Posts Tagged 'church acoustics: how not to do them'

John Michael Boyer: “Why do we need beautiful music in church?” “So that it gives us joy in church”

We had Andrew Gould’s answer a bit ago as to why we need beautiful churches; last weekend, we got John Michael Boyer’s answer to the question, “Why do we need beautiful music in those churches?” What John said is of a somewhat different tone than what Andrew told us; it is less theoretical and more practical, but to that extent I think the answers complement each other. John provides an excellent patristic reference for his practicality, and I think he says a number of things worth thinking about. I’ll have more to say shortly.

(I will note that, thanks to how the acoustics at All Saints work, or rather don’t work, I had to be a bit creative in figuring out how to edit this so that it could be heard. There are still a couple of spots that are wonkier than I’d like, but I think it’s all audible. It looks like every second of decay in the proposed new temple will cost us approximately $1 million, so please pray for our building project!)

Newsflash from New Liturgical Movement: “Chant and polyphony call for a live space with a natural acoustic”

Jeffrey Tucker at The New Liturgical Movement briefly talks about issues related to amplification and acoustics within a nave. It’s a few days old now, and the points are reasonably obvious, but nonetheless worth making. This section in particular, uh, resonates with me:

The liturgical choir, however, is there to assist the ritual and be part of a sound framework that is broad and inclusive of the entire space — to be part of something larger than the sound it is making.  […] Chant and polyphony call for a live space with a natural acoustic, and… [thus] I’m not sure that it is really possible to talk about acoustics without dealing with the style issue. How a parish deals with the issue of [acoustics] can be very revealing as to what the designers and decision makers regard as the modal music of parish life.

This is an issue with which the people who sing at my parish are currently struggling (including the priest); it is a building which was built in 2001 as a temporary space, intended in the long term to be the education wing of a larger complex which was intended to include a bigger Byzantine-ish temple with, likely, a reasonable acoustic. Because the nave was going to be classroom space eventually, it was built as acoustically dead as they could possibly manage. Low ceiling, ceiling tiles, carpet. The room actually sucks sound out of you before you ever have a chance to phonate — and that’s a feature, not a bug, according to the people who helped plan the current space. They figured the bigger complex was just a few years down the road, so it wouldn’t really be that big of a deal.

Well, already in 2003, they were realizing it was probably going to take another ten years before they would be able to build the church on which they had counted; now, eight years after the current building opened its doors, we’re looking at likely ten years before we’ll be able to knock down a couple of walls to expand what we have, let alone build another building. What we have is what we have, and that is not likely to change any time soon.

As a result, the conversation has shifted to how we can make the most of our “temporary” space that hasn’t actually turned out to be temporary. This effort was begun in earnest this last January, and a good amount has been accomplished since those pictures were taken. Still, a coat of paint isn’t going to fix the acoustics, and our focus is turning to what we can do about the acoustics. For me, it’s not an abstract question; it’s like singing into a wet towel, and I’ve been doing it for six years now. It takes a toll.

Truth is, there’s little we can do. The support beams in the structure above the ceiling tiles are horizontal; we’d get maybe eight inches if we took them out. This means we can replace the carpet with something less absorptive, like beauty bark, and/or replace the ceiling tiles with something a little less absorptive. The trouble is the next question which gets asked: how do we justify spending the money to do any of that when this building is intended to be something else in the long run, and spending the money now would simply set us back farther from being able to build the next phase?

I bring all of this up for two reasons. First of all, if there’s anybody who reads this who has solved a similar problem or has ideas regarding how this problem could be solved, I’m all ears, baby.

Secondly, I think this comes back to Mr. Tucker’s point: how those involved with decision-making at a parish deal with acoustics says a lot about what they think is important with respect to music. To that end — let’s be real, guys, we’ve got a 90% sung Liturgy. If it can’t be heard past the third row when the choir is screaming themselves hoarse, that’s a problem. I entreat anybody reading this who is ever involved either with mission planting or the building of a new church building — plan for the acoustics. Plan for the choir. Plan for the vocal health and longevity of the people who sing. Put a mission in a space that is reasonably live — nonstandard acoustics will hurt you, not help you. Involve the cantor/choir director in the design of a new building — they will be able to tell you what they need, and at a minimum, a vaulted ceiling with a floor that isn’t one giant sound absorber should be treated as a reasonable starting point. In general, please don’t deliberately hobble your singers and then say, down the road, when asked about it, “Sorry, we actually intended it that way.” Your clergy will thank you, too, particularly during Holy Week.

These things, truly, are not “nice to haves”. They are “need to haves”. It’s not a snobby musician thing; it’s the fact that if we get callouses on those two little flaps of flesh in our vocal tract, we’re done.

Churches are the last venue where one is at all likely to hear live, unamplified music anymore on a regular basis; we aren’t going to hear it at home, we aren’t going to hear it at school, and heck, a lot of the time we aren’t even going to hear it in an opera house anymore — and even in a lot of churches you’ll find amplification out the wazoo. Our ears have become accustomed to the nonstandard room as being the standard, and then just being able to turn up the volume if we can’t hear something. I cringe every time I see somebody chanting into a microphone; somebody has missed the point in that instance, and it’s either the person insisting on using the microphone or the person who has insisted that the cantor needs a microphone.

For further reading, I suggest Thomas Day’s Why Catholics Can’t Sing. I also published an article a few years ago in The Journal of Singing on this topic — maybe I’ll repost the text here.

On Bright Friday: Christ is risen! Indeed He is risen!

This is the time of year, the last week before dead week, when I typically find myself scratching my head, thinking, “Where the heck did the school year go?”

Heck — where did April go?

Tomorrow will be the first Saturday here at home when I haven’t had to set an alarm since February. Note to self: next year, when you’re asked if you’re up to 8am Saturday Liturgies all throughout Great Lent, say “no”.

Anyway… getting home after the trip to Seattle, I was ragged to say the least, but I was nonetheless returned to your regularly-scheduled Byzantine Holy Week, already in progress. To say it was bizarre I’m not sure really covers it; being in the midst of a death in the family (and recovering from bronchitis before we left), and having missed, more or less, Palm Sunday, plus all of the Bridegroom Matins services, as well as having broken the fast while traveling, during Western Easter no less, to just drop in with Unction on Wednesday and return to fasting for all of five days just felt weird. Also, since my experience of Orthodox Christianity has been very much in the context of my marriage, having my wife gone made it even weirder. By the time people were yelling “CHRIST IS RISEN!” late Saturday night, I just had to admit — “Sorry, not feeling it this year.”

Which makes it a good thing that the Resurrection of Christ does not particularly depend on my feelings, I suppose.

Agape Vespers Sunday morning found me missing a perfect fifth at the top of my voice and in possession of an extra major third at the bottom. Such was the case for much of my choir. Folks, I will write a separate blog post about this later, but let me beseech, implore, plead with, beg you — for the health, sanity, and vocal longevity of your choir and cantors, when you decide upon a mission space or build a church, however temporary you plan for it to be, acoustics and an intentional, non-negotiable place for your choir and cantors are not a “nice to have”. They are a “need to have”. Low drop ceilings with acoustic tiles and carpets cannot be considered a reasonable option, because then your choir and cantors, who likely won’t be trained singers in the first place and who won’t have any way of adjusting for how an acoustically dead space messes with your hearing or your singing — to say nothing of your priest, particularly during Holy Week — will have really no option in the long haul but to yell through services against the room or just not be heard — and frankly, you probably won’t be heard terribly well anyway. As well, to haphazardly jam the choir into a corner they were never meant to occupy, where they are walled in by, well, a wall, the congregation, the solea, and the plane of a deacon’s door, particularly on Pascha when you’ve got extra choristers as well as people’s baskets encroaching on what is already too little space — well, it just doesn’t work very well, from any standpoint. Do not tell yourself, “Well, the space is temporary, so we’ll just make do while we have to,” either — temporary is a guest with a habit of staying late.

But I’ll come back to that another time.

After Agape Vespers, I was prepared to go home, make my Paschal nachos, bottle beer, catch up on some homework, and then go pick up my wife at the Indianapolis airport at 10:30pm.

Did you hear that? That was God elbowing me in the ribs, saying, “Gotcha good, didn’t I?”

At 3:30pm, I got a phone call from Megan at the Seattle airport. The short version is that, thanks to weather, the Chicago-to-Indy leg of her flight had been cancelled, and because it was a FAA-imposed delay which caused the cancellation, there really wasn’t much United Airlines was willing to do beyond to say, “Have a nice night at O’Hare and we’ll get you on standby the next day… at some point.”

“All you have is carry-on luggage, right?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“OK. I’ll see you in Chicago.”

I quickly called friends to let them know that nachos would have to wait, and I left at 4:30pm (EST) to try to intercept the 8pm (CST) flight.

Thanks to an eight-mile backup on northbound highway I-65 (the left lane was closed for construction, although no actual construction was occurring that I could see), I finally got there about 9:30pm (CST), or 10:30EST — the time I was supposed to pick her up in Indianapolis in the first place.

We got home around 3:30am (EST), making it an impromptu eleven hour round trip. Thankfully, Megan was up to driving most of the way home so I could sleep, since I had to go to work the next morning.

It was a great start to the week.

I am, however, finally caught up with all of the Greek homework that I missed while I was sick and subsequently out of town, as well as ready, more or less, for the conference paper-style presentation of my research project for the history seminar I’ve been in this semester. It will be a work in progress, and I’ve already said I’ll need an incomplete for the full paper given all the surrounding circumstances, but I at least have something to show people, and I think it’s reasonably interesting. I think. In short, it has to do with how Coptic and Byzantine liturgical texts show us how each Church builds its communal identity relating to, and institutional memory of, the Council of Chalcedon with the rhetoric employed in the relevant hymnody, synaxarion readings, and even in fixed portions of the Liturgy such as the Commemoration of the Saints in the Coptic rite, and so on.

We’ll see how it plays in Peoria. I don’t think I can assume any liturgical knowledge whatsoever, so a good chunk of my time is having to be taken explaining various segments of the different services. Hopefully eyes won’t glaze over too much.

So, besides not having gotten enough sleep in two months and coming up on the end of my part-time status as a student, I can say that I appear to have a chant teacher while I’m in Greece, I have my renewed passport, and we have Megan booked to come out to Greece for the last 9 days or so that I am there.

I had received some suggestions about chant teachers, but held off acting on any of them until a particular individual got back to me. This person finally did, saying, “Well, here’s how you get in touch with Lycourgos Angelopoulos as well as Ioannis Arvanitis.” The catch with Πρωτοψάλτης Λυκούργος, alas, is that he speaks Greek and is “able to communicate in French”; I’m not sure I want to depend on languages which are works in progress for this kind of instruction, so I sent an introductory e-mail to Arvanitis in Greek (proofread by my friend Anna Pougas, so that I wasn’t inadvertently telling him “έχω τρία αρχίδια” or anything like that) and in English. He wrote back in English, saying yes, I’ll be here, here’s my number, call me when you get to Athens. We’ll see what can actually be done in seven weeks, but I’m looking forward to actually getting to learn even the most basic of basics from somebody who actually knows what they’re talking about and who has had the real thing in his ear and his blood for his whole life.

Anyway — life is slowly returning to manageable levels. At least until it’s time to leave my job and go to Greece for the summer.

Christ is risen! Indeed He is risen!


Richard’s Twitter

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