Posts Tagged 'the byzantine chant narrative of continuity'

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.


My opening remarks for John Michael Boyer in Bloomington: “…it is my fondest hope that this is not just the completion of one thing, but perhaps the beginning of a number of other things”

I’m still writing the applicable blog post, but this seemed long enough to justify breaking out separately. More to come.

Good evening, everybody. I am very keenly aware that none of you came to hear me speak, so I will do my absolute best to keep my opening remarks as short as possible.

A few informal orders of business before I launch into my introduction – first of all, let me welcome you to All Saints Orthodox Church. Just to get it out of the way, let me emphasize that we are in a church, and we ask that you be respectful of the space. If you are unsure about what that means, by all means please ask me or Fr. Peter.


A word about the card and the envelope [in your packets]: this weekend represents, in virtually every respect, an experiment for All Saints. We have never done anything like this before, and there has been a lot of figuring things out as we go. We would really like to be able to do it or something like it again, maybe even on a somewhat regular basis if it works out. So, with respect to the card, we’d like to hear from you all what you thought. Whatever you have to say – this worked, that didn’t, maybe this could be covered next time, you need a jacket with elbow pads – we’re all ears so that we can do better next time.

Now, as for the envelope – as I said, this has been an experiment, and it’s the kind of thing of which we’d love to be able to do more. We’ve been very fortunate to be able to put this together with some very generous help from the Indiana University Center for West European Studies and a private donor. That said, there are always costs one wasn’t anticipating, but more importantly, it would be terrific to have some seed money for the next event like this. All of that is to say, the envelope is there not because this weekend isn’t paid for; it is there because the next one isn’t… yet. If you decide you want to do something in that regard, please make checks out to All Saints Orthodox Church, and put in the notes “chant workshop” or something like that. The point is, if you come away from this weekend having felt it was of value to you, both the card and the envelope represent a couple of formal ways you can express that. By all means talk to me if you have any questions; you can leave cards and envelopes on your chair or give them to me, or to Fr. Peter.

There is also a retail means by which you may support these kinds of events at All Saints. There is a table in the parish hall where you can buy recordings of the kind of music we’re here talking about tonight; a lot of these can be reasonably difficult to get in the States, and we encourage browsing – and buying! – at the breaks. All of these are recordings John told me to have around for this weekend, so perhaps he’ll be able to say more about them.

All right, enough of the administrative chatter.

Ladies and gentlemen, thank you all very much for coming tonight. The road to this weekend has been a long one; if I wanted to, I could trace it back to approximately 1996 or 1997 when I first met and became friendly with Mark Powell, the executive director of Cappella Romana and then a colleague of mine in its sister ensemble, the Tudor Choir. It is the network of relationships that seems to hover around Mark that in the end brought this weekend about, after all. That, however, would be far too long of a story for our purposes, so I will fast forward to the fall of 2006. Having traveled reasonably significant distances three summers in a row to various workshops and conferences for Orthodox Christian liturgical music, and subsequently lamenting the impossibility of being able to bring my entire choir to such an event, I began to consider how an effort might be launched to bring the event to my choir. Initial ideas were floated about trying to stage something in Indianapolis, but these conversations didn’t go anywhere, and to be truthful, it ultimately seemed worthwhile, particularly if I wanted to maximize the participation of the All Saints choristers, to try to put something together right here. If I played my cards right, it might even get some people in Indianapolis to come down to Bloomington – imagine that!

A number of objectives intersected in the planning for this weekend. First of all, it was very important for the All Saints choir to have the opportunity to work with an expert with a strong link to the received tradition, to experience an intensive kind of master class situation with the kind of person we hadn’t had the opportunity to work with before, somebody who could give us water from the well rather than artificially synthesized hydrogen and oxygen. As mentioned, it would also be nice to have an event that would make All Saints in Bloomington the destination for interested parties.

An additional goal was to find a way of reaching out to and engaging the local community through music. In the last few years we have looked for opportunities to do this; we have hosted a youth music festival on the grounds here two summers in a row, and a couple of years ago we contributed a concert of Holy Week music to a Middle Eastern arts festival put on by IU’s Program for Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies. A person who would be of interest to the Orthodox Christians who worship here, of musical interest to the local community, and of academic interest to the university community, would represent a huge step forward in that effort.

The first goal has this entire weekend to be accomplished. With respect to the second goal, however, as I look around the room, as well as glance at my list of registrants, I see my choir, I see All Saints parishioners, I see people from Bloomington, I see faculty and students from IU’s Early Music Institute, the Department of Choral Conducting, the Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology, and the Center for West European Studies. I see people who have come from Indianapolis, Greenwood, Evansville, and Louisville.  I see faculty from, besides IU, Wabash College and Butler University. It is a very real blessing to have you all here, I can truly say that the interest in John’s visit has exceeded my wildest expectations, and it is my fondest hope that this is not just the completion of one thing, but perhaps the beginning of a number of other things.

I will tell you that the planning of John’s visit originally moved ahead with private money. In the course of events, however, Dr. Lois Wise, the Director of the Indiana University Center for West European Studies approached me out of the blue one day and said, “Richard, are there any music events coming up at All Saints that we can help support?” Through WEST’s support and partnership, much more has been possible than would have been otherwise, and I am truly grateful for their sponsorship. WEST is represented this evening by Dr. Franklin Hess, the instructor of Modern Greek at IU – also my own Greek teacher, and a good friend. Frank, please accept on behalf of WEST this token of our appreciation.

There are a number of other people to thank as well for helping to make tonight possible, either through promotion, logistics, or other support; the Archives of Traditional Music, the Medieval Studies Institute, the Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology, Robin Freeman, Dr. Carmen-Hellena Tellez, Dr. Daniel Reed, WFIU, the program Harmonia and their staff, especially LuAnn Johnson, the Bloomington Herald-Times, the Indiana Daily Student, Stansifer Radio for installing this wonderful sound system on Wednesday,, all of my choir for their support, and of course Fr. Peter and the people and parish council of All Saints for taking me seriously when I said, “This may sound crazy, but what if we could make something like this work?” Above all, a special thank you to my wife Megan for all of her last-minute help with errands, assembly of materials, and being just all around some of whom I am undeserving.

Finally, this brings me to our honored guest himself. John Michael Boyer, it has been said, sang before he spoke. At the age of 7 John was singing as the then-youngest member ever of the Portland Opera Association. Over the years he has gone from singing for a papal audience as a boy as part of the liturgical choir Cantores in Ecclesia, to being the Protopsaltis, or first cantor, of the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of San Francisco and one of the principal singers of the professional vocal ensemble Cappella Romana. He is also the Protopsaltis and director of liturgy at the Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation in Sacramento. He has studied for a number of years with Greek master cantors Lycourgos Angelopoulos and Ioannis Arvanitis. In addition, he coached the vocal ensemble Chanticleer in their Grammy-winning recording of John Tavener’s Byzantine-influenced Lamentations and Praises. He is very active as a composer and adapter of traditional Byzantine liturgical music in the English language, and many of his efforts in this area culminated in Cappella Romana’s recent release, The Divine Liturgy in English – which, I am told, has just gone into a second pressing. He is one of the main movers and shakers in the United States in the movement to reincorporate traditional music in American Orthodox churches, and to this end he lectures and conducts workshops in Eastern Orthodox liturgical music at churches across the country. John has spoken at the conferences of the American Society for Byzantine Music and Hymnology as well as the Axion Estin Foundation, and he is also the director of the Koukouzelis Institute for Liturgical Arts, an outgrowth of the educational aims of his role as Protopsaltis of San Francisco.

It truly is a pleasure and a blessing to have him here – please join me in welcoming John Michael Boyer.

Reasons I love my job

I have really enjoyed working at the Indiana University Archives of Traditional Music over the last year. The people have been wonderful, it’s been a very pleasant, low-pressure atmosphere in which to spend my days, and I am actually quite interested in the work we do here. Ethnomusicology, like musicology, is a field in which I think I’m best served having a tangential interest, but tangential or not, it’s still an interest and those field still touch some of what I do in some way. (Which reminds me — there’s an article in the current issue of the journal Ethnomusicology about musical practices in the Estonian Orthodox Church that I keep meaning to talk about. Maybe now that the semester’s over.) I will be quite sorry to leave this position in many respects, but I expect to maintain something of a relationship with the good folks here nonetheless.

One of the joys of working here has been the semi-regular occurrence of finding things related to my interests which I didn’t know existed and didn’t expect to find. For example, something we archive here is the correspondence of the Archive’s founder, George Herzog. Recently, while looking for something else, I came across a folder labeled “Strunk, Oliver“. A letter dated 22 April 1940 has Herzog telling Strunk, “I have not forgotten your offer to let me see your Byzantine material,” but what’s even more interesting is this tantalizing passage in a letter from Herzog to Strunk dated 27 May 1940, context unclear:

I feel still a little unhappy about the by this time familiar points in your argumentation, and I still feel that it is merely a question of wording as well as manner of progression in the argument. This is the sort of thing that is difficult to get across verbally and is so much easier to put on paper where each word can be weighed, manicured, cuddled, and generally kicked about. I do not wish to bother you — more than I have already — but if and when you have a final version of the wording, I would be much interested in your reaction to Sachs’ comments. I should think once you wish to work without analogies, the Eastern ones are as unnecessary or unjustified as the Western ones. His point about the great variability of intervals (seconds, and thirds, not fourths and fifths!) in Coptic church singing would mean two things. 1) The system as interpreted through theory and writing and interpretation may not have covered actual practice exactly. I imagine this is to be taking (sic) for granted, as long as there are no records of the practice itself. I suppose you agree with this and possibly it is not sufficiently explicit in your paper. 2) Where there are no objective records of vocal music, one finds that variation in interval intonation or interval actualization is never helter-skelter. It always involves average points around which the varying “tones” cluster. These points are then the pragmatic “tones,” which may or may not be very close to tones as calculated in a theoretical system. There may be two average points instead of one at a given spot in the scale, in which case one may make up one’s mind whether one has two tones or regular alternation in the point of actualizing a tone, the alternation depending on given factors such as direction of melodic movement etc. This brings me to the concept of a “toneme” which rhymes with “phoneme,” an important linguistic concept. However, I shall spare you this until I know you are fortified by at least one beer; a thing of which I cannot be sure at the moment. (emphasis mine)

Granted, these points are brought up specifically in relation to Coptic chant, but Herzog’s points still appear to come very close to the criticism of the “narrative of decline” which Strunk helped to further regarding the received tradition of Byzantine chant — in 1940. I’d love to have been there for that beer, and I’d also love to know which particular argumentation prompted Herzog’s comments, as wells as Sachs’ (whoever he was, and whatever his comments specifically were — maybe I should go back and see if there’s a folder for Sachs).

In the fall of 2005, I took 20th century music theory from Dr. Julian Hook. At some point, in discussing microtonalities, we spent some time in class discussing the one and only Harry Partch, a genuine American original (I refuse to use the “m” word of which Gov. Palin is so fond). Among other things, Partch went so far as to build his own instruments for the tunings he used, and wrote a song cycle based on graffiti he had seen on a highway railing. His music is legitimately very interesting, but it’s also clear that it comes from a mind existing well off the beaten path.

So, while I was putting away the Strunk folder, my eyes fell on a folder labeled “Partch, Harry”.

No <very bad word> way, I thought to myself.

What seems to have happened, according to the correspondence we’ve archived, is that in 1934, Partch got referred to Herzog by a “Mr. Moe” and a “Mr. Surette” (I assume these to be Henry Allen Moe and Thomas Whitney Surette), and Partch sent Herzog “some material” regarding his manifesto Exposition on Monophony (there is a two-page “résumé” of the Exposition in the folder), “but I was not able to interest you sufficiently to deserve a reply,” Partch wrote in a letter to Herzog dated 1 April 1936. Later, Partch transcribed a field recording made of the Isleta tribe of New Mexico (material from which Partch used in the c.1949 work “Cloud-Chamber Music”), and sent his transcription to Herzog at the suggestion of of a “Professor Kroeber” (I assume Alfred L. Kroeber). The letter of 1 April 1936 continues:

This is not my major work, the work in which I treid to interest you previously. I am a composer who chooses not to be tyrannized by the limitations of media as he finds them.

I am impelled to remind you of these ideals, for which I have been fighting for thirteen years–

I am fighting for an untrammelled musical expression, and, consequently, against the exploitation of music by a clique of interpreters and academicians, which can only, and is, leading to a sterile intellectualism.

I am fighting for a richer musical system and greater resources in the way of instruments. I have built several myself.

I am fighting for an art that is closer to the people and their earth, and against the increasingly esoteric abstractions of our serious music. My own efforts are based on the inflections of spoken words.

Perhaps you will say that I am fighting for the impossible and against insuperable odds, and I will reply that the way of reform is often long and devious, and that I am blessed with a leaven of patience.

Yours sincerely,

Harold Partch

Evidently Herzog remained unimpressed, because the next item in the folder is a handwritten letter from Partch dated 11 October 1936, six months later:

Dear Sir —

Last March I forwarded to you a manuscript on California Indian music, at the suggestion of Prof. Kroeber of Berkeley. To ensure its safe return I enclosed a stamped addressed envelope.

I believe you to be a busy person, and so are all persons who live with a purpose. I am not sufficiently impressed by this fact to refrain from asking for the return of my work.


Harry Partch

The manuscript in question is not in the folder. Herzog’s response to Parch is not particularly interesting — there is a page of pencilled notes outlining some brief critiques of Partch’s transcription, followed by a two-page, polite, typed letter to Partch containing these comments; presumably Herzog sent this letter, with the manuscript, back to Partch in the referenced envelope.

“…the way of reform is often long and devious, and…I am blessed with a leaven of patience.” So much of the personality of this man is present in just these two letters that, even as distinctive as Partch’s music is, is simply impossible to get from an analysis of his scores or his biographical data. If Hook is still teaching Partch, it seems to me these letters would be at least amusing for him to have as additional material.

Yes, this is what I love about my job.

What’s fascinating about these letters is that it is a window into a very different professional culture. The letters read like somebody actually cares what they say and has a sense they will be preserved somewhere; even allowing for most people having secretaries and more often than not having their secretaries write letters that they themselves only sign, there is a lot of personality here. Perhaps it is largely affectation, but it’s still highly interesting reading.

George List, in the brief time that I got to interact with him, seemed very much to still be trying to exist in this world, despite the rest of academia being a world where people dash off e-mails by themselves, and almost nobody has a secretary. His former secretary still works for the Archives; I made this very observation to her, and her response was, “I told him once a few years ago that most people write their own letters these days. He was very taken aback.”

Self-importance? Personality? Affectation? Who knows — it’s fun to read this stuff regardless, and to try to follow the various trails down which they lead.

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.


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