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Compline at St. Marks: The torch is passed

The Compline Choir chants and sings on Sunday nights at St. Mark's Cathedral in Seattle Credit:

Seattle’s classical music station KING-FM has stumbled of late with “modern” broadcasting problems — shrinking revenues and layoffs of popular on-air staff. Meanwhile, one iconic program is defying the odds by remaining most decidedly un-modern, even as its longtime director is succeeded by a protege.

From the 1920s until the 1940s, a staple of local and national radio programming was the “pick-up” or live remote broadcast, sought after by radio stations and networks for easy availability and low cost.

Evening hours around the glowing dial were once crowded with long-since demolished hotels hosting now-forgotten orchestras, beaming live dance music around the region or around the country. On Sunday mornings, the syncopation of that era’s typical ballroom music gave way to more spiritual (though still inexpensive and readily available) pick-up fare — scriptures, hymns, and sermons that just as effectively filled the ever-hungry radio content maw.

That this spiritual material also happened to restrain social critics (and the FCC) from bemoaning the media’s disrespect for the Sabbath was not an insignificant factor. After all, later in the day it was another (more secular) story: Jack Benny, Charlie McCarthy, and other old-time radio stalwarts were Sunday night fixtures for decades, and the “War of the Worlds” and other less-famous episodes of Orson Welles’ “Mercury Theater on the Air” were also broadcast on Sunday nights.

So it’s remarkable in many respects that KING-FM’s 9:30 Sunday night broadcast of the Compline Choir service survives some 60 years after the rest of the radio industry moved on from the pick-up. The 30-minute program of meditational hymns, chanting, and spoken word based on end-of-day monastery prayers originates from St. Mark’s Cathedral on Seattle’s Capitol Hill as it has for nearly half a century. A choir comprised of about 15 men chant the “Office of Compline,” as the service is officially called, while an assembly (not an audience, the Compline folks say) of a few hundred gathers for the free service and thousands tune in from home. The name Compline comes from the Latin word for “complete” (or, in this case, the prayers said at the end of the day).

Compline at St. Mark’s was founded by composer, musician, and scholar Peter R. Hallock in the mid-1950s (the exact date is unclear, and Hallock’s service may have been preceded by a similar service at St. James Cathedral). Hallock, who will turn 85 in November, lives in Fall City and is known throughout the world for his contributions to the sacred music community. Though still in good health, he was injured in a serious auto accident in June, and in July he stepped down as director of the popular service after more than 50 years.

Fortunately, Hallock asked a protégé named Jason Anderson to take over, and Anderson agreed. By all accounts, Anderson (whose 2007 University of Washington doctoral dissertation is reassuringly called “The Life and Works of Peter R. Hallock”) hasn’t missed a beat, so to speak. He’s been a member of the choir since 2004, and has filled in as choir director for Hallock on several occasions. If recent broadcasts are any indication, Compline has passed into capable hands.

As to how the Compline broadcast came to be a weekly fixture, Hallock says the credit goes to Jim Welte, an employee at KING-FM in the 1950s. Welte had begun a radio program highlighting goings-on in local arts, and had featured the Compline Choir. “Exactly how or why the service was broadcast on a weekly basis I don’t recall,” Hallock says. “However, it’s important to keep in mind that Dorothy Stimson Bullitt, founder and owner of KING, was a member of St. Mark’s Cathedral and a close friend of the Right Rev. John C. Leffler,” who led the congregation.

KING-FM, the classical music station founded by Bullitt, has been carrying the live broadcast continuously since around 1960 (again, the exact date is unclear) easily placing Compline among the longest-running programs in local and even national radio history. Seattle’s “Scandinavian Hour” began years earlier but had gaps in the 1960s. Only CBS’ “World News Round Up,” which began in 1938; “Music and The Spoken Word” from the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City, which came on the air in 1929; the Grand Ole Opry, first broadcast in 1925 — and perhaps a few other regional programs elsewhere — seem to have Compline beat.

The attraction of the Compline broadcast — beyond the sacred content, the beauty of which cannot be overstated — is its simplicity. There’s no theme music, no special announcer welcoming listeners or thanking sponsors, no commercial interruptions, and absolutely no pomp whatsoever. Whichever understated KING-FM announcer is on duty at the station’s lower Queen Anne studios simply makes a brief announcement (either live or on tape), and then a switch is flipped to connect via special telephone line to a pair of stereo microphones hanging from the ceiling at St. Mark’s some three miles away. Sometimes the silence before the music starts goes on a few seconds too long, and you can hear audience members coughing and shuffling their feet. Often, the tone of a pitch pipe can be heard preceding music selections.

For my money, these real-live sounds only add to the broadcast’s charm. As new Compline director Anderson says, “There is a certain truth, though, to our offering of Compline live. Every blissful note, every chord, every wrong note, every cough, every mobile phone ring, all the ambient noise — it’s all there for the world to hear.”

Asked to describe the Compline service for someone who’s never experienced it, Anderson put it this way in an email: “You are just as much a participant in Compline as the choir. The service is your one-on-one encounter with the divine. It’s a communal, mystical experience in space — you’ll be in both the acoustical space that is St. Mark’s Cathedral and the psychological space you can allow to be created. You’ll experience Compline in a dimmed cathedral just as our part of the world has moved from light into darkness. You’ll hear words spoken by a reader and the full choir — some of it based on scripture, some of it prayer, some of it by the best and brightest mystics, theologians, poets, and thinkers of all time. You’ll hear hymns, canticles, Psalms, motets, responses, and anthems from a variety of eras and faith traditions.”

When the program ends, it’s just as low-key while the process is reversed, and the voice from the KING-FM studio reads brief credits before cueing up the next station break or commercial.

According to KING-FM program director Bryan Lowe, the Compline service has never been canceled other than due to technical difficulties (including the snowstorm last year that prevented the Dec. 21 service). Lowe says that KING-FM began streaming Compline around 1996, when the station became one of the first in the U.S. to offer its signal online. KING-FM had help from Real Networks (then called Progressive Networks), which used the station as a beta test while developing the streaming technology. KING-FM now reaches about 260,000 people each week via traditional broadcast radio, while the station counts online listeners (roughly 400 at any given time) in 80 countries.

Is Anderson intimidated by Compline or worried about following as tough an act as Hallock? Anderson says, “As I have taken up Peter’s life and works as an academic study and become a tireless advocate of his music, I must say that I find the task at hand enormous.” But, Anderson also says that he thinks he is, “as well-prepared for the task as possible — through five years as a member of the Compline Choir, six years of research and writing about Peter’s life and work, and several years of formal training as a musician.”

Given KING’s recent problems, I asked program director Lowe how secure Compline’s future is as a fixture on the radio dial and the virtual desktop. “I think the record of the Compline on KING-FM indicates our feeling about it,” he said. “We know that the broadcast was founded and funded by our founder, Dorothy Bullitt, and it’s a tradition we are proud to continue, in honor of our founder and for the benefit of our listeners. We have no plans to discontinue this service, as we know it is enjoyed by so many, and enjoyed across so many faiths.”

Even in secular Seattle, Lowe says that he’s only received three complaints in 30 years about the presence of religious programming on the station. He says listeners view Compline as, “an affirmation of the beauty of both music and the human spirit, if not for the spiritual message.”

In retirement, Hallock misses the “extended family” of Compline Choir members and says he’s proud that the service, “continues without the slightest bump in the road.” Hallock also says he is honored that Compline “has been embraced, first, by the members of the choir who make it happen, and then by the thousands listening to the service via the broadcasts, as well as those attending in person.”

Does Hallock, born around the same time that radio broadcasting first took the world by storm, tune in the Compline service every week at 98.1 FM? Not exactly. “I listen to the podcasts on a regular basis,” Hallock says, “and am exceedingly grateful for the fact that the latest in technology makes it possible.”

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