Notes from the psalterion, updated and annotated — part V, in which bricks and mortar concerns are considered

By Richard Barrett on August 22, 2013
  1. Notes from the psalterion, updated and annotated – Part I, First Principles
  2. Notes from the psalterion, updated and annotated – Part II, Getting Started
  3. Notes from the psalterion, updated and annotated — part III, dealing with that strange subspecies called the “musician”
  4. Notes from the psalterion, updated and annotated — part IV, in which the question is asked, “Shouldn’t you be at rehearsal?”
  5. Notes from the psalterion, updated and annotated — part V, in which bricks and mortar concerns are considered
  6. Notes from the psalterion, updated and annotated — part VI, in which technical points are considered and a wrap-up is offered

Far more time has elapsed between the last installment of this series and this one than I had intended; my apologies. I’ll try to wrap it up with relative despatch; I had not really expected that this project would take more than a year for me to complete.

The present point I want to make has to do with the way we provide for the sung nature of Orthodox services in terms of physical spaces. One of the overall points here is that while our services are joined with the heavenly worship, they nonetheless happen in a physical, earthly place, and the nature of that place is going to have an impact on how we worship. The way I express this as a principle is as follows:

  • Principle #5: Another non-negotiable point needs to be provision of physical resources for the singers. At bare minimum, these should include proper acoustics, an intentional space for the choir, necessary liturgical furniture, and necessary liturgical books. Acoustics and space cannot be afterthoughts; a cantor who has to make up for a dead room will not be able to do so indefinitely — it really constitutes a physical danger to the voice, and I cannot stress that enough. In terms of space, people (and music stands) still take up space no matter how small your building is, and you must plan properly for that. There are traditional places for singers to stand, and generally those places work very well if planned for.

Recently, a cantor friend of mine was fortunate enough to visit Mt. Athos. After a visit to the Sacred Monastery of Xenophon, during which he had been invited to help chant the services, he had the following reflection on the acoustics in particular of the so-called “New” Church of the monastery:

From the first Κyrie eleison… [we] were enveloped in sound. It goes without saying that there are no microphones: our voices were amplified, mixed and balanced by the room itself. Its stone surfaces, high ceilings, and multiple domes and apses create an ideal singing space. As the night progressed through our six-hour vigil (without Divine Liturgy, which took place the next morning), I realized that my voice was not nearly as tired as it should have been. I barely had to sing, and the temple resonated… Since they often sing upwards of 5 services a day, the fathers usually chant with a light voice, having learned to allow the temple’s wonderful acoustics do most of the work for them.  They are thus able to continue chanting for many hours, and still add the ornaments and expressive devices (those who know them) that are part of the oral tradition.  Just like anywhere else, some have richer or stronger voices than others, some have better ears than others, but like everything else they do, it comes as naturally as breathing does to the rest of us.

I’ll also note that since beginning this series, something that’s happened is Cappella Romana’s concert at Stanford University where they performed medieval Byzantine repertoire using a digitally-reconstructed model of Hagia Sophia’s acoustics. (You can find video excerpts of the concert on YouTube.)

One of the things I want to point out here is that one of the ways that a singer in church gauges time has to do with duration of the voice. This is one of the things my friend noticed chanting on the Holy Mountain; the way the length of the service impacted him as a cantor was different because the acoustic of the church was different, meaning vocal stamina, and therefore earthly time, was less of a factor for him; as he says it is for the monks, it becomes natural to worship in a manner unconcerned with the tick of the clock.

There’s also a way that perception of time is altered for the worshipper in the nave when this kind of acoustic is provided for; singers and clergy have to adjust what they do to account for the reverberation, meaning that they are going to have to sing and speak more slowly. This will mean that liturgical moments that we might normally gloss over and speed through are going to be prolonged, just by virtue of the fact that in order to be understandable in a live room, you can’t rush through anything lest you sound like nothing so much as one of Charlie Brown’s teachers. Also, I can tell you that the more singers get back from a room, the more likely they are to slow down instinctively anyway.

(Some of you may well be thinking that a live acoustic’s tendency to lengthen the services is actually a better argument for deadening the reverberation as much as possible, but the working assumption of this whole series is that, when it comes to the Church’s worship, you’re on God’s time, and quite literally don’t have any place better to be.)

Bottom line as far as acoustics go: a church that actually feels good to sing in is going to be far better for everybody, and it will do a much better job of facilitating the function of liturgy, than a church building in which it is physically painful and exhausting to sing in. Even a small building needs at least some give in the acoustic, because a small church building means you aren’t going to have room for a big choir and everything it needs. And yes, even if you’re using a sound system, these are important issues, because while speakers can help distribute sound better in a dead, small room, they can’t actually make it sound any better or, for that matter, natural.

Which brings me to the other part of the building question: the need for a part of the church specifically designated for its singers, with sufficient room for them to perform their function and for storage of the necessary books (and space for rehearsal). If you are thinking about these matters for a church that has yet to be built, please let me suggest the following practical considerations from my own experience:

  • Be careful about where you put doors and fire exits. That is, if there’s a chance you may need your singers standing someplace, don’t put doors and fire exits immediately behind them (particularly if those doors are the only ones leading to the bathrooms, cry rooms, offices, etc.)
  • Be mindful of traffic patterns. If the corner where you intend to put your singers is tightly boxed in by a wall on one side, the solea on another, and the traffic pattern from a deacon’s door on still another, and/or blocked by a column, then you need to rethink things.
  • If you have no choice but to be maximally economical with space, black metal stands are not going to be a good use of what little space you have. You will still need somewhere to store books, and multiple stands take up a deceptively large amount of room. Better to have an analogion with a multi-sided turntable top and a cabinet body; you can have multiple people gathering around it with a book on each side, and everybody will be able to see and hear each other reasonably well.
  • While there is certainly a tradition of choir lofts that has evolved in Orthodox churches, you need to be aware that this will require access either via stairs or an elevator (and my guess is that, accessibility concerns being what they are in this day and age, most codes are going to require elevators).
  • Particularly in a small church building, risers can have the unintended consequence of penning people in. Music stands plus risers mean you’re going to have perhaps 5-10 people taking up space that 20 could occupy.
  • Antiphonal choirs on the left and right at the front of the church, while I recognize are commonly categorized under the rubric of “things nobody does anymore” (even though that’s by no means true), do a nice job of evenly distributing one’s singers rather than concentrating them in one spot, they allow you to do some really nice things liturgically, and means that the organization of the worshippers in the church reflects a cruciform scheme — priest, choirs, congregation.
  • Make some provision for a rehearsal room that your singers can access on demand. This need not necessarily be a full-fledged “choir room” that’s part classroom, part music office, but it sure can’t hurt if you can manage it. You shouldn’t have to accommodate a piano, so that hopefully can ease some space concerns.

Above all: work with an architect who understands acoustics and how to build for liturgy. You don’t need somebody who knows how to build a restaurant or a convenience store; you need somebody who knows how to build an Orthodox church. Build for good liturgy first, and I guarantee you your singers will thank you for it; if nothing else, it will be better for the long-term physical, mental, spiritual, and vocal health of your singers to not feel that they are engaged in a physical battle with the very room in which they’re trying to worship. There are already a sufficient number of spiritual battles going on in church during services.

Next time (which will not take me six months, I promise): the case for becoming a full-on Orthodox music geek.

Posted in

Our Sponsors