Posts Tagged 'alexander lingas'

Mediterranean microtonal melismas are not unAmerican: making time for some musical musings

A few things have come out recently to which I’ve been meaning to respond, and I’m finally able to take a moment to do so.

First of all, the issue of AGAIN which just came out, among other things, reprints Fr. John Finley’s essay, “Authentic Church Music”. This was originally a talk given to the the AOCNA Conference on Missions and Evangelism in 2002, and I have seen it in at least two print publications since then — PSALM‘s newsletter, PSALM Notes, and now AGAIN. It is also, as the link shows, posted on the Antiochian website itself, so clearly Fr. John’s piece has found an audience. Give it a read; I’ll come back to this.

Second, there was this short piece which was run on PBS a couple of weeks ago. I’d love to find a way to embed it, but I haven’t yet, so click on the link, watch it, then come back.

Third, RightWingProf has a couple of posts on music with which I tend to agree. The earlier is here, and a more recent one is here. Go read those, too.

Okay. You got all of that?

I’ve met Fr. John Finley a number of times. I met him at the Antiochian Sacred Music Institute back in 2004, and again at the PSALM National Conference in 2006. I also love his cookbook. He’s a good man, so far as I can tell he’s a good priest, and we know many of the same people. He’s also one of the people to whom I’ve tried talking about the choir school model (an idea which I just seem to have the darndest time communicating in a form that makes sense to anybody but me).

There’s a reason Fr. John’s article has a continuing audience; it is well-written, it expresses a point of view clearly, and it is a point of view which is popular among many American converts to Orthodox Christianity:

Some may negatively assume that such a proposal must necessarily lead to the development of an American Orthodox music, which will sound like Protestant music or the 70’s rock and roll Christian music of the baby boomer generation’s surfer churches. On the contrary, we are hinting at the development of authentic sacred music for the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church in North America, a music founded on “that which has been delivered to us”, but which is also the result of our interaction as Orthodox Christians with the surrounding American culture. (emphasis mine)

Fully Orthodox and fully American! Orthodox as the Seven Ecumenical Councils and American as apple pie! Isn’t that what we all want?

The trouble that I have with the article, and what I offer as a critique, is that Fr. John unfortunately buys into what Alexander Lingas refers to as “the narrative of decline” with respect to Byzantine music as part of his argument. Specifically, this paragraph is problematic:

Is the Byzantine music that we sing today really Byzantine, i.e. from the Byzantine era of the 4th through the 15th Centuries? Are we not aware that the Church music of the See of Constantinople was heavily influenced by the demands of the Turks after the fall of the empire in 1453 AD? Are we aware that the authentic music of the Byzantine Church lost its diatonic character and accepted enharmonic and chromatic intervals during this period of the Turkish yoke? Are we aware that the music of today’s churches in the Byzantine tradition throughout the entire Mediterranean region of the world is the result of the codification of these oriental elements by Chrysanthus in the 19th Century and is scarcely 200 years old?

Checking his footnotes, his citations are predictable — Strunk (1977) and Tillyard (1923). It’s an appealing narrative for many folks; hey, you know that stuff in Byzantine music that makes you feel uncomfortable as an American because it sounds, well, Eastern? It’s not actually as Orthodox as the Hellenophiles and Arabicists want you to think! It’s a later development which occurred under the Turkish yoke! It’s a narrative which validates the supposed biases of the “Western ear” (whatever that means) and knocks the practices of various national churches down a peg or two all at the same time — it’s a very economical argument in that regard.

There’s something else it manages to accomplish, too, which is hinted at in the body of the text and made explicit in a footnote:

We should continue the work of transcribing Byzantine notation into modern western linear notation and adopt modern western scale intervals.* We need to simplify the melodies in connection with the texts and encourage congregational participation. We should encourage the harmonization of the melodies. I have heard it said that the great musical contribution of the East is its melodies and the great contribution of the West is its development of harmony. What better place than America to bring these two great traditions together to form something uniquely American in terms of Orthodox Music? This, of course, has already been done in Russia, and will undoubtedly be a powerful influence on what is done in America in this area of musical development.

* This will, given time, effectively conform all Byzantine melodies to a diatonic equal-tempered scale. According to Byzantine Musical theorists, Medieval Byzantine Music was wholly diatonic anyway. So this could be construed as a move back toward a more pure form of Byzantine chant rather than a perversion of it.

So, actually, the more we file the edges and corners off of Byzantine music, the more Byzantine we make it, in fact! Better yet — we also make it more American at the same time. Perfect.

Also present is the fallacy that somehow congregational singing and congregational participation are coterminous. This seems to be one of those assumptions that makes people feel good but for which I have never actually seen any evidence. Don’t take this as me meaning that I’m against congregational singing; I’m not, not at all. What I disagree with is the “everybody sings everything or they’re not participating” model that seems to be the core postulate of many modern liturgists; that makes as much sense to me as saying “everybody paints the icons or they’re not praying with them”.

Now might be a good time to point out that in the last week, thanks to the magic of Inter-Library Loan, I’ve read Towards the Great Council: Introductory Reports of the Inter-Orthodox Commission in Preparation for the Next Great and Holy Council of the Orthodox Church, published in 1971, back when they thought the next Synod would be occurring around 1974 or 1975. I’ll discuss it in more depth later, but Section 2 of this document is called “Fuller participation by the laity in the worship and life of the Church.” It is all of two pages. This section seems relevant to the present discussion:

…the nature of lay participation in the life of the Church is clearly expressed in her dogmatic and canonical teaching; it is not a question causing special concern to the Orthodox Church and, for the time being at any rate, it does not constitute a burning problem for her. In all conscience the Orthodox church believes that there has never been, nor is there now, a spontaneous movement among the laity to acquire greater rights and duties in the Church, different from those which they have had since the Church’s foundation. For they have always participated actively in worship and administration, in the pastoral work and teaching ministry of the Church, according to the rights and duties clearly laid upon them by Holy Tradition and the Canons. Their main rights and duties, as lay people and members of the Church, are to live in the fullness of the gifts and divine grace within our Holy Church and to witness by word and way of life to Christ the Saviour and to His gospel. (p. 23)

Obviously, this being 1971, this need not be the last word on the subject, but let’s keep in mind that this was in the immediate wake of 1970 Roman Missal taking a pair of pinking shears to the Mass in the name of “active participation,” and the Commission which drafted this document appears to be intending to head off any such attempts in the Orthodox world.

I must disagree with Fr. John about Byzantine notation and intervals; on a practical level, I might suggest that we might have an easier time getting the Greeks on board with the mission in America if we would stop treating their music as something we just found on the bottom of our shoe that somehow we have to fix and rescue from itself.

On a technical level, I wholeheartedly disagree about harmonization of Byzantine melodies. They function modally, not tonally; you cannot harmonize them according to conventions of Western functional harmony without eliminating the distinctives of the eight-mode system and reducing it to effectively two modes. This already happens when the well-meaning beginning isocratima thinks that the Second and Fourth Modes are intended to be major in character and mistakenly drones away on ni because it sounds like a tonic. The attempts at harmonizing many of these melodies which I have seen have been well-intentioned but nonetheless unfortunate; part-writing errors abound, to some extent unavoidably because the melodies are simply not conceived in the same way as melodies which follow Western conventions. Unavoidable though they may be, they still look, and sound, like part-writing errors.

On a level of Orthodox spirituality — here’s one idea: how about we immerse ourselves in the received tradition before we start trying to “fix” it? Might not something emerge organically over time if we were to do that? That’s not to say that we can’t try things to see if they work, but my thinking is that we’d be best off doing so in continuity with the tradition, not at variance from. If we want to make Byzantine music conceptually more accessible to Western ears, the first step is recomposing melodies to fit the English texts according to Byzantine conventions, not just sanding off the corners of pre-existing melodies and shoehorning in the English. There are increasingly good models for doing so — we should follow them.

From the standpoint of scholarship — at the very least, I would encourage Fr. John to at least familiarize himself with, and subsequently engage, the scholarship which recasts the narrative into one of continuity rather than decline. A place to start might be Lingas’ essay “Medieval Byzantine chant and the sound of Orthodoxy” in the book Byzantine Orthodoxies, Louth and Casiday, eds.

This brings me to the PBS piece on Emily Lowe at Holy Cross in Linthicum, MD. I am not certain if I’ve met Ms. Lowe; I met several people from Holy Cross at the Antiochian Sacred Music Institute back in ’04, and she looks familiar, but I honestly can’t remember. She has a lovely voice; the church is beautiful, and they’ve got her singing one of the signature hymns of Sunday Matins. It’s also kind of fun seeing people like Kh. Frederica Mathewes-Green and Terry Mattingly in the choir.

The problem is when things like this are said (which I copy here from the transcript):

During the time of the Ottoman Empire, the Greek chants took on sort of a very Middle Eastern character, and that’s when you hear this sort of dissonant, odd sounding things:  (singing) Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, glory to thee oh God.”  It sounds very foreign to Western ears.

Again, there’s that narrative of decline and cultural captivity with respect to Byzantine music. Granted, there are a lot of people in the Antiochian Archdiocese who teach that, including Fr. John, so it’s not a huge surprise, but my guess is that if the PBS documentarians were to have interviewed somebody like John Michael Boyer, they would have had a different set of quotes.

Ms. Lowe describes herself in one of the comments on the video’s page as “a piano teacher who just loves to sing”. I’m going to guess we have a lot in common; we’re what you might call armchair Byzantine musicologists. We’ve read a lot, we’ve heard a lot of recordings, been to a PSALM event or two and/or the Sacred Music Institute at the Antiochian Village, and we do our best with what we have, which are, as a rule, the Kazan transcriptions. I know I haven’t yet had a chance to actually study with a chant teacher who genuinely knows what they are doing and has direct contact with the received tradition, and my hunch is that neither has Ms. Lowe. The practical reality for me is that there isn’t anybody within a 4-5 hour drive for me to learn from; the closest person about whom I know is protopsaltis at Holy Trinity in Nashville, TN.

All of that is to say, if PBS came knocking on my door, I’d tell them I’m the wrong guy, everything I know I know because I read it in a book or have imitated a recording, I’m not an expert, I’m not an authority, and that they need to go talk to somebody like Boyer or Leonidas Kotsiris in Nashville, who have studied with great teachers (who were themselves students of great teachers and who have been singing these services in this idiom since they were blastocytes), and are themselves teaching it and passing it on. I would tell them they need to talk to people, not who are trying synthesize water from hydrogen and oxygen, but who have actually drunk from the well, if not marinated themselves in it.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m absolutely not attacking Ms. Lowe here. I have bags and bags and bags of admiration for her. She’s clearly wonderful, and a huge asset to Holy Cross. She does what she does very well, loves to do it, and offers it humbly in the service of Christ. That should be the big takeaway from this video, and it should be a model which all of us who use our voices in the service of the Church follow. It would be an honor to sing a service with her, anytime, anywhere. The trouble is the editors of the video presenting the content as authoritative and normative when it isn’t.

Finally, for the most part, all I really have to say about RightWingProf’s posts is — right on, brother. I take issue with a lot of the four-part writing which is out there for English translations for many of the same reasons he does. I don’t think it has to be that way; I think passing 7ths and 2nds can work okay, but they can’t be used as a sentimental harmonic trick.

There are a few little points I wish to engage, however.

I tend to disagree that professional choirs are somehow undesirable. Yes, fine, the Rachmaninoff Vigil is going to be too much for a parish choir as a rule. However, if you’ve got a cathedral choir that can pull it off — defined, as far as I’m concerned, as being able to sing it well and prayerfully — I don’t see a problem using it liturgically. My overall discomfort is that we approach a mindset that says, “You’re too good of a musician to serve the Church with the fullness of your gifts.” I can’t imagine telling an architect or an iconographer that, but we seem really comfortable telling singers that. No, it’s not a concert, but there’s a dichotomy between worship and performance which I think approaches being a false dichotomy at some point. My belief has always been, with respect to that dichotomy, if you sacrifice one for the other, you will do neither well. I completely own that I say that as a former Anglican, however, and that this informs my point of view.

I also fundamentally disagree with the blanket assumption, constantly asserted by many, that Slavic music is “more accessible to American ears”. If sung well, in English, with a melody that actually fits the text in terms of stresses and meter, Byzantine music is plenty accessible to American ears. By contrast, Slavic music sung poorly with stresses and meter distributed in such a way as to do violence to the English text is going to be just as inaccessible to the American ear as people so frequently proclaim Byzantine music as being. This is not a slam against Slavic music or Orthodox music in the Slavic idiom; I’m a big fan of Fr. Sergei Glagolev (who was kind enough to inscribe my volume of his music at PSALM in 2006), and the Kurt Sander settings I’ve sung I’ve really liked. All I’m saying is that I think it is an error to say that somehow one national idiom of Orthodox music is fundamentally more accessible than another and to privilege that idiom based on that assertion. There may very well be reasons to privilege particular idioms in particular contexts, but I don’t think this one holds up at all, and I think recent recordings of Byzantine chant in English bear that out.

Along similar lines, and to repeat a point made earlier, not everything needs to be sung along with by the congregation. Yes, it’s church, not a concert; I might reply by saying it’s church, not a campfire singalong. Melisma serves a particular function in the Byzantine idiom — frankly, that of following the rubrics. ἀργὰ καὶ μελὠς, “slowly and melodically”, is sometimes what the rubrics call for. It is not the aberration many would make it, so I can’t agree that it should be absolutely avoided in the parish.

That said, a parish choir needs to fight its weight. Period. If a choir can’t sing it well and prayerfully, they shouldn’t sing it at all. So, from that standpoint, I agree that there is nothing wrong with “keeping it simple,” insofar as what we mean by that is that the music should be no more complicated than what the choir can sing well and prayerfully. In all likelihood, that’s probably going to mean keeping things a lot simpler than we might otherwise like for the time being — heck, we use the Antiochian Village camp music book as the normative setting at All Saints — but it doesn’t necessarily follow that choirs and congregations can’t ultimately grow into certain kinds of repertoire.

If I were helping to start a mission, what I would be very curious to try, if I had 3-4 other singers who were up for it and who could sing it well and prayerfully, plus an acoustic which would complement it at least somewhat, is using the Thyateira translation with the Boyer/Lingas Byzantine arrangements, as found on The Divine Liturgy in English, as the standard music, and setting it up from the get-go in an antiphonal formation. The idea would be to make a particular traditional practice normative from the get-go so that people are used to it from the start, rather than the mission making it up as they go along. I’ve seen what that can look like, and I can’t quite shake the idea that it is self-defeating and ultimately serves to paint missions into corners.

Perhaps it is good that I am not helping to start a mission.

Nice ways to spend Valentine’s Day or, things I’ll probably only ever be able to pull off once, part VI

oxford-ticket-2Back to happier things.

My initial thought had been that we could go to Hagia Sophia Cathedral in London for Liturgy on Sunday; I had only been able to quickly walk through there back in ’07, and thought it would be awesome to actually go for a service and perhaps see the folks I had met who attended there.

Turned out that the Sunday we were going to be in England was the Sunday of the Prodigal Son, however, and given the role of that day in preparing for Great Lent, it seemed preferable to attend a service in English. The Cathedral does a Divine Liturgy in English on the first and third Saturdays of the month; otherwise, they do everything in Greek. (“We’re the patriarchal cathedral for the Greeks in London,” the choir director there told me when I met him. “Our services are in Greek or else.”) Alas, we were there for the second Saturday.

Plus, as Dr. Lingas had told us on Friday, it was a Sunday for Byzantine chant in English up in Oxford.

Liturgy started at 10:30; the earliest train to Oxford we could catch was at approximately 8:30am, and that got us up there around 9:50. It was about a twenty minute walk from the Oxford train station to the Holy Octagon, and I remembered where it was easily enough.

This was the first time I had seen the interior of the Oxford church; while humble in a lot of respects — it is a very simple brick building — they have done a lot with what they have. Also, while somewhat smaller than All Saints, I’d say they packed in about 30-40 more people than we typically do — it was filled to the gills. On the other hand, it was 2 February on the Old Calendar (the Meeting of the Lord, or Candlemas as doubtless some of the English converts might call it), so it being a major feast might well have accounted for the attendance.

The celebrant was Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware); the homilist Fr. Ian Graham; the cantor Dr. Lingas. Talk about a delightful treat of a morning. Metropolitan Kallistos served with a great deal of enthusiasm and verve; I’ve said before that recordings really do not capture how animated he is, and I would like to reiterate that point. Fr. Ian’s homiletics are very different from what we were used to, but not in a bad way, and it was very valuable to hear on this particular Sunday. Dr. Lingas — with one other person — sang essentially a stripped down version of The Divine Liturgy in English; what was interesting was that many of the same, shall we say, pastoral realities were present as I run into at All Saints. For example, the “Dynamis” of the Trisagion was, as is the case for us, merely a repeat of the first iteration rather than a separate, longer, melismatic comp0sition. Also, as with Bloomington, as soon as the Liturgy was over — time to start chatting! In all fairness, they actually have to go to a separate building entirely for their coffee hour, so there’s no hallway into which they may just quietly slip. It was nonetheless comforting to see that such issues are not geographically limited, shall we say. One fascinating difference is that at All Saints, more or less everybody in the congregation tries to sing everything; in Oxford, the people were largely silent.

The Oxford church is on the property of something called Ss. Gregory and Macrina House; it’s a house that exists as a center for non-liturgical Orthodox activity at Oxford, including some accommodations for students and the occasional visitor. It also appears to be where the offices for the Fellowship of Ss. Alban and Sergius are presently located, and is also where the coffee hour occurs. I hope to have some occasion to spend more time there in the future.

Following Liturgy, we ate lunch at the Eagle and Child; alas, it was full enough that the Rabbit Room was inaccessible, but the bangers and mash — and the fish and chips, and the beer — were still quite tasty regardless.

The rest of the day was spent strolling around the town and the campus, and it was a gorgeous, if chilly, day for it. In some respects, it was good we were there on a Sunday — most places where we might have been tempted to spend lots of money were closed. That said, Blackwell’s is an exceedingly pleasant place to spend several hours (and perhaps hundreds of pounds). They have shelves and shelves of things which have to be special ordered here — Greek New Testaments and Septuagints, English-Norwegian dictionaries, and so on. On the other hand, Oxford is certainly a place where people with those kinds of interests are concentrated, so that shouldn’t be a surprise. One more reason to contrive a reason to move there someday. Alternately, it’s a great reason to have a little notebook in which one can write down ISBN numbers and look online for better deals in US dollars.

We attended Evensong at Queen’s College; it was almost entirely at the other end of the spectrum of liturgical practice and singing from Metropolitan Kallistos and Dr. Lingas, but it was a nice reminder of what good liturgical singing can sound like in the Western tradition. I forget how much I like a pointed psalm sung antiphonally.

Finally, it was time to go back into the city. We got good sausage rolls from a bakery called La Croissanterie, and boarded the train.

Tips: It is reasonably common to encounter cash-only locations in Oxford. The bakery was cash-only, a coffee chain called Caffè Nero, and admission to the Saxon tower of St. Michael’s at the North Gate (“the oldest building in Oxford”) was cash only. (Megan went up; I didn’t. Again, something about paying to see part of a church just doesn’t sit well.)

Evidently, if the Orthodox visitor to Oxford were to contact the Ss. Gregory and Macrina House well enough in advance, they might find that they would be able to stay there. I don’t have any other details, and they don’t have a website or an e-mail address I am able to find, so the easiest way to contact them appears to be by phone — 01865 513117.

Yeah, Oxford is still my favorite place in the universe. What can I say?

Coming soon: how we actually got to bum around, y’know, London for day, and why the Sherlock Holmes Pub and Restaurant should be avoided at all costs.

Nice ways to spend Valentine’s Day or, things I’ll probably only ever be able to pull off once, part III

oxford-ticket-13-feb-2009I got some news on Friday that I’m thrilled to have received, to say the very least. It’s one part of a triple threat, a trifecta even, of excellent possibilities, and it is seeming rather possible right now that by this time next week, I will have found out that the other two, and thus all three, have occurred.

My only gripe is that I was hoping that I might have heard this before we went to England, so that celebrating these bits of news might be yet another pretense for the trip.

That’s okay; it just means we’ll have to go again.

But you were waiting to hear something about Oxford. Warning: this is perhaps going to be the most academically dense installment of this account. Apologies.

A couple of weeks before we left, I e-mailed my friend and Anglophile Mark Powell to see if he had any suggestions for things to do and see. E-mail Alexander Lingas, he said. He’s there.

Dr. Lingas let me know that, Friday evening, he would be delivering a lecture at Oxford’s Ioannou Centre for Classical and Byzantine Studies on Byzantine chant in Late Byzantium, and that we would certainly be welcome to come if we wanted.

I was of two minds about this, truthfully. I thought to myself, wow, what a neat opportunity to sample, even on a small scale, the academic life while we’re there, on a topic which is near and dear to our hearts, and discussed by somebody whose work we respect and have been influenced by, even.

On the other hand, that’s the same day on which we will have just concluded roughly seventeen hours of travel, and it will most certainly mean that we’ll be taking two trips to Oxford, since I was really hoping to show Megan around there (and convince her that it’s someplace we want to live and do postdoctoral work someday, but never mind that now).

Oh well. Guess we’re going.

Thus, after refreshing ourselves with showers and fresh clothes, we took the Tube to Paddington Station from Charing Cross (this is a lot easier than it initially looks on the Tube map, by the way; you just push the waste all the way in so that the door can close… uh, wait — what I meant to say was, just take the Bakerloo line north from Charing Cross to Paddington — it looks like this shouldn’t work on the map, at least at first glance, but it in fact does), and off we went. An hour later we were getting off at Oxford station.

I took us right to the Ioannou Centre (alas, the Cock and Camel, where I had a nice breakfast a year and a half ago, has been replaced by an Italian restaurant); it’s a rather new building, and I remember walking past it a year and a half ago thinking, “Hey, I need to figure out a way to visit this place next time I’m here.” (This is not the accomplishment of memory it sounds like; you go down the main drag from the train station till you get to the other main drag which is perpendicular to the one you’re on, go left, and after a block or two there it is on your left.)

We got to the hall a half hour early or so, which gave us an excellent opportunity to look like American tourists who obviously didn’t belong there, awkwardly standing outside a darkened lecture hall doing nothing while students and faculty were quite well-occupied around us. Still, people showed up soon enough to provide us fish out of water with a little bit of a pond.

The lecture, “Cathedral and Monastic Psalmody in Late Byzantium: Towards a Final Synthesis?”, was intended as an introduction to the issues surrounding the late medieval Byzantine repertoire for scholars who are in fact Byzantinists but not music specialists. Since I’ve read his dissertation, many of the broad strokes of what he discussed were not new to me, but it was very interesting to hear him sing off of the medieval manuscripts, as well as talk about some of the transmission issues with the medieval repertoire. What was great about hearing somebody like him talk about these things is that he was able to make clear that this is a part of a greater body of living tradition and practice; this is not just What Those People Back Then Used To Do.

A point which I very much appreciated: Dr. Lingas said that chant scholars such as Egon Wellesz have tended to discuss the Paleologean repertoire in the context of a narrative of overall cultural and political decline in Constantinople; of course, I’m reading The Fall of Constantinople: 1453 right now, and Runciman very pointedly observes (perhaps with people like Wellesz in mind) that culturally, Byzantium was quite alive and well even as the Empire was in its death throes. Anyway, as this particular narrative of decline has gone away, it’s been replaced by a narrative of specifically religious decline, bizarrely (at least to me) represented by a disappearance of congregational singing and the rise of professional-level, melismatic chant. “The end result is the same [in both narratives,]” Dr. Lingas said. “The cantor has hijacked the liturgy.” He took great pains to disabuse the audience of these notions, demonstrating that a great deal of continuity (but not stasis, he stressed) can be seen between the Paleologean material and the received tradition of the present day, and that by no means has the cantor hijacked anything. Since I have been the cantor getting accused of doing the hijacking, the defense to a general audience was most appreciated.

Following the lecture, we hung out for a bit at a reception for Dr. Lingas, talked with him briefly, had a lovely chat with a DPhil student there who is writing his dissertation on Galen (“I guess I specialize in pain,” he said), and then we needed some real food. We told Dr. Lingas we would see him at church on Sunday (“Great — it’s the day for Byzantine chant in English,” he said), and then hunted down a meal.

We found ourselves at an Irish pub chain restaurant called O’Neill’s; chain it may have been, but it was tasty and reasonably inexpensive, and a good place for a beer and some stew.

We were ready to head back — we’d be in Oxford again on Sunday, anyway. By this point, we had been up for close to thirty hours (give or take), and we were nodding off on the train back to London to say the least. Back in the hotel room, we were asleep before our heads even hit their respective pillows.

Travel tip: having an international flight arrive in the morning and then tiring yourself out so that go to bed at a normal hour is a great way to beat jet lag.

Next installment: When Your Definition of Modern Is Anything After 1400 or, How Emily Hindrichs Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Her Wig

Coming soon: Cappella Romana’s Greatest Hits, Vol. I (330-1453)

Well, sort of. Mark Powell tells me that to some extent, Music of Byzantium was the first “greatest hits” collection, but to me that’s the live album with some bonus tracks. This is a compilation of selections from their studio recordings of the late antique/medieval Byzantine repertoire, released as a companion to the Byzantium: 330-1453 exhibit now running at London’s Royal Academy of Arts. I don’t know that this is the kind of thing that will really scream for a full-on review since it’s all previously-released material, but we’ll see. It certainly looks like a disc that will be a terrific introduction to medieval Byzantine chant as well as to Cappella Romana, and worth recommending on that basis at least. This will only be available in the UK for a bit yet, but it will eventually be out here, I’m told. You can order it online here, but shipping from the UK will double the cost. I’d just wait for the US release (or, if you’re going to the exhibit anyway, buy it from the gift shop in person).

Here’s the press release. I have taken the liberty of linking the recording titles to the pages where they may be purchased. I have them all and can recommend them all; I will say that The Fall of Constantinople and Byzantium in Rome tend to have higher production values than the other two in my opinion, and Music of Byzantium contains live versions of much of the same repertoire as The Fall of Constantinople, sometimes with interesting differences (and sometimes with a door slamming right in the middle of a number — ah, live music). Don’t let the price for Epiphany scare you; it’s out of print at the moment, but Mark says that it will be re-released at some point.

Contact: Mark Powell, mobile 503-927-9027; msg line 503.236.8202; E-mail

London’s Royal Academy of Arts
Releases New CD Recording by Cappella Romana
for its Mega-Exhibition “Byzantium 330-1453”

25 October 2008 — PORTLAND, Ore, USA; London, United Kingdom — Cappella Romana announces the release of its 11th recording, the official companion CD commissioned for the exhibition, BYZANTIUM: 330-1452, at London’s Royal Academy of Arts (25 October ’08 to 22 March ’08.

The Royal Academy calls this new CD “A glorious collection of choral music which traces the rise and fall of the Byzantine Empire, all sung by the world’s leading performers of Byzantine chant, Cappella Romana.” The ensemble’s first museum exhibition CD, Music of Byzantium, commissioned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2004, sold 12,000 copies.

The new CD, Cappella Romana’s third release in 2008, is a compilation of earlier recordings. It features tracks from Epiphany, Cappella Romana’s first full-length recording of Medieval Byzantine chant, as well as from the CD titles The Fall of Constantinople, Byzantium in Rome, and Music of Byzantium.

The disc will initially be available in the UK and Europe exclusively through the Royal Academy. Beginning in November 2008, the title will be distributed and sold in North America through Cappella Romana ( by special arrangement with the Royal Academy.

The Royal Academy of Arts in London is the fourth major world museum to have engaged Cappella Romana for its expertise in Medieval Byzantine Chant, joining these three institutions:

* The Metropolitan Museum in New York (Byzantium: Faith and Power, 2004; with CD selling 12,000 copies)
* The J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles (Byzantium and the West, 2004 and Icons from Sinai, 2006)
* The Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. (In the Beginning: Bibles before the Year 1000, 2006)

The first evening lecture of “Byzantium: 300-1453” will be given by Dr. Alexander Lingas, Cappella Romana’s founder and artistic director, on 7 November. Titled “The Heavenly Liturgy: Byzantine Psalmody to 1453, ” it will be enhanced by sung demonstrations by Dr. Lingas, Cappella singer John Michael Boyer, and three cantors from Hagia Sophia Cathedral, London.

The Royal Academy’s exhibition has received major press coverage in the UK and throughout the world, including a review and photo essay in Time magazine (Fri., 24 Oct. 2008).

The Divine Liturgy in English by Cappella Romana: the review and other thoughts

As someone who has sung in church at a more-or-less professional level for many years and who always had a deep love and appreciation for, shall we say, more historic forms of liturgical music, when I first became aware of Orthodox Christianity it was a very natural instinct for me to seek out this aspect of the faith. The trick here, of course, is that when you don’t know what you’re looking for it’s a bit difficult to find it, but eventually what I found was the Boston Byzantine Choir‘s recording of the Divine Liturgy, called Mystical Supper: Byzantine Chant in English. I was quite struck at how similar the approach on this recording sounded to something like Shapenote/Sacred Harp singing, to say nothing just how much of the service was sung rather than spoken. When I told my friend Mark Powell about this, he said simply, “Listen to the Greek Byzantine Choir’s recording of the Divine Liturgy in Greek. Then we’ll talk.” It was not an easy recording to find in the States in 2003; I wound up having to order it from a Canada-based Hellenic specialist, as I recall. (It’s much easier to find these days, at least for the moment. Amazon seems to no longer sell it directly — which has changed from a month ago — which suggests to me that the current pressing is gone, the distributor is out of stock, and whoever has it, has it, whoever doesn’t, doesn’t.) This recording really blew the lid off of my nice, safe, clean world of church singing, and redefined a lot of my expectations. Between that and getting to hear Cappella Romana‘s Fall of Constantinople program in the summer of 2004, I began to develop a strong affinity for the Byzantine repertoire.

What I didn’t learn, and what I wouldn’t fully appreciate until I was leading an Orthodox parish choir myself for the first time, from these exposures to Byzantine music — which are, admittedly, highly-idealized “best case scenario” presentations; as one musicologist told me, “Field recordings made at monasteries in Greece don’t sound anywhere close to the Greek Byzantine Choir” — is how divisive the repertoire can be for some people. It is clear that for certain ears, the otherworldly musical characteristics are, to say the least, less transcendent than foreign — “music to whip camels by” and “the nasal-sounding stuff the old man sings before the Divine Liturgy” being among the characterizations I’ve heard. I’ve even heard somebody say that Byzantine music “sounds more like the Muslim call to prayer than Christian singing.” The common assertion appears to be that there’s no way to make Byzantine music sound “friendly” to Western ears — it’s always going to sound like an ethnic import, “too Arabic” or “too Greek” or too something. A related concern is that it’s unison singing (save for the ison, the drone underneath), and Western ears expect four-part harmony as a non-negotiable given, period. It is certainly fair to say that Byzantine music is not appropriate for harmonization; this is for the simple reason that the conventions of four-part harmony are based on a tonal system, and Byzantine music is modal. You can’t harmonize a modal melody according to tonal conventions (i. e., “What Would Bach Do?”) without largely eliminating the distinctives of the given mode (as can be made clear when a new cantor instinctively, but erroneously, assumes that the ison for Byzantine Modes 2 and 4 is supposed to be C/Ne instead of G/Dhi and E/Vou, respectively).

There’s also the more specific complaint that Byzantine music doesn’t play well with English. This is a view shared by some rather visible and influential people; for example, the Preface of Mother Mary and Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware)’s edition of The Festal Menaion (St. Tikhon’s Press, 1969) says the following:

In course of time English-speaking Orthodox will doubtless evolve a musical tradition of their own, which will takes its place alongside those of Greece, Russia, and the other Orthodox nations. As yet, no such tradition has had time to develop: and Orthodox of English language must therefore draw for the present upon some existing musical heritage within Orthodoxy. The best adapted for this purpose seems to be that of Russia. Byzantine chant is too intricate: if it is to be used, then the stress and rhythm of the Greek original must be preserved almost exactly in English translation, and this raises insuperable difficulties. But Russian music is far more flexible; and in particular the simpler Russian monastic chants can easily be adapted to an English text. (p. 13, emphasis mine)

I have to be honest and say that I find this to be an odd claim (and yet one which seems to have influenced the assumptions and thinking of many people since its publication); it seems to me that Byzantine music is far more extensible and expressive when it comes to being adapted to English texts, where many forms of Russian chant, at least as presently used in English adaptation, tend to utterly disrespect the needs and conventions of English. It’s true that in many of the attempts to adapt the Byzantine repertoire to English — Kazan’s Byzantine Project, for example, being the one I use week in, week out — it seems like one winds up with melismas on odd words or emphases on the wrong syllables and so on, but I’d argue only that this means we haven’t perfected the system of adaptation yet (or perfected the English version of the text, for that matter), not that it fundamentally can’t work or that somehow we need to “file the corners off” of Byzantine chant, or in general make it something it isn’t, in order to make it work for English-speakers.

But nonetheless, the assumption is held by many that Byzantine chant fundamentally won’t work for English-language, Western Orthodox folks. The lengths to which some marginalize Byzantine music as being merely one of those pesky, overly ethnic, “little-t traditions” which drive away people who are culturally Western is demonstrated by a recent discussion on the PSALM Yahoo! group which involved speculation as to whether or not use of Byzantine chant might contribute to a decline in attendance in parishes.

Which brings me, at last, to Cappella Romana’s masterful, ground-breaking new release, The Divine Liturgy in English, which serves as the definitive response to all of these concerns, providing a fantastic model to emulate, transparency enough in the process to make it replicable, and, for the foreseeable future, the standard to meet for liturgical singing.

This is the recording of Byzantine chant in English which says, “Yes, we can.” This is the CD which you will see wearing black body armor and fighting off Rottweilers on an IMAX screen and telling Michael Caine, “Byzantine chant in English has no limits.”

Several years in the making and part of Cappella Romana’s “Excellence in Orthodox Liturgical Music in English” project — which includes the delightful Lay Aside All Earthly Cares, a collection of the liturgical music of Fr. Sergei Glagolev, which I’ll say more about shortly, and a future release of a Divine Liturgy setting by Peter Michaelides — this 2-disc set represents the monumental effort of adapting the traditional Byzantine repertoire so that it fits the English language idiomatically, often recomposing melodies from scratch in order to match the text. Conducted by Artistic Director Alexander Lingas, these settings are presented in a natural church acoustic, using native English speakers, and in their proper liturgical context, with Archimandrite Meletios (Webber) and Dn. John Chryssavgis serving as the clergy. The result is at once prayerful and phenomenally well-sung, full, rich, and in tune, and entirely Byzantine in character while never straying from understandable, natural-sounding English. It is ecclesiastical ensemble singing of the highest order, easily ranking with the recordings of Lycourgos Angelopoulos and the Greek Byzantine Choir, as well as with the best of English-language recordings of liturgical music such as those by the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge.

Because it is a Divine Liturgy entirely sung in one musical idiom, and therefore comes across as a seamless garment of whole cloth as it were, it is difficult, if not inappropriate, to make critiques of particular sections, so I’m not going to do that. I would say that the best way to get a sense of exactly what has been accomplished with this recording is to become familiar with a recording of the traditional Greek repertoire such as Angelopoulos’, getting a sense for the function and aesthetic which govern hymns such as the Trisagion or the Cherubikon, and then to listen to this recording and hear how those principles are maintained in the English language adaptation. The exact notes of the Greek versions are not preserved because they’ve applied the Byzantine compositional process to the English text, not simply slapped the existing Byzantine melody over the English text and then figured out how to make the syllables fit. The result is a new melody which is completely faithful to the spirit of the model and the conventions of Byzantine music, and fits the English text like a glove at the same time. These adaptations — which Cappella Romana are publishing on their website in both Byzantine and Western notation — range from simple and syllabic (such as the troparia and the Anaphora) to florid and melismatic (the Dynamis of the Trisagion, the Cherubic Hymn), according to the rubrics and intended liturgical function. The booklet credits John Boyer, Protopsaltis of the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of San Francisco, with much of the work of adapting of the chants, and his sensitivity to the English text while maintaining the Byzantine ethos is to be highly commended.

Let’s be clear — The Divine Liturgy in English is not intended as a musicological curiosity for specialists, but rather as a practical liturgical model for the wider Church. In other words, this is meant to be a clear demonstration of how we can do things now, not an obscure example of how some people used to do it. As such, the set presents a complete Divine Liturgy as would be found on a typical, non-festal Sunday after Pentecost (a “vanilla Sunday” as some choir directors jokingly call it). This includes the celebrant’s spoken prayers, the Epistle and the Gospel, as well as the full Alleluia and Prokeimenon with verses — only a homily is omitted. (An argument can be made that the way they’ve harmonized the various Typika, they’ve in fact left some things out such as the Beatitudes, but this is addressed in the liner notes.)

Among the many delights of this recording is the text. The official translation of the Archdiocese of Thyateira and Great Britain is used, the product of a panel involving scholars and clergy such as Archimandrite Ephrem (Lash), Metropolitan Kallistos, and Fr. Andrew Louth. Certain renderings are initially unfamiliar — in particular, the use of “Mother of God” instead of Theotokos, and “Holy Strong” in the Trisagion — but It is nonetheless a wonderful translation which adheres quite closely to the Greek text. The booklet includes a helpful essay by Archimandrite Ephrem about the methodology and pastoral principles guiding the Thyateira translation. “Holy Strong” is arguably closer to the actual meaning of the Greek text than “Holy Mighty,” despite the English tradition of the text; see this paper for a thorough look at translating the hymn. I would have liked the “Mother of God” usage to have been addressed in the liner notes; as it is, it is unclear why the Greek word Theotokos, surely standard usage for English-speaking Orthodox by now, is not retained when Greek words such as Dynamis are. Such questions aside, the Thyateira text is an incredible effort which would ideally influence future undertakings of the translation of liturgical texts. 

I will admit to being somewhat puzzled as to why, given the clearly considerable vocal resources Cappella Romana has at its disposal, antiphonal choirs were not used; the liner notes say that “some elements of of the traditional interchange between two choirs are preserved through the use of alternating soloists”, but this strikes me as an unnecessary reduction given everything else they go out of their way to achieve on the recording.

Another major plus of this recording is something which actually isn’t sung — it includes the entire ensemble speaking the Creed and Lord’s Prayer with conviction. This is sadly lacking on the Mount Lebanon Choir recording, where one guy limply reading the prayers into a microphone is too-obviously spliced in after the fact.

Can the musical level achieved on this set, and/or the acoustic in which it was recorded, truly be seen as practical or normative? To be sure, the kind of training needed to meet this standard is not yet widely available in the United States, and many parishes do not have the resources to either provide such musical instruction or to give attention to proper acoustics in their building design. Nonetheless, The Divine Liturgy in English should be understood as a presentation of the “best-case scenario” to which liturgical singers may aspire. As well, Lingas opts for an all-male ensemble — the traditional arrangement, certainly, but unlikely to be the pastoral reality in most places.

The Divine Liturgy in English also shows the way for future adaptations of other Orthodox liturgical music into English, not just Byzantine. To slavishly preserve music written for a different language when adapting it to English is to miss the point of adaptation; that approach does violence to the language and, eventually, the music as well. Rather, those who would adapt the chants for use in a different language must understand the principles which guided the composition in the first place, and then apply those to the new text, while preserving the spirit of the original as much as possible. The music on the previously-mentioned disc of Fr. Sergei Glagolev’s liturgical settings — I said I’d get back to him, didn’t I? — demonstrates his own mastery of how this works for music in a Russian idiom; it is identifiably Slavic in terms of musical character, while still being sung, and sung well, in natural-sounding English in a way which does not obscure the meaning of the text. Perhaps with both the Glagolev settings as well these Byzantine adaptations, one inevitably runs into the objection, “Nobody knows them!” That will simply take time to overcome.

Cappella Romana’s recording is no less than a gift to the English-speaking Orthodox world which will inspire and instruct. Thyateira’s Archbishop Gregorios writes in the liner notes that The Divine Liturgy in English is intended to “increase the understanding and appreciation of both the spirituality of Orthodox worship and the heights of musical expression to which its chanting aspires”; this it does stunningly well. Highly recommended (in case that wasn’t clear by now).

It’s here…

Buy me!

Buy me!

Cappella Romana’s The Divine Liturgy in English arrived in the mail today. I will have more extensive comments about it later, but the bottom line is that once everybody in my choir has a copy, I can just tell them, for the most part anyway, “Sing it like that.” Let me assure you that I am not getting any incentive to advertise this disc in the slightest — it is no more and and no less that I firmly believe that this is a very important work which can serve as a model from here on out of what the ideal should be for Byzantine chant in English. There are some caveats there, but they have to do with circumstances which are going to change from parish to parish, and don’t really impact the general point.

Which is — buy it, listen to it, learn from it. Please don’t rip copies and give them out. This wasn’t cheap or easy for Cappella Romana to produce and it will impact the ability of ensembles such as CR to produce future such works if people just steal it. Cappella Romana ain’t Radiohead, folks.

Alexander Lingas talks about Cappella Romana’s The Divine Liturgy in English

Ancient Faith Radio has a half-hour interview with Dr. Lingas about The Divine Liturgy in English. This touches on the translation, the process used to make the settings workable in English, and much more. Highly recommended. (Hat tip to my godson, Subdn. Lucas Christensen the Blogless.)

Poking my head back up…

…at least for a moment. The thing about blogging is, when you’re doing it, you’re able to do it. When you’re not doing it, it’s hard to get back into it because you feel like you’ve got so much catching up to do.

In brief, I was deliberately keeping blogging on the downlow the first half of April or so while a couple of situations finished playing themselves out, and they did, and everything turned out okay, but then it was Holy Week, and my mom was here, and then it was Finals Week, and then I’ve also been adjusting to a new job, and, and, and…

The other thing is that my new job is significantly less stressful than my old one. By metric tons, even, and for every imaginable reason. Between that and having a break from classes, the decompression rate is astounding. One of the things this has underscored for me is the sheer amount of stress with which I’ve lived for about the last year and a quarter — it’s been a pressure cooker, and not entirely for great, rewarding reasons. There are details on which I’m not going to elaborate here, so let’s just say for the moment that when somebody stops communicating with you, or intentionally communicates poorly, but still makes you responsible for what you would have known had they been communicating with you, and makes that standard operating procedure, there is no longer any reason to stick around — that person has already decided you don’t belong there. You’re not going to win, nor are you going to be able to fix anything.

Anyway, the point is, in decompressing, I have found myself picking up threads of particular projects that have lay fallow for much of the last year. This has been a good and productive thing — although the main one is not something I’m yet ready to discuss here — but it’s also taken time from other things I might have done more readily a month ago. Like blogging.

But here I am now, nonetheless.

I’m in the midst of reading Sunday Matins in the Byzantine Cathedral Rite, the doctoral dissertation of Dr. Alexander Lingas, the founding Artistic Director of Cappella Romana. I don’t have a lot of specific commentary on it just yet because I’m only about a quarter of the way through it, but one thing I will say is that I’m somewhat bemused by the fact that I’m having to read it in the form of a copy ordered from Proquest rather than an actual published book. lists it as having a publication date of 28 June 2008, but it is not yet available for pre-order; on the other hand, it is available for pre-order on However, if you go to the publisher’s website, it isn’t listed anywhere — neither as a forthcoming release nor anything else. Thing of it is, this has happened before; two years ago it had a publication date listed on Amazon of June 2006, and then right around May the date was yanked. An e-mail to Ashgate generated a reply that publication had been rescheduled to 2008, and here we are, but there’s nothing from Ashgate right now to suggest this is in fact happening. And, so far as I can tell, this has been going on with this particular work, with more than one publisher, for about ten years.

Gotta love academic publishing. I mean, it’s going to be approximately a $100 book, and I suspect that a thousand copies is a fairly optimistic estimate of the print run for this specific of a project, so I’m sure that whoever the publisher ultimately is, they’re not going to pull the trigger until the numbers make the most sense possible, and everything I hear about academic publishing says that, frankly, the numbers suck more often than not.

I’m also reading Bp. Hilarion Alfeyev’s The Spiritual World of St. Isaac the Syrian, and that’s another fascinating case with regard to publishing. It is readily available from its publisher, Cistercian Publications; however, for whatever inexplicable reason, it is not available through Amazon. That’s not all; the current edition really looks like it needed an editor. Capitalizations are extremely inconsistent, for example; a sample sentence tells us that “[t]he christological position ofthe Council of Ephesus was purely alexandrian: it took no account of the antiochene position, and it was precisely the antiochene (and not ‘nestorian’) Christology that was the Christology of the Church of the East” (p22, entire quote sic). Bp. Hilarion is a native Russian speaker, I believe, not a native English speaker, so perhaps that explains it, but one might expect that a native English-speaking editor would normalize these things.

In terms of my own adventures with academic publishing, I submitted my “Sensory Experience and the Women Martyrs of Najran” paper to a particular journal that had a call for papers that seemed appropriate. I got the response on Monday, and it was a bit curious. It wasn’t a “yes,” but it was a “no” that I wasn’t totally sure what to do with, since it wasn’t a form letter rejection (I’m very used to those). Basically they said, “This is really interesting, but in its current form it’s not appropriate for us. If you wanted to make it appropriate for us, here’s what our reviewers suggest.” The letter specifically says, “While we are not asking you to revise and resubmit, we would be happy to look at the paper again, provided you address all of our reviewer comments.”

So, what does this mean? Is this how journals try to let people down easily (“You’ve got a really great personality”), or does this mean it might be worth my time to make the revisions they suggest? If the latter, I’m going to need some help deciphering the editor-ese, so I’ll make dinner for whoever might be interested on that front.

Humorous note: The salutation of the letter was, “Dear Prof. Barrett”. Heh. Uh, no, to say the least.

I will eventually have pictures and a more detailed report regarding Lazarus Saturday’s baptisms and chrismations, but there is a related matter I wish to mention regarding a couple of the people involved, and it’s not completely public knowledge yet. Watch this space.

In other matters… in case you were wondering, no, as it happens, melted wax from a beeswax candle does not improve the functionality of a laptop keyboard. My wife felt compelled to perform this experiment this last Friday, so please don’t think that you need to determine this for yourself. Now, thankfully, Dell laptop keyboards appear to be designed to have things spilled on them and are incredibly easy and inexpensive to replace with no further trouble; Triangle Laptops was a terrific source, and I have no complaints about their pricing or their service. Should this happen to you, that’s the first place I’d look.

There is an effort at All Saints underway to explore ways of “greening the church”; without wishing to get into an argument here and now about whether or not this is a concept with which Orthodox need concern themselves, I’ll pass along that there were a few ideas which immediate came to mind for me:

  1. Commit to burning only olive oil and beeswax (excluding incense) — no paraffin, in other words. Olive oil and beeswax are, first and foremost, the traditional materials to use for candles and lamps in the church, and they have the added benefit of being clean-burning. St. Gregory Palamas Monastery in Ohio, I believe, does this.
  2. Start an herb garden. Given the various liturgical uses of basil, at least, this strikes me as a no-brainer. No reason to spend tons of money on fresh basil for Holy Saturday and house blessings and so on when, for a small fraction of that cost, a church could grow its own. Grow enough and there might be a reason to have a regular presence at the local farmer’s market, which could itself be a form of outreach.
  3. On a completely basic, practical level–have a rain barrel, or two, or three, or however many would be useful to have.

Anybody have any other thoughts?

I will wrap this up for the moment with a plug for the book The Oldways Table. If you’re a Michael Pollan or a Rod Dreher person, you may very well find that this book helps to suggest practical ways that some of their ideas might be put into practice. I’ll have more to say about it later once I’ve tried a few more of its ideas (and more importantly, adapted them into some of my own).

(And yes, I did in fact finish the Patriarch’s book on Lazarus Saturday; I’ve got plenty to say about it, but it can wait. Suffice it to say, for the moment, that I believe his intended audience for the book is not comprised of the Orthodox faithful, but that this does not in and of itself have to mean that the Orthodox faithful are justified in viewing what he says uncharitably.)

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