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An Interview with Sacred Music Composer J.J. Wright

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Following the release of the album O Emmanuel, GRAMMY-winning composer, conductor, and pianist J.J. Wright provided the following interview to Church Life Journal, where he described not only the experience of creating and recording this unique album for the Advent and Christmas seasons (which reached #1 on Billboard’s traditional classical album chart), but also the importance of children’s choirs and the future of sacred and liturgical music in the life of the Church. We are grateful to J.J. for sharing his thoughts as a complement the review of O Emmanuel featured here.

CP: Throughout this piece there are moments when varied musical styles are heard side-by-side. For example, in one section, a chant melody is accompanied by a jazz trio. Can you describe your thought process when it comes to constructing passages like this? How do you fit these seemingly incongruous musical pieces together in such a complementary way? Why do you feel it’s important to fuse different kinds of music together in your writing?

JJ: Music has an incredible way of stirring our emotions. When I composed this work, I wanted to create an emotional journey that would help the listener engage in a new and creative way with not only the texts themselves, but with their own spiritual and emotional lives in relation to the Advent and Christmas seasons. One of my overarching ideas for the piece was to have the varying musical styles create a sense of traveling through time—the oldest sounding music (Gregorian chant) in the beginning of the piece and more contemporary sounding music as the journey progresses. My hope is to add another layer to the listening experience, like “why is this text set in this way and what is the music trying to help me feel or understand by sounding like this?”

When I compose, before I write any notes, I need to be able to connect with the text and music in the deepest parts of my body and soul. Since my training and musical background are equally in jazz and sacred music, the stylistic differences don’t seem disparate to me because I’ve spent so much time with both.

CP: Do you think this model of musical fusion is one that could perhaps be adopted and/or adapted by composers writing music specifically for liturgical use? Why/why not?

JJ: Absolutely—I think if there is one constant throughout the history of Christian sacred music, it’s the ability for composers (and communities) to adapt their local customs effectively into the practice of their faith. This is a complex question though, because we don’t create music in a vacuum—we create it as part of a community, in dialogue. Ideally, for liturgical music (regardless of the style), a musician/composer will work to understand their liturgical community and its needs in a comprehensive way (through the lens of the universal Church and the particular community), helping to build a musical culture that enables a deeper engagement in the community’s liturgical life.

CP: People often wonder whether or not it’s ‘appropriate’ or even ‘acceptable’ to listen to Christmas music during the Advent season, yet in the third movement, you’ve actually chosen to the combine text from the Christmas hymn “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” with the Advent antiphon “O Root of Jesse.” What was your motivation for these combinations and what do you hope that listeners will take away from them?

JJ: In the movement you’re referring to, “Radix,” I had two ideas in mind: 1) since the “O Antiphons” are the Magnificat antiphons for Vespers, I wanted to at least one of them to be specifically dedicated to the Blessed Mother, and 2) “the Root of Jesse” refers to the royal lineage which Christ was to be a part of—Jesse was King David’s father, and Mary comes in that family line several generations later . . . therefore, I wanted to create a theological interpolation by layering the two different texts and melodies. O Emmanuel is a journey through Advent to Christmas—a journey of preparation and then realization. I wanted to constantly remind myself and the listener where we were going on the journey—our preparation has a purpose, which is for Christ’s arrival at Christmas.

CP: What was the most rewarding moment in the recording process?
The most challenging?

JJ: One of the most rewarding moments was when one of the members of the Notre Dame Children’s Choir came up to me during a break and said something like “This is awesome, J.J., thanks for creating this music for us to sing.” Ultimately, this piece was created for these kids—to energize the incredible work they are already doing and to provide them the opportunity to take part in our efforts to energize sacred music in the Church.

The most challenging was the sheer size of the project—when everyone was on stage recording, there were over 50 people making music together!

CP: Do you utilize a different approach in writing for a children’s choir than for adult musicians? If so, how does your approach change?

JJ: There are important technical considerations to keep in mind with regards to range and complexity when composing for a children’s choir, but I don’t want to bore anyone with the details! One of the things we hoped for when we were designing this project was that O Emmanuel would be proof that children can perform at an extremely high level. In every movement of the piece, the children perform with professional musicians, and the music is never dumbed-down to make this possible.

CP: What role do you think children’s choirs play in the liturgical life of the Church today? How can parishes and parents nurture these young musicians so that they grow up to be the next generation of musical leaders in the Church?

JJ: Children’s choirs are the future of the Church. There is a critical shortage of arts education in America today, and the I think we (the Church) can use this opportunity to offer something that is in short supply and also happens to be one of the things we have historically been the best at. When we have a flourishing culture of children’s choirs in our parishes and dioceses, we have children engaged in the life of the Church in an active and substantial way. They are, of course, building useful musical and social skills, but by creating this infrastructure we are also investing in them as leaders. A flourishing culture of sacred music can help realize the call from the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council for a liturgy and Church that participates fully, consciously, and actively.

Featured Photo: courtesy of J.J. Wright, used with permission.

To hear from the members of the Notre Dame Children’s Choir about the importance of music in their lives of faith, click here.

Carolyn Pirtle

Carolyn Pirtle is the associate director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy and a composer of liturgical music.