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Posts Tagged 'pascha at the singing school'

Review: Sweet Song: A Story of Saint Romanos the Melodist by Jane G. Meyer

sweetsongAncient Faith Publishing was kind enough to send me a review copy of their new children’s book, Sweet Song: A Story of Saint Romanos the Melodist, written by children’s author Jane G. Meyer and with full color illustrations throughout by artist Dorrie Papademetriou.

Sweet Song adapts for the genre of illustrated storybook the defining moment in St. Romanos’ vita — when, unable to sing in church without drawing the ridicule of his fellow readers, he dreamed that the Mother of God gave him a scroll to eat. He did so, and when he awoke, he was able to sing and compose hymns, chanting ἡ Παρθένος σήμερον (“The Virgin comes today”) — what we today sing as the Kontakion for the Nativity of Christ — at the Nativity Vigil. In particular, Meyer emphasizes the personal conflict between St. Romanos and the readers who ridiculed him, concluding with a moment of forgiveness after the demonstration of his new gift during the service.

Orthodox liturgy and music have seemed to me for some time to be rich material for a children’s book, and Meyer/Papademetriou have done a nice job of employing them for younger readers (I’m guessing preschool to kindergarten). Ms. Meyer’s text is easy to read as well as charming, presenting the saint as something of an awkward teenager; earnest but all arms and legs, and alas! no voice. She uses the text of the Kontakion to appropriate effect at the story’s climax, which is a nice touch, and if St. Romanos’ entreaties at the icon of the Mother of God are a little heavy-handed, it’s smoothed over by being well in line with his teenager-y earnestness.

Ms. Papademetriou has done some beautifully detailed work for the book. St. Romanos as painted by her brush is not just an awkward teenager but a bit of a gangly awkward teenager as well, with mussed up hair to boot. While the story may ostensibly be set in sixth century Constantinople, there is an element of anachronism to her visualization, with later, medieval icons, eighth century Communion spoons, and Ottoman vestments interacting freely in her imaginary Constantinopolitan landscape. Ms. Papademetriou’s depiction of the church in which St. Romanos serves is lovely, bright, and colorful; a Byzantine church in all of its late antique glory (and even with a real ambo!). There is nothing of the stereotypical dark, dank medieval church building in her illustrations.

At just shy of eighteen months, my toddler Theodore is still a bit young for this book, but he understands a lot of what is said to him at this stage of the game, and he has developed a very real interest in icons and service books. When he sees a book with a cross on it, he picks it up and says (sometimes chants) “Allya!” (“Alleluia!”) When he sees an icon, he says “Durts!” (“Church!”). When he puts an “Allya!” book down, he says “Amen!” So, Flesh of My Flesh read it to him, showing and explaining to him the pictures as she went. His running commentary throughout: “Allya! Durts!” And then, at the end of the book, he said, quite definitively, “Amen!” So, I guess the book gets a thumbs up from Theodore, too.

Also appreciated is a nice one-page explanation of St. Romanos’ life and historical context at the end of the book.

If I have a quibble, it’s the use of Western staff notation as part of the visual language of the book, featured as it is on the cover, the fly-leaves, and in the body of the story. Granted, as long as Ms. Papademetriou is freely using anachronism, there really should be no problem, and psaltic notation would be just as anachronistic. Still, everything else in the book is identifiably Byzantine; the Western-style notes look out of sync with the rest of the imagery. A reproduction of an icon of St. Romanos at the end that does use psaltic notation shows how visually striking it can be; it seems a missed opportunity here.

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Spring break at last: in which the author returns from blogslackdom

The end of January and beginning of February were crazy because I was catching up on work after the extracurricular activities I had going on in the second half of January, and then the first week of February I also had to prepare for a workshop I was helping with at St. Nicholas Church in the Urbana-Champaign area. Megan was flattened with the flu that week as well, but I seemed to be okay.

As I was driving to Champaign Friday night, I started to feel a little tickle in my throat. When I woke up Saturday morning, I could only pray that I would make it through the day. I did, sure enough, but as soon as Vespers was over and it was time for me to head home, it was as though a metric ton of unfinished brick was dropped on my head.

I got home, went to sleep, and woke up long enough Sunday morning to croak voicelessly at Megan, “I don’t think I’m going anywhere today, let along singing anything.” (Actually, it came out more like “CHHHHccckkkkAAAAAAAaaaaHHHHHhaaaaaeeeeeeeeecccccchhhhhiiiiiick”, but she got the point.) I then proceeded to not leave my house until the following Friday.

Let me tell you, losing an entire week when you’re in grad school suh-HUCKS. I was out of commission enough that I really couldn’t do anything productive, so come Saturday, when I actually felt like I had some life in me, I really did have the entirety of the previous week as well as the coming week to prepare in order to catch up.

And, as can happen, I missed something.

As I sat down in my seminar on democracy in Ancient Greece on my first Tuesday back after being sick, the professor said, “…and today we’re going to hear from Richard on whether or not the generalship in Athens was a democratic institution…” and my heart jumped out through my throat. I had managed to miss an entire presentation. Had I written it down? Yes. I just didn’t catch it when I was reviewing what I needed to do post-illness. In four years of taking graduate courses, I had never just not done something; of course, this particular professor didn’t know that. That said, he wasn’t a jerk about it, and it will be made up somehow, but this is somebody who will probably be on my committee and this isn’t exactly the kind of impression I like to make on people. Since it was a faculty member in my home department, I thought it probably would be a good idea to drop my advisor a line, saying, “Just because I’d rather you hear this from me…” This appears to have been a good call; he wrote back saying, glad you told me, don’t let it happen again, produce at your usual level from here, and this should fall under the category of “no harm, no foul.”

Thus, I had to make sure I was on my best behavior, and how, for my next presentation, which was this last Tuesday. That involved reading German, French, and Greek; this was my first shot at actually reading academic German, which is tougher than it looks. However, I managed to misread the syllabus for this particular assignment in a way that worked in my favor; I understood the reading to be a 15 page German article or a 15 page French article, and then one way or the other a 50 page French chapter of a book. Still, as I was wrapping up the German piece, I realized that the “or” was rather ambiguously placed, and I asked the professor for clarification. “Oh, good Lord, I didn’t imagine that somebody would be able to read both German and French,” he told me. “Tell you what — read the shorter French piece along with the German and I’ll be happy.” So that’s what I did.

In addition to that, I’ve also had two book reviews to write for another class, and we also took a long-delayed trip to Arizona last month to see my dad and stepmom for a few days.

Oh yeah, and it’s Lent.

I haven’t had time to exercise in the last six weeks, let alone blog. Yesterday was my last day of classes before Spring Break; I promptly came home and hopped on the treadmill. (And yes, today, I’m sore as hell. Heading back to the treadmill as soon as I wrap up this post.)

I’ll say it again: losing an entire week in grad school sucks. It really has taken me this whole month to catch up, and Spring Break really could not have come soon enough in terms of giving me a much-needed breather.

I need to wrap this up for now so that I can go exercise before Akathist, but one update I’ll give for now: Pascha at the Singing School has hit an interesting phase of development. I had been waiting until John finished all of the illustrations before sending it anywhere, but I looked at the submission guidelines for one of the publishers I’ve always envisioned as being ideal, and found that it wasn’t necessary to have them all done before sending them a proposal. So, I went ahead and fired off a book proposal, and two hours later got an invitation to send them the manuscript and sample illustrations.

Two and a half weeks after sending it to them, I got an answer.

It wasn’t “no,” but neither was it an unqualified “yes.”

Essentially, what they said was positive but that they would want to see certain revisions before they considered it any further. Once I’ve made those revisions, we’ll go from there. And, in all truthfulness, the feedback they had was all legitimate and useful. So, one of my goals over the break is to rework the manuscript based on their suggestions. My assumption is that they wouldn’t have bothered with this level of feedback if they didn’t think it would be worth their time; rejection slips are usually what one sees, not thoughtful suggestions. So, I’m taking this as a positive, and we’ll see what happens there.

More later.

In which the author has to pick his jaw up from the floor

Every year at the All Saints festival, there’s a group of “Meet the Author” tables; my godfather has written a book, and a few other people have published some things as well. This year, presumably because of a shortage of participants, having heard that I’d written some magazine articles, the organizer of the tables asked if I wanted to be involved. My initial impulse was to say no; since all I’ve published have been magazine articles, and to the best of my knowledge nobody outside of my immediate circle of friends at the parish has read any of them (or at least mentioned to me that they’ve read any of them), it seemed as though it would be rather pretentious on my part to lay claim to the title of “author”. Yes, fine, I’ve written a book, but it isn’t published yet, and I’m still waiting for John to finish his sketches before I start trying to market it…

Oh, right. I’m still waiting for John to finish his sketches.

I dropped John an e-mail, asking if there would be any possibility of any of the images being done by the day of the Festival. If so, let’s have them up at the table — it might potentially be a good way to generate interest.

Good idea, John replied. I’ll have some done by then.

So, this last Saturday, I showed up at All Saints, an hour and a half before the start of the Festival, with my portfolio of contributor’s copies of magazine articles and a fresh copy of the typescript of Pascha at the Singing School. A small crowd was gathered around my table.

Here’s why:

To describe this as far above and beyond any expectation I may have had doesn’t even really begin to cover it. Among other things, there’s a bit of an Edward Gorey vibe, which reminded me that The House With a Clock In Its Walls was a huge influence on me which I had all but forgotten. I mentioned that to John in the midst of my inarticulate slobbering over his works of beauty, who instantly nodded and said, “Yes, actually, you’re right, come to think of it. That’s definitely there.”

Anyway, the trick was definitely done of stirring up some interest. Once John has his illustrations done, there will be another pass on the text itself while I make sure that it lives up to the artwork (and I can already tell you that these two examples alone have sparked some thoughts about things I should tweak), and then we’ll go from there. I’m not certain exactly what that will mean, since I haven’t done this before; I don’t want to go the route of vanity presses or self-publishing; that seems to be a one-way path to making sure nobody ever, anywhere sees the book. On the other hand, I don’t know that there’s a “real” publisher out there that’s just falling all over itself to publish a short book with black and white illustrations, text and pictures by total unknowns, set at a choir school at the very end of Holy Week. We’ll see what happens.

(By the way — illustrations are copyright 2009 John Berry, and Pascha at the Singing School is copyright 2009 Richard Barrett. Come to think of it, the whole contents of this blog are copyright Richard Barrett except where otherwise indicated.)

The upsides of collaborating

I really haven’t looked much, if at all, at Pascha at the Singing School since finishing the first draft back around New Years. There were some typos Megan pointed out that I fixed. There was the moment back in February where I thought to myself, “Hey, you know what the Chapel needs? A chandelier!” only to go back and realize that I had already, in fact, put a chandelier right there for all to see. There was the person who read it who very politely said nothing; somehow I managed to get out of them that a particular term was too close to a term used in a similar context in another book for their comfort. When I showed them my real-world source for the term I had used, indicating that I had not, in fact, plagiarized anybody and that the similarity was entirely coincidental, they loosened up and said some more useful things. (I am now getting around the uncomfortable similarity problem by using a different word that incorporates sound changes my wife worked out — and actually, I think I’m better off this way for a few reasons, some obvious, some not so much.)

Save these couple of minor details, I’ve really just let the manuscript sit in a drawer (well, okay, I’ve let it sit on my hard drive) for the last six months — but the time has perhaps come to see what the next step is.

See, I was finally able to sit down with the guy I’ve been trying to convince to draw some pencil sketches for it. I kinda had to wait for him to finish pesky things like his Masters degree. He’s done now, though, and he’s read the first draft. Happily, he also gets the first draft, and had some perceptive comments that indicated he understands what I’ve tried to do, and is interested in seeing how things might play out (both with the bigger story of which it is theoretically a part, and with the more immediate matter of trying to find an audience for this little window I’ve opened).

The thing is, for me, I’d hate to work with anybody on something like this and just say, “Here, draw this part, and this part, and this part.” I know I wouldn’t find that too terribly much fun to work on, and since John is actually a Real Artist and stuff (to say nothing of an iconographer who is maturing disturbingly quickly), I can’t imagine he would, either. I actually want him to be a co-creator, I suppose — somebody who engages the words on the page and maybe brings something to light in his illustrations that makes me think, “Oh, of course, John’s absolutely right, and that’s something that should be in the text, too”, even if maybe it’s a detail I don’t wind up using until down the road a piece. You know, the kind of thing that can only make the final product better in the long run. To that end, I’ve given him a number of details about the backstory of Pascha at the Singing School so that he can understand just what is actually happening in certain spots. J. Michael Straczynski is fond of drawing a distinction, with respect to certain moments in Babylon 5 that don’t get explained until much later, between knowing what happens and knowing what it means that something happens. I need John to be in on both.

Yes, I suppose it probably creates more work for me — but I think probably the submission draft will be far more cohesive in the long run for having a collaborator to force me to do it, so I can’t really say I see a downside.

With any luck, I may be able to send this out before the end of the year. Maybe I shouldn’t be in a rush to get my first rejection slip on this project, but there we go.

On Holy Saturday: An excerpt from Pascha at the Singing School

I’ve not yet started shopping this around — I’m waiting for some pencil sketches to submit with the manuscript — but since I’ve alluded to it here and there, here is what I think is an apropos section of Pascha at the Singing School, for your perusal.

It was the morning of Great and Holy Saturday at the Saint Romanos School of Singing, the faithful of the nearby village of Saint Herman were filling the nave in anticipation of Pascha, the Cherubic Hymn was ringing through the Chapel as Father John was censing the icons, sunlight was streaming in through the windows of the great dome in the ceiling and illuminating the clouds of incense, the scent of incense was mingling with that of fresh basil leaves and rose petals strewn throughout the nave, and standing there in the left choir stalls singing with the other black-cassocked children who comprised the Choral Scholars, Matthias was not looking at the choir book open in front of him — as much as the Holy Week music was rehearsed, he had no need for that. No, instead the boy was thinking about cheese.

“Let all mortal flesh keep silence, and stand with fear and trembling…”

In about sixteen hours, the third-year Choral Scholar told himself, the sausage, the eggs, and of course the roast lamb will be covered with it. Matthias would be filling his basket that afternoon with all manner of festal foodstuffs; blood red eggs, the stick of caribou sausage, the wine, and the various blocks of cheese — English cheddar, along with the brie and Havarti, very difficult to get up in the north, but his parents had managed, as they always did. The package of Paschal food had arrived on the steamship along with a brand new, beautifully made cassock that he intended to wear at the coming night’s Liturgy. It was still a little big for him yet, but his parents must have thought that he was going to grow some more.

Great Lent was hardest for the twelve year old, he had to admit, because of cheese. Meat and butter and so on weren’t easy, but cheese was what Matthias longed for from day to day.

“…pondering nothing earthly-minded,” the hymn continued. The boy’s cheeks reddened as he thought about what he had just sung and how earthly-minded he was being. “For the King of kings and Lord of lords cometh forth to be slain and given as food to the faithful…”

Matthias chastised himself, but, he reasoned, it didn’t help that he was hungry. He had eaten nothing since the night before in order to receive Holy Communion this morning, and Holy Week was always arduous at the School even with classes cancelled, so surely, even in the choir, with the incense, beeswax and fresh basil leaves permeating the air and the richly-frescoed chapel surrounding him, his mind might be prone to wandering a bit?

“Before Him go the ranks of angels, with all the principalities and powers.”

Holy Week, which had been a whirlwind last year with the bishop’s visit and the whole strange business about the Icon Made Without Hands and the retirement of Father Alexey from the headmastership of St. Romanos and passing of his wife shortly thereafter, had been relatively calm this year. Classes were not in session, of course, but instead the Choral Scholars spent their days in the Chapel. It was a lot — but soon everybody will be feasting, Matthias thought to himself. And I can eat cheese again…

“Let all mortal flesh keep silence…”

Matthias realized with a jolt that he had missed the cue to begin the Cherubic Hymn again. He snapped his thoughts back to the present moment and joined his voice to the choir’s, but he did so with just enough of a lack of control that his entrance was quite flat, and loud enough for those around him to hear. Sonia, the tall fifth year standing next to him, glanced down at him with her eyebrow raised. He was able to correct quickly, but not before Father Andrew, who was directing them as the First Cantor that morning, shot him a disapproving look.

And, sure enough, from the right choir stalls, another boy’s glare was also unmistakable and scorching. Isaac, who had come to St. Romanos as a Choral Scholar in Matthias’ second year, had always come across as being a loose cannon of sorts, but for some reason he had been focusing on Matthias with a particular intensity as of late, especially during Holy Week. Their eyes met just long enough for Matthias to know that he needed to look away as quickly as possible, and he fixed his gaze on Father Andrew.

The Great Entrance began shortly thereafter, and Matthias was able to avoid further reproval from either Father Andrew or Isaac all throughout the Thanksgiving, Anamnesis, and Epiclesis. Finally Father John, Father Gregory (who had been Acting Headmaster since Father Alexey’s departure), Deacon Basil, and the other clergy came out to the solea, their white vestments gleaming in the sunlight, holding golden chalices out to the faithful. “In the fear of God with faith and love,” Deacon David intoned, “draw ye near.”

I may post some additional excerpts here and there as the Spirit so moves me.

Milestone 1: The first draft

img_0663In the summer of 2004, a conversation with my dad (about which I might go into detail sometime later), along with an idea for something I’d love to see in real life, mingled in my head to become an idea for a children’s book. Over the next couple of years, I got some thoughts down on paper, did some world-building, even wrote four chapters or so, and then somebody pointed out that a fundamental flaw in my setup, of which I was already aware and was trying to write around, wasn’t going to be written around very well.

I rethought my setup without discarding the overarching plot or concept, and started writing again. My problem was, I could never quite get things down to a manageable scale to actually feel like I could write anything and get anywhere.

So, I decided on a different tack — pick a smaller event in the same universe at a different point in time, and tell a much smaller story with people who would be side characters in the main story, just to help find my voice and get a “proof of concept” down on paper. Suddenly The Singing School became Holy Week at the Singing School. Eventually even Holy Week proved to be too big for what I wanted to do, and last spring I started one more rewrite, Pascha at the Singing School. I figured it would be somewhere around 10,000 words — 40-50 pages tops.

This evening I finally finished the first draft of Pascha at the Singing School, weighing in at around 21,000 words and 91 double-spaced pages.

So, I’ve written a book. It’s a short book. Editing, revising, and publishing said book will likely be a very different matter from writing the first draft — but the first stab at putting all the words, plot points, and characters together to telling the story is, er, in the books.

We’ll see what happens next.

2008: the less said the better

2008 in the rearview mirrorAs may sometimes have been clear, 2008 wasn’t exactly a hoot and a holler and a gaggle of memories I’d love to relive. Exhaustive detail on all the reasons why wouldn’t be at all appropriate, let alone interesting, in many cases; therefore, instead of a lengthy retrospective, I decided to see if I could go month-by-month and write descriptive three-word phrases. Here’s what I came up with:

January — Uncomfortable but hopeful.

February — Hope seeping away.

March — Devastated and trapped.

April — Escaped, thank God.

May — Decompressing; emotionally raw.

June — Left at roadside.

July — Picked up briefly.

August — Rock bottom. Miserable.

September — Some good ideas.

October — Leveling out slowly.

November — Waiting, hoping, writing.

December — Door opened, finally.

For 2009, now that I actually have an official academic field (and might still have yet another), I hope to be able to spend some more time here discussing it/them. Obviously, a lot of professional wind got let out of sails after March and April, and the blog as a result became much more of a personal exercise than I originally intended. I don’t expect that will go away, exactly, but I hope to have more to contribute in terms of academic discussion. I don’t plan on discussing original research in detail, exactly, but it would be very much in keeping with my original intent to be able to at least jot down some notes here.

It’s possible I may have additional opportunities to post some travel journal kinds of things in the coming year. More on that as it happens.

I really hope to have more to say about Pascha at the Singing School, and very soon. I’m so close to having a draft completed I can taste the cheese.

There are other writing and musical projects that may or may not get anywhere as I have time to devote to them. As some things get completed, more capacity will be opened up. We’ll see.

At any rate, I will be toasting the New Year with at least one Maker’s Mark Manhattan tonight.


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