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Scoring Mass of the Ages: An Interview with Mark Nowakowski

Mass of the Ages, Catholic filmmaker Cameron O’Hearn’s documentary about the astonishing revival of the traditional Latin Mass among Catholics of all ages, has already attracted more than 550,000 YouTube views after its livestreaming debut on August 15. O’Hearn managed to make the 47-minute movie—actually the first part of a trilogy—mostly on a budget of only $170,000 crowdfunded on Kickstarter.

The film centers around Kristine Mauss of Tacoma, Washington, whose husband, Michael, died of a rare and virulent form of brain cancer in August 2020, leaving her with four young children. In a series of interviews Kristine, working through her grief and trying to be strong for her children, tells of the faith and meaning that the Latin Mass and other traditional Catholic practices infuse as the center of her family’s religious life. “I just need the solid foundation,” she says. “That’s what tradition is.” In other interviews theologians explore the long history and development of the traditional Mass, and priests describe their experiences saying it for the first time after decades of experience solely with the vernacular Novus Ordo that is standard in most Catholic churches.

Mass of the Ages makes its persuasive case through aesthetic appeal, displaying the exceptionally beautiful churches and exceptionally reverent liturgies that the traditional Latin Mass supports. But it is the film’s music that is its aesthetic and emotional center. The original score is by the Polish-American composer Mark Nowakowski, an assistant professor of music at Kent State University in Ohio. His concert music, commissioned and performed by such groups as the Kronos Quartet and the Cleveland Chamber Symphony, has been described as “a merger of bold expressionism and mystical contemplation.”

In Mass of the Ages Nowakowski’s haunting interplay of tradtional and nontraditional instruments heightens the grief and courage of Kristine and her children, while a composition for full orchestra that Nowakowski has titled “Birthright” marks a musical theme that will reappear throughout the trilogy. The film also uses the Kyrie from Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli as recorded by the Tallis Scholars and other stock music interwoven with Nowakowski’s own.

Catholic Arts Today’s executive editor, Charlotte Allen, interviewed Nowakowski on September 9. There Nowakowski talked about his experiences composing a film score in contrast to a concert piece, the complex interplay of egos and goals between a film’s director and its composer, the musical effects that Nowakowski was trying to achieve, and the compelling nature of the Mass of the Ages project that inspired him to give to the film far more than most composers give to more ordinary projects.

Charlotte Allen: How do you write a movie a movie score, in contrast to the kind of concert music that you’ve written in the past and also the sacred music? What’s the difference in approach?

Mark Nowakowski: It’s very, very different. When you’re writing a concert piece, unless you’re dealing with some kind of egomaniacal conductor, it’s understood that the composer has a vision, that the vision is realized in the piece, and the vision is shared–and that it’s the ensemble’s job to realize that vision in a performance. I write the piece, you agree on a contract to perform it, or to record it, and you can’t come back at me and say, “I just don’t like the way you ended the second movement. Can you tweak it?” Unless I’ve done something that’s a mistake, or it’s impossible to perform, what I give you is what you must perform.

Now in a film you have to subjugate your creative impulse to the director’s vision. So you’re dealing very much with a service industry. It’s a back-and-forth process. With this film, for instance, I saw some clips, and then I read a script, and I composed about almost an hour’s worth of music based on that script and those clips. And then they changed the edit completely, so out of the fifteen or so things I sent him, he ended up keeping about three.

And then we did it again–and then we did this elongated process two more times, so there’s about three or four times as much music as was written that has made the film. Now some composers put in clauses saying, “I will rewrite each scene up to one or two times.” My decision with this film, because I thought it was so crucially important, was to give Cameron every change, every suggestion, everything that he could possibly want. My thinking was that the film was so historically important, much more important than me or my time. So anything I could give him, I did. The relationship between composer and director is always a maze to navigate, and as we were first getting to know each other personally, it became an interpersonal thing to figure out, because I was to pick the music that speaks to his film, and he has to communicate his musical desires to me despite not speaking that artistic language. In the end, each time we agreed on an aesthetic effect, I think our sense of communication increased and the pace of scoring got faster and more efficient.

So then, as you get to know each other, it becomes easier for the composer to anticipate what the director is actually looking for. And that’s all part of that service-industry aspect as well. You are facilitating your talent to the director’s ultimate vision. He’s making the call of what works for him and what doesn’t. And there are places where we agreed very much, and there are places where we disagreed, and I realized it in the end he was absolutely right. And those tracks where we disagree I just save for something else. Those become mine. That’s how it works.

Charlotte Allen: Were there certain specific moods that you were trying to evoke? And how did you do it? I noticed that there’s a lot of piano and a lot of strings. I wondered why you picked those in particular, and what you were trying to do. Part of the movie, a great part of it, is Kristine Mauss’s story and the sadness of her losing her husband and trying to put her life together via her faith. So how did you approach that as a composer?

Now, in terms of strings and piano, those are kind of obvious choices. We first thought we would do the film with lots of vocal pieces, and we did. But one of the reasons you don’t see a lot of them in the final version of the movie is because in a documentary there’s a lot of speaking. Speaking will take up a similar frequency as singing, and they could actually interfere with each other. So in the end I don’t have a lot of singing going on. Strings and piano are standard in films. A string ensemble covers, probably, the full range of human hearing, has great dynamic capability, can do many things holistically, and can basically create support for any mood you’re working on. That’s why it is the industry standard to write every score with strings.

As for piano, for some reason, and perhaps it’s cultural or psychological, it seems to represent the individual. And so, when we talk about Kristine’s personal struggle in mourning, as a composer I’m seeking the authentic musical vehicle to immanentize this grief in sound. And in the end I think everything turned out remarkably well.

Charlotte Allen: I found it extraordinary, the scenes of her husband’s death. I watched Mass of the Ages twice, and I cried both times, so your music had a powerful effect on me.

Mark Nowakowski: I cried multiple times while working on it. And I thought I was done with it, and then a few weeks later Cameron comes back and says, “We’ve extended it.” Can you make it a little bit longer? And I’m like, “That’s traumatizing. I don’t want to go back to that one.” Which I’m almost ashamed to say, because it was not my tragedy. It was very emotionally affecting to work on, and it was the hardest part of the entire job, but I think also maybe it was the one that turned out most honestly the best. At the end I told him, “We have to be done with this. This is enough of the story.”

Charlotte Allen: Do you think that the movie successfully incorporates Kristine’s story and the Mass itself? It’s almost as if there were two disparate elements there. And, of course, the priests and theologians interviewed were all talking about the Mass itself. And so I’m wondering: Was it a musical challenge for you to try to integrate those two things, a very different kind of documentary and a personal story?

Mark Nowakowski:  I was one of the few people who saw the original–“here’s all the footage we got, almost three hours longer”–before they decided to make it a trilogy. And I believe it was Cameron’s wife who first pointed out to him that he actually had three stories and three films to make, instead of one extraordinarily long documentary. Two personal stories and three angles at which he was approaching the subject. And that it might be better off in smaller bites, as a trilogy.

And when he expressed this to me and showed me that first cut, I thought it was much, much better. I think it makes great sense to show the individual’s life struggle and how it relates to the decision to attend the Latin Mass, especially at a time where you hear people disparaging the people who attend the old rite as people who are aesthetic fetishists or cultural supremacists or whatever it may be. So here’s somebody presented in a very sympathetic way saying, “No, this is what it is for me.” And I think it’s very helpful to see the macro and the micro level of this issue and present that real human story. Musically it became much simpler to underscore individuals and individual journeys as opposed to just ideas.

The second thing that we decided would be a permanent part of all three films was the music track that you hear a little bit of at the end of Kristine’s story, in which she talks about what the Church and Latin Mass have meant for her. There’s a theme that comes in that we call “Birthright,” and it’s going to appear in several different guises and forms. And you hear it in its full first guise in that long, extended piece which accompanies the credits.

That was my going from the micro of Kristine’s story to the macro of what she is talking about: that there’s a sacred birthright in the Latin Mass. She and I share a similar story. We’re looking for our spiritual heritage, we’re looking for the more. We’ve seen the modern version, and we find it lacking. We’re looking for a way to sink our teeth into something spiritually, something much more substantive.

Charlotte Allen: From the intimation that Cameron gave at the end of the movie, it appears that the second part of the trilogy is going to be about Archbishop Annibale Bugnini [1912-1982], the Vatican official who basically pushed the Novus Ordo through. That sounds like a more polemical topic, and I’m wondering if the next part is going to be entirely polemical, or will there be a personal story as well?

And so I think Cameron is going to talk about what occurred, who were the players and what were the goals, what were some of the things they said and wrote which explain what occurred. And of course the subtext is: We don’t think what occurred was perhaps an optimal state of things, whether you’re talking about people who question the very authenticity of Vatican II or people who say, “If we’d only implemented Sacrosanctum Concilium [the Vatican II document that called for greater lay involvement with the liturgy] the way it was written, if we implemented it carefully and graciously, we would not be dealing with this liturgical war that we’re dealing with right now.” And I think that part of the story was that perhaps the intent all along was not to create a gentle reform as opposed to a revolutionary reform.

Charlotte Allen: Is this the first movie score that you’ve ever done?

Mark Nowakowski: No, I’ve done a couple over the years. When I was younger, I had some teachers telling me to go to L.A. and actually do it for a living. I decided not to pursue that path, after discernment, for a number of reasons. Part of it was that in the early 2000s I saw where the culture in Hollywood was going, and I didn’t want to have to sell myself for that for so many years just for the chance to do one or two projects that I cared about.

And also I thought that the Lord was really calling me to do more traditional compositions. So I said: “If you want me to do a film score, Lord, you’re going to have to find another way to do it.” And over the years some opportunities came. I did a couple of full scores, and then two or so years ago I did a soundtrack for the documentary Discovering Tolkien [2017], which showed on EWTN. It was fun, and it was kind of a reentry into the industry for me. I had so much fun doing it that I began to actively seek such projects.

Charlotte Allen: Speaking of Palestrina, did you feel that you were up against a master? Did you feel intimidated by having to work Palestrina into your own music?

Mark Nowakowski: Well, it depends. Obviously, when you set yourself up against any master, you’re going to feel intimidated. No one will write in our time anything equal to Palestrina, or [William] Byrd, or [Thomas] Tallis. And I don’t think I normally would have ever accepted the challenge to weave some Palestrina into the score if it were anything more than a trailer. I would say no, because Palestrina shouldn’t be touched. I shouldn’t add or take anything away from it. It’d be like adding a scene to Shakespeare.

Charlotte Allen: Is there choral music by you in the film?

Mark Nowakowski: There’s a short one. When they’re talking about the musical legacy of the church, there’s a Kyrie by me that’s playing.

Charlotte Allen: And that’s not Palestrina, right?

Mark Nowakowski: No, that’s me.

Charlotte Allen: I remember listening to it and, because I knew there would be portions of a Palestrina Mass, thinking, “Now is this the Palestrina?” But then the real Palestrina came on and it was completely different. That was very flattering to you, but it probably shows how little I know about music. I was sort of disoriented thinking perhaps it was from another Palestrina Mass that I didn’t know.

Mark Nowakowski: No, that was a scene that was put together very late, and Cameron sends me a text saying, “Can you write me a Kyrie by tomorrow or some kind of choral music to go with it?” So I just wrote the Kyrie, and I did it in a couple of hours. For some reason, the idea just kind of dropped from the sky and I said, “Okay, that’s simple but it does the job.”

And we set it, and we couldn’t get singers at the time to perform it, so all the vocals are computer-generated for that particular track. If you listen very closely, you can probably tell, but it was actually done using virtual instruments. There’s an instrument where, if you play the notes, what you hear are the recordings of real singers singing those notes. The software can be manipulated to sing words as well. If you just type it in and you play, it’s going to sound very clunky and fake. So, it becomes sort of a side craft to manipulate that piece of software and the resulting audio file to make it sound as realistic as possible.

Charlotte Allen: That’s something that I was completely unaware of. I guess it’s easier than hiring a chorus and working it up with rehearsals and so forth.

Mark Nowakowski: With most documentaries the budget for that’s not going to be there. You’re talking about tens and tens and tens of thousands of dollars for performers. So for a while, composers actually stopped being willing to write big scores for documentaries. But with the advent of virtual instruments and then being able to produce all these things from small studios, we’re able to once again get big sounds and big ideas put together without having to have a half-million-dollar studio budget.

Charlotte Allen: I probably should have watched Mass of the Ages a third time because I hadn’t even realized until the credits at the end that you had actually incorporated some other music besides the Palestrina.

Mark Nowakowski: There were three tracks that Cameron included which were not mine. One was the Palestrina. The other [the electropop group Nono’s “The Fifth Season”] was at that part where they’re explaining the differences between the two forms of the Mass. The other one [composer Jordan Critz’s “Edge of the Light”] was the very last one—it’s a very beautiful track. It was with the climatic interview with Kristine and the beautiful fadeout at the end: the altar servers walking down the street to the church.

This was simply a project that was much bigger than any of us.

Charlotte Allen is executive editor of Catholic Arts Today.

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