The personal blog of Frank Lesko. Award-winning writer. Non-profit entrepreneur. Activist. Religious professional. Foodie. Musician. All around curious soul and Renaissance man.

See also my professional blog: The Traveling Ecumenist.

Monday, June 28, 2010


Truth be told, I have an extensive collection of original music compositions. The creative floodgates opened about 10 years ago, and I've been writing consistently--with occasional breaks--since then. In recent years, the focus of those compositions has been liturgical settings, particularly for Catholic Masses.

I have also shared virtually nothing with no one.

Sure, there have been a few times when I have gathered a few friends to share a few tunes or hand out some kind of demo, but those have been awkward affairs and few and far between.

What makes it so hard to share? Firstoff, I'm not that great of a singer. Sometimes, I can't carry a tune in a bucket. Add to that limited instrumental skills which bring me to churn out inspired but thoroughly rough and mistake-ridden recordings using some technological dinosaur, like a 4-track tape recorder. I always intend to record those again and get them right . . . someday.

Of late, I've been composing madly using computer notation software. I refuse to use the train wreck known as Finale. It can do anything--as long as you bend to its terms. I much prefer the simple and wonderfully intuitive (and cheap) Noteworthy Composer. It can function as a scratch pad that doesn't interfere with the flow of creative sap. In Finale, by the time I fight with the program and figure out how to use it, the inspiration is gone.

The tentative plan has always been to transcribe my creations to Finale when they are ready for sophisticated playback features or better printouts, but that is an unspeakable drudgery and as a result, it just doesn't get done. Sequencers are another option that I just haven't gotten around to, either.

The downside is that my creations come off in cheesy MIDI computer sounds. To me, I hear a symphony. But to you, it is like serving steak on a garbage can lid, to quote The Cosby Show. Those plinky-plunky sounds are supposed to be a string ensemble with wind accompanyment!

Or you can say those are just excuses to cover the fact that I'm horribly afraid of rejection.

Fast forward to last week. Our Catholic Worker community celebrated a Catholic Mass in our very own chapel. This was the first time we have done so since moving to this location a year and a half ago. The last thing I wanted was play the music for this, as there were lots of other tasks to be done, including preparing for an event right afterwards that we were hosting. Besides, my musician skills have been terribly rusty lately. Other musicians were contacted--again, and then again--all to no avail. By default, I ended up as the primary musician.

This was a weekday Mass and as such, it is not like there were music settings popping out of the woodwork and easily found. I didn't exactly look for them, either, though. I just started tinkering with the readings and before I knew it I had set the Responsorial Psalm to music. Then the wonderful reading from Isaiah 49:1-6 provided a bounty of inspiration. This was the Feast of the Birth of St. John the Baptist, so we had accidentally--or providentially--picked a holiday on the Roman calendar (click link for readings).

I dashed off a jumpy tune that we used for the entrance and closing, with verses taken from all of the readings for the day. I have to admit it is one of my favorite pieces, very simple but with coherent and snappy verses and refrain. Erin helped a lot with the cadence of the verses.

Why stop there?

I tapped into my experience playing music for Mass, and I tried to do what I could to prepare the congregation for the music. Having well-rehearsed singers and a congregation with printed music in front of them makes a big difference when teaching new music. It helps to know how much time people need to learn music, especially singers and people like me with limited skills. All those years in Mass ensembles paid off as I finally got it right, and we weren't scrambling at the last minute to pull it together or flubbing our way through it hoping not to screw up.

I used the melody of the entrance song as the Alleluia. I went back into my files and pulled out the first Holy, Holy I had written. It seemed like a good choice--simple, easy to learn, easy to play and not too avant garde. Most of all, it was do-able and teach-able on short notice. Erin suggested I take the Holy, Holy and set the Agnes Dei to the same tune--it worked quite well and came together effortlessly. We played a popular song for communion, but the others were mine.

I intentionally didn't share with anyone (aside from Erin) that this was my music. I like to hear the genuine reactions of people and not add any unnecessary focus or pressure in the wrong place. We were there to pray and celebrate the Eucharist, after all. She did announce after Mass that these were my compositions, and I did appreciate that.

There is nothing quite like hearing a congregation of people singing your own songs back at you and finding in those songs an appropriate vehicle for celebration and prayer. It was great hearing the singers join in on the refrain of the entrance and closing song with tambourine and maracas, and then with an a capella closing.

As a Catholic liturgical composer, there is something unfinished about a song that is never used in worship. The use of that material, and the response of the people to it, is an essential part of the music. Most publishers don't even want to see submissions of music that has not been tried out in worship already--like somehow it only exists in head-space until then. The validation of the people (for lack of a better word) is an important component for liturgical music in the Catholic tradition. Aside from a couple ditties I used in prayer services several months ago, I've never shared my music in a group setting like this before. I have to admit that hearing people singing those songs back at me seemed to affirm them or complete them in a way that I can't quite describe, as if they put the final brush strokes on a painting, or at least weather-sealed it. Having been sung at Mass, perhaps they are now joined to that "unending hymn of praise" that goes way back in time, all around the world and hopefully will go far into the future. That is humbling, and quite frankly a little scary!

What breaks my heart the most is that music publishing houses have not been accepting new submissions for Mass settings for quite some time. They are all awaiting the final revised English translation of the Mass to come from Rome. I have taken a look at some of the preliminary versions, and at first glance some of my songs simply won't survive the transition. However, I have tried not to dwell on this. With every tragedy there is an opportunity. When the revised words come out, it may create a window for new music. Some of my songs may be adapted quite well--or even better--with the new translation. I'll reserve judgment until then.

It also means that if I want to play these songs at Mass as is, I better get on it. Like Paul Simon reminds, there's not much worse than "writing songs that voices never share," as we bow to the false God of silence--that false God of insecurity, fear, and self-doubt, that false God that says we have nothing worth sharing, as if silence were a better sound that what comes out of our hearts and souls. I'm willing to dare disturb the sounds of silence. Come sing with me!

Friday, June 11, 2010

The New Diet

After subsisting on little more than coffee and potato chips for the past year, and having lost 12-14 lbs (not on purpose), I'm starting to take take stock of my health once again. The timing is right, as the garden is starting to offer forth its fruits, and I have two new housemates to cook with and for.

With new produce starting to come in, I noticed we still have some of last year's garden veggies in the freezer! There is also some dry rice and beans that have been sitting probably as long as they should. This demands a string of everything-in-the-cupboard-must-go recipes. Usually that means soup, and I've made two this week.

Today it was a crazy fried rice concoction, really hot and full of garden greens, last year's peppers and crispy rice. I could have passed it off as having come from some hidden region of Korea, it was quite exotic. It was not just food but rather a full mind, body and soul experience. I could feel my thirsty body absorbing the bursting nutrients of the just-picked greens and my environmentally sustainable, financially frugal mind appreciated putting all this leftover frozen stuff to good use with it. I'm sweating on this hot, muggy night, and loving it as the steamy, spicy rice mixture permeates my body.

I generally cook exclusively with olive oil, but it doesn't seem as conducive as other oils, so I try to use a cheap vegetable or canola oil to crisp it up nicely.

Monday, June 7, 2010


It is often said that there are two things you never want to see: How sausage is made and how a bill becomes a law.

To that list I would like to add a third: You never want to see the inner workings of how a church operates.

It is enough to appreciate the end result: Come to Sunday services and join in parish events. But don’t ask how it all got put together. It is not a pretty sight and it is not for the faint of heart.