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Why do we have choirs?

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  • Stan Takis
    Dear List: I bought a high definition television a year ago, but I did not get around to ordering the HD channels on my dish until two weeks ago. They have a
    Message 1 of 46 , May 11, 2007
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      Dear List:

      I bought a high definition television a year ago, but I did not get
      around to ordering the HD channels on my dish until two weeks ago.
      They have a channel called Equator which shows exclusively travel
      videos from around the world. Many of these are Japanese productions
      in which an English voice is dubbed over. I think the background music
      remains the same from the Japanese version. Only a Japanese person
      could have selected the music they did for the examination of the
      Hagia Sophia and an ancient monastery in Constantinople, which I
      watched last night. Most of the music they used was New Age stuff with
      an unintelligible female voice and synthetic drums. It kind of sounded
      like Enya. At one point, they were slowly zooming in to the great icon
      of Christ Pandokrator, and the music was a polyphonic choir singing
      "Agnus Dei" over and over. At any rate, as a Greek Orthodox Christian,
      I found it MADDENING to look at sacred icons with this music playing
      in the background. As I got to think about it, I don't think I would
      have been satisfied if they had played Desby or Bogdanos or any other
      of our modern Greek Orthodox music either. These images called for
      Byzantine chant and no other music would have felt right.

      I recently had a discussion with a clergyman who asserted that choirs
      are an anomaly in the Greek Orthodox Church, exclusive only to America
      in the 20th and 21st Centuries. He felt they really did not belong in
      our services. I guess, historically speaking, he's right that the
      Church got along without them for centuries, but what is it about our
      modern American society that makes our choirs necessary in worship? I
      would like to hear your answers to this and your rebuttals to the
      sentiments express by this clergyman, which are the same that I have
      heard from other people as well. I've been an apologist for choirs,
      but I still find it hard to argue this point, given the history of
      music in our Church. If you compare it to the visual arts, our icons
      are extremely distinctive and unique in the world of painting. When
      you see an Orthodox icon you are immediately ushered into the Church
      and all of her doctrines and dogma. Orthodox icons that are painted
      today look exactly like the mosaics and paintings on the walls of the
      Hagia Sofia and other Byzantine-era churches and monasteries. What
      about the argument that our music should be just as timeless and

      The only argument I can figure somebody might use against the music we
      commonly call "Byzantine" today is that we really don't know exactly
      what the music of the early Byzantine era sounded like, so we have to
      come up with our own idea of appropriate music. Somehow, this argument
      doesn't satisfy me, because it seems so un-Orthodox. It's hard to rely
      on the scholars because they can't seem to agree on what the oldest
      notation we have really sounds like. Lots of people have their
      opinions, but which scholarship is the most compelling?

      I am convinced, in any case, that the music of our Church should be
      simple enough for congregations to sing, regardless of how music
      eventually developed in our history. Our services are a dialogue
      between the celebrant and the people. The people should be singing the
      hymns. That's how I feel about it. The only problem is, the people
      rarely show up for anything but the Sunday Divine Liturgy any
      more...and even then, they're usually late. How long do we cover for them?

    • dananetherton
      ... (Responding late, sorry) Still assimilating ... could be, could be. At the same time, of course, Nia Vardolos fought off Hollywood attempts to change My
      Message 46 of 46 , Jun 1, 2007
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        --- In greekorthodoxmusic@yahoogroups.com, "Stan Takis" <takistan@...>
        > --- In greekorthodoxmusic@yahoogroups.com, "dananetherton" <dana@>
        > wrote:
        > > One practical benefit has to do with the shortage of skilled
        > > cantors.
        > >
        > > Another is (let's be frank) the opportunity it affords our devoted
        > > ladies to take an active role in the worship of the Church.
        > Dear Dana:
        > True. And let's not forget the assimilation issue. We are still
        > assimilating. The US is overwhelmingly Protestant and Catholic, and
        > there are many in our Orthodox Church who do not see why we cannot
        > be more like them.

        (Responding late, sorry)

        "Still assimilating" ... could be, could be. At the same time, of
        course, Nia Vardolos fought off Hollywood attempts to change "My Big
        Fat Greek Wedding" into something Jewish, or Italian -- because by gum
        she *didn't* want the distinctively *Greek-American* elements in her
        story to be assimilated into the generic "Mediterranean immigrant" story.

        And thanks to the clout that Rita Wilson (producer, and Tom Hanks's
        Greek-American wife -- on whose behalf *he* became Orthodox) had built
        up in Hollywood, she didn't have to.

        And Michael Constantine (for one) could finally *play* a Big Fat Role
        that is in his own ethnic background -- perhaps his 5th "Greek"
        character in a 35+ year career with 164 appearances (according to
        IMDB, <http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0176073/>).

        This is consistent with what's happening with other ethnic groups in
        America: the byword is no longer "melting pot", getting melted into
        "Americans"; the byword is "diversity" and "heritage".

        So the assimilation process no longer has to go on to the point where
        visible Greek-ness (and visible Orthodoxy) disappears. The "Greek"
        part of "Greek-American" (and by extension the "Orthodox" part of
        "Greek Orthodox") no longer has to disappear in favor of the
        "American" part.

        Perhaps it's the younger generation (like Nia Vardolos and Rita
        Wilson) that recognizes this, and the older generation that still
        clings to the old model of assimilation?

        But it's true that assimilation has been part of the history. Back
        when I was regularly on Usenet, a cynical Greek-American who also
        regularly posted there asserted that the GOA would be gone in another
        generation or two -- as the young bail out to join the Protestant
        churches, while the old insist on using Greek-and-only-Greek.

        That mindset *can* cripple a parish -- I know an OCA parish in my
        metro area that nearly perished because of it (different ethnic, same

        Perhaps the younger generation -- those members who stick with the
        Church despite these frustrations -- will be the ones to break free of
        the "assimilation" approach to Orthodoxy. That's certainly the age
        range where I see interest in learning Chant. And it's certainly the
        age range where (in my own little parochial patch) I see zero interest
        in joining the choir.

        -- Dana Netherton
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