Posts Tagged 'byzantine chant'

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.

Follow up on choir schools, with a suggested course of action

Well, the spike in traffic the last few days leads me to believe that maybe the idea of an Orthodox choir school has drawn the attention of more than my usual two readers. Cool. If that’s so, then let me go into some more detail, and let me suggest a course of action.

First of all, thanks for all of the positive reactions. It’s great to see that there’s a way to describe this vision so that people get it and get excited about it; I hope that this is a sign of things to come. Please continue to share these posts far and wide; it’s an idea that has to gain a certain critical mass before it can go anywhere besides this blog.

Also, there have been a number of excellent suggestions that have come from my “Orthodox choir school: how I’d do it” post. Suggestions about cities, about teaching methods, about other schools to look at, and so on. I appreciate all of that, and I’m all ears for that kind of input. When (I repeat, when) the time comes, that will all be extremely useful — keep it coming!

Something that has been brought up is that there have been people who have toiled in Orthodox children’s music education for years, and there are existing programs that struggle to stay afloat. Wouldn’t it be better to try to build everybody up rather than concentrating efforts in one location? Might putting all the eggs in one basket be a well-intentioned, but ultimately misplaced, idea?

I had a response to this, but before I go into that, I want to make everybody aware of some valuable resources that should be looked at if this subject is going to be taken seriously. There is the Choir Schools’ Association in the UK, and they have a document titled “Reaching Out”, which is a great overview of the current state of the tradition in England. One is a doctoral thesis by one Daniel James McGrath titled “The Choir School in the American Church: a study of the choir school and other current chorister training models in Episcopal and Anglican parishes”. There’s also a doctoral thesis by Lucas Matthew Tappan, “The Madeleine Choir School (Salt Lake City, Utah): A Contemporary American Choral Foundation”.

IMG_3755Something that, alas, I can’t link to but that you should be able to acquire if you want a copy, is the 50th anniversary season brochure for St. Paul”s Choir School. They have them out for the taking in the narthex at St. Paul’s; I got a copy when I went to their Christmas concert on Friday. If you contact the school and ask for one, I have to imagine they’ll send it to you.

Nota bene — with all of these resources, one has to make sure that one takes them mutatis mutandis to a certain extent. McGrath and St. Paul’s are dealing with a context of boys’ choirs, and I’m talking about a co-ed approach, for example. The Madeleine Choir School and St. Paul’s are Catholic, and McGrath is writing from an Anglican perspective. Nonetheless, all are extremely useful in terms of how they talk about organization, curriculum, challenges, and so on — Tappan in particular explicitly has the objective of serving as a “road map” (his words) for those who might want to follow the Madeleine’s lead. Handy, that.

One of the main things I want to put forth here is this passage from Tappan’s thesis on the Madeleine as the justification for a choir school:

…a choir school consists of an institution where children are given a well-rounded musical education as well as liturgical formation in the ars celebrandi, and where they put these skills at the service of the sacred liturgy on a regular basis within a specific community (often that of a cathedral or collegiate chapel). In return, these children are given an outstanding elementary and religious education.

Even though these qualities constitute the basic elements of a choir school, each institution is a unique place where the choir school tradition exists within a particular time and culture… Perhaps the church musician will find in the choir school a model for training young people in an art that has the power to transform lives and to bring many out of the isolation of modern living into a living community of musicians and believers, forming young musicians “for the lifelong praise and worship of God” (p. 2).

But then there’s the epiphany of Gregory Glenn, the founder of the Madeleine Choir School, when he spent three months at Westminster Cathedral Choir School in London:

What Glenn realized was that the institution itself was the formator (emphasis mine). The incessant rounds of daily rehearsals and liturgies in the cathedrals and the process of going through a massive amount of repertoire year after year was crucial to being able to sing, for example, a Poulenc Mass on short notice. The choristers sight-read so easily that rehearsal time was never spent learning notes. There might be a false note or two the first time through a work, but the boys usually corrected themselves the second time around. Choir masters were able to spend the majority of rehearsal time working toward a more musical performance of the repertoire. According to Glenn, the Madeleine Choir School is still working toward this goal, but it becomes more of a reality with time. (Tappan, p. 26)

Here was my answer to the concern about concentrating efforts in one location:

I spent 11 years in a location that was, theoretically, fairly central in the United States, but as far as Orthodox Christianity went, was about as isolated as you could be without being in Wyoming. Almost anything and everything the parish there took on could be (and often was) fairly described as “being a lot of effort for one location”, right down to building a church. It still needed to be done. Along the same lines, the Madeleine school is certainly “a lot of effort for one location” (in Salt Lake City, no less!), but it’s still worth doing.

The other thing I’ll say is that musical efforts in particular often get problematized in “American Orthodoxy” (whatever we mean by that) as “reinventing the wheel”, that reduplication of effort doesn’t accomplish anything… What needs to be recognized is that not all wheels will travel on the same roads[…], people and institutions need to play to their strengths, and dispersion of effort that hangs everything on the energies of either one person or a tiny handful of people is a disaster waiting to happen. The Madeleine Choir School is not the only Catholic school in the Salt Lake City metro area, for example, but its existence allows for the faculty and students to play to a particular set of strengths, and the result is an example that is inspiring. Supporting music education in existing Orthodox schools is a great thing to do, but it also seems to me that establishing a model school that focuses particularly on that aspect will allow for a level of excellence to develop and be made manifest publicly. I think we accomplish a lot more when we’re able to work together than when we’re isolated; my experience is that most of us Orthodox musicians are too isolated from each other as it is, and that that is a bad thing.

Beyond that — as I said earlier, I attended a Christmas concert sung by the choirs of the St. Paul’s Choir School Friday evening with Megan and Theodore; one of the big takeaways was that Theodore was absolutely enrapt when the boys processed in, wearing black cassocks and singing “One in Royal David’s City”. I’ll say that the evening was was mostly the work of the the preparatory choir (the main choir had their big concert yesterday with Britten’s “A Ceremony of Carols”), but everybody did something, and they’ve got a good thing going there.

So, where to, folks? How do we get there from here? I’ve told you how I’d do it — and, I have to say, it’s remarkably similar to what Tappan describes Gregory Glenn, the Madeleine Choir School’s founder, as having done (and I discovered Tappan after I wrote that post) — he put a great deal of time in visiting model institutions and putting together a feasibility study/planning document with a proposed budget. Realistically, I think this is going to be somebody’s full-time task for at least six months.

My modest proposal, then, is this — a great Christmas gift to me, to your kids, and to our Church, would be a gift in support of this initial effort. Somebody shared the post saying, “I wish I had a million or two to give to such an undertaking”; well, it doesn’t need a million or two, not yet, and while you might not be in a position to give a million or two, maybe you can do something (particularly since it’s near year-end — taxes are coming!). It doesn’t really matter how much you might be able to do; if everybody who saw my posts over the last week even gave something relatively small, it would go a long way towards making this possible. Anyway, I don’t want to do a hard sell on giving right now. Rather, this is just the trial balloon — the question is, can we fund the initial planning activities, yes or no? You tell me. If we can, then maybe we can do this for real.

The way to give is through The Saint John of Damascus Society; click here, click on the donate button, and you’ll be taken to PayPal. The Society is a tax-exempt (501(c)3) non-profit, so all gifts are tax-deductible to the extent allowed by law. If you want to do something but don’t want to do it via PayPal, drop me a line at richardbarrett AT johnofdamascus DOT org.

I’m really not interested in asking for money right now, so we’re clear. This isn’t about money to me. At the same time, without some money, the next steps are really out of reach.

This is an open forum on the topic, so please, any questions, suggestions, comments, requests for more information, anything — keep it coming! And if you want one of the The Choir DVDs, e-mail me with an address.

Okay, my friends. I’ve made my pitch. You’ve all told me you’re interested and supportive; pray for us, tell me what we’re doing next, and share this far and wide if this is important to you. Thanks for sticking with me so far.

An Orthodox choir school: how I’d do it

Since I’ve just run a couple of posts that have touched upon the topic of choir schools, and last week I had occasion to run the pitch — such as it presently is — past a couple of friends, maybe I can take a moment to go into detail about how I could see an Orthodox choir school coming together.

First, what have I already done? Well, in 2005, I went to New York for the first time. While I was there, I visited St. Thomas Episcopal Church on 5th Ave, and heard their choir of men and boys for the first time. I learned more about the St. Thomas Choir School (there’s a video here that I can’t embed), and became fascinated by the model and its heritage, and convinced that it would be fantastically worthwhile to adapt it for Orthodox use. In 2007, I published this piece as a blog post (it originally had been intended for The Word, although, alas, the submission was never acknowledged). In 2009, it was picked up by AGAIN Magazine as an article titled “Teach a child to sing: Thoughts about Orthodox choir schools”. Fr. Chris Metropulos noticed the article, and interviewed me on the OCN show Come Receive the Light. All of this really amounted to me throwing the broad strokes of a big idea out there to see if anybody would run with it; I can’t really say I wasn’t given a platform, because I was, but nobody ran with it.

Which isn’t to say that nobody responded at all. I got an e-mail from a Mover and Shaker who was really intrigued, but who said, frankly, we’re so far away from being able to speak meaningfully of what a school could accomplish that there’s just no conversation to be had with anybody right now.

And that was that, until 2013, when a documentary on the Madeleine Choir School in Salt Lake City titled The Choir was released on DVD. I immediately bought ten copies in bulk and sent them out to various musical leaders on the American Orthodox scene with a copy of my AGAIN article saying, in essence, This is exactly what I was talking about. This is what we should be doing. Watch this and then let’s talk.

The same Mover and Shaker who had responded positively to the article was the sole person to respond to the mailing, and this person continued to respond positively. In fact, this person said — that’s great; now, here are another ten people who need to see this. So, I sent out another ten copies of the DVD with the article to the suggested names; no response.

Well, now there’s been a piece on a Catholic choir school that has run on CBS Good Morning. It’s a moment, a fleeting one, but I may as well try to take advantage of it.

So, I’m going to give you my pitch. If it inspires you, makes you want to help, please talk to me. This is a vision, to be clear, that I want to see succeed because I want there to be just such a school I can send my kids to. Certainly I want to facilitate the vision, but I want to be a participant, not an overlord. I’ll do whatever I have to, but I don’t need to run the show. I’m shouting it from the rooftops as much as I can until there’s a critical mass of others to do it, and then if there’s a capacity I can serve in that I’m actually suited to, I will, but I’ll be happy just to be a parent of a student. This is my vision thus far, but it need not be mine alone, and it need not be my baby that I guard jealously.

An Orthodox choir school is a parochial school attached to a parish or a cathedral that has as its educational mission the training of primary school-aged children from all Orthodox jurisdictions for excellence in Orthodox Christian musical service. They will receive, as part of their standard curriculum, a high level of musical education, both in terms of general musical skills as well as skills specific to Orthodox musical service, and they will be exposed broadly to the rich heritage of Eastern Orthodox liturgical music — Byzantine chant, Slavic chant and polyphony, Greek-American choral music, modern composers who engage Orthodox spirituality in concert works, and so on. The students will contribute regularly to the liturgical life of the parish/cathedral by singing services throughout the week; they will function as outreach to the community at large by means of concerts and recordings; they will also represent the school, the parish/cathedral, and the musical traditions of Orthodox Christianity by touring. Historically, many such schools are made up of boy trebles, who must then leave when their voices change; the vision here is that an Orthodox choir school will be co-educational, and there will be choirs for students to sing in as they get older.

The value of such a school hopefully is obvious. The next generation of musical leaders in America’s Orthodox churches is not going to fall out of the sky, and the major concern expressed at every Orthodox musical event I have ever attended is, “How do we get our kids involved?” This is a way to do it.

What is necessary to move forward? Well, a lot. How I’d do it, if resources were no object, is this:

I would first form a planning committee made up of people familiar with the broad range of Orthodox musical repertories and who had experience with working with children in particular. This planning committee would make an initial presentation to the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops and get their blessing to proceed. The committee would also seek to talk to organizations like PaTRAM, Cappella Romana, the National Forum of Greek Orthodox Church Musicians, Axion Estin, the Antiochian Department of Sacred Music, and so on, as well as music faculty at the Orthodox seminaries, and others, to get their input. From there, the job of this committee would be to assess how choir schools operate in this country and how Orthodox schools operate in this country. For the choir schools, we’d visit the Madeleine, St. Paul’s, St. Thomas Choir School in New York, and then also for perspective we’d go to England and spend some time at Westminster Cathedral’s choir school, as well as the Brompton Oratory’s choir school and a couple of others. For Orthodox schools, we’d look at Agia Sophia Academy in Portland, the Theophany School in Boston, the school of St. George Cathedral in Wichita, and then there are, I think, some in California we’d look at as well. (I’m already going to be visiting St. Paul’s at Harvard Square in January for an initial observation.)

The kinds of questions we’d be asking everybody are these: what’s the curriculum? How do you find students? How do you find teachers? What are the benefits and pitfalls for kids — spiritual, physical, emotional, otherwise? What are the benefits and pitfalls for the church communities that are served? How does everything get paid for? How do you keep it financially accessible for students, assuming that’s an objective? How does everything keep runing smoothly? How does accreditation work?

The next question we’d have to answer would be location. My guess is, at this point, such a school would need to be someplace where there is a diverse and sizable Orthodox community already, and where there would be a parish or cathedral big enough to be able to accommodate such an undertaking, given that in all likelihood such a school would not have its own classroom facilities at first. Perhaps the choir school could represent an expansion of a school that already existed. I’m not sure. In any event, I’m guessing there are very few places in the United States where this could be done successfully the first time, and that would have to be very carefully considered.

Probably, the committee would zero in on three candidate locations, and then survey Orthodox communities in those locations to see where there might be the largest concentration of prospective students.

Then, there would need to be a careful consideration of staffing. Who are the teachers? Where are they going to come from? What will they need to be paid? I anticipate that here, the committee would put together a wish list of faculty, and then make informal inquiries about interest, willingness to move if necessary, what it would take for them to accept an offer, and so on.

We’d then take our findings from all of these inquiries and create a planning document. This document would include the faculty/staff wish list, a projected budget for 5-10 years of operations, a narrative of what the school would do in its first five years from an academic standpoint, a musical standpoint, a recruiting standpoint, a facilities standpoint, and a development/fundraising standpoint. There would a curriculum plan as well, and sample concert programming.

This planning document would then serve as the basis for a major gifts campaign, at which point we would open our doors when we could do so responsibly.

Most, if not all, of these tasks could be undertaken under the aegis of the Saint John of Damascus Society; it would be well within the Society’s mission, and it would certainly be easier to perform these initial tasks via the mechanism of a nonprofit that already exists. Certainly, when it came time to move beyond planning stages, in all likelihood it would be ideal to spin the school off as its own entity, perhaps with its own foundation.

So, there you go. That’s the sketch of what I think would need to happen to move forward. There’s much more I could say, but that’s the backbone.

The Madeleine Choir School sends out a season booklet every summer, and last year that inspired me to try to put something together that’s similar, as kind of a proof of concept. I didn’t quite finish it — I have a dissertation to write, after all — but here are some pages from what I did finish. The names I list are nobody I’ve actually asked to do anything; they’re simply there to indicate real people who could serve this kind of school were it to be up and running. The concert programs are also strictly intended to be representative ideas. Nonetheless, see what you think.

If I might make a plea from the heart — if you’ve read anything I’ve written or seen anything I’ve done that has to do with Orthodox music, you know that this is a labor of love for me. Nowhere in that brochure mockup do you see my name; I am not trying to promote myself by any stretch of the imagination. I believe strongly that there is a desperate need that this fills — a desperate need for our churches, certainly, but also a desperate need for our world — and I hope to see that need filled. No more, no less.

If this is of any interest to you at all, let me know. If you want a copy of anything, ask — I’ve got a lot of resources related to choir schools, including somebody’s dissertation about the use of the choir school model in America. I’ve still got copies of the DVD of The Choir I can give out if that helps. I’m entirely and absolutely serious about wanting to see this happen; if you’re at least halfway serious about wanting to help, I’m all ears.

Okay, back to work for me.

How you get better as an Orthodox musician

Theodore, at two and a half, has started chanting. He loves to stand at the psalterion in the Holy Cross chapel, and sing along to the best of his ability. He had already started saying “Alleluia” as “Allya” a year ago, and then during this last Paschaltide, he started singing “‘stos ‘nesti” with the Paschal apolytikion in church. He’s since started trying to chant “Alleluia” and “Kyrie eleison. No less of an authority than Alexander Lingas even said when he heard him, “Well, he’s got yphos!”

theodoros protopsaltis

Theodore has even started developing a notation system for “Alleluia”. He sits in my lap, I’ll write a phrase of something in Byzantine neumes, and then he’ll write something using his own signs.

THBII alleluia notation

He’ll even explain to you — sort of — how it works.

All of this is great, it really is. It’s so awesome to watch him work these things out on his own, to try new things, and to respond to what he sees and hears. His two-and-a-half year old brain is a little sponge, soaking it all up.

Here’s the thing: he’s two and a half. What he’s doing is wonderful and age-appropriate for a two-and-a-half year old. It’s really more than I would figure I could expect from a two-and-a-half year old. Still, there will come a time when it is no longer age-appropriate. There will come a time when he needs to start developing an understanding that goes beyond simply doing something and grows into an understanding of what it means to do it right. Then, eventually, an understanding of what it means to do it well. If he isn’t willing to do that by a certain point — which will be his prerogative entirely; I’m not going to force anything on him — then certainly the age-appropriate thing for him won’t be to continue to do what amounts to yelling in church. It will be better for him to do something else if he’s decides he doesn’t want to get better beyond “Alleluia”. That’s not a problem; that’s exactly what one would expect when it comes to seeing a toddler grow up and develop — that they will continue doing some things and do them in more sophisticated ways, and they will discard doing other things and take up new things. Wash, rinse, repeat.

In other words, it is normal that there be a pattern of development when one learns a new skill, and it is to be expected that one will follow that pattern if they continue to do something that requires that skill, or they will do something else that doesn’t require that skill. This is really easy when you’re dealing with kids; the trouble is when adults decide that they aren’t interested in getting better at something but they want to continue to do it anyway.

There’s a truism amongst musicians — the way you get better is to play with people who are better than you. This is something that, if you’re an Orthodox musician, is kind of a problem. Let’s be honest — a lot of us are in situations where we’re isolated, where we’re either one of the only competent musicians, or even the only competent musician, or if we’re not, then we’re one of the only ones who is really involved. And, for many of us, we spend so much time, not even trying to bring people up to our level, but just trying to explain to people that there is a level. Forget phrasing, musicianship, dynamics, whatever — we’re working on getting people to sing a majority of right notes. We put the majority of our efforts into trying to communicate the fundamentals of the fundamentals, and doing so in contexts where some people are receptive, some are hostile, and some are benign but unable to be productive for one reason or another. To put it another way, we spend a lot of our time working with adults who are, relatively speaking, at the level of my son Theodore, and who are faced with the choice of learning to do it better or needing to stop. Here I note that it seems inescapable that we speak about singing in church as a clerical calling, something set apart; consider the petition during the Divine Liturgy — “Again we pray for those who bear fruit and do good in this holy and all-venerable Temple; for those who serve and those who sing (ψαλλόντων); and for all the people here present, who await thy great and rich mercy”. Such a point of view has been espoused by no less than the Ecumenical Patriarch. So, if we’re going to talk like that, then we also need to speak frankly about what it means not to be called to sing. It is nonetheless a choice a lot of adults don’t want to make; beyond that, we work in such situations under circumstances where clergy may or may not be supportive, we may or may not be being paid, and we may or may not have adequate resources otherwise to do what we need to do.

To frame this in terms of personal experience — I am hardly one of the “greats”. I stopped pursuing music performance as a full-time profession because I knew I wasn’t, and knew I couldn’t be. Still, I am a well-trained musician. I can sing pretty much what you put in front of me, be it in staff notation or Byzantine notation, I can do it in English, Latin, French, Italian, German, and Greek, and if it’s Church Slavonic then I can do it well enough to blend with somebody who is proficient. Some of my ability comes from what I had to do for my music degree; some of it comes from experiences in Episcopal church choirs, where you’re singing new repertoire every week, some of it comes from experiences with other performing ensembles like opera choruses and early music chamber ensembles, some of it comes from doing a lot of recording sessions where you’re sightreading music you’re seeing for the first time and have to record within the next half hour so you can get through the other fifteen things you have on the docket that day. I am not amazing; there is nothing remarkable about being able to do any of that. It is simply what is expected if you are to be considered a reliable, garden-variety professional.

And what did I do with my church choir? Generally, I had to teach notes by rote and hope it stuck; I had to explain things repeatedly like the necessity of turning the page when you reach the end of it; I had to beg people to come to rehearsal and come to church on time; overall, I had to put 15-20 hours a week into that kind of undertaking, and it compensated me far less than I would have received were I merely a paid member of a choir at a Protestant church. Towards the end of my tenure, I had experiences like telling my choir that they needed to watch me for entrances during the anaphora, and one person responding by stomping out, proclaiming that “You’re totally focused on all the wrong things and have completely lost the spirit”; this person never spoke to me again, and instead lodged some kind of complaint against me with the priest (the priest declined to discuss any specifics of the matter with me, and I left the parish shortly thereafter).

I have had to go out of my way over the years to make my own opportunities to play with people who are better than me so that I myself can get better. Sometimes that meant paying people to come to me. Sometimes that meant people paying me to come to them. I took various pro singing gigs here and there. I found a way to go to Greece to learn Byzantine chant, since the alternatives were all a five hour drive away. I also went to gatherings of other people who were in my shoes. hoping to learn things that I could bring back to my parish. I went to PSALM in 2006. I went to the Antiochian Village Sacred Music Institute a couple of times. In all of this, I hoped to learn something that could inspire people to want to see things the way I did, and to want to get better, to make music for the worship of God that was always seeking to be as good as it could be rather than “good enough”. The response was always the same — “What does any of that have to do with us? I mean, fine that you had fun, and great that all of you musicians were able to sanctify each other’s preferences, but what happens there stays there; we’re not interested.” People, in the main, had no interest in being inspired; no interest in being reached; no interest in being worked with; no interest in learning. That was for “musicians” outside of church; it had nothing to do with what they wanted in church.

If this is how you’re spending most of your life and your energy, as a musician, your A-game is going to suffer. And, truly, for many of us, when we do get together, the once or twice a year that the opportunities come about, we’re so thrilled that there’s another honest-to-God person in the room who gets it, to whom we don’t have to explain anything, who is singing the right notes and speaking our language without translation, that we’re not thinking about our A-game; we’re just having fun making music with people who share some understanding of what that means. Never mind “playing with people better than you are”; it’s a miracle when we get to play with other people who get it, let alone who are better.

So then, when we do get to play with people better than we are, it’s a ball game we aren’t prepared for. We don’t perform at our best because we don’t even remember what that is. Our A-game is irrelevant to our regular existence as church musicians.

Really, what I think we face is that there is a particular kind of poverty that we’ve had in our parishes for a long time for various historical reasons. Rather than try to improve the matter, various voices have spiritualized, if not fetishized, this poverty, given a particular moral weight to it, and what perhaps was non-professionalism out of necessity has become anti-professionalism out of choice, replete with nonsensical pietistic platitudes like “Orthodox music isn’t performed, and it would be better if we didn’t think of it as having composers, let alone professionals; Orthodoxy doesn’t do art.” Add to that what I believe is an American distaste for anything that smacks of “being told what to do” and a preference for being self-taught over learning from a teacher (something I certainly encountered when I was playing guitar seriously, 20+ years ago), and you have the perfect storm of a musical anti-culture in American Orthodoxy.

This has not gone completely unnoticed or unremarked on. At the 2006 PSALM conference, Fr. Thomas Hopko said very bluntly, “The Orthodox Church seems to be the only place on earth where you don’t have to be competent to be asked to do something. How does this come about? What happened? Why will people join a community choir, not miss a rehearsal, pay attention to the choir director, and then then not do the same in their parish choir? If we’re not taking church and everything we do in it seriously, then we’re just re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic. You can’t raise the bar when you still have to convince people that there’s a bar to be raised in the first place.” Along similar lines, I had a conversation recently with a longtime Orthodox choir director, somebody with a doctorate in conducting and decades of experience, who remarked that in a conversation with Fr. Ivan Moody, it came up that in Finland one must have a Masters degree in choral conducting to be choir director. “What a concept,” this person said. “Yeah,” I replied, “here it would be more like a disqualification.”

The difficult reality is that the circumstances we face in the world of American Orthodox church music are such that, in the main, they weigh the overall level down; the efforts of the would-be musical leaders do not pull it up. And, as long as this is the case, we Orthodox musicians in America are going to be hard-pressed to make much of a case for the best that Orthodox music can be with our own efforts. We will rely on non-Orthodox musicians to bring out the best elements of our liturgical music, we will have to record and perform in non-Orthodox churches because we have not adequately provided for the acoustic environment in our own — in short, we will be the audience for the professional performances and recordings of our own music, not the singers, and it will be because, frankly, we’re not good enough for it to be otherwise.

And we haven’t even begun to talk about issues like professional levels of pay. I am going to guess that there are 10 people in the United States who are able to make anything like a living off of being Orthodox church musicians, and that’s rounding up from the cases I know about for sure. I’ll limit my comments here, but a place to start is the simple fact that a decent undergraduate musical education isn’t cheap, let alone any level of education beyond that, and it would be nice to think that people who are serving the Church with such an education could at least make their student loan payments with what they’re paid. I’ll leave that there for now; a lot of parishes obviously struggle to pay priests (if they pay their priest), let alone anything else, so compensation is complicated, but it’s still something that needs to be addressed. There is a connection between time, talent, and treasure that must be acknowledged as part and parcel of the solution to the overall problem I’m discussing.

Orthodox musicians, ultimately I’m talking to you here, and we have a lot of work to do. As I used to tell my choir, I’m not asking you to do anything I don’t also expect of myself. Our task is complex, and while concerts, recordings, and conferences are great, the need is long-term and must be addressed in ways that are systemic and cultural, too. We must inspire the non-musician to do better, inspire the congregation to care, inspire ourselves and our colleagues to stay sharp, and somehow to get a culture in place that will form future generations of church musicians as singers, as composers, as teachers, and as leaders. We have to do all of that prayerfully and in love, and we must be mindful that our ultimate goal is service to God, just as it is for the priest and for the member of the congregation.

Cappella Romana is proof that it can be done at a professional level. PaTRAM also exists for this purpose, as did PSALM, and it’s also why Kurt Sander organized his Pan-Orthodox Liturgical Music Symposium this last June. I helped to found The Saint John of Damascus Society because I most certainly believe this is worthwhile, and I have advocated a particular model that would help with a big chunk of what we have to do, both in terms of teaching the next generation to sing and to understand why we need to learn to sing. In general, we all need to find ways of playing with people better than we are, and using those opportunities to get better ourselves.

How do we do that? As a place to start, visit parishes, monasteries, seminaries, etc. where those people are. Get to know them. Sing with them if they’ll let you, and see what you learn by worshiping with them at the psalterion or in the choir loft. Buy them coffee and ask them questions. That’s really hard when your parish isn’t anywhere close to anybody else, no question, so then you have to make it a point to attend gatherings of Orthodox church musicians so you can have a chance to get to know people. Go to choir conventions, sacred music institutes, liturgical singing seminars, symposia. That’s often not easy or cheap, but if you can’t afford it, ask for help, either from your parish as a whole or from individuals who are sympathetic. Present it as something along the lines of a mission trip, only for music. Hopefully they can at least get the costs down to something manageable. Better yet, if you can, bring at least one choir member with you so that they, too, can see that there’s a bigger world out there. Then, don’t stop there; start going to the things that will challenge you, and don’t just go to the events where your friends will be. (You’ll make friends at everything you go to, I promise.) You’ll learn even more that way. And when you do see your friends, don’t just revel in making a decent sound with somebody else who can make a decent sound; yes, it’s fun and feels great to bathe in a sound that’s resonant and in tune, but go beyond that. Force yourself beyond relaxing and enjoying so that you are listening and watching, and subsequently learning from what you hear and see. That’s how you get better, or at least that’s where you can start.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, Theodore wants to write some more “Alleluia” while sitting on my lap. Gotta start somewhere.

CD Review: Cappella Romana, Arctic Light: Finnish Orthodox Music

arctic_light_finnish_orthodox_import-cappella_romana-26407367-859743431-frntSo, occasionally I wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat because I think I’m going to have to learn Finnish. I have this harebrained research idea about analyzing the Byzantine liturgical cycle as a national epic (I would still need to figure out the “for whom”, “where”, and “when” aspects of the matter), and since the Kalevala is the prototypical national epic, I’d have to be able to read Finnish to be able to do it properly.

Then my wife and my advisor both take turns in slapping me, yelling, “YOU HAVE ENOUGH TO DO!”

Still, I find the case of Finland fascinating. To break out a couple of academic buzz words, it’s an oddly liminal and contested place; the language, of course, is not Indo-European but rather Finno-Ugric (as the joke goes, Finnish and Hungarian used to married, and when they got a divorce, Finnish got all the vowels), and it’s right smack dab in middle between Russia and Scandinavia, with whom there are contentious histories, as well as contentious identity issues. The Finns are decidedly not Scandinavians or Russians — there is much more affinity with Estonia, which of course has its own issues with respect to contested identity — but the cultural contact happened, and there are imprints of both them to be found in Finland. They are not Russian, they are not Scandinavian (or Germanic at all) — they are Finnish.

Religion is a part of this strange mix; Karelia is the part of Finland that is traditionally Orthodox (so I’m told), which is also the homeland of the Kalevala poetry, in which we see odd references to Orthodoxy, like “standing in front of the icons” being used as a description of a wedding service. It’s enough of a part of the cultural fabric that it’s one of the two state religions of Finland; at the same time, there’s a cultural Protestantism that is also enshrined into law with the Lutheran church being the other state religion. I’m reminded, vaguely, of Germany’s religious schizophrenia as the birthplace of Lutheranism but also home to some fierce cultural Catholicism depending on geography. That’s got an entirely different history than Finland’s religious culture, but it’s the only comparandum I can really call to mind.

Where there is an intriguing religious culture, one hopes there will also be an intriguing culture of religious music, and Fr. Ivan Moody, conducting Cappella Romana, makes the case for the music of the Orthodox Church of Finland on the disc Arctic Light: Finnish Orthodox Music. Finland represents an Orthodox musical culture still very much in its infancy, far moreso than the United States; it has been an independent state only since 1917, with the Church having been granted autonomy in 1921, subsequently coming under the wing of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in 1923. The transition to Finnish from Slavonic as the liturgical language then helped a unique Finnish musical voice begin to emerge. Basic parish repertoire, I am told, remains St. Petersburg Court Chant sung in Finnish, but over the last century a variety of composers have written music for the Church, contributing to a rich, beautiful body of repertoire. If it’s a bit “anything goes” still, well, they have some top-tier composers writing for them while they figure it out.

Fr. Ivan and Cappella Romana present a survey of the 20th/early 21st century Finnish repertory, starting with early experiments by Pekka Attinen (1885-1956) and Boris Jakubov (1894-1923), followed by Paschal music from the present-day “elder statesman” Leonid Bashmakov (1927-), a Psalm 103 excerpt and Trisagion from Timo Ruottinen (1947-), a Cherubikon from a young Finnish composer, Mikko Sorodoff (1985-), and then festal hymns from the Dormition of the Virgin from Peter Mirolybov (1918-2004), who is presented as the composer in the group most connected to the Finnish Church’s Russian musical inheritance, as well as perhaps the one most attentive to this music’s liturgical context. In addition, Fr. Ivan himself (1964-) contributes a concert setting of the Exaposteilarion for Dormition.

I have to say, this has been a very difficult recording for me to figure out how to review, for many of the same reasons that Tikey Zes’ Divine Liturgy recording required an entire blog post’s worth of a prologue before I could talk about how I evaluate its musical merits. The problem is, of course, is that it’s not just a matter of evaluating musical merit; it’s also a matter of talking about how it functions as liturgical music, which is a sensitive conversation for Anglophone, North American Orthodox. This recording, much as with the Zes disc, is largely unconcerned with the categories of that conversation (although Fr. Ivan’s excellent liner notes touch on them briefly) while seeking to maximize the musical quality of the compositions performed. That’s a touchy thing to address when one is an American writing about an American composer in an American context, as with Tikey Zes; I’m writing as much more of an outsider in this case.

Still, there was something I realized while reading Fr. Ivan’s notes, particularly concerning the biographies of the composers. The American anxieties about the categories of “art music” and “liturgical music” overlapping are, frankly, minority concerns borne out of poverty — poverty when it comes to our music, who writes it in many cases, how we’re used to hearing it sung, and how our musicians and composers interact with the outside world, so to speak. There are notable exceptions, of course, but even some of those notable exceptions have to be a bit self-conscious because they’re the exceptions. Plus, there is something of a discourse about “Orthodoxy doesn’t do art”, problematizing concert pieces and such, meaning that when Orthodox Christians here do in fact do art, there’s some way in which they have to apologize for it, defend it, explain it, etc. In terms of how it presents Orthodoxy, this “Orthodoxy doesn’t do art” position is a defensive stance, culturally speaking, and it has consequences. I know composers who are Orthodox, very good composers who are renowned in secular music circles in fact, who absolutely refuse to pick up their pen to write music that could be sung in church; there’s simply too much baggage.

In the case of Finland, however, what the music on the recording suggests — and what the biographical notes in the booklet confirm — is that we’re talking about “real” composers, as it were, for whom there’s nothing necessarily self-conscious about writing Orthodox church music; it’s just one of the things you do if you’re a composer who happens to be Orthodox in Finland. Attinen, for example, taught in conservatories, wrote film music, and taught at the Orthodox seminary in Helsinki; his Cherubikon sounds very much like it is in dialogue with late 19th/early 20th century Romanticism, while still being a Cherubic Hymn meant to be sung in a Divine Liturgy (although it is evidently difficult enough that this is a rare occurrence). In any event, the hard and fast distinctions we want enforced here about “liturgical” vs. “concert” music don’t really apply; it’s a question of “good” vs. “bad” music, and that’s informed by tradition and liturgical function, but it’s also informed by musical education and exposure to the broader artistic conversation.

So, from that perspective, Arctic Light then becomes a relatively easy recording to review; it’s an aural treat in every way, with the vowel-rich language sparkling in the voices of Cappella’s singers. One can hear the Finnish language “in dialogue” with the ecclesiastical past of its country; fragments of Russian chant melodies echo in Bashmakov’s Paschal Ikos, for example, but they are transformed by the needs of the language and augmented by a harmonic vocabulary employed by an expert composer, and the result is something that “sounds Orthodox” (whatever that means — more to come on that later), but that also sounds like something new, and that could be as easily at home on the concert stage as well as in the choir loft. Sidoroff’s Cherubikon is a highlight, being perhaps a bit more conservative in terms of the sonorities he’s willing to use, but his use of different vocal textures — such as moving back and forth from men only, women only, and the full choir — makes it a rich contribution. Ruottinen is the most experimental of the group; he makes the least effort when it comes to invoking a chant foundation (he uses bits of the same melody as Rachmaninoff used for Psalm 103 in the All-Night Vigil), and at times he writes chords that sound like vocal jazz. The result is not unpleasant by any means, but it does stand out as one of the aesthetic oddities on the disc, and underscores that even within a musical culture that doesn’t feel the need to be self-conscious, perhaps some boundaries need to be kept in mind.

Fr. Ivan’s own contribution is noteworthy for multiple reasons; he is a non-native speaker of the language, and he uses the third mode Byzantine melody for the basis of his setting of the Exaposteilarion for the Dormition (“O you Apostles…”). The result is something that is clearly not operating in the same context as the rest of the repertoire on the disc, but the irony is that it is also the centerpiece of the program. It was written as a concert work, and despite using a different melodic vocabulary than that of the other composers presented, he is able to manipulate the Byzantine melody and build harmonies around it so that it sounds very much of a piece with Attinen and Bashmakov.

Fr. Ivan as the conductor gets Cappella Romana singing this kind of polyphonic repertoire as well as they have in years; the choir sounds bright, clear, and musical. At times the clarity and power of individual voices comes at the cost of blend — particularly in some of the higher voices — but it’s a tradeoff that allows the ensemble to play to their strengths.

If there’s something curious that I find in this collection — well, I should say it’s more about what I don’t find. There doesn’t seem to be a connection to a vernacular kind of singing in this music (although, ironically enough, elements of Ruottinen’s “vocal jazz”-ish choices sound somewhat like stereotypically Balkan folk music), and to the extent that there’s a musical conversation going on here about Finnish national and religious identity, that strikes me as strange. There is Finnish folk singing that has played what I would describe as an archetypal role in the building of national identity (such as what got compiled into the Kalevala); why would such elements be absent from this other project of identity-building? I may misunderstand the issues so much as to have come up with a meaningless question, but in any event, I am left curious about the interaction of Finnish Orthodoxy with Finnish folk culture.

In sum — Arctic Light is a complicated program. Finland, Finnish Orthodoxy, and Finnish Orthodox music have a complex history, and this disc is, in its own way, a document of some of that history. The result is that Fr. Ivan and Cappella Romana are able make some beautiful, engaging music within that context, and provide a fascinating snapshot of an Orthodox musical culture that is developing its own very strong voice. Recommended.

A psalterion is empty

Eleven years ago, when I first started investigating the Byzantine chant repertoire of Orthodox sacred music, my friend Mark Powell gave me some advice — track down the Divine Liturgy recording by Lycourgos Angelopoulos and the Greek Byzantine Choir. Hard to find, he said, but it’s the real deal.

I did indeed track it down — I couldn’t find it on Amazon or on any of the usual CD websites, but I eventually found a Canadian retailer who specialized in Greek things who had it. I remember popping it into my CD player and not having any idea what to expect, and the first “Ἀμήν” just about knocked me out of my chair with its wall of men’s voices.

That CD became my benchmark for what good Byzantine chant sounded like. Other discs became other benchmarks; Cappella Romana’s Divine Liturgy in English became the benchmark for good Byzantine chant in good English, for example. In terms of a general snapshot of the sound of Byzantine chant done well, however, the Angelopoulos Divine Liturgy remained the standard.

At some point, the label Opus 3 made new stock available of the Divine Liturgy disc. It became the kind of thing that I would make sure to have extra copies around, and over the span of a few years, I gave away countless of them to people. A couple of years ago, Opus 3 apparently discontinued it, and it’s back to being scarce. Too bad.

I discovered other recordings by the Greek Byzantine Choir — their Koukouzelis disc, their Mother of God disc, their Christmas disc, the Akathistos Hymn, the anthology that alternates their recordings with some by the Serbian Orthodox singer Divna, and so on. I also found my way to Angelopoulos’ recordings with Marcel Peres and Ensemble Organum. These recordings were all gateways to different corners of the tradition, and each one became both a treasure and a learning tool.

Five years ago, I had the chance to go to Greece for the summer. I wrote Alexander Lingas a note asking, whom can you recommend for Byzantine chant teachers in Athens? His suggestions were Lycourgos Angelopoulos and Ioannis Arvanitis, and essentially, he said, it boiled down to language. They themselves were exemplary students of the same teacher, Simon Karas, but Angelopoulos spoke no English, really, only Greek and French; Arvanitis spoke very good English. Well, I opted for Arvanitis — I speak some French and I was in Greece for an immersion Greek program, but I didn’t really want my chant education to be in a language that was itself still in progress for me. I studied with Arvanitis all summer while attending Agia Irini, the church in Athens where both he and Angelopoulos chanted, so I certainly heard plenty of the psaltic ethos represented on the Divine Liturgy disc in person while I was there.

While I saw and heard him quite a bit in the flesh that summer, I never did actually get the chance to meet Angelopoulos — well, okay, that’s not entirely true. I had chances, but I chose not to introduce myself, I guess because I figured that, as my teacher, if Arvanitis thought it was appropriate to introduce me, he would do so. For the same reason I never went up to chant at Agia Irini that summer; my assumption was that if my teacher thought that was a good idea, he’d tell me. (It wasn’t until later that John Boyer told me, yeah, no, that’s not really how it works — you just go up and tell him you’re Arvanitis’ student and my friend, and he says, great, stand here and sing with us.)

After that experience, I developed other 1-degree-away connections; John Boyer, certainly, who was a student of both Angelopoulos as well as Arvanitis; Alexander Lingas, whom I got to know a bit better at Oxford Patristics in 2011; my friend Taso Nassis, a Chicago psaltis who had also studied with Angelopoulos and Arvanitis for years, was personally very close to both, and had absorbed just about everything both had to offer. Another friend, Brian Whirledge, went to Athens a couple of summers ago to study with Arvanitis, and he sang for Angelopoulos at Agia Irini while he was there as well.

Somewhere along the way, I also developed an awareness that Byzantine chant had its own internal squabbles, and that Angelopoulos and Arvanitis (and, by extension, the friends I had made in connection with them) tended to be seen as on a particular side of those squabbles. I still don’t really understand what that’s all about, and I don’t really need to understand; suffice it to say that I’ve always been grateful for both what I’ve been taught and how I was taught it.

Three days ago, Sunday morning, I had the good fortune to be singing Orthros and Divine Liturgy with Cappella Romana at St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Los Angeles. To be joining Cappella as a psaltis for concerts and services of Byzantine music was, in many ways, the closing of the circuit that was started all those years ago when Mark, Cappella’s Executive Director, told me to find the Angelopoulos Divine Liturgy disc. Further, we were singing a lot of things that morning that one hears on that recording. Towards the end of Liturgy, one of the psaltes checked his phone, and suddenly he was trying to get Alexander Lingas’ attention. Alex saw the phone, looked dismayed, and made the Sign of the Cross. My colleague showed me the phone — “Lycourgos Angelopoulos has died”, said the headline.

As part of our encore that afternoon, Alex gave a brief memorial speech about Angelopoulos, and we sang “Memory eternal” before launching into the medieval melody from Jerusalem for “Χριστὸς ἀνέστη”. Shortly thereafter I got a text from John saying that he was heading out to Greece the next day for the funeral.

While I never met Lycourgos Angelopoulos, it is safe to say that both in terms of his professional as well as his personal output, he had a great deal of influence on my development as a church singer and as an Orthodox Christian, even as I have been but an outlier in that structure. It seems a fair observation that what Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware) has been for theology — a strong center of pedagogical gravity and  the hub of a far-reaching network of students — Lycourgos Angelopoulos has been for the psaltic art. He has been Libanius for Byzantine chant, perhaps. Lycourgos in antiquity may have been Νομοθέτης, the Lawgiver; perhaps this Lycourgos may be fairly remembered as ψαλλοθέτης.

The psalterion at Agia Irini stands empty, and none shall take his place. Καλό ταξίδι, Δάσκαλε. Αιωνία η μνήμη σου. Ζωή σε μας.

I close with two pieces from other people — first, my 2011 translation of an article on the 30th anniversary of the Greek Byzantine Choir; second, a reflection by John Boyer on the death of his personal friend and teacher of so many years:

Αιωνία η μνήμη του Δασκάλου! Ζωή σε μας!
May the memory of our beloved teacher be eternal!

The joy I have experienced these last few days with my classmates, friends and parents during festivities surrounding graduation from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology is tempered today with the sad news of the passing of my beloved teacher in the art of Byzantine Chant, Archon Protopsaltis Lycourgos Angelopoulos. I began studies with Mr. Lycourgo in the Summer of 1996 and remained in frequent contact with him over the last 18 years – half of my life. Never have I met a more dedicated teacher in the Psaltic Art; Lycourgo had hundreds of students over the last few decades, many of whom went on to become great cantors in their own right, others who became great scholars in Byzantine Music, others who went on to become clergy, still others who took the knowledge and skill he passed on to them to their ascetic lives in monasteries and convents. The Clan of Angelopoulos students reaches the far corners of the earth, as do the scores of recordings of his groundbreaking choir, Η Ελληνική Βυζαντινή Χορωδία (The Greek Byzantine Choir).

A controversial figure, to be sure, those who know him personally know him to have been a loving yet strict taskmaster, a consummate teacher, a faithful Christian, extraordinarily generous, with a witty sense of humor and a voice that could move mountains. I have had the honor of chanting with my beloved teacher numerous times in many different venues, most recently at his home parish of St. Irene’s in Athens last Summer. I will never forget the sound of his voice, the twinkle in his eye, his inspiring and moving chanting and his profound gift for directing a choir. Who I am today as chanter, teacher and conductor I attribute greatly to the time I was so blessed to spend with the great Lycourgos Angelopoulos. I can only aspire, along with many others of his students, to carry on his torch of Byzantine Music, especially here in the United States, not simply as cantor but as teacher, conductor, composer and promoter of this traditional liturgical music of the Greek Orthodox Church. Αιωνία η μνήμη αυτού. Ο Θεός να τον αναπαύσει. May his memory be eternal. May God lay him to rest. Χριστός ανέστη! Christ is Risen!!!

With sadness and love in the risen Christ,

John Michael Boyer, MDiv.
Protopsaltis, Greek Orthodox Metropolis of San Francisco
Lambadarios, Holy Cross Chapel, Brookline, MA

The psalterion at Agia Irini stands empty, and none shall take his place.

Review: Cappella Romana’s Tikey Zes: The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom

Having mused on some of the issues in the background of Cappella Romana‘s new recording, Tikey Zes: The Divine Liturgy of St. Chrysostom, now allow me actually to review the disc.

In 1991, Tikey Zes published a score titled The Choral Music for Mixed Voices for the Divine Liturgy that was intended to be more or less “complete” (with some abbreviations customary in West Coast parishes of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America), with all eight Resurrectional apolytikia, the Antitrisagia (“As many as have been baptized”, “Before your cross”), variants for a Divine Liturgy of St. Basil, several patronal apolytikia for parishes, as well as variants for a hierarchical service. Although up to this point Zes had relied primarily on John Sakellarides’ simplifications of Byzantine melodies as his source material, for this setting he composed his own melodies, employing a variety of polyphonic textures and different kinds of counterpoint as well. The express intent, according to the CD’s booklet, is a musical style that is less a harmonized melody and is rather polyphonic in the sense that one typically means when describing Renaissance music. The score also uses organ accompaniment, but principally to accompany unison vocal lines and only occasionally being used independently of the choir.

Cappella Romana gave Zes’ score its concert debut in 1992, prompting him to revise and expand it in 1996, with the new edition dedicated to the ensemble. It is this new edition that Cappella presents on the recording; they have supposed the second Sunday after Pentecost, when the Resurrectional cycle of modes will have reset to the First Mode — the first so-called “vanilla Sunday” since before the Lenten cycle began — and they have also included the apolytikion for St. Nicholas in the place of the parish’s patronal troparion (Zes’ home church is St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in San Jose, California). As with previous Divine Liturgy recordings, they present a good deal of the liturgical context, with the celebrant’s and deacon’s parts here presented by, respectively, Fr. John Bakas of St. Sophia Cathedral in Los Angeles (and who, coincidentally, is discussed at some length in this post from last week) and Fr. John Kariotakis of St. John the Baptist Church in Anaheim, California; in addition, parishioners of Holy Trinity Cathedral in Portland, Oregon are featured reciting the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer. Some things are abbreviated; unlike The Divine Liturgy in English, the 2008 Byzantine chant release, there is not the luxury of a double-disc treatment. Nonetheless, the presentation goes to some pains to be something other than another recording of disconnected, individual pieces of music; rather, this is a Divine Liturgy that happens to be using Zes’ score.

Let’s be clear: the music isn’t “Byzantine music”, and both Zes and the choir are well aware of this (despite a comment in the booklet that is easily misunderstood, and I’ll come back to that). My previous post covered just what the implications are of that, and I suggested that Greek American polyphonic choral music might better be understood as cousin of rebetiko — that is, a folk repertoire that comes into its own in a context of emigration. That’s one aspect, perhaps, of what Zes is doing, although he is elevating it considerably; this is maybe the equivalent of somebody writing a bouzouki concerto. He is taking the music he knows from the context of the Greek American choir loft — Desby and Sakellarides and so on — and re-articulating the ethos in the musical language of an artistic high point in Western sacred music. It’s as though the Byzantines who fled to Venice eventually managed to capture the attention of Monteverdi and convince him to convert and compose for the Orthodox Church — which, again, fits pretty well with the idea of a repertoire of émigrés (although I may be stretching the notion beyond its utility).

That isn’t to say that there’s something self-conscious about how Zes uses polyphony. I don’t get the impression that he’s saying, “Hey, let’s imagine what would happen if Italian Renaissance composers wrote music for the Divine Liturgy.” I rather get the idea of a very gifted and highly-skilled composer asking, no more and no less, “What’s going to be the best that I’m able to do for the service of the Church, and what’s going to be the most fitting musical vocabulary that I know how to use for such a project?” (I refer you back to my previous post for the arguments over whether or not that’s an appropriate question to ask in the first place; I’m reviewing the recording on its own terms.) The result does not sound like Tikey Zes “doing” Palestrina or Monteverdi; at least as sung by Cappella Romana, it just sounds like beautiful church music.

Now, to be honest, I have absolutely no idea if any churches use this particular score liturgically. Obviously lots of GOA parishes use Zes’ music (for that matter, so do Antiochian parishes), but I don’t know how commonly used this particular setting is. The disc suggests that the choir that could sing it properly would certainly be a luxury ensemble; while the responses and shorter hymns are kept simple, the liturgical high points are when Zes does not shy away from gilding the things he loves. I’m trying to imagine the parish choir that could sing the longer hymns like the Trisagion or the Cherubikon, both absolutely glorious pieces of choral writing, without it being an overreach. Which brings me to the one thing I’ll say in terms of the whole organ/choir question in this review — if I close my eyes and imagine the church in which I would hear this liturgy being sung, it’s King’s College Chapel with a dome and iconostasis. This is not necessarily a bad thing, musically — in fact, I’d go so far as to say, if you’re going to go the organ/choir route, if that’s really the aesthetic you want to embrace, then you need to do it at least as well as it’s done on this recording. Yes, my consultant was quite right, Cappella Romana does sing Zes’ music like it’s Palestrina — but that also sounds like that’s exactly how it’s written to be sung. If that means the sound is like Anglican choirs singing in Greek instead of Latin or Elizabethan English — well, fine, then, so be it. Run with it. But do it well. Because if you can’t sing it at least this well, then there’s no point in using it. If you’re going to use luxury repertoire like this in your parish choir, then your parish choir better be able to fight its weight. Otherwise it isn’t going to be pleasant experience for anybody, and it will be a distraction in church, drawing attention to itself by virtue of being badly done.

Now, maybe, this score could be said to be like the Rachmaninoff All-night Vigil, which was written as a concert piece but occasionally gets broken out for liturgical use for special occasions. I will say that the Fathers John, as the celebrant and deacon, are both exceptional singers, and the net effect of the two of them plus Cappella Romana is not unlike a Bach Passion, with the celebrant and deacon perhaps in the Evangelist role. That is, there is a sense of the Divine Liturgy-as-drama with what the two clergy bring to their “roles”, so to speak, with the choral ensemble commenting on the liturgical action. Lord knows there has been sufficient analysis of the Great Entrance alone as a “dramatic” moment that maybe that’s not altogether uncalled-for; what I would say is, if you’re going to go for that, make sure you have forces at the altar and in the choir loft that can actually do it.

I said earlier that this isn’t “Byzantine music”; the booklet might seem to suggest otherwise, with the very last sentence of Alexander Lingas’ essay apparently referring to the score as “thoroughly Byzantine”. However, Lingas is not here referring to musical style or compositional technique. He is by no means offering a psaltic apologia for Zes, arguing that the music is, in fact, actually in continuity with Byzantine chant if we would just listen to it the right way. He can be doing no such thing, since this very last section of the essay is his analysis of how thoroughly un-Byzantine the music is, with its imitative and invertible counterpoint, for example. The observation that Lingas is making is that, in spite of musical discontinuity with the received tradition that we have that is in continuity with Byzantine music, it is clear that Zes is re-articulating the ethos of the Byzantine aesthetic in a Western musical language. Zes, in other words, while he is using a different musical language than Byzantine music, is nonetheless bringing considerable technical skill to bear, using counterpoint and polyphony and organ to ornament and to expand and to demonstrate virtuosity where Byzantine music ornaments and expands and demonstrates virtuosity.

(Something that I think would be very informative would be a composers’ master class, where somebody like Ioannis Arvanitis and somebody like Tikey Zes could do a detailed analysis of their own settings of the same texts with the other person, to demonstrate explicitly for an audience as well as for each other just where the points of continuity are as well as the points of divergence. Perhaps there will be an opportunity to do something like that here.)

To make a brief point relating this disc to my previous two posts — I got the following comment in a note from a friend of mine about the Zes recording: “[…]it might actually be the most ‘American’ setting…with influences from various cultures (eastern and Western Europe like our own culture here), organ etc. the irony of course is that it’s not even in English.” Looked at from a standpoint of what we might call “acculturation” or cultural adaptation, then, yes, I’d agree — and even the retention of Greek is, in its own way, a very American thing to do, since we like to emphasize and privilege our “pre-American” heritage, even in — perhaps especially in — an American context. At the same time, going by Fr. Oliver’s analysis, then the impulse to “restore” Byzantine chant is also a very “American” thing to do, given our “restorationist” tendencies.

It is telling to me that Cappella Romana has dedicated a total of four discs over the last five years to recordings that present more-or-less complete settings of the Divine Liturgy — the 2-disc set The Divine Liturgy in English for Byzantine chant, and then the Michaelides and Zes recordings. All three of these releases strike me as “pastoral projects”, as attempts to change the game in terms of the ideal of sound that’s thought of as possible — Byzantine chant in English? Yes, it can be done perfectly well in English in a way that’s still perfectly acceptable Byzantine chant, and here’s how good it can sound, too. Greek American polyphony? Yes, actually, here’s some music in that genre you’re probably not doing that you should at least think about (the Michaelides), and here’s how the really good stuff by the composer you all say you like could sound.

All of this is to say, Zes’ score is a remarkable piece of sacred choral composition on its own terms, and Cappella Romana is up to its usual high standards in terms of presentation of it. I don’t mean “presentation” to only mean singing; it’s an extraordinarily well-sung recording by all involved. Rather, the care to use the recording as the opportunity to make the case for what its liturgical use could sound like (I hesitate to use the word “should”) is also remarkable, and a hallmark of the recording. Another hallmark of the release is an exceptionally informative booklet that provides the Greek and English text of the Divine Liturgy, as well as Lingas’ essay positioning Zes’ music in the context of Byzantine music, Orthodox music more generally, and Greek emigration to the United States. Again, I will leave the argument over whether or not it “should” be used liturgically, or even recorded by an ensemble by Cappella Romana for that matter, to others in other settings; I find it to be a worthy recording of some exceptionally beautiful music composed by a man who sincerely wants to give the best of what he has, and judge it on those terms.


Richard’s Twitter

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