I just got back from a workshop on Russian sacred choral music. It was fun and interesting, and it wasn't what I expected.
I misunderstood who would be teaching. I thought it would be Eastern Orthodox Christian monks, so I imagined a cross between Rasputin, the pictures of the the monks who raise German Shepherds, and Jedi Knights. They'd wear long dark brown robes, or at the very least have circular, fur-lined hats reminiscent of the Renaissance. I imagined they lived and sang in a monastery that only recently acquired electricity and indoor plumbing. Oh yes, and there would be a hint of frankincense and myrrh wherever they walked.
One of the reasons I went was story research. Sacred music and its effects play a major role in the fantasy world I tend to write about, and my understanding of Eastern Orthodox Christian monks is that they eschew musical instruments because the human voice, which is something fashioned by God, is the holiest way to sing hymns. And here was an opportunity to learn Secret Chants from foreign holy singing people! With monastic vestments and accents and everything!!
I even thought there might be a discussion of the symbolic means of various musical key signatures, and maybe even Secret Names of God. Or they'd pull out Sir Arthur Sullivan's Lost Chord with a small smile, a shrug, and a "Oh, this? It was discovered in St. Petersburg... we use it every day to get in touch with The Almighty." And maybe they'd have a musical monk's version of a lightsaber.
As a writer of fantasy stories where song, spell and prayer are supposed to the same thing, you can imagine my excitement.
It turned out the instructor, Sergey, wasn't a Orthodox Russian Ninja-Monk. He wasn't even a monk. He _was_ Russian, and he was the leader of a touring vocal ensemble. Learning a Russian Pater Noster was interesting, but the most useful thing from a writing a story-world point of view was when he would stop us singing and say something like, "this part means 'bread' and here is where the phrasing should be largo," or "Don't punch the words here, they shouldn't be war-like," or "...and this is 'Maria' and we venerate her."
In my fantasy world, I've been approaching magic and song in a mechanistic way. The story-world's Old Testament creation myth has The Father singing creation, and The Mother taking His Song and fashioning the cosmos. I've been having my spell-casters singing mechanically, which is a mist-step similar to having a B-movie scientist proclaim "E=mc^2!" in order to justify giant nuclear frogs. (Pause to imagine Bill Nye the Science Guy singing "Doe, a deer, a female deer" as a valid physics lesson....)
When I depict my characters doing magic, I need to have Sergey's memory whispering in my ear, "this is 'Maria' and we venerate her" so that, for the characters--at least some of them--there is no difference between song, spell, and prayer.