Catholic Herald Staff
According to musician and composer Daniel Kantor, wintertime images of clear, cold darkness and stark landscapes blanketed in snow are “the perfect canvas for expressing a lot of the ritual experiences that come through the season of Advent.”
Kantor, a native of Spooner and alumnus of St. Francis de Sales School, wrote the internationally known and widely performed song “Night of Silence” at the age of 21. Its creation was inspired by his own Advent experiences snowshoeing in the Wisconsin Northwoods.
“Night of Silence” is an Advent hymn that lyrically expresses the anticipatory longing for a new dawn waiting for the Spirit’s loving Son. The piece is rooted in the traditional hymn “Silent Night,” which accompanies the melody during the last stanza.
As a composer of religious music, Kantor believes he and others in his craft have the responsibility “to keep the symbols of our faith alive, thriving and vital. That won’t happen if we just keep using the same symbol in the same way over and over and over again.”
He gave the example of hearing “O Come all Ye Faithful” in a restaurant or dentist’s office – the potential experience has become automatic. In Kantor’s words, “it fails to be alive … a price we pay for overuse” of many Christmas songs. A price also paid by taking them out of the context of their appropriate liturgical season.
“I’m not a big fan of listening to Christmas music during Advent,” the musician said. “I really enjoy that experience of Advent in the buildup to Christmas.”
It saddens him that radio stations and shopping malls stop playing Christmas music once Dec. 25 has come and gone. He lamented, “Liturgically, it’s just the start of Christmas.”
Quoting fellow composer Fr. Mike Joncas, who appears in a Night of Silence video available at nightofsilence.com, Kantor shared, “‘I want to believe in all that has been promised’ – I love the vulnerability and humanity of that phrase because he’s not saying he believes it unquestioningly and without any doubt.”
Kantor paused, sighed and said, “I don’t think any human being can believe in everything that’s been promised without some doubt – I think it’s just hardwired into what it means to be human.”
He likes to delve into the Advent experience with a stark mindset and snowshoes. During this season, he listens to Gregorian chant and choral music to help enter its spiritual space. The Wisconsin native noted the strong compatibility between the landscape and the season, “the fact that it goes dark at a time when we’re waiting for the light.”
His own childhood memories are all about this “preparatory, anticipatory” buildup to Christmas; distinctly, that of trudging through the snow to where his father would cut the family Christmas tree.
He doesn’t recall being aware of the difference between Advent and Christmas. Not until high school when he discovered, through snowshoeing in deep woods under the moonlight, to sense and celebrate “that deep dark of Advent.”
Musing, he said “It became a time not so much to complain about the cold and the snow and the dark, but to celebrate it and to enter into it … I will always associate that with Advent.”
He was fascinated by the ability to traverse areas you couldn’t come near during the summer season; in the winter, he could enter into terrain not normally accessible.
Kantor also maintains the “Adventus” blog at www.nightofsilence.com/blog with multiple articles by himself and other well-known Catholic authors and artists (David Haas, Fr. Richard Rohr, Marty Haugen and Fr. Michael Joncas with others). Solely focused on Advent, the blog contains spiritual and insightful offerings to help people better understand the depth and meaning of the Advent season and be able to more fully live it.
Addressing music’s timeless and universal ability to connect believers and nonbelievers in the search for existential truth, Kantor said, “Deep down everybody, even if you’re a professed atheist … questions and wonders about the nature of life itself, and the reason for being.”
He expressed, with measured inflection, humans’ hunger for shared meaning and mystical experience.
“Choral music, especially choral music that borrows on religious themes is, in some way, like an oasis or a balm, even if it’s subliminal or not overt. I think it does speak to something inside each of us and it can be very comforting,” he said.
He spoke to the harmonic and peaceful co-existence of the religious and secular aspects of Christmas, fascinated by the ability to have and enjoy both.
Commenting on the tolerance of religious music during this “two-sided” season, Kantor shared that he believes God is beauty and beauty and truth are synonymous.
“I think something is more truthful when it is beautiful. And I think something can actually become less truthful as it becomes less beautiful,” he said, referring to beauty in a poignant sense, as an artistic expression which allows for the harmony of beauty and pain: for example, a beautiful piece of music that mourns the loss of human life.
Kantor concluded, “Beauty is very powerful, and I think we live in a society that craves beauty, that needs beauty, because deep down the soul understands truth and beauty.”
Describing himself as a boy, he said, “I loved to make things, build, tinker; to take apart and put back together. As a composer that is exactly what you’re doing.”
“Any artist dabbling in Christian symbols – it’s your job to take that symbol and break it open,” Kantor described. “Literally, break it and take it apart … and put it back together in a new way, so we can experience (the freshness of) that symbol, keep that symbol alive and its heartbeat strong.”
This same process is what reintroduces “Silent Night” in an unexpected way through “Night of Silence.” He explained how there are certain devices in Advent and Christmas music that a composer can leverage “to evoke emotions and images that point to nostalgia and memory, reminiscence and history.” He said there is more than text that makes a holiday composition.
In the introduction of “Night of Silence,” Kantor uses a dissonance that creates a sparkle when you hear it, a sound meant to evoke the sparkle of the snow under the moon at night.
“It was always fascinating when I was snowshoeing that in the bleak of night, the snow literally would sparkle. I loved the contrast and contradiction of that – quite magical,” he said. That “gentle, intimate dissonance registers a visual palette that would suggest winter, cold, snow.”
Even in choosing music as a career, Kantor alluded to contrast.
“A lot of people might relate me as a pianist. But I see myself more so as a maker and as a composer. Piano happens to be my dominant instrument.” While he enjoys playing the piano, what he enjoys most is making, rather than interpreting, music.
Kantor declared his love for math.
“It’s often said that there is a strong relationship between math and music. And I love to create, to make things.” He is excited by more than music and composing; it is the chance to “imagine something in my head and make it real.”
After starting piano lessons and beginning to learn the language of music, “something just clicked.” He feels lucky to have had a piano teacher during high school that taught him music theory and improvisation, laying the foundation the young man needed to start creating his own music.
As a junior at St. Thomas University in St. Paul in the 1980s, Kantor had to decide which path to pursue: architecture or music. He described how attending concerts, any kind of musical concert, he would be so moved by the music that he feels, “it chose me.”
Kantor said, “I just could not resist. There was something about music that was so seductive to me … and as a piano major, it gave me a level of craft that I would never had developed had I minored or just dabbled in music.”
He acknowledged the role played by his parents’ appreciation of and involvement with music. They even met singing in a choir – a circumstance Kantor finds fascinating, given his career’s significant focus on choral compositions.
The Kantor home was “always filled with music … Dad was fascinated by music through technology.” They were one of the first families in 1960s Spooner to get “this newfangled technology called a stereo.”
He explained the physics behind music and frequencies of the sound spectrum humans are able to hear. “The sound range involves wavelengths that are consistent with lengths of the human body or parts of the human body … When you are exposed to certain types of sonic experiences, the body itself can physically resonate with those wavelengths. There can literally be a physical interaction between the sound and the body, not just the ear.”
Kantor said from a theoretical standpoint, there is a buildup and a release of tension in musical phrasing. Using the image of a rubber band, he described the arcing journey of tension and release, the essence of music and good harmonic composition.
“The function of music is to create and release tension. The context of that tension (in choral music) is then informed and colored by the text,” the composer said. He correlated the similar course followed by any good story, whether written or performed on a stage or movie screen. Interest is maintained by questions: Will this resolve? Will we be back at rest again?
“Music is nothing but a sonic version of that arc of experience,” Kantor stated. He believes the world is made up of two types of people – musicians and those who wish they were.
“Personally, I want to believe … it is possible that we come from a place that we may call heaven, or a place of divinity, and that much of our experience and the language we speak in that place was music.”
He wonders if music is a sort of melancholic sense of longing for home, which reminds us of where we come from and where we are going, and what a beautiful place it was or will be.
Kantor confessed, “I don’t know, but I like to believe that.”