Recently, iconographer Aidan Hart published the thought-provoking essay “Hand and machine: Making liturgical furnishings”. Mr. Hart’s piece is part of an ongoing exploration by liturgical artists of the question of how technology has changed, and is continuing to change, our relationship to crafts that have up until recently been done by hand. Liturgical designer Andrew Gould has also contributed to this conversation, as has woodcarver Jonathan Pageau. Each artist acknowledges the concern that mechanization and industrialization will in some way diminish the physical quality, the craftsmanship, and the spiritual value of liturgical art, and also force our liturgical aesthetic from an ideal of heavenly worship that is unique and personal into the realm of kitsch, of the cheap and prefabricated, of cookie-cutter monotony. Is everything doomed to follow the trajectory of the icon, where inexpensive laser printer renderings are mounted on wood, and the handpainted image is so rare as to have near-unicorn status?
The consensus appears to be that as long as technology is used as a tool to enable, rather than replace, the human craftsmanship, and does not overwhelm the creativity and specificity of the art in question, then there are ways of using technology that are practical and cost-effective without bringing down the quality. Sometimes it may even work well to adapt design to modern technology rather than continue to ape forms that have become disconnected from the function — that is, new technology may offer a way to rethink a given function, rather than resorting to skeuomorphism, where we maintain the outer appearance of a design element while removing its structural or functional significance, such as retaining the shape of a film camera, designed to accommodate the space considerations for a roll of film, with a digital camera that has different space considerations. (Skeuomorphism, I will note, is a somewhat ironic word to disparage, given that τὸ σκεῦος is the Greek word given to the holy vessels of the altar, which are stored in the σκευοφυλάκιον, lit. “where the vessels are guarded”.) Mr. Hart gives the example of a choros chandelier he designed, in which ultimately employing electric candles to preserve a visual design element made less sense than using concealed LED strip lighting at the base of the piece. The objective with employing technology ought to be, according to Mr. Hart, to preserve the sense that liturgical craftsmanship is “an act of communion as an act of creation”, and “to discern the logos or divine word of each created thing… We are called to bring out all the material’s potential[.]”
Music is a liturgical art that also has to examine these issues. Singers are old hands at having to adapt to technological developments; we’ve had to deal with the transition from the scroll to the codex, from rote memorization and improvisation to the development of music notation, from the manuscript to the printed book. In the last century, we have dealt with the impacts of the invention of the microphone, the rise of audio recordings, the ubiquity of computers, the permeation of all spaces and objects by the Internet, digital typesetting, digital synthesizers, and now the near-universality of the tablet computer and the PDF (portable document format). We interact with the architecture, the furnishings, the vestments, and the books, and we do so performatively. It is our job to make the words heard in a particular way; anything that enhances or decreases our ability to perform this task, or somehow accompanies us in doing so, changes our job to some degree.
Take the microphone, for example. Prior to its invention, singers and speakers had to rely on the natural acoustics of the building enhancing a cultivated skill of projection in the voice. That works well in Orthodox churches built with high vaulted ceilings and marble floors and curved apses serving as resonating chambers; Hagia Sophia’s decay time, according to the Stanford University Icons of Sound project, was approximately eleven seconds when it was full. Once there’s a microphone, though, that kind of natural acoustic, while still ideal, is no longer a need-to-have; neither is vocal training for that matter, for either speaker or singer. It is no coincidence that both of those factors are expensive — certainly far more expensive than a microphone, even a halfway-decent sound system, and any level of musical education. It is also no coincidence that in the twentieth century, architects started building churches that were intentionally dry acoustically, so as to favor the spoken voice as rendered by a microphone (such as St. Thomas Episcopal Church in New York; eventually they changed their mind and retrofitted the ceiling for a more forgiving acoustic). Not only that, but recordings, a technology enabled by the microphone, by definition preserve only those performances somebody thought worth preserving. As those performances get propagated as models to follow, it both has a homogenizing effect and rather elides the inevitable politics of performance practice. As recordings maintain the idea of a particular standard while the realities of electroacoustic technology mean the singer no longer has to produce the voice in a particular way to be heard in a big church, over time an ever-bigger wedge gets driven between normative performance practice and the ideal. To say nothing of the problem of technological “mission creep” as the money spent on it justifies an expanded use; the parish that spends thousands of dollars on a sound system for its temporary space will have a financial incentive to maintain its use in a permanent space rather than spend more money on a design that offers proper acoustics.
And then, for the small parish community wanting a more present sound for festal occasions, perhaps there is the temptation to use a recording to augment, or even replace, the human being at the analogion. A parish I once chanted for floated exactly this proposal for Holy Friday one year, expressing the concern that one person leading the Lamentations wasn’t going to yield the robust singing from everybody that would have been nice – maybe I knew of a CD that everybody could sing along to? (I declined. It went fine.)
On the other hand, the computer, the internet, and the PDF have made some kinds of musical instruction possible across geographic barriers that would have been insurmountable before. Need a score from a Greek book that’s been out of print for over a century? Somebody’s probably posted a scan of the book in an online forum someplace. (Too hard to read? It’ll take maybe 15 minutes to retypeset it digitally.) Want to learn how to conduct a choir and you live in, say, Wyoming? You can take lessons over Skype from a master teacher in Russia. Having trouble getting Byzantine intervals in your ear? There’s an app for that. The freewheeling nature of PDF distribution via backchannels perhaps somewhat elides copyright issues for present-day translations and newer compositions, but since nobody in North America is exactly getting rich off of Orthodox music publishing, nobody is terribly concerned about that quite yet.
To be sure, the pedagogical advantages of this technology have their limits, and must be employed responsibly. The easy dissemination of information does not void the necessity of human guidance; if anything, it makes a teacher even more necessary. You cannot teach yourself to be Orthodox, and you cannot be a church musician who is 100% autodidact (any more than you could be a priest who is completely self-taught). The web may make a great deal of information easily-available at the touch of a button, but a person is still going to have to help you navigate it.
Another example of technology empowering but also requiring discernment and responsibility is the tablet. Over the last five years or so, the tablet has been an amazing resource for every kind of musician, and it has changed the way we interact with and think about scores. As pianist Wu Han told the New York Times’ Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim (over Skype, no less) for a 2016 article, “It’s not like the old days where you only have information passed down by a teacher. Now everyone is a detective.” For Orthodox church musicians this means we can carry an entire library of liturgical books, sheet music, and even manuscripts in one portable, lightweight device. It puts much at one’s fingertips that might have been difficult to access otherwise, and where one Matins service may have required six or seven fairly bulky books, it can now be done all from one book-sized tablet. A library of public domain PDFs can be had for next to zero upfront costs (save for the tablet) and requires no storage space to speak of; this can be a real boon for a singer at a small parish with no budget for music and no room to store books.
On the other hand, while this may be a wonderfully empowering tool from a practical perspective, there are certainly concerns that the use of such devices has raised. Fr. Maximos Constans, a faculty member at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology as well as an Athonite monk and accomplished scholar and translator, has taken a strong stance against tablets, saying that “A liturgical book is a sacred object, an iPad is not.” The issue is one of the tablet being a temptation to distraction, or worse, at least as much as it may be a practical tool, and generally being a multi-use object rather than being a dedicated sacred vessel. Other concerns have to do with it facilitating too much choice — that is, it being too easy for the individual musician to “roll their own” in terms of texts and music, as opposed to having a prescribed book with the preferred translation or settings of a given parish or jurisdiction. Some might raise the objection that the ability to navigate the physical liturgical books — Menaion, Oktoechos, and so on — is part of the discipline. At a price point of up to several hundred dollars, tablets could be seen as exclusionary in terms of cost, and an overreliance on an electronic device as introducing an unnecessary potential complication.
Nonetheless, various jurisdictions and para-ecclesiastical organizations have begun to embrace this kind of technology, perhaps starting the process of adapting the form to the function enabled by these devices. The Antiochian Archdiocese has rolled out an updated liturgical guide with embedded hyperlinks to sheet music PDFs; this is explicitly intended to streamline the process of using tablets and other smart devices for cantors and members of the choir, as well as to simplify issues of musical access for those who may not be certain where to find what they need.
AGES Initiatives, an extra-ecclesial nonprofit founded with the blessing of Metropolitan Alexios of Atlanta has the objective of using technology “to store, organize, and deliver Orthodox Christian liturgical texts and music to support the education of church singers, and to facilitate the smooth performance of church services”. (Statement of disclosure: this author is an employee of AGES Initiatives.) While commonly associated with the translations and compositions of its founder, former Athonite Fr. Seraphim Dedes, the AGES platform is first and foremost a database and distribution system that is library-neutral. In cooperation with the rightsholders for given translations, the database now includes the work of Fr. Ephrem Lash (including John Michael Boyer’s metrical adaptations), Fr. Peter Virgil Andronache, Fr. Juvenaly Repass, and also the St. Athanasius Academy Septuagint and the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese’s new official Divine Liturgy translation.
The publicly-available version of the AGES platform employs an algorithm that automates the process of applying the Violakis typikon to the liturgical library, generating the Digital Chant Stand — electronic bilingual service booklets with hyperlinked scores for all hymns in both languages, producing several months’ worth in only a couple of minutes. The platform is customizable for any typikon, any given library of texts, any library of music, and the booklet format is also customizable.
The AGES platform can be accessed through either the web or a tablet app that makes everything for any given service immediately accessible, but the system finds its fullest expression in something much more intentionally disruptive: the fully-implemented Digital Chant Stand, as currently found at Fr. Seraphim’s home parish of St. Nektarios Greek Orthodox Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. All skeuomorphisms are done away with: the analogia have been removed, and there are no books. A/V carts loaded with computer and audio hardware occupy the very traditional spots of left and right choirs in front of the solea, and antiphonal choirs of men and women gather around large computer screens, on which a mouse click pulls up a PDF for every piece of music in the service. This is, to be sure, a tool with considerable application in the mission field beyond North America; for example, the Archdiocese of Kenya has officially adopted AGES for its liturgical texts and rubrics.
Of course, there are concerns. As a character in the classic 1982 science fiction film TRON warns about artificial intelligence, “Won’t that be grand! The computers and programs will start thinking, and the people will stop!” An understanding of rubrics and how to perform a service according to the typikon from the books themselves is part of the church musician’s job, it might be argued, and fairly. On the other hand, none of the jurisdictions have made it a priority to translate the typikon; there have been personal efforts that have been published through various channels (including both draft copies made available digitally and actual physical books), but nothing formal. There are reasons the North American jurisdictions have not made this a priority; allocation of resources, and presumably concern over pastoral application of such a document were it to be universally available, just to suggest a couple of possibilities. Be that as it may, the truth of the matter is, for the Anglophone world — and more broadly speaking, the mission field — there is no direct access to the typikon, and services still need to be offered in the meantime. As for working from the liturgical books themselves, the practical consideration is again one of cost and space for the smaller and/or newer parish (or even jurisdiction, as seen with the example of Kenya).
There are practical concerns of a skeuomorphic nature. With no physical books, customary practices involving them — such as the placing of the Triodion before the icon of Christ right before Vespers of the Publican and Pharisee — become problematic. As noted, having antiphonal A/V carts that look like nothing so much as portable recording studios right in front of the solea is a visual disruption in the midst of iconography and woodwork. Here, I would return to the matter of Aidan Hart’s choros chandelier that embraced concealed LED lighting as an adaptation of form to a new manner of function. In the same way, these issues represent challenges that are properly the domain of a designer; how might an artist such as Mr. Hart or Andrew Gould design an analogion intended for the function of the Digital Chant Stand that would preserve, perhaps even expand, a traditional aesthetic?
There are a couple of elephants in the room that have been only briefly alluded to, and those are the closely related issues of economics and convenience. Design elements that favor natural acoustics, to give but one example, are expensive; marble — or even wooden — floors, high ceilings, plaster construction, and the like all make for a wonderfully resonant church, if you can afford them. And, because those elements arguably make the physical experience of being in church more austere (particularly the floors), some communities may be reluctant to justify the expense. I’ve been there when parents of small children have said it’s unrealistic to expect them to have their kids crawling around on such a floor. “Why do I want to stand on a rock hard surface like that for three hours or more at a time?” somebody once told me. Acoustics were one issue, I suggested; “Yeah, well, in this day and age it’s called a microphone,” was the response. For better or for worse, the relative economy of amplification thus allows the nonstandard space to become standard.
On a smaller scale, books, music, and standard liturgical furnishings associated with cantors and choirs also run into barriers of cost and convenience. There is one English-language Menaion available, it alone is a $1,200 investment, previously-alluded to issues of typikon mean that even if a church has them there is no guarantee that anybody will know how to use them, and as I know from my own experience, if there is not a standard analogion, the individual volumes are extremely cumbersome to have open on a common Manhasset black music stand. If you want to buy the Greek books, the volumes perhaps cost half as much, but as they have to be imported from Greece, shipping brings the price back up. And yes, a standard analogion and set of stalls will themselves run into the thousands of dollars, if you can even find somebody who knows how to build them for you. A few hundred dollars for a tablet that then has all of the necessary liturgical texts and music loaded on it for free, or even for a nominal subscription fee, starts to look like better bang for the buck for parish communities with limited resources, as well as a more practical adaptation to the pastoral realities of a mission field that does not have the backing of an imperial treasury.
This piece has only allowed for a surface analysis of the various issues I’ve raised; much more can be said, and it is my hope that these observations might generate fruitful discussion. The way technology interacts with liturgical music has changed dramatically just in the last ten years. The best way to adapt remains an open question. Still, to return to the consensus of Messrs. Hart, Gould, and Pageau, we need to be vigilant that technology is used as a tool to enable, rather than replace, the human element inherent in our practice of singing praises to God, and that it does not overwhelm the creativity and specificity of how we do it. Perhaps, in adapting form to the function of new technology, much as had to happen when the scroll became the codex, this adaptation will give way to something that is beautiful and in keeping with our tradition in its own right. It will be up to designers and musicians to collaborate in faith and find the point of intersection between technology, practical reality, pastoral application, and tradition where we may bring out all the material’s potential.