Posts Tagged 'the new liturgical movement'

A contribution elsewhere

A couple of months ago, the people involved with new online Orthodox Arts Journal asked if I would be interested in contributing anything to their efforts. I’m a big fan of New Liturgical Movement, and as this is sort of an attempt to do something similar from the Orthodox side, I was thrilled to participate however I could. I suggested some things I can do, it seemed to make sense to all concerned, and as of this morning, my first post for them is up. Take a look, and peruse the rest of the site as well — they’re doing some nice stuff, and it’s an honor to be involved.


(hack) Thanksgiving leftovers (koff)

It’s the first day of December. How the heck did that happen?

On the way out to New Mexico last week, I sat between a married couple who were both sick and kept coughing across me. It was Southwest Airlines, so seating was first come first serve, and they made it clear they would rather have me in the crossfire than give up either an aisle or a window seat. It must have been clear how this came across, because as we were getting off the plane, the wife said to me, “Don’t worry, you won’t catch anything from us — we’ve had this for the last four weeks.”

My stepfather was sick when I got to New Mexico. Flesh of My Flesh was sick on Thanksgiving day. My mom was getting sick over the weekend as we were preparing to leave.

So, perhaps it was inevitable, but Sunday evening I started developing a sore throat on the flight home, yesterday it was getting worse, and today I’m staying home trying to keep from getting worse or giving it to lots of people. I hate to be “that guy” who suspiciously gets sick immediately following a break, but here we are.

As I drink my gallon of Throat Coat tea, there are a few things upon which to muse:

  • My review copy of Cappella Romana’s recording of the Michaelides Divine Liturgy arrived in my absence, as did the Ensemble Organum disc I mentioned earlier. A full review will come shortly; for the moment, I will say only that both are worth your time and represent, in an odd way, flip sides of the same coin.
  • If you do iTunes, Lycourgos Angelopoulos’ 1993 album of Byzantine hymnody for Christmas has been rereleased in that format. It has been out of print for years as an actual disc, although there seem to be some used copies on Amazon. (Note that the iTunes release has a slightly different title: The Glory of Byzantium: Christmas Hymns.)
  • Rod Dreher is leaving the Dallas Morning News to become director of publications for the John Templeton Foundation. Close to four years ago, I started hearing various grumpy old men murmuring about “crunchy cons”. My godson Lucas at some point started reading the book and recommended I read it. It resonated quite a bit with me as somebody who looks more to Russell Kirk than Glenn Beck or Sarah Palin as a model of what conservatism should look like, and the point of the book seemed to me to be to ask how conservatives might, y’know, actually conserve something other than money or power or status. I gave copies of it to a lot of people, and I’m reasonably sure I know everybody in Bloomington who has read it (I’ll let you decide if I’m joking). I’ll fess up that, while a lot of Dreher’s critics had no patience for how he discussed food, I really appreciated what he had to say about a sacramental approach to it, and even if Michael Pollan isn’t using the word “sacramental”, his work and Dreher’s demonstrate that it can be a topic where liberals and conservatives can make common cause (and of course, Dreher interviewed Pollan for The American Conservative last year). Since the book came out, it has seemed as though he was searching unsuccessfully for a way to follow up what should have served as a strong statement of purpose; what he touted as a “sensibility” never quite materialized as a movement, exactly, eventually Crunchy Cons went out of print, and the hinted-at sequel about “the Benedict Option” never materialized, presumably because (as he kept saying in his blog) his newspaper job had become an exercise in self-preservation. A lot of water has flowed under the bridge in the last four years; Dreher converted to Orthodox Christianity, and right now conservatism seems to be floundering on the very cultural essentials the importance of which he was trying to stress, consequently lurching even more towards negativity and hostility. My hope is that a break from political commentary will allow Dreher to follow up on the issues discussed in Crunchy Cons from a more purely cultural perspective, because I think that’s where his heart has wanted to go with it anyway.
  • There was an interesting article in the New York Times this last Sunday about the traditional Latin Mass. Even more interesting has been the discussion of it in places like The New Liturgical Movement and Commonweal. I’m really not sure what a “liturgist” is — a liturgical scholar? a liturgical composer? a person who interprets rubrics? — but what I find striking is how for many modern Catholics, it seems like the rupture from tradition is in fact a selling point. I was in a large, old stone Catholic church once where they were doing a lot of work to restore the interior. The high altar was still in place, and I asked somebody if it ever got used; the person I asked looked highly offended that I would even dare to mention the high altar’s existence, and said, “No, Vatican II turned the altars around and returned the focus of the Mass to the people,” and made it clear that was the end of the conversation. Sometimes it seems like the majority of Westerners truly and actively yearn for their worship to be sentimental, banal, and tacky. At any rate, I don’t have a dog in this fight (except insofar as I strongly disagree with certain parties who think Orthodoxy needs its own Vatican II), but it seems to me that the traditionalist and modernist narratives are irreconcilable, as the comments on Wolfe’s article indicate. What I will say is that the invocation by a commenter at Commonweal of C. S. Lewis (“The modern habit of doing ceremonial things unceremoniously is no proof of humility; rather it proves the offender’s inability to forget himself in the rite, and his readiness to spoil for every one else the proper pleasure of ritual”) seems quite apt, and the apparent need, not just for the 1970 Missal to be embraced but for anything that ever came before it to be wiped from the face of the earth, is very telling — at least to me. At the risk of elevating aesthetics over all other concerns, I’ll point out that the Mass of St. Gregory inspired people like Josquin and Palestrina; the kinds of composers the Novus Ordo appears to have inspired are, shall we say, not even close.

Okay. I need more tea.

This sounds familiar somehow…

Ensemble Organum, singing the Introit for the Midnight Mass of Christmas Day, “Dominus dixit ad me” (Ps. 2:7,1). From the recording Chant de l’Eglise de Rome (VIe – XIIIe Siècles). Old Roman Chant (perhaps c. 6th century) from an 11th century manuscript. (Consider my hat tipped to The New Liturgical Movement.)

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more about “This sounds familiar somehow…“, posted with vodpod


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.

Newsflash from New Liturgical Movement: “Chant and polyphony call for a live space with a natural acoustic”

Jeffrey Tucker at The New Liturgical Movement briefly talks about issues related to amplification and acoustics within a nave. It’s a few days old now, and the points are reasonably obvious, but nonetheless worth making. This section in particular, uh, resonates with me:

The liturgical choir, however, is there to assist the ritual and be part of a sound framework that is broad and inclusive of the entire space — to be part of something larger than the sound it is making.  […] Chant and polyphony call for a live space with a natural acoustic, and… [thus] I’m not sure that it is really possible to talk about acoustics without dealing with the style issue. How a parish deals with the issue of [acoustics] can be very revealing as to what the designers and decision makers regard as the modal music of parish life.

This is an issue with which the people who sing at my parish are currently struggling (including the priest); it is a building which was built in 2001 as a temporary space, intended in the long term to be the education wing of a larger complex which was intended to include a bigger Byzantine-ish temple with, likely, a reasonable acoustic. Because the nave was going to be classroom space eventually, it was built as acoustically dead as they could possibly manage. Low ceiling, ceiling tiles, carpet. The room actually sucks sound out of you before you ever have a chance to phonate — and that’s a feature, not a bug, according to the people who helped plan the current space. They figured the bigger complex was just a few years down the road, so it wouldn’t really be that big of a deal.

Well, already in 2003, they were realizing it was probably going to take another ten years before they would be able to build the church on which they had counted; now, eight years after the current building opened its doors, we’re looking at likely ten years before we’ll be able to knock down a couple of walls to expand what we have, let alone build another building. What we have is what we have, and that is not likely to change any time soon.

As a result, the conversation has shifted to how we can make the most of our “temporary” space that hasn’t actually turned out to be temporary. This effort was begun in earnest this last January, and a good amount has been accomplished since those pictures were taken. Still, a coat of paint isn’t going to fix the acoustics, and our focus is turning to what we can do about the acoustics. For me, it’s not an abstract question; it’s like singing into a wet towel, and I’ve been doing it for six years now. It takes a toll.

Truth is, there’s little we can do. The support beams in the structure above the ceiling tiles are horizontal; we’d get maybe eight inches if we took them out. This means we can replace the carpet with something less absorptive, like beauty bark, and/or replace the ceiling tiles with something a little less absorptive. The trouble is the next question which gets asked: how do we justify spending the money to do any of that when this building is intended to be something else in the long run, and spending the money now would simply set us back farther from being able to build the next phase?

I bring all of this up for two reasons. First of all, if there’s anybody who reads this who has solved a similar problem or has ideas regarding how this problem could be solved, I’m all ears, baby.

Secondly, I think this comes back to Mr. Tucker’s point: how those involved with decision-making at a parish deal with acoustics says a lot about what they think is important with respect to music. To that end — let’s be real, guys, we’ve got a 90% sung Liturgy. If it can’t be heard past the third row when the choir is screaming themselves hoarse, that’s a problem. I entreat anybody reading this who is ever involved either with mission planting or the building of a new church building — plan for the acoustics. Plan for the choir. Plan for the vocal health and longevity of the people who sing. Put a mission in a space that is reasonably live — nonstandard acoustics will hurt you, not help you. Involve the cantor/choir director in the design of a new building — they will be able to tell you what they need, and at a minimum, a vaulted ceiling with a floor that isn’t one giant sound absorber should be treated as a reasonable starting point. In general, please don’t deliberately hobble your singers and then say, down the road, when asked about it, “Sorry, we actually intended it that way.” Your clergy will thank you, too, particularly during Holy Week.

These things, truly, are not “nice to haves”. They are “need to haves”. It’s not a snobby musician thing; it’s the fact that if we get callouses on those two little flaps of flesh in our vocal tract, we’re done.

Churches are the last venue where one is at all likely to hear live, unamplified music anymore on a regular basis; we aren’t going to hear it at home, we aren’t going to hear it at school, and heck, a lot of the time we aren’t even going to hear it in an opera house anymore — and even in a lot of churches you’ll find amplification out the wazoo. Our ears have become accustomed to the nonstandard room as being the standard, and then just being able to turn up the volume if we can’t hear something. I cringe every time I see somebody chanting into a microphone; somebody has missed the point in that instance, and it’s either the person insisting on using the microphone or the person who has insisted that the cantor needs a microphone.

For further reading, I suggest Thomas Day’s Why Catholics Can’t Sing. I also published an article a few years ago in The Journal of Singing on this topic — maybe I’ll repost the text here.

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