Speaking of defense

Actually, I don’t really feel I need to defend myself from this, but I do want to address a few things, and let’s get the easiest thing out of the way first.

Microtonality really doesn’t make much difference to any discussion of liturgical music in the US, since only a very tiny handful of chanters can produce microtonal chant, and almost none of them born in the US, no matter what their ethnic background. I can’t do it. Nobody at my parish can do it. Even on Youtube, few can do it (to judge by what people have posted there).

I don’t think it’s un-American, nor do I dislike it. In my first parish back in the early 80s, we still had the same chanter the parish had had since the 40s, born and trained to chant in the Middle East. He was remarkable. And I enjoyed and appreciated his chanting. But he is no longer with us, and there are few like him who are these days, at least in the USA.

I do think that it is less accessible, at least on first exposure, but that it’s an academic point. How many chanters in the USA these days actually produce microtonal, Byzantine chant? Very few.

As far as my druthers go, we wouldn’t have any polyphonic music. Actually, polyphonic isn’t so much the issue as tonal is — that’s tonal, as opposed to modal, music. But however stronly my personal preference might be, I don’t think most Americans would know the difference between tonal and modal music. That’s not a statement about anyone’s intelligence or education, by the way. It’s merely a statement of fact.

I prefer modal music in church. Because it lacks a tonal center, it doesn’t resolve, so it sounds ungrounded and ethereal. But I don’t think most hear the difference between ending on the base note of the modal tone (the ison) and resolving to the tonic, so my preference is moot.

I suspect we will hear more modal music in church as time goes on, but I doubt very much that Byzantine and Znammeny — the original in either case, and not the tonal, harmonized version — will replace tonal, SATB music. This is particularly true with ethnic groups that associate their musical tradition particularly strongly with their identity, or whether their identity is respected, such as the Rusyns.

I might also point out that no matter what our musical debates may be, we should be glad we don’t have to deal with the things the Catholics do these days. We don’t have music with banal, humano-centric lyrics. We don’t have choir directors substituting miscellaneous hymns for liturgical music. Check out the Catholic blogosphere, if you want to see serious trouble. After all, we may disagree about whether to do a traditional Znammeny or SATB Arkhangelsky arrangement of O Gladsome Light, but both are O Gladsome Light.

For this, we should be grateful.


2 Responses to Speaking of defense

  1. Richard Barrett says:

    Christ is risen!

    a) You’re quite right you don’t need to defend yourself; the first thing I said about your posts was to express agreement, for the most part. If something I’ve said has stuck in your craw, my apologies, but I again stress that when the first thing I say about your posts is “Right on, brother”, I’m not trying to attack you.

    b) The future of how Byzantine chant, or any traditional, monophonic (mostly or otherwise) idiom of Orthodox singing for that matter, is utilized in this country will depend very much on those who know what they’re doing being able and willing to pass it on, and there being people who are willing to learn it. These people do exist, and there are an increasing number of models of how to do it well in English; hopefully these will lead the way.

    c) I doubt very much that any untrained ear will instinctively know the difference between modality and tonality. Whether the congregation knows the difference isn’t exactly the point, any more than they know the difference between stops on an organ or knows which eothinon Gospel we’re reading this week. The point is, this is one of the key ways we organize our hymnody and make it internally distinctive. Trying to fit everything into the limiting box of functional harmony reduces those distinctives.

    d) To some extent, this discussion has an implicit foundation of an overall lack of musical literacy in this country. This is something worth combating, I think, particularly when we have a 95% sung Liturgy!


  2. Basil Crow says:

    If I can do it, you can do it as well. Over a period of several years, and armed only with a few Web pages, audio recordings, and a copy of Scala, I’ve been able to teach myself how to hear and execute the intervals of Byzantine music as well as how to read Byzantine musical notation. As far as background, I have grown up in the United States and played Western piano music and sang in Western choirs for years. Learning genuine Byzantine performance practice is really not as difficult as it seems. In my and others’ experience, the most difficult part is not the technical difficulty involved in learning the notation or the scales or the vocal technique, but just being open to trying things that are different than what one is used to.

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