Tuesday, October 30, 2007

American chant?

As usual, I'm way behind the curve on this one. In Clark Carlton's most recent podcast, he continues his musings on the role of Southern culture in forming an American Orthodoxy. He refers to the music of the Old Regular Baptists in Appalachia and its striking similarity to Byzantine Chant. Carlton alludes to prior discussion in the Orthodox blogosphere; in fact, you could get just about everything he says about it by reading this post on Christ in the Mountains (from back in February, I'm so far behind), and following the included links. There really are some interesting similarities, and given that the musical tradition goes back to the earliest days of English Protestantism, it's not out of the question that something is preserved here from pre-Reformation liturgical singing.

In any case, it would be a potential vehicle for some American adaptation of Byzantine chant, though I'm not sure exactly what that would accomplish. Perhaps in some parts of the South it would resonate enough for people to adopt it more comfortably than Byzantine chant. But I could see a lot of Northerners and Northern-minded urbanites having no more affinity for what sounds to their ears like a very depressing form of country, or southern gospel, or bluegrass (most of us probably wouldn't have a clue of the proper categories) than for Byzantine or Russian chant. The fact is, you'd be very hard-pressed to define anything as a national American musical form. Probably the safest bet is the ubiquitous, bland pop, pumped by the globalist media, but it's also the least suitable candidate for Orthodox liturgical music.

It may be that making liturgical music truly American inevitably requires a regional or local approach. For a rural area like Appalachia, maybe there are surviving musical traditions with enough popularity or familiarity that it would make sense to adapt them for Orthodox worship. On the other hand, a northern city with substantial immigrant communities might just as easily embrace the "ethnic" feel of Byzantine. For those who appreciate the sound and feel of Classical European, later Russian liturgical music might suit just fine, or at least might form the most convenient starting point to adapt something more familiar. Beyond those categories, however, I can envision a rather large chunk of the American population raised on more contemporary forms (increasingly used in churches as well) that would not care for any of the above. What do we do with them?

I really don't profess to have any answers here. Personally, I think I could get into the style used in these Old Regular Baptist churches, but then I had a quick and natural affinity for Byzantine chant, so I'm hardly the person to judge what will work for Americans in general. I like the idea that Orthodoxy could take on more indigenous forms in the South, and if Carlton is right, maybe that's where the ball will really get rolling for America as a whole. As for me, I'm just trying to learn the music as it stands right now. Lately I've been trying to learn some key troparia--for major feasts as they come along, and for patron saints. Occasionally I play around with how they're sung, since I'm mostly singing to myself and anyone in the spirit world who happens to be listening. To me, the troparion to St. Peter the Aleut (my patron saint) sounds good sung loud, forceful and raspy. I could hear it in some kind of rock ballad. St. Nicholas and St. John of Damascus sound better with a relaxed, jazzy feel (I'm sure there are more technical terms to use here--I just don't know what they are). Not that I want Orthodox liturgy to sound any more like a rock opera than it does like a free-form jazz odyssey--just pointing out how little I have to offer on the issue :-)

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