For my music discovery report I chose to attend the worship service of a church in the Armenian tradition, the Armenian Apostolic Church, located in Tujunga, California. The church meets in a rented building located in a "small town" atmosphere portion of Los Angeles, approximately ten miles from the city of Glendale, which has a very high Armenian population. My initial contact with the church was with the father or priest over the telephone. When I explained to him my intent he happily invited me to come to one of their worship services on Sunday morning. I attended a Sunday service from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Upon arriving at the church, I met the priest who welcomed me and led me into the sanctuary. The priest introduced me to the choir director who loaned me a copy of the book from which the choir sang and the priest's son also loaned me a copy of the liturgy guidelines for the Armenian church, with the liturgy in Armenian, Roman transcription, and English. Tape recorder and notebook in hand I began to observe!
The sanctuary itself contained a great deal to comment on. Ornamental "eastern" looking carpet lead up the center aisle and covered the whole area in front of the altar. On a slightly elevated platform in the front of the sanctuary was the altar. The altar (and the sanctuary as a whole) was very colorful - with red/maroon and gold quite prominent. On the altar were symmetrically placed candles on different tiers, flower arrangements, a picture of the last supper, golden crosses, and two books (at least one of which was the Scripture), all centered around a picture of Mary and the baby Jesus at the top of the altar. A large golden cross and round "sun" looking objects were on top of poles placed in the corners behind the altar. There were pictures of men (which I learned are saints) high on the wall to both sides of the altar and various pictures of Jesus throughout the room. Off the main room of the sanctuary was an alcove which contained what appeared to be a smaller altar and a small table where candles were lit with prayers by the parishioners.
The people of the congregation were dressed in everyday clothing, some more "dressed up" than others. Several of the older women had black or black and white veils which they placed over their heads. The participants in the service also wore everyday clothes over which they put on robes. The choir members, choir director, deacon, and clerks all wore white robes, most with a red/maroon section at the top. The choir director and clerks had a blue section at the top. All the robes had golden crosses embroidered on both the front and back. The priest wore a very ornate golden robe and a crown which was taken on and off at different times in the service. The female choir members (whom were the majority) wore white veils. The priest, deacon, and clerks wore slippers on the carpeted area near the altar, which I was told was out of respect for the holiness of the place.
The service itself was very "liturgical" and "orthodox" from my low-church Protestant perspective. Music played a very important role in the liturgy and indeed, almost the entire service contained or was composed of musical forms. Many other signal systems were also used extensively, however. The sanctuary was very visually meaningful, as described above, with pictorial, optical, spatial, and artifactual signals. Kinesic, tactile, temporal, and olfactory systems were also observed in ritualistic movement about the altar and physical expressions of devotion, touching of the cross to ones forehead and lips, distinct breaks and progression in the service, and the smell of incense dispersed throughout the room.
But I was there to observe the music! (Not to imply that the above mentioned signal systems did not enhance and coincide with the message of the music in very important ways.) The service began with the organ playing and it was interesting to me that several of the women in the choir continued talking loudly while the organ played. The organ was just the beginning of almost two hours of music. Even what appeared to be similar to a sermon was spoken very rhythmically and with elongated phrases. The vocal music was primarily accompanied by the organ, with singing of the choir, vocal soloists, and the priest and other attendants singing and chanting. The priest sometimes sang by himself and sometimes chanted with the other attendants near the altar. Often the singing/chanting took the form of a dialogue or call and response between the priest and attendants, priest and choir, or the attendants and the choir. Music was also present in the shaking of the burning incense holder to disperse the smoke throughout the room. The chain of the holder contained bells which rang as the holder was methodically shook.
That describes the basic form of the music. It is more difficult to really describe the music itself. It had an "eastern" sound to my ear and also a very formal and ritual sound. It did not seem to be completely foreign to me, however, but had roots similar to Western music. Much of the singing was very devotional sounding and with the droning of the organ in the background was also very majestic sounding. I can say little of the textual meaning of the songs, as they were entirely in Armenian. The English in the liturgy book I had was of only small value as I could not tell where we were in the progression of the service. My impression of the text in its context is that it was somewhat narrative, however, with progression from the priest blessing the congregation, to prayers, to the administration of communion, to a "sermon".
Before speaking of my personal response to the music, I would like to speak of the participants' and audience's responses and interaction with the music. Many of the participants, especially the women in the choir, looked very devoted and in tune with God, as if they were worshipping him when they sang. Others, however, such as the choir director and the younger attendants appeared somewhat bored and distracted. Among the congregation there were also both responses. The older women, especially, were often singing quietly along with the choir or the priest and attendants and appeared very worshipful. Others were very passive in their participation. In fact, much of the congregation did not even arrive until well after the service had begun.
Personally I was very intrigued by the music and the service as a whole and found it very enjoyable. I only wish I understood Armenian so I might have understood more! The singing of the choir was beautiful and the soprano soloist very moving. Both the beauty of her voice and her demeanor and facial expressions as she sang to God, not to the audience, communicated a great deal to me of her devotion to God and the love present in the song and music itself. The presence of the incense added a great deal for me to the service, adding an almost mystic quality and a feeling of belonging.
I had the opportunity to interview two people that were very meaningful to me during the service. One was the soprano soloist, named Annahit. I was able to ask her about how she felt as she sang and really what the music meant for her. Annahit told me that when she sings she can feel the power of God and a connection between this world and God. Singing helps her to believe, because it is a connection. The words of the songs are often prayers and thus singing is a method of prayer for her. When asked who she sings to, Annahit responded that she sings first to God and then for her own enjoyment.
I also had the privilege to speak with an eighty-six year old woman named Takohi Jamochian, the eldest member of the congregation. She was very special to me as I watched her during the service singing with the choir, closing her eyes, repeating the liturgy with the priest, and lifting her hands in front of her in devotion and prayer. While speaking with her, I was told that she had been to church every Sunday since she was a child, even when she was sick. When she was ill, she said she would still come to honor God and he would make her better. I asked her why it was so important to come every week and she responded that the Bible taught that there were six days for our personal lives and one day which we must give to God. Takohi used to be in the choir (I could tell) and she told me she hoped I could come to their church every week.
The last person I interviewed was the priest's son. He was not involved directly in the service, although I saw him taking care of a few things in the background. His name is Horaneas, and I asked him if he thought music was an important part of the service. He responded by first telling me how music was a part of the entire ceremony. He said it was not only part of the ceremony, but that it helps people to feel and understand the ceremony. "Music is spiritual." Wow! He was excited to tell me many other things about the Armenian church in general, including the fact that the liturgy of the service was basically unchanged since 301 AD.
This discovery experience was completely new for me. I have never been in such a liturgical service, let alone a service which was in Armenian, a language and writing system completely foreign to me. My prejudice of such a liturgical situation would lead me to condemn it as overly ritualistic and perhaps lacking meaning for the participants and congregation. Certainly for many of those involved in this service, however, I do not believe that to be the case. I could see from their expression of the music and from talking with them how real the experience was for them and how they were able to really commune with God.
I myself was able to begin to approach God in a new way - less intellectually and more "mystically" perhaps. I wonder if more ritual or liturgical uses of music in my own tradition would lead us to new places in worship. Nevertheless, I also sensed that for some of the younger people in the church this service does not really speak to them. I wonder if they might not be better communicated to by music that is more relevant to their culture growing up in Southern California. Would teaching freed from the confines of a strict liturgy to speak specifically to the situations they face better reach their needs?
Since the Armenian church is in many ways a "state religion", I'm not sure that it has an evangelistic outreach, or if that is even considered a focus. I think those Armenians longing for contact with their culture might seek out a service and music such as this, however. This could be an opportunity for sharing Christ with them. Perhaps the liturgy could also be adapted and presented as a "cultural discovery" which speaks to non-Armenians about the faith of the Armenian people in God.
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