21 QUESTIONS WITH JOEL KUMRO

One Sunday after Mass at St. Benedict’s Catholic Church on Shepard, I sat down to forgetfully play the piano. Ave Maria…gratia ple-e-e-…whoa, is that a G minor? F sharp? Where’s middle C again?

It wasn’t too long before the room cleared out. Well, I can’t say I’m surprised. Next time I’ll bring my old dusty hymnbook, so I can rememberor maybe I’ll just hand out earplugs to my unsuspecting audience.

Much too my surprise, it was at this moment that I found myself face-to-face with a lumberjack of a man who I recognized from the choir loft. He gave me a strong handshake.

“I’m Joel Kumro,” he said. “The choirmaster here. What’s your name? Are you a parishioner? HeyAve Maria! You know, you’re not too bad. If you’d like, I can take you upstairs and show you how the organ works.”

“I’m Hunter,” I said. “I’d like that.” It’s not every day you get to step behind the curtain and meet the Wizard of Oz. Of course, I didn’t say anything so offbeat, not yet.

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DHR: This organ (at St. Benedict’s) has a few dozen stops, all of which are responsible for different sounds.

With the combination of stops, how many sounds could you create?

JK: An unbelievable number— and this is a rather modest organ. It’s one of the most unique organs in Richmond, but it’s certainly not the biggest. In my opinion, it’s one of the most beautiful, but I’m obviously biased, because I play it every day.

DHR: What are some of the main differences between the organ and the piano?

JK: Well, first things first, the organ doesn’t have a sustain pedal. Notes on the organ are sustained only as long as you hold them. By the same coin, though, notes can be held for infinity.

So you have to find different ways of making organ music flow. To keep it from feeling choppy, you have to play legato. All the notes are played together, but you have to have a little bit of light between them. It’s not staccato— you might call it legierro— it wouldn’t be pure legato, that would sound weird.

The keyboard is also not as wide. You have more keyboards, but you don’t have 88 keys. That’s because, depending on which stops you pull, you can play several octaves at once. Based on the sound of the pipe, the octave changes.

You also have a stop called a mixture. It doesn’t play several octaves at once, but rather different notes in a chord. So if you play a G on the mixture, you’re playing both G’s and non-G’s. It adds that sparkle and reinforces the melody line.

The stops all make different sounds– there are reed sounds, trumpet sounds, flute sounds. The organ also has a coupler, which connects the two keyboards together.

When I teach the organ, I tell people to thank piano for what it taught you, then almost-forget it.

One more thing– since the keys make the same noise regardless of pressure, the only way to control the volume is with the combination of stops.

DHR: I suppose controlling the volume would be very important in church.

JK: Exactly. You don’t want to blow the people out of the water all of the time. Sometimes, like if it’s a solemnity day or a hymn everyone knows, I’m gonna go ham. Like today, I was playing the First Noel— by the time I got to the last verse, I was going nuts.

I try to outline the liturgical year in my playing. During Lent, I use the organ sparsely, and I don’t use the more colorful sounds.

On feast days like Christmas, there’s bells, I improvise, I play with broken chords and all this crazy stuff, in order to show people that there’s something about this day that’s more poignant, more celebratory. We refer to that as “progressive solemnity.”

How long did it take you to get a handle on what sound you want to hear and how to create it?

JK: One of the cool things about the organ is that it’s very subjective.

For me, I’m interested in music from the baroque period— classical musical has always been a passion of mine, even when I was a kid. I take a lot of how I play Mass from that, especially because this organ is loosely in that style.

DHR: So when you play music for Mass, it’s not necessarily worship or religious music, but can include classical or baroque music?

JK: I’ll make a few distinctions.

All the music that I use is classical in sound and feeling. I’m using classical in a loose sense— not the Classical Period, but what most people would call “classical music,” including the Romantic period. I also use a lot of modern “classical” work.

One of the chant collections I draw from was written in 2011. It sounds like ancient chant, but it’s actually more modern than the contemporary music some churches are using.

Another distinction is between sacred and liturgical music. All liturgical music is sacred, but not all sacred music is liturgical.

DHR: Can you give an example of each?

JK: Sacred music is music that draws us to the Divine— written for the express purpose of elevating consciousness.

Liturgical music is written for the liturgy. The word liturgy means “the work of God, enacted by people.” Mass is a form of liturgy— but again, not all liturgies are Masses.

An example of a sacred song would be How Great Thou Art. It’s a song written to draw people closer to God, making it a sacred piece. It can be used liturgically, but it was not written specifically for that purpose.

An example of a liturgical piece would be the Gloria. It has a function. It’s sung at every Mass outside of Lent and Advent. The text was written liturgically, and that’s how it’s used.

If How Great Thou Art is used as a Eucharistic hymn, for example, it’s a liturgical piece in that moment, but it’s not an objectively liturgical piece.

DHR: What about something like one of Chopin’s polonaises? They have these incredible power chords, they’re very intense. You could play that at Mass.

JK: This is one of those grey areas. You might say, well, because Chopin is classical, and we use classical music at Mass, we can use Chopin at Mass. What’s the answer to that question?

DHR: I don’t know.

JK: Is Chopin liturgical? No. Is it sacred?

I would say no. I don’t know what his motive was behind composing them— it could be that he was meditating on the mysteries of Christ. (Laughs).

I personally wouldn’t play Chopin at Mass, but this is where I talk out of both sides of my mouth. There are some classical pieces I play that I say are sacred because they were written by some dude or lady who played for a church, and therefore I’m deducting that the music is sacred.

DHR: If Chopin’s creation is transcendent— if it draws me closer to this higher plane, closer to God— what does it matter what he thinks or what he does? You could say, well, forget this guy— this is what he made.

JK: I would say that’s an important idea. That’s where I’d say you could play Chopin in church, if it’s speaking to you— hopefully you can get it to speak to others in the same way, and maybe it deepens their faith.

That would be an example of using a piece different from the purpose it was composed for, but the way you’re using it is praiseworthy. So yes, it’s certainly possible. But it’s not my style. And Chopin didn’t write for the organ.

DHR: I’ll go one step further. Take a song like Angie by the Rolling Stones.

This is a song that is specifically not-sacred— it’s a song about a lover, written by guys who weren’t exactly saints.

But could you take that beautiful, solemn chord progression and, for example, play it during the offering? Or is that just way too far?

JK: That would be my thing— that would be too much of a stretch.

We do have some examples in history of bringing pagan tunes or bar tunes and turning them into hymns. But at this juncture in our culture, I don’t think it’s really time for that. There’s no reason you couldn’t play Angie on the organ, but I wouldn’t play it during Mass.

DHR: Understood.

Getting back to the organ— from what you’ve taught me, it feels more like a combination of instruments than a single instrument.

JK: Exactly. The organ is sort of the world’s first synthesizer.

DHR: Many parts— all one body.

JK: Exactly. That’s a very good theological idea, too. Pope Benedict talked about that once. It’s a perfect metaphor for the Body of Christ. Up until the Industrial Revolution, the organ was the most complex machine— not just instrument, most complex machine— in the world.

Put yourself into one of these hamlets from many centuries ago. You walk into church. You’ve never heard amplified sound. Maybe you’ve heard street musicians, or maybe you’re part of the upper class that could afford to go to a concert, but even orchestral instruments back then were rudimentary. You didn’t have your headphones in, you didn’t have your bass thumping, you didn’t have your Soundbar with your subwoofer.

The organ at church would be not only the loudest, but the most otherworldly sound you ever heard in your life.

DHR: We’ve becomes so oversaturated with stimuli, and it’s still one of the most otherworldly sounds you’ll hear in your life.

I’m thinking about people who go to EDM festivals and are like: this is it, I am, woah— and then they have this moment of transcendence, self-actualization. That’s not my style, but I’ve seen these things happen.

JK: Absolutely.

DHR: The organ, in the 15th or 16th century….

JK: It would be a literally awesome experience. It would remind you of God. It would be like nothing you had ever seen.

This organ is mechanical. But back then, you would have to have several people blowing the bellows. There were crank-wheels to step on. Sometimes you would need four or five people just to provide enough wind for the organist to play.

These days we’re lucky, in a way, that we can get this cool sound from just one person playing. It used to be a multi-person job. It must have looked like one of those instruments from the Grinch Who Stole Christmas.

DHR: I imagine that if I were a peasant that had this experience, nothing would ever shake my faith. My mind would be permanently blown.

JK: The whole theology of the Church is like that. It’s like a stained-glass window.

You can’t see clearly through a stained-glass window. The light from the outside— and the rising sun is a metaphor for the rising Son— the rising sun is what transforms the mysteries of the saints.

When you walk into church, the idea is that you’re walking into Heaven. Christ is literally made present by the priest, who is standing in the person of Christ, standing where Christ stood at the Last Supper. Then we’re all here participating, and above us are the angels and saints.

That’s like, actually happening when you go to Mass. All the time. It’s pretty darn mind-blowing. And it’s why I do what I do.

I was interested in the organ as a kid. I never thought I would play in church— I wasn’t really into church, or faith, or anything like that.

I was in a bad accident when I was 15, so I went to church just a little bit because I was in a bad place. They were in a bind for someone to play the organ at the time, so they roped me in. I came in, I sat down, and I said, “Woah, this instrument is crazy.”

I eventually changed my undergraduate major from Musical Education to Music Performance. Then when I finished undergrad, I went and studied the organ for two years very, very intensely.

Throughout the process, my faith has been reawakened. At first it was a way to make some money, make some music, what the heck, you know. Then I thought— look at these buildings, listen to these prayers that are being said. And I thought, something real is happening here.

DHR: I thought about that today, while the incense was burning. There is something going on. My first takeaway from Mass at St. Benedict’s was this: this isn’t some nice rotary club chat about a cool guy with some good ideas from way back when. This is a religion.

JK: Yes, and it’s been going on for thousands of years. You just drop into it for a minute, then slip back out into your life.

This place can truly be a refuge and a relief. It’s like the stained-glass windows. It takes you away from the outside world so you can have this transcendent experience that isn’t bogged down.

DHR: Do you have an opinion on the use of Latin for the hymns at St Benedict’s?

JK: Well, according to Vatican II, the use of Latin was supposed to remain in the Church. Of course, it’s good to hear the Gospel in your native tongue, as you do at St. Benedict’s. But the parts of the Mass we sing every weekend— the Gloria, Kyrie, Sanctus— it’s great to have those in Latin because it’s a unitive factor.

When you’re singing the Gloria, the Kyrie, it’s a symbol of unity– that everyone in the whole world is using that same language to sing that same prayer, and they have been for thousands of years.

But Latin is also a bogeyman for some people. It’s got these connotations of being overly conservative, overly traditional. So I think it’s important to look at its practical uses.

DHR: I sometimes think this about Vatican II. It seems that the Church has become very accessible— like they’re attempting to make the Godhead relevant, accessible, “cool.”

It seems to me that the point wouldn’t be to change the Church so that people can understand it more easily. I’m reminded of an Alan Watts quote— “the point is to get with it.”

I mean, the Grateful Dead don’t play EDM now, just because their tours are less crowded.

JK: Well, I’ll tell you this.

The staff at St. Benedict’s works very hard, and very closely together, to make our liturgy as beautiful and as reverent as possible. We always talk about, how can we do that, and still make it so that if someone literally stumbles in from outside, they aren’t scared? It’s hard, and there’s no answer, as far as, “this ratio of Latin, this music, blah blah blah.”

But while we are a traditional church, we want to be a place where people feel welcome, no matter if they’re literally in off the street, or if they’re struggling in any way.

People are at different places on their journey. I’ve met some people here— it’s been so inspiring to me— people who have deep, beautiful faith. I’m definitely a person of faith, too, but it’s a hard, hard, difficult thing.

I’ve met some people in these pews who are going through the most incredible trials, stuff I could never imagine. There’s people here who follow the Church to a T, and people who don’t. There are all walks.

And you have to be mindful of that. You can’t scare people away with nonstop Gregorian chanting and this single-minded focus on tradition.

Now, I’ll say this, too. My training in chant is called semiology. Semiology is the practice of reconstructing original chant manuscripts. Our Marian antiphon, for example, is very different from some of these Gregorian chant CDs, where you have a bunch of monks in the middle of nowhere singing super slow.

To me chant has life, has joy, has energy, and it’s all about the text. My approach is, how can I best serve the text of the chant based on the interpretation of the music?

DHR: What would you say is your favorite part about playing the organ during Mass?

JK: I am a man of colors. I love all the different colors of sound that the organ creates.

I can make something soft, I can make something sweet. I can make something loud and powerful. I can sometimes do all of those things at one time.

There’s also something beautiful about accompanying a church full of people. It’s amazing to me that I’m the one in control. All the people are following my lead. It’s nuts.

It’s a very humbling and moving experience.

DHR: How would you say your work has influenced your faith?

JK: A lot of people think that having a job like this makes it easier to have a life of faith. It does and it doesn’t.

Just like everyone, I have my ups and downs. I have things happening in my life outside of church. Sometimes I really need to rely on the Lord. Sometimes God feels close to me, and I feel moved. Sometimes, it’s here.

Sometimes I’m having a low period, but I still have to do my job the same way. I still have to make this music beautiful, I have to make the words jump off the page, I have to help other people with their spiritual struggles. Overall, it’s rewarding, but it can be draining.

There’s a degree of visibility with my job, too. I direct the music program here— I am never not The Choirmaster. Sometimes I feel like I’m on display. People look up to me as a role model in faith, which I’m happy to be, but I’m also a human being.

DHR: How would you describe your role in the sacrificial offering of Mass?

JK: “Integral.”

I need to be there, and also out of the way.

I’m there as a servant, to help people sing. I play for people to join, and to receive. It’s important for me as a person to get out of the way.

DHR: Your role also seems very intentional.

JK: That’s a word I like to use— intentional.

This is intentional worship— and thoughtful, I would say.

DHR: This is a question I have been thinking about recently.

Would you say the will of God is intentional?

JK: I have a friend that I look up to very dearly. He’s a choirmaster, like me, but he’s in his seventies.

He taught public school for a while, and he had these kids who used to make fun of him for being Catholic, almost like he was stupid. One day, they said, “Mister, do you believe in God?”

And he said, “No.”

The kids were surprised.

Then he said, “At this point in my life, I know.”

That seems like a minor thing to say, but I remember hearing that story for the first time, and it felt so poignant.

My faith journey has been very interesting. At this point in my life, I don’t really have any doubts that God exists. I also believe in the Church; I believe it was founded by Christ.

It’s scary and humbling at the same time. And I wouldn’t want to say this to hurt anyone’s feelings, but I feel bad when I hear people identify as agnostic or atheist. How sad it is to look around and not have faith— to think this is all a coincidence.

DHR: Well, that’s my question. I would say that, awareness being God, or God being awareness— being aware myself, and all of this being aware in its own way— to deny this would be psychosis.

But whether or not it’s intentional or coincidental— what I’ve been thinking…is that I’m not sure that it matters, or that it’s my business to know.

But from your experience, you would say that you do think God is intentional? As in, the collective superconscious is not just undeniable— it’s alive, thinking, planning, making moves?

JK: Well, we have free will.

How can we have a God who is omniscient and omnipotent and still have free will?

It’s the great mystery. God knows how it will go, but you still make the choice.

There’s nobody on this planet that would treat you the way God would. If I treated some of my friends the way I’ve treated God, they would turn their back on me for eternity— and for good reason! But one of the things about faith that’s beautiful is that you have a loving Being who is there all the time to love and forgive you, no matter what. It’s crazy.

DHR: It seems clear to me that Mass could not happen by accident. And life, being a macrocosm…well, perhaps there is Somebody playing the great Organ after all.

Clearly the Organ is being played. That is beyond doubt. The question is if someone is playing it. Is there someone that’s thinking, that’s doing it all, or is it just happening?

In other words: is God intentional?

JK: These sort of things are hard to parse. But it’s like the theology of the Mass.

When we sing the Sanctus— holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Hosts, hosanna in the highest— that song is being sung perpetually. With the angels and saints, we join our voices in song.

When we go to Mass, we’re just dropping in on this never-ending banquet.

My role of playing the organ is like that. To do that, to provide that— my personality ceases to exist in that moment. I’m not thinking about anything. If I’m really locked in, it’s a true ego death.

One of my favorite composer is, of course, Johann Sebastian Bach. In my most successful performances of Bach, I let my Self get out of the way, so that in turn, the pieces can be exactly what they were intended to be.

That I may decrease so that the Lord may increase. When I’m at Mass, my Self goes away, so that the worship of God can be greater. When I perform, I have an impulse to put my artistic imprint on it. But the truest artistic impulse is to give the greatest performance of a piece possible.

You die. You melt. You want to. That’s the whole point.

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Feat. Colin Alexander, Hannah Hazy, Peyton Thomasson, Melvin Kelvin, and Joshua Rhoads

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