Posts Tagged 'estonia'

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


IU Jacobs School of Music: “Arvo Pärt: A Jubilee,” 9-10 October 2010

I was just informed that the weekend before the Symposium, the Jacobs School of Music and the Estonian Studies Program of the Department of Central Eurasian Studies, with additional support from the Russian and East European Institute as well as the Estonian Embassy in Washington, D. C. and the Estonian Institute in Tallinn, Estonia, will be hosting a weekend of events focusing on Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. Here’s the schedule of events:

“Arvo Pärt: 24 Preludes for a Fugue”
Saturday, October 9, 4pm
A Film Presentation
Sweeney Hall
(Estonia, 2002), runtime 90 minutes, English subtitles
Introduced by Dr. Toivo Raun, Professor of Central Eurasian Studies
“Arvo Pärt: Icon of an Age”
Sunday, October 10, 12-2pm
A lecture by Dr. Jeffers Engelhardt, Assistant Professor, Anthropology of Music, Department of Music, Amherst College
Sweeney Hall
**Followed by a panel discussion with Jacobs School of Music Faculty and Students
Arvo Pärt at 75: A Portrait Concert
Sunday, October 10, 4pm
Auer Hall
Contemporary Vocal Ensemble and Guests Carmen Helena Téllez, Artistic Director, & Jeffrey Smith, Guest Organist
Trivium (1976) for organ
Miss Syllabica (1977) for voices and organ
Bogorodits djevo (1990) for chorus
Fratres (1980) for violin and piano
Nunc dimittis (2001) for chorus a capella
Spiegel im Spiegel (1978) violin and piano
Summa for string quartet
…which was the Son of… (2000) for chorus and a capella
Salve Regina (2002) for chorus and organ
More information can be found here.
I’m definitely interested in hearing Dr. Engelhardt’s talk; about a year and a half ago he published a very thoughtful study of the musical practice at the non-MP Orthodox cathedral in Tallinn, Estonia, and I discussed that study a bit here. The concert, of course, should be splendid. Highly recommended on all counts.

Ethnomusicology: “Right Singing in Estonian Orthodox Christianity: A Study of Music, Theology, and Religious Ideology” by Jeffers Engelhardt

As I’ve more or less said before, I’m not an ethnomusicologist, but my interests do tend to at least touch things ethnomusicologists care about and vice versa. Thus, I at least keep my eyes open, and also as I’ve noted before, I’m in a good place to to do so (at least for the next two weeks).

The current issue (Winter 2009, Vol. 53, No. 1) of Ethnomusicology: The Journal of the Society for Ethnomusicology has an article titled, “Right Singing in Estonian Orthodox Christianity: A Study of Music, Theology, and Religious Ideology,” by Amherst College faculty member Jeffers Engelhardt. It is “an intimate musical ethnography of how Estonian Orthodox Christians at a small parish in Tallinn are making their liturgical singing ‘right'” (p.32), and seeks to examine the questions,

What do musical change and religious renewal reveal about the dynamic interrelationship of theologies and musical styles? How are orthodoxy and orthopraxy established musically? How do local histories condition the possibility of current and future practices? (p.32)

These are great, practical questions, and Prof. Engelhardt has been able to base his exploration of them on practical experience — between 2002 and 2007, he spent a lot of time conducting field research at Cathedral of Saint Simeon and the Prophetess Hanna in Tallinn, including singing in the choir (although, as he notes, he is not an Orthodox Christian himself).

Prof. Engelhardt makes several excellent points and observations; he places his work in the context of religious renewal for Christians in general in Estonia, which is “a process of investing their lives in the post-Soviet order with a particular morality and soteriology.” Estonian religious renewal is significant because

[it] both recognize[s] and resist[s] conventional aspects of the modernity mythologized in post-Soviet and postsocialist transition and ostensibly figured in the European Union: democracy, liberal pluralism, secularism, free markets, cosmopolitanism, universal human rights, consumerism, individualism, “normalcy,” and benign nationalism. (p.36)

For the Orthodox Christians in particular, “right singing” is an ideal which exists in this context;

it is a musico-religious poetics whereby Orthodox Christians are transforming understandings of personhood, human ecology, and secularism in Estonian society through sonic ideals that have decided moral and ideological dimensions. […] Thus, the musical and liturgical practices, congregational life, and institutional affiliations of local Orthodox communities in Estonia bring together a host of aesthetic, theological, social, and ideological concerns. All of these concerns coalesce in the idea lof right singing… [which] is a conduit of illumination and transforms invidiual and corporate bodies into Orthodox bodies of Christ. Right singing creates the correct unity of doxa (belief) and praxis (practice) that is the conservative essence of Orthodox Christianity. (Ibid.)

Prof. Engelhardt follows up on this point by suggesting that “[i]f the singing is right, then the belief expressed in that singing is right; if the belief is right, then the musical practices grounded in that belief are right” (p.37).

In other words, religious renewal in Estonia is not just about reclaiming something repressed during the Soviet era but about fundamentally trying to reshape the world around them into something consonant with their Christian faith; furthermore, “right singing” is not just an expression of these aims for the Orthodox Christian in Estonia, but one of the instruments through which the aims will be completed.

Given this, one of the really interesting points of Prof. Engelhardt’s analysis of the Cathedral’s practice is when he speaks of using Byzantine music for special Liturgies, such as a specific example where a parishioner was to be ordained to the diaconate.

There are a number of reasons why [the Cathedral] would use [Byzantine music] to make this liturgy special. Singers, priests, and parishioners at the Cathedral…invest Byzantine chant and styles of singing perceived as temporally or geographically distant with special significance. These ways of singing are right because they sound the right religious ideology and create the right religious imaginary [sociological term referring to a set of values, institutions, laws, and symbols common to a particular social group and the corresponding society]; they distinguish Estonian Orthodox musical practices from Russian Orthodox Obikhod-inspired practices. For [the Cathedral], Byzantine sounds are “right” because they are “more archaic” and “more monastic” than the Estonian Orthodox traditions with marked Russian Orthodox and Protestant Lutheran influences; Byzantine sounds bring worshipers to the “right level”… [and] Byzantine ways of singing are “more ascetic” and evoke the “feeling” that is such an important part of Orthodox Christian experience… [and] Byzantine ways of singing bring [the congregation] “to the source” of the Christian tradition[.] (p.39-40)

This interlocks with earlier point of how “right singing” (orthopsalmody?) is an ideal which exists in the context of religious renewal in Estonia: “[F]or Orthodox Estonians, the trajectories, geopolitics, ideologies, and moral norms of this kind of transition do not correspond entirely with the Orthodox lives they imagine leading” (p. 41), therefore

[r]ight singing is…how Orthodox Christians situation themselves within a global religious imaginary… [which] has enabled religious renewal and, in the process, established alternative, Orthodox perspectives on the modernity being fashioned through post-Soviet transition, reframing its liberal ideologies and doctrine of secularism. The Byzantine aspects of right singing, in other words, create a form of “morally inflected cosmopolitanism”…that is given voice through liturgical practice[.] (p.44)

He reaffirms and restates this point a little later:

In general, then, what is sung at the Cathedral…and, just as important, how it is sung, localizes temporally and geographically distant Orthodox sounds in order to make singing right… Byzantine is a chronotope (a temporal and spatial field of action) incorporating aspects of musical style, theology, and religious imagination that captures what singers sense as the archaic, originary, and more authentic qualities of their way of singing. Negotiating this kind of proximity…within a global Byzantine imaginary as part of the ongoing renewal of Estonian Orthodoxy and amidst ongoing social, economic, and ideological transformation, then, is a process of making singing right. (p.46)

Prof. Engelhardt concludes with some startlingly sympathetic observations:

The ideal of right singing gives voice to eternal religious truths that empower Orthodox Estonians to live faithfully and in relation to God, one another, and a global religious community. The soteriological, ethical, and affective dimensions of right singing are profound, and by singing the right way, Orthodox Estonians realize their full humanity through the unity of beauty and truth, aesthetics and veracity. […] By endeavoring to sing the right way… Orthodox Estonians work at incrementally transforming themselves, their Church, and their world into this likeness [of God]. Musical practice, in other words, is an agentive means of religious transformation as it shapes individual and communal disciplines, sensibilities, and moral actions. (p. 50)

Prof. Engelhardt’s ethnography is very thought-provoking, and it is remarkable how applicable the picture he paints of the situation in Tallinn is to the Orthodox church choirs in the United States I’ve seen or with whom I’ve sung. While not using the specific technical language of ethnomusicology and sociology, I’ve participated in many conversations about Orthodox liturgical music that wind up in largely the same place as this article. One question that comes to mind is, just as much as the “Byzantine imaginary” allows Orthodox Estonians a means to frame their responses to modernity, I wonder to what extent we might hypothesize that some Orthodox Americans, or even Orthodox Christians elsewhere, wish instead to synthesize modernity with the Byzantine imaginary? What does that look like? How does the synthesis differ from the response?

Now, a questionable point, at least for me, is methodology. A large portion of Prof. Engelhardt’s fieldwork depends on his perspective as a participant in the choir, and he acknowledges that while he is participating with the faithful, he is not participating as one of the faithful. Without getting into the question of whether or not one should sing in the choir if one is not Orthodox, I’ll just say that it begs the question of how his observations were colored by the perspective of a non-believing participant. I don’t doubt that it likely helped to make his observations as sympathetic as they are, but it seems to me that there are lines being crossed with this methodology. Again, I am not an ethnomusicologist, so I acknowledge I raise this question from a standpoint of ignorance, and I would be curious as to how an ethnomusicologist might answer this concern. One way or the other, this is a methodological approach that strikes me as at least requiring full disclosure — that is, it not being enough for the researcher to state that they are a non-adherent; rather, a statement of of what the researcher’s religious beliefs actually are is needed to clear up any ambiguities. I could very well be totally wrong on this point, and if I am, that’s fine, but that is my initial reaction.

In all fairness, Prof. Engelhardt acknowledges the problem to some extent, noting that not being an Orthodox Christian presents certain challenges to this kind of work:

The ideal of right singing gets at things that are hard for ethnomusicologists to get at: belief, faith, the numinous, and apophatic ways of knowing through negation rather than through the positive statements of modern scholarly practice. The challenge for non-Orthodox ethnographers like myself, then, is to apprehend at all the correct unity that makes singing right. (p. 37)

Another shortcoming is the bibliography; of 125 total references listed, literature which specifically treats Orthodox Christianity only gets six entries. Of those six works, four deal with Orthodox sacred music, three of which focus on Russian practice. Given the prominence of Byzantine chant in the ethnography, it is odd to me that the references would not reflect more substantial reading and understanding in that area. Some citations talking about theology of icons or liturgical aesthetics in general would also seem appropriate, given how Prof. Engelhardt synthesizes his points in the conclusion.

There are also some curious imprecisions here and there; there is a quotation on pp. 35-6 from the “Canon for Sunday Orthros,” which hardly narrows down exactly which Canon it might be (and his translation from Estonian isn’t a lot of help, either). He refers to the diaconate being the first step in becoming a priest; while it can be, yes, it is not the prescriptive matter that he implies. In another instance, he speaks of “an authentic Orthodox theology of sound” (p. 49) without clearly stating what that might be or providing a citation.

Having noted these points, however, I think there is much to appreciate about Prof. Engelhardt’s work, and whatever I may wonder about his methodological approach, I applaud his willingness as a non-Orthodox Christian to treat the musical practices of Estonian Orthodox Christians on their own terms. If you are interested in reading the entire article, it is not available online, but if you’re near a university library, they should have the journal on their shelves.

I’ll close with Prof. Engelhardt’s final paragraph, which is perhaps the part every scholar who works in areas related to religion should read:

Beyond these conclusions about why the right singing of Orthodox Estonians is right (conclusions based on a musical ethnography of orthopraxy), one verges on matters of belief and faith (the inwardness and veracity of doxa) that reveal the limits of how modern, secular scholarship produces knowledge… Suggesting how musical style, religious ideology, and sociohistorical circumstance affect the rightness of sound is only part of the story. The other part of the story is about the epistemology given voice through the outward expressions of orthopraxy; it is about the ineffability of some religious experiences, the unverifiable efficacy of some rituals, the possibility of divine revelation, and the corporeal sensibility of the authentic, all of which are no less real or true than musical style, religious ideology, and sociohistorical circumstance. Regarding these profoundly significant aspects of right sounds, one must, I believe, defer to those for whom they are right, stopping short of any complete representation in order to recognize and reflect on their ultimate meaning and power in the lives of the faithful. (p. 52)

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