Posts Tagged 'kurt sander'

How you get better as an Orthodox musician

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

theodoros protopsaltis

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

THBII alleluia notation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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CD Review: Archangel Voices, Panagia: Orthodox Hymns to the Mother of God

I-112Archangel Voices is an Orthodox vocal ensemble that specializes in liturgical choral repertoire by present-day composer, particularly focusing on English-language settings (either composed for English texts or adaptations of existing settings for English). Their Artistic Director is Dr. Vladimir Morosan, a scholar of Russian Orthodox choral music in particular (he is the translator of Johann von Gardner’s venerable series Russian Church Singing, volume 1 and volume 2, he has his own monograph on Russian church choirs right before the Revolution, and he has published several critical and performing editions of Russian choral repertoire), and an advocate of Orthodox liturgical music more generally.

Archangel Voices is one of the outlets for Morosan’s advocacy, and Panagia: Orthodox Hymns to the Mother of God is their sixth release on disc. The intent of the recording is to represent the vast diversity of Orthodox hymnody about the Mother of God — hymns from the daily cycle of services as well as the Marian feasts, special services, and also para-liturgical compositions. There is not only a rich collection of hymns but also composers; there are many Slavic composers such as Chesnokov and Bortniansky presented here, as well as composers active in present-day North America, such as Benedict Sheehan, Morosan himself, and Psalm 103 project composers Richard Toensing and Kurt Sander.

This CD is a different kind of aesthetic than that of some of the other recordings of Orthodox music that are out there. Cappella Romana’s approach is to do a variety of repertoire, make informed stylistic choices for the performance, and be as consistent with those stylistic choices as it can — an “early music” approach, if you like. Kurt Sander’s As Far as the East is from the West sought to reproduce the aesthetic of a large parish choir in a Russian choir loft. Holy Cross’ recent release was simply the sound of their chapel services transferred to disc. Samir Cohlmia’s recording of Dormition chants captures the aural experience of the Byzantine cantor as soloist. And so on. Archangel Voices does something a little different; rather than model themselves on a particular existing Orthodox musical aesthetic or attempt to be stylistic chameleons, they are more along the lines of a Western-style chamber chorale, made up of well-trained musicians who are flexible enough to sing pretty much whatever is put in front of them and make it sound good with a consistent, well-blended, shimmery, warm sound. Perhaps one could argue that Archangel Voices represents one model of what a good American parish choir could be; good enough musicians to sing virtually anything as themselves instead of trying to sound like something else.

It’s an approach that certainly does sufficient justice to most of the repertoire on this disc; particularly nice from the Slavic selections are Chesnokov’s general canon to the Mother of God, Nikolsky’s Megalynarion for Pascha (I am thankful to Morosan and co. that they opted for something less overdone than Balakirev’s setting, which is generally treated out here in the Midwest as the national anthem of American Orthodoxy), and Lvovsky’s Exaposteilarion for the Dormition. In general, I will say that the North American composers who are writing for the English language tend to stand out a little better; perhaps it is not surprising that music written for and sung in the same language sounds better than adaptations. Among this group, Morosan’s Koinonikon for Marian feasts, Nazo Zakkak’s setting of “I have thee as a fountain” from the Paraklesis service, Sander’s Megalynarion for the Divine Liturgy of St. Basil, and Toensing’s setting of “Awed by the beauty” from the Third Mode kathismata are all particularly lovely.

The recording isn’t completely flawless; there are a handful of moments that are a touch rough-feeling, where the ensemble doesn’t quite shimmer as much as they normally do. The ornaments on the ubiquitous paraliturgical Georgian hymn “O Vineyard, fair and new” don’t work as sung; they’re a mismatch with the style the choir employs otherwise, and as a result they sound like mistakes and baubles rather than specific ornamentation choices. To the extent that there’s a pastoral model here for choirs, I would suggest that the lesson here is, ornaments need to be treated as organic parts of a chosen style, not merely additional notes to be sung; if that’s not a practical or pastoral possibility, then it is an acceptable choice to leave the ornaments out. Also, given the ensemble’s stated objective in the booklet “to embrace various traditions and styles of Orthodox church music as they are manifest in the practice of parishes in North America”, it seems like something of a missed opportunity to not include any of the Greek-American composers who have written Orthodox choral music in English, or to use any of the growing library of settings of Byzantine chant composed for English (polyphonic adaptations of what are already themselves adaptations of Byzantine melodies aren’t really the same thing). Sometimes “pan-Orthodox” appears to mean, in practice, “everybody but the Greeks”, and opportunities like this would seem to be appropriate settings for trying to combat that. Alas; I’m sure there are reasons for such choices.

These are minor issues; Panagia is a high-quality effort overall from a high-quality ensemble, and very much worth checking out.

The St. John of Damascus Society

I have been making random references to something called “The St. John of Damascus Society” for a few months now, and I can finally say something a bit more concrete.

The really short version is that in the planning for the Orthodox Music Symposium at Indiana University, it became apparent that it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world for there to be a group that had administrative and financial independence from the church for purposes of putting together such things. We were piggybacking onto the parish for our tax-exempt status, and that nearly cost us a couple of our major supporters; plus, it would just be cleaner if we were able to have our own checkbook. The initial idea was something like a “Friends of Music at All Saints” or “All Saints Music Boosters”, and I went to Hal Sabbagh, a longtime chanter at and founding member of All Saints, to see what he thought. He was supportive of the idea, and was willing to help out however he could.

We incorporated as a non-profit in the state of Indiana last July; the next step was tax-exempt status, which meant assembling a board. Our Advisory Board consists of all of the presenters for the Symposium — John Michael Boyer, Alexander Khalil, Kurt Sander, Richard Toensing — as well as Matthew Arndt, an old friend of mine, one of the cantors at St. Raphael of Brooklyn Church in Iowa City and music theory professor at University of Iowa (as well as a former student of Richard Toensing’s). Our Executive Board consists of: Hal Sabbagh, president; Vicki Pappas, national chair of the National Forum of Greek Orthodox Church Musicians, vice-president; Laura Willms and Brian Rogers, two more very supportive cantors at All Saints, are secretary and treasurer, respectively; rounding out the Executive Board are Franklin Hess, coordinator of the Modern Greek program at Indiana University, and Patrick Michelson, the newly-hired (as of the 2011-12 academic year) Russian Orthodoxy specialist in IU’s Religious Studies department.

All of these people gave generously of their time, effort, and advice. By November we had everything we needed to assemble our application for federal tax-exempt status, and that went in the mail on 14 November.

As Hal found out over the phone with the IRS two days ago, our application for federal tax-exempt status was granted on Monday of this week, and we will be receiving a letter within the next couple of weeks with our number. So, time to get serious.

The St. John of Damascus Society, with everybody who is involved, has developed its scope significantly beyond being All Saints’ music boosters. The basic idea is to promote the idea of excellence in traditional forms of Orthodox music as good outreach — that singing well and singing prayerfully not only do not constitute a dichotomy, but it can serve as a powerful witness to those around us. We have a number of ideas about things we want to do locally, regionally, and nationally, and while we’ve waited for tax-exempt status to be sewn up before we went public with anything, I can tell you you’ll be hearing more very soon, including ways you can be involved.

We hope to have a website up shortly; in the meantime, if you’re interested in the St. John of Damascus Society based on this little teaser, would you mind filling out this form? That’ll make it really easy for us to get announcements to you as we make them. You can also follow us on Twitter.

Thanks very much, and I will have more to say very soon!

Reminiscences from PSALM, Chicago, 2-5 August 2006

A comment prompted me to look up a series of e-mail I sent to the members of my choir from the thus far one-and-only PSALM national conference held back in August of 2006. This was back in the days before I had a blog. I sent these to my choir partially because I wanted them to engage some of the things I was hearing while I was there; truth be told, I’m not sure they all understood why they were getting long e-mails from me. Such is life.

Reading through them, it seemed perhaps worthwhile to share some of those notes here. My perception — and someone can correct me if I’m wrong — is that PSALM peaked with this event; I think there was talk back then about trying to set up regional PSALM identities and events and then do a regular national conference every other year, but none of that ever happened, for better or for worse. My experience with the PSALM Yahoo! group in its present form is that the ideals expressed five and a half years ago are by no means universally held these days, or even necessarily approved of. I can’t really say for sure I understand what’s going on there, but there we go.

Anyway, without further ado —

Day 1: Hello from Chicago! Day 1 has been packed with a lot of stuff that hopefully will be useful for all of us in the long run, and the days to come look similarly stuffed. The Indiana representation has been significant: the opening remarks were from Fr. Sergei Glagolev, an Indiana native; Vicki Pappas and Fr. Joseph Morris (from Ss. Constantine & Elena in Indy) were both part of a panel discussion; the Paraklesis service was sung by IU alum Jessica Suchy-Pilalis; and I finally had the occasion to meet Lori Branch, about whom I have heard so much over the years. She sends along her love and best wishes to all who might remember her.

We had a rehearsal for the Divine Liturgy Saturday morning, and about two-thirds of the conference participants are making up the choir–that is, probably somewhere around 100 people. It’s like the Sunday of Orthodoxy choir, only about four times the size. In the enormous nave that St. George in Cicero has, one is bathing in the sound when all of sing. It’s quite something. Mark Bailey, one of the instructors in liturgical music at St. Vladimir’s, is conducting the conference choir–and it might be worth mentioning that, when we looked at the “Lord, have mercy” sections, the first thing he did was tell us to drop the r in the word “Lord” so that it came out “Lohd”. Just so you know that it’s not that I’m crazy. (Well, not just that I’m crazy, anyway.)

The Paraklesis service was lovely–unison women’s chant from Dr. Suchy-Pilalis and one other. Really very beautiful.

I’ll have a full account of all the goings-on later, but there are a number of things panelists and clergy said which I’m chewing on already. Some of them are pretty challenging and clear-cut in terms of communicating a strong point of view and expectation:

“There is no such thing as a quick fix, only hard work… We have to have the ability to change, because when things don’t change, they’re dead.”–Fr. Sergei Glagolev. Fr. Sergei also challenged us to think about what we want to pass on to the next generation in terms of singing in church.

Fr. Joseph stressed the need for the choir to be dignified and sober, and to have a servant mentality–that we come on time, and we are prepared. “If you can’t make it on time, you can’t make it on time,” he said. “Better to sing with the faithful in that case. You’re not a bishop.” He also noted that, in his parish, there is the expectation that the singers treat Vespers, Matins, and Divine Liturgy as one piece–that is, if someone is singing in the choir for Divine Liturgy, he expects them to have been there for Vespers and Matins as well. “My expectation is that my singers are Orthodox in practice as well as name,” he said.

Valerie Yova, PSALM president, observed that, in general, there is a lack of effective musical leadership in the Church in this country, and noted the following symptoms/factors:

  • Choirs are shrinking and aging
  • People are living further and further away from where they go to church
  • School music programs are dying
  • Parishes are falling into financial trouble
  • There are an almost impossibly small number of places to be trained as an Orthodox church musician
  • The old chanting masters are dying and not being replaced
  • The musical element of worship is being devalued

The panel discussion (David Drillock, Fr. Joseph, Fr. John Rallis, Fr. Lawrence Margitich, Fr. John Finley, Alice Hughes, Carol Wetmore, Rachel Troy, and Vicki) observed that synergy between choir director, singers, and clergy requires time and regular effort, and e-mail cannot be all there is. To that end, not only are regular rehearsals vital, but clerical involvement in rehearsals on some regular basis is also important. Vicki Pappas made the point that volunteerism cannot be an obstacle to excellence, that church musicians have a sacred role, that of being responsible for leading the people’s worship, and that this should inspire us to better things. Fr. Joseph followed this up by saying, cf. St. John Climacus, “If it is possible for one, it is possible for all.” One priest (Fr. Lawrence Margitich, I think) put it this way: we shouldn’t confuse volunteerism with stewardship. As church singers, we are stewards of God’s talents, not mere volunteers, and we should act and think of ourselves accordingly. David Drillock, choirmaster emeritus at St. Vladimir’s expressed this by saying that being in the choir should be a “high calling”.

Other nuggets from the panel: if we as singers are truly connected to the text we’re singing, it will be communicated to the congregation naturally. Also that the church school should be excellent recruiting ground for the choir. Fr. Joseph also suggested that congregational singing should not drag the Liturgy down; it should appropriately done and led. Dovetailing onto that, Vicki suggested a clear intent with respect to which sections we should encourage the congregation to sing, and those which we intend the choir to sing. Having said that, the panel followed that up by saying that it is foolish to replace something people love unless one knows it’s being replaced with something they’ll love at least as much.

Fr. Thomas Hopko, Dean Emeritus of St. Vladimir’s, minced no words: “I disagree that dead things don’t change. Rather, dead things become more rotten, corrupted and stinky.” He also issued a rather direct challenge: “The Orthodox Church seems to be the only place on earth where you don’t have to be competent to be asked to do something. How does this come about? What happened? Why will people join a community choir, not miss a rehearsal, pay attention to the choir director, and then then not do the same in their parish choir? If we’re not taking church and everything we do in it seriously, then we’re just re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic. You can’t raise the bar when you still have to convince people that there’s a bar to be raised in the first place.”

In aid of this sentiment, he told the following story: a parish started talking about buying a new chandelier. It came to the parish council, and one person stood up and said, “I am absolutely against this. We don’t need a chandelier, we don’t want a chandelier, and we can’t pay for a chandelier.” The priest asked, well, what do you mean? “It’s too expensive,” the man said, “and we don’t even know where to buy one.” (Scattered laughter from the audience.) He went on: “Plus, there’s nobody in the parish who can play one, and it’s not even part of our tradition anyway.” (More laughter from the audience.) He finished by saying, “I just can’t understand why we’re talking about buying a chandelier when what we really need is more light!” (Peals of laughter from the audience.)

Like I said, all very challenging stuff, but there was a truly remarkable consistency to the message I heard today. It’s going to take me a while to process all of it, but there was one more thing that was stressed today, and I’ll close with that for now–

Fr. Thomas Hopko also said that, as church musicians, in terms of purpose and practice, we must start no other place than Christ crucified and glorified, that it is only by starting there we will end up in the right place. In the same vein, the panel also reminded us of Metropolitan +ANTHONY Bashir’s insistence that, once love is manifested, all things are possible.

All of these things are worth thinking about, and I encourage you all to do so as well.

More to come on Day 2.

Day 2: Again, too much to summarize in one e-mail, but a small handful of highlights:

First two presentations this morning were from Fr. Ephrem Lash, who looks and sounds like Gandalf as portrayed by Ian McKellen (and who has a wonderful website, http://www.anastasis.org.uk), who is also a scholar from England (I believe he is a colleague of Bp. KALLISTOS Ware, but I could be mistaken) who has quite a bit to say about translations of the Bible and liturgical texts into English, and Mark Bailey, instructor of liturgical music at St. Vladimir’s. The topic for both was the fittingness of English as a liturgical language, the necessary approach to translating texts, and then how best to set these texts to music so that a) the meaning is communicated and b) the musical tradition is carried on. Both had wonderful things to say about the necessary principles to make these things work. Before the first presentation, we sang “O Heavenly King”, and Fr. Ephrem noted that the setting took the word “impurity” and placed the stress on the last syllable, making it “impuriTEE”. “In the language I speak, English, it’s pronounced ‘imPURity’,” he observed. Mark Bailey had all kinds of fantastic practical examples of good text-setting and bad text-setting, and further suggested, “We’ve gotten our parishioners and singers too used to bad settings, and they’ve become attached to them as a result.” Fr. Thomas Hopko then commented, “Most of our churches are just copying what they’ve heard on recordings. Can we put out new recordings that do it the way you’re talking about?” Something to think about.

The second morning session consisted of presentations from the various heads of jurisdictional sacred music departments as to what they’re up to–Chris Holwey from the Antiochian Archdiocese, David Drillock from the OCA, and Vicki Pappas from the Greek Archdiocese. While interesting, I found it fascinatingly unnecessary to have such redundancy. All three of them are essentially doing the exact same job, providing the exact same resources in exactly the same manner. One fervently hopes that eventually there will be no need for multiple separate departments of sacred music.

The afternoon panel I attended was on the topic, “Educating Liturgical Musicians in the 21st Century.” Vladimir Morosan, a musicologist who specializes in the Russian repertoire, was the moderator. He framed the panel discussion by asking, “How do we explain that the oldest and richest singing tradition in Christendom does so little to formally prepare liturgical musicians? What do we do about it?”

Anne Schoepp, a choir director in the OCA in California, argued passionately that Orthodoxy is a singing culture, and we need to do everything we can at the parish level to start our kids singing and to get them used to singing and loving singing. Fr. John Finley of our own Archdiocese suggested that the model of the Classical School that is starting to pop up in Orthodox circles could be a way to disseminate this kind of curriculum; I suggested that there’s an even more obvious answer, the tradition of the choir school as it still survives in England and even some places here in the US like the St. Thomas Choir School in New York and the Cathedral Choir School at the Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City. “Let’s talk,” Fr. John said.

However we do it, the panel continued, people need to be immersed in good liturgy in order to be able to do good liturgy–it must be soaked in, the liturgical aesthetic must be ingrained in us. To this end, one panelist said, the power of the priest cannot be underestimated in terms of cultivating potential–kids as well as adults need to come to events like this, for example.

After the afternoon panel was choir rehearsal; Mark Bailey is very exact, and it’s a real learning experience to watch him conduct. It continues to be something else having a 100-voice choir singing in a church where the acoustics are as favorable as they are here. Then Vespers, where a small ensemble sang the stichera and whatnot, not dissimilar from what usually happens at All Saints.

After dinner was a concert performed by a group called the St. Romanos Cappella (as opposed to Cappella Romana, a completely different ensemble), singing a program entirely of music by modern Orthodox composers–all but one of whom were in the audience. Tikey Zes (who composed our All Saints troparion), Ivan Moody, Kurt Sander (formerly of Indiana University Southeast), James Green (the one not in attendance), Mark Bailey (man, the guy is everywhere), and Fr. Sergei Glagolev. Each one of them brings something different to the table, but it was all wonderful. It would be nice to learn several of these (particularly the Glagolev, Sander, and Bailey material), because it would be a shame to have all of this beautiful music out there representing a living continuation of the tradition and then have it never actually be sung in our churches. It would also be especially nice to finish learning Fr. Sergei’s setting of Psalm 103/104 for Vespers; now having heard what it actually sounds like in a church and not just on a recording, I’m more convinced of this. (And Bp. MARK already approved it back in December, which is handy.) Besides Psalm 103/104, they also sang one of his settings of the Cherubic Hymn, the Anaphora, the Megalynarion, and the Alleluia before the Gospel (including the refrains), and it was made very evident what a treasure trove his liturgical music actually is. He received a standing ovation at the end of it–surely every composer there deserved one, but he was quite appropriately the man of the hour. It was very moving.

After a looooooooooooooooooong, far-reaching conversation with Dn. Kevin Smith, choirmaster at St. Vlad’s, we managed to miss the shuttle back to the hotel and had to get a ride back from a Bulgarian woman named Danielle. And now it’s time for me to fall over and go to sleep. More to come tomorrow.

Day 3: There was a lot of theoretical stuff talked about today. I found it fascinating, but there’s little I can just summarize into an anecdote. Mark Bailey again had interesting things to say on a variety of topics; one issue he described was that of a common faith not necessarily uniting the Orthodox into a common sense of heritage. In terms of what that means musically–well, for many of us who are converts, “all Orthodox music is music for all Orthodox”, but that’s a very unique attitude to some (by no means all) American converts. He noted that in Russia right now there’s an argument over what kind of liturgical music from their various indigenous traditions (common chant, znamenny, etc.) will adequately represent the Russian culture. In this country, we have the opposite problem–we as yet have no indigenous Orthodox musical tradition, and so are trying to determine what bits and pieces from other national practices will best express Orthodoxy as it exists in America. Do we do a little bit of everything and make it a “checklist”-style approach? Do we pick one thing–Byzantine chant, Russian 4-part chant, whatever–and try to make it our own?

Mark Bailey is really big on liturgical singing doing no more and no less than supporting the liturgical action. That is, that liturgical singing either prepares for, accompanies, or is a liturgical action or rite. To do something other than one of these three things is, therefore, not liturgical and therefore spurious as far as this context is concerned. To that end, he says, musical form should elaborate on, and therefore draw the member of the congregation in to, a sacred action. At the same time, David Drillock two days ago reminded us that a large part of what we do is “proclamatory”–the exact opposite of drawing somebody in. I’m coming to the conclusion after hearing all of this discussed for two days that, as is so often the case in Orthodoxy, it cannot be “either/or”–it must be “both/and”. Part of its musical beauty come from the way in which the liturgical event is supported, and part of its ability to support the liturgical event must come from its beauty.

See what I mean about a lot of theoretical stuff?

One really practical thing he said with which I really agree is the idea that we need to not turn antiphons into anthemic pieces–they are a liturgical dialogue, not a big choral moment. What does that mean for us at All Saints? I don’t know yet; as it is we have a soloist sing the verse followed by the choir singing the refrain. What about this–rather than soloist plus choir, maybe it’s something like having the men intone one verse, the choir sings the refrain, the women intone the next verse, choir sings the refrain, etc.? We will play with possibilities at future rehearsals.

The afternoon panel, “Where do we go from here?” was interesting. People talked about a number of things, from PSALM formally getting behind issues like jurisdictional unity and a standardized English translation, to spearheading an English musical setting of the entire Octoechos (using, of course, this as-yet nonexistent “American chant” as the medium), to devising a music curriculum for use in parish schools. I think there are all kinds of things we can accomplish, we just need to think big. One of the issues, of course, is that in the past it has been possible for these issues to be solved in a “top-down” manner; the patriarchate or synod or whatever ruling body standardizes the practice/text/chant/whatever and promulgates it. The reality in this country, however, is that we’re having to solve many of these problems from the grassroots level on up. There’s a lot of “rolling our own” that takes place (as I found out earlier this week when I thought I needed a hierarchical “Before Thy Cross” and couldn’t find one to save my life), simply by necessity, because if we don’t do it, nobody else will.

Vespers was lovely. The large conference choir sang everything, and it was something. Being able to worship together (and commune together, tomorrow morning) is what makes this more than just a conference.

The evening panel, on composing liturgical settings for the English language, was made up of Ivan Moody, Fr. John Finley, Fr. Ephrem Lash, Mark Bailey, Fr. Sergei Glagolev, Vladimir Morosan, Tikey Zes, and Nicolas Resanovic. All I can say is–to have all of these people in one room was simply stunning. Not just their brilliance and talent, but their clear love for God and the Church as well. Ivan Moody provided a deft touch of dry, droll Englishness as the moderator. He provided a wonderful quote from St. John Chrysostom: “The tongue is made holy by the words when spoken by a ready and eager mind.”

There was a question where somebody described the situation of somebody coming up to the kliros or into the choir and being told, “Here’s the music for this service. We don’t actually do it that way, but here’s the music.” Big understanding laugh from the audience.

There was a fascinating moment where someone stood up and said, “You know, I’m from the Deep South. The South is a ripe field for Orthodox evangelism–the people there are crying out for the truth. Culturally, however, if we don’t bring it to them in English, their English, they are not going to care what we have to say.” This prompted Mark Bailey to remind us that, in this country, we are a missionary church with a missionary imperative, and that must inform what we do musically.

And then that, as they say, was that.

Day 4: Day 4 was short and sweet. With a 7:30am Matins service, I had to wake up at 6 to check out of the hotel. They did Matins and Liturgy as separate services, as opposed to Matins running right into Liturgy. There was a pause of a few minutes as Mark Bailey got set up to conduct the conference choir, and as the octet (into which I was roped) got into our places.

I may quibble with some (but by no means all) of the settings that were selected (I’ll be honest–the Russian chant in English is very jarring to my ear), but I have to say, having that 150 piece choir singing most of it and getting to sing in the octet that did the rest, in that church, with that conductor, was absolutely something else. I wish you all could have been there to take part, and my hope is that when this happens again, perhaps more of us can go. Fr. John Finley celebrated and homilized; it being the Pre-Feast of the Transfiguration, that was his topic. He started out with the quote from the Gospel reading, “It is good to be here.” It was quite apt. He exhorted us to “embrace the struggle” that we have adopted over the last few days, which was well-taken.

And that was that, more or less. There were some parting remarks at breakfast, and I think a lot of people are coming away from this event feeling like it was something seminal, that there has been good seed sown. Time will tell how God’s hand is in all of this, but one way or the other, it seems that the conference has exceeded everybody’s expectations.

A funny anecdote and a really cool thing: I went up to Fr. Ephrem Lash (the priest who looked and sounded like Ian McKellen’s Gandalf) and asked for a blessing. He sized me up and said (you’ll have to imagine the Ian McKellen-like voice), “Young man, did you receive Holy Communion this morning?”

“Yes, Father.”

“You never ask for the priest’s blessing after receiving Communion. You never ask for a blessing or kiss an icon. You have the Lord inside of you, so what can they possibly add? The Russians and the Arabs have gotten very bad about this.” I took it in stride, because I’m aware that it is an issue where there is not uniformity of practice or opinion. It was funny nonetheless. I then told him that I found his talk very edifying and he said, “Ah, ‘edifying.’ I never mean to edify, my boy; I only wish to make people laugh.”

So there we have it. Thanks for reading my ramblings; I just wanted to make sure that you all knew for sure I was where I said I was going to be, and hadn’t just taken off for Hawaii or something for a few days. If anybody wants to know more about anything I’ve talked about (or anything I haven’t, for that matter), let me know, I’d love to talk about it, particularly now while the memories are all still fresh.

In Christ,

Richard

 

Site redesign: Kurt Sander’s Orthodox Choral Music

It is a moral imperative that I inform all three of my regular readers (we’ve grown) about the redesign of Orthodox Choral Music, the website of Kurt Sander, composer of Orthodox liturgical music in the Russian idiom, scholar, Advisory Board member for the St. John of Damascus Society (website coming soon!), and all around good guy and valued colleague (insofar as I may be presumptuous enough to consider myself as having “colleagues”). Content is still being added, it would appear, but I’d say that the main treasure right now is the page of his scores. There’s a lot of really beautiful music there, and while I wouldn’t call it easy repertoire for an average choir, it’s very much worthwhile for, say, the intermediate choir that has a decent acoustic in which to sing and that can put it in the time to learn it well. It’s “American Orthodox music” in what I would consider to be the best sense of that term — settings of English texts by a native speaker in a received idiom, re-articulating the beauty of that idiom without assuming that the shift in language requires a total reconsideration of the form. Kurt understands very well the relationship between music and iconography (and based on things I’ve heard him say, he gets the difference between καιρός and χρόνος as well), and that comes out in his compositions.

Go check out Kurt’s site — it’s worth your time.

So it has come to this.

As I suspected might happen, the talks I gave as a Lenten retreat at St. Paul’s Orthodox Church in Emmaus, PA this last weekend have been posted to Ancient Faith Radio.

A few things: I’ll have a full write-up of the Emmaus trip a little later, but I had a lovely time. Fr. Andrew Damick is a wonderful priest with a wonderful parish, and I very much enjoyed getting to know all of them.

Nobody needs to tell me that there are some baubles in both talks, certainly in the musical examples, and then there are a couple of points that I certainly simplified for purposes of time. I also got a couple of things wrong (Philotheos Kokkinos is in fact a saint, as Fr. Andrew pointed out to me afterward, and Timothy McGee appears to be Canadian, not American, but at least he’s North American, I suppose). Fr. Andrew also mentions in my introduction that I’m “fluent” in Greek, which I most certainly am not, but he was being kind. On the musical baubles, I was also there as a guest cantor, by the time the first talk happened I had already sung three services, and while I was just mentally waking up by the time I went on, I was starting to lose a bit of musical steam. I know, excuses, excuses. Nonetheless, on the whole, I’m pleased with how they turned out.

This does represent at least a “soft opening” for the Saint John of Damascus Society, and while we’re still waiting for our tax-exempt status to come back before we really unveil everything, I can say that http://www.johnofdamascus.org is registered and will be live once tax-exempt status is in hand and we can really be open for business, as it were. In the meantime, if you’re intrigued by anything you hear in these talks, by all means ask me.

Sander/Lapaev, As Far as the East is from the West now available

I said I’d post an update when this happened, and I’m probably a little late on doing so, but nonetheless, As Far as the East is from the West, featuring the choral music of Kurt Sander and Gennadiy Lapaev, is now available for purchase from several outlets, both as a CD and as a download. Buy early, buy often — it’s good stuff.


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