Imitation and Creativity: Part I

As an Orthodox musician (cantor, director), one thing I fear – almost above all else, as I think about it – is bringing into the Church’s liturgy a “worldly” set of musical values that are not only foreign to the Church’s goals but harmful to her children’s spiritual health.

This is no small concern. Tradition exists in the Church for a reason: to pass on the Faith. And this Faith forms a new habit of thinking which is trained in the liturgy. The Russian Old Believers aren’t wrong when they contend that the external forms, even minutiae, are important in this formation.

I don’t belong to a Church of the Old Rite. My parish didn’t receive and doesn’t practice customs unchanged from generations past. There have been very many interruptions and changes and modernizations. Whether for good or ill, I’ve not been entrusted with the preservation of a practice of liturgical life and music that goes back centuries in its minutiae. Instead, my community is and always has been a polyglot like every other institution found in western America. The trail was long: Jerusalem to Antioch to Byzantium to Kiev to Muscovy to Valaam through St. Petersburg to Sitka to San Fransisco to Portland. That’s not quite right but you get the idea.

As with most of my colleagues, I serve in a parish that is thoroughly of its time and place. (Much of that character has been cultivated, by the way, on purpose.) Our music rests on the work of 18th-19th c. folk who were doing their best (I assume) to develop music according to their time and place. That the body of chant and customs practiced by earlier generations was broken was not their fault or mine. We have to provide music within the context we’re in.

Now, to this point, I sound apologetic. There’s a reason for that. I am. I’m a bit defensive about the Orthodox practice of Tradition and how much strictness it requires. For some, it requires a rather all-embracing strictness. These are notable for their absence at the table of ecumenical Orthodoxy (the communion of patriarchates). For the rest of us, it requires substantially less, though amongst ourselves the degree of strictness is still substantially varied. My context definitely falls in the liberal wing.

Folks in the strict camp, I suspect, do not wrestle much with what they bring to the liturgy. The music and its performance are guided by narrow rules set long, long ago and (it is assumed) maintained. (If it’s not been maintained, who would know?) Sing this in that manner at such-and-such a time, and you’ve kept the Tradition. It seems relatively easy. The hardest work is learning it and passing it on. (No denigration meant.)

I have not that luxury. The basic body of music which I have been bequeathed does not arise out of the dim mists of time. We know who wrote it, for what, who sang it, how and where. We know some of the accretions and baggage it has picked up and dropped off along the way. Furthermore, we have added to that body of repertoire other music written under its shadow, or consciously out from under it. Not only that, we’ve also added to that repertoire music from other places that has been on a similar pilgrimage.

So, for those of us who exist in this world where we aren’t just imitating and reproducing the past, we have real choices and decisions to make. If our forefathers had choices and decisions to make (i.e. what to keep from the synagogue, what to reject from sacred Gentile rites, what to invent from whole cloth), we have similar ones.

Within this world, we have to make judgments on music: What of the received music is really “of” the Tradition? What of new music is in accord with it? What is lacking that the Tradition demands?

About Rdr. John

I'm a musician: I teach piano and am a professional Accompanist (University of Portland). I'm also a music director. I direct the St. Nicholas Orthodox Church choir (Portland, OR), the Francis Street Singers (Community Music Center) as well as for Mock's Crest Productions, which puts on an operetta at the U of P each June. I care deeply about the music and worship in the Orthodox liturgy, and most of my postings will be concerned with that.
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