Moving in Sacred Time: Metrical Interactions Between Body and Voice in Jewish and Greek Orthodox Liturgical Chant

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Whether in the Synagogue or the Greek Orthodox Church, worshippers are physically active throughout chanted prayer, exhibiting a variety of metrical interactions between their voices and bodily movements. Existing scholarship on rhythm and meter, embodied music experience, and ritual indicate that metrical synchronization is a fundamental mode of sonic and physical interaction. However, these literatures address neither how bodies move to semi-metered chant (music that is neither strictly metered nor completely un-metered), as is found in Jewish and Greek Orthodox liturgies, nor how bodily synchronization differs in worship settings from other music-movement contexts. In this dissertation, I explore these intersections of vocal and physical meter. Having conducted ethnographic interviews and observations in North American Jewish and Greek Orthodox congregations, I develop unique transcription methodologies which aid me in classifying types of movement made during worship, uncovering a range of ways that worshippers interact physically with musical prayer. In Reform and Conservative Jewish worship, the impetus for movement tends to be centered on developing and maintaining focus during chanted Hebrew worship. Both congregants and clergy participants discussed in their interviews the importance of actively focusing on the text and on their own internal state. Further, they noted that making repetitive, free, ritually-inflected movements felt “natural” and aided them in these processes. Despite expressing similar motivations, participants’ physical movements differed significantly from one another, as did their methods of entrainment (to both music and other worshipping bodies), indicating that bodily synchronization is not necessary for communal worship or personal focus in Hebrew prayer. In contrast, Greek Orthodox worship primarily involves extensive ritual choreography, rather than free, ritually-inflected movements. My participants, Greek Orthodox priests, emphasize the importance of sensory attentiveness in this context, as worshippers and especially as clergy. They strive to focus closely on specific aspects of the ritual at certain moments, creating fluid shifts in attention between all the senses. The sonic atmosphere often involves multiple streams of sound: between the chanters, choir, priests, percussive sounds of the incense censer, and the tolling of bells. These are engaged with and attended to in varying ways by the priests as they lead the congregation in ritual and prayer. In both Jewish and Greek Orthodox worship settings, the ways in which body and voice enact worship and co-create ritual space are distinct from other musical embodied settings. Through participant interviews, my observations during worship, and the analysis of metrical entrainment (or lack thereof), human interaction with semi-meteredness and movement-music asynchrony in music as prayer is shown to be distinct from other musical ontologies. Moreover, embodied technique for worship is revealed as not only requisite to prayer experience, but also as integral in the development of prayer experience. In this deeper engagement with meter, music of worship, and embodiment, findings indicate that many prayer states hinge around asynchrony, flow, and an experience of “now-ness” that allows for a blending of attentiveness and unconscious movement on the part of the worshipper.

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  • 10/09/2018
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