Liturgical Music and Pandemic: An Interview with Harrison Russin

In the spring of 2020, New York state was the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic. Saint Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary (SVOTS) classes went virtual, and its chapel and liturgical life were effectively suspended. But several months later, in August, SVOTS reopened for the new academic year with in-person classes, full residential living, and liturgical services resuming on campus for students and their families. SVOTS Director of Music Harrison Russin discusses the realities of liturgical music and services in the current climate and lessons learned from the pandemic. 

Q: How have services at SVOTS been adjusted because of the pandemic?

HR: For our liturgical services and because of our chapel space, right now we are limited to one singer and one reader. We place the singer near the door, we have windows open, and we turn off the air conditioning. Masks are required. We are currently blessed to do Vespers and Matins on weekdays. On weekends we are blessed to do Vespers Saturday night and liturgy on Sunday. Perhaps the interesting feature of all this is that on Sundays we serve three liturgies simultaneously [two following OCA rubrics and one following rubrics of the Antiochian Archdiocese]. We have one liturgy in the chapel, one liturgy in the chapel basement, and one liturgy in the Metropolitan Philip auditorium. 

Q: How have students reacted to all the adjustments?

HR: The majority I've spoken to are thankful that they are here at all, that we can have in-person worship, in-person liturgical services—especially being in New York when six months ago this was the coronavirus epicenter of America. The ones that I talked to have been very thankful about the arrangement. And perhaps a little nervous as we get further into the semester. They will be expected to handle more of the services as the semester continues. Right now I am doing a lot; the second- and third-year students are doing a lot. We will expect more from all the students. There is a liturgical ownership as the semester continues. 

Q: Is there anything we can take forward post-pandemic?

HR: I think there is a lot we can take into life after the pandemic. The pandemic hit so suddenly and the closures hit so suddenly we thought we would emerge from it as suddenly. Six months later we realize that it will be gradual. We still don’t have a clear idea what it will mean. We’re teaching and expecting a greater liturgical awareness, of conducting these services. Students will have help from the faculty and the priests of the chapel. More will be expected from the students and that can only be a good thing in terms of long-term liturgical awareness and growth. 

I think this has also brought an awareness of simplicity and how simple the services can be done and still be beautiful. Father Sergei Glagolev, who is, in a sense, the architect of English-language liturgical music in America, has said several times that the icon is the example of what any liturgical art should be. The defining feature should be the icon. It is transparency. Not immediate hermeneutical transparency, but a transparency that we know automatically we are viewing something that is bringing us to a greater acknowledgement of reality. The simplicity of our music aids in that understanding. It is easier to get caught up in how flat the singer is because there is only one singer. But I think when we can engage with the truth of our music and the truth of our texts it leads us to a greater understanding of the beauty of our worship.

Music is not a different art form from other liturgical sacred arts we have. Music is part of the cloth from which these are all woven. There is a certain unity of sacred arts which I think any liturgical experience will lead to. Growing up within the OCA [Orthodox Church in America] with the largely four-part Russian music, or growing up in the Greek church or in the Antiochian church, we may have certain expectations. Perhaps one of the gifts of this time is the confounding of these expectations and how a liturgical understanding of the beauty of our liturgy is not dogmatically placed in one style of music. Sometimes we confuse dogma with taste. If anything we can, at least because of the limits of our musical worship right now, realize that personal taste is perhaps secondary to the goal of our music or the end of our music. It doesn’t mean you shouldn't defend your tastes. But a realization that they are tastes, this will lead to a greater understanding and cohesion of liturgical arts.

Q: Can you speak to how music and sacred arts in general are experienced at the Seminary?

HR: It’s very moving and encouraging and edifying to be in such an environment. Not only do we teach sacred arts and not only do we have courses in iconology, but other arts like preaching, the art of rhetoric, we live those day to day in Matins and Vespers. We see it come alive when we celebrate a feast day and we see all the clergy dressed in blue. It just highlights how the liturgical year moves in a certain way and our understanding of how the arts fit into that. Every time we have the beginning of our academic year I see how much these aspects of these liturgical arts come together in our daily and weekly worship.