Catholic Herald Staff
Parents hum lullabies to their babies. Grieving families sing to honor passed love ones. Parishioners’ voices unite in celebration. Song is the language of protestors and immigrants, of street choirs and school children.
“We who are human have a song to sing,” liturgical music composer Tony Alonso said Feb. 7 at the annual diocesan Music Ministry Retreat and Workshop, held this year at Turtleback Conference Center in Rice Lake. “These are the voices of young and old, of rich and poor.”
But, added Alonso, the modern culture which surrounds us with music also leaves us “robbed of song.”
“Ironically, even as our culture fills more and more with music … we as human beings seem to desire less and less to actually sing,” he said. “Music, like so much in our culture, has become filler,” part of the background — “a commodity, bought and sold, tailored to individual tastes.”
Society is losing school songs, jump rope songs, work songs, jail songs, carols sung around the fire, he continued. Church is the one place where unschooled singers sing together.
“In church, music is not relegated to the background,” Alonso added. “We insist that we will not bow to this.”
In his eyes, liturgical music defies that cultural trend.
“Singing with the faith community is counter-cultural,” he said.
Alonso’s message was no doubt music to the ears of his listeners, an assembly of 64 cantors, choir members and music directors from the Superior and La Crosse dioceses. Eighty-five people attended the Feb. 8 session.
Guest speaker at the two-day conference, he led attendees in a number of his songs and encouraged them in their musical ministry.
He also commented on the inclusive nature of singing, which anyone can learn to do.
“Most of the people in our communities are not meant to have the lead in the metropolitan opera house,” Alonso said. Some, he observed wryly, shouldn’t even have the lead in the high school musical.
But, he added, God has given everyone a unique voice with which to praise him.
Alonso’s mom hails from Minnesota, and his dad is Cuban. He was told as a child he couldn’t dance, and he never has since then, even though dancing is a huge part of Cuban culture.
“Telling someone they cannot sing is akin to calling them ugly,” he added.
A native of Austin, Minn., Alonso has a bachelor’s degree in choral conducting and a master of arts in theology. He’s pursuing a doctorate at Emory University in Atlanta, studying liturgical theology, ritual studies, ecclesiology and theological aesthetics.
He’s the only Catholic in most of his classes at the Methodist university, and he often finds himself speaking for Catholicism, a position he enjoys. After 10 years of music ministry, he’s also spending more time in the pews — less time in the choir loft — since starting his program.
“I think I’ve learned more in the first three months of being in the assembly alone,” he said.
In other cultures, in other countries, “singing is so foundational to the prayer,” added Alonso. He thinks we have something to learn from them.
Churches begin to fail us when they focus solely on our fallenness and flaws, Alonso said. He prefers music that expresses a range of emotion and pairs actions, such as praise, with the feelings that provoke them.
“One of the great, beautiful things about the Psalms … it really spans the gamut of human emotions, and not just happy sad,” he said. “So often it’s the praise part without the reason.”
The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks taught him songs must confront difficult emotions — even anguish — and speak to the broader experience of being human.
“After 9/11, it seemed to me people wanted to sing something, but we didn’t know what to sing,” he said.
He attributes the silence to the “loss of a communal repertoire as a nation.” Alonso’s response was to write a song of mourning, of asking God why. In general, he tries to compose music that reaches beyond the walls of a church.
“We also need to remember that we are part of the world God loves, whether we are in church or not,” he added. “The church and the world are one, in the most expansive sense.”
Alonso noted that music transcends language and compels emotions. Those charged with choosing music are therefore responsible for the messages they impart.
“What kinds of songs are we imprinting on people’s hearts? On children’s hearts?” he asked. “What kind of nourishment are we giving people for a lifetime?”