By Gordon Nary
Gordon: When did you begin directing the contemporary choir at St. Mary of the Woods Parish and what interested you in this service?
Eric: I began directing the Contemporary Choir in October, 2015. I actually spent the first 8 years of my life in Edgebrook and was baptized at Saint Marry of the Woods (SMOW) and sang with my sisters in the choir all the way through high-school. My family continued to attend SMOW even after moving out to the suburbs. However, I eventually went to school in Boston and was absent from the parish for several years. In 2014, I returned to Chicago in order to attend DePaul University. Throughout my absence from SMOW, my sister had continued to sing with the choir. In the late summer of 2015, the parish was suddenly in search of a new director. My sister kindly recommended me. After meeting with the pastor and music director, things seemed like they would work well and I was glad to accept the position.
Gordon: The term contemporary choir may have a variety of connotations to some of our readers. In your perspective, what constitutes contemporary choir music for US Catholic Churches.
Eric: To be honest, there seems to be an inevitable disparity between my ideal definition and the realistic one. When I was in Boston, I witnessed some very extraordinary sacred music being produced by John Harbison at Emmanuel Episcopal Church.. He is the resident composer there and creates new pieces for the choir on a regular basis. The music is performed both during mass and in concert setting after the services. This seems to capture the real essence of contemporary sacred music. Unfortunately, this type of production and preparation takes a considerable amount of time and resource. At SMOW, we merely try to perform music that is more recent than the traditional tunes that might be heard from one parish to the next, and try to prepare new pieces at least a few times throughout the year. Two or three times a year, we put on special concerts for the regular congregation – primarily with the intention of showing our most contemporary repertoire.
This being said, I am considering composing some new music for the choir over the next couple of months during our summer hiatus.
Gordon: Is there an official resource for choosing the Contemporary choir music or is it generally up to the decision and choice of the choir director?
Eric: The music selection is ultimately up to me. However, I frequently ask the choir for suggestions. They will often recommend either an old favorite that we haven’t sung in a while or a new tune that he or she heard in a performance elsewhere or in a recording. I like to follow through with these recommendations a best as I can. Since the choir members are so generous in volunteering their time and talent, it seems the least I can do to share as much authority with them as possible. Also, the music director at SMOW, Mary Anne Eichhorn, helps me a great deal with choosing music that most appropriately corresponds with the liturgy.
Gordon: A few decades ago, there appeared to be a more conservative approach to the choice of music in Churches. The Schubert Ave Maria was once banned in many churches allegedly by some because Schubert didn't live an ideal moral life. Some have claimed that Walt Disney may have had promoted the change when he featured the score in Fantasia. Do you have any insights on how the evolution in music choice has evolved in the Catholic Church?
Eric: The threshold between sacred and secular music is a perpetual controversy. Personally, I feel that the issue should be more a matter of the singer, instrumentalist, or composer’s discretion. If he/she feels genuinely engaged in a spiritual way, it seems that all of the necessary requisites are met. This being said, I certainly understand the concerned perspective of many parishioners who are worried that the music might at some point become more of a distraction than a vehicle of worship. This has been a strong opinion, threatening the creative license of church musicians for several hundred years. However, it is often the ability to find a more complex or musically satisfying way to appease the deeper desires of those who would like to use music as prayer that reveals the most capable and devoted musicians. G.P. Palestrina and J.S. Bach are two prime examples of this ability.
Certainly, The Schubert Ave Maria is a wonderful piece of music. I believe it, and any other genuine composition, should function as an entity of its own. In many ways, it is no longer owned by the composer – he has effectively given it to the world’s people to be used as they see fit.
Gordon: Several years ago John Lennon's Let it Be could not be played at funeral masses in some churches because it wasn't a formal religious song, even though the lyric could be interpreted as a hymn to Mary (John wrote it for his mother). In your opinion, would there be some more liberal churches who might allow the song today?
Eric: Absolutely. Many of the points I mentioned in my last response are applicable here as well. I wouldn’t be at all deterred from performing this song at SMOW if that’s what the family wanted. Of course I would ask for permission from the presiding priest, but I would be surprised if there was strong objection
Gordon: Before we discuss music further, It might be appropriate to mention some of the professional music organization of which you are or have been a member Mezzo Polipo String Quartet, 2008-2010 Chicago Nebula String Quartet, 2011-2013 Boston Academy of Irish Music, 2005-present Chicago ALVO Trio, 2011-2013 Boston Lucerne Festival Academy Orchestra Participant, 2013, 2015 WCMS (Worchester Chamber Music Society) Summer Festival Fellowship Ensemble, 2012 Equilibrium Chamber players, 2013, 2014
When did you first realize that music would be an essential component of your life?
Eric: It seems that this was clear from the moment I started playing, because I haven’t stopped since. I began playing violin/viola when I was 4 years old. At that time, after hearing my pre-school teacher perform for my class, I begged my parents for a violin. Eventually they got me a rental instrument and a teacher too. I don’t remember ever considering the possibility of leaving music behind. Ever since then, it has been a top priority in my daily life.
That being said, it probably wasn’t until my junior year of high school – when I was deciding what to study in college – that I decided that I wanted music to be my profession. Despite my strong feelings for music, this was a very difficult decision. This decision required me to leave some other things behind, things that I enjoyed very much. I was also considering continuing my education in physics or English, and I loved playing tennis and distance running, but at the time I needed every hour I could get for practicing and preparing auditions. Eventually, I found a way to work some of these other things back into my life, but even if I hadn’t I don’t think I would ever have regretted my decision to focus on music.
Gordon: Irish music seems to be a major focus in some of your work. Could you share with us some of the reasons why Irish music is such a powerful influence ?
Eric: Irish music came into my life at just the right moment. I was probably feeling especially bogged down with more formal practicing and technical playing, when a friend of a friend of my mom’s (etc.) mentioned The Academy of Irish Music, a group that meets at the Irish American Heritage Center. I don’t have any Irish heritage, but from the moment I stepped in the door something drew me in and has yet to let me go. There is a wonderful social quality to Irish music. Meeting for a rehearsal or even performing is as much a recreational event as a functional one. The people I was playing with then, and have continued to play with ever since (going on ten years now), are open-minded, ever-welcoming, and incredibly talented. However, the best part about their admirable attributes is that they never seem worked at – everything is completely organic and spontaneous. This style of music making was more than a welcome relief from my classical training; it was also highly educational and has functioned to develop an entirely new dimension in my playing.
Gordon: You are also a violist, Who is your favorite viola composer and could you share with our readers you favorite viola performance?
Eric: Typically, I prefer music that was composed during my lifetime. I feel somewhat more attached to it on an emotional level, and I feel responsible for performing it on a technical level. Some of my favorite composers include Gyorgy Kurtag, Bernard Rands, and Wolfgang Rihm. However, the best is to be able to play the music of a composer I know personally. Some of my friends are very talented composers and I am fortunate enough to have had the experience of playing many of their pieces.
Here is a recording of a world premiere performance of some music by Wolfgang Rihm that I was incredibly fortunate to be a part of:
Gordon: In addition to your music career, you also have a Masters degree from DePaul University in Writing and Publishing. What were some of your favorite courses in writing?
Eric: My primary literary genre is poetry. Most of my favorite courses were various poetry workshops. However, towards the end of my degree I took a course in creative non-fiction forms. This was a new style for me, and presented significant challenges, but I completed the course feeling very inspired. I think this is likely to be a genre that I will explore further in the future.
Gordon: Could you provide us with an overview on some of the issues that were discussed when you were invited to the Clinton Foundation’s CGIU Conference for The UB Project, 2014, 2015?
Eric: When I was presenting the UB Project [an initiative to bring violin lessons to impoverished orphans in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia] at CGIU, there was much discussion about core curriculum in public schools. We spent a lot of time discussing STEMA and many other, much more radical suggestions. This was very stimulating to discuss, and actually seemed quite pertinent to the UB project. It is important to consider the imperfections of a more developed system while trying to help along a fledgling.
Gordon: Who is your favorite writer and what is your favorite book and explain both reasons?
Eric: I’m quite certain that my response to this question would change every day. But right now, the first writer who comes to mind is Samuel Beckett. His novel, Molloy is a particular favorite, but his short stories are very intriguing as well. It’s difficult to identify precisely what it is about Beckett that makes me like his writing so much. Probably his very interesting marriage of early-20th century philosophy with liberal interpretations of creative literary forms – both things that I am interested in myself.
Gordon: It seems that young people are often hypnotized by their cell phones and digital communications. What are your favorite digital resources and, in your opinion. could some of these be used by churches to communicate with young adults?
Eric: At SMOW we have a mobile app. Everything that appears on the parish website or in the weekly bulletin can be accessed via the app. It seems to be fairly effective. However, when it comes to communicating effectively with young adults, I personally feel that is best to attempt face-to-face communication. Although young people are very savvy users of electronic communication and might be reached easily through this medium, I wouldn’t invest much confidence in their taking the communication very seriously. The more abundant the output of digital resources becomes, the less significant it’s delivered material seems and inversely, the more impactful traditional communication becomes. Maybe we should try sending letters to young people if we really want them to listen
Gordon: Thank you for a great interview.