Posts Tagged 'ecclesiastical chant'

CD Review: Cappella Romana, Arctic Light: Finnish Orthodox Music

arctic_light_finnish_orthodox_import-cappella_romana-26407367-859743431-frntSo, occasionally I wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat because I think I’m going to have to learn Finnish. I have this harebrained research idea about analyzing the Byzantine liturgical cycle as a national epic (I would still need to figure out the “for whom”, “where”, and “when” aspects of the matter), and since the Kalevala is the prototypical national epic, I’d have to be able to read Finnish to be able to do it properly.

Then my wife and my advisor both take turns in slapping me, yelling, “YOU HAVE ENOUGH TO DO!”

Still, I find the case of Finland fascinating. To break out a couple of academic buzz words, it’s an oddly liminal and contested place; the language, of course, is not Indo-European but rather Finno-Ugric (as the joke goes, Finnish and Hungarian used to married, and when they got a divorce, Finnish got all the vowels), and it’s right smack dab in middle between Russia and Scandinavia, with whom there are contentious histories, as well as contentious identity issues. The Finns are decidedly not Scandinavians or Russians — there is much more affinity with Estonia, which of course has its own issues with respect to contested identity — but the cultural contact happened, and there are imprints of both them to be found in Finland. They are not Russian, they are not Scandinavian (or Germanic at all) — they are Finnish.

Religion is a part of this strange mix; Karelia is the part of Finland that is traditionally Orthodox (so I’m told), which is also the homeland of the Kalevala poetry, in which we see odd references to Orthodoxy, like “standing in front of the icons” being used as a description of a wedding service. It’s enough of a part of the cultural fabric that it’s one of the two state religions of Finland; at the same time, there’s a cultural Protestantism that is also enshrined into law with the Lutheran church being the other state religion. I’m reminded, vaguely, of Germany’s religious schizophrenia as the birthplace of Lutheranism but also home to some fierce cultural Catholicism depending on geography. That’s got an entirely different history than Finland’s religious culture, but it’s the only comparandum I can really call to mind.

Where there is an intriguing religious culture, one hopes there will also be an intriguing culture of religious music, and Fr. Ivan Moody, conducting Cappella Romana, makes the case for the music of the Orthodox Church of Finland on the disc Arctic Light: Finnish Orthodox Music. Finland represents an Orthodox musical culture still very much in its infancy, far moreso than the United States; it has been an independent state only since 1917, with the Church having been granted autonomy in 1921, subsequently coming under the wing of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in 1923. The transition to Finnish from Slavonic as the liturgical language then helped a unique Finnish musical voice begin to emerge. Basic parish repertoire, I am told, remains St. Petersburg Court Chant sung in Finnish, but over the last century a variety of composers have written music for the Church, contributing to a rich, beautiful body of repertoire. If it’s a bit “anything goes” still, well, they have some top-tier composers writing for them while they figure it out.

Fr. Ivan and Cappella Romana present a survey of the 20th/early 21st century Finnish repertory, starting with early experiments by Pekka Attinen (1885-1956) and Boris Jakubov (1894-1923), followed by Paschal music from the present-day “elder statesman” Leonid Bashmakov (1927-), a Psalm 103 excerpt and Trisagion from Timo Ruottinen (1947-), a Cherubikon from a young Finnish composer, Mikko Sorodoff (1985-), and then festal hymns from the Dormition of the Virgin from Peter Mirolybov (1918-2004), who is presented as the composer in the group most connected to the Finnish Church’s Russian musical inheritance, as well as perhaps the one most attentive to this music’s liturgical context. In addition, Fr. Ivan himself (1964-) contributes a concert setting of the Exaposteilarion for Dormition.

I have to say, this has been a very difficult recording for me to figure out how to review, for many of the same reasons that Tikey Zes’ Divine Liturgy recording required an entire blog post’s worth of a prologue before I could talk about how I evaluate its musical merits. The problem is, of course, is that it’s not just a matter of evaluating musical merit; it’s also a matter of talking about how it functions as liturgical music, which is a sensitive conversation for Anglophone, North American Orthodox. This recording, much as with the Zes disc, is largely unconcerned with the categories of that conversation (although Fr. Ivan’s excellent liner notes touch on them briefly) while seeking to maximize the musical quality of the compositions performed. That’s a touchy thing to address when one is an American writing about an American composer in an American context, as with Tikey Zes; I’m writing as much more of an outsider in this case.

Still, there was something I realized while reading Fr. Ivan’s notes, particularly concerning the biographies of the composers. The American anxieties about the categories of “art music” and “liturgical music” overlapping are, frankly, minority concerns borne out of poverty — poverty when it comes to our music, who writes it in many cases, how we’re used to hearing it sung, and how our musicians and composers interact with the outside world, so to speak. There are notable exceptions, of course, but even some of those notable exceptions have to be a bit self-conscious because they’re the exceptions. Plus, there is something of a discourse about “Orthodoxy doesn’t do art”, problematizing concert pieces and such, meaning that when Orthodox Christians here do in fact do art, there’s some way in which they have to apologize for it, defend it, explain it, etc. In terms of how it presents Orthodoxy, this “Orthodoxy doesn’t do art” position is a defensive stance, culturally speaking, and it has consequences. I know composers who are Orthodox, very good composers who are renowned in secular music circles in fact, who absolutely refuse to pick up their pen to write music that could be sung in church; there’s simply too much baggage.

In the case of Finland, however, what the music on the recording suggests — and what the biographical notes in the booklet confirm — is that we’re talking about “real” composers, as it were, for whom there’s nothing necessarily self-conscious about writing Orthodox church music; it’s just one of the things you do if you’re a composer who happens to be Orthodox in Finland. Attinen, for example, taught in conservatories, wrote film music, and taught at the Orthodox seminary in Helsinki; his Cherubikon sounds very much like it is in dialogue with late 19th/early 20th century Romanticism, while still being a Cherubic Hymn meant to be sung in a Divine Liturgy (although it is evidently difficult enough that this is a rare occurrence). In any event, the hard and fast distinctions we want enforced here about “liturgical” vs. “concert” music don’t really apply; it’s a question of “good” vs. “bad” music, and that’s informed by tradition and liturgical function, but it’s also informed by musical education and exposure to the broader artistic conversation.

So, from that perspective, Arctic Light then becomes a relatively easy recording to review; it’s an aural treat in every way, with the vowel-rich language sparkling in the voices of Cappella’s singers. One can hear the Finnish language “in dialogue” with the ecclesiastical past of its country; fragments of Russian chant melodies echo in Bashmakov’s Paschal Ikos, for example, but they are transformed by the needs of the language and augmented by a harmonic vocabulary employed by an expert composer, and the result is something that “sounds Orthodox” (whatever that means — more to come on that later), but that also sounds like something new, and that could be as easily at home on the concert stage as well as in the choir loft. Sidoroff’s Cherubikon is a highlight, being perhaps a bit more conservative in terms of the sonorities he’s willing to use, but his use of different vocal textures — such as moving back and forth from men only, women only, and the full choir — makes it a rich contribution. Ruottinen is the most experimental of the group; he makes the least effort when it comes to invoking a chant foundation (he uses bits of the same melody as Rachmaninoff used for Psalm 103 in the All-Night Vigil), and at times he writes chords that sound like vocal jazz. The result is not unpleasant by any means, but it does stand out as one of the aesthetic oddities on the disc, and underscores that even within a musical culture that doesn’t feel the need to be self-conscious, perhaps some boundaries need to be kept in mind.

Fr. Ivan’s own contribution is noteworthy for multiple reasons; he is a non-native speaker of the language, and he uses the third mode Byzantine melody for the basis of his setting of the Exaposteilarion for the Dormition (“O you Apostles…”). The result is something that is clearly not operating in the same context as the rest of the repertoire on the disc, but the irony is that it is also the centerpiece of the program. It was written as a concert work, and despite using a different melodic vocabulary than that of the other composers presented, he is able to manipulate the Byzantine melody and build harmonies around it so that it sounds very much of a piece with Attinen and Bashmakov.

Fr. Ivan as the conductor gets Cappella Romana singing this kind of polyphonic repertoire as well as they have in years; the choir sounds bright, clear, and musical. At times the clarity and power of individual voices comes at the cost of blend — particularly in some of the higher voices — but it’s a tradeoff that allows the ensemble to play to their strengths.

If there’s something curious that I find in this collection — well, I should say it’s more about what I don’t find. There doesn’t seem to be a connection to a vernacular kind of singing in this music (although, ironically enough, elements of Ruottinen’s “vocal jazz”-ish choices sound somewhat like stereotypically Balkan folk music), and to the extent that there’s a musical conversation going on here about Finnish national and religious identity, that strikes me as strange. There is Finnish folk singing that has played what I would describe as an archetypal role in the building of national identity (such as what got compiled into the Kalevala); why would such elements be absent from this other project of identity-building? I may misunderstand the issues so much as to have come up with a meaningless question, but in any event, I am left curious about the interaction of Finnish Orthodoxy with Finnish folk culture.

In sum – Arctic Light is a complicated program. Finland, Finnish Orthodoxy, and Finnish Orthodox music have a complex history, and this disc is, in its own way, a document of some of that history. The result is that Fr. Ivan and Cappella Romana are able make some beautiful, engaging music within that context, and provide a fascinating snapshot of an Orthodox musical culture that is developing its own very strong voice. Recommended.

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Review: Cappella Romana’s Tikey Zes: The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom

Having mused on some of the issues in the background of Cappella Romana‘s new recording, Tikey Zes: The Divine Liturgy of St. Chrysostom, now allow me actually to review the disc.

In 1991, Tikey Zes published a score titled The Choral Music for Mixed Voices for the Divine Liturgy that was intended to be more or less “complete” (with some abbreviations customary in West Coast parishes of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America), with all eight Resurrectional apolytikia, the Antitrisagia (“As many as have been baptized”, “Before your cross”), variants for a Divine Liturgy of St. Basil, several patronal apolytikia for parishes, as well as variants for a hierarchical service. Although up to this point Zes had relied primarily on John Sakellarides’ simplifications of Byzantine melodies as his source material, for this setting he composed his own melodies, employing a variety of polyphonic textures and different kinds of counterpoint as well. The express intent, according to the CD’s booklet, is a musical style that is less a harmonized melody and is rather polyphonic in the sense that one typically means when describing Renaissance music. The score also uses organ accompaniment, but principally to accompany unison vocal lines and only occasionally being used independently of the choir.

Cappella Romana gave Zes’ score its concert debut in 1992, prompting him to revise and expand it in 1996, with the new edition dedicated to the ensemble. It is this new edition that Cappella presents on the recording; they have supposed the second Sunday after Pentecost, when the Resurrectional cycle of modes will have reset to the First Mode — the first so-called “vanilla Sunday” since before the Lenten cycle began — and they have also included the apolytikion for St. Nicholas in the place of the parish’s patronal troparion (Zes’ home church is St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in San Jose, California). As with previous Divine Liturgy recordings, they present a good deal of the liturgical context, with the celebrant’s and deacon’s parts here presented by, respectively, Fr. John Bakas of St. Sophia Cathedral in Los Angeles (and who, coincidentally, is discussed at some length in this post from last week) and Fr. John Kariotakis of St. John the Baptist Church in Anaheim, California; in addition, parishioners of Holy Trinity Cathedral in Portland, Oregon are featured reciting the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer. Some things are abbreviated; unlike The Divine Liturgy in English, the 2008 Byzantine chant release, there is not the luxury of a double-disc treatment. Nonetheless, the presentation goes to some pains to be something other than another recording of disconnected, individual pieces of music; rather, this is a Divine Liturgy that happens to be using Zes’ score.

Let’s be clear: the music isn’t “Byzantine music”, and both Zes and the choir are well aware of this (despite a comment in the booklet that is easily misunderstood, and I’ll come back to that). My previous post covered just what the implications are of that, and I suggested that Greek American polyphonic choral music might better be understood as cousin of rebetiko – that is, a folk repertoire that comes into its own in a context of emigration. That’s one aspect, perhaps, of what Zes is doing, although he is elevating it considerably; this is maybe the equivalent of somebody writing a bouzouki concerto. He is taking the music he knows from the context of the Greek American choir loft — Desby and Sakellarides and so on — and re-articulating the ethos in the musical language of an artistic high point in Western sacred music. It’s as though the Byzantines who fled to Venice eventually managed to capture the attention of Monteverdi and convince him to convert and compose for the Orthodox Church — which, again, fits pretty well with the idea of a repertoire of émigrés (although I may be stretching the notion beyond its utility).

That isn’t to say that there’s something self-conscious about how Zes uses polyphony. I don’t get the impression that he’s saying, “Hey, let’s imagine what would happen if Italian Renaissance composers wrote music for the Divine Liturgy.” I rather get the idea of a very gifted and highly-skilled composer asking, no more and no less, “What’s going to be the best that I’m able to do for the service of the Church, and what’s going to be the most fitting musical vocabulary that I know how to use for such a project?” (I refer you back to my previous post for the arguments over whether or not that’s an appropriate question to ask in the first place; I’m reviewing the recording on its own terms.) The result does not sound like Tikey Zes “doing” Palestrina or Monteverdi; at least as sung by Cappella Romana, it just sounds like beautiful church music.

Now, to be honest, I have absolutely no idea if any churches use this particular score liturgically. Obviously lots of GOA parishes use Zes’ music (for that matter, so do Antiochian parishes), but I don’t know how commonly used this particular setting is. The disc suggests that the choir that could sing it properly would certainly be a luxury ensemble; while the responses and shorter hymns are kept simple, the liturgical high points are when Zes does not shy away from gilding the things he loves. I’m trying to imagine the parish choir that could sing the longer hymns like the Trisagion or the Cherubikon, both absolutely glorious pieces of choral writing, without it being an overreach. Which brings me to the one thing I’ll say in terms of the whole organ/choir question in this review — if I close my eyes and imagine the church in which I would hear this liturgy being sung, it’s King’s College Chapel with a dome and iconostasis. This is not necessarily a bad thing, musically — in fact, I’d go so far as to say, if you’re going to go the organ/choir route, if that’s really the aesthetic you want to embrace, then you need to do it at least as well as it’s done on this recording. Yes, my consultant was quite right, Cappella Romana does sing Zes’ music like it’s Palestrina — but that also sounds like that’s exactly how it’s written to be sung. If that means the sound is like Anglican choirs singing in Greek instead of Latin or Elizabethan English — well, fine, then, so be it. Run with it. But do it well. Because if you can’t sing it at least this well, then there’s no point in using it. If you’re going to use luxury repertoire like this in your parish choir, then your parish choir better be able to fight its weight. Otherwise it isn’t going to be pleasant experience for anybody, and it will be a distraction in church, drawing attention to itself by virtue of being badly done.

Now, maybe, this score could be said to be like the Rachmaninoff All-night Vigil, which was written as a concert piece but occasionally gets broken out for liturgical use for special occasions. I will say that the Fathers John, as the celebrant and deacon, are both exceptional singers, and the net effect of the two of them plus Cappella Romana is not unlike a Bach Passion, with the celebrant and deacon perhaps in the Evangelist role. That is, there is a sense of the Divine Liturgy-as-drama with what the two clergy bring to their “roles”, so to speak, with the choral ensemble commenting on the liturgical action. Lord knows there has been sufficient analysis of the Great Entrance alone as a “dramatic” moment that maybe that’s not altogether uncalled-for; what I would say is, if you’re going to go for that, make sure you have forces at the altar and in the choir loft that can actually do it.

I said earlier that this isn’t “Byzantine music”; the booklet might seem to suggest otherwise, with the very last sentence of Alexander Lingas’ essay apparently referring to the score as “thoroughly Byzantine”. However, Lingas is not here referring to musical style or compositional technique. He is by no means offering a psaltic apologia for Zes, arguing that the music is, in fact, actually in continuity with Byzantine chant if we would just listen to it the right way. He can be doing no such thing, since this very last section of the essay is his analysis of how thoroughly un-Byzantine the music is, with its imitative and invertible counterpoint, for example. The observation that Lingas is making is that, in spite of musical discontinuity with the received tradition that we have that is in continuity with Byzantine music, it is clear that Zes is re-articulating the ethos of the Byzantine aesthetic in a Western musical language. Zes, in other words, while he is using a different musical language than Byzantine music, is nonetheless bringing considerable technical skill to bear, using counterpoint and polyphony and organ to ornament and to expand and to demonstrate virtuosity where Byzantine music ornaments and expands and demonstrates virtuosity.

(Something that I think would be very informative would be a composers’ master class, where somebody like Ioannis Arvanitis and somebody like Tikey Zes could do a detailed analysis of their own settings of the same texts with the other person, to demonstrate explicitly for an audience as well as for each other just where the points of continuity are as well as the points of divergence. Perhaps there will be an opportunity to do something like that here.)

To make a brief point relating this disc to my previous two posts — I got the following comment in a note from a friend of mine about the Zes recording: “[...]it might actually be the most ‘American’ setting…with influences from various cultures (eastern and Western Europe like our own culture here), organ etc. the irony of course is that it’s not even in English.” Looked at from a standpoint of what we might call “acculturation” or cultural adaptation, then, yes, I’d agree — and even the retention of Greek is, in its own way, a very American thing to do, since we like to emphasize and privilege our “pre-American” heritage, even in — perhaps especially in – an American context. At the same time, going by Fr. Oliver’s analysis, then the impulse to “restore” Byzantine chant is also a very “American” thing to do, given our “restorationist” tendencies.

It is telling to me that Cappella Romana has dedicated a total of four discs over the last five years to recordings that present more-or-less complete settings of the Divine Liturgy — the 2-disc set The Divine Liturgy in English for Byzantine chant, and then the Michaelides and Zes recordings. All three of these releases strike me as “pastoral projects”, as attempts to change the game in terms of the ideal of sound that’s thought of as possible — Byzantine chant in English? Yes, it can be done perfectly well in English in a way that’s still perfectly acceptable Byzantine chant, and here’s how good it can sound, too. Greek American polyphony? Yes, actually, here’s some music in that genre you’re probably not doing that you should at least think about (the Michaelides), and here’s how the really good stuff by the composer you all say you like could sound.

All of this is to say, Zes’ score is a remarkable piece of sacred choral composition on its own terms, and Cappella Romana is up to its usual high standards in terms of presentation of it. I don’t mean “presentation” to only mean singing; it’s an extraordinarily well-sung recording by all involved. Rather, the care to use the recording as the opportunity to make the case for what its liturgical use could sound like (I hesitate to use the word “should”) is also remarkable, and a hallmark of the recording. Another hallmark of the release is an exceptionally informative booklet that provides the Greek and English text of the Divine Liturgy, as well as Lingas’ essay positioning Zes’ music in the context of Byzantine music, Orthodox music more generally, and Greek emigration to the United States. Again, I will leave the argument over whether or not it “should” be used liturgically, or even recorded by an ensemble by Cappella Romana for that matter, to others in other settings; I find it to be a worthy recording of some exceptionally beautiful music composed by a man who sincerely wants to give the best of what he has, and judge it on those terms.

A word about Cappella Romana’s Tikey Zes: The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom before I review it

“Although there now exist polyphonic choral settings of the Divine Liturgy by composers representing nearly the full cultural spectrum of Eastern Orthodoxy,” writes Cappella Romana‘s Artistic Director Alexander Lingas in the liner notes of their new recording, Tikey Zes: The Divine Liturgy of St. Chrysostom,

those produced by Greek American composers remain little known. Indeed, Orthodox Christians from Europe or the Middle East visiting Greek Orthodox churches of the United States are frequently surprised or even scandalized to hear the Sunday Divine Liturgy sung not by cantors employing Byzantine chant, but by a mixed choir singing harmonized or polyphonic music that is often accompanied by an organ. Viewed from such an outside perspective, Greek American liturgical choral music would seem to be little more than a peculiar — or, as some critics of polyphony would maintain, an ill-judged and extreme — instance of inculturation. While there can be little doubt that ideologies promoting cultural adaptation (or even assimilation) to prevailing cultural norms have influenced the development of liturgical singing in Greek America, emphasis on these aspects of its history can all to easily lead to facile dismissals that ignore its many complexities of provenance and expression.

Wow, that’s a mouthful for a CD booklet, isn’t it? And yet, there it is. As one tasked with reviewing this particular disc, I feel that I must unpack this a bit to give the recording proper context for people who may not be familiar with the issues to which Lingas refers. This is going to be rather subjective and impressionistic, but I think it all has to be said before I can write my review.

Who gets the final say of what constitutes what something “should” sound like? What is “authenticity”? What’s “authentically” American? What’s “authentically” Orthodox? What’s “authentically” “authentic tradition” or, more specifically, “authentic sacred music”? Can something be “authentic” to the “lived experience” of some Orthodox but not others? How do you work out the question of the authority to resolve such questions? We can appeal to Tradition — but interpreted by whom? Is it up to bishops? Bishops can be wrong. Is it up to musicians? Musicians can be wrong. Is it up to “the people”, whatever we mean by that? “The people” can be wrong. How do you deal with change within a rubric of Tradition so that you are neither unnecessarily reactionary nor unnecessarily innovative?

These questions are vexing for Orthodox Christians in this country. I didn’t really understand just how vexing when I first started attending services; I had initially thought that Orthodox musical issues were largely free of strife. (Stop laughing. Seriously.) I came from a high church, or at least sacramental and liturgical, Protestant setting where the jockeying was over pride of place in the  schedule between the spoken service, the “contemporary” service, and the organ-and-choir service. The church where I was going had had the music-free service at 8:30am, the praise band service at 10am, and then the organ-and-choir service at 11:15, and the demographics basically amounted to the blue-hairs (and the Barretts) going to the 11:15 service and all the young/youngish middle/upper-class families going to the 10am service. (All of the really old people went to the quiet service.) The priest really favored the 10am service, and the musicians who played for that service were the ones who had his ear; the organist and the choir were rather treated as a necessary evil at best by most of the 10am crowd (I remember that the guy who led the praise band wouldn’t even say “hi” to people in the choir if our paths were to cross), and in all fairness, the organist tended to act like the praise band people were in the way. (Which, again in all fairness, from her perspective, they kind of were, with amplifiers and instruments obstructing traffic patterns for the choir if they were left out.) It really meant that there were two different church communities, and you were defined by which service you attended. (Ironically, as much as the 10am people thought the 11:15am people were snooty dinosaurs, the 11:15am service was really pretty “contemporary”-feeling in retrospect, or at least pretty low-church. As somebody who had been confirmed in more of a high-church context, my Anglo-Catholic instincts tended to be smiled at but ignored.)

In 2004, my second year in the School of Music at IU, I was asked to write a set of program notes for a choral performance I was singing in of Gretchianinoff’s setting of the All-Night Vigil, outlining the liturgical context of the service. I did the best I could with what I thought I knew at the time, and I included the following discussion of the a cappella tradition within Orthodoxy:

Historically, instruments have no place in Orthodox worship; organs are a recent development in some Greek parish churches in the United States, but those are generally examples of communities that have moved into pre-existing buildings that already had organs, and then simply adapted to what was there.

My first glimpse into just what disagreements there could be over Orthodox church music was when Vicki Pappas, the then-National Chair of the National Forum of Greek Orthodox Church Musicians, came to the Gretchianinoff concert. She talked to me about the notes afterward and said, “Very good on the whole, Richard, but that’s just not true about organs. Greeks love their organs, and have built many churches with the intent of having them.” That seemed quite contrary to what I had been told up to that point about a cappella singing being normative, and I wasn’t clear on where the disconnect was. Little did I know.

Last year, the Saint John of Damascus Society was asked to write a script for an hourlong special on Orthodox Christmas music that would have been aired on NPR. I wrote the script, but for various reasons the full program shrunk down to a segment on Harmonia instead. Anyway, as I was writing the segment and assembling the program for it, one of the people I was consulting with objected to Cappella Romana‘s recordings being used for some of the contemporary Greek-American polyphonic composers like Tikey Zes. “They sing Tikey’s music like it’s Palestrina,” this person told me. “Real Greek Orthodox choirs don’t sound like that. Let me get you some more representative recordings.” The problem, though, was that the recordings this person preferred weren’t really up to broadcast quality. They were more “authentic” to this person’s experience of how the music is used in church, but they were problematic to use in a setting where one needed to put the best foot forward.

Coming from an Anglican background, this struck me as an odd criticism, and it still does. My church choir in Bellevue didn’t sound anything like the Choir of King’s College at Cambridge, but I would certainly rather give somebody a King’s CD if I wanted them to get an idea of what Anglican music sounds like rather than get an ambient recording of a service of my old choir. Is it representative of what it “really” sounds like? Is it representative of what it should sound like? I can’t definitively answer either question, but it’s the ideal of sound I have in my ear for that repertoire. Whether or not the average parish choir sounds like that isn’t really the point. Still, that’s an argument that doesn’t satisfy the “lived experience” criterion.

At the same time, the presence of robed choirs and organs means that there’s some jostling that happens with people for whom the Orthodox Church’s traditional repertoire is chant, period, with opinions strongly held on both sides. There’s the issue that the Ecumenical Patriarchate issued an edict in 1846 forbidding the liturgical use of polyphonic music, and I don’t think that anybody denies that this exists, but it seems to me that there’s a good deal of disagreement about just what it means for American congregations in 2013. In any event, the fact that Orthodoxy still usually follows the one-Eucharist-per-altar-per-day canon means that you can’t split a church community along musical lines exactly, but nonetheless the solution in a lot of places is to institute aesthetic fault lines between services. Generally, what this looks like is that that Matins/Orthros is the domain of a lone cantor (or two or three) up until perhaps the Great Doxology, at which point it’s taken over by the choir. This interrupts the intrinsic unity of the services as they are intended to be served according to present-day service books, but it’s a solution. Speaking personally, I have put a good deal of time and effort over the last several years trying to become at least a competent cantor, and I’ve experienced the glory that is Orthros and Divine Liturgy being treated as a seamless garment sung in one musical idiom by the same people throughout, but I’m also not fundamentally thrown off by the presence of a polyphonic choir singing polyphonic repertoire.

While I’m thinking about it — I was surprised to discover that there is not, exactly, agreement over what exactly constitutes “Byzantine chant”. As I was taught, “Byzantine chant” indicates a particular process of composition of monophonic melodies for Orthodox liturgical text, employing a particular musical idiom with its own relationship to the text, theoretical characteristics, notational system, vocal style, and practice of ornamentation, informed by oral tradition (or, to use words perhaps more familiar to Western musicians, “performance practice”). In other words, it is not a fixed, bounded repertoire, but rather a living tradition; you can compose “Byzantine chant” for English texts by following the compositional process and sing the result with the proper style and performance practice. For English, this perspective probably prefers the work of Ioannis Arvanitis, Basil Crow, Papa Ephraim at St. Anthony’s Monastery, John Michael Boyer, and the like. This is also essentially the point of view presently taught at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology by Dr. Grammenos Karanos (more about them here).

At the same time, I’ve encountered the point of view — from both cradles and converts, people who are theoretically knowledgeable and people who aren’t — that that’s not Byzantine chant at all. Byzantine chant, according to some, actually is a fixed, bounded repertoire for Greek and Arabic; for one reason or another, so this point of view goes, a fresh setting for an English text might be a number of things, but it isn’t Byzantine chant anymore. (Either because the compositional process is imperfect for English, doesn’t work at all for English, or is irrelevant in the first place, depending on to whom one speaks.) The whole idea of formulaic composition here is set aside; it’s the melody that already exists that’s important, not the relationship of the melody to the text by way of those melodic formulae, and that melody needs to be preserved for it to still be “Byzantine chant”, even at the expense of proper formulae or orthography. This perspective would find, for example, Fr. Charles Baz’s transcriptions of the Basil Kazan Byzantine Project into Byzantine notation not just acceptable, but preferable to the work of the composers mentioned above.

And then there are still other “sides” within what I’ve outlined above. The bottom line is, there is more than plenty to argue about where music is concerned. For my own part, I try to be a specialist but not a partisan, and I think context matters. I don’t think that means “anything goes”, but to the extent that traditions of liturgical crafts have historical contexts (even Byzantine chant!), I’m not sure how much it accomplishes to pick fights. Part of the problem, as I’ve experienced myself, is that there aren’t a lot of people who are sufficiently well-trained Western musicians and Byzantine cantors, such that they can adequately participate in, or even comprehend or relate to, both contexts. There are some, but not many, and there’s generally not a lot of interest on the part of one “side” in learning about how the other “side” does things. I am able to go back and forth between the psalterion and the choir loft to some extent — I suppose I’d say I’m equally clumsy in both contexts — and I’m interested in what goes on in both, but I have my own opinions that I bring with me, certainly. (You don’t say, you’re both thinking.) I don’t like the hodgepodge of whatever random music might be thrown together that it seems to me that the choir loft can become. I don’t like a structure of liturgical responsibility that effectively tells a cantor, “We want you to cover all of the services that nobody comes to” (let’s be honest here). At the same time, if “Byzantine chant” is understood principally as “what the old guy whose voice is nasal and can’t stabilize on a single pitch, and who should have stepped down 25 years ago but didn’t because there wasn’t anybody to take his place, does before Divine Liturgy”, then that’s its own problem, one that we cantors need to be proactive about fixing. In general, we church musicians, cantors and choristers alike, need to be a lot more proactive about, shall we say, reaching across the nave and educating ourselves about our own musical heritage and where the stuff we might individually prefer actually fits in.

Okay, so then there’s the question of how an ensemble like Cappella Romana fits into this picture. As a professional choral ensemble that specializes in a particular kind of repertoire — Orthodox liturgical music in all of its variety — but one that is also led by a Greek Orthodox Christian and that has a substantial, though not exclusive, Orthodox membership on its roster, what is their role? Do they have a responsibility to follow a particular ecclesiastical agenda, even though they’re not an ecclesiastical organization? To put it one way, is their job descriptive or prescriptive? Are they a de facto liturgical choir that is only to record and perform in concerts the music that “should” be done in churches? Or, as a performing ensemble first and foremost, are they perhaps the kind of ensemble that should be exploring repertoire like Peter Michaelides, medieval Byzantine chant, Fr. Ivan Moody, and so on? Maybe they get to be the King’s College Choir, as it were, that records and performs things that would likely never be used liturgically, nor be appropriate to be used liturgically. But then, just as the Choir of King’s still sings daily services, Cappella has its “pastoral” projects, like The Divine Liturgy in English, where they are most definitely trying to disseminate an ideal of sound for churches to emulate. Alas, in some circles this argument of a two-sphere approach generates the the rather grumpy insistence that “Orthodoxy doesn’t do art”, or at the very least that art is a luxury that Orthodoxy cannot afford in in its current context in the New World. To me, that’s absurd, but as I have my own Orthodox artistic music project in the works, perhaps I’m not the most objective of critics where that point of view is concerned. At the very least, even if one is to ultimately dismiss liturgical use of the repertoire, I might suggest that Greek-American choral repertoire, not unlike the Greek idiom of vernacular music known as rebetiko, is worth understanding on its own terms at a musical and sociological level. (If you’re wondering what I mean by that, a full discussion is perhaps beyond our present scope, but I might submit that Greek American choral music, like what I understand is the case with rebetiko, can be seen as essentially a folk repertoire born in a context of emigration.) At any rate, thank God that it’s an ensemble like Cappella Romana taking it on, where the leadership and at least some of the membership have an intimate understanding themselves of the various elements at play.

And finally to the CD itself, which, because of the reasons mentioned by Lingas in the essay and what I discuss above, is in the unenviable position of not being able simply to be a recording of sacred music, but rather a recording that must be interpreted as a statement of something by people who don’t want the music contained therein legitimized, AND by people for whom this is the right music, but the wrong way to sing it. Jeffers Engelhardt, can you help me out here?

Well, to give you a capsule review (full review will be in the next post, now that I’ve got all of this stuff off my chest), if you come to the disc without needing it to be a statement of anything in particular, you will find that it is a beautifully-sung recording of some gorgeous music. The essay in the booklet about the music’s historical context is fascinating, both for what it says as well as what it doesn’t say. And yes, Cappella sings Tikey’s music like it’s Palestrina, and you know what? It sounds glorious. So, “authentic” or not, works for me.

Be right back.

Byzantine chant at Holy Cross and CD Review — All Creation Trembled: Orthodox Hymns of the Passion Service

This has been a ridiculous semester on multiple fronts. I have been assisting with a course where there has been a constant cascade of homework to be graded pouring on top of my head, plus I’ve been trying to write a dissertation, plus I have a child I’m trying to rear, plus I’ve had extracurricular activities, plus I’ve got a 1:15 commute to church on Sunday I didn’t have a year ago, plus I have a spouse dealing with all of exactly the same things. Too much fun.

It is an exciting time for Byzantine chant in the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese; the Archdiocesan School of Byzantine Music just performed an invited concert at Agia Irini Church in Constantinople, Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology recently unveiled their Certificate in Byzantine Music, and they also released a new CD, All Creation Trembled: Orthodox Hymns of the Passion Service, recorded by their new full-time professor of Byzantine music Dr. Grammenos Karanos and his students.

As somebody who has been fortunate enough on a small handful of occasions to attend services in the Holy Cross chapel, I can happily tell you that All Creation Trembled is a pretty accurate snapshot of at least the aural experience of the chapel. The students chant in antiphonal choirs, often divided by language (while not represented on this disc, Thursday evenings have of late been dubbed “Antiochian night”, where the Antiochian seminarians get the right choir and chant in Arabic, while the left choir gets Greek.) They do so from classically composed scores in Byzantine notation, in both Greek and English, and they do so under the expert direction of Dr. Karanos, who functions as the protopsaltis (first cantor) of the chapel. At the same time, they have also in the last few years had a group of particularly strong students to help, especially John Michael Boyer, who has been the lampadarios (director of the left choir) of the chapel for the last couple of years, and Rassem El Massih, a Lebanese-born seminarian who studied Byzantine chant with Fr. Nicholas Malek at the Balamand before emigrating to the United States. Other standouts, at least when I’ve been there, have included Niko Tzetzis, Gabe Cremeens, Andreas Houpos, and Peter Kostakis (and others — forgive me if I’m blanking on a couple of names).

The disc’s repertoire is hymnody from Holy Week, specifically from the Matins for Holy Friday (sung on the evening of Holy Thursday), and it is about 50/50 Greek and English. The English scores, composed by Boyer, employ the translations of Archimandrite Ephrem (Lash), occasionally modified by Boyer for metrical purposes. The recording quality is very clean, and the singing is robust and clear throughout, with an ensemble sound never dominated by one voice. This in particular is a point I want to praise; the recording could have very easily become “The Karanos/Boyer/El Massih Liturgical Variety Hour”, and it never goes there; even Karanos himself is only heard a couple of times as a soloist. A sense of the chapel choir as, above all, a liturgical ensemble is always maintained, with everything they sing and how they sing it dictated by liturgical concerns. The result is well-balanced and it sounds wonderful. If it is not quite professional-level — some background noise creeps in, and sometimes it sounds like the microphones are not quite optimally placed — well, it’s still an excellent entry in the category of American recordings of Byzantine chant, and it still captures the moment very well, a moment that represents a revitalized program in its early days, one that is starting to have an impact elsewhere — El Massih is now teaching Byzantine chant at St. Vladimir’s Seminary, for example, and that can only be for the good. If this can be taken as a statement of intent on Dr. Karanos’ part, then the future is encouraging.

The Certificate program also suggests an encouraging future; it’s intended to be the equivalent of a conservatory program in Greece, and it looks like it’s pretty comprehensive. I know one person who was going through a try-out version of it, and it sounds like it would be well worth the two years. One hopes that eventually there might be some financial assistance available for students who would want to go through such a program but aren’t there for M.Div. work. I would also very much like to see the program replicated elsewhere (I’ve discussed my own curriculum proposal elsewhere); if I have any particular critique of all of these efforts, it is that they are ultimately inaccessible for those of us not in the Northeast. I would have no problem with the Northeast functioning as a central location for a network of programs, but access to this training and to these kinds of opportunities needs to be geographically more spread out than it is. In the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese alone, there’s no reason there couldn’t be a formal training program and Byzantine choir in every Metropolis (although color me skeptical about attempts to do this kind of thing online as a normative approach — I can’t imagine any of my voice lessons from the old days going well if done that way).

I leave you with the video of the Archdiocesan School’s concert at Agia Irini. Enjoy.

CD Review: A Concert of Syro-Byzantine Music by the St. Romanos the Melodist Byzantine Choir

Last fall, the St. Romanos Byzantine Choir of Beirut did a concert tour of the eastern part of the United States, from Chicago to New York. (I’m still enough of a Northwesterner to think of Chicago as “eastern”.) I had really hoped to be able to go to one of the stops, but the only real possibilities were Chicago and Cleveland, and the dates just weren’t friendly to either option. Hopefully, the next they come to the States, the St. John of Damascus Society can help bring them to Indianapolis (I can’t imagine Bloomington being a reasonable possibility without resorting to putting them in a straight-up concert hall, which would sound great, but it really wouldn’t feel right).

A live recording of the final stop on the tour at St. Nicholas Cathedral (Antiochian) in Brooklyn has been released as a two-disc set; this particular concert also happened to feature the GOA Archdiocesan Byzantine Choir, both as a featured choir and with the two groups singing some combined and antiphonal things.

The program represents a nice sample of the Byzantine repertoire throughout the liturgical year, largely in Arabic, and in a variety of textures; the Megalynarion for Pascha, the Kontakion for Annunciation, and the Katavasiae for Theophany, for example. The Greek choir does a lovely handful of things such as “A Good Word” with kratema, and “Before Thy Cross” with Dynamis, and then the combined choir sings a short program including hymns like the Varys Great Prokeimenon and an alternating Greek/Arabic Great Doxology.

The musical ability on display here is top-shelf indeed; St. Romanos is a great choir made up of first class singers. There is the characteristic strength of individual voices that one finds with good Byzantine choirs, but there is also a blend, a unity to the sound achieved by strong direction and solidity of musicianship throughout the ensemble, that one only hears with exceptional choirs, regardless of repertoire or geography. They achieve this in faster, syllabic textures, such as the Theophany Katavasiae, as well as in slower, melismatic textures, like the Holy Saturday Doxastikon of the Praises “The Great Moses”.

Production values are quite high; the recording is very clean with minimal background noise (always a potential problem), and the presentation of the CD itself is very handsome and professional. The whole package represents a nice step forward for this kind of product, and I hope that this is not merely a one-off but the first of multiple such efforts out of the Antiochian Archdiocese.

I’m only just in the last year or so starting to get to know Arabic as a liturgical language (entirely passively thus far, to be sure), and this recording (as well as Sam Cohlmia’s Dormition CD that came out last year) is helping my ear start to become accustomed to it. Both Dr. Cohlmia and the St. Romanos Choir give a moving account of the liturgical use of Arabic; when sung well — as on this CD — the language comes to life beautifully in Byzantine chant. The music is identifiably the same “language”, as it were, but in a different “dialect”. The style adapts itself to the language when both are given proper attention, it seems to me. I am certainly not one to argue that one should “have” to learn Greek or Arabic or Russian or Finnish or Romanian to be Orthodox; not at all. However, I would say that to me, these represent wonderful opportunities to learn a language in a particular context, as well as to get to know an additional (not necessarily better, don’t misunderstand) dimension of the faith. None of these are “God’s language”, as such, of course (any more than, say, King James-style English is), but each perhaps has something to teach about how we worship God. In the world of classical voice, languages have different things to teach us about singing; it seems to me the same could be true of worship.

Overall, this recording is a lovely document of what seems to have been an amazing event to have participated in; I wish even more than I did that I could have been there, and I am left hoping that it happens again soon. Recommended.

“Always start out with a few good jokes” — a choir director’s initial and parting thoughts

I had my last rehearsal with the All Saints choir last night, and I gave a little bit of a farewell speech. I found some prepared notes from my very first rehearsal with the All Saints choir seven and a half years ago, and they still seemed relevant, if clearly pre-dating some things that I’ve learned in the intervening time. I prefaced all of this by mentioning that my favorite quote from my teaching evaluations this fall was, “Needs dumbed down”, which I find wonderful on several levels. Anyway, I didn’t read all of this last night, just some select chunks, but here’s the whole thing:

2 July 2005, All Saints Choir Rehearsal #1

Always start out with a few good jokes:

Music vocabulary—

Bar line: A gathering of people, usually among which may be found a church musician or two (usually Episcopalians).

Tenors: Most choirs have either a) none, or b) too many. When wholly absent they leave an aching void. When too numerous, they fill the void without removing the ache. Tenors rarely sing words and often produce regional sensations rather than actual notes. During the mating season, they draw attention to themselves by sustaining high notes while the rest of the choir has gone on with the phrase.

Seen in a church bulletin: “At the evening service tonight, the sermon topic will be ‘What is hell?’ Come early and listen to our choir practice.

The Scriptures on singing in worship

Romans 15:9—And that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy; as it is written, For this cause I will confess to thee among the Gentiles, and sing unto thy name.

1 Cor 14:15—What is it then? I will pray with the spirit, and I will pray with the understanding also: I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also.

Ephesians 5:19—Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord

Colossians 3:16—Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.

Hebrews 2:12–Saying, I will declare thy name unto my brethren, in the midst of the church will I sing praise unto thee.

James 5:13—Is any among you afflicted? let him pray. Is any merry? let him sing psalms.

The Church Fathers on singing in worship

“Let us consider the entire multitude of angels, how standing by you they minister to his will. For the Scripture says: ‘Ten thousand stood by him and a thousand ministered to him and cried out, ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Sabaoth, the whole creation is full of his glory.’ (Isaiah 6:3) Let us, therefore, gathered together in concord by conscience, cry out earnestly to Him as if with one voice, so that we might come to share in his great and glorious promises.” (St. Clement of Rome (c. 96 A.D.), First Epistle to the Corinthians, italics mine)

“…you make up a chorus, so that joined together in harmony, and having received the godly strain in unison, you might sing in one voice through Christ to the Father, so that He might hear you and recognize you through your good deeds as members of His Son…” (St. Ignatius of Antioch (c. 100 A.D.), Epistle to the Ephesians, italics mine)

“We want to strive so that we, the many, may be brought together into one love, according to the union of the essential unity. As we do good may be similarly pursue unity….The union of many, which the divine harmony has called forth out of a medley of sounds and division, becomes one symphony, following the one leader of the choir and teacher, the Word, resting in that same truth and crying out, ‘Abba, Father.’” (St. Clement of Alexandria (c. 200 A.D.), Protrepticus)

A modern Christian writer on singing in worship:

All quotes from Why Catholics can’t sing by Thomas Day.

“[T]he sung ritual [is] a symbol of a burning faith [...] The [sung] liturgy in any language [is] the symbol of faith so intense and filled with joy that it [has] to burst forth in almost continuous song.”

The Great Unwritten Law of Church Music: “[M]usic for the church must not clash with the liturgical function; it must take its place in the objective liturgical setting and not seem like an intrusion. [It] must display a degree of quality and craftsmanship which will be agreeable to a prince and peasant, male and female, young and old. Everyone who […] hears the music must sense a group endeavor, a group prayer: maybe something performed by the assembly or by a choir acting in the name of the assembly […] that seems to sum up the highest religious aspirations of a whole people. [T]he icon painters [pray] and [fast] as they [struggle] to put the holy images into the exacting forms prescribed by tradition. You must try to do something similar.”

Music in the Church is best when it “(1) expresses the noblest aspirations of the communal, cultural, tribal consciousness and (2) seems to submit to the higher purposes of the rite itself.”

So, what does this mean for us?

As an Orthodox choir, our job is not to sing one or two “anthems” or “offertories” at specific points in the service as in a Protestant church. Our job is to help the congregation sing the entire service. With a 90% sung liturgy lasting close to an hour and a half, that’s no small feat. We sing liturgical music, which means we sing the music that comes out of the work of the people (the literal meaning of “liturgy”) [NOTE, 21 Dec 2012: this is the main spot where obviously my thinking has changed, and I would find a different way of putting this today]. That means, simply put, our worship is work. Given our leadership role in the work, our job is not to be individuals who just happen to stand in a different place in the nave from everybody else; our job is to lead the rest of the congregation into the ideal of “one voice” in worship. By definition, to do this takes time, effort, and commitment to taking that leadership role seriously.

It also takes the choir functioning as a community within the community. From one perspective, the expectation is quite high: we’ve gotten up early so our voices haven’t completely woken up yet, and if we’re receiving the Eucharist we haven’t been able to do the normal things that help get the throat and vocal cords going the way they need to—drink water, coffee, tea, eat something, and so on—but we still have nearly an hour and a half worth of singing to do, more if we’re singing in the Matins service. The only way we can do that well, not to mention healthfully, is to support each other, personally and vocally, so that no one person in any section is carrying everybody else for the entire Divine Liturgy. What it takes is simply time, effort, and commitment from all who are willing to give it. It’s that difficult and that easy.

To that end: In consultation with Fr. Athanasius, while I am directing the choir, we will take the following steps:

1) Incorporate the choir into Saturday evening Vespers for the four-part portions of the service, and rehearse either before or after Vespers. We will try rehearsing after Vespers for the time being; we might very possibly try it before Vespers if it is found that this works better all around. I have deliberately scheduled the rehearsal around an already existing service, and I will never take up more than an hour of your time at any given rehearsal. Ideally, there will be rehearsals where my agenda for the evening will take up less time than that, and we will only continue through to the end of the hour if there is something that the group wishes to work on. These rehearsals will consist of a combination of vocal warm-ups, sight-singing warm-ups, announcements, polishing music we already know and learning new music. The balance of these various components will vary from week to week, based on the service requirements for that week and coming weeks.

2) Warm up as a group either at 9:35am on Sunday morning or after the Matins Gospel, whichever comes first. Starting Sunday, 17 July 2005 (that’s two weeks from now), this will be the skeletal minimum with respect to my expectation of you if you intend to sing that morning. If you cannot make a Saturday evening rehearsal at this time, then I absolutely need you to warm up with the group Sunday morning. For those of you who sing in the Matins service, we will devise a regular rotation so that one week you may finish out Matins, the next week you will warm up with the choir, and so on.

3) Gradually phase out the use of soloists for verses and replace them with unison chanting. We will talk about this more as we go, but for Psalm verses and whatnot, I would like to see an alternating “left choir/right choir” approach, where perhaps the women sing one verse, the men sing the next verse, etc. We will experiment with this over time to see how it best works with this group. The vocal and acoustic circumstances are simply not ideal for solo voices, and where it is practical to use an ensemble, we will.

I will also do the following:

1) Put out a calendar outlining rehearsals and services coming up a month out (perhaps two months out, if I find that it’s necessary). If you know you won’t be at a rehearsal or a service, please sign out on the calendar. Additionally, if you plan to attend a service or a rehearsal, should something happen at the last minute preventing your attendance please call me or e-mail me as soon as you possibly can so that I know what to expect for that rehearsal or service. I offer you all the same courtesy—if something happens to me, I will let you all know as soon as I possibly can.

2) Make myself available for work outside of regularly scheduled rehearsals and services. For example—if you need help with something musically, want extra sight-singing practice, if the tenor section needs extra help and wants a section rehearsal, if you need to talk to me about something privately, or if you just want to chat, please give me a call or send me an e-mail and we will find time to do so.

3) Make rehearsals as fun as I possibly can. I want you all to want to come to rehearsal, not feel like you have to come, which in my experience will only ensure that you want to come even less. I want our rehearsals to be a friendly, positive working environment, because I think we’ll all get more done that way.

My final point for now is this: a no is as good as a yes, as far as I’m concerned. If, after hearing all of this, you are thinking to yourself, “He’s going to have to count me out,” that’s fine. I’m not mad at you, and neither is anybody else. What I ask, however, is that you not make a snap judgment now. I ask that you give it some time to see how it will work—perhaps you’ll surprise yourself.

I believe this is a group who is capable of a lot. If we can commit to putting in the time and the effort, and remember that this is not about us but about the glorification of God, I believe we will be able to accomplish a lot.

Okay, I’m done talking now. Let’s sing.

I also mentioned some passages from +BASIL’s essay, “The Ministry of Church Singers”. I think parts of this have to be contextualized as a bishop being pastoral and pious, but there are nonetheless some things he says unequivocally:

There are few ministries of the Church that require the devotion and the dedication that church singing does. You who lead the singing as well as you who follow the leader are precious gifts to your parishes. You are as important to the parish as is the holy table itself. As there can be no liturgy without the holy table, there can be no liturgy without you. This is not to compliment you or increase your pride, but rather to put a little fear and awe in you, so you know what your responsibilities are. Church singing is not a hobby. Being a choir director is not something one does for personal fulfillment. It is first and foremost a duty, a duty of those to whom God has given musical talents. It is sinful, in my opinion, for someone not to sing who has been given the gift to sing. Sinful! You join the angels, and do that which the angels do perpetually. That’s not an interest, avocation, or a hobby; it is a duty. Angels were created to serve and to praise, and you have been given voices for that same purpose.

[...] It’s a holiness. It’s not your ministry. It’s a ministry that belongs to the Church, and you respond to the call as well as recognize that the gift which you specifically fulfill in the church was, traditionally, and in some sense still is, an ordained ministry. The choir was not some club that existed in Church for those with some particular musical talent. To be a church singer was an ordained office within the Church. Canon 15, from the Council of Nicea, the Council of the 4th century, makes its point clear that only canonical singers should be appointed for that kind of ministry in the Church. That means “one set apart” for that particular ministry. Today we might call them Readers. While I’m not saying that every choir member must be a tonsured Reader, I do say that if we fulfill at least the spirit, if not the law of the Canon, that each choir member ought to see his/her participation in the choir as seriously as the ordained clergy take their ministry. I don’t know any priest who thinks that he can say on some Sunday, “I don’t want to serve because I want to sit with my wife,” or, “I don’t feel like serving today,” or, “I’m angry, one of the altar boys offended me, so I don’t want to serve this morning.”

[...] We jump in and we jump out. Some of us jump in on time and some of us jump in a little bit late. In my opinion, being in church for that first “Amen” is a sign, an indication of one’s humility. And where humility is, indeed, a virtue, its opposite is a sin. The sin is not disturbing other people. The other people in the church are not the object of our worship. It is rude, but not necessarily sinful, to disturb other people. But it is sinful to be presumptuous and prideful that one can jump in and sing with thousands of archangels and ten-thousands of angels at one’s own whim. “This Sunday I feel like singing, and next Sunday I won’t sing. I want to sit with my wife.” Leave that Hallmark—card kind of sentimentality for restaurants, concerts, and cinemas. You sing with angels, that’s secondary to sitting with any husband or wife or children. We stand before the throne of God, and when we realize that, every other consideration, all of our own personal likes and dislikes, become secondary. I’m giving my opinion now, and hopefully it humbles all of us. It’s a humiliation, that in its end, should be something that elevates us, that exalts us, something that gives us wing.

[...] You and your choir need be as aesthetically perfect as you are able. God not only expects, but He accepts only our best.

As I said to the choir last night, I’m a convert, not a cradle, and every convert brings with them some baggage from their previous experience. My background is one that places a high value on liturgical beauty and music, and that value is practical, not just theoretical. Church music is a profession. It is not unheard-of for church musicians in my former communion to have terminal degrees and to have half-time, if not full-time, salaries. While I have always known that such a set of circumstances would never even come close to being reality at All Saints, I have always tried to fulfill the musical function at All Saints as though those were the expectations of me — and I should stress the “of me” part, because certainly the point was never to turn the All Saints choir into an opera chorus. Rather, the point was that, if I was excited about what I did and took it seriously in the way +BASIL describes, hopefully everybody else would catch the spark, too, and get excited about it along with me. It was an experiment to see if one could build a fully-functioning music ministry at the only Orthodox parish in a town that was home to a Big Ten university and one of the best schools of music in the country. I’m happy that the experiment has borne fruit, even if it won’t specifically be attached to the parish anymore. All told, this (as well as the ongoing annotation and discussion of it here) represents a pretty good snapshot of my thinking of how the effort worked, and how I would approach such a project if I were to start afresh now.

Δόξα τῷ Θεῷ πάντων ἔνεκεν. As always, we’ll see what happens next. I thank All Saints, Fr. Peter, and those who sang with me for the chance to serve over the years, I hope that I was able to communicate some small element of what I love about our Church’s music despite all of my own faults and foibles, and I wish all of them, as well as whomever my successor will be, many blessings. Again, I crave your prayers for myself and my family as we make this transition.

Review and a mini-interview: Dr. Sam Cohlmia, Byzantine Chants to the Dormition of the Most Holy Theotokos

Blogging has been light the last couple of months for what I hope are obvious reasons. The new school year starts up the week after next, so we’re all going to have to start making the adjustment back to the normal swing of things soon, so hopefully I can catch up then on some posts I’d intended to write over the summer but didn’t. (Of course, there’s also the matter of qualifying exams needing to happen sometime in the next twelve months.)


In the meantime, Dr. Sam Cohlmia, protopsaltis of the Antiochian Diocese of Wichita and the Midwest as well as St. George Cathedral in Wichita, was kind enough to send me a review copy of his new recording, Byzantine Chants to the Dormition of the Most Holy Theotokos. It contains many of the festal hymns for the Feast of the Dormition, with Dr. Cohlmia as solo cantor throughout (and providing his own isokratima via the miracle of modern recording technology).

The disc is fairly evenly split between English and Arabic, with Dr. Cohlmia using the Holy Transfiguration Monastery Menaion for most (not quite all) of the metered hymns (prosomoia), and Nassar (apparently modified in spots) for the non-metered hymns as well as the stichera at the Praises. In terms of musical sources, Dr. Cohlmia is using Arabic scores by composers such as Mitri El Murr and Andraos Mouaikel, and adapting those into English himself. The melodies for the Lamentations are a bit of a puzzlement to me — not necessarily on this disc, but in general — since what’s sung here represents the third set of permutations that I have been told are the “authentic” Antiochian melodies, so I’m not sure what that means.

There is a great deal to like on this disc; Dr. Cohlmia has a clear and lovely voice, and handles the vocal requirements of both languages nicely. Although Lebanese-born, his sung English diction is excellent, and all the texts sound smooth and natural throughout. He is able to bring a good sense of style to the presentation; while his approach as a solo cantor makes for a different realization of “Antiochian style” than one hears on, say, The Voice of the Lord (which represents the chant tradition of the Patriarchate of Antioch applied to an English-language choral context), the two recordings clearly share and are honoring the same heritage. That said, some of the differences in approach are evident in spots where the recordings are using the same melody — for example, in the Kathismata for both feasts, the nenano melody “Κατεπλάγη Ἰωσήφ” (“Joseph was amazed” in the HTM books) is employed, and the contrast between the choral and solo realizations is subtle, but interesting.

One thing that both recordings do that’s particularly nice for learning purposes is proper use of metered model hymns. This is a system that can be a bit opaque for cantors who are having to cut their teeth in the Antiochian Archdiocese; neither Kazan nor Nassar make note of their use, Nassar is unmetered anyway, and Kazan just writes them out and shoehorns the texts into them without telling the singer that that’s what’s happening. For metered translations one must turn to the Holy Transfiguration Monastery books, which seems to have something of a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” status in the Antiochian Archdiocese, and which also aren’t complete outside of the Menaion. A metered Octoechos doesn’t appear to exist, neither does a metered Triodion, and the Pentecostarion has been being revised and “due any day now” for several years. Even if you have metered texts, however, sources for the melodies are tricky. HTM’s book of melodies is a bit idiosyncratic in terms of musical material, and while Fr. Seraphim Dedes’ is better in terms of being better-grounded in “classical” sources (like the Irmologion of John the Protopsaltis), it’s harder to use with the HTM books because the melody titles are different — sometimes marginally so, sometimes significantly so — and the translations are idiosyncratic. It’s better, frankly, to just learn Byzantine notation and learn the model melodies out of the Irmologion, but then there’s the problem of not getting the sung tradition in addition to the notated tradition. There’s this site, and the recordings are instructive, but not exactly stellar. All of this is to say, Dr. Cohlmia’s recording, as with the Theophany School disc, provides an English-language model for realizing a nice little handful of the model melodies realized with metered translations, and that makes it useful as well as enjoyable and prayerful to listen to. I’m not clear as to why he doesn’t use the metered translation for the stichera at the Praises, and the model melody is quite a bit different from the one that’s in the Greek books (“Ὡς γενναῖον ἐν μάρτυσιν”, “As one valiant”), but the others employed are wonderfully practical learning tools.

Anyway, I’d love to get Dr. Cohlmia and Rassem El Massih in the same church at some point for a Liturgy, and perhaps I will. The CD can be purchased through the Wichita Chancery (details here).

I also present Dr. Cohlmia’s responses to some follow-up questions that he was good enough to take the time to answer. I find them very illuminating, and I appreciate the perspective he brings to the table. I will be curious to hear what others think.

1) How were you trained as a cantor?

I self-trained beginning in 1991 out of interest.  Being born in Beirut and going to church there and being exposed to excellent chanting, it was relatively easy for me to understand the melodies, since several of them are derived from the 11 basic Oriental melodies, such as Hijaz (Tone 6), Nahawand (Tone 5), Bayyat (Tone 1), and so on.  I was not formally trained to become a chanter, but simply practiced constantly.

2) For this recording, did you sing off of notated scores, or did you just have texts that you knew how to sing from memory? If notated scores, did you use staff notation or Byzantine notation?

I wrote the music for the entire Orthros service of the feast of the Dormition (in Western notations).  For some of those pieces of music, I simply transcribed the Byzantine notations from Mitri Murr’s arrangements in Arabic to Western notations in English.

3) How do you approach chanting in English differently from how you approach chanting in Arabic or Greek?

Chanting in English is rather tricky when compared to doing the same in Arabic or Greek.  In English, you have to be extremely careful with the pronunciation of the various syllables in addition to the lack of enough vowels makes chanting challenging.  In Arabic, especially, there are lots of vowels, and generally it is easy to chant words without placing particular emphasis on specific syllables (that’s simply a general statement, of course).

4) Do you have a sense of how Byzantine chant in the Patriarchate of Antioch is distinct from, say, under the Church of Greece or the Ecumenical Patriarchate? How do you see how you chant as being different from how a Greek cantor might approach it, if at all?

Overall, Arabic Byzantine chant in our patriarchate differs, in my opinion, than Greek Byzantine chant in the ecumenical patriarchate.  To me, Arabic chanting is certainly more melodic and, horizontal (if you will) than Greek chanting, which at times sounds choppy.  It simply flows better and sounds more soothing, although Greek chanting is very beautiful.  My chanting style is certainly more based on the Arabic, as I use Mitri Murr’s and Fr. Nicholas Malek’s arrangements as a guideline.  I do also have Protopsaltis Kharilaos Taliadoros’ anastasimatarion (in Greek), and it is beautiful, but not as melodic as the Arabic arragements.  The arrangements of Mitri Murr, and Fr. Malek (new arrangements), truly bring the words to life, as the music is written to mirror the words.  His work is very brilliant.

5) In week-to-week services at the Cathedral, what materials do you use? Are you using the chant books of Mitri El-Murr for Arabic, for example, or something else? What do you use for English? Kazan/Nassar? Or something else?

I put together the Typikon Notes from the Arabic and Greek Typikon each week for the Sunday services.  The text that I use is a combination of that from Nassar’s book as well as the HTM Menaion.  At times, if the text does not exist, and it is called for in the Typikon, I simply translate it into English.  So, we basically use the book of Nassar, HTM Menaion, HTM Pentecostarion, +Kallistos Ware’s Lenten Triodion, to name a few.  For chanting purposes, we use the Byzantine music project put out by the Archdiocese (for English) and Mitri Murr’s work (for Arabic).  Rarely would I use Taliadoros’ anastasimatarion (for Greek) unless there are Greek parishoners at Vespers or Orthros.

6) What’s your sense of how Kazan/Nassar have represented and transmitted Antiochian tradition for English-language Orthodox Christians? What could be better? What would you hate to see changed?

Kazan’s music, like any other individual’s music, is one representation of Byzantine chant.  It is certainly very simplistic, but good enough for the minimally trained or unfamiliar chanter.  Most “chanters” in the US are not true chanters, but singers instead, so that music works fine for them.  In my opinion, true chanters need to fully learn Byzantine music.  As far as Nassar’s book, it is alright for the most part, although there are a few mis-interpretations, where the English could be better.  The best work is HTM’s Menaion and Pentecostarion, since the interpretation in extremely accurate and the special melodies are perfectly metered.  As far as what I would hate to see changed, I would hate to see the Church lose its Antiochian tradition.  I would hate to see the music being watered down from the original humble Byzantine to the more dramatic and grandiose choral.  Don’t get me wrong.  The church needs the two, but there needs to be more emphasis on Byzantine chant, because it seems that it gets put on the back-burner at times.  Furthermore, chanters need to learn Byzantine chanting and music, in addition to preserving some of the Arabic used in the church (depending on the individual church).

7) What’s the future of Byzantine chant in our Archdiocese, as you see it?

Hopefully the same if not better.  I would like to see emphasis on Byzantine chanting at the various seminaries (not just Holy Cross), as well as Byzantine courses being offered for ALL chanters.  Any person who plans to approach the Psaltyrion to chant needs to have a good education on Byzantine chanting, which hopefully could be learned at some Byzantine school or course of some kind.


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