November 17, 2014


In This Place: In Praise of the Music of Frank La Rocca : The sacred music of the American composer is remarkable and unaffected, breathing the atmosphere of mystical devotion (R.J. Stove, 11/02/14, Catholic World Report)

All this serves as a prelude to noting several facts: first, that there flourishes in America a composer named Frank La Rocca; second, that his creative talent for religious music is remarkable; third, that one can have been a professional musician--indeed a professional church musician--for decades without having encountered his name, let alone his output; and fourth, that those in that ignoramus category had included myself, until his CD In This Place, was recently brought to my attention--and by a non-musician! According to the Myth of Artistic Inevitability, such neglect could never have happened. I would, for certain, have discovered La Rocca's work in the quotidian course of events; every decent-sized musical reference book would have alerted me to that work; it would be needless to accord him wider fame by writing the present article; and pigs would fly.

A good case can be mounted for listening to all unfamiliar music, as it were, "blindfolded". In other words, for judging it entirely upon what the ear apprehends, with no biographical or other data to affect one's pleasure or distaste. Accordingly, before seeking any information about La Rocca's career, I began playing the CD, and I concentrated exclusively on what I heard.

What I heard managed to reveal, within the first 60 seconds of the initial track--O Magnum Mysterium, to words best known through Tomas Luis de Victoria's version--that something uncommonly interesting had unfolded. Stylistically the music (most of it choral, though it included a piano solo called Meditation) bore traces of Arvo Pärt, yet was conspicuously not by Pärt himself. Likewise, it bore traces of the late Sir John Tavener, yet just as conspicuously did not emanate from Tavener's pen. It showed a composer comfortable not only with the setting of Latin words but with large musical structures, a fact that in itself separated him from most of the minimalists whom his writing might otherwise have suggested. 

Equally unmistakably, it breathed the atmosphere of mystical devotion, Messiaen being occasionally implied in the piled-up vocal harmonies and the suggestion that "the still point of the turning world" had been intuitively (rather than logically) arrived at. But it could not be classified as fake-Messiaen either. One thing was sure: it defied switching off, whether literally through pressing the stereo's relevant button, or metaphorically through letting the attention drift elsewhere.

At this point, and not before, I called the Internet to my didactic aid. From various websites, including La Rocca's own site, I learned that La Rocca, born in New Jersey 63 years ago, had acquired his bachelor's degree in music from Yale (1973) and his doctorate in music from Berkeley (1981). Among his teachers he numbered Andrew Imbrie and John Mauceri, neither of whom would have the slightest inclination to waste time and effort on a mere cashed-up dilettante. A former Calvinist, La Rocca converted somewhere along the line to Catholicism, and since then has devoted a remarkable amount of his energy to the production of choral music, most of it in Latin. This music has been heard not solely in the United States, but also in Brazil, Portugal, Britain, France, Germany, and the Czech Republic.

It is among the most difficult of all pedagogical tasks to depict, through mere words, musical originality. This musical originality La Rocca has somehow acquired, without the smallest detectable straining after it. Especially notable in this connection is this album's Credo, a text that often gives second-rate composers trouble, because of its sheer length and its limited number of opportunities for word-painting. No such problems perturb La Rocca, who has treated it with a master craftsman's hand. His other Latin settings on this disc--they include Miserere, Expectavi Dominum, and O Sacrum Convivium--are equally free from either dullness or archeologism (which is really no more than dullness's arrogant elder brother).

Posted by at November 17, 2014 4:09 PM

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