Boston and “the real Paris”

(There are two types of people in this world: those who have seen Killing Zoe and thus understand the title of this post, and those who have not. It’s entirely okay if you’re in the latter category; Killing Zoe, truly a lesser effort for all involved, isn’t really worth the bother of seeing just so you can get the joke. To explain quickly: there’s a running gag in the film about Eric Stolz being in Paris and having people telling him they’re going to show him “the real Paris”. In the main, this does not work out well for him. That’s about the extent of it.)

I’ve written a bit about the experience of seeing some of the world’s major cities for the first time in my late 20s and 30s. I’ve also talked about the struggle that I have with a sense of rootlessness. I was born in Anchorage, Alaska, we moved to the eastern part of Washington state when I was four years old, then moved to the Seattle metro area after another four years, and my parents moved back to Alaska after I graduated high school. This effectively meant that our paths diverged somewhat, and then my parents’ respective paths diverged from each other a few years after that. I stayed in Washington state, living in Bellingham for four years while I made an unsuccessful initial attempt at school, then moving back to Seattle when I got a job in the software industry. I stayed in Seattle for about five years, and then we moved two thirds of the way across the country, heading to Indiana for school, and we thought we’d be there for three years tops. Eleven years later, we finished the cross-country move, and now we’re in Boston. My mom and stepdad are still in Alaska; my wife’s family is mostly still in Washington state (save for a brother in Chicago) — as much as we love New England and are seriously thinking that putting down roots there would suit us very well, a major concentration of the Barrett family is not happening there any time soon, save for that which we generate for ourselves. And, you know, we may wind up doing just that.

On the other hand, let’s be honest about something. Being in Boston has been terrific, but as somebody who is by training something of an urban historian, I’m acutely aware that our experience so far has been strictly on honeymoon terms. We’ve been in a bubble to say the least — a seminary campus in a nice part of town where we haven’t had to pay rent. Yes, it looks like Boston is someplace where there is a market for the Barretts and the skill sets we bring to the table. Fine, it’s been great to live someplace, finally, where it’s at least possible for public transportation to minimize the amount of driving we have to do. It’s been wonderful to have a density of Orthodox churches in the area and to have the luxury of figuring out what’s a good fit, and for it to be normative for me to be paid relatively well as a cantor. It was awesome to go to a Red Sox game at Fenway stadium and to have it be a night when they won. I love that a decent Cuban sandwich is a hop, skip, and a jump away. Yes, it’s been genuinely soothing to our souls, after eleven years in a landlocked state, to live in a city where we can go out on a harbor cruise. Tasty Burger.

At the same time, these all amount to floating from one self-selected tourist experience to another, and a hot dog at Fenway followed by a ride on the T to the Museum of Fine Arts does not an informed denizen make. We haven’t really been through the ups and downs of everyday life, not by a long shot. Although, the end of the academic year has brought a little bit of that; it has meant that our time as residents in the seminary community is rapidly coming to an end. Holy Cross is truly a wonderful place to feel like one belongs, and when you don’t anymore, it feels like the sun has suddenly gone behind a cloud. Relationships will have to be re-cultivated and community will have to be re-defined. That’s okay; we won’t be stumbling-distance from our friends on campus, but we’ll still be in nacho distance, let’s say, and things will be fine. Previous friendships will be strengthened, and we’ll actually start to get to know a neighborhood in Boston, not just an enclave.

The urban historian in me wants to know more, though, and I want to know more by way of people who have stories to tell, and who can refer me to other sources. I may be a Byzantinist, but Boston is here right now, and I’m right in the middle of it, so why not?

So, here’s the plan — I’m going to pick the brains of 10 people, 5 whom I know in advance, 5 whom I don’t know and will be selected from, and approached in, crowds in public places. To the extent possible, these 10 people will represent a diversity of views, stations, geographies, life experiences, etc. I will ask them about Boston, their experiences with the city, and so on. It will be a conversation that I write about, and then at the end, the key question will be — who should I talk to next? And then I will go and talk to that person, asking them as well for a reference to another person. It will go on like this until somehow it all terminates with one person, or I run out of people. Both are, I think, unlikely, so we’ll see if another logical stopping point presents itself. I will be curious to see a) what directions the social connections go in, and b) if they ever cross.

For the moment, I guess I should start with myself. Boston first appeared on my radar when a friend of mine from my first stab at undergrad went out to Boston University to study voice and opera with Phyllis Curtin. I talked to him once or twice about coming out to visit, but it never happened.

After starting to hang out in Orthodox circles, of course I started hearing about the seminary, as well as Holy Transfiguration Monastery. While I was in Greece, I heard rumors about the possibility of the Byzantine chant position at Holy Cross coming open; when I brought John Boyer out to Bloomington for the first time in 2010 he confirmed that that was the case, and he said he would probably be heading out that to Boston himself starting that fall. It came to my attention that my teacher from Greece, Ioannis Arvanitis, was a finalist for the chant position; suddenly I started wondering — wow, if he gets the job, could I find a way to spend a dissertation year there? I wanted to go out there for his campus interview, but I didn’t find out when it was happening until after it was already over, alas.

But, the idea of trying to get out that way had been planted, and when I saw that the Patristics professor of Holy Cross was presenting at the Byzantine Studies Association of North America conference in Chicago fall 2011, I made a point of getting up there so I could talk to him. I finally paid a visit in March 2012, where mostly I saw the school, followed by another trip that fall for the Byzantine Studies conference. On that visit, I got to do a bit more sightseeing, although mostly in a context of food — I went with John and his family to Union Oyster House on the Freedom Trail, which claims the distinction of being the country’s oldest restaurant, and this experience was also my introduction to raw oysters. John also took me to Tasty Burger next to Fenway Stadium, which set a standard, and ordered Sicilian-style pizza from Pino’s one night as well.

After our godchildren Lucas and Stacey and our friends Bryce and Elyse left for seminary fall 2013, the Barretts paid a visit to the Holy Hill as a family over MLKjr weekend. We got to stroll around Cambridge and Harvard Square a bit, had dinner at Grendel’s Den, had some lovely bagels in Brookline, ate an awesome breakfast at Martin’s Coffee Shop in Brookline Village, and once again patronized Tasty Burger (“What a nice little hamburger! No, that’s fine, you’re great just the way you are“). I was back a few weeks later for a grad student conference, but it was mostly an excuse to hang out with my friends there. This time, I got to go downtown a bit, spending a decent amount of time in Copley Square and at the Boston Public Library, and also eating some good sushi.

Since we’ve been in Boston, two of the major things that we’ve loved have been easy access to water and boats, and — to continue a theme — the food. We went on a harbor cruise in a tall ship almost as soon as we got to town; something about seeing the city skyline at sunset from the water brought a lot of peace, particularly after so many years of feeling like we were being slowly strangled to death in Indiana. In terms of food, I don’t mean lobster rolls and clam chowder (although the lobster rolls are pretty darn good); I mean, overall, we can find what we’re looking for in a regular grocery store, including good seafood. Specialty grocery stores are a few minutes away if we need one (as opposed to five hours away in Chicago). There have been some things that we’ve had a harder time getting — raw milk we have to go way out of our way for, unlike Bloomington; bulk sausage just doesn’t appear to be a thing here; Gehl’s Nacho Cheese Sauce is not marketed at retail in Boston — but in the main, the variety of what’s available is unbelievable. Same goes for restaurants; the North End alone is a treasure trove for Italian food.

Churches and public transportation have also been really nice. Yes, okay, the T isn’t perfect. It’s really useful regardless, and it has enabled us to avoid parking downtown. I’m able to get to my contract gig via the T pretty easily. Getting to and from the airport is mostly reasonable, depending on where you live. As for churches, I’ve gotten to chant for a lot of different parish communities in the area, and they’ve all been lovely and welcoming. One parish pulled Theodore in for their Christmas pageant at the last second, and whenever I’ve subbed there since, they still ask me about him. I’ve also had the opportunity to sing in my friend Spiro Antonopoulos’s choir a couple of times, and that’s been great — just to live someplace where there’s enough of a critical mass that there can be a Byzantine choir in the area is mind-boggling.

Yes, it is not cheap to live in Boston, and it was a bit of a punch to the gut to have to internalize a price range of $1600-2200/month for what we were looking for. On the other hand, the incomes and opportunities go a long way towards making up the difference, and Flesh of My Flesh made an excellent point — it’s an approach to living that sees the city itself as your backyard. That certainly has its benefits. It has its downsides as well, to be sure, but I’m willing to deal with those, and among other things, I’m really looking forward to taking Theodore to a Red Sox game some time this summer.

Okay, so, looking at my story, wow, is it boring. I can’t really get out of my own head telling it, and clearly I’ve missed a whole bunch of things that would actually make it interesting. I’m simultaneously myopic and over-general when it comes to what’s caught my eye; I couldn’t tell you where my favorite drink in Boston is, I couldn’t tell you what I think the city’s most pressing issues are, and I can’t really articulate clearly why this experience is significant to me. I don’t have a story with a beginning, middle, and end; I’ve got some bits and pieces of a premise, not much more. Some of this comes from having developed a pretty strong bunker mentality in Indiana, where, in absence of the things that we wanted on an external level, we came up with reasonable facsimiles at home. “Where’s your favorite restaurant?” “My house!” “What’s your favorite drink?” “A Manhattan I’ve made!” etc. I think I had a pretty good understanding of Bloomington’s issues by the end of our time there, but I have to acknowledge that a lot of what I think I know about Bloomington’s issues comes from theorizing around my own anger at and resentment of the place. Anyway, the point is, there’s still some of that going on, and it’s going to take some time before all of that breaks down and lets in new perspectives and experiences.

In the meantime, I’m going to be listening to some other people’s stories in the hopes that they can educate me about this city that we’re hoping will adopt us, and I’m going to try to tell them to you. I hope you’ll find those stories interesting, at least.

Oh, and who am I talking to next? You’ll see. All in good time.

…and just like that…

I’m not really going to go into all the detailed ins and outs of why, at least not at the moment, but academic year 2014/2015 is over, and I have neither a finished dissertation nor an academic post, nor, really, specific academic prospects of any kind moving forward. My hope is that I’ve got the dissertation done by next year; maybe I even get enough of it finished this summer that my committee is willing to set a defense date. We’ll see what happens next at that point.

A perusal of the archives of this blog will yield a narrative about me trying my hardest to get into academia by way of grad school, even against very long odds, getting in regardless, and doing very well. It is odd to think that the endgame of all of that might well involve something other than the academy, but I think it is the hard reality that even people with Ph.D.s in hand are having to face right now.

Does it seem like I’ve skipped some things? Well, maybe I have. Let’s see what gaps I can fill in.

I always knew that, when the time came to go on the job market, there sure as heck wasn’t going to be anybody who hired me for my looks. Nor was I going to be any kind of an obvious Wunderkind, for the same reasons that it was so hard for me to get into grad school. So, my best bet was going to be, present myself as a colleague who is already fully-functioning, but who just doesn’t have an academic post yet. To that end, I worked my tail off to get some good papers into some real conferences and publish a couple of peer-jockeyed articles, and to do other things that, hopefully, made me visible and useful, and made me look like somebody starting down a road of academic leadership in my field.

I got to Holy Cross last August having announced as clearly as I could my intentions to finish that academic year. I had an internal schedule of a chapter draft every 4-5 weeks, and in terms of production volume, between September and March, I think I accomplished that. In addition, buoyed by both my writing pace and my confidence that there was no way I wouldn’t be finished by May 2015, I applied for close to thirty academic jobs and probably twenty postdocs.

However, there were logistical breakdowns; I don’t really want to get into the details of that lest it come off as finger-pointing, but towards the end of October I started hearing people say things that were very troubling, like “Well, there’s no way you were ever going to finish this year anyway, which means you’re not going to get a job, so what exactly is your rush, anyway? You’re planning on coming back to Bloomington, right? I mean, what was really the point of you leaving a place where you had nothing to do except write for someplace that is littered with distractions, particularly when you’re just going to have to come back to finish?” And, I suppose, from one perspective, there are some valid points in those statements. All the same, on the other hand, on a very human level, we needed to get out of Bloomington because it was killing us. As it was, I got far more done in Boston this last year than I would have possibly gotten done in Bloomington for a variety of reasons.

All the same, by the time the American Historical Association conference rolled around at the new year, I had gotten absolutely no interview requests and a lot of letters that said, in a nutshell, “thanks but no thanks.” A tiny handful of one year positions got posted in January and February; they all yielded responses that gave some variation of, “Wow, we’ve never seen 150+ applications for a visiting one year position before. Sorry.”

By the end of February, the writing was on the wall, and I realized I needed to start weighing my other options. Simultaneously, the realization struck that we absolutely loved being in Boston, 108+ inches of snow and all. After eleven years in the landlocked part of the Midwest, to be in a city on the coast, with topography, activity, a high density of Orthodox churches, culture, history, public transportation, water, boats, and seafood, was a total breath of fresh air. Granted, we were shielded from little things like, say, the cost of living, by the provisions of my fellowship at Holy Cross, but the quality of life is a different ball of wax regardless.

So it was that, with the end of the academic year hurtling towards us like an asteroid, I started putting every iron in the fire I possibly could — journalism, arts and nonprofit administration, higher ed administration, and so on. I let people know at schools where I had some connections that, hey, I’m in need of something to do after May. I got to know the Western music faculty member at Holy Cross, and I started a more-or-less regular church singing job in his choir at the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation. I took a lot of performing and teaching gigs for the summer to make sure I would have something going on. A little bit of a wrench in the works was that, while we had been told initially by the Holy Cross people that if we needed some flexibility in our living situation over the summer, that could be worked out, nonetheless when we actually raised the issue, “flexibility” meant all of a two-week extension. So, we had to start hunting around for a place to live, too.

(At which point, after paying $775/month for a house with a yard for nine years, we discovered that $1700/month for an apartment is cheap in Boston. Wow, yeah, that was a mental adjustment. On the other hand, the difference in income makes up for that. Additional perspective was provided by seeing that our old $945/month condo in Seattle now rents for $1450/month, and by seeing that apartments in Chicago, supposedly the “cheap” big American city, go for rents that are comparable to Boston’s prices.)

And, something happened — I got contacted for interviews. I was asked if I was available for things. I did some second- and third-rounds. Entirely unlike academia, there seemed to be a market for me and my skill set in Boston, and a lot of the things I have done and continue to do for free putting together The Saint John of Damascus Society and running its activities have been able to catch the eyes of people in arts and cultural organizations here.

There are still some plates spinning in the air, to be sure, and I’m not going to say that we’ve got everything figured out at this point. We don’t. But things are gradually coming into focus; we’ve found a place to live, I’m doing some contract stuff for a couple of organizations while continuing to network, Megan had a phone interview today for German and English teaching that went well, and I’m a little less freaked out now than I was a couple of months ago.

(Oh, and I successfully passed the Byzantine chant certificate exam at Holy Cross earlier this month. I got to walk in the school’s commencement ceremony and everything. So, I’m not finishing the year entirely empty-handed. More on that experience another time.)

But whither the academy? As anybody who has ever read Leitourgeia kai Qurbana: Contra den Zeitgeist (an intentionally ridiculous title that is supposed to be a bad joke, but I’m not at all sure that everybody gets exactly what I’m making fun of) knows, I’ve put a huge amount of time, effort, struggle, emotional capital, and yes, money, into getting into, getting through, and getting out of graduate school, and I didn’t do so thinking that I wouldn’t parlay the Ph.D. into a career in the professoriate afterward.

At the same time, higher education in this country is in a very different place now than it was ten years ago when I finally admitted to myself, in a moment that felt like the scene in Unbreakable where Bruce Willis’ character finally acknowledges and embraces his powers, that I was better as an academic who liked to sing than as a singer who liked to read. A friend of mine who participated in a hiring committee for his department told me a couple of years ago, “Getting a job is insane. The way the process works, it’s a miracle that anybody has a job.” And, while I’m not quite prepared to tear into the academy and enumerate how all of its shortcomings represent a personal affront to me in the reality in which we find ourselves in 2015, I think the words of my colleague and cohort member Alex Kirven are compelling:

If there are any university administrators and politicians reading this, I want you to know that I think it is a splendid idea to model your labor practices on such workers’ paradises as McDonald’s. Keep up the good work. I’m sure America’s universities will continue to remain competitive!

So what does that mean for me? I’m not entirely certain yet. The fact is, I’ve got a kid with an eating habit; it’s a financial non-starter for us to move back to Indiana for the poverty wages of a graduate assistantship, and we can’t afford to stay in Boston and do nothing. I’ve had some people tell me that this approach to the problem represents a “distraction” from getting my work done, and that what I need to do is figure out how to put myself in a position where the dissertation is the only thing occupying my time. I am not certain that this advice is either helpful or realistic; from where I sit, we have to do what we have to do.

Nonetheless, I still intend to finish the dissertation, definitely. I’ve come too far not to do so. I can say, hopefully without arrogance, that the core competencies of the professoriate are things that I’m good at; I’m good at research, I’m a good teacher, I’m a good writer, and I’m also able to produce quickly. Do I have a teaching vocation? Sure, I’ll go ahead and say that I do. However, it does not follow that I have to work in the academy to exercise that vocation. I’m not opposed to entering the professoriate as a career if the opportunity is right, but I will say that I am at a stage in my life where I’m not at all convinced that it’s in my or my family’s best interests to sacrifice everything else for That Dream Tenure Track Job.

I hope that, as things settle into focus, I can return some energy to the dissertation this summer. With any luck I can set a defense date by the end of the summer, or maybe by early fall. And then, sure, I’ll do another round of applying for jobs — why not? But I don’t think I’m going to do so indiscriminately. Living in Boston is really, really attractive right now, and if I have something that I’m doing that I enjoy, that is paying the bills while living here, and that is allowing me to cultivate other opportunities, then I don’t think I’m interested in moving out to the middle of nowhere just so I can get on the Visiting Assistant Professor/Visiting Lecturer train and hope that I can be competitive for a tenure track position someplace else in the middle of nowhere in 4-5 years. I’m 38, folks, and I’ve got to start earning a real living, even if it means having to reinvent myself yet again. The Ph.D., at the end of the day, will be its own reward and that will be fine; there are also lots of transferable skills, but I’ve learned over the last several years how to find ways of making opportunities in my surrounding environment, and I will continue to do so.

I’m not going to lie — I’m angry about some things (and, if I’m honest, I’m angry about some things going all the way back to completion of coursework, but that’s not a story I can really go into detail about here, not yet anyway). I feel like the outcomes of this year could have been different, and that I did my part as much as I could. But, whatever, they went the way they went, and what I’ve got is what I’ve got. It’s all right — if we had stayed in Bloomington, we would be in the same situation, except that we’d still be in Bloomington, and we would have significantly reduced opportunity for the things that we’re able to do now. I would not trade this last year for anything, even if where we’re at on the other side of it doesn’t really look how we were intending it to look when we pulled up to the seminary in August of 2014.

There’s another feeling that I’ve been trying to process. It isn’t anger, exactly. It’s a kind of puzzlement, a temptation to despair. It’s maybe a feeling of being perennially at the tail-end of the life cycle of choices. Does anybody else know what I’m talking about? To put it one way, feeling like by the time you’ve heard of a career path that you might be good at, it’s no longer a sector that somebody like you has any chance at getting even an entry-level job in. That by the time you might be potentially in the market to buy a house or rent an apartment someplace, you can’t afford to live there anymore. I’m talking about seeming to have a social network that seems to route directly away from anybody who might be able to do anything to give you any kind of a connection to the things you’re trying to accomplish just to keep the lights on.

I’m talking about feeling like that even though, theoretically, you made all the right choices. You chose not to drink in high school. You just said no. You hit the books rather than that ass. You went to college because everybody told you, an education will give you so many choices. And yet, somehow, by the time you made them, it was already too late for those choices to do you a lot of good. By the time you realized that, you saw that the partiers at your high school were all making lots of money after coasting through college, and the temptation was to try to play catch-up.

In my case, I’ve made choices all my life that were intended to favor what I was always told was my potential. My academic potential. My intellectual potential. My technical potential. My musical potential. Even after I dropped out of college, I was able to be clever enough to worm my way into an interview for a technical company that, at the time, had the highest per capita number of millionaires working there anywhere in the world. “The stock has always gone up,” they told me when I was hired and were explaining why the stock option grants made the lower salaries worth it.

I was lucky enough not to be stupid enough to borrow against my options. But I was in that very first generation of permanent employee who saw the stock decline sharply and then stagnate, that generation of worker who came in with stars in their eyes and yet for whom it would never be anything beyond a semi-decent middle class job.

I went back to school after a few years, feeling like I could do better. I was told I had a voice that I could make a real operatic career out of. I made a bet that that was true — only to find out that, while maybe I was good, the paths that somebody like me could make a career out of didn’t really exist anymore. I needed to have figured it out maybe ten years before, maybe while I was even still in junior high.

But while I was learning that, I was also having some academic success that was catching the attention of certain people. Go to grad schoolthey told me. You’re a natural fit for it, and you’ll thrive there. So, eventually, as a first-generation college graduate with a Bachelor of Music degree, I found a way to do so, and I did well, I published well-received articles as a student, I gave some good papers, and I got an awesome fellowship to go someplace cool while I was writing my dissertation.

And now, in the process of finishing the dissertation — what do you know, in the last several years while I’ve been in grad school, it turns out that, while somebody like me may indeed be good at the requirements of the profession, it’s a profession that looks like vaporware now, by and large. It seems like there is no “academic career” anymore, not for most people, not unless you were already a rockstar like seven years ago.

So here I am, on the cusp of my forties, having made three successive bets on career tracks since my twenties, having made those bets way too late in the life cycle of those career tracks, and there’s a real temptation to feel like I don’t have much to show for it.

The tagline for this blog used to be, “The adventures of a wannabe academic who got a late start.” Since getting into grad school, it’s been “The adventures of an academic who got a late start.” Now what? Getting a late start seems to be reality for me, one way or the other — is there a way I can finally use that to my advantage? Maybe getting out of the academic game, if that’s indeed what I do, represents an opportunity for me to get ahead of the curve for once.

I don’t know. I’m struggling with what exactly to do with that. Whatever — in the main, I feel pretty good right now, and while we don’t have everything worked out quite yet, it’s clear to me we’re where we should be, and things will be clear. God’s in charge, and while everything is still on a need-to-know basis and we still don’t need to know, we’re doing okay, and it looks like things will probably work out pretty well. We’ll see.

Okay, more later.

The present-day relevance of Byzantine history

A few months ago, an opportunity came up to pitch an essay explaining the relevance of my subject area to a public audience. I made a pitch about Byzantine history, the editors liked the pitch, and I wrote a draft. Two drafts later, even cutting the things they asked me to cut and changing the things they asked me to change, it became clear that what I was trying to say wasn’t working for the forum as the editors envisioned it; from my perspective, what they wanted was an apologia for Byzantine history that somehow strictly avoided any actual discussion of Byzantine history or the perspectives of current scholars in the field, and I rather feel like their objections to what I wrote only proved the point I was trying to make.

Oh well; the beauty of having a personal blog is I can put up whatever I like, so I’ve thrown back in a lot of the things they asked me to take out, updated it a little bit more, and I present it to you here. Doubtless the audience will be much smaller, but whatever. It’s Akathistos Saturday, and I discuss the modern significance of the events commemorated therein in this essay, so it seems appropriate to publish it today. Enjoy.

The word “Byzantine” is pejorative in the vast majority of English-language contexts. As a Byzantine historian, this always leaps off the page at me, and it strikes me that our conceptions and misconceptions about the distant past influence our attitudes towards present-day matters. Recent citations provides no shortage of examples.

  • Consider a 22 January 2015 headline from the Canadian newspaper National Post: “Shawn Rehn case shows Byzantine criminal justice ‘system’ built to avoid accountability.” In the body of the article itself one finds the declaration that “A lot of facts can’t be established in the… case because the paperwork… is Byzantine and emanates from multiple arms of the beast that pretends to be a system.”
  • For example, a 26 January 2015 Huffington Post piece by Rebecca Orchant on the settlement between The Hershey Company and an import company that effectively prohibits the import of several brands of chocolate made overseas, in which Orchant, a retailer, says that her choices now are to “turn to more Byzantine measures to get our British chocolate, or sell an inferior product.”
  • There is also a Heritage Foundation report from 26 January 2015 titled “Reforming DHS: Missed Opportunity calls for Congress to Intervene,” which calls the oversight of the Department of Homeland Security not just “byzantine” but “balkanized and dysfunctional”.

“Byzantine”, for these writers, means overly ornate, unnecessarily — but possibly intentionally — complicated, corrupt. The Heritage Foundation juxtaposes it with “balkanized”, another geographic term (describing a former portion of the Byzantine Empire) that has been turned into a pejorative, here meaning a whole divided into small, mutually-opposed parts.

“Byzantine”, in fact, is a word that the so-called “Byzantines” did not use to describe themselves; “Byzantium” was the old name of the port town on the Bosphorus at the intersection of eastern Europe and Asia Minor where the Roman emperor Constantine decided to establish his new capital city in 325. He called it “New Rome”, it came to be known as Constantinople, “Constantine’s City”, today known as Istanbul (probably from the Greek phrase eis tin poli — “to the city”). While Romulus Augustus, the last Roman emperor in the West, abdicated to Germanic forces in 476, by that point the Roman Empire had re-centered itself around Constantine’s capital. Eventually its borders began to shrink irrevocably, but nonetheless, the transplanted eastern empire survived in one form or another until 1453, when the city fell to the Ottomans.

For a Byzantine historian in the West, the pejorative use of “Byzantine” in our vernacular represents a never-ending series of “teachable moments”, opportunities to examine the myopic privileging of the immediate present by our media at the very least, but also to interrogate the way various fields reflexively treat that which is “Eastern” as something inherently “foreign”, “mysterious” – or worse, “mystical”. That Byzantine history is by definition a pre-modern subject already guarantees its marginalization by the mainstream, but even among medievalists, it is not sufficiently “Western” for a discipline that tends to privilege Latin and French subjects, being situated in the “Greek East”. At the same time, it is also not really sufficiently “Eastern” for most historians who work with Middle Eastern or Far Eastern topics; Edward Said, for example, sees Christianity, even that of the “Greek East”, as being fundamentally “Western”.[1] These barriers can tend to ghettoize Byzantine issues, placing them off to the side in survey courses and textbooks. To the extent that the Byzantine world is talked about in those contexts, they are largely informed by biased Western sources — such as the tenth century Liutprand of Cremona, who after an embassy to Constantinople described the Emperor Nicephorus Phocas as “a monstrosity of a man… [and] in color an Ethiopian” dressed in royal robes that were “old, foul smelling, and discolored by age” — resulting in an Orientalizing overemphasis on the perceived differences between the “Byzantine east” and the “Latin west”. The discourse emphasizes the tawdry excess of supposed cultural discontinuities – aesthetics, politics, art, religion, and so on – and discusses them as misunderstood, abstract distortions rather than as concrete realities. The picture of the Roman East that emerges is really a straw man, representing everything that the we Westerners pat ourselves as having left behind after the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment — ugly aesthetics that take the worst elements of the classical world and distort them, corrupt politics represented by the machinations of the monarchical emperors, a state-subject church that combines the most patriarchal and superstitious elements of paganism and Christianity. It is not a fully-qualified subject of interest in its own right; it is a gaudy red-headed stepchild of Western history cloaked in a cloud of incense.

Recent scholarship, thankfully, is showing that many of these characteristics, so distasteful to a Western intellectual ethos, are misunderstood and mischaracterized, such as the claim that Eastern Empire was an absolute imperial theocracy.[2] As well, an informed understanding of many of today’s pressing international issues — ISIS’ violence against religious minorities in Mosul and Libya, the civil war in Syria, the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, the complexity of Turkey’s application to the European Union, Greece’s economic woes, even elements of the current conflict between Russia and Ukraine — must acknowledge a sense of the sweep of history that includes, rather than dismisses, Byzantium.

To give but one example, the demonstration by tens of thousands of Muslims in front of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul on 31 May 2014 makes far more sense if you understand that what is today a museum was built by the emperor Justinian in the sixth century as the Empire’s largest church. This exemplar of Byzantine sacred architecture was the largest cathedral in the world for nearly a thousand years; it was repurposed as a mosque by the sultan Mehmed II after 1453, inspired sultan Ahmet I to build the so-called Blue Mosque as a copy just a few hundred meters away in 1609, and then was decommissioned and turned into a secular museum by Ataturk in 1934. Today, besides the Muslims who hope to persuade the Turkish government to re-open the monument as a mosque, there are Greeks who want to see the monument returned to the Greek Orthodox Church. Hagia Sophia may be little more than a museum to some, but it is a Byzantine foundation that still has considerable discursive power in 2015, resonating for present-day adherents of Islam and Orthodox Christianity, as well as being a symbol of two past empires for their would-be inheritors. The discursive weight of such symbols stretches far beyond modern-day Turkey, extending throughout the Mediterranean, Asia Minor, the Middle East, the Balkans, and Russia.

The recent episodes of violence by ISIS against Christian minority groups in Mosul and Libya are also rooted in chapters of Byzantine history. Coptic Christians, like those beheaded in Libya in February 2015, are the modern Christian group that count themselves as the present-day successors of the historic Church in Alexandria, Egypt. They were part of the Roman Empire in the East only to be separated ecclesiastically by theological disputes. Assyrian Christians, like those kidnapped in Tal Tamer on 23 February 2015, are the modern Middle Eastern Christian group that claims continuity with the so-called Church of the East or Catholicosate of Seleucia-Ktesiphon of antiquity, a Christian group that straddled the frontier between the Roman and Persian empires. They were cut off more because of geography and political boundaries than because of theological disputes. In the seventh century, both groups were permanently separated from the Byzantine mainstream by Arab invaders.

To say the least, this background is not at all well-understood by our media; even well-intentioned pieces, like Graeme Wood’s recent “What ISIS Really Wants” for The Atlantic, demonstrate serious ignorance in passages such as this, where Byzantium is nothing more than a transitional stage between ancient Rome and present-day Turkey, not even worth mentioning by name:

Who “Rome” is, now that the pope has no army, remains a matter of debate. But Cerantonio makes a case that Rome meant the Eastern Roman empire, which had its capital in what is now Istanbul. We should think of Rome as the Republic of Turkey—the same republic that ended the last self-identified caliphate, 90 years ago.

In terms of my specific area of research — I am writing a dissertation on public devotions to the Virgin Mary in Constantinople between the fifth and seventh centuries. The Byzantine image of the Theotokos, the Mother of God, is another kind of symbol with powerful religious and political resonance, and the memory of seventh century events associated with the Virgin are still present in today’s discourse. For example, on 22 April 2013, The New York Times reported that the Syriac and Greek Orthodox bishops of Aleppo were kidnapped in the village of Kfar Dael.[3] As of this writing, that situation has not been resolved, and tensions and violence have, obviously, continued to escalate otherwise there. In response to the kidnapping as well as the overall time of hardship, Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch John X gave a fascinating instruction in an encyclical for Orthodox Palm Sunday: “Let our [Palm Sunday] processions be this year with candles tied with black ribbons, chanting the hymn: ‘To Thee O Champion Leader…,’ instead of the hymn “Rejoice O Bethany…,” asking the Virgin Mary to keep our Church as a fortified city.”[4]

John’s instructions are rooted in matters of the Eastern Romans’ historical record. “To Thee O Champion Leader” refers to a seventh century hymn that was appended as a proemium to the beginning of a much longer hymn, a fifth century sung theological poem called the Akathistos (“not seated”, referring to the practice of standing while it is sung) hymn. The proemium was composed after Constantinople’s successful repulsion of the Avar attack in 626 with, according to some accounts, the Virgin Mary herself fighting on the walls of the city. It is a first-person statement of civic devotion and gratitude on the part of Constantinople itself to the Virgin:

To you, all-victorious general, I your city, O Mother of God, having been delivered from terrible things, ascribe to you thank-offerings of victory. But as you have invincible power, free me from all dangers, so that I may cry to you: rejoice, O bride unwedded.[5]

The entire text of the Akathistos has a particular liturgical relationship to the Lenten season that precedes Palm Sunday; during the five Sundays of Lent the proemium is sung during the Sunday Divine Liturgy (or Mass), and then the Akathistos hymn is sung three times in its entirety throughout the course of the Lenten season. However, by the time of Palm Sunday, the services are properly considered those of Holy Week rather than Lent, and the time for people to have “To Thee O Champion Leader” on their lips has passed.[6] Patriarch John’s instruction, then, is disregarding the liturgical season and instead looking back to the historical circumstances surrounding the proemium’s composition. Just as the Virgin was the defender of the City then, John is saying, Christians now in this time of crisis may make a point of singing this hymn to the Mother of God outside of its proper time to appeal to her as the defender of the Church, the heavenly city.

Late antique Constantinople’s explicit identification of itself as the Virgin’s city, then, is extended and repurposed for the present day in the context of a liturgical celebration of high solemnity,[7] with the population of Christians under Patriarch John now being the Virgin’s city. John is discursively engaging current circumstances through the liturgy, through music, through Orthodox Christianity’s own sense of late antique events as sacred history, and doing so in a way clearly focused on the person of the Mother of God and rooted in Constantinople’s devotion to her at the level of the city itself.

In conclusion, I would echo Dame Averil Cameron’s recent insistence that Byzantine history is in fact mainstream history, and that to treat it as otherwise is to treat it as “subaltern”.[8] I maintain that Byzantine history is not simply an irrelevant distorted mirror image of the West, a chapter best forgotten except when we need a pejorative to describe things that are helplessly tangled and complex, but in fact an area of inquiry that is vital to understanding the world in which we find ourselves today.

[1] E.g. Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage Books, 1994; reprint, 2003), 59.

[2] Anthony Kaldellis, The Byzantine Republic: People and Power in New Rome (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015).

[3] Hania Mourtada and Rick Gladstone, “Two Archbishops Abducted Outside Northern Syrian City,” The New York Times, 23 April 2013 2013.

[4] Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch and All the East John X, “Pastoral Letter,” (Our Lady of Balamand Monastery, Tripoli, Lebanon: The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch, 2013).

[5] Akathistos, Prooemium II. Translation mine.

[6] For a discussion of the rubrics, see Archimandrite Job Getcha, The Typikon decoded: An explanation of Byzantine liturgical practice, ed. Paul Meyendorff, trans. Paul Meyendorff, Orthodox Liturgy Series (Yonkers: Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2012), 199-201.

[7] Ibid., 209-11.

[8] Averil Cameron, Byzantine Matters (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014), 115.

A brief update — anybody need, well, me?

So, the plan this year was always on the ambitious side — defend my dissertation by the end of the year, and hope that I would be able to make a strong enough case for that happening in my cover letter for jobs and postdocs — but it seemed possible, at least.

Well, without belaboring the point or going into unnecessary detail, the reality has turned out to be a bit different. At this stage of the game, the immediate objective is to keep a roof over the collective of Barrett heads following the end of this academic year, and then to make sufficient progress by the end of the summer so that, by the time the next round of academic job applications is due, I can at least say that I’ve got a defense date.

On the “keeping a roof over our heads” part — I’m barking up every tree I can. There are a number of irons I’ve put in the fire that have to do with different competencies I have, but my gut is that the main concrete things I’ve got to sell to the non-academic world are my writing ability, a certain technical ability, and the possession of a Masters degree. To that end I’ve been applying for editing jobs, nonprofit jobs, journalism jobs, other media jobs, and the like. Our default position is to remain in Boston, since we’re here; I’ve thrown my name into the hat for positions in other locations too, where there are concentrations of people we know. We’ll do what we have to do where that’s concerned, I suppose.

In any event, since I’m not leaving any stone unturned, I may as well put this here: if anybody happening upon this has a desperate need for a PhD candidate who studies and teaches Byzantine history (as well as medieval history more generally), has formal undergraduate education in music, 10+ years experience in church music, close to 20 years working with arts organizations on- and off-stage, 5 years as a software tester, 3 years in various higher ed administration offices, a natural gift for networking, a knack for creative public engagement on obscure topics and who founded a nonprofit arts organization four years ago as a vehicle for that knack, who puns relentlessly, doesn’t take himself too seriously if he doesn’t have to, loves public speaking, and in general goes after things without giving up (sometimes to his own detriment), I’d love to hear what you think I could do for you. E-mail me at rrbarret AT indiana DOT edu.

Talk more soon.

Pastitsio and Byzantine chant: in which one finds, at the very least, the best pastitsio recipe ever (also the worst)

Some friends the other night made a Moroccan chickpea stew for us. One of them said that he had altered the recipe a little bit with what he’d had on hand; I turned to Flesh of My Flesh and said, “See? He makes stew with what he has.”

Good joke. Everybody laugh. Roll on snare drum. Curtains.

I didn’t come here to tell you that.

One of the topics I’m frequently musing about in this venue is, what does it mean to sing “Byzantine chant”, and how best to teach it to a variety of people? Specifically in terms of that variety — what might it mean to have a pedagogical approach that assumes some knowledge of how to do it, an approach that tries to convey best practices to a person knowledgeable about music, just not Byzantine music, and then, what would constitute a misguided approach that throws misunderstood elements together haphazardly? For illumination on this point, I turn to — strange as it may seem during the third week of Lent — pastitsio.

IMG_0359When Anna, Theodore’s nona, was first getting to know us back in fall of 2006, she asked us one day — “Can I come and make Greek food in your kitchen sometime?” Wow, twist our arms. What she made for us, and what she has made for us and others many times since, and what we also have learned how to make ourselves on a fairly regular basis, was pastitsio.

You can call it “Greek lasagna” if you like; many do, including Michael Psilakis. To do so is kind of like calling Syriac “the language of Jesus”, though; there’s a certain sense that it makes, but it’s kind of misleading, and it doesn’t acknowledge the dish on its own terms. Pastitsio has multiple layers of long, hollow noodles (ideally, Misko #2 Pastitsio Noodles) with a flour-based Béchamel-cheese sauce and a meat sauce. It’s a Greek comfort food to be sure; not exactly the dish one is talking about in a conversation about the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet. All the same, my goodness is it delicious when made right, and a pan of pastitsio on the table is, in my experience, one of the best signs of a hospitable house, Greek or otherwise.

classic pastitsio recipe

Classic Pastitsio

Like all dishes, there are regional, familial, and maybe even political differences. To the right is Anna’s foundational recipe, a pretty basic, classic version that allows for some variation based on what you have on hand and what you prefer. It’s nothing particularly fancy, and it doesn’t take that long to make. You could do this with beef, veal, or lamb; you could do it with whatever cheese you have handy (and it doesn’t make any particular suggestions where that’s concerned); and it’s not picky about pasta. Maybe it’s a recipe that assumes, if you’re a Greek person who already knows how to cook this, you’ll know how to take this and, mutatis mutandis, turn it into “the way YiaYia made it”. And, if you’re not, well, you’ll use what you have handy and you’ll make it work in your own way.

That’s one approach. There’s another way, somewhat more complicated, what we might call the “foodie” approach. Here is how Michael Psilakis frames the recipe in his cookbook, How to Roast a Lamb:

This is a classic Greek dish, which I often refer to as a Greek version of lasagna. You will need a deep, lasagna-style pan, and it may be hard to find the pastitsio noodles called for here. Try a Greek or Middle Eastern market or, of course, the Internet. The crucial thing is that the noodles be both hollow and straight, so you may substitute bucatini, perciatelli, ditali, or long, straight ziti laid end-to-end. This casserole, as with lasagna, must rest before serving to set, or it will be difficult to serve.

Okay, already there’s a different tone here. This is a recipe written for somebody who knows food, but maybe doesn’t know Greek food all that well (and there’s the “Greek version of lasagna” shorthand). He details the essentials, and tells you where you need to find them.

Ingredients:

  • 3 tablespoons blended oil (90 percent canola, 10 percent extra-virgin olive)
  • 1 large Spanish or sweet onion, finely chopped
  • 3 fresh bay leaves or 6 dried leaves
  • 2 cinnamon sticks
  • 2 pounds ground beef
  • 1 1/4 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • Pinch ground nutmeg (optional)
  • Pinch ground cloves (optional)
  • 1/4 cup tomato paste
  • 2 1/4 quarts water
  • 1 (28-ounce) can plum tomatoes, crushed slightly, with all the juices
  • 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • Kosher salt and cracked black pepper
  • 1 (500-gram) package Misko Macaroni Pastitsio no. 2 (see above)
  • 1 3/4 quarts Greek Béchamel Sauce (page 274, with eggs)
  • 1 cup coarsely grated graviera cheese

And this is definitely a little different. Oil instead of butter (he goes into his reasons for cutting olive oil with canola oil earlier in the book; basically it’s a cost issue, and you can use all olive oil if you really want to), the seasoning is a little more robust (and more characteristic of a Constantinopolitan approach, perhaps), and he’s more specific about the meat, the noodles, and the cheese. Elsewhere he talks about possible substitutes for cheeses; gruyere is his principal recommendation. This is an ingredients list that wants to show an American cook how to be faithful to the model using the best of what’s available.

Going on:

Make the kima sauce: in a large, heavy pot over medium-high heat, add the oil and the onion with the bay leaves and cinnamon sticks for 3 to 5 minutes. Add the ground beef and brown thoroughly. Add all the spices and the tomato paste and stir for 1 to 2 minutes. Add the water, tomatoes, vinegar, sugar, about 2 tablespoons of kosher salt, and a generous grinding of pepper. Bring to a boil.

Reduce the heat, partially cover, and simmer for 65 to 75 minutes. Skim off the fat once or twice. Reduce until the sauce is almost completely dry. Proceed with the recipe, or cool and refrigerate.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. In a large pot of generously salted boiling water, cook the macaroni until almost tender, a minute or so before the al dente stage. Drain well. Spread 1 cup of the Greek Béchamel Sauce on the bottom of a deep roasting pan or lasagna pan, and sprinkle with 1/3 cup graviera. Lay half of the noodles out on top of the béchamel. You should have 2 to 3 layers of noodles. Spread another cup of the béchamel over the noodles, without disturbing the direction of the noodles, to bind them. Scatter with 1/3 cup of the graviera. Spoon all of the kima sauce over the top and smooth flat. Spread 1 more cup of the béchamel over the kima sauce, scatter with 1/3 cup graviera.

Layer remaining pasta noodles over the béchamel. Spoon on the remaining béchamel and scatter with the remaining 1/3 cup of graviera. Bake uncovered until crusty, golden, and set, about 1 hour. If you don’t have a convection oven, you may want to increase the heat to 400 degrees F at the end, to brown the top. Cool for at least 40 minutes, to allow the custard to set so that the squares will remain intact when you cut them. Or, cool to room temperature, then refrigerate overnight.

And since he gives it its own recipe, here’s the Béchamel sauce:

Greek béchamel differs from French béchamel or Italian besciamella due to the inclusion of whole eggs. When a dish is baked, the eggs in the sauce create a custard. This basic ingredient is what makes many Greek dishes so special. Because of the large quantity of flour and the resulting thickness of the roux, you really can’t step away from the stove while you are preparing the sauce. Plus, you’ll need muscle to stir it thoroughly.

Ingredients:

  • 5 ounces unsalted butter
  • 10 ounces all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 quarts whole milk, warm
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • Large pinch nutmeg, preferably freshly ground
  • 1 1/2 to 2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • Cracked black pepper
  • 5 large eggs, lightly beaten

In a large heavy pot, melt the butter over low heat, whisking with a large balloon whisk. Add the flour and whisk to a very crumbly roux, not a smooth paste. Whisk constantly and energetically or about 5 minutes to cook off the raw flour taste, but do not allow to brown (slide the pot off and on the heat every now and then if you sense it is getting too hot).

Still whisking constantly, drizzle in the warm milk until smooth. Continue cooking, adjusting the heat as necessary to keep the mixture at a very low simmer, until very thick. Whisk in the cinnamon, nutmeg, kosher salt to taste, and a generous amount of pepper.

Scoop out about 1/4 cup of the warm sauce. In a bowl, whisk the sauce into the eggs to temper them. Remove the pan from the heat and whisk all the egg mixture back into the béchamel.

Dude. I’m hungry. Maybe I shouldn’t be writing this during Lent. Dang it all.

Anyway, some observations — first and foremost, this is not the quick ‘n dirty way to make pastitsio. The meat sauce, I can tell you from experience, takes more like 2-3 hours to reduce than the 65-75 minutes advertised, at least on the stoves I’ve used. At the same time — oh my goodness is the end result amazing and flavorful (such that Anna now uses Psilakis’ meat sauce in combination with her foundational recipe). Now, if you want to shave off time, just skip adding the water. With the basic recipe, if you know what you’re doing you might elaborate the bare bones instructions somewhat; by contrast, here, if you’re familiar with the dish, then you might simplify this version a bit. Both recipes, in the end, faithfully (I hate the word “authentically”) reproduce what is understood as “pastitsio”; one does so by presenting a basic, easy to reproduce (and vary) method, and the other does so by breaking the dish down and building it back up using the language and ingredients of American foodie culture.

Now, you can have an argument over just how “Greek” pastitsio is. Real Greeks didn’t use Béchamel sauce until a hundred, hundred and fifty years ago, one argument might go. There’s something there with the meat sauce and the cheese and the noodles, maybe, but Béchamel? That’s an Italian or French corruption, not Greek.

You might also have a conversation about some of the details. There are pastitsio recipes you can find that are adamant that no real pastitsio ever has had any kind of cinnamon or nutmeg or anything else in the meat sauce, because it doesn’t need it, period, and that’s not how YiaYia did it, dammit.

However, what you’re probably not going to have much of a disagreement about is whether or not this recipe is pastitsio:

  • 1 lb.  lean ground beef
  • 1 small  onion, chopped
  • 1 jar  (24 oz.) spaghetti sauce
  • 2 Tbsp.  red wine vinegar
  • 2 Tbsp.  butter
  • 1-1/2 cups  milk
  • 1 cup  plain nonfat Greek-style yogurt
  • 1/4 tsp.  ground nutmeg
  • 2 cups  elbow macaroni, cooked
  • 1/4 cup  DI GIORNO Grated Parmesan Cheese

BROWN meat with onions in large skillet; drain. Stir in spaghetti sauce and vinegar; simmer on low heat 15 min., stirring occasionally.

MEANWHILE, melt butter in large saucepan on low heat. Add milk; bring to boil on medium heat, stirring constantly. Simmer on low heat 3 to 5 min. or until thickened, stirring frequently. Remove from heat. Stir in yogurt and nutmeg. Add macaroni; mix lightly.

HEAT oven to 350ºF. Spread meat sauce onto bottom of 13×9-inch baking dish; top with macaroni mixture and cheese.

BAKE 45 to 50 min. or until macaroni mixture is heated through and top is lightly browned.

Um, no. No, no, no, no, no. You want to insult a Greek person? Put this in front of them and call it “pastitsio”. This is beyond parody, really. This is macaroni and spaghetti sauce layered with yogurt and had some cheese sprinkled on it; no Béchamel, no attention to cheese, no nothing. This is a clueless American who vaguely remembers that there was a dish he had at a Greek festival or something that had noodles, meat sauce, some white stuff, and maybe a pinch of spice in it, making something up that sort of fits the general description, and adding “Greek yogurt” (nonfat? That’s not Greek yogurt, folks) and nutmeg to justify claiming that it’s “Greek food”.

And, here’s the thing — by this point, pastitsio has been made at Chez Barrett a sufficient number of times that it isn’t really “Greek food”. It’s just “food you’re likely to eat when you’re a guest of the Barretts”. Or, for that matter, when we’re your guests; I made Psilakis’ recipe for Christmas Eve dinner one year at my mom’s house. Call it trying to pass on the tradition.

Okay, back to the question raised at the outset about Byzantine chant. How might the analogy of pastitsio be applicable here? What’s the equivalent of Anna’s foundational recipe, what’s the equivalent of Michael Psilakis’ recipe, and what’s the equivalent of the Kraft recipe?

Well, what are the fundamental ingredients of Byzantine chant, and what’s variable for, shall we say, ingredients that one has on hand? For present purposes, maybe we’ll say that the fundamental ingredients of Byzantine chant are:

  • it is a cappella,
  • it is monophonic (that is, not harmonized by multiple voices),
  • it employs drone that does not function as a harmonic bass line,
  • it employs a sacred text, drawn predominantly from the liturgical cycle of the Orthodox Church,
  • it employs the system of Byzantine modes, a centuries-old musical system with which the modern theoretical understanding as described by Chrysanthos of Madytos and clarified/affirmed by the 1881 Musical Committee of the Ecumenical Patriarchate is in continuity,
  • the melodies are composed formulaically — that is, there is a vocabulary of musical phrases (theses) proper to each mode, and the composer formulates compositions according to this vocabulary of phrases so as to fit the accentuation and rhetoric of the sacred text appropriately and in the intended musical texture (fast, slow, syllabic, melismatic, etc.),
  • and the melodies are notated using psaltic, or Byzantine, notation, and the notation is meant to be interpreted via a layer of oral tradition absorbed from one’s teacher.

Now, I’ve phrased much of that carefully. Not all Byzantine chant necessarily employs a liturgical text; there are examples that set paraliturgical poetic texts. The description of Byzantine modes allows for some leeway depending on local tradition; Lebanese and Syrian cantors might do certain things differently, as might some Romanian cantors. It also allows for a way of talking about medieval repertoire that was composed before Chrysanthos or the 1881 Committee. The point about notation might perhaps be controversial to some, but I would leave it there, simply because, as a prosodic and musical system intended specifically for that purpose, psaltic notation is the symbolic system that best expresses the musical and hymnographic repertoire we call “Byzantine chant”.

So what are ingredients that might be variable? Language, certainly; there’s nothing in that list that says that anything has to be in Greek or Arabic. It might be a lone man’s voice singing; it might be a choir of women. The point about oral tradition suggests that there is some level of acceptable variation of interpretation in some cases. There are different genres of hymns you can compose and sing within this framework; anything from quick, short, declamatory, syllabic hymns to long, slow, drawn-out compositions.

And, certainly, there are lots of arguments about some of the details. This, that, or the other musical development in the repertoire isn’t “really” Byzantine music, but rather a corruption arising from Turkish influence. No cantor who knows what they’re doing would ever sing this phrase the way you just did it. Some would argue that language actually isn’t an acceptable variable, at least not the way described above; it either has to be in Greek, or it has to adapt a Greek original in a way that favors the Greek version over the target language of the translated text at every point. Alternately, language may be generally variable to an extent, but there’s no way no how English is an acceptable language for this music. That kind of thing.

Whatever details one might argue about, however, here’s an indisputable example of a composition that is identifies itself as “Byzantine chant” but is, by any definition, the equivalent of the Kraft pastitsio recipe:

thy martyrs o lord, bad version

That’s from the pen of yours truly, written about ten years ago (do note that I do not credit a composer in the score, partially because even then I knew enough to know that I didn’t want to be blamed later). I cringe to show it to anybody because there is so much that it gets wrong, but in the spirit of being the chief of sinners, I’d rather hold up my own mistakes than point fingers at those of other people.

First, it’s the wrong mode. Yes, fine, fourth mode is the mode appointed for this apolytikion, but this is the wrong version of fourth mode — it is diatonic (legetos) rather than soft chromatic, because apolytikia in fourth mode use soft chromatic.

The second and third things wrong are related — this text actually is supposed to be metered for a model melody, usually known in English as “Be quick to anticipate”, which the melody I wrote doesn’t follow; alas, the text is not in fact metered, and the service book from which I got this translation doesn’t include a rubric for a model melody. You don’t know what you don’t know.

Fourth, if you look at the model melody (Byz notation version in English here, staff notation here, or get them from 27 September here if those links don’t work) it really is one note per syllable for the vast majority of the hymn. What I wrote isn’t obnoxiously melismatic, but neither is it sufficiently consistent in being syllabic.

Fifth, it’s not a terribly sensitive setting of the text. I have no idea what I was thinking on “our God”, for example.

Sixth, the use of drone is all over the place. It’s clear that this is by someone who has no idea what they’re doing on this point.

Seventh, my use of the theses bears basically no resemblance to the reality of how classical scores use them, and since at that point I was almost entirely influenced by Kazan, it is probably is more Sakellarides-esque (if we can even aim that high) than anything. You can sort of see what I thought I was doing, but I may as well be using yogurt instead of Béchamel.

Eighth, I made a deliberate choice to eliminate measures, partially because I felt that the “tyranny of the bar line” actually made Kazan much harder to use. This wound up obscuring the rhythmic structure that the piece should have had, and it had the technical effect, due to how Sibelius works, of obscuring how the accidentals function.

Ninth, because I was just writing note to note in staff notation, with no understanding of how the rhetoric of the theses was constructed in psaltic notation, it’s made an even lesser effort than it otherwise was. If I had had even some knowledge of the notation and the orthography, a few of the problems could have been minimized a bit.

In all of this, I was doing the best I could with what I knew, and I was doing so with foundational materials that were less than ideal but were what was available to me, to be sure, but that’s just the point — by way of comparison, I had had a taste of pastitsio at a Greek festival and thought, hey, I’m a good enough cook that I can replicate that — and I came up with a random combination of pasta, meat, cheese, and yogurt based on ingredients I had on hand. Yes, sometimes one makes stew with what one has (you knew I’d get back to that eventually), and one might argue that it’s not that bad on its on merits (if one were being maximally charitable), but you can’t really call it pastitsio, at least with no disclaimers or scare quotes.

Thankfully, these days there are more resources that allow one to go a route that is more along the lines of Michael Psilakis, taking apart the tradition and putting it back together for an Anglophone Orthodox audience that perhaps has decent musical sense but needs detailed help for Byzantine music. What is still needed is greater access to teachers who can provide enough of a living connection to the material, such that that one can manage with a more bare-bones set of resources, like the basic pastitsio recipe, but we’re getting there. In taking advantage of such resources, ideally we would produce a body of Anglophone repertoire that is both composed and sung knowledgeably and faithfully, and as a result, Byzantine chant would eventually become something that is no longer perceived as “Greek” or “Arab” or foreign in general, but simply “what we sing”.

We can apply this, really, to any Orthodox musical idiom, and even any element of Orthodox tradition; a confused jumble of ingredients put together out of a lack of understanding doesn’t actually cultivate a real “American” expression of anything. It’s exactly that — a confused jumble of ingredients. We’re far better off putting in the time and the humility to learn from people who know what they’re doing and have a living connection to the tradition. Yes, it will take longer, yes, it may take trying some things that don’t work the first time, yes, you may have to un-learn and re-learn some things.

Be that as it may — certainly, in the case of pastitsio, the end result tastes a heck of a lot better.

A pitch that never even got a rejection: Surprised By Nachos – Making Friends, Building Community, and Creating Family Through Food in Bloomington, Indiana

Last spring I proposed the following as a magazine article. It never even generated a “no”, alas, but it’s a piece that I still think could be worth writing, even though ten months later I’d have to re-think parts of it. Anybody want to read this story?

The reader of [MAGAZINE NAME REDACTED] will know that food culture is passed on by communities and families as a way of reinforcing bonds within those groups — but can it work the other way, where somebody builds family and community from scratch, in a place he was unlikely to end up at and where he knows nobody, with food?

In 2003, when we were in our mid-20s, my wife and I left busy, cosmopolitan Seattle — and all of our friends and family — for what we thought would be a brief stint in Bloomington, Indiana, a town most famous for a basketball coach who threw chairs into the court, so that I could finish a degree at Indiana University’s prestigious School of Music. Life took some unexpected directions, however (as well as added a few more university degrees) and Bloomington became home for over a decade. Far away from the people we knew, the strategy we stumbled upon for making friends was, put simply, “feed the neighborhood”. This helped make friends, yes, but the regular gathering of people around our dinner table, combined with at once a strong local food movement, a restaurant scene that’s expensive for small town Indiana, and a diverse, rotating company of omnivorous guests, turned those friends into family over the years, even as they moved away and we stayed behind.

My story starts with the world’s most awesome nachos being made once a week for what was ultimately 20-30 people, and this going on for a year and half; as our circle of friends grew, so did our repertoire (often inspired by a gift subscription to [MAGAZINE NAME REDACTED] my mother-in-law gave us). Dry-aged prime rib for a late winter dinner party and a Hungarian lamb stew for St. Patrick’s Day. An Italian Easter feast one year followed a Greek-style spit-roast lamb the following year. A standing commitment for a 3-day New Years celebration with a different themed menu every year. We made excursions into everything from butter-churning to home brewing to bread baking to coffee roasting to raw milk. Breakfast could be anything from eggs benedict with from-scratch Hollandaise and crumpets to the nothing-from-a-can biscuits and gravy a Kansas transplant taught us how to make when she moved here. People came to our table for celebratory nachos (and still do; there are people who have sung principal roles on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera who come back here and ask me to make nachos for them), for a convivial cocktail (usually something whiskey-based), and sometimes to cry in their soup (Tuscan kale and white bean). You don’t have to knock — the door is open, let me get you something. Are you hungry?

Time has gone by — Bloomington is a university town, so people have moved on. My wife and I now have a son. And, eleven years after arriving, we’re finally leaving. The coming New Years theme menu celebration will be in Boston — but with the same people. It’s a destination now, it’s family, it’s not just a relationship of convenience. Unlikely as it would have seemed when we got here, it’s what wanting to make good food for the people who came through our door — even when we didn’t know them — allowed us to build during our time here. Probably, though, when we get settled in the new place, I’ll offer to make somebody nachos.

My name is Richard Barrett, and I want to tell this story for [MAGAZINE NAME REDACTED]. I have published magazine features, poetry, and academic articles on a range of topics from religion to technical theatre. Matthew Murray at PCMag can tell you what I’m like to work with on assignment.

Thanks very much for your consideration.

Richard

Vacant chairs

richard chairWhen I was about a year old to about four years old, we lived in a neighborhood of Anchorage called Geronimo Circle, near DeBarr Road in the northeast part of town. To our left was a neighbor lady named Nina, and to our right were the Slays — Larry, Bonnie, and their little kids, Ethan, who was my age, and Jenny, the baby. Ethan and I played together just about every day; he sent me to the ER with my first split lip for my first stitches (couldn’t tell you over what, except I remember something about a toy crane being involved); we built forts out of couch cushions; and so on. Bonnie and Larry were close to my parents, too, and I have a lot of happy memories of the bunch of us being at each other’s houses in those early years. Larry built me a few things in his woodshop that I remember fondly; there was a marble rack that I spent hours playing with, and then he also made me a chair when I was about three years old — carved my name in it, finished it, everything. My mom still has it, and I’d bring it home if it fit more easily in a suitcase.

We moved away, but about nine years later, the Slays joined us in Bothell, Washington, and it was like no time had passed. Our houses were open to each other again, even if they weren’t next door, and Ethan and I actually went through junior high and high school together. During my initial difficult years in college, the Slays opened their home to me when I needed a place to go, and always treated me as another son.

Larry passed away a couple of weeks ago. I hadn’t seen him or the other Slays in years — maybe since our wedding — but I had stayed apprised of what was going on with them via Facebook and through my mother. He was a good man, a good father, and a good husband, who did what he had to do for his family even when it wasn’t easy. They all had a lot of fun together, too, and even though they’re all a bit scattered to the four winds, they were one of the tightest-knit families I’ve ever seen. Larry lived a long life even with some complex health issues, and while I mourn his passing, I’m happy that he no longer has to be in pain. Memory eternal, my dear friend.

matthew bakerI must comment on another passing — not as close, but painful nonetheless. Three years ago, at the 2012 Florovsky Symposium, Fr. Andrew Damick introduced me to one Matthew Baker, saying, “Someday soon, you’re going to be reading books by him.” Turned out we knew many of the same people, and I’ll never forget his shock of red hair, thick beard, bow tie, and tweed jacket, or his way of disagreeing with people that suggested an internal amusement at just how wrong his interlocutors could be.

We never met again, but we encountered each other online multiple times, mostly because we had so many mutual friends. Last year, he was ordained as a priest in GOA, and he recently had been assigned a parish for the first time. Everything I ever experienced of him directly or was told about secondhand spoke to his character, his integrity, his very real brilliance, and his faithfulness, and I looked forward to when our paths would cross in person again.

Last night, Fr. Matthew was lost to us in a tragic car accident. He leaves behind his Presvytera Katherine and six children. They had just lost a seventh in stillbirth earlier in the month. By all accounts, this is a loss of the brightest of bright lights, and one that had only really started burning for real. So many people who are dear to me are weeping today, and I stand with them in mourning his loss; it is clear that we have lost one of the very, very best of us.

A fund has been established for Fr. Matthew’s family; they have raised over $200,000, but that is only a start of what they will need for a family of seven that just lost their only source of income. You can give online at GoFundMe, or you can send a check here:

Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Boston
c/o Fr. Matthew Baker Memorial Fund
162 Goddard Ave
Brookline, MA 02445

Please do what you are able, and please remember Fr. Matthew, Presvytera Katherine, and their children in your prayers.

Memory eternal, Larry and priest Matthew. May your souls dwell where the righteous repose.


Richard’s Twitter

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