Archive for December, 2012

“Always start out with a few good jokes” — a choir director’s initial and parting thoughts

I had my last rehearsal with the All Saints choir last night, and I gave a little bit of a farewell speech. I found some prepared notes from my very first rehearsal with the All Saints choir seven and a half years ago, and they still seemed relevant, if clearly pre-dating some things that I’ve learned in the intervening time. I prefaced all of this by mentioning that my favorite quote from my teaching evaluations this fall was, “Needs dumbed down”, which I find wonderful on several levels. Anyway, I didn’t read all of this last night, just some select chunks, but here’s the whole thing:

2 July 2005, All Saints Choir Rehearsal #1

Always start out with a few good jokes:

Music vocabulary—

Bar line: A gathering of people, usually among which may be found a church musician or two (usually Episcopalians).

Tenors: Most choirs have either a) none, or b) too many. When wholly absent they leave an aching void. When too numerous, they fill the void without removing the ache. Tenors rarely sing words and often produce regional sensations rather than actual notes. During the mating season, they draw attention to themselves by sustaining high notes while the rest of the choir has gone on with the phrase.

Seen in a church bulletin: “At the evening service tonight, the sermon topic will be ‘What is hell?’ Come early and listen to our choir practice.

The Scriptures on singing in worship

Romans 15:9—And that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy; as it is written, For this cause I will confess to thee among the Gentiles, and sing unto thy name.

1 Cor 14:15—What is it then? I will pray with the spirit, and I will pray with the understanding also: I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also.

Ephesians 5:19—Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord

Colossians 3:16—Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.

Hebrews 2:12–Saying, I will declare thy name unto my brethren, in the midst of the church will I sing praise unto thee.

James 5:13—Is any among you afflicted? let him pray. Is any merry? let him sing psalms.

The Church Fathers on singing in worship

“Let us consider the entire multitude of angels, how standing by you they minister to his will. For the Scripture says: ‘Ten thousand stood by him and a thousand ministered to him and cried out, ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Sabaoth, the whole creation is full of his glory.’ (Isaiah 6:3) Let us, therefore, gathered together in concord by conscience, cry out earnestly to Him as if with one voice, so that we might come to share in his great and glorious promises.” (St. Clement of Rome (c. 96 A.D.), First Epistle to the Corinthians, italics mine)

“…you make up a chorus, so that joined together in harmony, and having received the godly strain in unison, you might sing in one voice through Christ to the Father, so that He might hear you and recognize you through your good deeds as members of His Son…” (St. Ignatius of Antioch (c. 100 A.D.), Epistle to the Ephesians, italics mine)

“We want to strive so that we, the many, may be brought together into one love, according to the union of the essential unity. As we do good may be similarly pursue unity….The union of many, which the divine harmony has called forth out of a medley of sounds and division, becomes one symphony, following the one leader of the choir and teacher, the Word, resting in that same truth and crying out, ‘Abba, Father.’” (St. Clement of Alexandria (c. 200 A.D.), Protrepticus)

A modern Christian writer on singing in worship:

All quotes from Why Catholics can’t sing by Thomas Day.

“[T]he sung ritual [is] a symbol of a burning faith […] The [sung] liturgy in any language [is] the symbol of faith so intense and filled with joy that it [has] to burst forth in almost continuous song.”

The Great Unwritten Law of Church Music: “[M]usic for the church must not clash with the liturgical function; it must take its place in the objective liturgical setting and not seem like an intrusion. [It] must display a degree of quality and craftsmanship which will be agreeable to a prince and peasant, male and female, young and old. Everyone who […] hears the music must sense a group endeavor, a group prayer: maybe something performed by the assembly or by a choir acting in the name of the assembly […] that seems to sum up the highest religious aspirations of a whole people. [T]he icon painters [pray] and [fast] as they [struggle] to put the holy images into the exacting forms prescribed by tradition. You must try to do something similar.”

Music in the Church is best when it “(1) expresses the noblest aspirations of the communal, cultural, tribal consciousness and (2) seems to submit to the higher purposes of the rite itself.”

So, what does this mean for us?

As an Orthodox choir, our job is not to sing one or two “anthems” or “offertories” at specific points in the service as in a Protestant church. Our job is to help the congregation sing the entire service. With a 90% sung liturgy lasting close to an hour and a half, that’s no small feat. We sing liturgical music, which means we sing the music that comes out of the work of the people (the literal meaning of “liturgy”) [NOTE, 21 Dec 2012: this is the main spot where obviously my thinking has changed, and I would find a different way of putting this today]. That means, simply put, our worship is work. Given our leadership role in the work, our job is not to be individuals who just happen to stand in a different place in the nave from everybody else; our job is to lead the rest of the congregation into the ideal of “one voice” in worship. By definition, to do this takes time, effort, and commitment to taking that leadership role seriously.

It also takes the choir functioning as a community within the community. From one perspective, the expectation is quite high: we’ve gotten up early so our voices haven’t completely woken up yet, and if we’re receiving the Eucharist we haven’t been able to do the normal things that help get the throat and vocal cords going the way they need to—drink water, coffee, tea, eat something, and so on—but we still have nearly an hour and a half worth of singing to do, more if we’re singing in the Matins service. The only way we can do that well, not to mention healthfully, is to support each other, personally and vocally, so that no one person in any section is carrying everybody else for the entire Divine Liturgy. What it takes is simply time, effort, and commitment from all who are willing to give it. It’s that difficult and that easy.

To that end: In consultation with Fr. Athanasius, while I am directing the choir, we will take the following steps:

1) Incorporate the choir into Saturday evening Vespers for the four-part portions of the service, and rehearse either before or after Vespers. We will try rehearsing after Vespers for the time being; we might very possibly try it before Vespers if it is found that this works better all around. I have deliberately scheduled the rehearsal around an already existing service, and I will never take up more than an hour of your time at any given rehearsal. Ideally, there will be rehearsals where my agenda for the evening will take up less time than that, and we will only continue through to the end of the hour if there is something that the group wishes to work on. These rehearsals will consist of a combination of vocal warm-ups, sight-singing warm-ups, announcements, polishing music we already know and learning new music. The balance of these various components will vary from week to week, based on the service requirements for that week and coming weeks.

2) Warm up as a group either at 9:35am on Sunday morning or after the Matins Gospel, whichever comes first. Starting Sunday, 17 July 2005 (that’s two weeks from now), this will be the skeletal minimum with respect to my expectation of you if you intend to sing that morning. If you cannot make a Saturday evening rehearsal at this time, then I absolutely need you to warm up with the group Sunday morning. For those of you who sing in the Matins service, we will devise a regular rotation so that one week you may finish out Matins, the next week you will warm up with the choir, and so on.

3) Gradually phase out the use of soloists for verses and replace them with unison chanting. We will talk about this more as we go, but for Psalm verses and whatnot, I would like to see an alternating “left choir/right choir” approach, where perhaps the women sing one verse, the men sing the next verse, etc. We will experiment with this over time to see how it best works with this group. The vocal and acoustic circumstances are simply not ideal for solo voices, and where it is practical to use an ensemble, we will.

I will also do the following:

1) Put out a calendar outlining rehearsals and services coming up a month out (perhaps two months out, if I find that it’s necessary). If you know you won’t be at a rehearsal or a service, please sign out on the calendar. Additionally, if you plan to attend a service or a rehearsal, should something happen at the last minute preventing your attendance please call me or e-mail me as soon as you possibly can so that I know what to expect for that rehearsal or service. I offer you all the same courtesy—if something happens to me, I will let you all know as soon as I possibly can.

2) Make myself available for work outside of regularly scheduled rehearsals and services. For example—if you need help with something musically, want extra sight-singing practice, if the tenor section needs extra help and wants a section rehearsal, if you need to talk to me about something privately, or if you just want to chat, please give me a call or send me an e-mail and we will find time to do so.

3) Make rehearsals as fun as I possibly can. I want you all to want to come to rehearsal, not feel like you have to come, which in my experience will only ensure that you want to come even less. I want our rehearsals to be a friendly, positive working environment, because I think we’ll all get more done that way.

My final point for now is this: a no is as good as a yes, as far as I’m concerned. If, after hearing all of this, you are thinking to yourself, “He’s going to have to count me out,” that’s fine. I’m not mad at you, and neither is anybody else. What I ask, however, is that you not make a snap judgment now. I ask that you give it some time to see how it will work—perhaps you’ll surprise yourself.

I believe this is a group who is capable of a lot. If we can commit to putting in the time and the effort, and remember that this is not about us but about the glorification of God, I believe we will be able to accomplish a lot.

Okay, I’m done talking now. Let’s sing.

I also mentioned some passages from +BASIL’s essay, “The Ministry of Church Singers”. I think parts of this have to be contextualized as a bishop being pastoral and pious, but there are nonetheless some things he says unequivocally:

There are few ministries of the Church that require the devotion and the dedication that church singing does. You who lead the singing as well as you who follow the leader are precious gifts to your parishes. You are as important to the parish as is the holy table itself. As there can be no liturgy without the holy table, there can be no liturgy without you. This is not to compliment you or increase your pride, but rather to put a little fear and awe in you, so you know what your responsibilities are. Church singing is not a hobby. Being a choir director is not something one does for personal fulfillment. It is first and foremost a duty, a duty of those to whom God has given musical talents. It is sinful, in my opinion, for someone not to sing who has been given the gift to sing. Sinful! You join the angels, and do that which the angels do perpetually. That’s not an interest, avocation, or a hobby; it is a duty. Angels were created to serve and to praise, and you have been given voices for that same purpose.

[…] It’s a holiness. It’s not your ministry. It’s a ministry that belongs to the Church, and you respond to the call as well as recognize that the gift which you specifically fulfill in the church was, traditionally, and in some sense still is, an ordained ministry. The choir was not some club that existed in Church for those with some particular musical talent. To be a church singer was an ordained office within the Church. Canon 15, from the Council of Nicea, the Council of the 4th century, makes its point clear that only canonical singers should be appointed for that kind of ministry in the Church. That means “one set apart” for that particular ministry. Today we might call them Readers. While I’m not saying that every choir member must be a tonsured Reader, I do say that if we fulfill at least the spirit, if not the law of the Canon, that each choir member ought to see his/her participation in the choir as seriously as the ordained clergy take their ministry. I don’t know any priest who thinks that he can say on some Sunday, “I don’t want to serve because I want to sit with my wife,” or, “I don’t feel like serving today,” or, “I’m angry, one of the altar boys offended me, so I don’t want to serve this morning.”

[…] We jump in and we jump out. Some of us jump in on time and some of us jump in a little bit late. In my opinion, being in church for that first “Amen” is a sign, an indication of one’s humility. And where humility is, indeed, a virtue, its opposite is a sin. The sin is not disturbing other people. The other people in the church are not the object of our worship. It is rude, but not necessarily sinful, to disturb other people. But it is sinful to be presumptuous and prideful that one can jump in and sing with thousands of archangels and ten-thousands of angels at one’s own whim. “This Sunday I feel like singing, and next Sunday I won’t sing. I want to sit with my wife.” Leave that Hallmark—card kind of sentimentality for restaurants, concerts, and cinemas. You sing with angels, that’s secondary to sitting with any husband or wife or children. We stand before the throne of God, and when we realize that, every other consideration, all of our own personal likes and dislikes, become secondary. I’m giving my opinion now, and hopefully it humbles all of us. It’s a humiliation, that in its end, should be something that elevates us, that exalts us, something that gives us wing.

[…] You and your choir need be as aesthetically perfect as you are able. God not only expects, but He accepts only our best.

As I said to the choir last night, I’m a convert, not a cradle, and every convert brings with them some baggage from their previous experience. My background is one that places a high value on liturgical beauty and music, and that value is practical, not just theoretical. Church music is a profession. It is not unheard-of for church musicians in my former communion to have terminal degrees and to have half-time, if not full-time, salaries. While I have always known that such a set of circumstances would never even come close to being reality at All Saints, I have always tried to fulfill the musical function at All Saints as though those were the expectations of me — and I should stress the “of me” part, because certainly the point was never to turn the All Saints choir into an opera chorus. Rather, the point was that, if I was excited about what I did and took it seriously in the way +BASIL describes, hopefully everybody else would catch the spark, too, and get excited about it along with me. It was an experiment to see if one could build a fully-functioning music ministry at the only Orthodox parish in a town that was home to a Big Ten university and one of the best schools of music in the country. I’m happy that the experiment has borne fruit, even if it won’t specifically be attached to the parish anymore. All told, this (as well as the ongoing annotation and discussion of it here) represents a pretty good snapshot of my thinking of how the effort worked, and how I would approach such a project if I were to start afresh now.

Δόξα τῷ Θεῷ πάντων ἔνεκεν. As always, we’ll see what happens next. I thank All Saints, Fr. Peter, and those who sang with me for the chance to serve over the years, I hope that I was able to communicate some small element of what I love about our Church’s music despite all of my own faults and foibles, and I wish all of them, as well as whomever my successor will be, many blessings. Again, I crave your prayers for myself and my family as we make this transition.

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A transition

I suppose I should probably announce this, since it was announced in church this last Sunday —

Sunday 23 December will be my last day as All Saints Orthodox Church‘s cantor and choir director, and it will be my family’s last day as regular members of the parish. We will still be living in Bloomington until such time as our paths take us elsewhere, and I’m sure we will find ourselves at All Saints every so often — our godparents are there, we have godchildren there, we have many friends there, including the priest — but the next few months will probably more often than not see us visiting various other Orthodox churches in the surrounding area.

My last weekend, curiously enough, coincides with the first pastoral visit to All Saints of His Grace +ANTHONY. The transition aside, I look forward to meeting him and talking with him, and I very much hope that that weekend is only the beginning of a long and fruitful pastoral relationship between His Grace, Fr. Peter, and the parish.

Lest anybody add two and two together to get five — I and my family are all still Orthodox, and the St. John of Damascus Society will continue to be very much a going concern (with this just being the tip of the iceberg — lots of exciting stuff coming down the pike that I hope to announce very soon). The work I’m trying to do with the music of the Church is still very much on my plate, and I remain committed to helping in whatever I way I can with the Orthodox Church’s mission in Bloomington and at Indiana University.

If anybody has any questions, please feel free to ask them in the combox. My family and I crave your prayers as we make this transition.

“Do you feel in charge?”

Spoilers for The Dark Knight Rises, Skyfall, and so on below.

The UPS truck came yesterday. Thus it was that once Theodore was put down, I took a break from Cicero’s letters, and I told Flesh of My Flesh, “I’m making dinner, and then we’re watching The Dark Knight Rises.” The issue being, you see, that she hadn’t seen it yet. Skyfall was the first movie we had been able to see together in   since The Avengers, and that was just because for my birthday, some friends offered to watch Theodorus Rex while we went out by ourselves.

I very much enjoyed Skyfall, incidentally, and have seen it twice now; the transformation of Daniel Craig as the new James Bond into, effectively, the old James Bond, is complete. If one knows something about the history of actors who might have been Bond, the presence of Ralph Fiennes (as well as the reveal of him as the “new” M, who’s really the “old” M) is clever; he was one of the actors being considered back in 1994 to take over the role after Dalton declined to participate in what became GoldenEye. If I’m remembering a particular issue of Premiere sufficiently, the list before they finally circled back around to Brosnan was Mel Gibson, Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, Sam Neill, and Hugh Grant. Fiennes, then, as a former field agent whom we see take a bullet and fire off some of his own shots, takes on some real-life resonance, given that part of the idea with Gareth Mallory seems to be that he’s what Bond would have been if he’d just been a bit more respectable.

I liked the approach with Skyfall of “James-Bond-as-art-film”; we get a lot of Bond fighting in silhouette, and this can get a bit trippy, particularly when he’s silhouetted against lots of moving neon lights. Sam Mendes also seems to be trying to tell you something with how he frames shots; Bond is frequently centered in the frame, as is Javier Bardem’s Silva, but then, at the very end, when Bond is looking out over the city from MI6’s roof, it starts out with him centered only to have the camera nudge just a little bit right so that Big Ben is now centered. The point seems to be that Bond has finally decided once and for all that he’s doing what he does, not out of anger for Vesper’s betrayal, not out of the repressed trauma of his parents’ death, but for queen and country.

But I’m supposed to be talking about The Dark Knight Rises.

So, four and a half years ago, The Dark Knight took up a big chunk of my summer. I saw it, I think, nine times on the big screen all told, six of those in IMAX, and really what I did during July and August of 2008 was call up my friends and say, “Hey, want to go see The Dark Knight in IMAX with me?” I didn’t have much else to do; I had a French reading knowledge class I was taking, and I was working, but so far as I knew at that point, I was definitely not going to be working on a grad program anytime soon, and my wife was in Germany, followed almost immediately by her spending close to a month in Seattle after her dad was diagnosed with cancer. The Dark Knight seemed as good a way as any to kill time.

Obviously, my life has changed a lot in the intervening years, and I have other ways my time is occupied these days, thank God. Still, I managed to see The Dark Knight Rises four times on the big screen, two of those in IMAX. So, draw whatever conclusions you will about that — such as, for example, baby or no baby, PhD program or no PhD program, I’m still an unrepentant nerd.

The Dark Knight Rises picks up eight years after the Batman took the rap for Harvey Dent’s murders rather than have Gotham lose their knight in shining armor. The storytelling reason for this seems to be so that Batman takes on some qualities of being an urban legend, almost a Spring-heeled Jack kind of figure; I suspect that the practical, real-world reason is because it had been seven years since they started shooting Batman Begins, which itself required Christian Bale to play Bruce Wayne over a seven to eight year span, and The Dark Knight was supposed to take place something like six months after Batman Begins while being made three years later. Everybody looks noticeably older than they did in 2005, in other words, and this gives them an in-story way to explain that.

In the intervening years, Bruce Wayne has become a recluse, letting the physical and mental damage he suffered as Batman settle in. He tries to become a philanthropist, but he finds out projects that can save the world also have the dark side of probably being able to destroy it, a realization which just drives him further into the shadows. Commissioner Gordon has been able to use the memory of Harvey Dent to lock up a lot of people, but the lie is eating away at him. It’s a status quo that’s, for all intents, a well-polished rotten apple.

Enter four characters who each stir up the hornet’s nest in their own way. Selina Kyle is a jewel thief who has taken a curious interest in Bruce’s fingerprints; John Blake is a young cop who sees that everybody is pretty much just going through the motions to keep everything looking nice; Miranda Tate is an investment partner of Bruce’s who wants to show him that the world is worth trusting enough to save it… and then there’s Bane, who is manipulating much of this (or is he?) specifically to force Bruce to get back into the ring as Batman.

A running theme of the movie — which goes all the way back to Batman Begins — is that of the “clean slate”. The express purpose of the League of Shadows, after all, was to “wipe the slate clean”, as it were, when cities got too big and corrupt by destroying them, which is the objective that Bane has inherited; Selina Kyle wants to wipe out her own past (there’s a MacGuffin of the “gangland myth” of a computer program that can do this, which it turns out that Bruce acquired to keep from being used; since the Joker had no traceable record in The Dark Knight, it’s possible that this is intended to be an oblique reference to him); Gordon, Bruce, and Blake are all living with accounts needing to be settled, and so on. Is a revolution how society ultimately has to pay its bill? As R’as Al Ghul suggests in Begins (and as Bane trumpets in Rises), is burning away the brush always the solution, and it’s just a question of scale? Can one man show a better way? One might not be entirely wrong to detect a Christ allegory with where Nolan and company end up with this question (albeit thankfully not in the somewhat ham-fisted way that Superman Returns did), but it seems to me that Plato’s cave is far more explicitly referenced.

Rises does a nice job of bringing things full circle back to Begins; the story keys off of R’as Al Ghul’s conviction in Begins that “Gotham must be destroyed”, and shows that just because R’as Al Ghul died, it didn’t mean the idea died. R’as Al Ghul left a legacy, and it’s a legacy Bruce has to deal with.

Incidentally, for anybody familiar with the comics, there’s only one way the character of Miranda Tate was going to make any sense at all, and if you’re paying attention, they telegraph her identity as Talia from the get-go. She talks like R’as (she has a line about “restoring balance” early on), and there are visual callbacks as well, like showing her good at building a fire, much as R’as was in Begins. A reward of repeated viewings, too, is noticing that the little girl in the prison stabs somebody in the back in one of the first flashbacks, much as the adult Talia does to Bruce.

There are other interesting references to Begins; there’s the explicit comparison of the prison to the well young Bruce falls into in Begins, but there’s also Batman walking on ice (apparently having learned to mind his surroundings after all), and the memorial statue of Batman unveiled at the end bears a striking resemblance to the nightmare Batman that Scarecrow hallucinated in Begins. Both Begins and The Dark Knight end with conversations about thanking Batman — Begins: “I never said thank you.” “And you’ll never have to.” TDK: “Thank you.” “You don’t have to thank me.” — and while Rises has its own ending, it has its own version of this conversation: “Thanks.” “Don’t thank me yet.” It’s a little grace note that seems to say a lot about where Bruce sees what he’s achieved relative to his own ideals — in Begins the story ends with his ideals having won the day, in TDK his ideals have cost him dearly, and at this point in Rises it’s unclear whether or not he will even survive his own ideals.

The point of Rises, and I suppose of Nolan’s whole trilogy, is that in this story, Bruce Wayne isn’t trying to become a superhero, he’s trying to build a myth. As R’as says in Begins, “You have to become an idea.” The idea that there might be a big unstoppable demon that comes after you if you’re a bad guy, and you’ll never know who it is, is much more powerful than there being a human being who can be taken down with a bullet. In Begins he takes on the initial trappings of the legend, in TDK he sees a human being who he thinks could become the idea without having to pretend to be somebody else, only to see that person corrupted, and in Rises he has to complete the mythmaking by, effectively, dying and coming back from the dead — both so he can just be Bruce Wayne once and for all, and so that Batman can be that much more powerful. Along these lines, Bane is presented as sort of a counter-symbol to Batman; “No one cared who I was till I put on the mask,” he says.

Do Nolan’s films constitute a “definitive” Batman? Well, what do you mean by that? “Definitive” according to whose take on the character? Frank Miller’s? Neal Adams and Denny O’Neil’s? Bob Kane’s? Paul Dini’s? Adam West’s? Just by the nature of film, where you’re basically blowing up a short story into two or three hours and only being able to do it once every few years, you’re never going to be able to bring out all the nuances that one can play with in an ongoing serial like a comic book or a TV show. Like any film adaptation, the best you’re going to be able to do is honor the spirit of the source material while doing your own thing as well as you can. Batman, by virtue of being a symbol, is open to a lot of interpretation, and I think Nolan has made three pretty great movies with his interpretation. Somebody else will probably come along and do their own interpretation in a few years, and there may very well be things I like about that one better, perhaps things I don’t like as well; who knows? The comics themselves will still be sitting on the shelf right next to these movies, as well as Tim Burton’s 1989 film. What I think one can say is that this trilogy is a long Batman story that incorporates a lot of ideas and images from the comics as well as the animated series (there’s a decent amount of Batman Beyond in Bruce’s solution), and while it’s something you could never do with Batman as he appears in the comics (unless it were an Elseworlds mini-series or something of that nature), it’s a great way, from where I sit, to encapsulate the character onscreen in a self-contained story.

OK. Back to reading some Latin.


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