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Voices from the past

Choirs bring ancient Compline chants to Nevada City

Michael Young Nevada City Advocate  


Life in this new millennium is a constant barrage of stimulation.

We spend our waking hours connecting through the Internet, talking on cell phones, glued to the TV. We spend an eternity driving in traffic, taking meetings, stressing over projects. It’s no wonder that when the day is finally ending, we are a twisted bundle of nerves. How to get to sleep?

May we suggest going back a couple of millennia?

It’s called Compline, a corruption of the Latin “Completorium,” or the completion of the waking hours. It’s the seventh and final chant of the day, traditionally sung in the monasteries by the monks, and later by nuns in convents, as they ready their minds and bodies for slumber. It is a calming, contemplative, soothing service that dates back to 379 AD. 

And it is chanted monthly here in Nevada City at Trinity Church, one of only about 100 locations in the country where it is regularly performed, mostly in the Pacific Northwest and along the East Coast.

“People keep discovering that it touches a part of their souls through the music and the text,” says Jeff Reynolds, who started the monthly service at Trinity nine years ago and conducts, composes and arranges the music. 

“It has its own intrinsic value,” he says. “By listening you are transmuted to another place.”

The church is kept dark for the service with candles providing the only light. The choir is in the loft away from sight. In medieval times, the service was only 10 minutes long and the chants were limited to a single line of music with no harmony and no rhythm connotation. 

“It was so un-21st century,” says Reynolds. “In the last half century, by using more harmonized pieces, we’ve increased the enjoyment. “

Trinity has four different Compline choirs: two all male, one all female, and a family quartet. Although it’s popular today to mix the sexes in the choirs, in the beginning they were separate. 

“We have kept it alive by mostly not having it mixed,” says Reynolds. “Call us old school, very old school.”

Reynolds sits at the dining room table of his spacious home in rural Nevada County trying mightily to explain the simple yet complicated musical notation of chants to a musician who can’t read music, unlike his choir members who must.

Finally, he resorts to singing a short 500-year-old Moravian chant in a warm, pitch-perfect tenor.

“It is most humbling being connected with Compline,” he says. “It’s a perfect vehicle for whatever talents I have.”

And if there’s anyone with the chops to master an ancient music and land it in the Sierras, it’s Reynolds. 

He retired here in 2009 after spending 37 years playing bass trombone in the Los Angeles Philharmonic. 

“It was a great job,” he says. “There was a lot of touring. I got to play for all the great conductors: Zubin Mehta, Leonard Bernstein and Carlo Maria Giulini. I played on background tracks of 200 movies. I was in the church choir where I got a lot of choral experience. I taught at Long Beach State.

“Now that set me up for doing Compline. It overshadows all that music.”

His first rehearsal had only four men.

“It was hard to find what to do. We got advice from other groups.”

Among them were chanters at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Seattle, a fertile ground for Compline due in part to the hall’s rich acoustics.

“The sound of the hall is what makes it the most successful. The hall becomes part of the atmosphere. It’s mystical, soothing. It comes from a level that’s not in the here and now, not on the same wavelength,” Reynolds says.

“For people who come to Compline, there’s nothing to do. They are listeners.”

Despite the fact that the Compline performs in a Christian church with music that is historically Roman Catholic, “it’s not a religious thing. Most of the people who come are not from our church. Most of the singers are not from our church. You don’t have to be in a religious order.”

The Complines are held in Trinity at 7 p.m. on the first Sunday of the month and all Sundays in Lent.

“We get a pretty good audience,” Reynolds says. “The church holds 90 but we’ve had 145 people show up. Trinity was originally built in 1854, but it burned down in 1859 and finally rebuilt by miners in 1874, which is what stands there now.”

Reynolds takes his visitor on a tour of his property where he built a 1,300-square-foot barn whose only purpose is to house his massive model train collection and display. It’s an amazing sight with miniature mountains and villages and 300 model train cars.

He thumbs through a stack of model train hobbyist magazines, pointing out that his collection is regularly featured. But then he pauses to make clear what takes priority.

“It’s a wonderful hobby, but Compline is my passion. This is my life right now. I’m 74. I’m in the 11th hour of my ‘gig.’ Nothing in my lifetime has been as important as this.


Check it out

The next Compline will be held Sunday, July1, at 7 p.m. in the Trinity Episcopal Church at the corner of Nevada and High streets in Nevada City. 

About the photo:   

Jeff Reynolds in the barn he built to house his collection of model trains. Photo by Michael Young