quickly as that, but most of us were quite eager to make it work.

On Sunday and Friday, following the concerts, Compline took place at St. James Cathedral. The remaining four times it took place in the Chapel of St. Ignatius, on the Seattle University campus. This is a chapel built in a modern style, and, in what I suppose is an updated take on the traditional stained glass of old churches and cathedrals, it has an arrangement of coloured glass panels that create patterns on the walls, which patterns move across the space as the sun traverses the sky. Even with the late Seattle sunsets, we never got to do Compline in natural light, so I had to make a special daytime trip to see this, but the chapel was beautiful at night too.

There is a strange peace that comes when singing as a group is the last activity of the day. And I can also imagine the ancients doing something we did not do, namely, to go silent after Compline, and maintain that peace till the next morning, rising to sing again. However the day may have gone, repeating the Compline texts every night quickly becomes a comfort-blanket of a habit, and I can hear the intonation of some parts even now. One of the things I love about singing is that we sometimes get to sing the exact same texts in the exact same way that a monk or a nun may have done in a monastery or an abbey many hundreds of years ago, as if their voices had echoed down the corridors of the ages, only to be branded directly onto our minds.

For me, there is something powerful about that fact. Maybe it is a sense of shared memory or the collective unconscious (shared across continents in my case!), or perhaps those texts and that music have an impact on us that we don’t fully understand, but the fact that they have lasted over so many centuries indicates to me that there is something strong at work between our neurons and those sounds, something definite and almost palpable, but which cannot be articulated. Put another way, it is the sort of thing that has me scrambling for rational explanations, and failing to find any. In any event, for a lot of us, including myself, there was something powerful in the serenity of those daily-repeated Compline sounds. And though it sounds like an oxymoron to say that such a calming experience gave me an adrenaline rush, it wouldn’t be wholly untrue. Every now and then I would find that the hair on the back of my neck was standing on end, as I was overcome by awe at the beauty of the chants resonating around me, making me want to drown in the sea of ancient sounds that filled up the modern chapel. Those moments encapsulated the beauty of Compline. Compline made us feel alive, aglow and at peace every night.

st. ignatius chapel, seattle university

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