Intoning the Collects

This piece was written in 2005 for publication in the LVX Lodge newsletter. To my recollection, it never actually saw print.

The Collects of the Gnostic Catholic Mass contain some of the longest and most difficult lines in that ceremony, and are punctuated only by the communal response “So mote it be” after each of the eleven Collects. Every Deacon has felt anxiety about reciting the Collects; even though this is the sole part of the Mass for which text may be read rather than recited from memory, the desire to do the job well – both dramatically and magically – pushes Deacons to the limits of their oratorical ability, and sometimes beyond.

However, simple oratory is not what Crowley had in mind. The instruction in Liber XV is “...the DEACON intones the Collects.” To intone a piece is to sing or chant it. And indeed, similar prayers in other churches are more typically chanted than spoken. Music is an extremely helpful aid in unifying and directing the collective will of the celebrants and the congregation. It seems clear that this is why Crowley specified intonation of the Collects, along with his directive that the Anthem be set to music, and his stage directions for incidental music accompanying key events in the Mass.

Unfortunately, intonation is more difficult than recitation. Many Deacons are terrified at the prospect of singing a capella in public. I know I was, when Fr. Sabazius asked me to do so for a Mass held just before NOTOCON 2005. Fortunately, I had a few months in which to work out how to do it. I can now vouch that anyone who can carry a tune and who has a basic sense of rhythm can learn to intone the Collects. No formal musical training is required. What's more, it feels great doing it, and people seem to enjoy hearing it (although the people who overheard my quiet practice sessions on the bus were more bewildered than enthusiastic, and perhaps a little scared). My hope is that this article will provide more Deacons with the tools and confidence to give intonation a try.

So, how is it done? First, become very good at reciting the Collects, largely or entirely from memory if at all possible. Intonation will require you to think about pitch, pacing, breath control, and other issues; this is a bad thing indeed if you're trying to puzzle out how to pronounce “diminution” at the same time. I advise Deacons to read the Collects out loud over and over until the words flow smoothly. Look up words you don't know, or that you're not sure how to pronounce. Own that text; make it part of you, so that when it comes out of your mouth it sounds like your words, not a text you're slavishly following. This is good advice even if you don't plan to try intonation.

Next, pick an intonation style. You'll find many models in various churches and sects, but a good start is the form used in Anglican common prayer. In fact, this is the form you'll hear Crowley himself attempting if you listen to him intone the first four Collects (mp3 linked from Unfortunately, he's not very good at it (or perhaps he's doing something I don't know about, I suppose – but I'm sticking with theory A). The “right way” to do it is to hold a single note for the bulk of the text, dropping to a lower note for emphasis at the end of some clauses. The interval to drop is known to musicians as a “minor third”, e.g. from F down to D in the C Major scale. It's the same relationship between a pair of tones used for the words “so” and “mote” in the commonly used sung form of “So mote it be” (which Crowley does well in that recording, by the way). In fact, the congregation echoes the Deacon's pitch for these responses, making for a pleasantly musical exchange.

The next question is where to place those lowered emphasis notes. This is a matter of esthetics and lung capacity, but the general rules are to use the low note only on the final syllable of a clause, to always end each Collect on a low note, and to place other low notes where emphasis is most needed at the ends of clauses, or at natural emphasis points just before you'll need to take a breath. Experiment with this! Too many drops to the low note ends up sounding sing-songy and annoying; too few gets exhausting, both to perform and to hear. As an example, here's how I handle the Sun Collect; points at which I drop to the lower note are in highlighted.

Lord visible and sensible of whom this earth is but a frozen spark turning about thee with annual and diurnal moTION, source of light, source of life, let thy perpetual radiance hearten us to continual labour and enjoyMENT; so that as we are constant partakers of thy bounty we may in our particular orbit give out light and life, sustenance and joy to them that revolve about us without diminution of substance or effulgence for eVER.

Finally, how do you stop this from sounding like it should be punctuated by banging your head with a board? (No magical instruction is complete without a Monty Python reference. And, just for the record, the first group of penitent monks in Holy Grail use the minor-third-descent chant I describe here.) The trick is that even though you only have two notes to work with, you have infinite scope for controlling the pace, resonance, volume, inflection, and other aspects of your chant. If your voice becomes more vigorous and resonant on “Lord of Life and Joy”, slower and more contemplative on “let there be harmony and beauty in your mystic loves”, loud and celebratory on “and the babe catch life with both hands”, the emotional (and magical) content of the material will get through just fine. Note that this implies varying your delivery within each Collect, as well as between them. For example, in the Fifth Collect, I dropped the volume and resonance a little between “openly in the marketplaces” and “secretly in the chambers of our houses”. Also, it helps to lengthen the final note of each Collect, both because it provides a definitive ending for that Collect, and because the congregation will quickly learn that this is their cue to prepare to respond with “So mote it be” when that note ends..

And that's all there is to it! If you can carry a tune and are willing to study and practice, you can intone the Collects. I think you will be amazed by the results – I know I was.