Archive for May, 2009

DISCLAIMER: I am not, nor have I ever been, a Doctor of Musical Arts

Today, as I mentioned might be happening a couple of weeks ago, I did a phone interview for one of the bigger Orthodox media presences regarding my choir schools piece in AGAIN. I still don’t want to give a ton of details until I know for sure exactly what’s happening, but what I can say is that it was fun, the people involved were really nice, and we had a lovely chat. I look forward to hearing how the whole thing gets edited together; I’ll say right up front that for all I know, I could sound like a complete, raving idiot, or I could sound like somebody with an interesting notion worth discussing further. One way or the other, I’m happy to have had two excellent opportunities, in print and in broadcast media, to talk about an idea that I’ve been trying to interest other people in for four or five years now. If the conversation dies here, it won’t be because I didn’t have an audience.

One thing I want to get out of the way now, however: I was initially referred to as “Dr. Barrett” (before we were recording, thank God), and somehow somebody seemed to have the idea that I’m an instructor of music at Indiana University. Neither is the case, I have never represented myself as either one, and I’d really hate for somebody to think I’m claiming to be something I’m not. I quickly made sure the interviewer understood that was incorrect, but for purposes of clarification:

I work at Indiana University, and I am doing graduate work here, but not in the School of Music, and at this time I only have a Bachelor’s degree in Music from IU, with Voice Performance as my concentration. I am not presently, and never have been, an instructor of any kind at Indiana University. I have had some private voice students, and I am the choir director and cantor at All Saints, but that is the extent of my activity as a music teacher at this time. At the moment I work for a unit on campus called the Archives of Traditional Music, but it is not in an academic capacity. I will be leaving this position at the end of next week anyway to be a full-time student again. At some point in the future it will be possible to call me “Dr. Barrett,” but not for awhile yet, and it won’t be in music.

Just so we’re clear. Like I said, I’d really hate for somebody to get the idea that I’m claiming some status that is not in fact mine to claim. I have too much respect for the people who do have terminal degrees!

Anyway — I will post more details as I have them.


OCANews: All bishops but Met. PHILIP to go to Damascus next week

Mark Stokoe and friends report that the six bishops who were enthroned in their dioceses, minus Metropolitan PHILIP, will travel to Damascus on 1 June for meetings with Patriarch IGNATIUS IV.

Full story here.

“Western Emperor Excommunicated by Bishop of Milan over Massacre”

This is credited as being from the “Ille Curator News Service”, but my guess is that it’s more likely from a publication called Caepa. Enjoy. (Hat tip to RightWingProf.)

Newsflash from New Liturgical Movement: “Chant and polyphony call for a live space with a natural acoustic”

Jeffrey Tucker at The New Liturgical Movement briefly talks about issues related to amplification and acoustics within a nave. It’s a few days old now, and the points are reasonably obvious, but nonetheless worth making. This section in particular, uh, resonates with me:

The liturgical choir, however, is there to assist the ritual and be part of a sound framework that is broad and inclusive of the entire space — to be part of something larger than the sound it is making.  […] Chant and polyphony call for a live space with a natural acoustic, and… [thus] I’m not sure that it is really possible to talk about acoustics without dealing with the style issue. How a parish deals with the issue of [acoustics] can be very revealing as to what the designers and decision makers regard as the modal music of parish life.

This is an issue with which the people who sing at my parish are currently struggling (including the priest); it is a building which was built in 2001 as a temporary space, intended in the long term to be the education wing of a larger complex which was intended to include a bigger Byzantine-ish temple with, likely, a reasonable acoustic. Because the nave was going to be classroom space eventually, it was built as acoustically dead as they could possibly manage. Low ceiling, ceiling tiles, carpet. The room actually sucks sound out of you before you ever have a chance to phonate — and that’s a feature, not a bug, according to the people who helped plan the current space. They figured the bigger complex was just a few years down the road, so it wouldn’t really be that big of a deal.

Well, already in 2003, they were realizing it was probably going to take another ten years before they would be able to build the church on which they had counted; now, eight years after the current building opened its doors, we’re looking at likely ten years before we’ll be able to knock down a couple of walls to expand what we have, let alone build another building. What we have is what we have, and that is not likely to change any time soon.

As a result, the conversation has shifted to how we can make the most of our “temporary” space that hasn’t actually turned out to be temporary. This effort was begun in earnest this last January, and a good amount has been accomplished since those pictures were taken. Still, a coat of paint isn’t going to fix the acoustics, and our focus is turning to what we can do about the acoustics. For me, it’s not an abstract question; it’s like singing into a wet towel, and I’ve been doing it for six years now. It takes a toll.

Truth is, there’s little we can do. The support beams in the structure above the ceiling tiles are horizontal; we’d get maybe eight inches if we took them out. This means we can replace the carpet with something less absorptive, like beauty bark, and/or replace the ceiling tiles with something a little less absorptive. The trouble is the next question which gets asked: how do we justify spending the money to do any of that when this building is intended to be something else in the long run, and spending the money now would simply set us back farther from being able to build the next phase?

I bring all of this up for two reasons. First of all, if there’s anybody who reads this who has solved a similar problem or has ideas regarding how this problem could be solved, I’m all ears, baby.

Secondly, I think this comes back to Mr. Tucker’s point: how those involved with decision-making at a parish deal with acoustics says a lot about what they think is important with respect to music. To that end — let’s be real, guys, we’ve got a 90% sung Liturgy. If it can’t be heard past the third row when the choir is screaming themselves hoarse, that’s a problem. I entreat anybody reading this who is ever involved either with mission planting or the building of a new church building — plan for the acoustics. Plan for the choir. Plan for the vocal health and longevity of the people who sing. Put a mission in a space that is reasonably live — nonstandard acoustics will hurt you, not help you. Involve the cantor/choir director in the design of a new building — they will be able to tell you what they need, and at a minimum, a vaulted ceiling with a floor that isn’t one giant sound absorber should be treated as a reasonable starting point. In general, please don’t deliberately hobble your singers and then say, down the road, when asked about it, “Sorry, we actually intended it that way.” Your clergy will thank you, too, particularly during Holy Week.

These things, truly, are not “nice to haves”. They are “need to haves”. It’s not a snobby musician thing; it’s the fact that if we get callouses on those two little flaps of flesh in our vocal tract, we’re done.

Churches are the last venue where one is at all likely to hear live, unamplified music anymore on a regular basis; we aren’t going to hear it at home, we aren’t going to hear it at school, and heck, a lot of the time we aren’t even going to hear it in an opera house anymore — and even in a lot of churches you’ll find amplification out the wazoo. Our ears have become accustomed to the nonstandard room as being the standard, and then just being able to turn up the volume if we can’t hear something. I cringe every time I see somebody chanting into a microphone; somebody has missed the point in that instance, and it’s either the person insisting on using the microphone or the person who has insisted that the cantor needs a microphone.

For further reading, I suggest Thomas Day’s Why Catholics Can’t Sing. I also published an article a few years ago in The Journal of Singing on this topic — maybe I’ll repost the text here.

Dead Language Geek Photo Contest ends at midnight tonight

So far I’m the only entrant. I guess that means I’ll just have to keep the prizes…

Ethnomusicology: “Right Singing in Estonian Orthodox Christianity: A Study of Music, Theology, and Religious Ideology” by Jeffers Engelhardt

As I’ve more or less said before, I’m not an ethnomusicologist, but my interests do tend to at least touch things ethnomusicologists care about and vice versa. Thus, I at least keep my eyes open, and also as I’ve noted before, I’m in a good place to to do so (at least for the next two weeks).

The current issue (Winter 2009, Vol. 53, No. 1) of Ethnomusicology: The Journal of the Society for Ethnomusicology has an article titled, “Right Singing in Estonian Orthodox Christianity: A Study of Music, Theology, and Religious Ideology,” by Amherst College faculty member Jeffers Engelhardt. It is “an intimate musical ethnography of how Estonian Orthodox Christians at a small parish in Tallinn are making their liturgical singing ‘right'” (p.32), and seeks to examine the questions,

What do musical change and religious renewal reveal about the dynamic interrelationship of theologies and musical styles? How are orthodoxy and orthopraxy established musically? How do local histories condition the possibility of current and future practices? (p.32)

These are great, practical questions, and Prof. Engelhardt has been able to base his exploration of them on practical experience — between 2002 and 2007, he spent a lot of time conducting field research at Cathedral of Saint Simeon and the Prophetess Hanna in Tallinn, including singing in the choir (although, as he notes, he is not an Orthodox Christian himself).

Prof. Engelhardt makes several excellent points and observations; he places his work in the context of religious renewal for Christians in general in Estonia, which is “a process of investing their lives in the post-Soviet order with a particular morality and soteriology.” Estonian religious renewal is significant because

[it] both recognize[s] and resist[s] conventional aspects of the modernity mythologized in post-Soviet and postsocialist transition and ostensibly figured in the European Union: democracy, liberal pluralism, secularism, free markets, cosmopolitanism, universal human rights, consumerism, individualism, “normalcy,” and benign nationalism. (p.36)

For the Orthodox Christians in particular, “right singing” is an ideal which exists in this context;

it is a musico-religious poetics whereby Orthodox Christians are transforming understandings of personhood, human ecology, and secularism in Estonian society through sonic ideals that have decided moral and ideological dimensions. […] Thus, the musical and liturgical practices, congregational life, and institutional affiliations of local Orthodox communities in Estonia bring together a host of aesthetic, theological, social, and ideological concerns. All of these concerns coalesce in the idea lof right singing… [which] is a conduit of illumination and transforms invidiual and corporate bodies into Orthodox bodies of Christ. Right singing creates the correct unity of doxa (belief) and praxis (practice) that is the conservative essence of Orthodox Christianity. (Ibid.)

Prof. Engelhardt follows up on this point by suggesting that “[i]f the singing is right, then the belief expressed in that singing is right; if the belief is right, then the musical practices grounded in that belief are right” (p.37).

In other words, religious renewal in Estonia is not just about reclaiming something repressed during the Soviet era but about fundamentally trying to reshape the world around them into something consonant with their Christian faith; furthermore, “right singing” is not just an expression of these aims for the Orthodox Christian in Estonia, but one of the instruments through which the aims will be completed.

Given this, one of the really interesting points of Prof. Engelhardt’s analysis of the Cathedral’s practice is when he speaks of using Byzantine music for special Liturgies, such as a specific example where a parishioner was to be ordained to the diaconate.

There are a number of reasons why [the Cathedral] would use [Byzantine music] to make this liturgy special. Singers, priests, and parishioners at the Cathedral…invest Byzantine chant and styles of singing perceived as temporally or geographically distant with special significance. These ways of singing are right because they sound the right religious ideology and create the right religious imaginary [sociological term referring to a set of values, institutions, laws, and symbols common to a particular social group and the corresponding society]; they distinguish Estonian Orthodox musical practices from Russian Orthodox Obikhod-inspired practices. For [the Cathedral], Byzantine sounds are “right” because they are “more archaic” and “more monastic” than the Estonian Orthodox traditions with marked Russian Orthodox and Protestant Lutheran influences; Byzantine sounds bring worshipers to the “right level”… [and] Byzantine ways of singing are “more ascetic” and evoke the “feeling” that is such an important part of Orthodox Christian experience… [and] Byzantine ways of singing bring [the congregation] “to the source” of the Christian tradition[.] (p.39-40)

This interlocks with earlier point of how “right singing” (orthopsalmody?) is an ideal which exists in the context of religious renewal in Estonia: “[F]or Orthodox Estonians, the trajectories, geopolitics, ideologies, and moral norms of this kind of transition do not correspond entirely with the Orthodox lives they imagine leading” (p. 41), therefore

[r]ight singing is…how Orthodox Christians situation themselves within a global religious imaginary… [which] has enabled religious renewal and, in the process, established alternative, Orthodox perspectives on the modernity being fashioned through post-Soviet transition, reframing its liberal ideologies and doctrine of secularism. The Byzantine aspects of right singing, in other words, create a form of “morally inflected cosmopolitanism”…that is given voice through liturgical practice[.] (p.44)

He reaffirms and restates this point a little later:

In general, then, what is sung at the Cathedral…and, just as important, how it is sung, localizes temporally and geographically distant Orthodox sounds in order to make singing right… Byzantine is a chronotope (a temporal and spatial field of action) incorporating aspects of musical style, theology, and religious imagination that captures what singers sense as the archaic, originary, and more authentic qualities of their way of singing. Negotiating this kind of proximity…within a global Byzantine imaginary as part of the ongoing renewal of Estonian Orthodoxy and amidst ongoing social, economic, and ideological transformation, then, is a process of making singing right. (p.46)

Prof. Engelhardt concludes with some startlingly sympathetic observations:

The ideal of right singing gives voice to eternal religious truths that empower Orthodox Estonians to live faithfully and in relation to God, one another, and a global religious community. The soteriological, ethical, and affective dimensions of right singing are profound, and by singing the right way, Orthodox Estonians realize their full humanity through the unity of beauty and truth, aesthetics and veracity. […] By endeavoring to sing the right way… Orthodox Estonians work at incrementally transforming themselves, their Church, and their world into this likeness [of God]. Musical practice, in other words, is an agentive means of religious transformation as it shapes individual and communal disciplines, sensibilities, and moral actions. (p. 50)

Prof. Engelhardt’s ethnography is very thought-provoking, and it is remarkable how applicable the picture he paints of the situation in Tallinn is to the Orthodox church choirs in the United States I’ve seen or with whom I’ve sung. While not using the specific technical language of ethnomusicology and sociology, I’ve participated in many conversations about Orthodox liturgical music that wind up in largely the same place as this article. One question that comes to mind is, just as much as the “Byzantine imaginary” allows Orthodox Estonians a means to frame their responses to modernity, I wonder to what extent we might hypothesize that some Orthodox Americans, or even Orthodox Christians elsewhere, wish instead to synthesize modernity with the Byzantine imaginary? What does that look like? How does the synthesis differ from the response?

Now, a questionable point, at least for me, is methodology. A large portion of Prof. Engelhardt’s fieldwork depends on his perspective as a participant in the choir, and he acknowledges that while he is participating with the faithful, he is not participating as one of the faithful. Without getting into the question of whether or not one should sing in the choir if one is not Orthodox, I’ll just say that it begs the question of how his observations were colored by the perspective of a non-believing participant. I don’t doubt that it likely helped to make his observations as sympathetic as they are, but it seems to me that there are lines being crossed with this methodology. Again, I am not an ethnomusicologist, so I acknowledge I raise this question from a standpoint of ignorance, and I would be curious as to how an ethnomusicologist might answer this concern. One way or the other, this is a methodological approach that strikes me as at least requiring full disclosure — that is, it not being enough for the researcher to state that they are a non-adherent; rather, a statement of of what the researcher’s religious beliefs actually are is needed to clear up any ambiguities. I could very well be totally wrong on this point, and if I am, that’s fine, but that is my initial reaction.

In all fairness, Prof. Engelhardt acknowledges the problem to some extent, noting that not being an Orthodox Christian presents certain challenges to this kind of work:

The ideal of right singing gets at things that are hard for ethnomusicologists to get at: belief, faith, the numinous, and apophatic ways of knowing through negation rather than through the positive statements of modern scholarly practice. The challenge for non-Orthodox ethnographers like myself, then, is to apprehend at all the correct unity that makes singing right. (p. 37)

Another shortcoming is the bibliography; of 125 total references listed, literature which specifically treats Orthodox Christianity only gets six entries. Of those six works, four deal with Orthodox sacred music, three of which focus on Russian practice. Given the prominence of Byzantine chant in the ethnography, it is odd to me that the references would not reflect more substantial reading and understanding in that area. Some citations talking about theology of icons or liturgical aesthetics in general would also seem appropriate, given how Prof. Engelhardt synthesizes his points in the conclusion.

There are also some curious imprecisions here and there; there is a quotation on pp. 35-6 from the “Canon for Sunday Orthros,” which hardly narrows down exactly which Canon it might be (and his translation from Estonian isn’t a lot of help, either). He refers to the diaconate being the first step in becoming a priest; while it can be, yes, it is not the prescriptive matter that he implies. In another instance, he speaks of “an authentic Orthodox theology of sound” (p. 49) without clearly stating what that might be or providing a citation.

Having noted these points, however, I think there is much to appreciate about Prof. Engelhardt’s work, and whatever I may wonder about his methodological approach, I applaud his willingness as a non-Orthodox Christian to treat the musical practices of Estonian Orthodox Christians on their own terms. If you are interested in reading the entire article, it is not available online, but if you’re near a university library, they should have the journal on their shelves.

I’ll close with Prof. Engelhardt’s final paragraph, which is perhaps the part every scholar who works in areas related to religion should read:

Beyond these conclusions about why the right singing of Orthodox Estonians is right (conclusions based on a musical ethnography of orthopraxy), one verges on matters of belief and faith (the inwardness and veracity of doxa) that reveal the limits of how modern, secular scholarship produces knowledge… Suggesting how musical style, religious ideology, and sociohistorical circumstance affect the rightness of sound is only part of the story. The other part of the story is about the epistemology given voice through the outward expressions of orthopraxy; it is about the ineffability of some religious experiences, the unverifiable efficacy of some rituals, the possibility of divine revelation, and the corporeal sensibility of the authentic, all of which are no less real or true than musical style, religious ideology, and sociohistorical circumstance. Regarding these profoundly significant aspects of right sounds, one must, I believe, defer to those for whom they are right, stopping short of any complete representation in order to recognize and reflect on their ultimate meaning and power in the lives of the faithful. (p. 52)

The Voice of the Lord: Selected Hymns from the Feast of Theophany

Yesterday I came to home to an unexpected surprise: a complimentary copy of The Voice of the Lord: Selected Hymns from the Feast of Theophany, a new recording of Byzantine chant in English dedicated to the memory of Sonia Belcher. Sonia was a dear friend of my priest and his family, and when she passed last February, Fr. Peter spoke about her quite a bit. This CD is quite the labor of love, to say the least, and proceeds from it will go to support The Theophany School in Boston, an Orthodox Christian school which began largely as a result of Sonia’s effort and perseverance.

The collaborators on the project are impressive, to say the least. Hieromonk Ephraim of St. Anthony’s Monastery (aka “Papa Ephraim”) composed the English-language versions of the hymns specifically for the recording (music found here under the entry for Theophany, 6 January); the protopsaltis is Rassem El Massih, a graduate of the Archdiocese of Tripoli’s School of Byzantine Music, and the choir roster is a who’s who of the new generation of Byzantine cantors in AOCNA — including Gregory Abdalah, Basil Crow, Jamil Samara, and Khalil Samara. Dn. Nicholas, Sonia’s husband, is also a part of the ensemble. As the notes say, the goal was to produce a recording of traditionally chanted Byzantine hymns re-composed for the English music, and specifically in the style idiomatic to the Patriarchate of Antioch.

I’ve only listened to it all the way through a couple of times thus far, but my initial impressions are that the result of their efforts is top-drawer through and through. The ensemble sings together beautifully and is very well-coordinated; the English diction is clear as a bell, and hearing the melodies match the English texts as well as they do is very refreshing. The liner notes do a moving job of telling the reader who Sonia is and just why she inspired both the recording project as a whole as well as this particular repertoire.

One curious thing I’ll note is that, as good as the English diction is — compare, for example, with the Mt. Lebanon Choir — the kind of sound the ensemble produces made my ear expect Arabic when I first popped in the disc. It took about ten seconds for me to be able to “hear” the English; when I listened to it a second time, I couldn’t believe that I’d had a problem in the first place. Go figure.

I’d like to thank Basil Crow and Khalil Samara for sending me the disc, and all involved for contributing a fine example of what traditional Byzantine chant can sound like when sung well in English. I’d like to encourage anybody who knew Sonia, or who might be interested in Byzantine chant or Orthodox Christian education, to buy this CD; it’s a more than worthy effort, and a more than worthy cause.

Richard’s Twitter

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