[Cross-posted from The Chant Cafe]
I have no such hesitancy, and I especially want to thank everyone who has donated. Some of these people certainly cannot afford to do so on the level that they did, and such efforts are genuinely moving and inspiring. What would also be great would be to see more $10, $5, and $1 donations – because they help (they do!) and also because they express solidarity and good will support, which Adam and the project very much need.
But actually there is much more at issue here even beyond the Simple Propers Project itself. It concerns the culture of music and its distribution in the Catholic world. When we think back to the early Church, we note that scripture reports that the first action of the early Christians was to share what they owned privately with others, to put their possessions and their money in a common pool. No, they were not communists and this was not an early experiment in liberation theology. But it does establish an ethos of giving and sharing toward the common good that defined Christianity from the earliest times to the present.
It is particularly true with regard to the texts and music of the faith. Unlike food and housing, the sharing of texts and music does not depreciate the existing stock of the good. One person can write a song and the entire world can sing it. One person can know a verse and give it to the entire world with no loss of the original copy. There is something of a miracle associated with this reality, and this is precisely what gave rise to the evangelical spirit in Christian culture. We can give and give, share and share, without limit. This impulse became the foundation of an ethos in the Catholic world. We do not hesitate to offer help to others and we do not feel guilt when we draw from the help others give us.
Sharing leads to an ever greater flowering of all things shared, as we learn from each other and improve the results in an ever more progressive way. This is how the music of the Church was built and grew from the earliest days, until the entire Church year was filled with chants suitable to every conceivable reading and liturgical action. The culture of giving and sharing made this happen. It made possible the development of organum and polyphony and the whole of the Western musical tradition.
An ethos of grasping and privatizing of art were unknown during this time. The goal of the composer was to release the music as far and as widely as possible. The composer hoped to have the music performed, hoped to have it imitated and elaborated upon, hoped to see others influenced and inspired by it. All music was a gift to the world and to the faith. This was the very essence of what it meant to be a Christian artist. You put your “possessions” at the feet of the Apostles and ask that they be used for the good of all.
But how can these people live if they are forever giving away? This is the question that is always asked about the institution of Christian charity. There is always and everywhere a material case to make against charity. Why rescue abandoned children when there are other things calling on our time? Why help the guy who is beaten and bleeding on the side of the road when there are places that we need to be? There is a sense in which charity itself seems irrational, and that is why it didn’t exist in any institutionalized form in the ancient world apart from particular tribes and groups. The idea of universal love and universal charity is a Christian contribution. We have the faith to believe that when we give, we end up gaining more than we ever had in the first place.
The 20th century invention of what is called “copyright” took direct aim at this institution in a form that turned the Christian ethos on its head (I’m bypassing the Elizabethan history here because it was a very different institution). The newly internationalized law said: the state will guarantee that your art remains your art only and is accessed by others only on terms that financially benefit you personally. To be sure, this goes against the very nature of music and text, which are necessarily universal upon their public appearance. To make copyright stick required the state and its laws, which meant that Christian artists were encouraged to draw closer to the civic culture and its ruling magistrates.
Whatever else this has done, it dramatically upended 19 centuries of artist practice in the Christian world. It has fostered, on one side, a culture of grasping, hoarding, and myopia among artists, and, on the other side, led those who benefit from the work of artists to not understand their obligations to give more than they get in return from the work of the artists themselves. The attitude of artists becomes “give me what I am due” and the attitude among would-be benefactors becomes “I gave at the office.” And now that digital downloads make it possible to download thousands upon thousands of pages of music for free (and this is all to the good!), that mutual element of gratitude and its expression must also be cultivated among those who benefit.
So we can see here that the Simple Propers Project is about more than just providing quality chant settings for the ordinary form. It is an experiment in bringing the Christian ethos of giving and sharing back to Christian art itself. Adam is putting all of his music into the commons, just as the early Christian put their possessions at the feet of the Apostles. And as members of the community that benefits, what can we do? We can follow the example of giving, knowing with faith that we will gain more in the long run than we ever had or ever gave.
It is up to all of us to contribute and show how this seemingly irrational system of giving and sharing works to the benefit of all.