Missionaries, not professionals

Unlike many, I didn’t grow up singing in church; the music of the churches I went to growing up actually made me distinctly uncomfortable. I didn’t really start singing in church as a regular practice until I was eighteen and part of the choir at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Bellingham, WA. (By the way, I have nothing but the fondest of fond memories of St. Paul’s.)

The St. Paul’s experience, it must be said, made a church musician out of me, or at least started the process. I have never been one for whom either prayer or singing is as natural as breathing, but I found that by putting them together it makes both significantly easier. Fourteen years, lots of singing, and a music degree later, I serve in the function of choir director and cantor at All Saints Orthodox Church, where I was received by chrismation a little over three years ago. So — I am Orthodox; I am a church musician; therefore, I am an Orthodox church musician.

My Orthodox church musicianship does not exist in isolation, however; I am also trying to be a scholar of things liturgical, and I am also just a guy trying (unsuccessfully, more often than not) to live a Christian life. These matters, it may be said, all feed into one another — the scholar I am trying to be wants to understand the tradition, how it developed, how it was received, how it was expressed, how it was proclaimed, and how it was handed down; the church musician I am wants to figure out how I might best apply the tradition to the function I presently serve, not just in my own parish but in a way that will be more broadly beneficial; the “little Christ” I really wish I were and am not has his hands full just failing to order my own life around the same principles which the scholar and church musician are trying to place in a larger context.

And if it was confusing reading that, I can tell you it’s also confusing living it. I’ve never wanted to be a “church musician” in the sense that I go where the paycheck is (I never would have become Orthodox if I had); I eschewed “church jobs” so that I could sing in the choirs of the parishes I actually attended, and eventually became the choir director at All Saints. For me, it is service; it is a vocation in its own way; it is application of my research interests; I seriously doubt it will ever be a way for me to earn a living. Those kinds of jobs simply do not yet exist in Orthodox parishes in this country, with the number of exceptions perhaps in the low single digits.

It is also very much the case that being aware of what the ideal might be which informs the tradition that ultimately filters down to present-day parish practice is not necessarily an asset as a parish choir director. I expect that many choir directors are familiar with the cognitive dissonance which arises when an attempt to adhere more closely to traditional practice, rather than enriching parish experience, clearly diminishes parish practice for some people, if not outright disenfranchising them, for no other reason than it isn’t what they know or expect. I’m sure my colleagues know what it’s like to hear somebody say, “But nobody ever does it that way” — meaning, at times, the two parishes they’ve been to don’t do it — “and we’ve never done it that way here, and it doesn’t go with the music everybody already knows.” I would assume that other choir directors are aware that sometimes that response even comes, not from an in-depth theological or historical justification, but from merely pointing out what the service books actually say. This is not — let the reader understand — to speak ill of anybody; we choir directors are certainly not perfect, and if I’ve learned anything in my tenure as choir director, it is that it is impossible to please everybody no matter what you do, and that doesn’t need to be taken personally. (What I describe, by the way, isn’t specifically an Orthodox problem, either. Read The New Liturgical Movement sometime — although I would argue the historical reasons the Orthodox have some of these issues in America are different from why Roman Catholics might have them.)

If it sounds like I’m saying, more or less, that it’s a lot of unappreciated work for next to zero compensation, and the harder you work and the more you put into doing it right the less it will be appreciated — well, okay, sometimes that’s indeed how it seems. However, that’s looking at it from a strictly professional point of view. I would argue that Orthodox liturgical musicianship is quite far away from being able to consider itself a professional endeavor, that the necessary structures to support such a notion simply don’t yet exist, and that we need to consider ourselves first and foremost missionaries rather than professionals. In so doing, we will be in a much healthier spiritual place as choir directors and cantors.

Which brings me to “Historical Models of the Patronage of the Liturgical Arts,” by Rev. Deacon Nicholas Denysenko, in the Winter 2008 issue (Vol. IX, No. 2) of PSALM Notes.

Dn. Nicholas, a Ph.D. candidate at Catholic University’s Liturgical Studies program, puts forth the thesis that

[t]he Church…finds herself in an increasingly prophetic situation, with the need to define her distinct identity in the midst of religious pluralism and confusion. Within this context, Orthodoxy needs to develop a new model for supporting the liturgical arts for the proliferation of the Church’s tradition. (p. 4)

No question about that — as Dn. Nicholas also says, we don’t have a well-funded and well-heeled state church in this country to fund the kinds of artisans and craftsmen who built Hagia Sophia, and many parishes struggle to pay a fulltime salary for a priest, let alone a building sometimes. Pay musicians? What?

Some of Dn. Nicholas’ examples of alternate models ultimately undermine his point, however. He speaks of the “liturgical movement” of the early twentieth century which, as he notes, culminated in the Constitution of the Sacred Liturgy at Vatican II. The Liturgical Arts Society was a

small group of art professionals… [who encouraged] new styles… that would facilitate full ecclesial participation in worship… [and engaged] many clergy in the discourse on good liturgy and by carving a niche for the important role of the arts in the [Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy]. (p. 5)

“This legacy,” he writes, “provides a positive example of the good influence the gathering, cooperation, and educational endeavors of liturgical arts professionals can have on the life of the Church” (p. 5).

Dn. Nicholas is very careful to not speak of how the recommendations of Vatican II were implemented in the Mass, but it is nonetheless troubling to me that he would point up as a positive example efforts which culminated in such a radical discontinuity from what came before. This example is ultimately unhelpful because the post-Vatican II reforms have made life harder, not easier, for many who would consider themselves traditional Roman Catholic church musicians.

What is also troubling is an uncritical use of the phrase “full ecclesial participation” — what does that mean? In practice, it seems like more often than not what people want it to mean is “if everybody isn’t singing everything, then they aren’t being allowed full participation.” “Full participation” is also the language used by many who want to see a revision in the understanding of clerical eligibility. We need to clarify what “full participation” means from an Orthodox perspective — better yet, let’s avoid reflexively adopting language that isn’t ours in the first place.

Then there is this hypothetical example:

Let’s say the choir director at St. Mary’s parish in Anywhere, USA, has run across a new setting for the Eucharistic Canon that provides a perfect fit for both her parish and her choir. The price for a single copy is $1.75… Before making the purchase, however, she needs to receive approval from the choir council for the expenditure. The choir treasurer tells her that the choir’s budget is entirely devoted to an upcoming event, and asks her if she can buy one copy and then photocopy as many as the choir needs… Feeling frustrated, the director decides to wait on ordering the music until the choir budget has sufficient funds. (pp. 1-2)

To be perfectly frank, this example is so divorced from the reality I face as a choir director as to be close to absurd. The idiosyncrasy of Dn. Nicholas referring to the Anaphora as the Canon aside (unless St. Mary’s happens to be a Western Rite parish), if I were to simply decide on a new setting of it, I would have people calling for my head. Beyond that, the idea of a “choir council” or “choir treasurer” is completely removed from the little heartland parish I serve. Dn. Nicholas prefaces this example by saying that “[i]n an ideal situation, the conductor will have the opportunity to review new and fresh compositions for the weekly services and liturgical seasons at least semi-annually,” but I’m trying to imagine my choir, let alone my congregation, being receptive to that kind of constant flow of “new and fresh compositions.” Perhaps it makes sense to me as a musician to have different settings of the Liturgy available for different liturgical seasons, but I guarantee Dn. Nicholas that my own parish would not view such a rhythm favorably. At least not yet.

Now, I understand that the thrust of Dn. Nicholas’ point has more to do with the hypothetical choir director’s choice to not buy the music, and to some extent he acknowledges my situation as a possibility when in the next paragraph he speaks of these problems being rooted in “a lack of appreciation for the integral role liturgical music plays in church life, and a lack of knowledge of the arduous work that is put into creating and expressing this art,” but I suppose my point is that at least some of us are very much in, as Dn. Nicholas put it, “prophetic roles” in our own parishes, perhaps more than others might realize.

The part of his example that does actually resonate with my experience is the issue of photocopying. When I first took on the choir directorship, the choir books were filled with umpteenth-generation photocopies, often of handwritten stuff of uncertain origin. I have no idea what the copyright status of any of it was; some of it I’m sure was authorized to be copied for liturgical use, but it’s hard to say. I will say that in general, the Antiochian Archdiocese is very good about making its musical resources readily available and affordable, but it is very true that copyright status and the financial implications higher up in the food chain generally aren’t the first consideration of the folks whom I would ask to write a check for additional Vespers books, etc.

There is certainly a conversation worth having about copyright, photocopying, and how to make money off of liturgical music. I’d point the interested reader to this piece on The New Liturgical Movement for a point of view to which I’d be interested in hearing Dn. Nicholas’ response.

My overall reaction to Dn. Nicholas’ article is this — I’d argue along with him that the fullness of our music practice can itself be just as expensive as the fullness of any other part of our liturgical life. A well-trained cantor and choir director with a professional degree who is at every service and also rehearsing the choir regularly could very well be spending 20-30 hours a week doing what they do, particularly during Great Lent. If they’re trying build towards anything that looks remotely like a traditional two-choir setup (go here and click on the photo labeled “Please click on the photo for an excerpt of Sunday services” to see what I’m talking about), that’s going to be even more work. Copies of music for everybody will cost; traditional-looking kliroi and/or choir stalls will most certainly cost, and so on and so forth. It won’t just be a dollar cost, either; because most people haven’t seen anything like this in their parishes, something of a public relations effort will be required as well. If you pay what all of this would actually be worth, you’re looking at capital investments, at least one full-time salary for the protopsaltis, and maybe a few part-time salaries as well. I don’t know that there is a single parish in this country which is exactly falling all over itself to provide this, and to that extent, Dn. Nicholas is absolutely right — the liturgical practice which we have inherited is, in many regards, predicated on the availability of resources which we just don’t have, and we have to find new ways of making provision for them.

However, my sense from my own parish experience is that we’re just not there yet, and some parishes are, shall we say, less “there” than others. Saying “we’re not there yet” isn’t just applicable at the parish level, either; the means by which we systematically cultivate and train choir directors and cantors and composers for service in the Orthodox Church are still nascent at best. It’s going to take work, and a lot of it, to get this into place, and to cultivate a love for the best what we can do as liturgical musicians among the faithful. (I have weighed in elsewhere about what I think a step in the right direction could be — “get ’em while they’re young” being a guiding principle.) As I said earlier — missionaries, not professionals. Missionaries, in particular, who aren’t afraid to stick their neck out and be prophetic. Pastoral, certainly, but still prophetic. Dn. Nicholas gets there, sort of, in saying that “professional liturgists and musicians must take the initiative in educating the Church” (p. 6), but there’s that word “professional” again for which I’m not at all convinced we’re ready.

I must also confess that I don’t know what a “liturgist” is in an Orthodox context. The services already exist. We don’t need to mess with them, and moreover, we shouldn’t mess with them. Pull the book off the shelf and follow it. Liturgy, and liturgical music, adapts organically. Let it, and don’t force it. Let’s not make changes we don’t need to make just for the sake of doing things differently.

Which brings me to my final thought (for now). Dn. Nicholas asserts that “the liturgical arts of the Church are steeped in repetition and aridity, with no new expressive elements… Tradition cannot… be understood as mere repetition of past models” (p. 2). Agreed that we cannot define Tradition as “we do it this way because we’ve always done it this way and don’t have a better answer,” but liturgy expresses the faith of a community first and foremost, and individuals secondarily. Liturgical musicians and artisans should not be in the business of trying to “express themselves” — that’s not the point, anymore than an iconographer should be trying to “express himself.” What they are tasked to express is the faith of the community as it was received and as it always has been. While there is certainly room for creativity within that, it is creativity within definite boundaries — particularly given the fact that a culture of Orthodox liturgical singing in this country is far, far, far from mature. To put it another way, if we find ourselves dialoguing (I really hate that word) with Tradition, let’s remember it’s not a conversation between equals.

If I had a concrete, positive suggestion to make, I’d say let’s figure out how to adapt genuine American folk singing (for example, Sacred Harp/shapenote) to Orthodox liturgical use. That would be creativity within the Tradition, and I argue it will be a lot more productive in the long run for Orthodox Christianity in America than continuing to try to cram the English language into a Slavic paradigm of setting texts.

(I lied — I’ve got one more thing to say, and that’s the observation that Dn. Nicholas’ bibliography is not exactly crammed to the gills with the work of Orthodox scholars. Is that because it’s not out there for it to be cited, or is it for another reason? Either way, it seems to me that’s another issue we need to address.)


4 Responses to “Missionaries, not professionals”

  1. 1 Maximus Daniel 22 February 2008 at 7:45 pm

    Give me byzantine chant any day.

    What exactly is a professional liturgist? There might be … 30-50??? Tops in America? (does this mean a degree in music? what kind of music?) They didnt have that kind of training back in the day. OR am I wrong?

  2. 2 dilys 4 March 2008 at 12:01 pm

    Chrismated in 2005, I had grown up on shaped-note singing, and have studied it a little more as an adult. Could you be a little more specific? Do you contemplate tunes that have arisen in the shaped-note lore, with Orthodox texts? The style? Some of the actual hymns? Simply training people in existing Orthodox Old-World hymns, via the shaped-note education?

    I have run across this “shaped-note” or “Sacred Harp” reference now several times in relation to “visions for American Orthodoxy,” so it’s not just on your mind. One comment I have is that the hymnody of another tradition carries – certainly for its familiars and perhaps intrinsically – particular sight-lines into faith; certain tempos and modes seem to encourage activism, quietism, other subtler things. Looked at with a fine-tooth comb, almost all the beloved Protestant hymns are heretical (I still love them, just try to stay aware and alert and not lulled by them). Chant as it is received down the centuries is “safer” in my estimation, and extremely effective on the missionary front. It combines beauty and forbiddingness, a fair taste of the Faith.

    So it would be interesting to read more of your thoughts on this.

  3. 3 Richard Barrett 4 March 2008 at 2:04 pm

    Great question.

    What I suggest is this. Liturgical singing ultimately takes on characteristics of native folk singing. Early forms of Russian chant are the Byzantine chant with which they were evangelized mixed with Russian folk singing. Give a listen to Georgian chant sometime. And so on.

    While I by no means suggest that we should import shapenote hymns wholesale, or even adopt the style wholesale, I do ask how we might use musical materials found in American folk singing (and by that I don’t mean Woody Guthrie; I mean things *like* shapenote, Appalachian folk singing, etc. — give a listen to the Anonymous 4 recording “American Angels” to get a sense of what I’m talking about) to set Orthodox hymnody in a way that is at once identifiably American (in a good way) but still recognizably within the received Byzantine tradition. A parallel example is architecture; church domes, an important characteristic of the design of a church for many reasons concrete and theological, had to be adapted to weather conditions in Russia. The architectural tradition had to be adapted to local building materials as well. And so on.

    Chant as it is received through the centuries is itself still a dynamic, adaptive thing; certainly one setting Orthodox liturgical texts has to submit themselves the received tradition, just as with iconography, but the variety of chant dialects which exist among the various national traditions also suggests that this is adaptable to the local surroundings. I’m not sure we can just slap English translations on these melodies in the long term; even under the best of circumstances, it is clear that these melodies and chant dialects formed around different languages with different characteristics. As was pointed out to me once by somebody who we’ll just say knows what he’s talking about where this is concerned, English is the first non-inflected language that Orthodoxy has had to worry about, and that introduces a very different set of concerns.

    An example of what I suggest may be found on the “Liturgical Music” tab. It is, as I said earlier, an attempt to set an Orthodox hymn in such a way so that it is at once identifiably within the received Byzantine tradition but also identifiably American. The influences of shapenote, Appalachian singing, etc., are intentionally subtle, but nonetheless still very much in my ear when I composed it.

    Does this answer your question any?


  1. 1 Alternate universes « Leitourgeia kai Qurbana: Contra den Zeitgeist Trackback on 11 August 2009 at 9:49 pm

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