ChantWorks presents Fear Not. Host Linda Hoffman speaks with Rexphil Rallanka, Director of Music, Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament.
Transcript: FEAR NOT interview. Linda Hoffman with Rexphil Rallanka, recorded October 21, 2021
Linda Hoffman: If you’re attending Sunday Mass, that’s wonderful. The next question is, once there, are you going through the motions or truly partaking in the liturgy? The Mass is a timeless prayer that has been prayed in a similar fashion since the early church. Thousands of years of a beautiful ritual seeped in profound symbolism. Each attended by Christ personally.
Mass prepares us for the spiritual battle of our daily lives.
For Catholics, the truth, beauty and goodness of the Mass is a charging station for the soul, an intimate moment with Christ, a reminder that we are more than physical. We are spiritual beings, souls in need of nourishment. The Mass is created for believers to participate in Christ’s sacrifice, and to remember that we are meant for eternity. It is beautifully crafted. Intelligently designed. Derived from God’s wisdom through the ages.
Sacred music is a large part of the experience and way finding to God in this divine setting and most intentional event. Those who prepare the Mass know a lot about its structure—including the hows and whys. For many cradle Catholics, life and time have faded what knowledge we once had of the specifics, and the structure, even the highest purpose of the sacrament. Muscle memory is better than no memory, but it’s important to recognize that every single element of the liturgy of the Mass has meaning and purpose. Especially the music.
Today we talk with someone who knows this structure and purpose by heart. Rex Rallanka, director of music for the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament in Sacramento, California. He sang with Notre Dame Liturgical and Basilica Choir, and has performed across the country and around world, including at the Catholic cathedrals of Oakland, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Columbus. Rex is certainly qualified to help us connect the dots of reason and melody as applied to sacred music. Rex, it is great to have you on the show.
Rexphil Rallanka: Thank you for having me.
Linda Hoffman: Rex, I’ve only skimmed the surface of an amazing career. Please, help us fill in the blanks.
Rexphil Rallanka: Well, I am a cradle Catholic, and I went to Catholic school my entire life. I was born and raised here in Sacramento. I went to Holy Spirit school. We attended St. Anthony parish over in the Pocket area. And I was a student in high school at Jesuit high school, which is also where I teach choir. And then I went to the University of Notre Dame. I did two degrees there. I got my Bachelors in math, with a second major in Piano Performance. And then I went back to Notre Dame for a Masters in Organ Performance. Since Notre Dame, I did a year of service. I did it through the Dominican Volunteers Program, where I volunteered in Chicago at a program that provided services to people with AIDS, and also lived in community with Dominican sisters.
After that, around 2003 to 2005, I got my first full-time job in church music. I was the director of music for St. Robert of Newminster in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where we had a very comprehensive and large music program. But, thankfully, and I my heart was in California, I wanted to come home to California. Around 2005, I was notified by the director of music at the Cathedral at the time that they were reopening the Cathedral after a $35 million restoration, and he wanted me to apply as their principal organist. So, I did and they accepted me, obviously. And, I was principal organist from 2005 to 2007, and around November, 2007, I was named director music for the Cathedral.
Linda Hoffman: So, it sounds like you were born to be involved in sacred music. Where you think you arrived at that final decision?
Rexphil Rallanka: So, the universe of Notre Dame was very formative for me. Before I went there, you know, I knew about parish music. It didn’t really grab me, you know, if anything about the liturgy grabbed me, it was more just the holiness and sacredness of the Mass. And it wasn’t until I went to Notre Dame, and I attended, I believe it was the 10 a.m. Mass with the Notre Dame liturgical choir that I realized how gorgeous music can be, and, also, how glorious the pipe organ was. You know, I was a piano major, but, I didn’t think of the organ as a serious instrument until I actually heard it at Mass. In particular, I remember when I was a junior at Notre Dame, that’s how long it took me—it took until my junior year at Notre Dame that I realized, wow, the organ is such a profound instrument. It was my first year in the choir, and for the Feast of Christ the King, the organist for the postlude of Christ the King, he played Widor’s Taccata, and I was just mesmerized. And, the very next semester I took my first organ lessons, and I’ve been an organist ever since.
Linda Hoffman: Tell us about the music program at the Cathedral. What makes it different than other programs, and what does this mean to the Mass?
Rexphil Rallanka: So, it’s probably very similar to many other Cathedrals in the United States in that we have the primary Cathedral choir. Our Cathedral choir sings that the 10 a.m. Mass, and we have a core of A section leaders. And, we sing a typical season from September through Corpus Christi. The other two Masses are just me, as the organist, and a paid canter. We utilize traditional hymnody at all of the services, that is the primary body of liturgical music that we use for congregational singing. Everything is accompanied by the organ at the English Masses. We also do have two Spanish Masses, and I’m proud to say that one of the Spanish Masses, the primary one, which occurs at noon, the instrument that they use is the organ, which I don’t think is very common for Spanish Masses across the country. So, I’m very happy that we do have an organist who can play, who can provide music for our Spanish-speaking community.
Linda Hoffman: To those of a certain age, the organ was, at one time, an integral part of Mass, no matter where you attended. Today, it’s not so prevalent. What is the role of the organ in liturgy—and for those churches who’ve replaced the organ—what are they missing?
Rexphil Rallanka: So, the organ is the only instrument that is associated with holiness and sacred, it’s truly intertwined with the church, but, firstly, the most important instrument is the human voice, because that is the instrument that was made by God, himself. So, it is the most perfect instrument. And, really, you could do liturgy with only the human voice. But, what does the organ add? We want to be, firstly, the organ is the instrument that has the widest range. It has the lowest notes, it has the highest notes, and it also has, probably, the widest dynamic. It can be as soft as the softest instrument, or to be as loud as a full symphony orchestra.
So, historically the organ was viewed as, kind of like, the voice of God. I mean because of that grandeur, and if you think about it, when you go to Europe where, you know, organ and all this sacred music blossomed, you think about the churches that they were in. They’re not like a lot of our churches today. The churches that the organ grew up in, were these beautiful—acoustically beautiful—reverberant spaces. So, when that organ tone sounds, you know, it’s traveling around that church for about 4 to 8 seconds, and you just get enveloped with sound. It’s just an awesome experience when you’re in, especially like Paris, where they’ve crafted a very, very rich organ tradition. So, yeah, for those of us who’ve experienced it, we just know the power of the organ and that it cannot be replicated. I mean even a symphony orchestra can’t do it. I mean you have 40 players, and one person controlling all that sound, it’s just amazing.
So, what is the role of the organ? The role of the organ, primarily, is to accompany singing. That is in the Vatican II documents, and I believe it’s probably in older church documents on sacred music. So, historically, it was used to accompany the choir. Today, it’s used to accompany both choir, and congregational singing. Also important in the liturgy, is the use of the organ for meditation. Because of the size of the instrument, the sounds that you can you can get out of it—it really is conducive to bringing us closer to the Divine in our prayer through liturgy.
So, there are times throughout the Mass where it’s appropriate to just have the organ play by itself. So, you have preludes before the Mass, so, those tend to be a little more meditative to prepare us for the liturgy. You have postludes, or recessional, instrumental music at the end. Those tend to be grand, to send us forth to spread the message of the Lord. And throughout the liturgy, in the middle of it, there are times where we can just sit in silent contemplation with that organ music, hopefully, beautiful meditative, that helps lend itself to bringing us into a deeper state of prayer throughout the Mass.
So, there are times, like, where we’re just covering the action on the organ, like if a procession is going a little too long, maybe the communion, the song for communion wasn’t long enough, so we need to cover a little of that with organ music, and also at the offertory.
Linda Hoffman: So, with all of its impact, why are organs disappearing Catholic churches?
Rexphil Rallanka: So, before Vatican II, the instruments that were allowed in church were voice and organ, and with Vatican II, when you look at the documents, they did start allowing other instruments. And, probably the most common one you’ll see in a Catholic Church in the United States is the piano. And, one of the reasons, I believe, that we see more piano than organ in churches right now is that, we, most of the Catholics don’t hear the organ played very well.
You know, I when I was growing up I attended two parishes that—they did use the organ at every Sunday. But, as a kid I never thought, wow, I want to play that. I wanted to play the piano, you know, and I think, perhaps, you know, there’s lack of teachers of the organ. There’s also, because of lack of people not hearing good quality organ at church, people aren’t drawn to the fact that the organ can be so spectacular. And, you know, kids are drawn, I believe, to things that make them want to be better. Right? So they see, like when I was at Notre Dame, you know, it took me until I was a junior and I saw that Widor’s Taccata, I said, man, I want to play that. You know, I don’t think a lot of people in the pews are experiencing that with the organ.
And, then, there’s the cost of the organ. Unfortunately, pipe organs are very expensive, I mean, you’re looking at, for a very, very high quality, large pipe organ, for like a space for like any large cathedral—you’re looking at almost $4 million. You know, so that’s a significant financial undertaking for any church, but, if the church does choose to do that, that really shows that they are committed to quality music.
Linda Hoffman: It does seem high-barrier, but how does sacred music help Catholics navigate the world, which is the point?
Rexphil Rallanka: Yeah, well, first, and foremost, music is expression. It’s human expression. I’m biased. I’m a musician. I look at music as the highest form of our emotions and human expression. And, with sacred music, sacred music is a very-high expression of our faith. For those of us who do sacred music: singers, instrumentalists, I would say most of us probably have, think, of music as very integral to our faith life. And, those who do sacred music, and this also includes the people in the pews, who sing on a regular basis, who actually participate, as Vatican documents would say, with full active participation in the liturgy, I think we are all edified by sacred music, primarily, because when we do that action together, when we do express ourselves through music, and do that communally, those who are engaging in it in a deep way are enriched together as a Christian family, and in our faith in God.
Linda Hoffman: So, how do we get more people to train as liturgical musicians?
Rexphil Rallanka: So, I personally have trained, 3 organists, have gone on to be serious organists. So, I think the first thing to do is search out the youth. The most natural people to look for are pianists, so, maybe a piano student in your church. You know, invite them over to the organ. Invite them to play the organ. One thing I like to do is, if there is a young kid who comes up to me after Mass, and watches me play the postlude, I invite them to watch me every Sunday. You know, come watch what I do. And, I even have a really serious 10-year-old, right now, who actually sits next to me the entire Mass, every Sunday, at the 10 a.m. Mass.
And I got that idea from one of my students, who from very young, wanted to play the organ, but, at his church (he didn’t come to the Cathedral) and at his church, his organist said, “you need to take piano, first, but, here’s what I’ll do: You can watch me play every Sunday, and you can turn my pages, and pull my organ stops. And that kid today, he attended, and finished a Bachelors in Organ at the Eastman School of Music, and he is currently in the seminary to be a priest.
Getting the youth involved really early, and then allowing them to enter your musical space.
Linda Hoffman: That’s a very inspiring, and actionable story. Well, thanks for joining us, Rex.
Rexphil Rallanka: It was my pleasure.
Linda Hoffman: It would seem that we’re experiencing the unintended consequences of wrong turns. Getting back the proper focus begins with knowledge. Thank you for sharing your insights.
Rexphil Rallanka: Thank you for having me.
Linda Hoffman: It’s a world of chaos, noise and constant battle for power. How can you really know truth? Here’s one way. Truth never changes. It’s doesn’t require software updates, or modernization, or likes. Its’s like math. Or physics. Or sacred music. Intelligently designed. Single purpose… to draw us closer to the one true God through his ancient teachings and principles.
All that remains is free will.
Thanks for joining us. I hope you enjoyed our show. I’m Linda Hoffman. See you on our next exciting episode of Fear Not.