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Compline choir, St. Mark's Cathedral
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Magical ‘Compline’ singing prayer service returns in-person to Seattle cathedral

During the depths of the pandemic, St. Mark's famous Compline Sunday night prayer service continued, pared down from 25 to just two people, and without any audience in-person or via broadcast. (Courtesy St. Mark's Cathedral)

It’s a beloved Sunday night tradition celebrating its 65th anniversary this year. And like so many other things, the weekly Compline service at St. Mark’s Cathedral on Capitol Hill in Seattle was interrupted by the pandemic. But this weekend – Sunday, Aug. 22 – in-person Compline returns.

What is Compline, exactly? Technically speaking, says Jason Anderson, it’s a “monastic prayer service.”

Anderson has been director of the Compline Choir for more than a decade. Anderson told KIRO Radio this week that the word “monastic” means monks and nuns – though his choir members are neither. And he says Compline is considered an “office” – where the word “office” translates as a duty.

“These offices are prayed at regular intervals, and Compline is the last monastic office normally sung by a nun or a monk at bedside on their own, by themselves,” Anderson said. “It’s just a way to give thanks for the day that has been, and to pray for safety through the night.”

At St. Mark’s in Seattle, unlike just about anywhere else in the United States, says Anderson, Compline is something more than this.

Compline, Anderson explains, has “become a group presentation, a group prayer service, sung by the Compline Choir, and we open it to the public.”

The “group presentation” of Compline in Seattle dates to 1956, the year it was launched at St. Mark’s by the late Peter Hallock. Hallock was born and raised south of Seattle in Kent, and then in the late 1940s he attended the Royal School of Church Music in England. While Hallock was there, he sung Compline in the crypt at Canterbury Cathedral.

Hallock was hired at St. Mark’s in the early 1950s. That time was a fecund era for Seattle culture, when the city was bursting with talent and seemed ripe with so many possibilities. People here in those years were aspirationally cosmopolitan and sophisticated. The “alki” (or “eventually/by-and-by”) of “New York Alki” – that old snide nickname/put-down for Seattle dating to the 1850s – seemed like it might finally be coming true a century on, as events like Compline became part of the city’s cultural offerings.

And it probably did come true during the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair, which was also the year that Dorothy Bullitt’s KING FM classical music station began carrying a live broadcast of Compline every Sunday night.

While Compline has been consistently popular as a religious service, an event with secular artistic appeal, and a radio broadcast for decades, Jason Anderson says it does seem to get rediscovered by hipsters every 10 or 15 years or so.

Part of the appeal for all audiences is the beauty of the music and the stunning sound of as many as 24 voices in harmony – voices which traditionally have been male, but which have also begun to be female, too. There also seems to be a certain timelessness and universality to the whole Compline package that just “fits” the Seattle vibe around organized religion and spirituality in general.

Compline, says Anderson, is “topical to the extent that it is a religious service, yet which oddly enough still draws people here in the Pacific Northwest.”

“We don’t get political,” Anderson continued. “There’s no sermon. There’s no preaching. There’s just the religious texts, the psalm settings that are sung. That’s what you’re going to hear. How you interact or choose to believe or not believe what you’re hearing, that’s up to you. We’re not engaged in the business of telling people what they should think or believe.”

“It’s more about the experience and providing an acoustical, and I guess the psychological space, for people to disengage from the crazy world that it is, and just be in a sacred, hallowed space,” he described.

The sound and setting in the hallowed space of historic St. Mark’s Cathedral is incredible and must be experienced in person to fully appreciate; the 1920s-vintage building and the special event feel of the live performance are definitely part of the appeal. However, the enormity of the space even comes through on the radio – along with the occasional audience member coughing, the shuffling of feet, and the unique charm of a muted sound of a pitch pipe subtly signaling that a song is about to begin.

And now, all of that in-person magic is about to return.

In March 2020, because of the pandemic, St. Mark’s closed Compline to in-person audiences, though they continued the live radio broadcast and eventually began sharing audio and video of the live service via Zoom. However, as the pandemic wore on, for social distancing, Anderson reduced the size of the choir from 24 voices to eight, and then down to just four singers – along with one speaker reading the brief liturgical portions between songs.

Then, in December last year, the Compline Choir was reduced to just a single singer and one person speaking.

“It was a single voice,” Anderson said. “[A] dimly-lit cathedral with just a single voice [singing, and] a single speaker. And that was it — it just became a way for us to maintain that continuity of praying the office in the space – in the space that is St. Mark’s – even though the full choir couldn’t be there.”

That Jason Anderson and St. Mark’s would keep the ritual of Compline going, uninterrupted, despite the pre-vaccine pandemic – especially while it was raging in late 2020 and early 2021 – is pretty moving.

However, if you happened to tune in to KING FM on Sunday night at 9:30 p.m. between early December 2020 and early February 2021, you wouldn’t have heard that two-person version of Compline. KING FM and St. Mark’s thought it best to play old episodes with the full choir.

“When only two people were singing, we talked with Jason and decided to air past broadcasts because we wanted listeners to have the usual experience they have when they tune in,” wrote KING FM CEO Brenda Barnes in an email. “Everyone was worried, scared, and living in great uncertainty. Being able to tune in for Compline provided comfort and a sense of normalcy that was desperately needed.”

Anderson agreed with the decision.

“Those services we did not broadcast,” Anderson said. “We recorded them for posterity’s sake, but in conversations with KING FM, our radio partner on Sunday nights, and with cathedral leadership, we didn’t think the single soloist with a single speaker was something that would be of comfort to people.”

“[But] knowing that it was still going on would be enough,” Anderson said.

And this “still going on” that Anderson mentions might be the most deeply moving aspect of the history of Compline at St. Mark’s during the pandemic.

While Compline reruns played on KING FM from December to February, live Compline never stopped. Throughout the late autumn and deep into the second winter of the pandemic, every Sunday night at 9:30 p.m. – though it was not being broadcast or shared via Zoom – a soloist and a speaker made their way to St. Mark’s and performed the service of Compline for no audience other than themselves, in the otherwise empty cathedral.

When the full Northwest history of the current pandemic is written, let’s hope this particular commitment is remembered and celebrated as one of the countless ways individuals and organizations found ways to keep important things going. For the record, Jason Anderson says St. Mark’s isn’t ready to release the recordings of those two-person Compline services, but he doesn’t rule it out for sometime in the future, when the pandemic is firmly in the past.

Now that in-person Compline is about to return, Anderson told KIRO Radio there’s likely a variety of emotions among the choir members about the audience returning to St. Mark’s this Sunday. But Anderson himself has no hesitations about the value of having living, breathing, non-Zooming, non-radio humans there in person.

“There is this unspoken dialogue that occurs between the choir members presenting the service and those who receive it,” Anderson said. “Having those folks present will sort of complete the nature of communal prayer, of being at prayer with each other.”

“I think other guys will have a different sort of feeling or emotion,” Anderson continued. “But it’s a lot more gratifying, it’s a lot more fulfilling when what you’re offering is received by someone.”

For those who have never attended Compline in person, apart from being quiet during the service, there’s very little in the way of formality that the audience is required to observe.

“Find a space that works for you and bring a pillow or blanket if that’s your thing,” Anderson said. “Just make sure to leave space for the singers to walk back to their corner to sing.”

Anderson also says be sure and turn off your cell phone – since we’re all out of practice attending large events – and he suggests “just being mindful of the folks in the space with you, and that some might need more distance than others.”

Also returning Sunday will be those occasional sounds from the audience of (hopefully harmless) coughs and shuffling feet. But, says Anderson, COVID has likely driven one signature Compline sound to at least temporary extinction.

“That’s one of the things that the pandemic has pulled us away from,” Anderson said, to the dismay of a certain overly sentimental history radio reporter. “That little pitch pipe.”

“Now, you’ll probably hear me give pitches from a tuning fork,” he clarified.

And though a tuning fork is much more subtle and not quite as audible to the audience, “it’s just one opportunity for me not to have to lift my mask to blow air into a pitch pipe,” Anderson said.

In-person Compline returns Sunday, Aug. 22, at 9:30 p.m. at St. Mark’s Cathedral on Capitol Hill. Doors open around 9:10 p.m. and some parking is available on-site. There’s plenty of space to social distance, and masks are encouraged. The Compline service will be followed at 10:00 p.m. by a recital on the famous Flentrop organ by St. Mark’s organist Michael Kleinschmidt.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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