Scaffolding

by , under church, life

I’m glad I’m a woman. Not only in general terms though that’s true too, but I’m glad I’m a woman with a strong liturgical calling in the Orthodox church. If I were a man I’d probably be a deacon or even a priest now. I don’t agree with women not being allowed in the altar (1), but it’s convenient because it enables me to use my calling where it’s useful: in the choir.

(1) Not a hill I’m willing to die on, though. I admit it’s an injustice, and often a major inconvenience, and I’ll applaud and support people who take action about it, but when I tried that it only sapped my energy without any other effect.

I’m now calling myself “liturgist” in my Mastodon bio, an upgrade from “Orthodox church music wrangler”, because I’ve discovered (in practice, and in conversations with Choirmistress and other people) that what I wrangle is not the music as such, but the liturgical scaffolding. It helps that mild synaesthesia makes me able to perceive music as architecture.

God gave me a strong useful voice, the ability to carry a tune, a head for detail and structure, and the gift to use all of those to further leitourgia (2). Recently I’ve come to think that this particular gift is not very common.

(2) Greek: “public office”, or simply “the work that needs to be done to keep everything running smoothly”; in modern Greek it somewhat disconcertingly means “roadworks”.

It’s very hard for one person to have their attention on directing a choir of more than, say, 3 people AND on the interaction between choir and altar AND on the book; a director and a liturgist together work much better than either one on their own because the director can take care of the “inside” work and the liturgist of the “outside” work. Choirmistress and I have been doing this together so long that we’ve come to a perfectly working division of labour. She makes up the books; I can do that too, and she’ll probably have me take over if she can’t do it any more for any reason. She directs the choir; I can do that but not comfortably. I turn the pages, which I can by now do almost blindly, and pay attention all the time to catch unexpected things like a deacon repeating something he should have said only once and then skipping the next bit. This does mean that if my attention flags for just one moment, like when I’m distracted by a cute little kid or a sudden prayer impulse, everybody will notice. It can be exhausting.

Last Saturday I had no voice at all from a bad cold, so I stayed home from church, making poor Choirmistress the totality of the choir by herself but it couldn’t be helped. The Vigil is a quiet service and there are usually only a few people, and it’s easier to stop and pick up when something derails than it is in the Liturgy with a larger choir and higher stakes. I’d promised to come on Sunday, voice or no voice, to handle the book. As it was, I could sing slightly more than half the service, and the half I couldn’t sing was mostly because my voice had only the lower part of its range. Fortunately I could depend on Other Alto, who can now do everything I could do when she joined the choir something like 15 years ago, and who was doing the reading as well.

Related very good news: Unesco now acknowledges Byzantine chant as part of humanity’s intangible cultural heritage. It’s a different tradition from ours (we sing mostly an adapted form of znamenny chant, developed by Father Michael Fortunatto for (small) Western choirs). I’d very much like to learn “original” Byzantine chant, but I’m afraid it would not only take another 35 years but it might cause bad interference, somewhat like singing in a non-church choir would but in the other direction.

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