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Richard J. Clark —
Sacred Musician and Composer

an interview by Adam Wood

This interview is reprinted from the blog, Music for Sunday [June 12, 2012], posted by Adam Wood.


Adam Wood:
Richard Clark I'm not sure how I became FaceBook friends with Richard J. Clark. Somehow through the MusicaSacra forums and our mutual (FaceBook, at least) friendships with Jeffrey Tucker and Jerry Galipeau, one of us "friended" the other. I wish this had happened before I moved away from Boston – for the three years I lived there I never once knew that I should go visit Saint Cecilia Church. Ah well.

At any rate, Richard makes a habit of posting his compositions to FaceBook, and I have developed a habit of taking the time to listen. They have struck me over and over as extremely beautiful and moving — full of faith, familiar without being sentimental, serious without being distant.

He writes sacred music for liturgy, and also sacred music for the concert hall. I'm drawn to both, and I think both are needed in this time (as in all times). I particularly love his vocal solo pieces and his choral work (I'm a singer, you know), but I even like his organ compositions (and my general antipathy to the organ is, I think, well known).

But to say "I like it," is a bit beside the point. His music is incredibly well-crafted and suited at all times to the venue, the performers, and (most importantly) the text. He is inspired (as you will read) by the great classical composers, by traditional American music, by the great body of Gregorian chant, and by texts ranging from sacred Scripture to Romantic poetry. He approaches his work, both as a composer and a church musician, in a spirit of service.

With a growing appreciation for his work, I contacted RJC a few weeks ago and asked if I could interview him for this blog. I was thrilled to find out that he was a regular reader! He enthusiastically agreed. Since neither one of us is particularly excited about speaking on video (we don't mind, just not our preference), we decided I could write some questions for him to answer in writing as his schedule permitted. The result was wonderful, and (I think) much deeper in content than a spoken interview would have been.

The Interview

Quick Bio

AW: Where from? Where studied? Who studied with? Where have you worked previously and currently?

RJC: I am a New York native, born in Greenwich Village and raised in Seaford, Long Island. While studying as a chemistry major at New York University, I also studied classical piano and composition with Justin Dello Joio. I matriculated at Berklee College of Music to study jazz piano and composition and received a Bachelor of Music degree in 1991. After Berklee, I began several years of study with James David Christie, organist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and received a Master's degree in Organ Performance from The Boston Conservatory.

Six months into my studies at Berklee, I was hired by Saint Cecilia Parish in Boston, a dying, inner-city parish, located on a small side street directly behind Berklee's main building. After two years at Saint Cecilia, the new pastor, Fr. Michael Groden, expanded my position to full-time Director of Music. I was 23 years old. It was a leap of faith on his part, as my modest salary and benefits were still a large percentage of the offertory budget at the time. That trust placed in me, along with the importance placed on music in the life of the parish, was never lost on me.

To my continued astonishment, twenty-two years later, I am happily still working at Saint Cecilia Parish. I like to tell people I haven't gone very far in my career; the organ is approximately fifty feet from my old dorm room. Since 2004 I have also been the organist and cantor for daily Mass at Saint Mary's Chapel at Boston College, a jewel of a chapel with an exquisite one manual, eight rank Flentrop organ. [AW: See NLM's 2009 article about the chapel .]

It should be noted that as a child growing up in the 1970s, I was exposed to few of our great musical traditions. One of my most vivid memories was as a nine year old attending Mass in a gymnasium. I remember, like it was yesterday, shaking my head and muttering to myself, "Being a church musician has got to be the lowest musical aspiration possible." Well, God is just full of surprises, isn't He? A decade later, Fr. Thomas Leavey (a most patient saint, bless his soul) gave me my first professional opportunity to play organ at Saint William the Abbott Parish and develop my skills. The workings of God in our lives is most fascinating.

AW: How would you describe your compositional style?

RJC: Given my eclectic history and background, I am unequivocally a "musical mutt." I live in various musical worlds: classical concert works, works of sacred music, liturgical works, and various popular styles. Regardless of the outward style, I am fascinated with nuanced dissonance, and at times bending harmony very nearly to a breaking point, but always pulling back to achieve the intended purpose. Dancing on the edge, but to still engage musically and spiritually is a fascinating challenge. It allows for the expansion of boundaries, but hopefully will bring hearts and minds along.

AW: What/who are your biggest musical influences?

The list is endless, ranging from J.S. Bach, to Thelonius Monk — from Dante to the English Romantic poets, Byron, Shelly, and Keats. Additionally, there is Dylan Thomas, who could compose and proclaim his words better than most anyone. (Let us also not forget the venerable Irish poet, Brendan Behan.) These poets, and the poetry of the Word of sacred Scripture have been profound musical influences.

I became quite obsessed with Gregorian chant while studying with James Christie and he recommended the Gregorian Missal for Sundays published by Solesmes. I obtained my first copy in 1995 and immersed myself in the propers from the Graduale Romanum. These beautiful and ancient chants have been an endless source of compositional and liturgical inspiration. Starting in the 1990s, at Saint Cecilia we were singing the communion propers nearly every Sunday. We also often sang various chants for the Ordinary. Part of the beauty of this music is its timeless quality. It never feels dated or trendy. It is uniquely Roman Catholic and a part of our patrimony. Gregorian chant has withstood the test of time and has the ability to sustain and nourish us throughout a lifetime. Unlike other forms of music, we will never outgrow what this particular marriage of music and text has to offer. It is one of the Church's treasures and one of her finest teachers.

Jazz has certainly been a huge influence on my classical composing, if not externally, most certainly internally. Furthermore, just as jazz is a distinctly American style of music, so Gregorian chant is distinctly Roman Catholic. As an American Roman Catholic composer and organist, this connection is inescapable.

[AW: While he didn't mention it here, I have been speculating that RJC's music has been influenced by early-modern French composers like Ravel and Vierne. RJC said this was "definitely not wild speculation." On the other hand, it might simply be part of his "best of all worlds" combinatorics: to my ears his keyboard harmony sounds French, his choral writing British, his vocal solo work modern American opera, and his melodic motivation Roman Catholic.]

AW: Do you have a philosophy or general approach to composing?

RJC: I don't have a singular approach but the music is always driven by the text. That doesn't always mean the text comes first. It might even come last as a final apparition. The hard work and process of composing is itself a prayer, and each piece/prayer a different experience.

I also find most every work takes on a life of its own, often going in a direction far different than first conceived. Composing for me isn't rapturous work; I'm not talented enough for that! It is often grunt work, with even the simplest of compositions coming to life purely by sheer will, with repeated editing and combing through the finest of details to rid the stench of bad writing.

AW: Your vocal solo pieces are very… theatrical/operatic in nature. I wonder what your thoughts are about their liturgical appropriateness.

RJC: An excellent question. Although based on sacred texts and sometimes Gregorian chant, most of those works were composed for concerts rather than for the liturgy. On the rare occasions that they were sung during a liturgy, (e.g., Heart, My Heart for the Solemnity of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus) the text and some of the melody is taken from the propers of the day. Also, the chosen singer is not only an opera singer, but a person of deep faith and prayer. This style, performed reverently, can from time to time act as a bridge to make important texts accessible.

AW: How does your own faith and theology affect/inform your work as a composer?

RJC: I don't claim the ability to express my faith with any great eloquence. I am a sinner, no doubt! My friends will delightfully point that out. In Thomas à Kempis' De imitatione Christi, he writes of praying for those who drive us crazy, yet with full acknowledgment that we drive others crazy with our own faults (I paraphrase, of course). The great richness of scripture will last me more than a lifetime as a source for musical inspiration, spiritual development, and reflection. If the Word drives the music, then the music has the potential to become a prayer, strengthening our faith and calling us to Christian service. For me, composition flows directly from and is completely integrated in faith. In a similar way, faith is the foundation from which the works of mercy, justice and forgiveness proceed. Finally, what is most enlivening about our praise of God in prayer/music is the potential to experience God's desire for involvement in our lives. United as we are in the love of Christ, the growth of community is the fruit born by our worship and praise. Congregavit nos in unum Christi amor.

All I can acknowledge is that without God, I am nothing. To quote Thomas Aquinas, all I write is "so much straw."

AW: Do you have a particular vision or ideal of liturgical practice? If so: (a) describe it & (b) how are you working toward that ideal/vision in your work as a parish musician and composer?

RJC: Musicians and liturgists tend to be somewhat particular about their ideas! Our role as liturgical musicians is becoming increasingly complex. Many dioceses have faced parish closings. It will soon be the norm for every pastor to be responsible for multiple parishes. How does a music minister unite and lead an increasingly diverse and sometimes divided people? During the last decade, uniting the music ministry of three parishes has been the daily task in my position at Saint Cecilia Parish. In my role as a liturgical musician, I have often learned a great deal more about human nature and the human condition than about music.

With the structure of many dioceses changing, a music minister must be pastorally sensitive and acknowledge that losing one's parish is akin to experiencing a death in the family — there is mourning and the need for a time of healing. Yet, we are all one in the Universal Church and are called to move forward in new and sometimes difficult ways. After several years of upheaval I feel a great love, respect and affection for musicians with whom I do not always agree. They in turn have shown extraordinary patience in putting up with me. These pastoral issues are very much part of our jobs and are unlikely to go away anytime soon. Here is the good news: challenges make us better musicians. Challenges make us more thoughtful in how we educate and lead and they offer us opportunities to become better people.

My vision doesn't live in absolutes, but in general trends. The new translation of the Roman Missal has given us an opportunity to be ever more mindful of the pre-eminence of the Word. Music serves the text, not the other way around. Chant does this exceedingly well. This is an ideal, not always possible in every circumstance.

Working in a parish, where music is, by necessity, a hybrid of different styles, the one constant is the goal of achieving reverence and prayerfulness throughout. People often respond well to styles they may or may not prefer if done well and done prayerfully. Regardless of style, choral singing must still be choral singing. Clear diction must still be clear diction. Proper phrasing and proclamation of the Word must be done well regardless of style.

Change and reform will only take root when implemented carefully and with sensitivity. The seed sown on the rocky ground of mandates and sweeping change will not bear fruit. Problems that need addressing must be worked through and not around. Only through thoughtful, but persistent education can the ideals of Sacrosantum concilium truly take root and gain traction. This is the work of a lifetime.

Finally, my liturgical approach to composition is ever evolving. After spending a great deal of time with the ICEL Chants of the Roman Missal, recording them and giving workshops around the Archdiocese of Boston with Fr. Jonathan Gaspar, my appreciation grew for the aesthetic of austerity and simplicity of music serving the Word. This is not a new revelation, but one that bears constant repeating. The great energy poured into preparation for the new translation gave opportunity for pruning, in order to bear more fruit John 15:2. This is embodied by the great work of Richard Rice, Jeff Ostrowski [Corpus Christi Watershed], Kathleen Pluth and countless others. There is a renewal of what you have so eloquently termed "the servant model of composition." This idea has had great influence on my planning and more recent composition.

AW: What is your opinion on the current "reform of the reform" and do you see your work (composer and parish musician) as a part of that movement?

RJC: Regarding the "reform of the reform," I am reminded of conversations with friends in many years past who have suggested the need for a "Vatican III" to reform music and liturgy. My response was that we don't need a "Vatican III" — all we need to do is implement Vatican II as intended. I am greatly energized and inspired by the great new work done by so many young people to achieve the ideals of Sacrosantum concilium. My choir has seen a new infusion of young college students hungry for our Church's traditions. Chant belongs to the people. These are our ancient birthrights. [AW: Yes!] This "reform of the reform," or whatever name it is given, is the great servant work of the church musician. It is now infused with new life in the new generation.

AW: Do you see a connection between liturgy/music and the (so to speak) non-liturgical life of the Church (that is, our call to serve the poor, visit the sick and imprisoned, love our neighbor, do justice, love mercy, etc., etc.)?

RJC: Saint Cecilia Parish's Social Justice outreach is perhaps the most significant part of the parish's identity and mission. It is driven by self-motivated everyday volunteers. Likewise, a strong music ministry is highly valued as a significant part of the parish's identity. Feeding the poor and hungry is undoubtedly more important than singing even the most beautiful work of sacred music. God is at the center of this important work which is sustained and energized by prayer. Lex orandi, lex credendi [AW: Don't forget Lex vivendi!] reminds us if we believe what we pray, we must respond to God's call by that way that we live. Music is prayer. Prayer strengthens our resolve to serve God and to minister unto His people.

Finally, we do not always know the pain and suffering that others live with. One never knows how deeply our prayer/music will affect someone. Prayer/music has the power to be transformative in someone else's life. We can never presume to know what crosses those in the congregation carry nor will we ever fully know the personal and communal impact brought about by our work.

AW: Could you identify a few of your favorite pieces and share a little about their inspiration and backstory?

RJC: I Am Risen, Resurrexi is a recent favorite. This is an example of a piece that took a very different direction than originally intended. It was composed for a memorial Mass for the daughter of some dear friends. Sadly she was on this earth for a very short time. Having composed hymn tunes named for my own children, I thought I would write something simple and in a similar style. After only a few measures, it became clear this was not going to be a simple hymn tune. Much of the thematic material is based on the on the name "Emilia Marie." Only later did I insert sections of the Easter Sunday Introit Resurrexi at the beginning and end of the piece. Although the music took a different direction, I was absolutely certain from the beginning that the text had to be the Easter Sunday Introit: "I am risen, and I am always with you, alleluia …" The Mode IV chant that announces the resurrection is nothing like the exuberant and rousing "Jesus Christ Is Risen Today." Rather, it lives in the space between joyful and hopeful, and seems unresolved in the mystery of everlasting life. Not simply a piece of lament, it is a piece of joy, reminding us of God's great intervention, comfort, intimate love and mystery. I don't personally know the cross my friends shoulder, but I know God is with them always, as is their beloved daughter.

An organ work of five movements, "Ascent to Freedom" was composed over a period of great difficulty and change and serves as a reminder of hope. (It's also just fun to play!) It is also dedicated to beloved friends Billy and Gena, who faced very tragic and challenging family hardships. The final two movements in particular draw from American themes, "Go Down Moses" and "How Can I Keep from Singing?" As musicians, often our greatest lament is a perceived lack of freedom. However, it is the limits placed upon us that make us better musicians, better composers, and hopefully better human beings. In the score I wrote: "True freedom does not rise from the capacity to fulfill all desires. Freedom is captivity, followed by battle, followed by faith, followed by wisdom and compassion as seen through the eyes of love. Of this struggle, true liberation is born." Perhaps I don't really know what I'm talking about, but I suppose that to live in the love of Christ must lead to true freedom.

AW: Can you describe your Mass of the Angels?

[AW: This setting of the new translation is based on the Missa de Angelis. My opinion is that this is one of the best congregational settings of the new texts.]

RJC: To compose based upon the beautiful and once-familiar melodies of the Missa de Angelis was like spending time with an old friend. The Mass parts of the Missa de Angelis were something we sang at Saint Cecilia with some regularity. My Mass of the Angels contains a great deal of the melodic phrases from the chants. For example, even the invocations of the Kyrie/Penitential Act C display much of the melismatic phrases in the invocations. The Agnus Dei melody is almost completely intact from the original. The organ and choral harmonies are fairly lush and relatively traditional, but with some occasional "bending."

This Mass setting was highly influenced by Theodore Marier and Richard Proulx in two areas:

  1. I wanted to adapt these beautiful chant melodies in an accessible manner and to be mostly in English.
  2. That the piece could translate well liturgically, whether in
    • the grand setting of a choir of forty with a fifty rank organ of French Romantic design in a European acoustic, or
    • with the austerity of an eight rank organ and a single voice or unison schola.

Several of the [online] recordings represent the former. However, I have been very pleased with the success of the latter. In fact, at times, I find the unison singing with smaller accompaniment to be preferable liturgically and more helpful to the congregation.

An example of this flexibility are these two recordings:

AW: Does the idea that Gregorian chant should have "pride of place" have an impact on your work as a composer in primarily a contemporary art-music style?

[AW: RJC and I talked a little back and forth about how to "label" his style of composition. "Contemporary" is somewhat problematic, since he isn't writing pop/rock/folk. It isn't really "traditional" either, in the way new compositions by Kevin Allen or Jeffrey Ostrowski are written in an older style. "Modern" in the sense used by classical musicians is close, but I'm of the opinion that the "modern" era is over (good riddance). The best I can say is that it is "contemporary" in the sense of "new, right now" and "art music" in that it is serious in intent (as opposed to popular).]

RJC: The "pride of place" of Gregorian chant always has and likely always will play a role in my composing, regardless of outward style. Prayer through chant is the food we eat and the air we breathe. Chant doesn't truly need (although it deserves) the classification of "pride of place." This is because it is a natural reality with or without that moniker. Chant is intrinsically Roman Catholic music. Gregorian chant unites us and is the most universal way of expressing shared truths — those things that we share as members of the Universal Church and as believers in the Gospel of Jesus.Christ.

Adam Wood:
I'm truly grateful to Richard for his thoughts, his music, and his service to God and God's people. I found the above very inspiring to read, and feel it a privilege to be publishing it.

Please check out RJC's music at his website [and at CanticaNOVA Publications].

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