ChantWorks presents Fear Not. Host Linda Hoffman speaks with Kerry McCarthy, Singer, scholar, author.
Transcript: Fear Not interview. Linda Hoffman with Kerry McCarthy, singer,-scholar, published author of director of music, at Wyoming Catholic College recorded March 10, 2023
Linda Hoffman: To the observer, Catholics are thought to be… well, let’s say different. And it’s not just our significance in the world of science, law, innovation and just about every other category based on truth, reason and centuries-old thought and logic.
As it turns out, and as evidenced by recent attention from our federal agencies, this difference is no small thing. First the downside. As American Catholics we’ve seen social asymmetry as far back as Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton. Seton rapidly found that converting to Catholicism wasn’t exactly a rise in social status. But her focus was a bit different way back in 1808—or maybe it wasn’t. Seton’s world was gripped by war, pandemics and politics. Hmmm
Why would Seton—an educator, intellectual and member of the New York elite—decide to magnify the chaos and unrest of her time and life by becoming Catholic? By any standard of reason this was just another layer of complexity. Unless it wasn’t. Hmmm. Maybe there was… a benefit to Catholicism?
Maybe—it’s just a thought—but maybe Seton was drawn to the haven of truth, beauty and goodness—staples of Catholic thought. In practice and, as noted even by non-Catholics with the coining of phrases like Catholic Calisthenics—the Mass, the liturgy is an event that calls for full engagement of the mind, body and soul. Singing, specifically chant, requires greater participation of the person—the singer. It’s the Catholic way and signals that we are not afraid to participate completely, body and soul, in prayer and communion with Christ.
Catholicism is for the fearless. We kneel. We stand. We bow. And we chant. Chant is one of the ways that we use our whole selves in song, a way of intensifying our prayer—chant is gifted to us and carries the emotion of the words. I can only speak of its value. But today we speak to someone who can tell us all we need to know about the benefits of chant in this world of chaos.
Kerry McCarthy is a singer-scholar expert. She has taught music history at Duke University, is a published author on English Renaissance composers William Bryd and Thomas Tallis and sings with the Capella Romana. She is a voice on the best-selling album Lost Voices of Hagia Sophia—a joint project of Stanford’s Icon of Sound and Capella Romana.
Kerry, great to have you on.
Kerry McCarthy: Thank you so much for having me on the podcast. This is a real honor.
Linda Hoffman: Let’s start at the beginning. What do we need to know about you and the road to chant? Specifically, what convinced you Sacred Music was your true path?
Kerry McCarthy: You know I never really had one great big experience that convinced me—it was more like a thousand small experiences—and, which somehow built up into a lifetime commitment. I certainly was very lucky early on in my late teens, early 20s, when I started singing chant.
I got to work with some groups that—first of all were very stable—particularly a group that I sang with in the Bay Area in California—if any of our listeners are familiar with Dr. William Mahrt. He has an amazing chant choir—the St. Ann choir—which has been singing since before the reforms in the 1960s, so there was that kind of continuity that was built in. And I spent years there singing morning logs, Mass, Vespers, Compline every Sunday and being grafted into this kind of continuity. But it certainly wasn’t a one-time sort of peak experience. It was something that made more and more sense to me as the years went on.
Well, the first time I sang Holy Week I was 18 years old. I was absolutely stunned. I didn’t know what was hitting me. It took at least three or four times around the whole calendar to get a sense of it and then Easter started to mean more when it arrived. The chant for Easter started to make more sense as a little jewel in this huge crown of the liturgical cycle of the year. And very gradually I realized this is the way of life that I want to follow. This is what I want to dedicate myself to. And I don’t look back.
Linda Hoffman: There are so many ironies in today’s upside world. One is that there are more Sacred Music concerts than Catholic churches integrating chant. Some have re-discovered Sacred Music, but it’s rare. From a musician’s viewpoint, what are the differences between the reaction of a concert audience and that of Mass goers?
Kerry McCarthy: Well, most of the singing that I do in church is up in choir loft and so I’m 20 feet above people and I’m not really looking at their reactions, which in some ways it’s nice, I think, to have that distance. But I do talk with people a lot after services and after concerts. They like to come up to the singers and speak about their experiences, ask us questions and especially, I’ve found in the last couple of years I’ve really heard some interesting responses from people both after church services and after concerts. And I think the catalyst for that was in spring, 2020, when we had—certainly in Oregon—we had some very severe shutdowns for a couple months at my church, the Dominican parish in Portland.
We were purely live streaming. We weren’t having any congregations allowed in. We were essentially recording these things live and broadcasting them. And I also remember thinking—I’m up there in the choir loft with the sort of jerry-rigged live microphone, you know, singing the Reproaches of Good Friday or whatever—and I remember thinking I am giving these people something fake; you know. They should be here with me, but instead of instead of an apple I’m giving them this plastic apple sitting in front of their screen or these plastic fish sticks; it’s not real food, you know.
But the moment they could come back, the moment we started being able to invite our congregations back, they come up and speak about just how powerful it was to hear live singing, to hear human voices in real life in a shared space. And that’s also something that I get a lot from concert audiences because it’s an experience that’s really becoming lost in our modern society. This experience of group singing, of hearing live human voices, of experiencing singing together.
You might hear it at a party if people are singing happy birthday. You might hear it at a sports game. But in traditional societies there would’ve been singing pretty much every day. Different songs to go with different activities. There would’ve been singing at worship and to see people experiencing that. And then when we when you started doing concerts again—audiences at Capella Romana concerts would just come up to us afterwards weeping and saying how grateful they were to be able to experience this again.
So yes. There is, I think, there’s a lot of commonalities between the church congregations of the concert audiences. And one reason I’m so grateful to be a concert singer is that we’re able to bring the Sacred Music to people who might never set foot inside a church. We can bring it to them where they are and plant a little seed and sometimes that seed sprouts and can become something bigger and deeper.
Linda Hoffman: Brilliantly said. Wow. While Stanford’s Icons of Sound project is heralded as a breakthrough in medieval studies. Lost Voices of Hagia Sophia flew off the shelves. What are some discoveries made by the Stanford team and Capella Romana?
Kerry McCarthy: What the scientific team at Stanford has been doing is finding ways to capture the acoustics of ancient buildings and reconstruct them in modern concert halls. So instead of having to travel 5,000 miles to Turkey, to Istanbul, the former city of Constantinople, and seeing in this great building, which by the way has become such a point of political controversy as some of you might know. Hagia Sophia was the great church. It was really the mother church of Eastern Christianity for many centuries, then it became a mosque as conquests and politics happened and now it’s actually a secular building. It’s essentially a museum.
And singing Sacred Music in there would be—let’s just say politically undesirable—but what the scientific team figured out is if you make recordings of certain sounds in a physical space—in fact what they did in Hagia Sophia was popped balloons. Quite like balloons like you have at a party, they popped balloons, make a recording of the sound and then they go to their computers and break down what happened to the sound once it went out into the room.
And once they have that all figured out—all the physics and mathematics and acoustics of it—what they can do is they can set up the singers with microphones, quite physically tape them to our heads and put little things behind our ears and we sing into the microphone and it goes through the computer and what comes out of the speaker is the same sound that you would get in that building. So now we can tour the world and give people the sound of this ancient building where the chanting would’ve been heard. And you can do that for any building. You can do that for the great cathedrals. You can do that for tiny private chapels where you wouldn’t be allowed to hold concerts. And there’s something wonderful about bringing these spaces—again—either to people who are too busy or don’t have the money to go on these journeys. We can bring the sound to them, and they can experience it closer to home.
So, it’s miraculous. And it’s also really a treat for us as the singers to be able to experience the sound of a building like Hagia Sophia. That particular church, the acoustic there is designed to be overwhelming. You sing a note and you’ve got 10 or 11 seconds of this rich multilayered resonance coming back to you. It’s basically telling you: Stop. Contemplate. Don’t just go onto the next phrase. It’s forcing you to take the second of reflection—of up to nine or 10 seconds a reflection of prayer—and it’s really a wonderful experience to be inside that sound aided by this technology.
Linda Hoffman: I like to hear stories of tech for good. That’s a great one.
Kerry McCarthy: Oh yeah.
Linda Hoffman: The Early Music Movement has been going strong since the 1970s. This led to renewed interest in the Sacred Music of William Byrd and Thomas Tallis. Drawing from your biography, what must we know about Byrd and why is his music important, especially today?
Kerry McCarthy: One wonderful thing about the Early Music Movement starting in the 70s and 80s was, again, people suddenly had access to very, very good recordings of all of this classic Sacred Music: the motets of Bryd, the Masses of Bryd, the stuff that even a generation earlier you would’ve had to go to England, you know, get on the train, go to a Cathedral at exactly the right time of the day, the right time of year and hear it.
And now this stuff can be heard in the comfort of one’s own home. Though I found what was always missing was the back story about these composers, you know, who were they? What sort of everyday situations where they in? What were the circumstances behind this music? And whenever I got a new CD—you know—this was no back in the late 80s, early 90s. CDs were the new shiny thing. I would always rip it open and sometimes even before I listened to music—kind of crazy to admit—I would devour the program notes.
And they never quite told me what I wanted to know about these composers. They never quite went far enough with the personal story of these guys. So when I sat down to write a biography of William Byrd, in some ways, I just wrote the book that I would’ve wanted to read myself as a student. And I think the story of Bryd is especially interesting because he was a Catholic in Elizabethan England in the later 16th century during the first generation when England was really Protestant. So, he was born just as everything was plunged into chaos.
In fact he was—Bryd was born the same year that the very last monastery in England was shut down and destroyed, 1540. So, he came in just as the old world came out. We’re talking about practically the same month. And I find that as I study Bryd I realized that he was kind of in the same situation as a lot of my generation of church musicians are. Generation X—obviously as you can see from looking—those of us who are around the age of 50—we didn’t necessarily live through the changes in the 1960s. That was before our time. We were born just as the asteroid hit and, in a way, what we’re living with is the immediate aftermath.
These two generations of sort of an echo of this impact. Figuring out what to salvage, what to continue, what to change, what to build on. And those questions that Bryd himself had to answer as a composer and there aren’t easy responses to them. You know, there’s no one easy answer. It’s a question that every time we put together a service in church, we have to answer some aspect of that question still.
And that’s something I see Bryd doing especially when he started writing music for the underground Catholic communities in England. Things like his famous Three Masses. He was always asking: How do I write Sacred Music in this situation for this community of people who frankly have been through so much, who have suffered so much—who are trying to adapt, who are trying to find a way forward? And I find Bryd really inspiring.
He lived in very difficult times and managed to create this incredible beauty out of them.
Linda Hoffman: That is fascinating. Context does create everything. Call me crazy, but I think Sacred Music sung by Catholic musicians sounds better. I’m comparing this to, say, professionals, but non-Catholics. Don’t get me wrong. Professionals are great… I just hear a difference. Is there something more to this or am I crazy? And it might be context?
Kerry McCarthy: I think a lot of it is, in fact, context. I think that if I were to do a blind tasting test, so to speak, of 10 different groups singing Sacred Music and have people guess the percentage of singers in each one that were Catholic from let’s say 0 to 100—it might be difficult to really figure it. But I do think that the context is something incredibly important and what I found is that even hard-boiled atheist professional singers—when they’re really deep into making liturgical music, when you have a group of people doing something like the afternoon service on Good Friday—something changes about them.
They’re drawn into this world for a couple of hours. You can hear something that just shifts, just takes on a slightly different color, just for those couple of hours. It’s—I guess I mean to say that the process of singing the Sacred Music—it can change the person who’s doing it. It’s not the question of, oh, well are you pious enough, are you devout enough to be, sort of taking part in this? If you do it, if you commit to it, it will change you. And that’s something I think that can be heard in the singing, yeah.
Linda Hoffman: So, this is where I close up—but I wanted to find out if you are in any different place about mentioning anything with—say the future King of England?
Kerry McCarthy: Ah, the future King of England.
Linda Hoffman: I don’t want to step out. But it is a few days later than the last we spoke to you. That’s pretty big, that a hook as we call it in marketing, so if you’re able to divulge anything I certainly don’t want to leave that off the table. And no is a fine answer.
Kerry McCarthy: Well, I know almost nothing about what’s actually going to happen at the coronation because, despite what some rumors have said, Capella Romana will not actually be singing there. Our director will be organizing some—this is very nice—our director, Alexander, will be organizing some traditional Byzantine chant to be sung at the service, which is great because, as some of you might know, the English royal family has very strong ties to Greece to Southern Europe to the Orthodox Church, in particular. In fact, if there hadn’t been that unpleasant business with Henry VIII about 500 years ago this this might well be a Greek Orthodox coronation, you know, in one of those rights.
But yes. I have heard that there will be traditional Byzantine chanting there and I think that will be a wonderfully mind opening thing for a lot of audiences to hear. As many of you know, these royal church services tend to get a billion or two people tuning into them on TV online and I hope that gets people interested in traditional chant as well. I am optimistic. But right, I will not be singing there myself. I’ll be up in the middle of the night watching it on live YouTube.
Linda Hoffman: That’s fantastic and great exposure for chant. Fastest show ever, Kerry, and I hope we can have you back.
Kerry McCarthy: Thank you so much.
Linda Hoffman: Gregorian Chant is an ancient form of sung prayer and one of the earliest kinds of written prayer. It connects us to the long and rich history of the church, but most importantly to God.
The texts and music of the liturgy are more profound than art. They carry the beliefs of the church as well as its praise to God. God has given us the liturgy in order that we may encounter him in a profound and beautiful way. The richness of chant is a compelling way of experiencing this encounter.
There’s something here. There’s something really beautiful here. But those are words. Experiencing chant is personal and profound. Catholics are rediscovering it. Federal agencies know it. Even Hollywood has long known its power by building it into soundtracks. As for many Catholics before, the question for us is courage. Do we have the courage to step into its pull?
Thank you for joining us. I’m Linda Hoffman. See you on our next exciting episode of FEAR NOT.
This has been a ChantWorks production. Please visit us online at chantworks.com
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