Rock Masses

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Rock Masses

Rock Masses are large-scale New Age celebrations performed since the early 1980s that combine elements of the Catholic Mass and Christian seasonal festivals with other sacred and secular texts, set to contemporary musical styles such as jazz, rock, pop, rap, and hip-hop. Rock Masses are products of several influences, including the Catholic folk Mass of the 1960s, rock gospel music of the 1970s, praise songs from the Charismatic Renewal movement, secular Top Forty music styles, and the music and creation spirituality of the New Age movement itself. Although rock Masses have been performed throughout the United States, they are primarily a bicoastal phenomenon, with the New Age movement most directly inspiring and supporting them.

The chief architect of the rock Mass is jazz saxophonist and ecology activist Paul Winter, whose 1981 work Missa Gaia/Earth Mass defined the genre. Commissioned by Dean James Morton of New York's Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine, Missa Gaia was a sprawling work for jazz ensemble, vocal soloists and choir, percussion choir, and organ that celebrated Earth (gaia in Greek) as a single living entity. Missa Gaia included musical settings for the Ordinary of the Mass—Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus, Benedictus, and Agnus Dei—along with hymns, solo songs, and organ fantasias. Winter's settings ranged across a broad musical spectrum, from Brazilian dance and African-American spirituals to traditional Anglo-American hymn tunes, pop ballads, and twentieth-century French writing for organ. The most original aspects of the music, however, were the recorded voices of wolves and whales played during the service and melodies Winter fashioned from them for several of his settings.

Missa Gaia premiered on Mother's Day 1981 and has been performed annually since then at the cathedral on the first Sunday in October, the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi. Winter has also conducted performances around the nation and overseas. Missa Gaia's success has fostered a series of similar presentations of Winter's "Earth music" at the cathedral, including annual winter and summer solstice celebrations as well as a carnival series during the 1990s. While Winter's musical expressions continue to evolve through these works, most recently including Celtic and Russian influences, they all follow the ritual form established by Missa Gaia; extended multicultural performances of sacred, secular, and original music; and texts celebrating the changing seasons and eternal synergy of Mother Earth.

Another style of rock Mass has recently appeared in the form of Matthew Fox's TechnoCosmic Masses and Techno Rituals at his University of Creation Spirituality in Oakland, California. Fox, a controversial ecotheologian who was dismissed from the Dominican Order in 1994 and later ordained an Anglican priest, celebrated the first TechnoCosmic Mass in April 1996 in New York City. Since then, more than twenty-five of these celebrations have been performed, most of them in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Fox's celebrations have much in common with Winter's, including an emphasis on the sacrality of nature and the employment of multicultural music, but there are important ritual and musical differences between them. Fox organizes his Masses around specific spiritual themes, such as the sacrality of the body, diversity and kinship, angels, the African diaspora, and the divine feminine, while Winter repeats the great calendric festivals and themes, filling them with gradually changing content. Although they take place in secular meeting halls and gymnasiums, Fox's TechnoCosmic Masses include official celebrations of the Eucharist, with himself as celebrant; Winter's Missa Gaia and solstice celebrations are designed for and performed in the world's largest Gothic-style cathedral but are not formal liturgies. Fox's rituals are "raves" in which participants dance and shout for hours, while Winter's are spectacles witnessed by a seated audience. Fox's events feature several different performing groups and recorded music of the most recent styles, including rap and hip-hop, while Winter carefully composes and orchestrates ensemble performances in an evolving and highly personal musical style.

These comparisons and contrasts between Paul Winter's celebrations in New York and Matthew Fox's in the Bay Area reveal the continuing growth and development of the rock Mass and of New Age spirituality in the 1990s. A highly diverse and eclectic religious movement, New Age spirituality has generated many new forms of ritual and sacred music, of which the rock Mass is the most complex, creative, and monumental. As such, the rock Mass is likely to be the New Age's most lasting ritual form and liturgical legacy.

See alsoCreation Spirituality; Ecospirituality; Music; Liturgy and Worship; Nature Religion; New Age Spirituality; Practice; Rave; Religious Experience; Ritual; Roman Catholicism.


Albanese, Catherine L. Nature Religion in America: Fromthe Algonkian Indians to the New Age. 1990.

Winter, Paul. Celtic Solstice. 1999.

Winter, Paul. Missa Gaia/Earth Mass. 1982.

Winter, Paul. Solstice Live. 1993.

Stephen Marini