Posts Tagged 'music'

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 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.

It’s all we’re saying.

(As they say at the end of every X-Files episode, “I made this.”)

Byzantine Chant, Authenticity, and Identity: Musicological Historiography Through the Eyes of Folklore

Wanting to keep the blog alive but not yet having time to devote to catching people up on what’s happening, I wanted to share this essay — it was written for my Modern Greek class last spring, and was heavily informed by an ethnomusicology seminar I was auditing on music and sacred experience. I thought about perhaps trying to publish it, and both my Greek instructor as well as the professor teaching the ethno seminar responded positively to it, but neither thought it was sufficiently in their field for it to be publishable in their circles. So, here it is for now. Some of these issues have been discussed here as well.

6 February 2012 — Removed for reasons I’m very happy about. I’ll say more later.

16 May 2012 — You can now find this essay in Greek Orthodox Theological Review, Vol. 55.1-4, pp. 181-98. Please contact me at rrbarret AT indiana DOT edu if you do not have access to a library system that has this available.

Richard Toensing on NPR’s Performance Today

Just so people are aware, an excerpt from Cappella Romana‘s recording of Richard Toensing‘s Kontakion for the Nativity of Christ (reviewed here) is being played as part of today’s program on NPR’s Performance Today, complete with a mini-interview with Toensing as a lead-in. You can find today’s show online here.

(As a side — but still related — note, somebody whom I’ve known since seventh grade and who happened to go on to be a grad student of Toensing’s at UC-Boulder e-mailed me yesterday to tell me that they’re being blessed as a catechumen on Sunday. This is still stunning me for any number of reasons.)

Liturgical question…

So, All Saints has historically just sung the Great Doxology in Tone 6 (that’s “Second Plagal Mode” for those of you out there who speak Byz) since time immemorial, and I am starting the long, slow process of incorporating the other seven modes into our liturgical practice. My understanding has always been that it goes with the Resurrectional mode of the week (an understanding reinforced by the OrthodoxWiki entry for the Great Doxology, which is clearly a critical source of no small import), but looking at the AOCNA liturgical guide (online, printed, and L.A. diocese version) it appears that they have it going with the Eothinon (hence being in Tone 5 this week rather than Tone 7). Looking at the Liturgikon, the “Five Pounder” (Divine Prayers and Services, Nassar), and the Antiochian little red service book, a rubric is not provided that resolves the question; in the Kazan Byzantine Project Matins book, the table of contents indicates that the Great Doxology is sung in the “tone of the day” but then the rubric in the music itself has it going with the Eothinon (first Eothinon, Tone 1, second Eothinon, Tone 2, etc.).

Can anybody clear up for me what’s happening here?

Alternate universes

I agree with every word of this article. On the other hand, it is so divorced from the reality I experience as a church musician that it may as well be Un Chien Andalou. Even in the comments thread, where it is suggested that $75,000/year is not a realistic number for some parishes and $5,000 might be closer to what would be doable, I have to shake my head and say, “That’s just not the world in which I live.”

I had an e-mail correspondence a few weeks ago with somebody who is very active in the world of Orthodox sacred music. He was responding to my article on choir schools, and while he thought that I had said all the right things to the extent of stating what should be obvious, and there’s no harm in trying to start a conversation, the blunt reality is that apathy and inertia have dominated musical practice in American parishes, and that we’re so far away from what the historical models look like that it’s probably not going to be terribly productive to talk about how things “should” or even “could” be:

Even those examples that you cite in your article are few and far between, no doubt the result of one extraordinary individual’s vision and focused effort. The reality must be “met,” so to speak, on its own, current level. Most parishes don’t even understand the need to hire well-qualified, educated professionals to lead the singing at worship (as they do, for example, in hiring a plumber or an electrician), so most of our churches are filled with well-meaning, dedicated church singers who don’t even know what it is they don’t know. How does one begin to address that?

That’s a great question, that is. How does one begin to address that? I’ve mused about some of this before, but how does one develop a vision in such a way that it can be articulated to others and have them understand, when we’re talking about an overall state of reality in which as soon as you say the words “professionally trained and paid cantor/choir director” (and notice that the correspondent here can’t even bring himself to use the words “choir director”, presumably because even that is to assume something that isn’t the reality at many parishes) you’re likely to encounter blank stares, if not outright hostility?

At least when it’s a blank stare, often it is informed by the plain reality that, minus a state-funded church, we have the level of Orthodox practice and expression for which we’re willing to pay. Traditional Christianity in its various expressions isn’t exactly populated by people who are rolling in dough, folks, at least not in this country; in the publication world, AGAIN has found this out the hard way, and Touchstone appears to be in the process of facing this reality. My own stipend as cantor and choir director is undeniably tiny, far less than what section leaders and soloists get at the Protestant churches up the street when they’re singing significantly less than I do on a weekly basis, but it’s still a burden for the parish. I’ve told the priest and the parish council chair any number of times that it is not about the money for me, not by any means, but I do think it’s important that the community understand that there is a value attached to what somebody like me does. We wouldn’t expect to get icons, architecture, vestments, or incense for free, but there is a mindset out there that assumes musicians are going to understand that providing for their services is something that just cannot be a priority right now, which usually means “not ever.” (Which is roughly where we’re at with being able to improve the acoustics in our nave, unfortunately.)

At the other end of the spectrum from the blank stare is the outright hostility. These are the people who would tell you that we don’t need “professionals” at our church, thank you very much, who also conveniently never come to rehearsal or are willing to put any time into learning to read music, who say that it’s far more important for the Liturgy to be prayerful than well-sung (a false dichotomy which I have always found bizarre and self-serving), and they’d rather have the whole congregation singing together in a different key per worshipper than have the Liturgy sung by the Metropolitan Opera Chorus. Among other issues, this is somebody who doesn’t understand that there is precious little difference between those two scenarios.


This is perhaps one area (of several) where the criticism that America is, at its core, “culturally Protestant” manifests itself unmistakeably. As I’ve said before, we would never tell an iconographer or an architect or a vestment maker that they’re too good at what they do to be able to do it in its fullness in the service of the Church, but many people seem very comfortable telling musicians exactly this (and that’s hardly limited to Orthodox Christianity, in all fairness — it seems to be an American thing in general). We pay lip service to “receiving the tradition,” but we can’t resist putting our own populist, Main Street Baptist Church spin on it, cutting ourselves off from a lot of the good things that we would be exposed to if we just received the tradition without tweaking it. Unfortunately, an approach of “say the black, do the red” is itself treated as a personal preference that isn’t any better than any other personal preference. I’m familiar with a mission parish that made the decision in its early days that congregational singing of everything was going to be one of its foundational principles; the way they accomplished this was simply to never sing any of the proper hymnody except for certain troparia for major feasts that everybody already knew anyway. If “the people” didn’t know it, they didn’t sing it, period, and it didn’t matter what the book said. I have also heard very earnest people refer to Orthodox Christianity in the United States as “an experiment by necessity,” and speaking as somebody who wanted very much to get away from ecclesiastical experiments, such statements trouble me greatly.

On the other hand, in all fairness, it’s not like the Orthodox musical tradition, regardless of national expression, is readily available to learn from a living source in the United States if you’re living deep in the heart of Middle America. For me to learn Byzantine chant from somebody who knows what they’re doing, for example, I either have to drive five hours to Nashville or fly somebody in from the East Coast or the West Coast. (Or, as it worked out, go to Greece for two months.) It’s unrealistic to expect that people are going to have the opportunities to do those things given what seem to be the economic and demographic realities of many parishes. The various jurisdictions have their weekend workshops and whatnot, but they can still be hard to get to, and my own experience of such things is that they tend to be rather idiosyncratic in their presentation of the material. The various seminaries have courses they teach on liturgical music, but again, what I’ve heard about the content is mixed at best. There need to be teachers here who know what they’re doing, but in order for those teachers to be accessible, they themselves have to learn from somebody, and in order for them to learn, there need to be teachers… you see the problem? From a perspective of scarce resources, getting it “good enough” from materials you can find online and having simple music that doesn’t require much more than a willing congregation seems rather practical. (Of course, even simple four-part music takes, well, four parts, not to mention some rehearsal, but never mind that now.) If it isn’t exactly the glory of Byzantine liturgical practice in all of its fullness, well, Orthodox Christianity in the United States is an experiment, remember?

A $75,000 salary for the choir director/cantor of a medium-to-large parish? Must be nice. So far as I know, most priests aren’t being paid that (although I’d love to be wrong). At the present moment, I can’t conceive of Orthodox Christianity in the United States being at a point where even half of this number would be something other than the punchline to a bad joke.

The narrative of decline vs. the narrative of continuity in Byzantine music

Such profound hostility to the performing practice of the received tradition made the sanitisation of Byzantine chant a fundamental prerequisite for its acceptance and consumption by Westerners and Westernised Greeks. Conscious emulation of the Solesmes restoration was, as we have already indicated, a particularly ingenious solution to this problem. Adoption of the earliest manuscripts as the sole arbiters of authenticity and without grounding them in a developed concept of performing practice meant that Tillyard, Wellesz, and Høeg were able to bypass entirely the embarrassing “nasal singing” of traditional Greek cantors in favour of a hypothetical reconstruction that was both aurally and methodologically fashionable. With everything distasteful thus reassuringly dismissed as “Arabo-Turkish” accretions, its new Western curators could ensure that Byzantine music “in all its original purity” assumed its rightful place alongside Gregorian chant in the pantheon of European musical history. (Alexander Lingas, “Performance Practice and the Politics of Transcribing Byzantine Chant”, Acta Musicae Byzantinae VI, Iaşi, Romania, December 2003, p. 74)

Full article is here. It’s a barnburner, and tells you not only what Lingas thinks of the “narrative of decline” but also what Greek chant specialists thought of it while it was initially being promulgated in the first place. (A tip of the hat to Basil Crow, who passed this along.)

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

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

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

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

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

Okay. You got all of that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The death throes of various business models

Virgin Megastore is closing down; The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, my childhood newspaper, is going web-only, and its competitor/codependent sibling, The Seattle Times, may be following suit soon.

As a small child I once harbored fantasies of being able to organize clippings to create a real-life equivalent of Sherlock Holmes’ index; all I really managed to do was make a mess and hoard a large stack of issues of the P-I I would never be able to go through. For awhile I at least had a decent collection of clipped Phantom comic strips, and I still have virtually every item run between January and August 1989 on Tim Burton’s first Batman film in a scrapbook.

The music stores I frequented as a kid aren’t there any more; Love Music in Redmond (where a friend of mine and I drove late one night to get the new Hammerbox album on vinyl, speaking of things outdated), Easy Street Records in Kirkland (where I encountered Harry Connick Jr. once), Tower Records in Bellevue — all dead and gone, years ago. Borders and Barnes and Noble, my later retail enablers, seem to be increasingly less interested in CD sales. (“increasingly less”? Does that even make any sense?)

I will mourn the newspaper when its ultimate end arrives. It has been inevitable for some time; most of the last decade, it seems, has been the story of the decline of Seattle as a town where two dailies were viable. For a very brief period I worked for The Bellingham Herald; it was an illuminating look at a business which was horribly troubled even in 1998. It will be an odd day when the presence of a physical newspaper in a movie will be an anachronism which dates the work, but it is coming, and fast. Still, I’ve gotten the vast majority of my news via online sources for years now, and it hasn’t occurred to me that I want to buy a copy of a daily newspaper since at least 2003.

Much as I hate to admit it, however, I could not care less that the bricks-and-mortar music store is dying. Really, it’s been dead for awhile, depending on what your musical interests are — this is just a matter of the physical reality catching up with the industry. I have bought most of my music online since probably 2000 or 2001. If I see something I want in a physical store, unless it’s a copy of something that I’ve been looking for forever which has long seemed otherwise unavailable, I write down the name of it for reference and look for it on Amazon later — but the fact is, it is so rare that this happens it’s barely even worth mentioning. I’d love to be able to “buy local,” but the sad truth is that it’s been forever since small shops have been able to afford to stock what I like. I can’t find it at a small, local store even if I want to buy it there.

Regarding both the daily print newspaper and the bricks-and-mortar music store, there is simply no incentive, at least from this customer’s perspective, to stick with either business model when I can get what I want more easily, more quickly, and more inexpensively in other ways. Classical music, for example — and by that I mean the body of recordings which a classical music aficionado would actually want to buy, not Hooked on Mozart — has become harder to find at a physical retail store every time I walk into one for the last decade and a half. There’s just no point in even trying, when every time you walk in, you walk out frustrated — not when you can quickly search on Amazon and find the CD within seconds, usually even if it is out of print. I might also add that iTunes, which I originally thought would be a horrible format for classical music, seems to have figured out how to manage to make the “per-song” model work when each “song” is actually part of a bigger work. This is not just classical music, either; the further your tastes stray from the Billboard 200, the more this will be the case.

As far as the newspaper goes — y’know, nostalgia aside, let’s be honest. It’s intended to be a disposable medium anyway. Ephemeral as it effectively is (heck, the Greek word for newspaper is εφημερίδα ephimeridha), getting rid of the physical means of conveyance only makes sense, however much somebody like me, who wishes he could be cool enough to be a real Luddite, might want it to be otherwise. People aren’t going to pay for something disposable when there’s a free version that you don’t have to bother recycling, period. That said, I hope we don’t ever reach the point where we’re 100% paper-free; there is something about the interaction of content with substance that it would be a shame to totally lose. (There’s part of me that would like to argue that this is ultimately a form of Gnosticism, where media are irrelevant and content is everything, but I will need to revisit that another time.)

I raise a glass in memory of the newspaper; I frankly wish the CD store good riddance.

Richard’s Twitter

adventures in writing alexander lingas all saints bloomington all saints orthodox church american orthodox architecture american orthodox music american orthodoxy Antiochian Archdiocese Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America Antiochians books byzantine chant cappella romana chant church architecture ecclesiastical chant ethnomusicologists ethnomusicology fellowship of ss. alban and sergius Greece Greek greek food greekness hazards of church music international travel tips ioannis arvanitis joe mckamey john michael boyer kurt sander Latin liturgical adventures liturgical architecture liturgical music liturgical texts and translation liturgy liturgy and life lycourgos angelopoulos medieval byzantine chant Metropolitan PHILIP militant americanist orthodoxy modern byzantine architecture modern greek music music as iconography my kids will latin and greek when they're newborns my kids will learn latin and greek when they're newborns orthodox architecture orthodox architecture is bloody expensive Orthodox choir schools Orthodox Ecclesiology orthodox outreach orthodox travel pascha at the singing school Patriarchate of Antioch Patriarch IGNATIUS IV Patriarch of Antioch publishing random acts of chant richard barrett in greece richard toensing rod dreher sacred music st. vlads st john of damascus society Syriac the Bishop MARK fan club the convert dilemma the dark knight The Episcopacy The Episcopate the only good language is a dead language this american church life travel we need more american saints why do we need beautiful music in churches?

Blog Stats

  • 235,804 hits

Flickr Photos