For more than a century, Greek Orthodox parishes across the United States
would appear to have been unable to settle upon a musical aesthetic. Attending Sunday services at many Greek Orthodox churches in the US, one is likely to encounter an oddly polarized juxtaposition of two discrete forms of liturgical music performed by two groups of church musicians: traditional cantors and SATB choirs. A significant rift in terms of aesthetics a exists between them such that in many cases, cantors and SATB choirs sing in completely different musical idioms with virtually no regard for each other’s aesthetics, in terms of vocal timbre, ornamentation, repertoire and even intonation and pitch level. Cantors and SATB choirs, unable to relate musically, would appear to pull their communities in opposite aesthetic directions.
Some might suggest that these opposing aesthetic directions reflect the complex demographics and varied tastes of various individuals within these richly diverse communities. Amidst the multiple, overlaid groups and stories that comprise a congregation is the larger issue of how they—not as individuals but as a community—position themselves in the context of American culture, society, and politics. This issue is encapsulated by the fourth verse of Psalm 136: “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” Answering this question comprises both an internal and external negotiation of identity that comprises what social psychologist John Berry has termed “a strategy of acculturation”.
While musical aesthetics have long been associated with strategies of acculturation, I propose that the push-pull, “oil on water” relationship between SATB choir and cantors while seemingly dysfunctional, comprises an ongoing meta-strategy of acculturation. Because diasporic communities are dynamic and constantly changing, acculturation strategies cannot be static and must be viewed as ongoing processes. Through their constant tension, these two musical aesthetics facilitate continuous adjustment along a continuum between strategies whose goal would either be full integration and full separation. Through this meta-strategy, through the very unresolved discord between musical aesthetics, a community may continually redefine itself, a process I will refer to as “re-membering”.