A Worship Curator’s Vocabulary

I learnt a new word last week. I shouldn’t have been surprised. I was at Yale which has been dealing in old words and new since October 9, 1701. I was there 315 years later to the day, although in different buildings and  location to the original.

I not only learnt the word, I experienced it in action.

One of the wonderful aspects of working with Maggi Dawn at the Marquand Chapel she is Dean of is that the entire cast of Yale Divinity School and the School of Sacred Music students and staff are her congregation.

img_5031Where, in a worship event, I would play Anthony Skinner and his band singing the fabulous “The Sound That Saved Us All” via a YouTube video, when I asked for that in a Yale Chapel service they had a band and singer do it live and the congregation sing along!

I’m a peasant when it comes to music appreciation, so it was no wonder I had never heard of “An Alleluia Super Round” (William Albright) the choir sang in the Friday Eucharistic Chapel. If I was overwhelmed with the solo clarinet sweeping us from extended silence up to the full band and community singing ‘Leaning On the Everlasting Arms” the day before, this carried me to the heavens.

15 choir members sat spread through the congregation. Each choir member had a different setting for the repeated singing of “alleluia”. Several settings each as I understand it. Each could sing her/his part at whatever speed they desired and occasionally Nat the choir leader would indicate for them to move to the next part.

These beautiful trained voices singing different parts with different timings, but of just the one word, accompanied by occasional organ chords or notes, all swirling around in a chapel with beautiful acoustics for more than 5 minutes…. Anyone would be excused for thinking they had died and gone to heaven. It was to die for.

In fact it was aleatoric.

That’s my new word: aleatoric from the Latin alea meaning “dice”.

Aleatoric music is composed with some choices deliberately left to the musician to make. Its not entirely predetermined. The outcome isn’t decided in advance. The focus isn’t on precision overall but precision within each role. The composer has left a significant element of the work to be determined by the performers.

Sounds a bit like decomposing.

Its also called chance music, and sometimes indeterminate music (although purists might want to quibble and justify their PhD on the differences.)

The term aleatoric entered the English speaking world in the 1950’s about the same time I did. I’ve been decomposing ever since.

Acoustic scientist Werner Meyer-Eppler defined it by saying, “a process is said to be aleatoric … if its course is determined in general but depends on chance in detail.”

The application to curating worship events is obvious.

It allows for doing and being the best we can in any element of a worship event – prayer of confession, speaking, prayers etc – while at the same time allowing for, in fact encouraging, spontaneity, improvisation, open-endedness, the movement of the Spirit.

Likewise when we consider curating a complete worship event – which could be described as an aleatoric work – we start with a clear pattern (liturgy, design, order of service) but expect variety, and the unexpected. We expect God to be present.

Perhaps most importantly to me in my present thinking, aleatoric worship knows where it is going, but isn’t exactly sure how it will get there.

If there is one single reason behind the combined years of pointless worship offered every Sunday in the West, it is that it doesn’t know where it is going; what its point and purpose is. It is ”chance worship” at its worst and leaves millions of people floundering in its wake every Sunday. (“Beached as bro’.”)

So the latest addition to my new vocabulary for worship – adding to terms like worship curator, segues, reframing, stations, palimpsest, open-endedness and liminality – is aleatoric. I curate aleatoric worship events.

Aleatoric, aleatorical, aleatoricity, aleatoricality…. Re-imagine it how you like. Make it your own. Just like your worship.

Thanks to Sara O’Bryan and the Marquand Chapel Choir for letting me in on it.

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