Susannah Black: You’ve had a pretty difficult year, which has led to a pretty wonderful project. Can you tell us about that?
Brittany Petruzzi: Happy to. I’ve started a YouTube channel; the project is to go through the 150 psalms and record myself chanting them.
I’m calling it the Canticlear Project to reflect the simultaneous clarity and beauty I’m aiming at. The goal is to have a fully recorded chanted psalter that people can listen to and be able to understand every bit of it.
What’s the background?
I have a deep love for medieval theology; theater, including musical theater; and the use of language. At the beginning of Covid, I just started thinking that I should do daily psalm-chanting.
Then in December 2020, I found out that I had a brain tumor; less than a week later I was in the hospital getting it removed. It was a seven-centimeter tumor right behind my forehead, squishing my brain back. Enormous amounts of pain. But it was on the meninges, on the outside of my brain. As my neurosurgeon described it, this is the kind of brain tumor you want, if you’re going to have a brain tumor.
I’d been having vision problems since April. But the doctors said, once the pressure is relieved, your vision should resolve itself within six months.
But it did not resolve itself. It’s been a year, and I am blind.
So I had to reassess my life, to look back on what God has been doing. I was working for a theater company when the pandemic hit; we said, “This is sad, we won’t be seeing theater for a while.” But it ended up in spring 2021 with me realizing, “Oh, I’m never going to see theater again.”
The theater stuff is important because it informs the style of music I’m endeavoring to use. Psalm-chanting is often either beautiful and incomprehensible or a sort of “we’re doing the psalms because they are the spinach that God gave us.”
But we should find joy in the psalms, and meaning. That’s what I’m trying to do: to bring joyful clarity in recording, quality, and expression. And by expression, I mean that the listener should understand both the words and the action behind them.
When I started chanting again, in the hospital, I didn’t know very many psalms by memory. But I asked my sister to have my nieces and nephews record a metrical psalm setting and I listened to that.
Chant is different than the kinds of metrical psalms we usually sing in church. Chant uses the natural rhythm of speech. So you take the translation you prefer, and then, guided by the natural rhythm of speech, you break each line up by emphasis, and assign tones to each segment – that’s called “pointing” the psalm.
The idea of using the natural rhythm of speech sounds like the way Shakespeare used English speech patterns to make iambic pentameter sound natural.
My training in singing has helped me, but also my familiarity with Shakespeare, my theater training: learning to speak those lines of his for meaning, not just as singsongy poetry.
I’m not against hymns, but it seems to me that if we want to sing in worship to our King, maybe we ought to use the words that he gave us.
Is the project helping you in your transition to being a blind Bible-reader?
It’s planting the words of scripture in my heart. I started with Psalm 121, because when I could see, I was big on trail-running, and often when I was running full speed down steep hills, Psalm 121 would pop into my head: “He will not allow your foot to stumble.”
When I was diagnosed, that’s the one I thought of. I used it to calm down my pagan friends who were freaking out.
I would say, “Look, the Lord has had me for thirty-three years, and he still has me now; don’t worry about it.” They were like, “Okay, I guess.” It’s been – I keep wanting to say an eye-opening – experience to realize that the faith I had my entire life, when it comes down to it, is real. I believe all this. I was resting in the Lord. My hope is partly that when others listen to this project, they’ll also have the psalms running through their heads, to have those words to lean on, to help them begin to rest too.
The truth is that this has been a blessing. People like to throw around phrases like “God has a plan for you.” All those vague moralistic, therapeutic, deistic phrases become true in light of the deeper reality of God’s providence, his purpose. You’re forced to say, “How can I work with God rather than just suffer and get bitter under this hard providence?”
And one way to work with him is, precisely, to pray. One idea that C. S. Lewis explores is that when we pray we are fellow workers with God, working on his big project of building the kingdom.
Chanting psalms would be, in that context, something that literally advances the plot of God’s work in his world, which is also our work.
What I’m doing is fighting. My hope is that YouTube high command doesn’t cotton on to how political this is, that chanting psalms is one of the things that brings down God’s enemies.