Sarah Johnson on a modern Catholic choir that would get even Pope Benedict XVI's foot tapping If I say "modern Catholic church music", what does this conjure up for you? Very probably the vision of about six young and not quite so young amateur singers, at least one of whom (not necessarily male) has a beard. TWo (never more than two) are brandishing acoustic guitars tuned to slightly different keys, and at least three of the singers cannot help, however hard they try, but sing slightly fiat or persistently sharp as they toil through "Colours of Day".
If so (and this description, most definitely, in case they read this, does not fit the lovely choir at my church) you are in holy company. It has become very clear by now that when that distant day comes, in the unlikely event of St Peter not being at liberty to admit Benedict XVI straight into heaven, the saint will sigh and say: "OK, my friend, you've got a choice: six months in the lake of fire or another evening with that youth liturgy folk choir who impressed you so much in 1973." And the Holy Father will probably pause in a scholarly fashion before inquiring: "Just talk me through the lake of fire option again, would you?"
Now, let me take you to Soho. London's capital of sleaze, at 5 pm on a warm Sunday evening in early spring. The air is foul, the litter is ankle-deep and the drug addicts are congregating to celebrate the warmer weather on Soho Square's sad little patch of grass. But as we tumble through the vast, slightly crumbling doorway of St Patrick's Church, on the square's eastern side, our ears and senses are swept up and away by a burst of powerful, rhythmic and joyful singing in complex harmony.
The St Patrick's Gospel Choir is singing an ecstatic entry hymn, "Celebrate, Jesus-, in powerful bursts of infectious rhythm. Even a few of the drug addicts look
up briefly with astonishment before sinking back into a stupor.
The rich menu of liturgical music which follows includes a Gloria with a Latin response, a psalm setting using a traditional French Easter melody and a recessional hymn setting those seasonal words, "He is alive!", inspirationally to the opening bars of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. By the end of Mass, the congregation is clapping and swaying only in a mild-mannered, European sort of way, mind you, but with enjoyment, nonetheless.
All this music, constantly surprising in its beauty, sticking rigidly to the liturgy's language and form, despite the occasional coloratura extemporisation, is in the style known as "contemporary gospel". Gospel? Readers are probably vaguely familiar with the concept: large in every sense posses of burly Southern Baptists swathed in electric blue polyester singing "Oh Happy Day".
Well, St Patrick's Gospel Choir haven't ordered a set of voluminous polyester robes yet, but this 18month-old musical powerhouse is, as far as I'm aware, the only Catholic gospel-style choir in Britain that sings at a regular weekly Mass. Their singers and musicians, who compose most of their own music for these, include talented professional jazz players, led by a phenomenal music director, Tracey Campbell, a 34-year-old firebrand who fits in composing and music direction with studying for a theology degree, being a mum and singing.
Tracey is, in the view of the choir's Hammond organ player, Miko Giedroyc, "the finest alto gospel singer in the country'. She's talented and utterly devoted to pushing for a higher standard of contemporary, accessible church music that will appeal to all people, especially the young.
"Singing a folk-y song in a group with a guitar is, in my opinion, one of the more difficult musical propositions if you are aiming to do it as well as a professional and give inspiration to the listener," Giedroyc explains over tea and cakes in the church café afterwards. "The St Pat's Gospel Choir would like to be to contemporary liturgical music what Westminster Cathedral is to traditional music. "We are," he adds modestly, "a few decades away from this goal yet.
"Most human beings in London, especially young ones, a) listen to contemporary music and b) have very high quality personal music systems iPods, and so on which deliver music of high quality in terms of composition, performance and production," says Giedroyc, who switched from a City career in his mid-40s to being a full-time church musician and jazz pianist and became one of the choir's founding forces.
"For some reason, it's still thought that to achieve its end the support and enhancement of worship and prayer in the Mass contemporary music does not require the same amount of training, experience, resource and rehearsal as traditional church music. In fact it does, and possibly even more."
The universal availability of pop music, which is really not that easy to sing well, divides its listeners into two groups: a large group who are convinced they "can't sing" and a smaller, unforru
nately more vociferous one, who are convinced they can.
The larger group have tried singing along to the radio in the bathroom and feel so dispirited by the results that they keep their mouths shut on all musical occasions. For most of us, the job of hitting the note is a hazardous enterprise best confined to the safety of traditional church music, whose melodies usually trudge up and down a scale in a fairly predictable way.
But, discouraged by the impossibility of being Barbra Streisand, many never realise that they could make a perfectly decent noise in church if they just took a deep breath and opened their mouth a bit wider. I am sure this must be the reason why so lamentably few people in Catholic churches even attempt to sing a hymn. The other group of listeners to pop music are the would-be XFactor winners who can't keep away from the karaoke mike.
Having suffered a teenage Mariah Carey-wannabe , singing "Hero" next to me some years ago on the stage of a school prize-giving ceremony, I know only too well what this means. It is, as Giedroyc points out, difficult to sing like a pop singer, even like a professional folk singer.
Can the St Pat's experience be repeated elsewhere? Well, that's one aim. The team is building up an entire repertoire of fabulous, singable choral music which could, if made better known, create enthusiasm for starting new contemporary gospel choirs in
other Catholic churches.
Eventually, Giedroyc hopes, the choir will be able to record backing tracks which church music directors could download from the Internet to compensate for the inevitable lack of a full-scale gospel backing band.
But none of this will happen unless more Catholics come to hear them sing, and give them some encouragement and quite possibly clap their hands very quietly, even sway from side to side. Just a little. We might even see the Holy Father's feet tapping one day yet.
The St Patrick's Gospel Choir can be heard at the 5 pm Mass every Sunday at the church on 21A Soho Square, London W1D 4NR. For more information, visit www.stpatricksoho.org