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Archive for September, 2014

Pushing to a finish line

Hi.

I’ve been a bad blogger for… well, awhile. I had a nice stride going in 2008-2009 (you know, back when I was despairing about life and could basically blog at work); then I got into grad school, and it’s really been hit or miss since then. I’ve been busy busy busy, I’ve had to teach, I’ve had to write papers, I’ve had to study for exams, I’ve had to write a dissertation proposal, I’ve become a father, and so on.

I know, I know. Excuses.

Here’s the thing. I’ve thought about formally closing it up. Leave it online, as a snapshot of something I did for awhile, but put up one final post saying, I’m done, look for me when you see me.

But… nah.

See, I don’t write this for hits. I don’t care if nobody reads this, and I never have. I write this for myself. In the beginning, it was so I could have an excuse to do something to build up some discipline where writing was concerned. Somewhere along the way, I wrote a couple of things that a few people liked and linked to, and before I knew it, I was… a really marginal figure on the fringes of a really marginal subculture of blogging. My biggest day was 906 views; historically it’s been more like 100-150 when I’ve been really active. It’s surprised the heck out of me when people I have met have said, “Oh, yeah, I read your blog,” because that’s incredibly unlikely, statistically speaking. But whatever; that’s not the point. You don’t do public access for the ratings.

Anyway, I still have things I want to say for myself in this venue, so even if it’s not consistent enough to “build readership”, that’s not really of interest to me. I’ll say things when I have them to say. I have ongoing things here and elsewhere I need to finish; I will finish them, and I’ll continue writing other things. So, I’m still here, but look for me when you see me.

One item of national (more or less) news I want to say something about very briefly — maybe 12, 13 years ago, the friend who was my best man was telling me about a new church venture he was involved with in West Seattle. This friend had long been involved in “postmodern Christianity”, an approach to “doing church” that, as he put it, didn’t assume that anybody walking in the door knew anything about what was going on. This new project in West Seattle was going to draw on elements that contemporary American Protestants generally ignored, like liturgical seasons, and explore the reasons for why those things had become a part of the tradition in the first place; it was also going to work cooperatively with a group of other local churches, centralizing administration and using that centralization as a way of helping to organize leadership and planting across that group of churches.

(“Huh,” I remember wanting to say to him. “Kind of like, oh, I don’t know, a diocese?” But I digress.)

This West Seattle church was being organized, at least at first, by a pastor to whom many of my friends from Bellingham had been close; he had been involved with The Inn campus ministry up there, and was now getting this going.

His name was Bill Clem, and the church was called Doxa Church. The faux-diocese was called the Acts 29 Network. (A presumptuous name, to be maximally kind.)

Except now Doxa is called Mars Hill. You might have heard of it. Also, it’s not part of Acts 29 anymore. Further, Bill Clem hasn’t run it since 2006; he’s now in Portland, and is advertising his connection in his current professional biography neither to Doxa or to Mars Hill.

I have a lot I want to say, but I will limit my comments to this: if I were Bill Clem, I would be thankful that I managed to get out when I did, and whatever the circumstances were that forced me out of what I had worked my tail off to start, I would call them God’s providence.

I’ll leave that there for now.

To make at least a nod towards catching up — the last several months have been among the most stressful of my life. We learned at the beginning of April that we’d be spending the year at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology; that was awesome, but it meant we had a move to prepare for with a kid and a parakeet, to say nothing of a house that had nine years’ worth of stuff packed into it that would have to be pared down for a two bedroom apartment. At least one garage sale seemed in the offing; it turned out to be two.

I also had a summer course to teach — a six weeks long medieval survey course, starting 23 June and going two hours a day, Monday through Thursday, until 1 August. I had never taught my own course before, and I had a lot of materials to prepare.

I had three conferences over the course of the summer that I knew were coming, too; I had a paper to present at the International Medieval Studies Congress in Kalamazoo, MI, where I was also one of the organizers for two sessions sponsored by the Byzantine Studies Association of North America, and where I was also participating in activities related to my service on the Graduate Student Committee of the Medieval Academy of America. Then, in June, I had Kurt Sander’s 2014 Pan-Orthodox Liturgical Music Symposium at Northern Kentucky University, where I was going to be singing in their festival choir, presenting a status report on the Psalm 103 Project, and also giving a talk on the Anglophone tradition of Byzantine chant. Oh, and we were trying to organize another working session for all of the composers while we were there, too. Finally, in July, we had the wedding of an old friend in Cleveland (also Theodore’s godfather), in which I was an attendant. I also knew I was going to be presenting a Byzantine chant workshop at the Mid-Eastern Federation of Greek Orthodox Church Musicians at the convention in Columbus, Ohio.

Right. So, preparing for a move, teaching a class, a wedding, and presenting at three conferences. That was enough, right?

During Holy Week, I got a text message from my friend Mark Powell, asking if I was available in May for two Cappella Romana concerts at the Getty Villa Museum in Los Angeles, doing a program of Holy Week and Pentecost material. Wednesday through Monday in LA — three days after getting back from Kalamazoo, which itself was Thursday through Sunday of Finals Week. And leaving from Chicago rather than Indianapolis was going to be more flexible in terms of flight options. I think my reply was “Well, of course, I’ll have to check my calendar and carefully consider my commi–YES OF COURSE I’LL DO IT”

Then there was an issue of availability with respect to the other course assistants for the professor I was working for last spring. One was an international student whose visa was expiring just in time to preclude their ability to do any grading of the final whatsoever, and the other was somebody who was just having to leave town the Monday after Finals Week. With around 150 exams to grade… yeah. Something got worked out where I got paid something extra for doing it, but from Sunday night when I got back from K’zoo to Tuesday afternoon when we were having to get ready to drive to Chicago, I was eating, sleeping, and breathing blue books.

Oh, yeah, one other thing — in April, I took my beloved 2000 Subaru Outback, which I had bought in 2000 with five miles on it, in for an oil change, tire rotation, and alignment check. I got it back with the technician saying that I needed to get some rust on the rear subframe looked at. The manager of a body shop took one look underneath the car and said, “Wow, that’s scary. You don’t want to drive on that.” (This was the week before I had to drive to Kalamazoo and then to Chicago, I should note.) When asked what it would probably cost to fix, he said that it would probably be upwards of a number that was more than the car was worth by this point. Because, you know, this was the perfect moment in our lives to be needing to buy a car.

A rental car got me to and from Kalamazoo and then to and from Chicago for the Los Angeles trip. The Subaru — of blessed memory — wound up being replaced with a 2014 Chevrolet Equinox after I got back from LA; I am eternally grateful to my mother and stepfather for what turned out to be an early PhD graduation gift.

(Ponder my progression of cars: first, a 1992 Volkswagen Golf GL, a German stick shift hatchback. Then, a 2000 Subaru Outback, a Japanese stick shift wagon. Now, a 2014 Chevrolet Equinox, an American automatic SUV. I have become the enemy. Oh well.)

The Los Angeles trip was, I have to say, a blast. A full write-up deserves its own post; suffice it to say that it’s an experience I hope to repeat.

(That said, I’m afraid that the Arctic Light review has to be my last for Cappella; too much of a conflict of interest otherwise.)

Then Lycourgos Angelopoulos passed away. Memory eternal.

Kurt Sander’s Symposium was a wonderful experience; a somewhat abbreviated version of the writeup I was asked to contribute may be found here. My presentation on the Psalm 103 Project is here; the audio of my Byzantine chant talk is here.

Then Richard Toensing passed away. Memory eternal.

And then we packed, I taught my first class as the instructor of record, we went to the wedding in Cleveland, and I went to the last of my conferences.

And then we moved, leaving our house on 1 August, with a move-in date of 11 August (that actually turned out to be 10 August). We killed time in Chicago, Cleveland, and South Canaan, PA.

Did I say that the last few months were stressful? They were stressful. Yeah.

I’m in Boston, by the way. We’ve been here for a day over four weeks; it’s been lovely so far, and we actually wound up getting a three bedroom apartment. The first three weeks was a bit of a vacation since the school year wasn’t yet going and the library had really limited hours; we enjoyed mild, beautiful, coastal weather; I’ve chanted in the chapel; I subbed unexpectedly for a few services at a Greek-only parish (that, I have to say, pays their chanters verrrrrrry reasonably); we enjoyed seafood on the wharf and a tour of Boston Harbor on a tall ship; we got unpacked; we made nachos. Last week was the start of the term, and I’ve been clearing the decks since then, dealing with a to-do list of administrivia that has managed to build up since we left Bloomington. It’s all stuff that’s had to get done for me to be productive in the way I need to be productive here, and I think I’ve got the list checked off sufficiently that I can actually get to the concrete work I need to do here on my dissertation.

A word about that: today (well, yesterday, when I started writing this) was the Feast of the Nativity of the Virgin. This feast employs one of the only festal hymns shared between the Byzantine chant books and the Latin chant books:

Your birth, O Mother of God, revealed joy to the civilized world, for from you the Sun of Justice rose, Christ our God, having destroyed the curse he gave a blessing, and having abolished death, he gave us eternal life.

nativitas tua, liber usualisi gennisis sou theotoke, kypseli versionIt’s curious for a number of reasons; one is that the Latin version is in the first mode, and the received Byzantine version is in the fourth. However, 10th/11th century Menaia show an ascription of first mode rather than fourth, suggesting that the Latin books preserve an older practice.

More curious is this — in the late seventh century, one of the so-called “Byzantine popes”, Sergius I, imported the Feast of the Nativity of the Virgin onto the Roman calendar as one of a group of Marian feasts. This would, theoretically, have been a moment of liturgical unity between Rome and Constantinople; and yet, this hymn is the only piece of it that really survives.

There’s a paper I wrote on this several years ago, the first paper I ever wrote for a grad school class, that collected several observations about this issue. Some of the observations might be still valid, but I probably did a lot I was in no way qualified to do at the time and probably got a lot wrong. I’ll revisit it down the road when I need articles for the tenure clock, but I think that I actually need my dissertation done first, both so I can actually get a job, and also because I think any argument I’d make about this now would depend on my dissertation’s argument.

So, I’ve got to get the dissertation done — which is what I’m here to do — in order to finish the work that helped get me thinking along the lines of my dissertation. (I’m also going to take the Byzantine Chant certification exam while I’m here, but that’s a separate post.) It’s a dissertation that is largely inspired by those observations made back in 2006, so it seems appropriate that today’s the day I finally get settled enough to get down to work.

I will keep up with things here as I can; I’m not going to close up shop until I want to, even if that means not posting as often as I’d like, or if what I post winds up being somewhat random. First priority is getting the dissertation done and out the door; I want a real job before I’m 40, even knowing full well that I’ll then be busting my chops racing the tenure clock. Oh well; that’s the life I’ve chosen, and I’ve got to get past at least the first finish line, even if it’s not really a finish line by any reasonable definition. I’ll be trying to pop back here when I can, at any rate, and hopefully that’s more often than it has been. We’ll see.10667519_10104638060805829_761200563_oThat’s what I walk past on my three minute and forty-five second commute home. It’s not a bad state of affairs by any means.

More later.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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