Fanfare Magazine’s James A. Altena has a new must-read interview with Benedict Sheehan after the release of his Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom recording with the St. Tikhon Choir on Cappella Records:
Benedict Sheehan is the artistic director of the Saint Tikhon Choir, at St. Tikhon’s Orthodox Monastery in South Canaan, PA (in the far northeast corner of the state). He has also performed extensively with Cappella Romana and has been featured as a composer by the Skylark Vocal Ensemble. He is also active as a composer, primarily of sacred music. Cappella Romana’s own label, Cappella Records, has just released a combination CD/Blu-ray set comprising the premiere studio recording of Sheehan’s setting of the Divine Liturgy, along with its premiere live performance in October 2019 as part of a primatial liturgy celebrated at St. Nicholas Cathedral in Washington, DC, by Metropolitan Tikhon of the Orthodox Church in America (OCA). Mr. Sheehan has kindly taken the time to discuss all this, and more, with Fanfare.
As I’m sure you know, I’ve previously interviewed a number of your colleagues in the Eastern Orthodox musical word: Vladimir Gorbik, Alexis Lukianov, Katia Lukianov, and Kurt Sander with Peter Jermihov. Your name has come up in all or most of those prior interviews, so it’s a pleasure finally to make direct contact. As I have done with those previous interviews, I like to begin with questions about your personal background. Like Kurt, you are a convert to Orthodoxy instead of cradle Orthodox; unlike him, you came into Orthodoxy at the age of five when your parents converted, rather than on your own as an adult. To what faith tradition if any did your parents previously belong, and what caused them to move from that to Orthodoxy? Do you have any memories of making a transition yourself? Was your surrounding milieu one in which Orthodoxy was a rarity, and if so how did you relate to non-Orthodox peers growing up?
My dad started becoming interested in Orthodoxy when I was about four years old. He had a powerful conversion experience involving the Jesus Prayer, a prayer central to the Orthodox spiritual tradition. It’s a really amazing story. You can read about it in the introduction to one of his books of essays—The Grace of Incorruption, I think. At the time neither of my parents were particularly religious, at least in a formal sense. My dad was an academic and my mom was a therapist and a practicing astrologer, among other things, which she incorporated into her therapy work. (Her clients were mostly female victims of childhood sexual abuse.) After my dad converted, my parents gave me the choice to either go to church with dad, or stay at home with mom. I chose to go to church with my dad, and was received into the Church at the age of five. My mom eventually converted too, about four years later, and remains a devout Orthodox Christian to this day. I suppose, then, that my childhood was really a long process of conversion. I remember not being Orthodox, but most of my conscious life has involved church-going in some capacity.
I didn’t really make Orthodoxy my own, though, until I was in my early teens. Until then it was mostly something my parents did. I guess everyone has to make a conscious choice about their identity and beliefs during their adolescence. Mine actually came about through music and music’s connection to the Church. But more on that later!
Yes, Orthodoxy was definitely a rarity where I grew up. For the longest time I was pretty much the only Orthodox kid that I knew. I started going to church camp when I was 10, so that helped to broaden my world a bit. We also moved at about that same time and started going to a church that had more young people, so that helped too. But I certainly always felt a little unusual. (I still do!) There really aren’t a lot of practicing Orthodox Christians in America.
To those unfamiliar with Orthodoxy, how would you describe your own commitment to the Orthodox faith, and what you find fulfilling in it?
As I said earlier, my personal connection to the Church really came about through my interest in music. For me, Orthodoxy is inseparable from the Liturgy. Everything comes together there. Everything springs from there. And in Orthodoxy the Liturgy is so much about beauty—the beauty of holiness, the beauty of humanity freed from all things that enslave us, the beauty of God. So I guess I would say that my commitment to Orthodoxy is really a commitment to this beauty. I can’t think of another way to say it. As time has gone by, I’ve experienced many aspects of the life of the Church, and I’ve certainly seen how people can be drawn to other things about Orthodoxy. I’ve also seen people drawn to things about the Church that are less than inspiring—I’ve been there too—or drawn to Orthodoxy because they have an irresistible urge to tell other people why they’re wrong! At this point, I have basically zero interest in that kind of Orthodoxy. People can amuse themselves in online chat groups if they want to. But the beauty of God and the beauty of our neighbor as revealed in transcendentally beautiful worship? That’s what keeps me going. And that’s what I think Orthodoxy has to offer the world.
Let’s turn now to more directly musical matters. Was your family a musical one? How did you become interested in music, and decide to pursue it for a vocation? At what schools did you study and earn your degrees? Who were the teachers who most shaped and influenced your development as a musician, and what specifically do you owe to each of them?
I would not say I came from a musical family. My dad loved music, but he grew up in an era when a teacher would tell a kid just to mouth the words if she didn’t like his voice—that actually happened to him—so he always believed he couldn’t sing. My mom had a better experience—she actually took piano lessons from Ruth Crawford Seeger as a kid—but she didn’t really continue doing music seriously in adulthood, aside from singing in the church choir after she became Orthodox. My older brother studied guitar pretty seriously in his teens, but I didn’t really have any interest at the time.
My own connection to music came about rather suddenly, and rather late, at least for someone hoping to become a professional musician. When I was 12 or 13 my grandmother (actually my grandfather’s second wife), who was neither a musician nor a religious person, sent me a cassette tape of Russian church music for male choir. To this day I have no idea why she thought to give me that tape. I was the last kid you would expect to be interested in something like that. My tastes ran to rap and punk and other kinds of things an adolescent boy might reasonably be drawn to. But something about this music absolutely riveted me. I played that tape until it literally wore out, and it sparked in me a burning passion for sacred choral music that has never gone out.
From that point on, I started studying music more and more seriously. After my freshman year of high school I asked my parents if I could be homeschooled in order to focus more intensively on music. My dad was teaching at Dartmouth College at the time, and my mom was working as an editor, but they figured it out. I used a little office in a friend’s house to study while my parents were at work—we were actually living in an off-grid Vermont homestead during those years, and I needed electricity so I could use a computer! So, holed up in that little office, I just worked on learning music. With my dad’s connections, I also took full advantage of the Dartmouth music department. I took theory with a visiting professor from London, Roderick Swanston; I took some history classes with Bill Summers; I sang in the Dartmouth Handel Society under Melinda O’Neal, and in the Dartmouth Chamber Singers; and I took piano lessons for three years from Gregory Haynes, who also gave me my first real composition lessons.
I also benefited a great deal from the musical culture at our church, Holy Resurrection Orthodox Church in Claremont, NH. The priest there, Fr. Andrew Tregubov (who’s still there), is a real music lover and he instilled that love in the whole community. At the time, Fr. Andrew’s dad, Semyon Tregubov, was living at the rectory, and he was a former opera singer and voice teacher from the Moscow Conservatory. So I and a number of other young people from the church took voice lessons with him. We all really grew a lot—he was an excellent teacher and he really devoted himself to his students. He was the first person who taught me to sing. It’s really quite amazing, when I think back on it, how much musical culture happened in that little New Hampshire parish. In addition to having a pretty serious church choir, we did concerts and even staged little opera scenes. A number of the people who came from that church are still active professional musicians today, including Anton Belov and Laryssa Doohovskoy. Ignat Solzhenitsyn, son of Alexander Solzhenitsyn and a famous pianist and conductor, was also a member of the parish during those years. It shows you how influential a church can be when it takes music seriously.
When I was 15, the choir director at our church died suddenly, and I was one of the people who got asked to help direct services. That was my first foray into conducting, and I’ve been doing it ever since. Around that same time I met another person who’s been extremely influential in my development as a musician, Vladimir Morosan. We first met at a music workshop at St. Vladimir’s Seminary, but once I turned 16 and could drive myself around I started commuting once a month to meet with Vlad at his home in Connecticut. He really introduced me to the whole world of Russian church music. He also instilled in me a love for chant and for the subtle relationship between text and music. I’ve stayed in touch with Vlad ever since. He really invested in me during those years, and I will always owe him a debt of gratitude for that.
The path I was on naturally led to conservatory. In 1997 I went to Westminster Choir College on a composition scholarship—I entered their composers’ contest on a whim and won—and absolutely loved the experience. It was a thrilling place to be. I also met the woman who I would very shortly thereafter marry (as a college Junior), Talia Darville (now Sheehan). A fabulous singer, pianist, and educator, Talia continues to be my closest companion in all my musical endeavors. While at Westminster I studied conducting with James Jordan, who showed me that there was more to conducting than just waving your arms at the right speed—it was about human connection. I did my composition studies under Joel Phillips. Joel was a wonderful teacher who, among many other things, taught me how to limit myself to just one or two strong ideas and let them shape an entire piece. He also helped me learn to silence my inner critic—one of the hardest things a creative artist has to do—and to believe in whatever ideas intuitively came out. He always said that the first idea is usually the right one, and I’ve seen him proved right more times than I can count.
Fast-forward a decade or so—where’s a montage when you need one?—I started a family, spent a couple years at St. Tikhon’s as a student, moved several times, worked as a pre-school teacher and a carpenter, had some more kids, and moved back to St. Tikhon’s to teach. I also met and worked with Vladimir Gorbik for a year, from 2012–13. He taught me some very valuable things about the architecture of conducting gesture, and he definitely bolstered my confidence as a conductor. I’m very grateful for the time I spent with him. Then, in 2014, I decided to go back to grad school at Bard College Conservatory of Music in Annandale-on-Hudson, NY. This was one of the best decisions I ever made. I had a fabulous two years there studying conducting under James Bagwell, who taught me more than I can say—how to run a rehearsal, how to be crystal clear with gesture, how to treat people like human beings while demanding their best from them. James also helped me establish connections in the New York choral scene, which has been a huge benefit for me ever since. I also studied composition with Kyle Gann, who basically told me, “Keep doing what you’re doing.” Sometimes a student just needs to hear that. Kyle also gave me feedback on my first drafts of the Liturgy.
What do you consider to be the most important lessons, techniques, and values you have acquired as a composer and conductor? How do you endeavor to pass those on to members of the choirs you conduct?
As a composer, I think the most important thing is what I said earlier: trust your instincts. Your unconscious mind is a lot more powerful than your conscious mind, so you should listen to it when it talks to you. That’s not to say you don’t work on your technique—every composer needs to do that—but you have to believe in your ideas as they come.
As far as technique, though, I think one of the best things a composer can do is study Species Counterpoint. I believe all harmony is actually counterpoint, and further, that counterpoint is the art of civilization. Counterpoint teaches you how to follow rules and conform to a larger structure without destroying your individuality and personal freedom. This is so hard to do, and it takes a lot of patience and negotiation. I think a lot of composers shy away from counterpoint—probably because it’s so challenging to do well, or perhaps because they think it sounds too old-fashioned—but I encourage my composition students to dive in and really work at it. Species Counterpoint is the place to start. They say Brahms did Species Counterpoint exercises every day. So maybe it’s not such a bad idea!
As a conductor, I really believe in a collaborative approach. Conducting is a strange art form that always teeters on the edge of the unnecessary. I mean, do we need conductors at all? In an ideal world, I would actually say no. We certainly haven’t always had them, and many ensembles do fine without them. I think conductors are a convenient solution to the fact that it’s very difficult for a given group of people to arrive at perfect consensus in real time. But it’s not impossible. Thus, my goal as a conductor is always to encourage the ensemble to take ownership of what they’re doing. The more they do that, the less I have to control things, and the better the music sounds. Now, this is not easy to do. It’s the art of leadership, and God knows how hard that can be. But leadership works so much better when you’re trying to encourage people to want what you want, rather than trying to force people to do what you want. This is what I tell my conducting students, and this is how I try to operate.
The Saint Tikhon Choir was founded by you and Abbot Sergius in 2015. It is the first professional choir associated with an Orthodox monastery in the USA. Would you please tell us both how this came about, and a bit about Abbot Sergius as well?
I actually began working on the idea of starting a professional choir to sing Orthodox repertoire after I met Vladimir Gorbik in 2012. We put a group together to do a couple of projects in 2013 and 2014, and this group eventually developed into the PaTRAM Institute Choir after our paths crossed with Alex Lukianov. But it had always been in my mind, and in the mind of Fr. Sergius, that there should be a group associated with St. Tikhon’s Monastery. Fr. Sergius is actually a musician himself—he was the choir director at St. Tikhon’s for the 10 years before I took the job—and he has a real heart for the importance of music in the Church. He dedicated himself to music before he became Abbot of St. Tikhon’s, and since becoming Abbot he has dedicated significant resources to supporting my work and to building up a music staff here. So in 2015, about halfway through my first year at Bard, I put a group together from some of the graduate vocal students at Bard, a handful of people from the St. Tikhon’s community, several of my old friends from college, and a number of professional singers from the New York area that I had met through Bard. I asked Fr. Sergius what repertoire he thought we should do, and he said, “Do an album of your own music.” So, in May of 2015, we recorded an album called Till Morn Eternal Breaks: Sacred Choral Music of Benedict Sheehan, a kind of clearing-the-backlog album of stuff I had composed over the preceding 15 years. (On that album we actually called the group “The Chamber Choir of St. Tikhon’s Monastery.” We later realized this was a little laborious, and changed it in 2018 to the current name, “The Saint Tikhon Choir.”) This was the beginning of our group.
How large is the choir? From where does it draw its members, and is that membership generally constant or does it have a fairly regular turnover? How many seminarians from St. Tikhon’s, if any, are typically members of the choir?
Like most American professional choirs today, the Saint Tikhon Choir is project-based, so it varies in size depending on the project. For the recording of my Liturgy, we actually used the largest group we’d ever put together, 39 singers as I recall. (By way of a comparison, our first album was only 18 singers.) A good proportion of the members come from the New York area and sing in other groups around the city. We also typically have five to 10 fly-ins from around the country on any given project, people who sing in other professional groups—a number of folks from Cappella Romana, actually—or people who have some connection to St. Tikhon’s but have moved elsewhere. There’s a core group of about six people, including my wife, who sing with us and live full time at St. Tikhon’s. Typically seminarians aren’t members of the group, but every now and then I’ll invite a particularly talented student to join us. On the Liturgy recording there were, I think, four or five current seminarians and/or spouses of seminarians, and about the same number of alumni. My two eldest daughters, Miriam and Irene, are also quite talented singers, and they’re on the Liturgy recording as well. Miriam is actually a music student right now, studying vocal performance at Portland State University on a full scholarship under Ethan Sperry. They’re building an excellent music program there, and we’re thrilled to have her in it.
A core group of the people who sang on our first project in 2015 have been with us for every project since. Jason Thoms, who is currently the choral director at Bismarck State College in North Dakota and the bass soloist on the Liturgy recording, has sung on everything thus far. A number of others have too. There’s always turnover from project to project, but we’ve managed to maintain a fairly consistent culture over the last five years. One of the really important things to me in recruiting people is not merely looking for the most talented or accomplished singers, but also looking for people who really get what we’re about and are open to the ethos of St. Tikhon’s. We don’t require our singers to be Orthodox or even to be religious, but we do require people to be open-hearted and open-minded. So far, I feel this approach has worked extremely well. We have an absolutely amazing group of human beings who have formed bonds with one another that extend far beyond music-making. I feel incredibly privileged to have these people in my life.
What is your typical work schedule with your choir? Are the services of divine worship at the seminary conducted primarily in English, or in Church Slavonic and Russian, or in some mixture of these? And, what has been the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on both the choir’s activities and your personal and professional schedule?
When we gather a group for a project, we typically maintain a pretty intense schedule. We put in about 12 hours of rehearsal over the course of two or three days, and then perform and/or tour and/or record for another few days. A number of our projects have coincided with the Monastery’s annual Memorial Day Pilgrimage, so we also often sing a few services during our time together. Our services are nearly all in English, with maybe a little bit of Church Slavonic mixed in here and there.
COVID-19 has, as it has done for nearly every choral group, ground things pretty much to a halt. Services have continued at the Monastery and Seminary in reduced form, but there has been no real choral singing. We’re hoping to restart the Saint Tikhon Choir with a recording project this coming July.
As far as my own schedule goes, I’ve actually stayed about as busy as I’ve ever been. As I said, services have continued, so even though there are far fewer people singing at any given time, I still have to coordinate a lot of it. I’ve also continued teaching at the Seminary. My wife and I had been doing monthly choir workshops around the country, so those have stopped, naturally. But I’ve actually picked up a number of substantial commissions in the meantime, so that has kept me very busy. My wife also has about 20 or so students that she teaches online. I have a handful as well.
How often do you work with other ensembles, such as Cappella Romana and Skylark? What sorts of projects have you undertaken with them?
I started working as a guest conductor with Cappella Romana in 2017, and I’ve done a project with them every season since. We even managed to squeeze in a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Liturgy in Portland literally days before everything locked down this past March! We got home from Portland and went straight into a three-month quarantine. Other past projects with Cappella have been the Tchaikovsky All-Night Vigiland the Rachmaninoff All-Night Vigil. I was supposed to do a run of performances of my Liturgy with them this past November, but that’s been tentatively moved to the fall of 2021.
In January of 2018 I worked as consultant with conductor Steven Fox and the Clarion Choir on a recording of Kastalsky’s Memory Eternal to the Fallen Heroes. I’m credited on the album as Associate Conductor. That recording was actually nominated for a Grammy in 2019. This project grew into a much bigger undertaking over the course of 2018, with a plan to perform the full choral-orchestral version of Kastalsky’s piece, called Requiem for Fallen Brothers, in the Washington National Cathedral in conjunction with the centennial of the World War I Armistice. The project culminated in a wonderful concert and recording in October of 2018, involving the Saint Tikhon Choir, the Cathedral Choral Society, the Clarion Choir, the Kansas City Chorale, the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, and conductor Leonard Slatkin. I’m credited on that album as a chorus master, along with Steven Fox and Charles Bruffy, and as an executive producer. That album just got nominated for a Grammy this past November (my first real nomination).
My work with Skylark is fairly new. I met their director, Matthew Guard, at a PaTRAM event in 2018 and we hit it off. We actually toyed with the idea of having them premiere and record my Liturgy, but it ended up working better timing-wise for me to do it myself. Matthew still wanted to perform some of my music, though, so in January of 2019 we cooked up the idea of me composing choral under-scoring for their fairy tales program that they had designed together with narrator Sarah Walker. We actually came up with what I think is a totally original concept—a composed choral accompaniment for a narrator that ties together set pieces of choral music. We called it a “storyscore.” I worked on that piece over the course of the winter, working together with Matthew and Sarah, and then Skylark premiered and recorded it in Boston in June of 2019. That album, called Once Upon A Time, came out in February of 2020 and just got nominated for a Grammy this past November as well! Skylark was so pleased with the project that they turned right around and commissioned another storyscore from me, this time based on Dickens’s Christmas Carol. This is actually a much bigger piece—they wanted me to write all the music, not just the interstitial elements—but I had plenty of composing time during the lockdown, so I finished it this past July. They’re planning to record it this coming summer at last report—basically, as soon as they can get a group together safely.
You were commissioned to compose your setting of the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom at the end of 2015. Who commissioned the work, and how did the idea for that originate? How long did it take you to complete the work? Your colleague Kurt Sander began to compose his own English-language setting a few months after you, in 2016. Did the two of you work entirely independently of each other, or were there any discussions or perhaps even constructive exchanges of ideas between the two of you?
The work was commissioned by the folks at PaTRAM. I think the idea must have come from Alex and Katya Lukianov initially. I’m incredibly grateful to them for their vision and support—it’s through people like them that artistic culture can grow and develop. They’re doing heroic work, and with some pretty amazing successes. I started composing right at the beginning of 2016. I knew it wasn’t slated to be recorded until 2018 at the earliest, and the terms of the commission gave me two years to compose, so I took my time. I worked on it off and on over the next year or so, and finished in June of 2018. I knew Kurt was working on his piece, but no, we never communicated about it. I actually got to sing Kurt’s piece when PaTRAM did the liturgical premiere of it in the fall of 2017, but that was the first time I’d ever seen his score. It was really neat to look at the choices he’d made and see where we had thought alike, and where we had thought differently. That’s the great thing about music—there’s never just one answer. In my book, though, more is more. We need more good Orthodox music in English, written for English, and I’m thrilled with what Kurt has offered us. It’s a beautiful piece.
You conducted the world premiere offering of your setting for the primatial celebration of the Divine Liturgy by Metropolitan Tikhon. I’ll say that in the video, you appear to be positively radiating joy and confidence. But I’m curious: Were you also nervous or apprehensive? And, how did your choir members feel on such an important occasion? Did the Metropolitan or any other hierarchs present make any memorable comments on your work that you can share?
To be perfectly honest, I was having the time of my life. I’ve certainly been nervous conducting in church before, maybe even more so in church than in a concert, but it’s almost always been because I’ve had doubts as to whether things are going to go well. Not this time! At that service I was so deeply sure of the choir in front of me that I felt totally relaxed. I did have a few nagging thoughts at the beginning, like “Does this piece actually work in church?” I know I also thought during the First Antiphon, “God, this is a long movement!” But generally, I was just having an absolute blast. I think the singers had a blast too. We were actually joined by 10 or so members of the St. Nicholas Cathedral Choir, along with their director, Kevin Fritts. They did a wonderful job, and I think it was a great experience for them. After the Liturgy, Metropolitan Tikhon made some lovely remarks and called the piece “a new milestone for Orthodoxy in America.” More importantly for me, though, he also told me he thought the piece worked. That means a lot coming from him.
One of the other celebrants at the Liturgy is now a bishop, Bishop Alexis (Trader), and he was deeply moved. You can see it on his face in the video! He has been a big advocate of the piece, and of my work generally, since our paths crossed a couple years ago. He wrote a beautiful reflection on the world premiere performance for Orthodox Arts Journal. In it, he says, “the bar for Orthodox liturgical music in the English-speaking world has now been set, definitively.” I was really thrilled to read that. Archbishop David of Alaska—who, very sadly, just passed away after Thanksgiving—was also at the premiere concert and had high praise for the piece. I feel very blessed to have support from some of our church hierarchs, along with many members of the clergy and faithful. Doing work like I’m trying to do, it’s incredibly important to feel like you’re connecting with people on the other side. I’m really grateful for all the encouragement I’ve gotten.
In your booklet notes for the release, you state: “I have endeavored to build a 21st-century American Orthodox Liturgy upon the resistant foundation of the Russian Orthodox musical tradition.” (I will note for readers that this was one of the specific requirements of the commission.) In addition to that, however, “… I allowed myself to reach out into musical vocabularies not necessarily found in Russian sacred music…. Sounds at once reminiscent of medieval Eastern chant and of 20th-century minimalism, of American folk singing, and of the high tradition of Western church music.” That’s a far-reaching and interesting array of stylistic references. For our readers, could you point to specific moments in your setting where each of these can be heard?
I really love the rhythm of English. Maybe it’s because I’ve always had a soft spot for Rap and Hip Hop—or maybe it’s because I’ve always had a stutter and could never quite manage to speak with a steady rhythm myself—but I think there’s something incredibly compelling about the irregular, yet incessant, rhythms of English. To me, this kind of effect comes out in the dance-like passages of the First Antiphon (Track 2). Setting my dad’s translations here made this even easier to bring out, given that he paid such careful attention to the cadential patterns of language. Also, towards the end of that same movement, beginning with the text “Bless the Lord, all you his angels,” I was very consciously channeling Sacred Harp style psalm-singing.
Another couple spots to look at, perhaps for some Arvo Pärt-esque moments, are in the Second Antiphon (Track 3), on the words “on that day all his thoughts shall crumble”; and in the Third Antiphon (Track 5), in the phrase beginning with the words “Blessed are you when men shall revile you and persecute you.” In both of those moments I use broken triads with accented dissonances that I’m pretty sure were inspired by Arvo Pärt in some way (though I couldn’t say which pieces). There are other moments like these.
The fourth movement, “Only-Begotten Son” (Track 4), I quite deliberately wrote to sound like a Byzantine Chant melody. I was inspired by the idea of the text having been written by Emperor Justinian, and I wanted to write a melody that sounded like something from the ancient world. There are some Arvo Pärt-esque moments in this movement as well, on the words “and wast crucified, O Christ our God.”
Other moments that come to mind are the seventh movement, “Holy God” (Track 7), where I was consciously inspired by some of the early American rounds, like the William Billings tune “When Jesus Wept”; and the 12th movement, “It Is Truly Meet” (Track 12), which I obliquely modeled on a Bulgarian Byzantine melody at the beginning, and then changed into a quasi-Georgian mode towards the end. But perhaps the most overtly “American” movement is the “Liturgy Ending” (Track 16), which is strongly pentatonic and has some folksy harmonies. I even quote the hymn All Creatures of our God and King on the “Alleluias” towards the end!
In your booklet notes, you aptly quote Igor Stravinsky (himself an Orthodox believer) and Leonardo da Vinci on how constraints and limitations, and unity rather than “mere variety,” actually foster rather than limit creativity, as boundaries provide parameters that constructively direct inspiration. Russian Orthodox chant traditionally has strict rules governing adherence to znamenny chants for liturgical music. What are some examples of the specific constraints you had to work within, and how did you respond to those, in order to avoid static repetition of the past and, as you put it, “communicating with both past and present in a totally organic way”?
In one of his lectures Jordan Peterson talks about the idea of “canonicity.” Essentially, he argues, and I think rightly, that canonicity equals influence. At least in the realm of art, he explains, those works may be deemed canonical which have had the greatest influence upon the works that came after. I think this principle holds true in Orthodox music. You mention strict rules governing Orthodox chant, but I’m honestly not aware of anything in the tradition of Orthodox music that could properly be called a rule. I know some people believe that such rules exist—I’ve argued with them plenty of times—but I defy anyone to find something in Orthodoxy that amounts to a genuine universal musical rule. If you dig deep, you might find things like the Canon 75 from the Quinisext Council in 692 that says, “We wish those who attend church for the purpose of chanting neither to employ disorderly cries and to force nature to cry aloud, not to foist in anything that is not becoming and proper to a church.” But how does one apply that? What does “disorderly cries” even mean? Music simply isn’t dogma, regardless of how much one might want it to be. Ivan Moody has a really excellent article about this problem called “The Idea of Canonicity in Orthodox Liturgical Art.” It’s definitely worth reading.
What there are in abundance in Orthodox music are long-established norms. These norms are the result of highly influential works, or bodies of work, that can be seen in retrospect to have shaped whole swaths of tradition thereafter. In order to understand these norms, though, or even just to notice them, you have to really look closely and spend time working in the art form. This is what I’ve done over the last 25 years. I should also add that these norms exist on a macro level within the Orthodox tradition as a whole, but they also exist on a micro level within a specific jurisdiction or even a specific parish. It’s the composer’s job, I think, to identify and understand these norms and then endeavor to either work within them or work in relationship to them. Those are the constraints I’m talking about.
Let me try to give you an example of what I mean by these norms, at least as far as they affect a composer. It kind of helps to think of it like an organizational chart. On the macro level, at the top, you have a specific text. As a rule, in Orthodoxy, the texts are fixed quantities. They haven’t substantially changed since the 15th century, though they changed quite a bit before that. This is your first constraint. Then, on the next level down you’ve got the fact that typically Orthodox music doesn’t use instruments. (Some people think this is a canon written down somewhere—it’s not. It’s just a long-established norm with plenty of exceptions.) So you’re dealing with just vocal music and the limitations that go along with that. Below that, you have pre-existing examples of how that text has been set in the past. The farther back in time you go, though, the murkier things get—really ancient chants can be very strange and mysterious, if they’re even readable—so you definitely have to decide what to look at as a model. (Rachmaninoff, for example, when he assembled chant melodies to use in his All-Night Vigil, universally picked the most straightforward and common melodies he possibly could have. There are much more complicated and interesting melodies he could have used, and didn’t for whatever reason.) I generally focus on more recent predecessors—Russian music from the last couple of centuries—simply because they have more force in current practice. But I do also spend a lot of time looking at old chants, and at music from a variety of traditions. Finally, at the lowest level, you have the various musical details contained within your set of immediate precedents. For example, the fact that a lot of commonly used music in Russian-tradition churches tends to be harmonizations of chant. And further, the harmonic vocabulary tends to be limited to diatonic chords in root position, and that the melodies almost universally proceed in a step-wise fashion.
All of these things are what I mean by the constraints a composer is subject to, and I took all of these things into account when I composed my Liturgy. The goal, in my book, is for the music you compose to sound like “church” to the people who go to your church. If you can create something original within these constraints it’s a pretty wonderful thing, I think. And I believe the result will be infinitely stronger than a piece of music composed without any constraints. You’ll have a piece of music that your audience understands, because they can hear how it’s related to music they already know. But they’ll also genuinely appreciate your originality, because they can hear, and in pretty high resolution, how what you’re doing is new. This is what I mean by “communicating with past and present in a totally organic way.”
In your booklet notes, you explain how the entire setting came to be based on a single pentatonic thematic motif as a unitary device. What are some of the specific ways you varied use of that motif for different aspects of the Liturgy, such as the litanies, the Lord’s Prayer, the Communion hymn, and so on?
The motif is introduced melodically by the first sopranos in the opening “Amen.” It gets quoted melodically a bunch of times after that, especially on passages of text that I wanted to bring out. Starting with “Holy God” (Track 7), a number of whole movements are based on the motif as a melodic element. I also work it in as an inner harmony part, such as in the altos in the “Alleluia” (Track 8). That movement has also a statement of the motif in the bass part that I bring in imitatively immediately after the motif is stated by the altos. You can find it again in the alto harmonies in the “Our Father” (Track 13).
The melody of the “Cherubic Hymn” (Track 9) is entirely based on the motif, but I managed to work it in in diminution as a textural element in the tenors in the final measures, on “Alleluia.” It creates kind of a bell-like effect there.
The “Anaphora” (Track 11) is again entirely based on the motif. This movement is the dramatic climax of the whole piece, being as it is the most solemn moment of the Divine Liturgy. Statements of the motif gradually build up over the course of the movement until, in the “We praise thee” section—really the climax of the movement—statements of the motif just pile up, one after the other. Listen in particular to the moment that occurs on the words “we pray unto thee”—every moving part is echoing the falling La-Sol-Mi or the rising Mi-Sol of the motif. This is my favorite part of the whole piece.
In “Praise the Lord from the Heavens” (Track 15), the motif appears in the countertenor solo on the words “for he spoke and they came to be, he commanded and they were created.” After that it starts appearing way down low in the basses, in long augmented rhythms, and as echoes in the baritones.
Really the motif is all over the Liturgy. It happens too many times to recount here! But perhaps the final really significant moment is the very end of the last movement, where the altos sing the motif on the words “for evermore.” They then carry it into the final “Amen,” which echoes the opening “Amen,” but is lower, deeper, longer, almost endless. A fun note about the opening and closing “Amens”: The first one is in B Major, but I don’t use the A♯, so the key remains a little ambiguous; the last one is in E Major, now with a clear D♯ in the V-chord. Basically, the two “Amens” work together as bookends to create a huge V-I (Dominant-Tonic) movement from the beginning to the end of the piece. I had fun coming up with that!
Your answer to the previous question brings me to another point that really piqued my curiosity. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen an Orthodox liturgical composition before with a part for a solo countertenor. What inspired you to include that, and have you had any particular reactions to that element?
I’ve never seen Orthodox liturgical repertoire for solo countertenor either! Initially, I just envisioned that movement for an alto soloist and double chorus, and didn’t think specifically as to whether the soloist needed to be a man or a woman. It just says “Alto Solo” in the score. However, as the piece developed, I began to realize that the soloist would really have to be a distinctive color in order to adequately cut through the thick double-choir texture, so I began thinking countertenor. I had met Tim Parsons, our countertenor soloist, in January of 2018 while working with the Clarion Choir, and had been really impressed by his voice. He has an immensely powerful sound for a male falsettist—I believe the San Francisco Chronicle coined the term “heldencountertenor” to describe him—and I realized he’d be perfect for the movement. I asked Tim to send me a recording of himself singing a section, and when I listened to it, I nearly shouted aloud for joy! It was amazing. Fr. Sergius thought so too. So I asked Tim to sing the part, and away we went. It developed kind of organically, I guess, but Tim ended up really making that movement what it is. A lot of people have told me it’s their favorite movement in the piece. One of the most exciting moments in my life was when Tim and I stepped out in front of the choir to perform that movement during the premiere concert—I remember thinking, “these people have no idea what’s about to hit them!” I’ve scored an even bigger part for Tim in a new piece I’m working on right now. So yes, not a lot of Orthodox liturgical music for countertenor solo, but I feel like there soon will be a lot more!
In watching and listening to the Divine Liturgy on the Blu-ray disc, I noted that there were certain elements that you did not set, such as the Symbolon (Nicene Creed), for which well-known traditional chants were used instead, although everything fitted together seamlessly. What were the reasons you did not set those texts? Might you consider revising your liturgy to include setting those as well? Due to the 80-minute standard timing constraint of a CD, were there any elements of your setting that are heard on the Blu-ray disc but not on the CD?
Basically, I was trying to constrain myself to writing about 76 minutes of music (it clocked in at 75:33). I wanted to be sure it would fit on a single CD. Of course, I could have fit a lot more on the Blu-ray, but no, the musical material between the CD and the Blu-ray is identical. (The Blu-ray does offer a number of audio formats, though, including 192 kHz/24-bit 5.1 Surround.) You mention the Creed: in most Orthodox traditions other than the Russian the Creed is actually not sung, but is simply spoken by the congregation. Even in the Russian tradition, it is often sung to a very simple melody by the whole congregation. Big composed settings of the Creed like you get in the 19th and early 20th centuries have largely fallen out of use today, even in Russia, so I opted to skip it for this piece. I left out a number of other elements as well, such as litanies and short responses, along with most of the changeable elements. I did compose settings of the Sunday Prokimenon (a short set of psalm verses used to introduce a scripture reading) in all Eight Tones, but I ended up deciding not to include those in the final score. I might publish them later.
For the actual live liturgical performance we did in Washington, I did compose a number of the missing parts in order to fill out the service. If there’s sufficient interest I might consider publishing a separate supplement to the Liturgy that would make it easier to sing in church, but I’m not currently planning to add material to the score as we recorded it. I’m anticipating that most of the interest in the piece, at least in the near future, will be as a concert work.
What immediate and long-term future plans do you have for composing, conducting, and recording?
As I said earlier, I’ve been pretty busy with commissions over the course of this past year. I’m very excited for the Christmas Carol to get recorded by Skylark next summer. I’m currently working on another Liturgy, commissioned by St. Michael the Archangel Orthodox Church in Louisville, KY for their church choir. This will be a somewhat more approachable score for a church choir, but in other ways even more innovative than the 2018 Liturgy in terms of musical content. I’m about 60 percent done with it, and really happy with it so far. The plan is to get that piece recorded next August in Louisville.
I’m also working on a large-scale Vespers, at the request of Abbot Sergius. This will be the follow-up piece to the 2018 Liturgy. I’m about 75 percent done with composition right now. It’s pretty epic! The first movement is a complete setting of Psalm 104 based on a chant from the Valaam Monastery, and it’s about 25 pages long—one of my most ambitious scores to date. The Prayer of St. Symeon (Nunc Dimittis), which I have yet to compose, will incorporate a basso profundo solo. I’ve already spoken to Glenn Miller about doing this, and he’s thrilled to sing it. As of right now, I’m planning to gather singers from the Saint Tikhon Choir to record in July of 2021, but that will depend on how things unfold pandemic-wise over the next few months.
I’m really excited to announce that I will also start working in early 2021 on a choral-orchestral work based on the Akathist “Glory to God for All Things,” a really beautiful Russian para-liturgical text from the early 20th century. It’s kind of an ode to gratitude. This piece was commissioned by an individual patron, so there are as yet no plans for performance and recording, but I’ll be working on those as I go. Another great feature of this commission is that I’ll be collaborating on it with my close friend, the fantasy novelist and musician Nicholas Kotar. Nicholas will be crafting a kind of mythic narrative frame within which the Akathist will be set. A lot of threads will come together in this piece—American history, the struggle against totalitarianism, gratitude as the answer to suffering—so I can’t wait to share our work with the world over the next few years. Stay tuned!
As far as hopes for the future, one of my goals is to find a way to perform my Liturgy in Russia in the next year or so. I’d really like to introduce this piece to a Russian audience. I’ve already found some interest over there, and a few of us are working on a possible plan as we speak, so stay tuned for news on that as well!
Long-term plans? My wife and I very much want to build a school of music at St. Tikhon’s. This has been an idea very dear to our hearts for a long time now, and I’m hoping that pieces will start falling into place soon. We think that St. Tikhon’s, sustained as it is by a daily liturgical life, is really an ideal place to train musicians. And not just Orthodox musicians, but really anyone interested to study and practice sacred music in a traditional liturgical context. Music education has come to a crossroads, I think, especially during the pandemic, and we think it’s a good time to start something new, something with a different focus and a different ethos, something focused not just on how to do music, but on why and where. So we’ve begun working on this idea, but it’s still in the early stages.
See the interview in the March/April 2021 issue of Fanfare Magazine