Archive for August, 2013

The Choir: “I remember playing tetherball in Latin”

I have spent a decent amount of time trying to advocate for the idea of adopting the choir school model in an Orthodox setting, and one of the problems I’ve always run into is that nobody seems to have any idea of what the model I’m talking about looks like. I spend a lot of my time trying to explain what I’m talking about, and I describe examples like St. Thomas Fifth Avenue in New York or Westminster Cathedral Choir School in London, but the description can only go so far to bridge the gap between frames of reference. Choir is a documentary about the Choir School of the Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City, Utah, and it could be just the thing to bridge that gap, I think. It paints an extraordinary picture of an extraordinary place, and it gives you a great sense of what the school means to its teachers, its students, its alumni, and the people in the pews who hear the school’s singers from service to service. To be a chorister at the Madeleine Choir School is to have a rarefied kind of educational experience that prepares one for more than just opening one’s mouth and making pretty sounds; the experience imparts to the kids a lasting understanding of discipline, dedication, resilience, and, of course, faith. Oh yeah, and Latin (“I remember playing tetherball in Latin,” one alumnus says. “That doesn’t happen at any other school”). And, almost forgot, you also get to sing for the Pope.

The guides through this unique school are the students and alumni themselves. Certainly, Gregory A. Glenn, the founder and pastoral administrator of the School (as well as the Cathedral’s director of music and liturgy), and Melanie Malinka, the Choir School’s director of music, are both present throughout, the Papa Bear and Mama Bear so to speak. It’s not the adults, however, but rather the kids and graduates — some of whom have gone on to singing careers, acting careers, church music careers, and so on — who give you the most insight as to what it’s like. “It’s a lot of dedication,” a seventh grade girl tells us, “because you always need to be giving 100% so that the whole choir sounds good.” A fifth grade boy nervously explains, “You have to be in every Mass, but you can miss three. You can’t miss more than three or else. I don’t know because I haven’t missed,” he makes sure to emphasize. “You have to be at all the places on time or else you have to sign the log.” “It’s a lot of our own time, our own commitment,” a chorister says, “but we also get a lot of fun things out of it… [like] we get to go to Italy.” International travel aside, “[The dedication] was the big reward,” an alumna concludes.

Self-confidence is also a fruit of the School’s labor, as we hear in a discussion of what it’s like for kids to sing their first solos. “They put me right in the center of the altar, I was right in the front,” one alum tells us in a fairly typical anecdote, “[and they] had one of the adult members sing with me because my voice was so shaky.” Still, the lesson was valuable: “You just have to do it, you have to get over the nerves, because you know you can do it, you just have to trust yourself… I think it really boosted my confidence… if I didn’t have that, I wouldn’t have been able to do a lot of the things I’ve done [since].” Along similar lines, a current student says, “[W]henever I make a mistake like crack or something, I just keep on going,” a current student says. A classmate agrees: “Now I feel very confident to do it because I’ve already done it.”

The picture that emerges of the life lived by students in the School is intense, to say the least. Regular classes, music classes, violin lessons, choir rehearsals, services, concerts, tours. Gregory Glenn and Melanie Malinka are very upfront about what it means to be a performing choir school: “[P]erformance tours are not really a luxury for a choir school, they’re a necessary part of the curriculum,” Glenn says. “It’s not a vacation,” Malinka concurs. “They are at school when they’re on these tours… We drag them from museum to museum to really enrich the experience as much as possible, and then in the evenings they have to sing a concert or a Mass.” But, Glenn insists, “what they learn on a performance tour is really remarkable.”

The Choir does a really amazing job of giving the viewer a sense of what being at the Choir School is like, and what the School contributes to the life of the Cathedral (and I have to imagine that the filmmakers drew some inspiration from the tantalizing little hint of the proposed series about the Westminster Cathedral Choir School that’s on YouTube). It’s a great ride; you know what a choir school is by the end of the film, you have some idea of what kids get out of being there as well as what they have to put into it, and you hear a lot of wonderful sacred music being sung very beautifully along the way. Still, they’re also very clear to make sure that, tours to Italy aside, the link that all of the great music and discipline and cute kids in choir robes has to the Christian faith is understood: “Even when the choir is giving a concert outside of the context of Catholic liturgy,” one of the Cathedral’s priests tells us, “they’re still evangelizing, they’re still praising God, they’re still giving glory to God[.]” Even so, as another priest says, “[M]usic and… liturgy go hand in hand. Without one, the other is a pauper… For someplace like a cathedral, which is the mother church of the diocese, it is very important to have a choir that is top-notch.”

There are stories lurking around the edges of what the filmmakers show us; how the heck did a Roman Catholic choir school wind up in Salt Lake City of all places, for example? Brief narration at the beginning ties it to a restoration of the Cathedral in the early ’90s, and Greg Glenn having the big idea that a musical institution like a choir school would go along nicely with the Cathedral’s renovation. That’s fine, but how did a building like the Madeleine Cathedral get built there to begin with? In general, the film dances around the Catholic/Mormon thing a bit (it tries to get around it with comments here and there from the conductor of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir); this is perhaps understandable, but the question looms regardless.

One also gets the impression that Gregory Glenn and Melanie Malinka are something of a yin and yang — Glenn perhaps the administrator and idea man, Malinka the teacher and musician. We see Glenn be energetic and vigorous, painting in big broad strokes in a rehearsal with older kids as well as in a performance; we’re also told in an outtake that Glenn didn’t allow any breaks during choir rehearsals, and it was only with Malinka’s hiring that the rehearsals became a little more humane. Malinka is quite enigmatic; she will take you down with the raise of an eyebrow during a Mass, but she also seems to edge towards getting teary-eyed when she talks about classes graduating (the Choir School is preschool through 8th grade). There seems to be a story here about the relationship between these two people at the center of the School, and there are moments when you find yourself curious to know more, but it’s not the story the film is telling.

Of course there is music throughout the film, and for the most part it’s fantastic. The filmmakers show you rehearsals where things don’t go so well, and when the adults react they make it clear the level of responsibility and effort they expect. There are some Morton Lauridsen things they included that I wasn’t thrilled with, but at the same time, you get them singing “Having beheld the Resurrection” from the Rachmaninoff All-Night Vigil in the Chiesa del Gesu in Rome (a very nice early moment). There is also a handful of isolated performances on the bonus disc — a chorale from a Bach cantata, an excerpt from Cherubini’s Requiem, and “Deep River” — and these are all also lovely.

If you’re somebody who does anything with music education of children in a sacred setting, you really owe it to yourself to watch The Choir (order it here). There is much here to learn from, much here to be inspired by, much here worth trying to adapt and reproduce for other contexts. I maintain that this is a model worth pondering in an Orthodox context, and I think this film will be a good tool for getting across what excellence in children’s sacred music education can look like. As Tom Hardy’s character says in Inception, “You mustn’t be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling.” Watch The Choir, and I dare you to not be inspired to dream bigger.


Some contributions elsewhere

I’ve been catching up with blogging here, yes, but I’m also catching up with things I’ve been supposed to write for other sites as well. I did a writeup of some of what the Saint John of Damascus Society has been up to during the summer (TL,DR: quite a bit, actually), and I also posted part V of my “Notes from the Psalterion” series over at Orthodox Arts Journal.

Also, this morning, I got the offprint (that is, in this case, a pdf reproduction) for “‘Let Us Put Away All Earthly Care’: Mysticism and the Cherubikon of the Byzantine Rite”, which is showing up in Studia Patristica LXIV, Vol. 12: Ascetica; Liturgica; Orientalia; Critica et Philologica. This is my second peer-jockeyed article as a historian, and it came out of the paper I presented at my first big-boy conference two years ago. I’ve uploaded the pdf to my profile, so give it a look if you’re curious.

Addenda to Chapter Five: Easing back into the unintentional epic

About a year and a half ago, some commentary on the complex relationship some younger people growing up today have with organized religion prompted me to start telling my own story with respect to organized religion (while wanting to keep it from becoming the “conversion story” that has rather become its own genre in American Orthodox Christianity). It was by necessity divided into pieces, and I got here before life as a new father, husband to a new mother, and as a PhD student racing to candidacy status meant that I just didn’t have time to write long blog posts.

I’m trying to get some momentum back, because I’d like to finish that particular project. The pattern I was following was this — post about religious developments followed by post giving some life context for those religious developments. So, I guess what that means is that life context for summer 1997 through summer 2003 is up next.

Summer 1997 saw me as somebody who had dropped out of college in disgrace and who was scraping out an existence in Bellingham selling classified ads for the local newspaper. The  major developments (that I’ll talk about here, anyway) during those few months were that I bought my first car (a teal 1992 Volkswagen Golf GL), I got a relatively substantial settlement from a car accident I had been in the summer before, I resumed voice lessons with Dennis Kruse, my high school voice teacher, and I got my first non-ecclesial professional singing gig with The Tudor Choir. The first of these developments enabled the latter two, since they required me to drive to Seattle (an hour and a half each way), and this got me pondering how I might be able to move back south, since there was really no great reason anymore for me to stay in Bellingham.

An old friend of mine was working for one of the major software companies in the Seattle area, and he suggested that I might be able to get a agency temp position as a software tester. He helped me prepare for the interview process, and when his team had some spots they were looking to fill, he was able to recommend me. I successfully got through the interview, and in February 1998 I moved back to Seattle and started my five-year excursion into the tech industry. It really was only ever going to be a stop on the way to someplace else for me, but it was definitely a nice stopover for a while.

The next year basically consisted of me trying to clean up the mess my four years in Bloomington had left in my life; I lost some weight I needed to lose, I fixed some financial issues, I got my voice back, I developed a relationship with a priest and a parish that was important to me, I bought my first Mac (an iMac Rev B), I fulfilled part of a teenage fantasy by getting to be friends, at least for a while, with Hammerbox’s Carrie Akre, and Megan McKamey re-entered my life.

Sometime during the summer of 1998 I was cleaning out a box I had found in my closet, and I came across an old address book. (“Old” meaning it I had bought it in 1994, four years previous. Four years ago I had just gotten back from Greece and was about to start graduate school. There’s nothing from 2009 that I consider “old”. Oh, perspective.) I found, among other things, the last home address I had for Megan, and for one reason or another, it hit me hard. I had started thinking of her in the back of my head as “the one that got away”, or more accurately, “the one I had foolishly let go”, and other circumstances in my life had emphasized for me how foolish I had been in letting her go. Anyway, I wrote a letter that amounted to, “Hey, haven’t seen you in about a year, and I suppose you’ve graduated by now and are back home figuring out what to do next. I’m back in the Seattle area too; let’s hang out sometime.” Time passed, and I got no response.

Then, in October (I think), a letter showed up in my mailbox from, of all places, Shanghai, China. I opened it up, and it was a letter from none other than Megan, where she was spending six months teaching English at a girls’ school. She seemed more or less happy to hear from me, or at least happy to get mail from home (declining to give me an e-mail address because, as she said, she’d rather get paper letters), and with that encouragement, I started writing her a handwritten, six-page letter a week. It would be wrong for me to suggest that she replied with the same kind of frequency; I think I got three more letters from her between October 1998 and when she returned in February 1999.

Anyway, by 28 February 1999, I been waiting to hear from her all month, since she had never said precisely when she was coming back to the States, and that afternoon I looked up her parents’ home phone number in the phone book (remember that people used to look up such things in such publications?), left a message on the answering machine, and basically paced around the apartment for awhile. Sometime in the early evening she called me back; we chatted briefly, she said we needed to hang out in person sometime soon, and I asked, well, what are you doing right now?

“Uh, I’m in Sumner.” (A little over half an hour away from where I was.)

“So what? I’ll be there in a bit.”

I drove down to Sumner immediately (I was excited), saw her for the first time in probably two years, met her family for the first time (well, not entirely true — I had met her brother Teague a couple of times in 1995), and the two of us went out for dinner and then to a movie (Shakespeare in Love, as I recall). It was very much like a date, and we made plans to hang out in my end of town the next weekend.

The next Saturday, I drove down to Sumner, picked Megan up (she did not yet have a car), and brought her back up to the Eastside. She showed me China pictures for awhile, we decided to go see Analyze This!, and then we went out to dinner. As we pulled into the parking lot of Redmond Town Center to go to Cucina! Cucina!, I decided it would probably be a good idea for me to have some clarity in my own head as to what we were doing. “Just so I know,” I asked, “is this a date?”

It took Megan about a minute to stop fumbling over her words sufficiently to answer me. The answer was “no”. The reason why the answer was “no” was, she explained, because she had started dating an old friend from high school shortly after she had gotten back from China.

Shortly after her “no”, it seemed that Cucina! Cucina! had an hourlong wait.

No worries, I told her; there was another place I could take her just up the road that was maybe a bit better, and I took her to the Salish Lodge in North Bend. Why not? It wasn’t exactly like I was just going to sullenly drive her home and never talk to her again; that’s not how I do things. May as well have an evening out as friends in as high a style as I could manage to improvise. We had crab cakes as an appetizer and expensive cocktails. It was fun, and I started making that my M.O. when we saw each other.

At the risk of this becoming a blow-by-blow of the following eight weekends, I’ll just sum up a number of events by saying that, by the end of April, she and the high school friend had decided that they were better off as friends, I had been invited to spend Easter with her family, I’d also been invited to come to her little brother’s confirmation, her stepdad had made the offhand comment to her that “I like Richard — he’s trying harder”, and we spent a very nice Saturday in Seattle, taking her to my old friend Bryn Martin (memory eternal) to have her hair done, going to The Owl ‘N Thistle for dinner, then taking advantage of the Pioneer Square joint cover (something that seems to no longer exist in that form, exactly, alas) to go dancing.

As we were walking back to the car, around 1:30 in the morning or so, we were holding hands, and Megan said, “We need to talk about where we’re at, don’t we? Because I think it’s changed.” She was quite right.

Around the same time, two other things happened — I was hired as a permanent employee at the company I was temping for, and my parents also announced, once and for all, that they were getting a divorce, once and for all. They had made similar announcements before only to reconcile, but this time was the real deal, ironically right as the relationship that would become my marriage was starting up.

The divorce was made more awkward by the fact that my dad had a heart attack in June of 1999, and my mom was the only person who could really help him in rehab. Whatever good that possibly may have been done was completely unraveled by the hard feelings and sharp words exchanged in the mediation proceedings. I took Megan up to Alaska at Christmas to introduce her to everybody (we were already looking at rings by that point), and the first of exactly two times she ever saw them in the same room together, the second being our wedding, was when my dad came by my mom’s house to claim a snowblower. We’ll just say that’s not a pleasant memory.

I also started to get busy as a singer starting in the fall of 1999. I put together a recital over the summer that was intended to be the junior recital I never actually got to do at Western, and that emboldened me to start auditioning for things. In the Seattle area, there’s a fair amount for a young tenor to do if he’s willing to work for nothing (or next to), and I started getting some of those gigs. Gilbert and Sullivan kind of became a niche of mine, falling in with a group called Bellevue Opera and doing three shows for them as the tenor lead — The MikadoH. M. S. Pinafore, and The Gondoliers. I also got to do Tony in West Side Story, I did a very ill-advised Almaviva in Il barbiere di Siviglia (a job that I got without being heard first, and in retrospect, I think everybody, including me, would have liked there to have been an audition, because I learned the hard way with that show that my voice doesn’t do Rossini), I had a bizarre experience as a backup singer for a Sarah Brightman concert, I got a very small handful of oratorio gigs (those were pretty hard to come by, truthfully, if you weren’t already one of the 2-3 singers in each voice type that most conductors in the area used), some opera previews, some operetta with Seattle musical institution Hans Wolf, eventually I got a regular slot with the Seattle Opera chorus, a demo recording of an opera about the 2000 presidential election titled Al and George, I did little church gigs here and there while also singing regularly in the St. Margaret’s choir, I still did things with the Tudor Choir, and I also did four summers with the Seattle Gilbert and Sullivan Society. It was a heady, busy time, and it was a group of experiences that seemed to point to something bigger. There were a lot of teachers and coaches who helped get me through all of this; besides Dennis Kruse, I had two teachers who were invaluable, Roberta Manion and Erich Parce, and then Glenda Williams, Beth Kirchhoff, and Dean Williamson gave me a lot of extremely helpful advice as coaches.

The best advice that I got, however, was from Ellen McLain (yes, that Ellen McLain), who ran the Seattle Opera Guild previews. I auditioned for her and she flatly said, “Absolutely not. Could you sing these previews? Yes, and you’d be fine. But you have not yet even come close to finishing your training as a singer, you need to go back to school and finish at least your Bachelors, there isn’t a halfway decent school of music in the country that wouldn’t give you a full ride with what you’ve got to offer, and I am not going to hire you and contribute to any perception you may have of yourself as anything close to a finished product.” Well, it was certainly good advice (and in some ways, I feel like she was honest with me in a way that some others weren’t), and I started thinking about what my next move was going to be. I had always figured that I would spend 5 years working before contemplating my next move, which meant that 2003 was what I was looking at as when I would move on to the next chapter.

On 24 February 2001, Megan and I got married. It was one of the very best days of my life, and is a story unto itself that I’ll tell another time. We honeymooned in Victoria, B. C., which was an absolutely lovely trip; we stayed a week at Abigail’s Hotel, which I’d recommend wholeheartedly, and I hope to get to go back someday.

Meeting the wonderful Joey Evans when he sang Captain Vere in Seattle Opera’s production of Billy Budd, I decided to pay a visit to University of Houston to see if it might be a viable option as a place to finish the B. Mus. The school was lovely, and Joey would have been a great help to me I’m sure, but the thing was, I arrived in Houston on Monday, 10 September 2001. I’m sure you can imagine that was not a great week to be trying to get an impression of a school, and I just didn’t love Houston enough otherwise to want to go there. Big, flat, and hot are not exactly my thing.

Fall of 2002, I started applying for Young Artist Programs. At the advice of Dean Williamson, I applied for Houston Grand Opera, Seattle Opera, and a third I can’t recall. The third didn’t even give me an audition (probably why I don’t remember which one it was); I made the huge mistake of thinking that Houston’s audition, being held in San Francisco, could be done as a day trip (SINGERS! DO NOT PUT YOURSELF IN POSITIONS WHERE YOU HAVE TO SING RIGHT AFTER GETTING OFF A PLANE! BAD IDEA!), so it was an audition that sucked to say the least, and then Seattle was looking for tenors who could sing Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte, and “Un’aura amorosa” was just never an aria I sang if I didn’t have to, so that audition also sucked.

The truth is, I just wasn’t ever all that good. I could be heard past the front row, I sang on pitch, but I wasn’t very musical, and I had neither fabulous high notes nor amazing flexibility nor incredible expressive ability nor anything else going for me. I was tall, I wasn’t the size of a house (then), I could learn repertoire fairly quickly, I seemed reasonably comfortable onstage, and I could be funny when I needed to be. At 25, I was pretty good for a 22 year old, and that was sort of the extent of it. I wasn’t a freak of nature, I wasn’t a Wunderkind, I wasn’t a “natural voice” (whatever that means), I was just somebody who had to work hard at it for it to be any good, and who enjoyed working hard at it, but “has to work hard at it” is very much not necessarily the same thing as “born performer”; “making it look easy” is the qualifier there, and I was never really able to do that.

Still, I won an Encouragement Award at the district Met auditions that fall, and I took that as, well, encouragement. I needed to move on to something else (I was getting to a point where I needed to commit to either my day job or to whatever I was going to do with singing). I found out that a singer friend of mine whom I had thought had been a shoo-in for Seattle’s Young Artist Program had also not gotten in and was instead going to go to Indiana University; well, I thought, if he can do it, then I can do it. I quickly made arrangements to visit IU during the first audition weekend, and I took a lesson with a teacher who was willing to back my (late) application and get me a special audition slot. I flew back to Indiana in the middle of March to do the audition, I got in, and after some favorable negotiating over scholarships (Ellen McLain wasn’t entirely accurate in her assessment, I’ll say, but close enough), I told my managers at the software company that I would be leaving at the end of July (and we’ll just say that what had been an optimistic appraisal in 1999 of what my new-hire stock option package might be worth by 2003 was optimistic indeed, to be maximally kind — thank God nobody ever tried to convince me to borrow money against it; more on that professional experience as a whole here). My Washington state chapter was coming to a close after twenty-three years.

Okay. More to come.

The foreword for Ta Prosomoia

As promised, here is my draft translation of the foreword for George Chatzichronoglou’s book Ta Prosomoia. I have tried to make it readable while keeping Chatzichronoglou’s word order and syntax as much as possible; I have occasionally paraphrased to solve “English problems”, as my first Greek teacher liked to put it. Occasional notes are in parentheses; feedback and questions are more than welcome.


Acknowledging that you don’t “bring coals to Newcastle” (Greek: “κομίζω γλαύκας εἰς Ἀθήνας”, lit. “bring owls to Athens”), I am undertaking the edition of the present book, with an eye towards helping my brother cantors in the important and pious task which they perform, and to bring love and instruction to those who are today’s students and tomorrow’s brother cantors, and finally to contribute to the good order of the worshipping life of our Church.

The necessity of the existence of a comprehensive edition which will include all of the original melodies and model hymns in brief and slow irmologic versions and also include most of them recorded on a compact disc, is great. There are equivalent editions. However, I want to believe that in the present edition, recording all of the familiar model hymns, while adding on the one hand the common apolytikia of the Saints and the slow festal apolytikia, and on the other hand the compact disc, we come closer to the desire and the need.

The model hymns and the Anastasimatarion (the chant book containing the weekend resurrectional hymnody for all eight modes) constitute the original and prerequisite knowledge for the cantor to endure with dignity in his many duties.

With the term “prosomoia” we mean that hymn which is chanted precisely with the music of some other model hymn (that is, it copies it (προσομοιάζει σ’αὐτόν), so to speak) which we call a “Πρόλογος” (model hymn), since it is said for (προλέγεται) the prosomoion. In other words, above the text of the prosomoion there is an ascription: Mode I (ἦχος Α) “O all-lauded martyrs” (“Πανεύφημοι μάρτυρες”). We chant thus the prosomoion that follows according to the melody of “O all-lauded martyrs”. The music of the model hymns belongs to them exclusively; for this they are named, in addition to Πρόλογοι, also “Αὐτόμελα” (roughly, “the very melody”, “the famous melody”, “THAT melody”, “its own melody”, “the original melody”, etc.). There are a lot of original melodies and they are classified as “Ἰδιόμελα” (“unique melodies”). The original melodies, the automela, are a distinct category of unique melodies which “loan” their music to other hymns (prosomoia) while the unique melodies, the idiomela, we would say, keep their music for their own use.

Our age, the Information Age, the age of superficiality, the age of short-term thinking, the age of terrible haste, in which the ring of words has been lost, did not leave even our music unaffected. There are endless reasons for musical performances, for research efforts, for musicological opinions and such other important things, but at the same time there is a shortage of effective cantors. There is consideration for music as a noble craft but not as the noble craft of music. Our acoustic aesthetic has been disturbed by “crooners” (? φάλτσα) who are clothed in the legitimacy of science and by arbitrary personal musical interpretations, which lead outside of ecclesiastical boundaries. We are bombed by hymns of Holy Week, which singers (as opposed to cantors) and actors chant on TV, with the style of the “street” and the morals of the gang and we look at all of these things, helpless to respond and to express the view of the competent cantor, because all of the doors are closed. Thus “we pick at our scab” , as our wise people say, smugly self-identified as “traditional people”, as if somebody asked us that, as if they dοn’t hear what we’re saying, as if that’s what was asked. However, outside of titles and boasts, errors and omissions, our goal is and remains one. The service of the cantor, as conscious practice, towards the believer who steps over the threshold of the Church and enters into the midst of it in order for his soul to find peace with the fear of God. I am trying to “put in order” musically this fear of God and the service to the fullness of the Church, with this book, which whereby does the following:

1) Address the so-called “practical” cantors, who are the pillars of the services of Orthodox worship, embattled in all of the remote areas of the Greek countryside and in the whole Greek community. Helpless, without support, forgotten by all of us, we who haggle between ourselves for a treasure which is not rightly our and which we ought properly to serve with respect. The scope and objective of musical study is the “high and mighty” work of the cantor who appears at the analogion (cantor’s music book stand), with knowledge and faith as support.

My sympathy and my brotherly love is given for these cantors; it is a well-worn theme in my radio broadcasts for the Church of Greece. The moment has come, then, that I should do something for them.

2) Involve the teachers and the students of Byzantine music. On the hand, to the teachers [this book] is offered as a helpful tool, to the students on the other hand as a breath between boring paralaggi (Byzantine solfegge) exercises. These breaths, however, are so necessary for them to continue their lessons with new energy, as necessary as it is for the swimmer to lift his head out of the water and to breathe.

The interposed teaching of the model hymns for the duration of many years of lessons relieves and frees the student, offering at the same time useful knowledge of Byzantine music.

3) Address the proficient brother cantors who, chiefly in the slow versions of model melodies, are finding a way to brighten the sacred feasts of their parishes and to give something different and majestic. I did not put the slow versions of the model melodies on the CD, because if and when somebody wants to use them, he should substitute the hymn of the prosomoion of the feast in the already recorded melodic line of the model hymn. (Editor’s note: I don’t completely understand what he means here. The Greek text here is πρέπει νά ἀνακαταστήσει τήν ὑμνολογία τοῦ προσομοίου τῆς πανηγύρεως, στην ἤδη καταγεγραμμένη μελωδική γραμμή τοῦ Προλόγου. If somebody can clarify, that would be most appreciated.)

And finally:

4) I think that this book is useful for priests, who, apart from the spiritual task they perform in their parishes, they also have the obligation to chant correctly. For the most part, I am referring to kontakia and apolytikia, but also all of the prosomoia which are included, mainly in the Menaion. Let us not forget that enough cantors start their training in Byzantine music prompted by the priest. Therefore, as the first teachers, apart from the customary practice of the Church, which they know best, they should be the living example even in the study of prosomoia and of Byzantine music in general.

The novelty in this book is the recording of a sufficient number of apolytikia in slow irmologic melodic style. There are enough of them scattered about in older editions, but mainly they are personal compositions appropriate for sacred feasts.

Holding the conviction that with this book, which is my first, I am helping the cantors and the Church, I ask your indulgence for any errors and omissions, and I pray that the Triune God give us strength to continue to struggle for the best.

Athens, 22 August 2010

George Epam. Chatzichronoglou

Archon Ymnodos (“Chief Singer”) of the Great Church of Christ

Book review: Ta Prosomoia by Georgios Chatzichronoglou

One of the things that is at once intended to make Byzantine chant easier for the cantor and yet paradoxically also makes it seem impossibly difficult for the student in an Anglophone context is the use of model hymns for much of the hymnody. There are multiple factors that make it complex; in a Greek context, you see the incipit of the model melody and the mode, you look it up in the Prosomoia section of the Irmologion if you don’t know it (or in the otherwise appropriate section of the Irmologion based on liturgical function), and that’s that. And while yes, there are over 100 model melodies, from a practical perspective there are about 10 that you can get by for a good while starting out with.

However, if you can’t read Greek, then you have to rely on English incipits, and you probably have to know three or four possible incipits because we don’t have a standard English text (and some incipits may refer to hymns that a particular jurisdiction’s “greatest hits” liturgical book might not include). Then there’s the matter of metrical translations, which some translators don’t bother with (Nassar, Lash, etc.), making the use of model melodies basically impossible, and which some translators do (Holy Transfiguration Monastery in most instances, Fr. Seraphim Dedes). Still, even if, say, you’re going with all HTM texts all the time, what about the melodies themselves? HTM has a model melody book, but it’s all staff notation, so you’re getting one person’s interpretation of the melody, and some of what they include is a little idiosyncratic. Fr. Seraphim Dedes also has a model melody book that is theoretically available in both staff and Byzantine notation, where there is a traditional melody and a “popular” variation (as with, for example, the melody for the Kontakion of the Nativity of Christ) he includes both, and he’s even done the very nice thing of indexing his incipits to Holy Transfiguration’s, so that’s probably the best option in English, at least at this stage of the game.

Τὰ Προσόμοια: Πρόλογοι-Αὐτόμελα σε ἀργὸ και σύντομο εἱρμολογικό μέλος (Athens, 2010) “Prosomoia: Model Hymns and Original Melodies in Slow and Brief Irmologic Versions” by Archon Protopsaltis Georgios Chatzichronoglou is a single volume, Greek-language reference to all the model melodies (in both “brief” and “slow” versions where such exist), and the Greek Orthodox Archdiocesan School of Byzantine Music has just recently started distributing it in the United States. It simplifies the process only somewhat for the learner in an Anglophone context — a traditional Irmologion is a little difficult to find here, although you can find pdfs if you know where to look and whom to ask. Also, this arranges all the melodies in a format similar to Dedes’ with a nice index of incipits, and there’s a lovely CD of Chatzichronoglou demonstrating 69 of the melodies. Obviously this is going to be a difficult reference to navigate for somebody with no facility with Greek, but it could well be a good reference for a teacher who does have some Greek and who can help the student understand what they’re seeing.

I will say that one of the virtues of this book, besides its organization, is a very clean, readable presentation; with some of the classical books the plates are clearly a bit worse for wear, so it’s nice to see Byzantine music publishers taking advantage of digital typesetting. At the same time, what this reveals is that Chatzichronoglou has taken an analytic approach in presenting these melodies, writing out certain standard ornamental choices instead of reproducing the melody as it is written out in the classical books and leaving it to the teacher to tell the student what ornaments are traditional. Lest anybody see this as an arcane matter only impacting practitioners of Byzantine chant in Greece, there is a similar issue when it comes to publishing standard works in the Western classical repertoire such as Handel’s Messiah; one can buy scores where none of the performance tradition is written out and it is up to the performer to mark in what they’re choosing to do (or what the conductor directs them to do), and one can buy scores where a certain strain of ornamental tradition is written in. For example, here’s the last page of the opening recitative, “Comfort ye my people”, in the Kaplan edition, a fairly standard practical score:


As somebody who has sung this probably hundreds of times in my former mode of existence, I can tell you that while that’s what’s on the page, just about nobody sings it that way. Your teacher or your coach or your conductor will have suggestions for what to do with it.

By contrast, this is the same page from the Carus-Verlag score, and you’ll see at the bottom possibilities of how to ornament certain parts.


Those possibilities represent but one performance tradition; there are others, and your teacher, coach, or conductor will have their own ideas about what you should do. The point is, these sorts of variants in printed scores represent a point of similarity with Western music, not a point of departure from.

To show how this works in the Chatzichronoglou book, here is one of the most frequently-used model melodies, “ὡς γενναῖον ἐν μάρτυσιν”, itself the first troparion at “O Lord, I have cried” for the Feast of St. George (23 April), and commonly used as the model melody for troparia at “O Lord, I have cried” as well as at Lauds for martyrs. This is how it appears in the Irmologion of Ioannis Protopsaltis, one of the standard classical books:

os gennaion

And then this is how it appears in Chatzichronoglou:


Much of what’s different consists of editorial choices that are aids to the singer; bar lines have been written in, isokratima has been added (although your protospaltis may well want you to do something else than what is written here), and breaths have been written in, in some cases rewriting signs that are held for two beats in the Irmologion to one beat plus a breath, in other cases adding a catch breath in time. All of these things are very similar to editorial choices that might be made in a Western choral score or hymnal (although I have had music directors at times say that such editorial decisions should be unnecessary for people who are actually good musicians).

At the same time, Chatzichronoglou has made choices in how he’s written this out that are more akin to the ornaments at the bottom of the page in the Carus-Verlag Messiah score above. One of the more obvious places where he does this is καὶ ἐδέξω ἐκ Θεοῦ, τὸν τῆς νίκης σου στέφανον, ὃν ἱκέτευε (third line picking up into the fourth line in the Irmologion score, fourth line into the beginning of the fifth line in Chatzichronoglou). I realize not everybody here is going to be able to read psaltic notation, so here’s a quick and dirty transcription of the first version:

kai edexw irmologion_0001

Which, as with Handel, probably isn’t how anybody would sing it, depending on one’s context; your teacher and your protopsaltis will tell you how they learned it.

Here’s how Chatzichronoglou analyzes it, more or less:

kai edexw chatzichronoglou_0001

Which is closer to how it usually gets sung, particularly at “ὃν ἱκέτευε”. One can see that the second one is an ornamentation of the structure of the first; it just comes down to a question of how you write it down, and that comes down to questions of pedagogy and tradition. Classical scores (in Western music as well, as we saw) tend to rely on the performance tradition being passed on by a teacher, whereas some modern editors are including (some might argue imposing) a layer of performance tradition in their scores. Your mileage may vary, but it’s important to be aware of the difference, to know which approach a given score is taking and what’s informing it. I should note that Chatzichronoglou gives a list of sources, for example, at the top of which is the Irmologion of Petros Peloponnesios, not that of Ioannis Protopsaltis, which doesn’t in fact make the list (but other books of Ioannis’ do). Petros’ Irmologion contains a version of this melody which is very different from Ioannis’, and which is also very different from what’s in Chatzichronoglou, reflecting a fairly wide variety of performance traditions where prosomoia are concerned (not entirely surprising for a practice that is largely an oral phenomenon — you’re not usually going to be looking at a score when you sing these). As with Western music, a teacher will help you navigate what kinds of choices to make where this is concerned.

Chatzichronoglou includes an introduction outlining his objectives for the volume that I will also translate, but as I’m already verging on 1500 words for the review, I’ll put that in a separate post.

An opera singer, a public intellectual, and a talk show host walk into a bar…

chiasmusI’m in between instances of getting drafts of my dissertation outline back with my advisor’s comments, plus Theodore is asleep, so I’m trying to get some blog posts done that I’ve had on my mind but haven’t had a chance to actually write.

In the last 2-3 weeks there have been a number of incidents in the popular media that impact, on one level or another, things that I care about. They make something of a nice, thematically-related grouping, centering around the question of semi-esoteric (or even elite) disciplines being understood by mainstream Western media. One case is related, broadly speaking, to one of my current active professional activities; another couple of cases are related to my former professional activities.

First off, there’s the matter of Reza Aslan’s FOX News interview. The first time I watched that, there were two things that didn’t sit right with me about how he presented himself. Of course Lauren Green was being an idiot; that goes without saying. Still, there was an initial eyebrow raise on my part when he claimed “fluency” in biblical Greek. “Fluency?” Really? I was under the impression that, by definition, we can’t claim “fluency” in dead languages. A nitpicky point, absolutely, but it was a moment where he rang false. Then, there was the thought — boy, he sure is making a big show of playing, and re-playing, and re-re-playing, the “I HAVE FOUR DEGREES” card and saying, essentially, “I’m kind of a big deal”. Then I wondered — wait, if this is a scholarly monograph as he seems to be suggesting it is, why the heck does FOX care? Out of curiosity, I looked up the book on Amazon, and saw the publisher — Random House. He’s trying to sell a book published by Random House as a work of serious scholarship? Huh? This doesn’t make any sense.

So then, recalling his very specific claim to be “a scholar of religions with four degrees, including one in the New Testament… my job [is] as an academic. I am a professor of religion, including the New Testament. That’s what I do for a living, actually”, I Googled him to find out just what his four degrees actually were and what classes he taught, and what did I find? That his PhD was in sociology, one of his four degrees is a MFA in Creative Writing, and in fact his academic post at UC Riverside is in the Creative Writing department.

To be absolutely clear, in terms of academic standing, I don’t care if Aslan’s Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, Shinto, atheist, or anything else, and neither should anybody else who has a clue about how scholarship works. Sidney Griffith is a Catholic scholar who has published on Islam; Steven Runciman was, I think, an atheist (correct me if I’m wrong — I’m going off of a statement from Met. Kallistos Ware that he was not part of any church whatsoever) who published extensively on Byzantine Christianity; and so on. It’s simply irrelevant what Aslan’s confessional leanings are; Ms. Green was way off the mark in making that the focal point of her interview.

Secondly, the issue is not the quality of the book itself. That also is basically a side issue.

The issue that I have with Aslan, who is without question somebody who can be labeled a “public intellectual”, might best be illustrated with a counterexample first. Bart Ehrman is another public intellectual, one who works in the Christian origins sphere and who publishes with trade presses and goes on The Daily Show and NPR and whatnot. Prof. Ehrman also has published peer-reviewed monographs, critical editions, and scholarly articles. So, yes, he takes all of the 3-syllable or more words out of monographs and repackages with a catchy title put out by mass-market publishers and makes a ton of money doing so, but he also has a demonstrable non-commercial scholarly record. His CV shows what qualifies him to do that. Think what you like about him, but he’s the real deal in terms of having done his homework, paid his dues, and then some.

Go to Aslan’s website and you see nothing of the kind. You see a string of popular books and articles; nothing, so far as I can tell, that’s peer-jockeyed or published with an academic press. In fact, according to Lisa Hajjar, a member of his dissertation committee, his dissertation was mostly an elaborated version of a trade press book he had already published. Now, to be clear, the point isn’t to suggest that Aslan “isn’t good enough” (whatever that means) to do what he says; the point is that what he says and what his CV and faculty page at UC Riverside say appear to be two different things.

I should clarify a couple of things. First, why is the sociology thing a big deal? Isn’t sociology of religion a legitimate subfield, thereby qualifying you to talk about yourself as a scholar of religion? Well, sure. But even then, you have to be clear on what you’re qualified to talk about. A friend of mine is the son-in-law of a very well-known sociologist of religion, but he knows what he is and is not trained to do. One of the big differences is language training; another friend of mine wanted to go into academia studying Christianity but was turned off by the language overhead; Greek, Latin, French, German, Italian, probably Syriac, maybe Coptic, etc. This well-known sociologist told him straight up: Do sociology. The language requirements are basically nonexistent. Aslan’s own PhD advisor said that the switch to sociology was made to eliminate some language requirements. This matters because, for the most part, reading a source in translation is a no-go for making serious arguments about it as a piece of evidence. That’s not to say there aren’t any exceptions, but Aslan claiming “fluency” in biblical Greek while also having changed departments to obviate language requirements is, at the very least, a major red flag.

It’s also entirely possible that what’s going on here is that Aslan is on a career track that isn’t really about academic scholarship, peer-reviewed articles, and the like — in fact, if he’s in a Creative Writing department, that’s probably the case. Not all academic jobs have the same tenure requirements, most certainly. For all I know, there’s a “public intellectual” career track where you’re supposed to be interviewed on a talk show a certain number of times per year, also have a Huffington Post column, and then you get to go up early for tenure if somebody picks a fight with you on FOX News. But, then, the issue is, you need to be clear about what authoritative claims you’re qualified to make.

Really, nothing here is a huge problem on its own. Claiming to be a historian is fine; that’s something reasonably broad. Pretty sure Herodotus didn’t have a PhD in History. Claiming to be a scholar of religion is fine; again, that’s a broad, interdisciplinary subject. Publishing with a trade press is fine (here I will note that one of the top five most influential books on me ever, Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, was a popularizing work published by Random House). Leaving the world of academic scholarship as he seems to have done is fine. The trouble is that then he makes the far more specific claim that his “job [is] as an academic. I am a professor of religion, including the New Testament. That’s what I do for a living, actually”, and the combination of all of these factors raises red flags (and again, picayune as this may be, as does saying he’s “fluent” in biblical Greek; it’s the use of a term of competency that, as he should know if he actually does have expertise in it, is not applicable to the subject named, just like it would be a bit eyebrow-raising for me to say I got a perfect 10 on my GPA. He is perhaps eliding the matter for FOX News, but it still clanks with his claim of academic authority). So, maybe he doesn’t have the CV of an academic scholar because he isn’t an academic scholar anymore, but he asserts the authority of an academic scholar in answering Ms. Green’s (admittedly stupid) questions? Is that not, at the very least, trying to have it both ways? What I’m happy to grant is that the situation was ridiculous and should have never happened at all, but if your response to questions — yes, even stupid ones from a FOX News interviewer — is going to be an arrogant trotting out of titles and credentials, make sure everything lines up, because if it doesn’t, people will notice and it will not reflect well on you. If he had left it at a vague statement of “I wrote the book because I have an academic and professional interest” rather than going for the soundbite of the list of degrees, I wouldn’t have given it a second thought.

Further, I’d say that these things matter because it matters how you represent yourself to the public (see also the flap over Dr. Laura Schlesinger’s doctorate), it matters under what circumstances you trot out your credentials and titles to claim authority (even — maybe even especially — when stupid people are arguing with you), it matters that those things look like what you say they are when people go and check. It matters because the “I HAVE A DEGREE!” card makes you look like a real dick, particularly when you play it as early as he did and particularly to the anti-intellectual audience he knew full well he had. To me, it more and more comes across simply as peacocking for the NYT Book Review crowd he knew would be Tweeting the video clip within hours.

And if I seem to care a disproportionate amount about this — well, yeah, I do, and it’s because I’m a first-generation college graduate with close family members who think the sun rises and sets on FOX News. I already spend time trying to convince family members that academics aren’t mostly self-important, arrogant, d-bag jackasses who trot out their degrees principally for purposes of self-puffery, and it doesn’t help my case when something like this happens. From where I sit, Aslan’s behavior is bad for everybody.

But, it all comes down to what one actually means by calling Aslan an “academic” or a “scholar”. This may be not entirely unlike the problem with people like Andrea Boccelli or Jackie Evancho being called “opera singers” — that is, if you mean somebody who actually sings roles in operatic productions staged by opera houses, they’re most certainly not. But, if you just mean somebody who appears on PBS specials or Oprah and sings with heavy vibrato a repertoire that tends to be accompanied by an orchestra track, well, then maybe you can call them that. If by an “academic” or “scholar” you mean somebody who does academic, scholarly research, then it’s really unclear whether or not Aslan fits that bill, at least to me, looking at his CV. But, if you just mean somebody who is, to use this term again, basically a public intellectual of sorts, well, okay.

Which brings me to the next incident in question, Thomas Hampson’s interview with the BBC’s Sarah Montague on HARDtalk on the question whether or not opera is an elite art form that basically needs to be allowed to die off. Sarah Montague is grating and aggressive in this interview in ways she clearly doesn’t have the chops to pull off, but Thomas Hampson — by remarkable contrast to Aslan — keeps his cool, and maintains grace and humility while still answering the questions with genuine, unassuming authority. He never pulls out the “I AM AN EXPERT!” card, and as a result, everything he has to say can simply speak for itself.

But then we’ve got something that kind of muddies the waters, and that’s the case of Sean Panikkar, a legitimate operatic tenor in his own right who happens to be very good (I saw him as Lensky in Eugene Onegin at Opera Theatre of St. Louis three years ago, and he was great), appearing as a member of “poperatic” men’s trio “Forte” (doesn’t get any more on the nose than that, ladies and gentleman) on America’s Got Talent. Our godchildren Matt and Erin had gotten to know him in 2010 a bit while singing in the OTSL chorus, and they had mentioned that he was not, as a husband, father, and Christian, entirely enamored with the life of an opera singer (which this seems to bear out a bit), which I can completely understand. But still — putting himself in a situation where Howard Stern is evaluating him? Really?

There’s also this from the Saline Reporter piece —

…[Panikkar] and his agent decided it would be a good idea for him to join because it would help bring exposure to opera considering the show has between 10 and 12 million viewers.  The exposure could also dispel some of the myths surrounding opera, like it is boring or just for the elite, he said. “What I’ve found is when people give it a chance they love it,” he said.

Here’s my question — does that actually work? Now, somebody like Sean Panikkar (i.e., the real deal) doing it is maybe a different case, but at least what I’ve seen amongst people close to me (and yes, these are some of the same people mentioned above who are FOX devotees) is that they get enamored with figures like Josh Groban or Andrea Boccelli or Charlotte Church or whomever (I think I just showed my age with the figures I named — at least I didn’t say Mario Lanza), and maybe you get them to go to one legit opera (or oratorio, or something) performance, only to have them say, “Yeah, I was disappointed because it wasn’t what I was expecting,” and they never go again.

A friend of mine who is herself on her way to being Very, Very Famous Indeed (seriously), and who I think knows Sean, said that part of what’s going on here is the opera world realizing they need to engage the popular TV audience more — that back in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, big opera stars appeared on the most popular television shows all the time, and people knew who they were — Beverly Sills showing up on Johnny Carson, for example. That’s certainly true; my dad, no opera fan he, says that everybody knew who Beverly Sills was in the ’60s and ’70s. The question with that, though, is this — was opera more mainstream because people like Carson had people like Beverly Sills on, or did he have people like Beverly Sills on because opera was more mainstream? Mario Lanza’s film The Great Caruso was one of the biggest movies of the year in 1951; while Lanza had considerable star power in his own right, the subject had to hold at least some built-in commercial appeal. Would it even be comprehensible today for somebody to propose, say, making a movie called The Great Pavarotti with somebody of any significant command of the box office?

I’d like to be wrong. I’ve just never seen somebody learn to like opera from this kind of thing; quite the opposite. What I’ve seen is that you probably aren’t going care about opera qua opera without somebody being up front with you about what it is as well as what it isn’t.

So, perhaps, a guy with a real operatic career doing something like this means that something different is being brought to the table. If so, great; I’ll be curious to see what that actually looks like. I still don’t like Howard Stern’s opinion of him actually mattering.

To close off what seems to have become a chiasmus, there’s Timothy Michael Law, a legit, Oxford-trained scholar of Jewish studies, whose book When God Spoke Greek: The Septuagint and the Making of the Christian Bible is, it sounds like, an introductory scholarly work (not necessarily a popularizing work) published by an academic press, dealing with a concrete historical issue of Christian origins. Naturally, FOX doesn’t seem to have the slightest interest in him, and First Things seems to be the highest-profile coverage he’s getting, but he comes across basically the same way Thomas Hampson does — i.e., like he actually knows what he’s talking about and doesn’t have to show off to anybody to prove it. There’s a lesson here; I’m not sure exactly what it is.

Not believing in “big ideas” or, why we can’t have nice things

I have absolutely no idea if the Hyperloop is even close to feasible. I’m not an engineer, and I know bupkis about such things. I do tend to be somebody who prefers transit to cars; I love the convenience of trains when I’m in Europe, I wish it more replicable here than we seem to be willing to make it, I hate living in a part of the country that’s difficult to get in and out of without a car, and I hate the sheer waste of hours that travel becomes when one is behind the wheel. I had to go to Memphis a couple of years ago, it was an absolutely ridiculous drive that took about nine hours each way that I just plain didn’t have to give it, but there was no other way to get there. A regional flight, counterintuitively, was going to cost more than the fare for flying to either coast. That was nine hours each way that could have been spent correcting, reading, sleeping, whatever. So, yeah, big ideas surrounding transit tend to be appealing to me.

This piece on CNET regarding reactions in some circles to the Hyperloop really resonated, I have to say:

I’m thrilled because this is a conversation about solving big issues with big ideas and not with cautious, incremental, compromised, and cynical status quo concepts. This is unfamiliar, it’s exciting, it’s futuristic, it’s unquestionably beneficial, and there is no technological reason that it can’t work. Why tear it down? Just build it… It’s tempting to blame “Internet culture” for the creeping negativity and cynicism that stops us from ever imagining more, but I believe that the chorus of “no’s” from Twitter and the comments section only amplifies a depressing point of view that’s infected America since the 1970s. We’re afraid. We hate science. We have no heroes. We don’t believe that we are capable of more.

I’ve seen precisely the attitude this author complains about firsthand with respect to issues of transit; I’m from Seattle, after all, where they want nice things but don’t want to pay for them or have poor people riding on them. I’ve also seen this attitude in other arenas, and I think what the culprit is in a lot of cases is that the status quo is at a point where most people who would bother to say anything that would be heard feel like they have things sufficiently their way to not care, and they don’t want to hear how it could be “better”. “Better” is not going to be better for them, not when in order for it to be better they’d have to make an adjustment away from their current comfort zone. What’s the point of a public transit system like this when there are so many reasons to just not bother fixing what ain’t broke? Never mind that there are ways where it is broke, or will be; the cure is going to be worse than the disease and not worth it. We’ll adjust in other ways.

A Facebook commenter noted the following:

I love what I’ve seen of this… but I can see it getting gutted by the petty nitpicking that always chips away at big projects like this. Somebody doesn’t want construction in their neighborhood. Somebody else doesn’t want the view from their lanai to be affected. Somebody else complains loudly about the types of people (“I’m not racist, but…”) who will be riding. And before you know it, a bold, forward-thinking mass transit project becomes another cutback in bus services.

Geez, I just depressed myself.

Yeah, no kidding. “…a bold, forward-thinking mass transit project becomes another cutback in bus services.” Ouch. Ouch because it’s true.

all saints concept ag 15 jan large for webOne of the most frustrating personal experiences I’ve had with this kind of “nothing to see here, move along” attitude towards big ideas is with church building, and I’m not going to bother being disingenuously circumspect here, since one can very easily find out where I went to church through last December and find some of the things I wrote about my participation on the building committee, and the broad strokes are all public record anyway via the minutes of parish council and building committee meetings. I posted this about a year and a half ago, and I have to imagine that, reading between the lines, some of the sources of tension are clear. I’ll note that I said back in March of 2012 that I hoped I would have something concrete to talk about in “the coming weeks”; well, there never was anything to say.

We brought Andrew Gould, as I wrote about at the time (giving a fairly frank summary of efforts up to that point), to All Saints in January 2010, and he very much talked the language of big ideas. Right now you’re a mission church without a church, and you’ve got to build something that actually serves your function as a mission church. This is what’s in the tradition to build, this is what I would design for your property, these are the considerations you need to put above all others. You need to build a beautiful church that is first and foremost for the worship of God; there’s a right way we worship, which means there’s a right way we build.

I again refer you to my “Notes from the building committee” piece so that you may read between the lines for some of the controversy that emerged from Andrew’s proposal, but I’ll go into some detail about one part of the problem. The thing of it is, when people decide they don’t want to hear a big idea, one of the tactics is to glom onto details they don’t like, inflate their importance, and make them undetachable from the whole so that the entire idea can be very efficiently shot down. In the case of Andrew’s concept, his detractors immediately focused on a particular element that was his way of handling a problem we had asked him to spitball a solution for in the first place. The existing building was separated from the proposed location of the permanent church by something of a ravine; how do we connect the two locations so that the existing building isn’t just abandoned? Andrew’s solution was a bridge, inspired by the Indiana tradition of covered bridges. Part of his vision, too, was to make All Saints’ property something of a destination, turning the remote location into something of an advantage. Well, for a segment of the congregation who didn’t want to build in the first place and who saw the remote nature of our location as a feature and not a bug, the bridge became an easy blunt instrument to swing around as a dealbreaker. “Well, wouldn’t that be dangerous? Would you really want your kids going across that? What kind of money are we going to spend on a bridge when what we claim we need is a building, and I’m not convinced we really need that to begin with?” ad nauseam. When it became clear that Andrew’s big ideas had become points of digging in against building altogether, there wasn’t much of a choice but to quietly drop his concept entirely and try to find another way to move forward. A compromise architect was found who seemed interested in the project and who brought some good things to the table, but after an initial positive meeting in July 2011, other factors kept a contract from being delivered until August 2012. There was some hope from the building committee chair that we could sign the contract quickly and have drawings by Christmas, but politics prevailed again; the building committee didn’t even meet to discuss this contract until October 2012, some parties wanted significant revisions to the contract that would have to be negotiated, and to the best of my knowledge there has been no additional movement forward with the project in the ten months since, at least not as of the end of July.

Meanwhile, the stopgap measure to create more space in our temporary nave was to leave the collapsible wall between the nave and the fellowship space open permanently, with a curtain installed on a track that could be moved around to subdivide the space as necessary. As a friend of mine put it, the net effect was to make All Saints feel even more like just a big living room that happened to have an iconostasis at the front.

Effectively, a bold, forward-thinking church building project became a curtain.

And, not unlike the people who say that only poor people and people who already ride the bus are going to bother riding mass transit, making it a solution looking for a problem, one of the things that was common to hear in response to arguments for building was that most of our “extra” people were “just college students”, and eventually the people we can’t fit will leave — problem solved.

Big ideas, it seems to me, are easy to argue about when they make the wrong people uncomfortable, or when they’re trying to solve a problem that the people who matter don’t care about, while conversely the people who do care about it don’t matter. Maybe it also keeps unnecessary change from happening too fast, so maybe this is something to be thankful for, but I will say that sometimes I have a hard time believing that we were actually able to go to the moon.

Thoughts from an intensive Arabic classroom

I’ve logged a lot of hours in various language classrooms over the last twelve years. Since 2001, I’ve had classroom instruction in German, French, Italian, Ancient Greek, Latin, Syriac, and Modern Greek; this summer, from the end of May to the end of July, I was in an intensive Arabic program, covering all of the first year in nine weeks. It was an awful lot to manage; four hours of class a day, two hours of language table a week, and then a movie a week, with other things peppered in here and there — and, oh yeah, two tests per week plus 2-3 (if not 3-4) hours of homework per day. At the end of program, even as intense as it been, I was at once marveling at how far it felt like we’d come since “Hi guys, my name is Richard” (مرحبا يا شباب، إسمي رشيارد) on the first day and yet realizing really how little we’ve done in the grand scheme of things of language learning.

A summer intensive course, as I also found with the Modern Greek classes I did in Athens, is a very different beast than an academic year course. Since it’s the summer, people are there for disparate reasons that maybe have nothing to do with academia, or even necessarily with wanting the experience of having a concentrated exposure to the language so that they can be able to speak it and write it. That might be there; it might not. At the Athens Centre, there were Greek-American heritage learners who had time to kill, there were people with touristy motivations, there was a guy who had married a Greek woman and wanted to be better able to raise his kids speaking Greek, and then there was a diplomat who needed to speak Greek for his job. Tourism, love, and heritage seemed to be the basic reasons the people I was in class with had for doing an intensive Greek summer course.

For Arabic, people still seem to have a wide variety of reasons that aren’t necessarily scholarly or linguaphilic, but tourism, love, and heritage weren’t really represented in my class much. The “18 types of people in your Arabic class” list is pretty accurate (even if, as a friend of mine pointed out, “nerdy Orthodox convert” isn’t on there), although there are only 10 people in my class. We didn’t have any Muslim converts, but we certainly have several of the other types.

That in and of itself makes summer intensive Arabic a unique experience, but the whole setup of spending around 40 hours a week for over two months being introduced to a language outside of your own language family also makes it its own thing. Starting out with a new language is already kind of like going on a first date; it’s awkward, it’s uncomfortable, you don’t know exactly what to say, and you don’t know how to say everything you think you want or need to say, but if you keep doing it you’ll get to a point where you can communicate more comfortably and naturally within a few weeks. The trick, especially in a smallish intensive course, is that the students have to embrace the awkwardness as a group, dive in, trust that everything is going to be okay, and realize that everybody’s in the same boat, especially in an introductory course.

Sometimes a contrary phenomenon can happen, however, and instead the students let anxiety dominate them early on, which results in the class atomizing into smaller groups that don’t overlap much, and really the groups are there for the purpose of resisting, rather than facilitating, language learning. This can give way eventually to something that’s always bizarre to me when I see it, and that’s a student getting angry at a language for not following what they’ve decided is how it “should” function. “I’m confused, because I would have thought that the words for ‘smile’ and ‘laugh’ would be related, and I don’t understand why they aren’t,” is an example that I’ve actually heard of this. The students ultimately spend an amount of time trying to negotiate with and complain to the teacher about what’s going to be on the exam that would have been better used absorbing the language. The opposite problem can also occur, which is that the student confuses being passive with being open to the language, so that effectively they absorb next to nothing — what my wife, seasoned language teacher that she is, describes as “rocks in a stream”. On the one hand, this person isn’t freaking out about the ways the language is different from their native tongue; on the other hand, they think that the effort they’re not putting into it represents effective study habits.

All of that said, it takes a lot of guts to take an intensive language course for a language outside of one’s own language family (especially if one has never learned a foreign language before, as was the case for some in our class), and I’m really glad I had the chance to take the course with the cohort and the teacher I did. It was an interesting group, and our instructor, Basem, a native speaker from Jordan, was absolutely terrific. I did find that Syriac was helpful in terms of at least preparing me for some of the linguistic concepts (as well as not being intimidated by the script); it wasn’t quite like going from Ancient Greek to Modern Greek, but it was sort of along those lines. I don’t know that I’ll get to do any more formal classroom Arabic (I’ve got to spend this year making as much headway on the dissertation as I can), but I’m going to keep it up as much as possible (along with Greek, now that I actually have people willing to speak some Greek with me), and also take advantage of such opportunities as I can to chant in Arabic. I have a set of the chant books by Mitri El Murr, and I’m working through them, albeit a bit slowly, as I’m able.

Anyway — شكرا جدا to SWSEEL and Basem for the language instruction, as well as to the Center for the Study of the Middle East for the FLAS!

Thoughts on Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane

Blogging is quite obviously not the humongous priority for me it once could be. I’ve got my dissertation, I have a 13-month old, I’ve been in an intensive Arabic course this summer, I have a longer commute to church than I once did, and so on. It’s just hard to find the time. I have things that I’ve wanted to blog about for months, I have multi-part posts I need to finish, I have books I’ve been sent review copies of, I’ve got other responsibilities, and so on. The blog isn’t dead by any means, but it’s just harder than I’d like to make the time.

Sometimes, though, things rise to the surface and require dealing with. Such is the case with Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane. I’ve been a Neil Gaiman fan since 1997 when my friend Bjorn Townsend insisted I read the Sandman graphic novels, which ultimately I read aloud to Flesh of My Flesh starting about 11 years ago, and at the ending of which she cried, surprising herself at how moved she was by a “comic book”. Coraline we also read aloud, and of course American Gods, and some of his other children’s books and graphic novels were devoured. I was going to review The Graveyard Book when it came out but I never quite got around to it, and writing an essay on Make Good Art from the perspective of somebody who at least strives to be better than mediocre in the practice of an Orthodox liturgical craft is something I want to get to sooner than later.

Ocean I pre-ordered months ago, it arrived in June, and I’ve had to basically wait until Arabic was over to even think about reading it. Well, I started it two nights ago and finished it this morning — it really only took about two and a half hours to get through its 178 pages — and I wanted to get some thoughts up about it while they were still fresh. There are thematic spoilers here, I suppose, but I’m not going to talk about plot specifics beyond the general setup.

If you were to ask me what my worst memories of childhood are, there are a handful of things I might say. I might tell you about the memory I have, from when I was 3 or 4, of having my lip stitched up in the doctor’s office after… well, I’m still not exactly sure after what. I think my best friend at the time punched me in the face and knocked me down for some reason, and I have a very vague notion that it had to do with a toy crane truck, but all I really remember is crying while the needle was poking in and out of my bottom lip. Or I could say it was the time when I was eight, and there was this five or six hour stretch where my mom had left, she was going to separate from my dad, I didn’t know what was going to happen to me, and it was just my dad and I in our huge, brand-new, custom-built house, awkwardly not talking. But then my mom came home around midnight, and they patched things up, for awhile, anyway. Or, possibly, I could talk about the time when I was ten, during the time when we were trying to sell our big custom-built house (and it ultimately took us a year to do so, and then at a huge loss), when my parents caught me lighting pieces of paper and bits of thread on fire in the kitchen sink and all the stresses combined meant they absolutely lost it on me in their rage (the one time in my childhood I can honestly talk about having trouble sitting down for awhile, if you understand what I mean). The latest incident that might come to mind could be when I was 13 or so, and there was a sudden, explosive outburst from my dad, initially directed at me for reasons I didn’t at all understand, which then instantly turned into a confrontation between both of my parents that got so bad so fast that all I could do was run out of the house and keep going for two and a half miles through town to get to a friend’s house, the only safe place I could come up with at that particular moment.

Past that point chronologically, we get out of the “childhood memory” territory, where there are a lot of things going on around us we aren’t even aware of, or even if we are aware we don’t comprehend, and into a period where probably we usually understand things pretty well. Even 13 is a little old for that category, maybe, but that event was (and still is, all these years later) beyond my comprehension. Anyway, those are the main incidental things that come to mind; there are other systematic things I could talk about, like the way I was constantly shamed at home over my weight, or how it seemed like I was so often a target for bullies in elementary school, or this, or that. I should say that all of these things, while representing traumatic memories, are not the worst things I could say about my childhood by any means, nor are they intended to paint anybody as bad people; they’re simply what I remember of what happened.

So, here’s the thing — obviously the raw images that I remember don’t take into account things I didn’t or couldn’t know, but there is clearly a context that emerges, however skeletally, from some of the details (like the custom-built house that we’re newly in when I’m eight and then having to sell when I’m ten, or having a next-door neighbor best friend when I’m four but having to run two and a half miles away to get to a friend’s house when I’m 13), and then the way I recount those memories does in fact start to shade them with historical argument, like me contextualizing the playing with fire business by locating it in the year we had so much trouble selling our house and were all stressed out beyond belief. As an adult talking about those things, I can add details to justify, to explain, to excuse — but I wouldn’t have been sophisticated enough as a 10 year old to be able to do that. It’s an adult’s game to rationalize via historicity, and we don’t even know that we’re doing it sometimes because it’s just how you have to navigate the world and organize information as an adult, as I’ve written about before. Little kids, though, don’t — can’t — do that. They may well make sense of things by coming up with a story that explains them, and it may even be a story they decide they believe, but it’s not the same thing as what an adult does. An adult is trying to lie to himself with the truth; a little kid is trying to understand the true things he knows, filling in necessary gaps strictly as a matter of utility and without awareness that the gaps represent more than what he actually knows.

In The Ocean at the End of the Lane, we are given an account by a nameless first-person narrator, a not-entirely unknown device of Gaiman’s (Murder MysteriesViolent CasesMr. Punch), a narrator about whom we know very little except that he “makes art” for a living and who is having to go home as a middle-aged adult for a funeral. He does not tell us whose funeral, but it is hard to not connect it with Gaiman’s own blog posts about his father’s funeral from a few years ago. While visiting the location of his childhood home (now a block of flats), he stops in on a neighboring farmhouse that he vaguely remembers as the home of an old friend who moved away. The old friend’s… well, maybe she’s her mother, maybe her grandmother, but in any event, she welcomes him in. The visit brings back a flood of memories, which introduces us to the main thread of the narrative, about a series of events happening when he was seven years old.

That’s all I’ll really say about plot mechanics, but there’s plenty more I can say without having to spoil things. There seem to be a number of plot and thematic parallels to earlier Gaiman books like the aforementioned Coraline, Violent Cases, and Mr. Punch, but there is also a very strong Madeleine L’Engle vibe running through the book (there are characters who can’t but remind me of Mrs. Who, Whatsit, and Which, and the key image of the little boy and slightly older girl walking hand in hand through a menacing field kept making me think that a Cherubim was going to show up), and it is decidedly not a kid’s book in the way Coraline was marketed as (I chose my words carefully there), even though it’s told from the point of view of a child.

Although, even there, Gaiman tricks you a little bit, because it isn’t told from the point of view of a child. As with Violent Cases and Mr. Punch, it’s told from the point of view of an adult’s memories of childhood. But even there, is that exactly what’s going on? There are self-conscious present-day intrusions in the narrative, and then there are times when what he remembers himself saying as a child comes off as an adult dodgily trying to imagine what a child might say — Gaiman writes excellent children’s dialogue as a rule, so is this a choice he’s making deliberately, perhaps as a way of telling us that this isn’t “actually” what happened, but rather it’s how the narrator is trying to convince himself that something else didn’t happen? There’s a moment in the story that provides an internal mechanism for the alteration of a terrible memory — so is that maybe what’s going on throughout the whole book? That the whole narrative is just the protagonist’s cover story for the far more awful truth?

The way I’m inclined to read it is this. As I talked about, when we’re kids, terrible things can happen that we don’t understand. Maybe they’re just random occurrences, maybe they’re systematic problems. In any case, we rationalize them in ways that make sense to our little kid brains. I had somebody close to me once, for example, whose way of rationalizing a particular kind of abuse they had experienced was to reconceive of their identity so that they no longer thought of themselves as part of the human species.

And the thing is, adults will probably rationalize these same traumatic experiences, but they’ll do so in very different ways. They’ll justify, they’ll forget, they’ll historicize, and they’ll outright lie to themselves in order to rewrite history. As I said earlier, little kids aren’t really sophisticated enough to lie to themselves, but they can make up stories that they will themselves find convincing on some level.

But then, when we grow up, those stories don’t work, and the trauma still leaves wounds, so we either have to be honest with ourselves about what we experienced, or we have to find comfort in the “adult” forms of rationalizing. Both of these tactics might well require the adult self to remember the stories they told themselves as a child to explain what had happened, identify what really happened, and then make a choice about how to deal with it.

To me, this is isn’t a fantasy novel, although it could be taken as such. Ultimately — and this is where I guess I will mention certain other plot specifics — I take as the key “real world” events of the book the failed birthday party (bad for a seven year old boy), the death of the kitten (worse) and then the opal miner (terrible), then the nanny’s affair with the father (incomprehensible), and the scene in the bathroom between the narrator and his father (devastating). (The “Does it make you feel big to make a little boy cry?” confrontation sounds too much like wish-fulfillment, something that the adult self wished the child could have said, for me to take entirely literally.) The Hempstocks, then, are an image of what the women in his life would have looked like had they not been complicit (as he saw it) in these events. To me, it’s a book about what the narrator experienced as the worst trauma of his childhood, how he rationalized the very adult pain he experienced from death, betrayal, and violence at the hands of people who were supposed to care about him, how everybody ultimately covered it up and explained it away, and how as an adult he’s still covering it up to himself. In a way, while there are certainly similarities to Coraline et al., the Gaiman work it seems to be most like is Murder Mysteries, with the protagonist ultimately left unable, or perhaps unwilling, to admit what they’re carrying around on the inside, unwilling to put the pieces together because it would mean acknowledging that the whole is in fact a hole. The other work it reminds me of isn’t by Gaiman, but it certainly seems to me that Guillermo del Toro’s film Pan’s Labyrinth deals with many of the same issues (and, come to think of it, so does Twin Peaks, particularly Fire Walk With Me).

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a great book, no question, but it is very uncomfortable to read, particularly when one starts to suspect what Gaiman might be up to. It is not a children’s book (and it isn’t being marketed as such), even though it has some superficial characteristics of one and probably could be read and enjoyed by children. It’s the kind of thing I would have read it at nine or ten and enjoyed, but I would have gotten something very different out of it than what I get out of it as a reader in his mid-30s. As an adult reader, the pain at the core of the narrative is evident and catching, and the menace under the surface of the narrative that isn’t spelled out explicitly is a lot more frightening than stuff you’re told outright. What’s scarier — that you’re being abused by somebody who’s being manipulated into doing it by externalities, or by somebody who simply does it as part of their nature?

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