Archive for the 'General' Category



A pitch that never even got a rejection: Surprised By Nachos – Making Friends, Building Community, and Creating Family Through Food in Bloomington, Indiana

Last spring I proposed the following as a magazine article. It never even generated a “no”, alas, but it’s a piece that I still think could be worth writing, even though ten months later I’d have to re-think parts of it. Anybody want to read this story?

The reader of [MAGAZINE NAME REDACTED] will know that food culture is passed on by communities and families as a way of reinforcing bonds within those groups — but can it work the other way, where somebody builds family and community from scratch, in a place he was unlikely to end up at and where he knows nobody, with food?

In 2003, when we were in our mid-20s, my wife and I left busy, cosmopolitan Seattle — and all of our friends and family — for what we thought would be a brief stint in Bloomington, Indiana, a town most famous for a basketball coach who threw chairs into the court, so that I could finish a degree at Indiana University’s prestigious School of Music. Life took some unexpected directions, however (as well as added a few more university degrees) and Bloomington became home for over a decade. Far away from the people we knew, the strategy we stumbled upon for making friends was, put simply, “feed the neighborhood”. This helped make friends, yes, but the regular gathering of people around our dinner table, combined with at once a strong local food movement, a restaurant scene that’s expensive for small town Indiana, and a diverse, rotating company of omnivorous guests, turned those friends into family over the years, even as they moved away and we stayed behind.

My story starts with the world’s most awesome nachos being made once a week for what was ultimately 20-30 people, and this going on for a year and half; as our circle of friends grew, so did our repertoire (often inspired by a gift subscription to [MAGAZINE NAME REDACTED] my mother-in-law gave us). Dry-aged prime rib for a late winter dinner party and a Hungarian lamb stew for St. Patrick’s Day. An Italian Easter feast one year followed a Greek-style spit-roast lamb the following year. A standing commitment for a 3-day New Years celebration with a different themed menu every year. We made excursions into everything from butter-churning to home brewing to bread baking to coffee roasting to raw milk. Breakfast could be anything from eggs benedict with from-scratch Hollandaise and crumpets to the nothing-from-a-can biscuits and gravy a Kansas transplant taught us how to make when she moved here. People came to our table for celebratory nachos (and still do; there are people who have sung principal roles on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera who come back here and ask me to make nachos for them), for a convivial cocktail (usually something whiskey-based), and sometimes to cry in their soup (Tuscan kale and white bean). You don’t have to knock — the door is open, let me get you something. Are you hungry?

Time has gone by — Bloomington is a university town, so people have moved on. My wife and I now have a son. And, eleven years after arriving, we’re finally leaving. The coming New Years theme menu celebration will be in Boston — but with the same people. It’s a destination now, it’s family, it’s not just a relationship of convenience. Unlikely as it would have seemed when we got here, it’s what wanting to make good food for the people who came through our door — even when we didn’t know them — allowed us to build during our time here. Probably, though, when we get settled in the new place, I’ll offer to make somebody nachos.

My name is Richard Barrett, and I want to tell this story for [MAGAZINE NAME REDACTED]. I have published magazine features, poetry, and academic articles on a range of topics from religion to technical theatre. Matthew Murray at PCMag can tell you what I’m like to work with on assignment.

Thanks very much for your consideration.

Richard

Vacant chairs

richard chairWhen I was about a year old to about four years old, we lived in a neighborhood of Anchorage called Geronimo Circle, near DeBarr Road in the northeast part of town. To our left was a neighbor lady named Nina, and to our right were the Slays — Larry, Bonnie, and their little kids, Ethan, who was my age, and Jenny, the baby. Ethan and I played together just about every day; he sent me to the ER with my first split lip for my first stitches (couldn’t tell you over what, except I remember something about a toy crane being involved); we built forts out of couch cushions; and so on. Bonnie and Larry were close to my parents, too, and I have a lot of happy memories of the bunch of us being at each other’s houses in those early years. Larry built me a few things in his woodshop that I remember fondly; there was a marble rack that I spent hours playing with, and then he also made me a chair when I was about three years old — carved my name in it, finished it, everything. My mom still has it, and I’d bring it home if it fit more easily in a suitcase.

We moved away, but about nine years later, the Slays joined us in Bothell, Washington, and it was like no time had passed. Our houses were open to each other again, even if they weren’t next door, and Ethan and I actually went through junior high and high school together. During my initial difficult years in college, the Slays opened their home to me when I needed a place to go, and always treated me as another son.

Larry passed away a couple of weeks ago. I hadn’t seen him or the other Slays in years — maybe since our wedding — but I had stayed apprised of what was going on with them via Facebook and through my mother. He was a good man, a good father, and a good husband, who did what he had to do for his family even when it wasn’t easy. They all had a lot of fun together, too, and even though they’re all a bit scattered to the four winds, they were one of the tightest-knit families I’ve ever seen. Larry lived a long life even with some complex health issues, and while I mourn his passing, I’m happy that he no longer has to be in pain. Memory eternal, my dear friend.

matthew bakerI must comment on another passing — not as close, but painful nonetheless. Three years ago, at the 2012 Florovsky Symposium, Fr. Andrew Damick introduced me to one Matthew Baker, saying, “Someday soon, you’re going to be reading books by him.” Turned out we knew many of the same people, and I’ll never forget his shock of red hair, thick beard, bow tie, and tweed jacket, or his way of disagreeing with people that suggested an internal amusement at just how wrong his interlocutors could be.

We never met again, but we encountered each other online multiple times, mostly because we had so many mutual friends. Last year, he was ordained as a priest in GOA, and he recently had been assigned a parish for the first time. Everything I ever experienced of him directly or was told about secondhand spoke to his character, his integrity, his very real brilliance, and his faithfulness, and I looked forward to when our paths would cross in person again.

Last night, Fr. Matthew was lost to us in a tragic car accident. He leaves behind his Presvytera Katherine and six children. They had just lost a seventh in stillbirth earlier in the month. By all accounts, this is a loss of the brightest of bright lights, and one that had only really started burning for real. So many people who are dear to me are weeping today, and I stand with them in mourning his loss; it is clear that we have lost one of the very, very best of us.

A fund has been established for Fr. Matthew’s family; they have raised over $200,000, but that is only a start of what they will need for a family of seven that just lost their only source of income. You can give online at GoFundMe, or you can send a check here:

Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Boston
c/o Fr. Matthew Baker Memorial Fund
162 Goddard Ave
Brookline, MA 02445

Please do what you are able, and please remember Fr. Matthew, Presvytera Katherine, and their children in your prayers.

Memory eternal, Larry and priest Matthew. May your souls dwell where the righteous repose.

Who are the Assyrian Christians?

(Once again, this post is intended for a more general audience than what I usually do. You can see yesterday’s post for some helpful background; unfortunately, current events dictated a more immediate followup than I really had in mind.)

CNN reports that ISIS militants are presently holding as many as 150 “Assyrian” Christians hostage and are threatening to kill them. Yesterday, there were news stories that ISIS militants took some 90 Assyrians in northeastern Syria as they retreated from Kurdish forces, but the number appears to have been underestimated. The BBC’s account says that the incident took place in a town called Tal Tamr, which it locates on a map as shown to the left.

The BBC describes the “Assyrian” Christians thusly:

Assyrians, of whom there were about 40,000 in Syria, are Nestorian Christians and speak Syriac, a form of Aramaic, the language of Christ.

The largest concentration of Assyrians in Syria is in Hassakeh province, but there are also smaller communities in Aleppo, Homs and Damascus.

Again, as I tried to explain in yesterday’s piece on Coptic Christians, this is not altogether wrong, but neither is it as clear as would be ideal about who they are or why they are considered a separate group. The short version is that the Assyrian Church of the East is the modern Middle Eastern Christian group that claims continuity with the so-called Church of the East or Catholicosate of Seleucia-Ktesiphon of antiquity, a Christian group that was isolated from the Roman mainstream by the seventh century, although more because of geography and political boundaries than because of theological disputes.

To recap a couple of things from yesterday: Christianity in the early centuries emerged in a Mediterranean, Roman context where two things mattered — what major city you were in or closest to, and how close to the sea that city was. Egypt’s Alexandria and Syria’s Antioch were cities that pretty much ruled the roost as far as intellectual culture and theological thought were concerned, and represented the major poles that governed the development of orthodox (intentional lower-case “o”) Christianity. The major common language of education in this period was Greek, a language that already had a well-developed vocabulary and rhetorical approach for talking about complicated and nuanced philosophical ideas. At the same time, Latin was the language of the state, and there were of course local languages. Semitic languages were the linguae francae in the eastern part of the empire with their own gravitational pull, including Aramaic (the so-called “language of Jesus”) and its dialects, like Syriac. These languages were often employed for monastic writing and other kinds of sacred literary production, although it was not at all uncommon for authors in these languages to borrow Greek theological terminology outright rather than attempt to translate them.

Another point is that from the standpoint of this Mediterranean, Roman world, the other major player of importance was the Persian Empire. Maps are always tricky, and the nature of frontier borders is that they’re contested and always moving, but here’s a broad — if simplified — sense of the parameters of the Roman Mediterranean in the first part of the fourth century:

Basically, in terms of present-day national identities, it was England, Spain, and North Africa on the Western side to Egypt, and Israel, Turkey, Lebanon, and Syria on the Eastern side, with the Mediterranean Sea smack dab in the middle — “frogs around a pond”, as Plato put it. To the north were various Germanic tribes; to the south was desert; to the East were a handful of small kingdoms, and then Persia. Again, maps are tricky, but here’s a pretty good one showing what the Roman-Persian frontier looked like over time:

Based on what I said earlier about proximity to major cities and proximity to the sea, it should be evident that, while the Roman/Persian frontier was of strategic importance, it wasn’t really anyplace anybody from the big cities would have been excited about being in, it was pretty far removed from the Greco-Roman culture of the area more central to the Mediterranean, and local languages like Syriac were far more prevalent than Greek. And, despite its strategic importance, it was at times a hard place for emperors to justify the cost of defending; Arab the sixth century saw the frontier left to its own devices on more than one occasion when Justinian was too busy trying to reclaim the Italian peninsula. It fell to allied Arab tribes and border kingdoms to defend Roman territories in the frontier.

Christianity on the frontier was intellectually and spiritually vibrant nonetheless, even if life on the border was uncertain. The fourth century produced one of the greatest Christian poets in history, Ephrem the Syrian, who worked first in the border town of Nisibis and then moved to the somewhat more centralized Syriac city of Edessa when Nisibis was surrendered to the Persians in 363 and the Christian communities expelled.

At the same time, there were Christian communities that emerged in Persia in antiquity, and the Persian capital of Seleucia-Ktesiphon was home to its own bishopric starting in the third century. This church was obviously isolated, and while Christian communities appear to have formed there in the first couple of centuries AD, it doesn’t seem to have been until 280 that visiting bishops were able to establish a working ecclesiastical structure there. Still, they were isolated, and tended be focused further East than towards the Mediterranean centers of ecclesial activity. (How far East? They sent missionaries to the Mongols in Central Asia and to China starting in the sixth and seventh centuries.) As such, many of the theological arguments swirling around Constantinople, Alexandria, and Antioch simply weren’t terribly relevant to the churches on the border or in Persia, and the remained loyal to what they saw as their own tradition. They identified with the Council of Nicea, perhaps, since that was everybody’s major point of reference following Constantine’s legalization of Christianity, but beyond that it got a little obscure.

There was a thread of intellectual continuity that made it from Byzantium to Ktesiphon, to be sure, but the supply lines were a bit tangled and on the thin side. A major theological figure of the Syrian East, the fourth/early fifth century Theodore of Mopsuestia (close to the southeastern border of modern-day Turkey), had been the student of Libanius, a major teacher of rhetoric in Antioch. Theodore appears to have had significant influence on the thought of Nestorius, whom you may recall from yesterday’s post as the Constantinopolitan bishop on the losing side at the Council of Ephesus in 431. In the aftermath of the Christological disputes of the fifth century, Nestorius’ followers relocated to Persia; the Persians perceived in their position a fundamental continuity with Theodore and their own strongly Antiochene perspective, and they welcomed the Nestorians with open arms.

There continued to be some awareness and mutual sympathy between Persian and Roman Christianity; as late as 614, the Persian Emperor Khosroes appears to have had a Christian wife (“but after the heresy of Nestorius”, the witness is clear to specify) who did much to aid Christian prisoners of war after Khosroes’ sack of Jerusalem. The writings of the seventh century Christian ascetic figure Isaac of Nineveh (modern Mosul, in Iraq), despite Isaac formally being a part of the Persian church, were nonetheless eagerly received in Byzantium and translated into Greek. (And, as the best sign of admiration, Greek authors wrote spurious works under Isaac’s name.)

Still, in 644, the Arab invaders under Umar overthrew — or perhaps subsumed — the Persian Empire, and the church under Seleucia-Ktesiphon was permanently isolated. Over time the Persian church came to be known variously as the Nestorian Church, the Church of the East, and the Assyrian Church of the East. Syriac (more about which in a moment) remains their predominant liturgical language, and like the Copts, they have a distinctive liturgical tradition. You can get a sense of it from this video (which is in English):

From the eighth to the thirteenth centuries, the Church of the East was at the center of the intellectual life in the Islamic world and played an important role in the translation of Greek texts into Arabic. Following the Mongol sacking of Baghdad in 1258, they retreated to the relative safety of the mountains of Northern Iraq. Their period of flourishing and expansion was over, and they were isolated again in northern Mesopotamia. Since then, their relatively small size, internal divisions, shifting ecclesial ties, and political instability in the region have meant that they’ve been forced to move around a lot over the last several centuries, and they have been largely concentrated in pockets of Iran, Iraq, and Syria. Their patriarch, or chief bishop, is at present in exile in Chicago.

A last point for the moment. Concerning language: Syriac is often referred to in Western media as “the language of Christ”. This is fundamentally misleading, but it also reveals a certain myopia of our media outlets and worldview. Jesus, as a Jew in Roman Judea, probably spoke the Galilean dialect of Aramaic as his native language, a Semitic language related to Hebrew and modern Arabic. More than likely, he spoke some Greek as well, since that was the common language of business and society for a Roman province. Classical Syriac began as the dialect of Aramaic of the city of Edessa, and it developed into a key literary and liturgical language perhaps in the second century; certainly the Old Testament was translated from Hebrew to Syriac in the second century (although a complete New Testament has murkier origins, without a clear appearance until the fifth century). It should be clear, however, that a form of Syriac remains a living, albeit endangered, language in some Assyrian communities, which means that it has developed and evolved from its classical iteration. Much as calling Modern Greek “the language of Homer”, or modern Italian “the language of Virgil”, or modern English “the language of Beowulf” misleadingly elides centuries of language change, calling Syriac “the language of Christ” does the same. It also ignores the far more interesting linguistic relationship between ancient Aramaic, classical Syriac, and the modern language known by its speakers as Assyrian, and also implies that these people, their culture, their history, and their language are only of secondary interest to an imaginary reconstruction of the world of the New Testament. That is to do sufficient justice neither to the Syriac/Assyrian people and heritage, which are under significant and immediate attack now (besides the kidnapping, there’s also Sunday’s burning of Mosul’s library), nor to Christianity and its history, nor to the history of the Roman East and the Roman/Persian frontier in antiquity as its own fully-qualified subject of interest. There is far more going on in current events with far deeper roots than these one-paragraph summaries would have you believe, and pithy statements like “Syriac is the language of Christ” do nothing to illuminate that.

Lord have mercy on the Assyrian Christians!

(I am grateful to Sam Noble, Eric Jobe, David Maldonado-Rivera, Fr. Andrew Damick, and Lucas Christensen for their helpful comments on yesterday’s piece as well as today’s. Any errors that remain are, of course, my own.)

Who are the Copts?

Icon the 21 Coptic New Martyrs of Libya, painted by Tony Rezk.(Note: this piece is intended for a general audience, not necessarily my normal two readers, whom I would expect would be familiar with at least some of the issues discussed here.)

On or before 14 Feburary, an “affiliate” of ISIS beheaded 21 Coptic Orthodox Christians on a beach in Libya, as depicted in a video the ISIS affiliate released to the public. The story made international news, and the Coptic Pope Tawadros (Theodore) II declared that they were to remembered as martyr saints and added them to the Coptic Synaxarion, the book that lists the saints commemorated by calendar day. Their future commemoration will be on 15 February.

CNN’s story on the beheading had this brief statement explaining Coptic Christian identity:

Coptic Christians are part of the Orthodox Christian tradition, one of three main traditions under the Christian umbrella, alongside Catholicism and Protestantism. Copts split from other Christians in the fifth century over the definition of the divinity of Jesus Christ.

Well, that’s not entirely wrong, but it could do with some unpacking. The short version is that Copts are the modern Christian group that count themselves as the present-day successors of the historic Church in Alexandria, Egypt, one of the five major episcopates in late antiquity, the others being Rome, Constantinople, Antioch, and Jerusalem. Copts are generally understood as belonging to the so-called Oriental Orthodox tradition, as opposed to the Greek or Eastern Orthodox tradition; The Oriental Orthodox communion includes the Syriac, Ethiopian, Eritrean, Armenian, and Indian Orthodox Churches. Oriental Orthodox recognize the first three Ecumenical Councils — Nicea, Constantinople, and Ephesus; by contrast, the Greek Orthodox are normally said to recognize the first seven, and Roman Catholics recognize twenty-one, up to Vatican II in the 20th century. Copts remain principally Egyptian in terms of modern national heritage. They have their own distinctive liturgical tradition that is separate from the Byzantine and Roman/Frankish rites, and you can get a sense of the current practice of it here.

Why do the Copts exist as a separate group? To make a complicated story a little shorter, Christianity in the early centuries emerged in a Mediterranean, Roman context where two things mattered — what major city you were in or closest to, and how close to the sea that city was. Egypt’s Alexandria and Syria’s Antioch were cities that pretty much ruled the roost as far as intellectual culture and theological thought were concerned, and represented the major poles that governed the development of orthodox (intentional lower-case “o”) Christianity. The major common language of education in this period was Greek, a language that already had a well-developed vocabulary and rhetorical approach for talking about complicated and nuanced philosophical ideas. At the same time, Latin was the language of the state, and there were of course local languages. Semitic languages were common in the eastern part of the empire, including Aramaic (the so-called “language of Jesus”) and its dialects, like Syriac. Egypt still spoke Egyptian, with a major literary dialect known as Bohairic, commonly known as “Coptic”. This dialect had been used continuously going back to the pharaohs, and for historical reasons, it adopted the Greek alphabet and some Greek vocabulary. These local languages were often employed for monastic writing and other kinds of sacred literary production, although it was not at all uncommon for authors in these languages to borrow Greek theological terminology outright rather than attempt to translate them.

In 325, Constantine started to build his New Rome at the site of Byzantium, a port town that straddled the western edge of Europe and the eastern edge of Asia Minor. Constantinople may have been the new capital by fiat, but it had to earn its intellectual credibility, and while the first two ecumenical councils were held in or near Constantinople, the theological and ecclesial powers at play were Antiochene and Alexandrian. The arguments were certainly about the nature of Christ in content; inter-city Roman politics were part of the context nonetheless.

In the early decades of the 400s, Constantinople was ready to try its hand at theology, and it was a disaster. Nestorius, the capital’s archbishop, got involved in a Christological argument, and in 431 at the Council of Ephesus (the third Ecumenical Council) he got his head handed to him by Cyril, the Patriarch of Alexandria and heavyweight champion of theological disputes. Incidentally, it is because of the Council of Ephesus that the Virgin Mary’s status as “Mother of God” is a dogmatic point for Oriental and Greek Orthodox, as well as for Roman Catholics; the base question, despite an awkward appellation in English (the Greek word, Theotokos, is more literally, if woodenly, rendered as “One who carried God in her womb”), is strictly whether the child to whom Mary gave birth was God from conception or not, not a matter of Mary as the source of Christ’s divinity.

In any event, the memory of Cyril as the voice of authority at Ephesus was powerful, and over the next twenty years there was jockeying for control of his memory amongst successors and putative successors in Constantinople, Rome, and Alexandria. In addition, there were residual issues left over from Ephesus, as Cyril’s Christological formulations that dogmatized the Virgin Mary as Theotokos also raised new questions. A council in 449 convened by Emperor Theodosius II to address the new theological disputes seemed inclined to favor Dioscorus, Cyril’s successor as Patriarch of Alexandria, and to do at the expense of Flavian, Constantinople’s own patriarch. Then Theodosius died, and his successor, Marcian, convened a council in Chalcedon (modern-day Kadıköy in Turkey) that favored Rome and Constantinople at Dioscorus’ expense. Dioscorus was exiled, and Constantinople appointed their own Patriarch of Alexandria. He didn’t last long; the Alexandrians forced him out to elect whom they wanted as Dioscorus’ successor.

The disputes were made worse by the linguistic issues; the Christological formulations relied on specific vocabulary in Greek that was difficult to render in other languages. Monks in Palestine, Egypt, and Syria felt that the faith of their beloved Cyril was being sacrificed at the altar of politics in favor of settled heresy being rehabilitated by sophistry. The so-called Tome of Pope Leo I, a sort of “friend of the court” briefing for the Second Council of Ephesus (although not read until Chalcedon) that was written in Latin, only made things worse in its (possibly deliberately) clumsy approximation of Greek theological vocabulary. Imperial fiat did not fix the problem either; a compromise decree by the Emperor Zeno in 482 made nobody happy, and hardened the division between those who adhered to Chalcedon and those who were, by now, fairly described as anti-Chalcedonian.

Emperors and bishops continued waging these internal battles for another century before the non-Chalcedonians became a separate ecclesial entity; the sixth century emperor Justinian held several “heretical” bishops from Alexandria and Syria under house arrest in Constantinople, and they consecrated a monk named Jacob as a bishop. Jacob traveled in rags throughout the regions sympathetic to Alexandria, consecrating close to a hundred bishops and perhaps thousands of priests. An ecclesial structure parallel to, but separate from, the Church of the Roman Empire had been established.

Whatever hope there may have been at reunification and reconciliation was lost in the seventh century, when the Rashidun Caliphate captured Alexandria, Antioch, and other major regions in the East where there had been anti-Chalcedonian sentiment and a non-Chalcedonian church structure. Egypt remained predominantly Christian for some time, but by the 12th century the Christian community was a minority.

The Oriental and Greek Orthodox remain separated and “out of communion” in the present day; there have been theological discussions in the last several decades to attempt to resolve the issues once and for all, but the division remains an official reality. In the Middle East, however, there is a great deal of practical cooperation between Christian groups, regardless of official structural division.

In modern Egypt, Coptic Orthodox make up perhaps 7-10% of the country’s population, and in recent years there have been a number of reports of violent attacks in Alexandria. A bomb at the Coptic church of Al-Qiddissin on New Year’s Day 2011 killed twenty-one people, for example, and there have been additional attacks throughout the cities and countryside.

In Libya, where the beheadings took place, Copts are the largest Christian group.

Coptic New Martyrs of Libya, pray for us!

Whether or not cities actually exist

I’ve recently had occasion to visit New York for a weekend. A group research project I participated in for a history pedagogy course I took last spring turned into a panel at the American Historical Association, and while it made for a number of commitments to juggle over New Year’s, I wound up taking the train down from Boston the first Saturday of the year and AirBnB-ing a place in Brooklyn (a much better deal than the conference hotel, to say the absolute least — it’s a real gem). I caught Cappella Romana’s concert at Trinity Wall Street, helped chant Orthros and Divine Liturgy at the Archdiocesan Cathedral of the Holy Trinity Sunday morning, having brunch afterward with a friend at the Brooklyn Diner (which is neither in Brooklyn nor a diner), meeting another friend for a drink at the Stone Rose Lounge in Columbus Circle, then wending my way to the New York Hilton Midtown to meet with my panelists. As it happened, we wound up once again at the Brooklyn Diner; I had later dinner plans, so I contented myself with a Greek salad, then headed over to Times Square to meet another friend. As is our custom when I’m in New York, we had dinner at John’s Pizzeria, and then I took the subway back to Brooklyn. I had an early morning that Monday getting back to the Hilton for the panel; that went well, and then I found myself on the train back to Back Bay Station.

It wasn’t the most convenient trip in the world, but I had fun, and I got to see more of the city than I’ve seen in previous visits. I first visited New York in March of 2005, almost ten years ago — I was 28, and I was invited to audition for the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artist Program. Obviously I didn’t get in, but it was a nice first opportunity to go. I saw Samson et Delilah at the Met with José Cura and Denyce Graves, Phantom of the Opera on Broadway, and went up to the top of the Empire State Building. Good times. I stayed in Midtown on that trip, at the Wellington Hotel next to Carnegie Hall, and on my way to the Brooklyn Diner last weekend I found myself walking past them and simultaneously thinking, “Hey! I’ve been here!” and “My God, has it really been ten years since that first trip?”

Since 2005, I’ve been to the city rather happenstantially. Later that same year I visited St. Vlad’s, thinking, as many young men do who are new converts and thus excitable, that maybe the priesthood might be in my future. I took the opportunity to take the train down to meet a friend for dinner and a Broadway show; I repeated this on another visit to St. Vlad’s in 2008. My next time out that way was New Year’s 2011/2012, when we went out to New Jersey for our usual extravaganza and spent an afternoon at Chelsea Market. In the time we’ve been in Boston, we’ve passed through New York a couple of times while driving elsewhere, and then the Sunday after Christmas we drove down to spend a couple of days with Bloomington friends who were there visiting family.

It’s been a curious experience getting to know cities like New York and Chicago and Boston and Washington, DC and even London and Athens in my 30s. Being born in Alaska and growing up in the Pacific Northwest in a family that had absolutely no reason or desire to go to any of those places, if we went anywhere, the overall goal was usually sunny weather or a family-friendly attraction or both. We drove from Wenatchee to Florida in 1981 to see the first shuttle take off; we flew to Hawaii in 1984; we went to Disneyland in 1986. I spent a week in Palm Springs with my grandparents in 1987, in 1993 I visited Indiana for the first time for the International Thespian Society Festival at Ball State University in Muncie, and then I got to go to Florida again in 1994 on a choir trip. 1994-2002 saw me going to Alaska every so often to see family, and then to Victoria, B.C. for our honeymoon, but a 2002 trip to Chicago to see Bryn Terfel in Sweeney Todd at the Lyric Opera of Chicago marked a first substantial visit to one of the “big cities”, and then it was 2007 before I got to visit Europe for the first time.

From a certain perspective, it’s perhaps fair to say that growing up, places like New York didn’t actually exist. They were movie sets and backdrops for books, but you couldn’t actually go and visit them. Perhaps not unlike how pre-Vatican II Roman Catholicism was the default way of presenting Christianity in the media (at least when I was growing up), film and TV seemed to default to New York, Chicago, and San Francisco for the normative experience of “America”. In both cases, what was presented had absolutely nothing to do with my experience of Protestant life in the suburban part of western Washington state. Subways and trains weren’t real. Skyscrapers weren’t real (until Columbia Center was built in Seattle, and then suddenly we had “the tallest building west of the Mississippi”, at least for awhile). Brownstones weren’t real, nor were buildings that were much older than 40-50 years. Apartments and neighborhoods weren’t really real. Schools that were named with “P.S.” followed by a number weren’t real. Heck, a climate with four seasons wasn’t real. Gangs and street violence and drugs weren’t real, too (until they were, and then the area lost its collective mind; as much as “midnight basketball” is code for “stupid government ideas that don’t solve problems”, Seattle basically did the equivalent of banning “midnight basketball”).

At the same time, I’m also aware that when I visit New York in 2015, it’s not even close to being the same New York that I would have visited in, say, 1985, for a whole host of reasons (gentrification and 9/11 being among them). Still, it’s hard to walk around the city at all without the awe of a 10 year old, at least for me. Would I ever live there? Sure, in a heartbeat, if I had a job that meant I could afford to live there and raise a family (granted, I’m not sure all parties who would have to be involved in the decision would be for it). Boston has at the very least been a really nice compromise, a big step up from where we were, with pretty much everything that I was missing.

Something I at least think I detect in Boston, New York, and Chicago — I’m less able to speak about, say, San Francisco, having spent next to no time there — is an American cultural identity that is united more around the common experience of a place than the place being the destination of homogenous, like-minded people. To put it another way, having been born and having grown up in places that are occupied by people trying to get away, what I see in Boston, New York, and Chicago are the places occupied by the people who stayed. Ironically, I feel more at home in all three of those cities now than I did in Seattle by the time I left, and certainly far more than I ever did in Bloomington. It gets tricky to talk about this without romanticizing it, which isn’t the goal, and I’m talking as somebody who struggles with a sense of rootlessness to begin with, but it does make for a very different perception of a place. It might very well be no more than wide-eyed “grass is greener” syndrome, which is part of why I say it’s interesting getting to know these places for the first time in my 30s. I know that Theodore isn’t going to remember much about this year, but I’m glad to have had the opportunity to bring him out here so that he does get some of this in his system early. Next month he’ll get to spend 10 days in Seattle, too. He may not remember it well, but somewhere in his memory he’ll know that these places exist.

Writ large, I realize that as a historian I study a lot of places with a similar kind of personal remove. I theoretically can actually go visit them, but mostly I haven’t, not yet, and even when I do, they won’t really be the same places I’m studying. No, you can’t go back to Constantinople… And then, yes, there’s probably low-hanging fruit on this topic where religion is concerned, too. I can fancy myself a city kid all I want by converting to Orthodoxy and going to a Greek church in the Northeast, but it won’t ever change the fact that I’m a white kid who was born in Alaska and grew up going to an Evangelical church in a suburb of Seattle, right? And choice is tricky to justify.

Anyway. I don’t really know that I have a point here, so it probably won’t get anybody very far trying to find one. Just chewing on some things.

Follow up on choir schools, with a suggested course of action

Well, the spike in traffic the last few days leads me to believe that maybe the idea of an Orthodox choir school has drawn the attention of more than my usual two readers. Cool. If that’s so, then let me go into some more detail, and let me suggest a course of action.

First of all, thanks for all of the positive reactions. It’s great to see that there’s a way to describe this vision so that people get it and get excited about it; I hope that this is a sign of things to come. Please continue to share these posts far and wide; it’s an idea that has to gain a certain critical mass before it can go anywhere besides this blog.

Also, there have been a number of excellent suggestions that have come from my “Orthodox choir school: how I’d do it” post. Suggestions about cities, about teaching methods, about other schools to look at, and so on. I appreciate all of that, and I’m all ears for that kind of input. When (I repeat, when) the time comes, that will all be extremely useful — keep it coming!

Something that has been brought up is that there have been people who have toiled in Orthodox children’s music education for years, and there are existing programs that struggle to stay afloat. Wouldn’t it be better to try to build everybody up rather than concentrating efforts in one location? Might putting all the eggs in one basket be a well-intentioned, but ultimately misplaced, idea?

I had a response to this, but before I go into that, I want to make everybody aware of some valuable resources that should be looked at if this subject is going to be taken seriously. There is the Choir Schools’ Association in the UK, and they have a document titled “Reaching Out”, which is a great overview of the current state of the tradition in England. One is a doctoral thesis by one Daniel James McGrath titled “The Choir School in the American Church: a study of the choir school and other current chorister training models in Episcopal and Anglican parishes”. There’s also a doctoral thesis by Lucas Matthew Tappan, “The Madeleine Choir School (Salt Lake City, Utah): A Contemporary American Choral Foundation”.

IMG_3755Something that, alas, I can’t link to but that you should be able to acquire if you want a copy, is the 50th anniversary season brochure for St. Paul”s Choir School. They have them out for the taking in the narthex at St. Paul’s; I got a copy when I went to their Christmas concert on Friday. If you contact the school and ask for one, I have to imagine they’ll send it to you.

Nota bene — with all of these resources, one has to make sure that one takes them mutatis mutandis to a certain extent. McGrath and St. Paul’s are dealing with a context of boys’ choirs, and I’m talking about a co-ed approach, for example. The Madeleine Choir School and St. Paul’s are Catholic, and McGrath is writing from an Anglican perspective. Nonetheless, all are extremely useful in terms of how they talk about organization, curriculum, challenges, and so on — Tappan in particular explicitly has the objective of serving as a “road map” (his words) for those who might want to follow the Madeleine’s lead. Handy, that.

One of the main things I want to put forth here is this passage from Tappan’s thesis on the Madeleine as the justification for a choir school:

…a choir school consists of an institution where children are given a well-rounded musical education as well as liturgical formation in the ars celebrandi, and where they put these skills at the service of the sacred liturgy on a regular basis within a specific community (often that of a cathedral or collegiate chapel). In return, these children are given an outstanding elementary and religious education.

Even though these qualities constitute the basic elements of a choir school, each institution is a unique place where the choir school tradition exists within a particular time and culture… Perhaps the church musician will find in the choir school a model for training young people in an art that has the power to transform lives and to bring many out of the isolation of modern living into a living community of musicians and believers, forming young musicians “for the lifelong praise and worship of God” (p. 2).

But then there’s the epiphany of Gregory Glenn, the founder of the Madeleine Choir School, when he spent three months at Westminster Cathedral Choir School in London:

What Glenn realized was that the institution itself was the formator (emphasis mine). The incessant rounds of daily rehearsals and liturgies in the cathedrals and the process of going through a massive amount of repertoire year after year was crucial to being able to sing, for example, a Poulenc Mass on short notice. The choristers sight-read so easily that rehearsal time was never spent learning notes. There might be a false note or two the first time through a work, but the boys usually corrected themselves the second time around. Choir masters were able to spend the majority of rehearsal time working toward a more musical performance of the repertoire. According to Glenn, the Madeleine Choir School is still working toward this goal, but it becomes more of a reality with time. (Tappan, p. 26)

Here was my answer to the concern about concentrating efforts in one location:

I spent 11 years in a location that was, theoretically, fairly central in the United States, but as far as Orthodox Christianity went, was about as isolated as you could be without being in Wyoming. Almost anything and everything the parish there took on could be (and often was) fairly described as “being a lot of effort for one location”, right down to building a church. It still needed to be done. Along the same lines, the Madeleine school is certainly “a lot of effort for one location” (in Salt Lake City, no less!), but it’s still worth doing.

The other thing I’ll say is that musical efforts in particular often get problematized in “American Orthodoxy” (whatever we mean by that) as “reinventing the wheel”, that reduplication of effort doesn’t accomplish anything… What needs to be recognized is that not all wheels will travel on the same roads[…], people and institutions need to play to their strengths, and dispersion of effort that hangs everything on the energies of either one person or a tiny handful of people is a disaster waiting to happen. The Madeleine Choir School is not the only Catholic school in the Salt Lake City metro area, for example, but its existence allows for the faculty and students to play to a particular set of strengths, and the result is an example that is inspiring. Supporting music education in existing Orthodox schools is a great thing to do, but it also seems to me that establishing a model school that focuses particularly on that aspect will allow for a level of excellence to develop and be made manifest publicly. I think we accomplish a lot more when we’re able to work together than when we’re isolated; my experience is that most of us Orthodox musicians are too isolated from each other as it is, and that that is a bad thing.

Beyond that — as I said earlier, I attended a Christmas concert sung by the choirs of the St. Paul’s Choir School Friday evening with Megan and Theodore; one of the big takeaways was that Theodore was absolutely enrapt when the boys processed in, wearing black cassocks and singing “One in Royal David’s City”. I’ll say that the evening was was mostly the work of the the preparatory choir (the main choir had their big concert yesterday with Britten’s “A Ceremony of Carols”), but everybody did something, and they’ve got a good thing going there.

So, where to, folks? How do we get there from here? I’ve told you how I’d do it — and, I have to say, it’s remarkably similar to what Tappan describes Gregory Glenn, the Madeleine Choir School’s founder, as having done (and I discovered Tappan after I wrote that post) — he put a great deal of time in visiting model institutions and putting together a feasibility study/planning document with a proposed budget. Realistically, I think this is going to be somebody’s full-time task for at least six months.

My modest proposal, then, is this — a great Christmas gift to me, to your kids, and to our Church, would be a gift in support of this initial effort. Somebody shared the post saying, “I wish I had a million or two to give to such an undertaking”; well, it doesn’t need a million or two, not yet, and while you might not be in a position to give a million or two, maybe you can do something (particularly since it’s near year-end — taxes are coming!). It doesn’t really matter how much you might be able to do; if everybody who saw my posts over the last week even gave something relatively small, it would go a long way towards making this possible. Anyway, I don’t want to do a hard sell on giving right now. Rather, this is just the trial balloon — the question is, can we fund the initial planning activities, yes or no? You tell me. If we can, then maybe we can do this for real.

The way to give is through The Saint John of Damascus Society; click here, click on the donate button, and you’ll be taken to PayPal. The Society is a tax-exempt (501(c)3) non-profit, so all gifts are tax-deductible to the extent allowed by law. If you want to do something but don’t want to do it via PayPal, drop me a line at richardbarrett AT johnofdamascus DOT org.

I’m really not interested in asking for money right now, so we’re clear. This isn’t about money to me. At the same time, without some money, the next steps are really out of reach.

This is an open forum on the topic, so please, any questions, suggestions, comments, requests for more information, anything — keep it coming! And if you want one of the The Choir DVDs, e-mail me with an address.

Okay, my friends. I’ve made my pitch. You’ve all told me you’re interested and supportive; pray for us, tell me what we’re doing next, and share this far and wide if this is important to you. Thanks for sticking with me so far.

This year’s gift ideas

Christmas gift ideas are something I’ve done before, and it’s that time again, to say the least. Christmas is a week from tomorrow, so probably you want to order whatever it is you’re going to order in the next couple of days if you want to make sure it’s received on time. Here are this year’s gift suggestions, from me to you:

– Fr. Ivan Moody’s new book, Modernism and Orthodox Spirituality in Contemporary Music. I’ll be review this book shortly for Orthodox Arts Journal, but I’ll go ahead and recommend it to you now. It’s a fascinating look at how 20th/21st century art music from around the world engages Orthodox liturgical music and vice versa, and really turns on its head the idea that “Orthodoxy doesn’t do art”.

 

– Keeping with the theme, the CD Arctic Light: Finnish Orthodox Music, with Fr. Ivan Moody conducting Cappella Romana. I reviewed it here, and it’s a terrific stocking stuffer for the lover of choral music who might like something a little different.

 

– The world-music collective Dünya has a really fascinating recording out titled A Story of the City: Constantinople, Istanbul. It’s a collection of Byzantine music, Ottoman classical music, and more; I highly recommend it.

 

 

– One more CD suggestion: Christmas in Harvard Square, by the St. Paul’s Choir School, Harvard Square. I just blogged something about the school, so they’re on my mind; plus, it’s a really nice treble sound.

 

 

The Tom Bihn Checkpoint Flyer briefcase was a gift suggestion here three years ago; this year, I’m pleased that I can finally suggest the Parental Unit, their brand spanking new diaper bag. I remain pleased with my Checkpoint Flyer three and a half years after buying it (as well as with Tom Bihn’s customer service; they’ve been as good as their word on the lifetime guarantee), and while the Parental Unit came along a little late for our needs with Theodore (as in two and a half years late), it looks like it’ll be great for future consideration. (Not an announcement, by the way.)

– Sometime in, I think, 1989, I read an interview in the long-defunct Comics Scene magazine with an animator named Richard Williams. He had just won two Oscars for his work on Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and he talked about how this was allowing him to finish, at long last, his decades-in-the-making masterpiece, The Thief and the Cobbler. The story of why this turned out not, in fact, to be case, why instead Disney released its, shall we say, fascinatingly similar film a few years later (arguably getting away with murder), and why you might find a $2 DVD in grocery store bargain bins titled Arabian Knight using some of the animation produced for Cobbler is nothing less than one of the artistic tragedies of the twentieth century. Over the last few years years, there has been something of a renaissance of interest in Cobbler, with an unofficial, so-called “recobbled” cut having been produced by one Garrett Gilchrist. Over the last year, there have been a couple of screenings of Williams’ workprint, both at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and at the British Film Institute. Filmmaker Kevin Schreck has also produced a documentary about Cobbler and why you never saw it titled The Persistence of Vision, and it has been very well-received in the festival circuit for the last year or so. While it’s a difficult film to license commercially for a number of reasons, Kevin has been able to produce a limited edition 2-disc DVD release of the documentary, and it also includes Williams’ workprint among the special features. It is available for what it is officially being called a donation of $25, and I recommend it highly — it really is fascinating.

– Averil Cameron’s new book, Byzantine Matters, is a concise, readable overview of the state of the field of Byzantine studies, as she sees it. There’s a lot here that’s worth thinking about, and while much of it is prompted by her ongoing feud with Byzantinists who work a bit later than she does, she is up front about that disagreement and what she thinks the problem is.

 

– Twin Peaks: The Entire Mystery. I’ve spoken my piece about Twin Peaks here already, so hopefully this speaks for itself. Just get it.

 

 

– If Twin Peaks is your thing, there’s also Reflections: An Oral History of Twin Peaks, a behind-the-scenes treatment of the series by Brad Dukes. I haven’t read this yet, but it looks really interesting.

 

 

 

StJohnDamascus-logo-color-420x230– Finally, if none of these speak to you, I offer the possibility that you could make a donation to The Saint John of Damascus Society. We’ve got a lot of different things that we’re working on, including the Psalm 103 project but also much more, and making a gift in the name of somebody you care about would be a lovely gesture for all concerned. All gifts are tax-deductible to the extent allowed by law. The above link will take you to our website’s “Support” page; click the “Donate” button and PayPal will take care of the rest. If you’re interested in giving a gift but want to have a conversation with a person about it, get in touch with me (either via the combox here or by e-mailing richardbarrett AT johnofdamascus . org), and I’ll be happy to talk to you.

And, should you for some unknown reason be looking to give me a Christmas gift, well — you can certainly give something to the Saint John of Damascus Society, and it will definitely make me happy. I also wouldn’t sneeze at Twin Peaks: The Entire Mystery, and there’s also a book called 75 Years of DC Comics that would be right up my alley. And, hey, this blog has its own “Make a Donation” button. If those options don’t speak to you, well, there’s always this. Or even this.

Okay — Christ is born! Glorify Him! May you all stay well the rest of the fast (and beyond, of course)!

How you get better as an Orthodox musician

Theodore, at two and a half, has started chanting. He loves to stand at the psalterion in the Holy Cross chapel, and sing along to the best of his ability. He had already started saying “Alleluia” as “Allya” a year ago, and then during this last Paschaltide, he started singing “‘stos ‘nesti” with the Paschal apolytikion in church. He’s since started trying to chant “Alleluia” and “Kyrie eleison. No less of an authority than Alexander Lingas even said when he heard him, “Well, he’s got yphos!”

theodoros protopsaltis

Theodore has even started developing a notation system for “Alleluia”. He sits in my lap, I’ll write a phrase of something in Byzantine neumes, and then he’ll write something using his own signs.

THBII alleluia notation

He’ll even explain to you — sort of — how it works.

All of this is great, it really is. It’s so awesome to watch him work these things out on his own, to try new things, and to respond to what he sees and hears. His two-and-a-half year old brain is a little sponge, soaking it all up.

Here’s the thing: he’s two and a half. What he’s doing is wonderful and age-appropriate for a two-and-a-half year old. It’s really more than I would figure I could expect from a two-and-a-half year old. Still, there will come a time when it is no longer age-appropriate. There will come a time when he needs to start developing an understanding that goes beyond simply doing something and grows into an understanding of what it means to do it right. Then, eventually, an understanding of what it means to do it well. If he isn’t willing to do that by a certain point — which will be his prerogative entirely; I’m not going to force anything on him — then certainly the age-appropriate thing for him won’t be to continue to do what amounts to yelling in church. It will be better for him to do something else if he’s decides he doesn’t want to get better beyond “Alleluia”. That’s not a problem; that’s exactly what one would expect when it comes to seeing a toddler grow up and develop — that they will continue doing some things and do them in more sophisticated ways, and they will discard doing other things and take up new things. Wash, rinse, repeat.

In other words, it is normal that there be a pattern of development when one learns a new skill, and it is to be expected that one will follow that pattern if they continue to do something that requires that skill, or they will do something else that doesn’t require that skill. This is really easy when you’re dealing with kids; the trouble is when adults decide that they aren’t interested in getting better at something but they want to continue to do it anyway.

There’s a truism amongst musicians — the way you get better is to play with people who are better than you. This is something that, if you’re an Orthodox musician, is kind of a problem. Let’s be honest — a lot of us are in situations where we’re isolated, where we’re either one of the only competent musicians, or even the only competent musician, or if we’re not, then we’re one of the only ones who is really involved. And, for many of us, we spend so much time, not even trying to bring people up to our level, but just trying to explain to people that there is a level. Forget phrasing, musicianship, dynamics, whatever — we’re working on getting people to sing a majority of right notes. We put the majority of our efforts into trying to communicate the fundamentals of the fundamentals, and doing so in contexts where some people are receptive, some are hostile, and some are benign but unable to be productive for one reason or another. To put it another way, we spend a lot of our time working with adults who are, relatively speaking, at the level of my son Theodore, and who are faced with the choice of learning to do it better or needing to stop. Here I note that it seems inescapable that we speak about singing in church as a clerical calling, something set apart; consider the petition during the Divine Liturgy — “Again we pray for those who bear fruit and do good in this holy and all-venerable Temple; for those who serve and those who sing (ψαλλόντων); and for all the people here present, who await thy great and rich mercy”. Such a point of view has been espoused by no less than the Ecumenical Patriarch. So, if we’re going to talk like that, then we also need to speak frankly about what it means not to be called to sing. It is nonetheless a choice a lot of adults don’t want to make; beyond that, we work in such situations under circumstances where clergy may or may not be supportive, we may or may not be being paid, and we may or may not have adequate resources otherwise to do what we need to do.

To frame this in terms of personal experience — I am hardly one of the “greats”. I stopped pursuing music performance as a full-time profession because I knew I wasn’t, and knew I couldn’t be. Still, I am a well-trained musician. I can sing pretty much what you put in front of me, be it in staff notation or Byzantine notation, I can do it in English, Latin, French, Italian, German, and Greek, and if it’s Church Slavonic then I can do it well enough to blend with somebody who is proficient. Some of my ability comes from what I had to do for my music degree; some of it comes from experiences in Episcopal church choirs, where you’re singing new repertoire every week, some of it comes from experiences with other performing ensembles like opera choruses and early music chamber ensembles, some of it comes from doing a lot of recording sessions where you’re sightreading music you’re seeing for the first time and have to record within the next half hour so you can get through the other fifteen things you have on the docket that day. I am not amazing; there is nothing remarkable about being able to do any of that. It is simply what is expected if you are to be considered a reliable, garden-variety professional.

And what did I do with my church choir? Generally, I had to teach notes by rote and hope it stuck; I had to explain things repeatedly like the necessity of turning the page when you reach the end of it; I had to beg people to come to rehearsal and come to church on time; overall, I had to put 15-20 hours a week into that kind of undertaking, and it compensated me far less than I would have received were I merely a paid member of a choir at a Protestant church. Towards the end of my tenure, I had experiences like telling my choir that they needed to watch me for entrances during the anaphora, and one person responding by stomping out, proclaiming that “You’re totally focused on all the wrong things and have completely lost the spirit”; this person never spoke to me again, and instead lodged some kind of complaint against me with the priest (the priest declined to discuss any specifics of the matter with me, and I left the parish shortly thereafter).

I have had to go out of my way over the years to make my own opportunities to play with people who are better than me so that I myself can get better. Sometimes that meant paying people to come to me. Sometimes that meant people paying me to come to them. I took various pro singing gigs here and there. I found a way to go to Greece to learn Byzantine chant, since the alternatives were all a five hour drive away. I also went to gatherings of other people who were in my shoes. hoping to learn things that I could bring back to my parish. I went to PSALM in 2006. I went to the Antiochian Village Sacred Music Institute a couple of times. In all of this, I hoped to learn something that could inspire people to want to see things the way I did, and to want to get better, to make music for the worship of God that was always seeking to be as good as it could be rather than “good enough”. The response was always the same — “What does any of that have to do with us? I mean, fine that you had fun, and great that all of you musicians were able to sanctify each other’s preferences, but what happens there stays there; we’re not interested.” People, in the main, had no interest in being inspired; no interest in being reached; no interest in being worked with; no interest in learning. That was for “musicians” outside of church; it had nothing to do with what they wanted in church.

If this is how you’re spending most of your life and your energy, as a musician, your A-game is going to suffer. And, truly, for many of us, when we do get together, the once or twice a year that the opportunities come about, we’re so thrilled that there’s another honest-to-God person in the room who gets it, to whom we don’t have to explain anything, who is singing the right notes and speaking our language without translation, that we’re not thinking about our A-game; we’re just having fun making music with people who share some understanding of what that means. Never mind “playing with people better than you are”; it’s a miracle when we get to play with other people who get it, let alone who are better.

So then, when we do get to play with people better than we are, it’s a ball game we aren’t prepared for. We don’t perform at our best because we don’t even remember what that is. Our A-game is irrelevant to our regular existence as church musicians.

Really, what I think we face is that there is a particular kind of poverty that we’ve had in our parishes for a long time for various historical reasons. Rather than try to improve the matter, various voices have spiritualized, if not fetishized, this poverty, given a particular moral weight to it, and what perhaps was non-professionalism out of necessity has become anti-professionalism out of choice, replete with nonsensical pietistic platitudes like “Orthodox music isn’t performed, and it would be better if we didn’t think of it as having composers, let alone professionals; Orthodoxy doesn’t do art.” Add to that what I believe is an American distaste for anything that smacks of “being told what to do” and a preference for being self-taught over learning from a teacher (something I certainly encountered when I was playing guitar seriously, 20+ years ago), and you have the perfect storm of a musical anti-culture in American Orthodoxy.

This has not gone completely unnoticed or unremarked on. At the 2006 PSALM conference, Fr. Thomas Hopko said very bluntly, “The Orthodox Church seems to be the only place on earth where you don’t have to be competent to be asked to do something. How does this come about? What happened? Why will people join a community choir, not miss a rehearsal, pay attention to the choir director, and then then not do the same in their parish choir? If we’re not taking church and everything we do in it seriously, then we’re just re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic. You can’t raise the bar when you still have to convince people that there’s a bar to be raised in the first place.” Along similar lines, I had a conversation recently with a longtime Orthodox choir director, somebody with a doctorate in conducting and decades of experience, who remarked that in a conversation with Fr. Ivan Moody, it came up that in Finland one must have a Masters degree in choral conducting to be choir director. “What a concept,” this person said. “Yeah,” I replied, “here it would be more like a disqualification.”

The difficult reality is that the circumstances we face in the world of American Orthodox church music are such that, in the main, they weigh the overall level down; the efforts of the would-be musical leaders do not pull it up. And, as long as this is the case, we Orthodox musicians in America are going to be hard-pressed to make much of a case for the best that Orthodox music can be with our own efforts. We will rely on non-Orthodox musicians to bring out the best elements of our liturgical music, we will have to record and perform in non-Orthodox churches because we have not adequately provided for the acoustic environment in our own — in short, we will be the audience for the professional performances and recordings of our own music, not the singers, and it will be because, frankly, we’re not good enough for it to be otherwise.

And we haven’t even begun to talk about issues like professional levels of pay. I am going to guess that there are 10 people in the United States who are able to make anything like a living off of being Orthodox church musicians, and that’s rounding up from the cases I know about for sure. I’ll limit my comments here, but a place to start is the simple fact that a decent undergraduate musical education isn’t cheap, let alone any level of education beyond that, and it would be nice to think that people who are serving the Church with such an education could at least make their student loan payments with what they’re paid. I’ll leave that there for now; a lot of parishes obviously struggle to pay priests (if they pay their priest), let alone anything else, so compensation is complicated, but it’s still something that needs to be addressed. There is a connection between time, talent, and treasure that must be acknowledged as part and parcel of the solution to the overall problem I’m discussing.

Orthodox musicians, ultimately I’m talking to you here, and we have a lot of work to do. As I used to tell my choir, I’m not asking you to do anything I don’t also expect of myself. Our task is complex, and while concerts, recordings, and conferences are great, the need is long-term and must be addressed in ways that are systemic and cultural, too. We must inspire the non-musician to do better, inspire the congregation to care, inspire ourselves and our colleagues to stay sharp, and somehow to get a culture in place that will form future generations of church musicians as singers, as composers, as teachers, and as leaders. We have to do all of that prayerfully and in love, and we must be mindful that our ultimate goal is service to God, just as it is for the priest and for the member of the congregation.

Cappella Romana is proof that it can be done at a professional level. PaTRAM also exists for this purpose, as did PSALM, and it’s also why Kurt Sander organized his Pan-Orthodox Liturgical Music Symposium this last June. I helped to found The Saint John of Damascus Society because I most certainly believe this is worthwhile, and I have advocated a particular model that would help with a big chunk of what we have to do, both in terms of teaching the next generation to sing and to understand why we need to learn to sing. In general, we all need to find ways of playing with people better than we are, and using those opportunities to get better ourselves.

How do we do that? As a place to start, visit parishes, monasteries, seminaries, etc. where those people are. Get to know them. Sing with them if they’ll let you, and see what you learn by worshiping with them at the psalterion or in the choir loft. Buy them coffee and ask them questions. That’s really hard when your parish isn’t anywhere close to anybody else, no question, so then you have to make it a point to attend gatherings of Orthodox church musicians so you can have a chance to get to know people. Go to choir conventions, sacred music institutes, liturgical singing seminars, symposia. That’s often not easy or cheap, but if you can’t afford it, ask for help, either from your parish as a whole or from individuals who are sympathetic. Present it as something along the lines of a mission trip, only for music. Hopefully they can at least get the costs down to something manageable. Better yet, if you can, bring at least one choir member with you so that they, too, can see that there’s a bigger world out there. Then, don’t stop there; start going to the things that will challenge you, and don’t just go to the events where your friends will be. (You’ll make friends at everything you go to, I promise.) You’ll learn even more that way. And when you do see your friends, don’t just revel in making a decent sound with somebody else who can make a decent sound; yes, it’s fun and feels great to bathe in a sound that’s resonant and in tune, but go beyond that. Force yourself beyond relaxing and enjoying so that you are listening and watching, and subsequently learning from what you hear and see. That’s how you get better, or at least that’s where you can start.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, Theodore wants to write some more “Alleluia” while sitting on my lap. Gotta start somewhere.

Thoughts on the Twin Peaks revival (SPOILERS; DO NOT READ IF YOU DON’T WANT TO BE SPOILED)

Yesterday (Friday) was my birthday; I’m 38 now, I guess beyond doubt putting me in my late thirties. Twenty years have passed since I became a legal adult; I’ve known my wife for almost twenty years; Kurt Cobain has been dead for more than twenty years; Soundgarden has been broken up long enough to get back together and to remaster old albums. Hammerbox remains broken up after a failed revival, which, alas, is probably for the best (although their in-studio acoustic performance was pretty awesome). It’s been 20 years since George Lucas made it clear that he really did intend to make the Star Wars prequels, and now next year we’re going to get Episode VII. Tim Burton’s first Batman movie is 25 years old, old enough for Michael Keaton to make a movie that effectively functions as metacommentary on his time in the role.

And, now, Twin Peaks has been over long enough to get a third season continuation.

(That’s fan-made, by the way. It’s fifty kinds of awesome, but it’s fan-made.)

Y’all have no idea how big of a deal this is to me. A Cocteau Twins revival would be just about the only thing that could possibly make me giddier at this point, but I’d be wary of that after how Hammerbox’s reunion was apparently over before it began.

Flesh of My Flesh threw me a lovely dinner party with several of our new friends here at Holy Cross, and instead of making me a birthday cake, she made me a cherry pie (using the Access Guide recipe) as a way of celebrating the news; our crowd last night was mostly too young to have seen Twin Peaks, however, so this required some explanation. Explanation led to watching the pilot episode with some of our guests; I expect this will lead to watching future episodes with some of them.

Much pixelage has already been employed in speculating about what the 2016 season might look like, so I don’t want to repeat any of that. The series finale and Fire Walk With Me both suggested that there was still a lot of story that Lynch had to tell, so I’m not particularly concerned about that (particularly with Laura Palmer’s line to Cooper about seeing him again in 25 years).

What I am wondering about, however — and not from a standpoint of concern; I want my Twin Peaks revival and I want it now; bring me a TARDIS so I can go to 2016 immediately and watch this — is this: Twin Peaks, when it came out in 1990, had a context of a particular widely-held image of the Pacific Northwest. Money Magazine had declared Seattle the best place to live in the United States in August 1989, to be sure, but keep in mind that this was pre-“Smells Like Teen Spirit” (Melody Maker had only just run their first major article on the “Seattle sound” in March 1989), and Microsoft had only just made their initial public offering in 1986, not to mention that Windows was only on version 2.x, so the tech industry had yet to permeate the Northwest landscape the way that it would by the late 1990s. Really, the main things that the Pacific Northwest was known for when Twin Peaks debuted were serial killers, UFO sightings, Boeing, mountains, and logging; Twin Peaks needed all of that to work, and it played with each of those elements on some level.

So, twenty-five years later, when Pearl Jam is now what Aerosmith was when Twin Peaks came out and Kurt Cobain is the Northwest’s iconic rock death (surpassing even Jimi Hendrix, maybe), when the image of the Pacific Northwest is now split between Seattle as the techie haven for the nouveau riche and Portland as the hipster capital of the world, when the Seattle Mariners are tied for the most wins during a season, the Seahawks have won a Superbowl, and basketball has left Seattle in favor of soccer, what will the town of Twin Peaks look like 25 years later? Now, the show was specific about locating the town in the northeast corner of Washington state, which is still basically the middle of nowhere, but if the Twin Peaks of the revival still looks exactly the same as the Twin Peaks of 1990-1992, well, it would be tempting to say that it’s David Lynch’s riff on Brigadoon. One wonders if technology might be kept self-consciously retro — will Cooper still be dictating notes to Diane via microcassette recorder even while the rest of the world has moved on to smartphones? Will we know that he’s still possessed by BOB because he drinks K-Cup coffee?

And, of course, there’s the question of how a new Twin Peaks season can break new ground after twenty-five years’ worth of television that has been influence by Twin PeaksX-FilesNorthern Exposure, even Veronica Mars — heck, for that matter, Hannibal the last couple of years, in which Mads Mikkelsen has given us a Hannibal Lecter with Ray Wise and Frank Silva as reference points every bit as much as, if not moreso than, Anthony Hopkins. What can Lynch bring to the form now, a quarter-century later?

Speaking of Ray Wise, since Fire Walk With Me he’s been a bad guy in 24 and, quite literally, the Devil in Reaper. Frank Silva passed away in 1995, so presumably Leland will now be BOB’s permanent form. The way they could get around this would be to cast Silva lookalike and opera star Greer Grimsley, but I’m not holding my breath on that.

I will say that the perspective I have now of Twin Peaks at 38 is wildly different than that which I had even twelve years ago. Watching the pilot last night, things that used to seem self-consciously melodramatic now seem quite real. Where I once might have wanted to chuckle at how deliberately over-the-top Lynch was being — for example, his cutting back and forth between a hysterical and screaming Sarah Palmer on one end of the phone line and a Leland Palmer who, presumably, is coming to the dawning realization that his daughter has been murdered and reaching hysterics himself (but is he? Even after Fire Walk With Me, this is still ambiguous) — now I look at it and think, “Yeah, that’s about what it would be like if I got the news that my child had been killed; Lynch just isn’t letting the camera move away, no matter how much I might want him to.” Broadchurch (and Gracepoint, to the extent that it’s a scene-for-scene remake) also manages to capture this rawness of parental grief, but in a much different way; it’s a far more self-consciously realistic treatment of a similar moment.

One final thought for now — Twin Peaks was a cultural moment, not unlike the ’89 Tim Burton Batman (yes, I know, that’s a touchstone that makes a particular kind of sense to me and perhaps nobody else), that was about the end of the 1980s marking some kind of a generational shift. Batman looked at this from the urban angle; Twin Peaks looked at this from the small town angle. Batman played with deliberate anachronism, putting Prince songs in the same world as 1920s-era gangsters, creating a Gotham City you couldn’t really locate on either a calendar or a map but that was still identifiable as a caricature of a New York that had produced Michael Milken, Ed Koch, John Gotti, and Bernie Goetz. Twin Peaks didn’t go the route of anachronism; rather, it gave the audience a world that was very specifically dated (24 February 1989 is the date given in the pilot episode, meaning it took place exactly 12 years before my wedding day) but that also freely employed the ethos of an earlier generation, while implying very strongly that that there was something seriously rotten underneath that generation’s surface. Certainly the presence of flannel, jeans, saddle shoes, and a sheriff named Harry S. Truman made Twin Peaks feel like a town that had been spared the nastiness of the ’80s; then there was the cast. All the young, scrubbed, shiny faces of James Marshall, Lara Flynn Boyle, Sherilyn Fenn, Sheryl Lee, Madchen Amick, and Dana Ashbrook made the town look like a place where young people might be bored but safe (which made it all the more shocking when their faces might be smeared, sometimes with running mascara, sometimes with blood, sometimes both); Kyle MacLachlan’s lantern jaw, black suit, and slicked-back hair was clearly intended to evoke somebody like Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.’s character from The F. B. I.; amongst the older adults, there was Russ Tamblyn, Richard Beymer, Peggy Lipton, Ray Wise, Piper Laurie — heck, even Michael Ontkean — all recognizable faces from the ’60s and ’70s, all of them now able to put on a sheen of middle-aged respectability, and the show subverted and undermined their respectability from the first scenes of the pilot episode. A generation that had grown up in the ’50s, become adults in the ’60s, and had kids in the ’70s were now having to face the consequences of their choices, Lynch seemed to be saying, and their children weren’t necessarily turning out any better just because they had fled the city for small-town life. This wasn’t Family Ties. Maybe small-town life just made it easier to hide weirdness, ugliness, and evil in plain sight.

Thing is, all of those concerns are basically old hat at this point. Many of us assume these days that the cities are corrupt hellholes and that there is no Mayberry, that small towns are probably cesspools of backwardness, ignorance, and abuse that cover it up with a sheen of self-righteousness that refuses self-reflection. We know that there are no safe havens anymore; New York isn’t really the land of opportunity and the small town in the middle of nowhere isn’t a sanctuary against the evil that men do. And, unfortunately, it’s no longer the bloodcurdling shock that it once was when we find out that Daddy was doing bad things to his kids, and we don’t need the distance of demonic possession to make it believable. We accept it, we process it as just one more tragedy, and we know that the generation that’s growing up right now is basically screwed no matter where we live or what we do. We’re over it; life goes on somehow. Next topic.

So, the point of this is to say — how will a new Twin Peaks season engage our current cultural anxieties the same way the original did, using the original’s setting? I assume Lynch and Frost must have something in mind for how they might do this, but how? In the real Pacific Northwest, the Ghostwood Country Club and Estates were eventually built everywhere, replacing the woods. Does that mean that the evil lurking in the woods has been let out into the open? Or has it just been built over for now, and it’s biding its time?

I guess we’ll find out in 2016.

When Roman history makes the news

Pre-modern historians often lament that our subjects are treated as irrelevant by society at large. While this is often true, and is certainly frustrating when it comes to convincing the general public to be interested in what we do, I’m not at all certain that it’s better when public figures feel empowered to misuse the materials of the pre-modern historian in order to serve their own agendas or to make themselves look they are of loftier minds than they actually are. (I also think it’s a problem when otherwise intelligent people respond in kind by simply re-subordinating those materials to their own agendas, but never mind that now.)

Senator Ted Cruz’s recent appropriation of Cicero (or, really, Charles Yonge’s translation of Cicero) has already been well-examined by classicist Jesse Weiner, writing for The Atlantic. I don’t think there’s a ton to add there, but I would consider the longer arc of history as well; Cicero’s militant defense of what he saw as the fundamentals of the Roman Republic did nothing in terms of the big picture to keep the Republic from turning into an Empire less than 40 years later. I’m not the kind of historian who talks about this or that person being on “the wrong side of history”, but I think it’s hard to get around the fact that Cicero was on the losing side, at the very least.

What perhaps might be more useful is considering the Empire’s relationship with its provinces, and how eventually, in 212, an emperor named Caracalla found it useful to extend citizenship to the provincials:

I grant Roman citizenship to all aliens throughout the Roman world, except the dediticii [meaning obscure], local citizenship remaining intact. For it is proper that the multitude should not only help carry all the burdens but should also now be in included in my victory. (Giessen Papyrus 40.1)

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One can interrogate Caracalla’s motives — broadening the tax base? Making sure Christians were subject to Roman laws? — and there were consequences to this that were both positive and negative, to be sure, but destroying the Empire wasn’t one of them.

Maybe the Edict of Caracalla is applicable to today’s circumstances, maybe it isn’t; the point is that you can’t just do a Google search on English translations of Latin rhetoric and cherry-pick what sounds useful. Using Cicero as an out-of-context prooftext for your political aims, pro or con, is simply stupid. I think I’d rather stay irrelevant than see my area get abused by opportunistic demagogues.


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