Apr 28, 2014

The Psalm 103 Project

The Saint John of Damascus Society will make a contribution to the ongoing societal dialectic of science vs. faith, and to do so from a uniquely Eastern Orthodox perspective. Inspired by the discovery of the Higgs boson, the Psalm 103 Project will juxtapose a biblical text that is used in the daily cycle of Orthodox services with music from multiple Orthodox traditions, images from the entirety of the created order from the macrocosmic to the microcosmic, and commentary from prominent figures in particle physics, Orthodox music, and Orthodox theology.

The Society has commissioned six different prominent Orthodox composers, each active in a different musical tradition, to compose a collaborative setting of Ps. 103 (LXX), sung every evening in the Orthodox Vespers service. A professional recording of the music will be the basis for a film project with two components: first, a documentary, interviewing Orthodox theologians and scientists who see science operating within a dialectic with faith rather than in conflict, as well as the Psalm 103 composers. Second, a creative section of the film will set the music and the text's language about God's creation against the visual tapestry of all of creation, from the scale of the galactic clusters all the way down to the Higgs boson.

Psalm 103 (Septuagint numbering) is sung at every Vespers (evening prayer) service in the Orthodox tradition, marking the beginning of the new day (Orthodox liturgical time is reckoned from evening to evening) with a celebration of the created order at every level:
"He makes grass spring up for the cattle, and green shoots for the service of mankind; to bring bread out of the earth, and wine makes glad the human heart; to make the face cheerful with oil, and bread strengthens the human heart... He made the moon to mark the seasons; the sun knew the hour of its setting."

The Saint John of Damascus Society has commissioned six composers, each active in a different national repertory of Orthodox liturgical music, to collaborate on a long-form choral composition using the text of Psalm 103. The composition personnel are as follows (full CVs and bios available upon request):

Matthew Arndt, Ph. D., assistant professor of Music Theory at The University of Iowa School of Music. Dr. Arndt is a specialist in the music of the Orthodox churches of Georgia and the Caucusus.

John Michael Boyer, Protopsaltis (first cantor) of the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of San Francisco. Mr. Boyer is a specialist in the tradition of Byzantine chant found in Greece.

Alexander Khalil, Ph. D., psaltis at St. Spyridon Greek Orthodox Church in San Diego, CA, and head of The Gamelan Project at the University of California, Riverside. Dr. Khalil is a specialist in the tradition of Byzantine chant found in Turkey, Jerusalem, and throughout the Middle East.

Kurt Sander, D. M., Associate Professor and Department Chair at Northern Kentucky University. Dr. Sander is a specialist in the music of the Russian Orthodox churches.

Richard Toensing, D. M., Professor Emeritus at University of Colorado at Boulder and Choir Director Emeritus at St. Luke Antiochian Orthodox Church, Lafayette, CO. Dr. Toensing represents a gradually-emerging American tradition of Orthodox choral music that synthesizes elements of several traditions.

Tikey Zes, D. M., Professor Emeritus at San Jose State University and Choir Director Emeritus at St. Nichoal Greek Orthodox Church, San Jose, CA. Dr. Zes represents an acculturated musical tradition developed in Greek-American Orthodox communities.

At some point after the score is completed, the piece will receive a premiere performance by a professional vocal ensemble of the calibre of Cappella Romana, as well as a professional-grade recording.

The music will then be used as the basis for a film project. The centerpiece of the film will juxtapose images from every level of creation with the music, from the scale of celestial bodies -- galaxies, stars, nebulae -- to the subatomic, reflecting in a modern fashion the nature of the text. There will also be a documentary component to the film, talking to scientists and Orthodox theologians who can speak of questions of science, faith, and Orthodox spirituality. Finally, we will also speak with our composers, each of whom will speak on their perspective on the question of science and faith from a creative, artistic standpoint.

This project has as its core assumption that a "contact model" of the science/faith dialectic is the most constructive approach, as well as the most consistent with the Orthodox intellectual and spiritual tradition. Thus, we seek to make a unique contribution to the ongoing dialogue from an Orthodox perspective.

The present-day dialectic of science and faith tends to be represented poorly in the mainstream media. The recent event featuring Bill Nye and Ken Ham was also unsatisfactory; the participants talked past each other, allowing partisans on either side to hear what they wanted. Even the new version of Cosmos, involving the more-than-credible figure of Neil deGrasse Tyson, is ultimately tone-deaf to issues of faith, and the show misrepresents the history of both science and faith as a result (such as the distortion of the controversies involving Giordano Bruno).

The Psalm 103 Project, via a creative synthesis of imagery, music, and documentary filmmaking, proposes Orthodox Christianity - that is, the modern-day reception of the Byzantine intellectual tradition - as a much-needed alternative, in which science and faith are not in conflict, do not need to misrepresent each other in order to advance the discussion, and indeed may interact in a constructive and productive fashion.

The film is intended to be screened in appropriate film festivals and other venues that are appropriate to the film's final content and themes, ideally with some kind of live introduction and perhaps a Q&A; it will also be made available to individuals when the initial screening windows have run their course.

We seek the same audience as "Cosmos". We're asking a big question -- "How can do modern particle physics, sacred music, and Eastern Orthodox spirituality not only relate to each other but also illuminate understandings of each other?" We're asking that question at a level that we hope will be popular, even if we're ultimately on the documentary film circuit and are on video-on-demand services rather than broadcast on a major network. To put it one way, we seek to popularize an Orthodox approach to the science/faith dilemma - to engage a pop-science audience with music and religion; and we seek to engage an American Christian - that is, largely Protestant - audience with science, Byzantine spirituality, and music.

At a fundamental level, we are contributing a beautiful piece of music that can be discussed and appreciated in religious, musical, and scientific contexts, as well as what we hope will be a thought-provoking film that employs that music, imagery, and scientific as well as theological discourse in a way that generates productive questions.

At a higher level, if the project demonstrates at a popular level that science, Orthodox Christianity, and music can and do illuminate each other in productive ways, this will be a positive contribution to all three spheres. A positive contribution to the discourse can hopefully also make a positive contribution to the culture, both short-term as well as long-term.

Carl Sagan's Cosmos also united these elements of music, images, and discourse in 1980 in a way that inspired and continues to inspire, albeit from what was ostensibly a strictly scientific perspective. We seek to do something similar from a perspective that includes religion.

"Lord, how manifold are your works; in wisdom you have made them all" the psalmist writes. The goal of the Psalm 103 Project is to show, from an Orthodox perspective, how science and spirituality can illuminate each other's still-limited knowledge.

For more information about the Project, click the links below:


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