What did you want to be when you grew up?
I was a composer from the time I was a little kid. I started piano lessons at about five and, by the time I got out of high school, I was kind of a good classical pianist. I thought of the Jesuits in senior high school in Wichita, Kansas, but I was more interested in romance, and I was still interested in music. I put it aside, and I went to Regis College in Denver. When I started taking philosophy in college, I really wanted to be a philosopher. I had too many things I wanted.
Some Jesuits at Regis ran these classical music appreciation classes. They showed us what went on in each classical piece. I had never known any of this. I had only played them. It made such sense; it made things come together so beautifully. At Regis I used to jump over a wall in a quonset hut building to get to the piano at night. I’d make up these classical pieces and sonatas, because that’s what I was learning in the classical music classes. Then I’d make those Jesuits come over and listen to them. They were really responsible for a lot of my desire to go into music. I went to music school at Wichita State the year after I graduated from college, and the Jesuits still seemed pretty good. I did not know anything about the Jesuit novitiate or anything like that; I didn’t know anything about discernment. I just sort of asked God, “Which one do you want me to do?” I made God take responsibility for it.
How did you come to start composing music for Masses?
In the novitiate, there was a piano in the basement of the church, but we had to get permission to use it. I could get permission once a month. I’d been practicing the piano six hours a day before I entered and suddenly had next to nothing. I got some other novices to show me chords on the guitar. Just at that time, the guitar started to be allowed in the new liturgy. I thought, “Well, they need music, so let’s go.” It was a matter of timing that was right. I wanted to be part of a movement that gave Vatican II’s call for participation a chance and gave people melodies they could sing and also were sophisticated and had spirituality attached to them, the spirituality of the Mass. I’d write pieces and send them to various publishing companies and get rejection letters. Nearly everything I had in Neither Silver Nor Gold had been previously rejected, but the music was really successful here in St. Louis, and by that time, Bob, Dan, Roc and Tim were all in the city.
How exactly did you get connected with the others?
My memory is that I heard their music over at Fusz, and I heard a rumor they were going to write it all down. I said, “Hey, let’s gather me and any other Jesuits in St. Louis who have been writing liturgical music, and we’ll put out copies of it when people ask for it.” My stuff started to get around; Schutte and Dufford got copies of it, and they started writing in their own unique ways. I was doing short refrains, setting those antiphons that are printed in the missal, that are remnants of the chant from ancient days. When he got to St. Louis, Dan started to do longer refrains that had a lot more melodic content. I had based mine on Joseph Gelineau’s, in part, but when I heard his, I thought that it really fit instrumentally; we tried to keep our parts simple. We made each album we put out a little more complicated because we thought we would be teaching the guitar crowd to be better and better. But there wasn’t the continuity we thought there would be. There would be people playing guitars for two to three years, and then they’d go to college or go into business and a new crowd would come in, so we gradually professionalized the whole thing and raised the guitar playing standards.
People talk about your work together as capturing the rhythms and speech well.
The ultimate roots are with Fr. Bob Boyle at Regis. I studied Hopkins with him at college. I heard the sprung and metaphorical rhythm, and I just fell in love with it. Working in language from that point on became something I couldn’t compromise. It’s actually easier to get the rhythms of the language right than to do them wrong. It’s like a guy who lays bricks and lays them all crooked. I’m not making any claims that I did it right all the time.