A musical feast on film

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Author: John Nagy ’00M.A.

Professor Margot Fassler wanted to make a film about the Copts, ethnically Egyptian Orthodox Christians, to give people a taste of their “glorious” music. During countless visits with one Coptic congregation in Jersey City, New Jersey, she found herself fascinated by their sophisticated use of technology, too. “Every liturgy for them is a five-camera shoot. They have their own film studio,” says Fassler, who is the Keough-Hesburgh Professor of Music History and Liturgy and co-director of Notre Dame’s Master of Sacred Music program.

Documentation of their rituals is important for these Copts because they are a relatively young immigrant community with an orally transmitted faith tradition dating back at least 1,500 years. Film and the Internet have become indispensable tools to help them teach their chant to their chldren. They record their cantors and post sound files with translations on tasbeha.org, a website that Fassler considers a model for communities of sacred song that wish to keep their musical traditions vibrant. “And it all comes out of St. Mark’s in New Jersey,” she says.

When Fassler releases Where the Hudson Meets the Nile, it will be her fifth documentary film on sacred music to date and her third with co-producer Jacqueline Richard. The film will guide viewers along what the Ken Burns of sacred music calls a “journey of the bread.”

“Copts bake their own bread on the premises of their churches, and it becomes the body of Christ, and it goes through a long journey to the time when it’s really consumed in the communion part of the service,” she explains. “We wanted to take people into that liturgy, and then we also wanted to give them a taste of the glorious music of the Coptic Orthodox Church.”

Fassler was already an established scholar of Christian sacred music of the High Middle Ages when about a decade ago she obtained her first grant from the Lilly Foundation to begin studying music through the filmmaker’s lens.

“For the first couple of years I just made every mistake I could possibly make, hired the wrong people, did the wrong thing,” she says. One of her first “right” moves was getting to know a community of Benedictine nuns whose abbey is about an hour’s drive from Yale University in Connectictut, where Fassler was teaching and leading the Institute of Sacred Music. The nuns became the subject of Fassler’s first film, Work and Pray: Living the Psalms with the Nuns of Regina Laudis.

“It’s a really great film, I would say, and it’s great because they’re great and they welcomed us into their community, and I got so I know them really well,” she says. Now that she’s a full day’s drive away in northern Indiana, Fassler misses them. “But it’s ironic. I made the film because I so loved taking my students there to see a real monastic community sing chant. I wanted to make a film about it so that everybody could go. And of course now I use the film in my class, so my students here at Notre Dame can go.”

There’s no telling where Fassler and her camera may go next, but her interests stretch from the Old World to the New. In addition to St. Mark’s and Regina Laudis, those who watch Fassler’s films can spend a transformative year with the choirs of Messiah Baptist Church in Bridgeport, Connecticut; reflect on the Psalms with congregations and vocal ensembles from around New Haven; and dive deep into a contemporary performance of Johann Sebastian Bach’s St. John Passion at Yale. More information about each film, including how to order them, is available online:

Work and Pray: Living the Psalms with the Nuns of Regina Laudis (2004). The beauty of the nuns’ chanted prayer follows them throughout their daily labor, all part of living the rule of St. Benedict. Clips are available on YouTube (search “Regina Laudis”) and at Yale’s Institute of Sacred Music website. Order the film through its publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, the Yale Divinity School bookstore, or at the sisters’s website.

Joyful Noise: Psalms in Community (2006). Briefly revisiting Regina Laudis, the film sharpens focus on the psalms, capturing them in the voices of multiple choirs who represent the breadth of Christian traditions in the United States. To order, go to the Yale Divinity Bookstore or call 203-432-6101.

Performing the Passion: J.S. Bach and the Gospel According to John (2009). Simon Carrington directs the all-student Yale Schola Cantorum in a powerful performance of the 1725 version of Bach’s sacred masterpiece. Interviews with biblical scholars, musicologists and the performers tell a dramatic story of the composition, its controversies — such as its alleged anti-Semitism — and the challenges of bringing complex historical pieces of music to modern audiences.
See clips or order from W.W. Norton.

You Can’t Sing It For Them: Continuity, Change and a Church Musician (2010). Jonathan Q. Berryman is a young and accomplished musician who faces the biggest challenge of his career: Merge the many choirs of Bridgeport’s storied Messiah Baptist Church into one in a year’s time. The film itself helps build anew this faith community as Berryman fights for older Gospel traditions, rails against “clueless musicians” and accommodates some contemporary styles. Available through the Yale Divinity School bookstore; call 203-432-6101.


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