Building Musical Bridges: Part II

Building Musical Bridges: Part II

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More than a year ago, I wrote a piece for The Sounding titled “Building Musical Bridges in the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese”. In that article, I expressed my belief that we need to start thinking of “choir people” and “chanters” as all being church musicians who are serving the same purpose and that we ought to re-assess our relationships with one another from a standpoint of good faith and mutual respect. I intended to write a follow-up piece for the Paschal season, but life circumstances on my part sidelined it. Having just completed another Paschal cycle, I want to return to these thoughts.

First of all, consider the words of St. Basil the Great on what singing in church ought to evoke in us:

A psalm… softens the wrath of the soul, and what is unbridled it chastens. A psalm forms friendships, unites those separated, conciliates those at enmity. Who, indeed, can still consider as an enemy him with whom he has uttered the same prayer to God? So that psalmody, bringing about choral singing, a bond, as it were, toward unity, and joining people into a harmonious union of one choir, produces also the greatest of blessings, love. (Basil the Great, On Psalm 1)

Such timely words, with Holy Week still fresh in the memory, that time which keeps every church musician busy within an inch of their lives singing the same prayers to God that we have sung for centuries! And then, at the climax of it all (and again throughout the season), we sing a similar sentiment in the Theotokion for the Praises on Pascha, and then again and again throughout the season:

The day of Resurrection; let us be radiant for the festival, and let us embrace one another. Let us say, brethren, even to those that hate us, ‘Let us forgive all things on the Resurrection’, and so let us cry, ‘Christ has risen from the dead: by death he has trampled on death, and to those in the graves given life’. (Translation Archimandrite +Ephrem Lash)

For me, the passages that ring out the loudest are: “Who, indeed, can still consider as an enemy him with whom he has uttered the same prayer to God?” “Let us say, brethren, even to those that hate us, ‘Let us forgive all things on the Resurrection!’” Strong words indeed when it seems like our liturgical music and how we practice it can be source of painful division.

So, how might church musicians, be we “choir people” or “chant people” or organists or composers, or priests or members of the congregation, find ways to make this love and unity real when we are singing in church? How do we keep “the devil from coming in through the choir loft”, as some say? How do we reach across those gaps in respect and love, with a common love for Christ and His Church, so that we might work and worship together in that spirit?

My first suggestion is to be proactive at the parish level about looking for ways to serve with each other, and to learn about what everybody is doing and why. If you are a cantor, and you serve at a parish that has a polyphonic choir that sings the Divine Liturgy after you sing for Orthros, take it upon yourself to build up a good working relationship with your choir director. Offer to talk to the choir about the chant sources that their choral music employs. If you can read staff notation, consider the possibility of “crossing the aisle” and singing in the choir after Orthros is over. If your choir takes a summer break, make a point of offering to include choir members at the analogion if they ever wish to learn more about what you do and how you do it. Bring up the possibility of teaching choristers how to do things like intone the epistle. You never know who might be interested and who was just waiting for an invitation.

Along the same lines, if you’re a choir director, look for opportunities to build a rapport with your cantor and to interact as colleagues. Do you put on an annual concert? Consider offering the chance to the psalti or psaltes to contribute something at the performance. Talk with the psalti and the priest together to find out what everybody is thinking about and hoping for in terms of goals for the ministry of those who sing at your parish. Ask if the cantor wants to sing in the choir — again, you never know who might just be waiting for an invitation. These ideas are, of course, just a starting point. Assess what will make sense in your parish situation.

I also strongly encourage our Choir Federations to consider how they might integrate cantors more (or better, in some cases), and at the same time, I exhort cantors to consider that it might be worth their while to attend Choir Federation events. Last year I wrote about my experience as the only chant specialist at a Choir Federation conference. I left that event with the conviction that it was incumbent on cantors not to avoid such events, but rather to flood them. The following year, I was able to convince another couple of like-minded psaltes to attend, and it made a huge difference in terms of the atmosphere of the event and the kinds of interactions we had with others. We, as cantors, acted like we were on the same team, and we were thus treated as though we were on the same team. (One of the newcomers even got elected district representative for that Choir Federation!)

At the same time, if cantors are to be more of a presence at Choir Federation events, it is incumbent upon the Federations to keep them in mind during the planning stages. Certainly, chanters without a strong background in Western music would have had a difficult time keeping up with some of the polyphonic music one sings at Choir Federation conventions, and experienced chanters, by and large, aren’t going to need to hear the basic presentations that are often what the conventions have on offer. To incorporate cantors into the life of the Choir Federation, we ought to include them as a voice at the table and seek their input about what they would like to see at Conventions and Church Music Institutes. Some Choir Federations are already doing so, such as that of the Metropolis of Boston, which has appointed a Byzantine Chant Liaison on its Executive Committee. Having all of the various Choir Federations following suit would be a great start.

As we find ways to build bridges from the psalterion to the choir loft, however, it is also necessary to look for opportunities to build bridges from the present to the next generation of cantors and choristers, and I will talk about ideas for that in part 3.

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Richard Barrett

Richard Barrett is an Orthodox church musician, choral singer and scholar. He is the Protopsaltis of Dormition Greek Orthodox Church in Somerville, MA, where he also sings in the choir. He is also the Byzantine Chant Liaison to the Executive Board of the Choir Federation of the Metropolis of Boston, and the Artistic Director of the Saint John of Damascus Society, which supports the performance and dissemination of Orthodox liturgical and para-liturgical music. From 2014-2015 he was Fellow in Residence at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology. From 2005-2012 he was the cantor and choir director at All Saints Orthodox Church in Bloomington, Indiana, and then he was cantor and choir director at Holy Apostles Greek Orthodox Church in Indianapolis from 2013-2014. He has served as an invited clinician and guest cantor at Orthodox churches throughout the country, and recently gave a talk titled “The Mother of God and the Akathistos: How History, Liturgy, and Singing Come Together in the Chairetismoi”. He sings regularly with Cappella Romana and has also sung with the Patriarch Tikhon Choir. Previously, he has performed with ensembles such as the East/West Festival Chorale in Cincinnati, the Josquin Singers in San Francisco, Tudor Choir and the Seattle Opera Chorus in the Pacific Northwest, and in Indiana, the Pro Arte Singers, Collegium Musicum, and the American Guild of Organists Festival Choir. He has worked with conductors such as Alexander Lingas, Peter Jermihov, Vladimir Gorbik, Paul Hillier, John Poole, and John Harbison. He has presented scholarly papers at events such as the International Conference on Patristic Studies at the University of Oxford, the North American Patristics Society, and the Patristic Symposium of the Georges Florovsky Society at Princeton University. A Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History at Indiana University, he is completing his dissertation, titled “Civic Devotions to the Mother of God in Late Antique Constantinople”, under the direction of Deborah Deliyannis. In addition, he holds a B. Mus. in vocal performance and an M. A. in Ancient History, both from Indiana University. He and his wife Megan live in Boston with their two children, Theodore and Katherine.