Archive for May, 2010

The ison cannot be the “dummy note”: in which the author gets to be a Cappella Romana groupie and gets to know the Oakland Police Department better than ever anticipated

I’ve forgotten some things about what it’s like to be a “professional musician” in the intervening years since I went into remission for it.

First of all, I’ve forgotten that there really are things about it I enjoy. I’ve had a ball the eleven days or so that I’ve been here, getting to make music with people who know what they’re doing, in a setting where getting notes and rhythms right is assumed to be the basic starting point, not something unrealistically hoped for as the entirety of the final product, and in an environment, physically, acoustically, and otherwise, that is conducive to such an effort. The rehearsals we’ve had for the Josquin Singers have all gone by really quickly; the three hours are up before I know it.

It’s also a mode of existence that tends to be nomadic, and that brings together very interesting groups of people for short periods of time.

While we were planning my trip, John mentioned that he was taking a group of Cappella Romana singers to Pepperdine University for the Ascending Voice II conference while I’d be here, and that I’d be welcome to tag along if I wanted.

We’ll just say it didn’t take me long to think about it.

So, last Thursday, after singing Matins and Divine Liturgy for the Ascension at John’s parish, John, his student Dusan, and I took the short flight to Los Angeles, and there we met up with CR singers Andrew Gorny, David Krueger, and John’s dad, John S. Boyer (whom I had met once before in 1997 for a joint concert between Cappella and the Tudor Choir in which I sang). The six of us hopped in a rental minivan and drove to the Pepperdine campus in Malibu, met up with the other member of the crew Alex Khalil, and we were able to catch about three quarters of the evening’s Chanticleer concert (the showstopping highlight of which was countertenor Cortez Mitchell’s solo in “Summertime”).

The purpose of Cappella Romana’s presence at Ascending Voice was to give a Byzantine chant demonstration lecture and a workshop on Friday, and to sing a full Matins Saturday morning. John asked if, since I was there, I wouldn’t mind holding isokratima with David Krueger; sure, no problem, I said. So, following the concert, we rehearsed the demo repertoire.

Theoretically, really strong, solid musicians would be placed on the ison. It’s there so that the singers on the melody can hear the home note of the mode, and so it needs to be steady and unwavering. It can be really difficult even for singers who know what they’re doing. My experience with the drone note in parish practice, as a practical matter, is that it tends to be the “dummy note” — that is, it tends to be where people who can’t read music or who are otherwise not the most capable musicians in the choir get stuck. The intent is usually that even if singing the melody isn’t a realistic way for these people to participate, they should at least be able to hold a single note. Unfortunately, the result is often that non-singers wind up not being able to sustain the pitch; it goes flat and they can’t hear it, they can’t hear how the moves work, and so on and so forth. The deadly case is when such a singer decides that, because it’s the ison, it needs to be woofed up as much as possible, which usually means it goes way flat instantly, losing maybe a major third in pitch within seconds. In other words, the function of the drone — to be a tonal support and foundation for those on the melody — winds up being completely defeated, and those singing the melody have to work twice as hard in order to ignore what they’re hearing from those singing the ison and still stay in tune. There tends to be not much that can be done about this; yes, as stated, you actually do need strong musicians on the drone every bit as much as you do on the melody, but there usually aren’t enough people who are sufficiently confident with both reading and singing as it is to be able to spare them to support the isokratima. So you make do.

David Krueger, let it be said, does not have this problem. The guy is a freakin’ rock, and he’s got low notes that shake the floorboards. The rehearsal was a tremendously educational experience, and was great until the Southern Appalachian Chamber Singers came down around midnight and told us we were keeping them up. (“That probably wasn’t exactly successful evangelism,” John Boyer père quipped later.)

By the way, the very first thing I discovered Friday morning was that somebody was asleep at the switch in terms of finding a location for Pepperdine University. I mean, come on. What were they thinking? Terrible. Just terrible.

Both the demo and the workshop were fun; the lecture was largely the same as what John said at All Saints, but with live musical examples instead of recordings. Among other things, the examples included Ps. 102 and the Beatitudes (as heard on the Lycourgos Angelopoulos Divine Liturgy recording), the Polyeleos, and a setting of the Cherubic hymn, all off of Byzantine notation. The workshop involved teaching the participants music from the Divine Liturgy in English off of Western notation scores.

Matins on Saturday was quite an experience; we set it up with antiphonal choirs, we were all in cassocks, and we did the canons for the day in their entirety. I mostly held isokratima for the left choir, but lampadarios Alex Khalil was nice enough to let me sing a handful of troparia in the canons.

The priest who served was Fr. George Taweel of St. Nicholas, the Antiochian Cathedral in Los Angeles. Finding a priest was a bit of a challenge; John had called virtually every Greek priest in the area with no luck, but Alex knew Fr. Michael Najim, the Cathedral’s dean, and he was able to send Fr. George. Fr. George’s daughter Diana actually went to IU, and I knew her a bit from her time there. It was nice to meet him; we had lunch with him afterward, and he was a terrifically knowledgeable man and very interesting person with whom to have a conversation.

After lunch, it was back to the airport, back to Sacramento, just making it back to Annunciation for Vespers. It was a trip, short and guerilla-style as it was, that was great for which to be a fly on the wall; Alex Khalil in particular was a great person to meet. He’s an ethnomusicologist who just completed his PhD, and his dissertation is something that I think will have applicability for what I’m doing. Short version is that in his research, he applied a historical context to an ethnographic study of Byzantine chant; what I’m thinking about is sort of the reverse, where I’m interested in seeing if I can give an ethnomusicological context to a historical study of liturgy. I hope I get more of a chance to talk to him down the road.

I had hoped that friend-of-this-blog and Pepperdine employee David Dickens and I would have a chance to meet; we set up a lunch on Friday, but we managed to miss each other and he wound up being caught up by work anyway. Alas. Better luck next time.

After church on Sunday it was back on the road, heading first to Ascension Cathedral in Oakland for another Byzantine chant demonstration at their Greek festival. It was largely the same repertoire as what we did at Pepperdine, again off of Byzantine notation; I had assumed that I was holding ison again, but John pulled me over and had me follow along with the melody as best as I could. (This was, in general, a more successful effort on the slower pieces.) In the audience was my friend Ian Jones, a cellist who was the very first person I ever met as a student at IU, and for whom Oakland is home. He will hopefully be able to make the Friday concert at the Cathedral; in any event, it was great to see him on his own turf.

After that it was time to head to rehearsal, and as we had rehearsal again in the Bay area Monday night, John and I stayed overnight in Oakland at his friend and fellow Josquin Singer Andrew Chung‘s condo overlooking Lake Merritt rather than drive back to Sacramento.

In theory this was a smart move; we hopefully were going to have much of Monday to hang out in the San Francisco area, with seeing St. John Maximovitch’s cathedral being on the agenda. Unfortunately, John’s car got broken into during the night, leaving him minus a driver’s side window (although nothing got stolen, thank God), and we ended up  having to spend the day dealing with that. It took close to two hours just to file a police report; the form took all of two minutes to fill out, but then waiting in line to actually turn the piece of paper in to get a case number took upwards of an hour and a half. It then took another couple of hours to actually get the window replaced, and then — hey, look at that! It’s time to go to rehearsal.

Oh well. It happens.

Anyway, today has been the “day off,” which has consisted of pretty much just enjoying being in one place for the day on my part, and John furiously putting together the program for this weekend’s concerts. I don’t know how the guy does it; he’s got these concerts, his normal church duties, students, the Pepperdine thing last week, and then next week he has Cappella commitments in Oregon. He runs around a heck of a lot more than I ever did as a singer, vocally he’s always giving everything he’s got, and I know that if I were trying to do all of that, I wouldn’t last a week. He’s got to have vocal folds made of steel, that’s all I can say.

Tomorrow is the dress rehearsal, then the concerts are Thursday, Friday, and Saturday; after Liturgy on Sunday it will be off to the airport and I’ll be on my way home. It seems odd that I’m almost to the last stage of the trip, but there we are. More a bit later.

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Bay Area, California: Josquin Singers, “The Empty Tomb & Tongues of Fire, From Easter to Pentecost in East & West”

Here are the details of the concert I’m singing next weekend in the San Francisco area with the Josquin Singers — please come if you’re around!

Celebrating the Feast of Feasts and the foundation of the Church, Artistic Director John Michael Boyer leads the ensemble on a journey from Easter to Pentecost and from East to West.  The holidays of Pascha (Easter) and Pentecost have yielded some of the most joyful and profound music in both the East and the West. This Pentecost weekend, the Josquin Singers will perform repertoire from this joyful season taken from the chant and polyphonic traditions of Rome, England, Moscow and Constantinople, sung in their original languages of Latin, Greek and Slavonic.

Thursday, May 20, 2010 7:30 pm
Blessed Sacrament Cathedral, Sacramento
1017 11th Street, Sacramento
$25 General, $20 Senior, $12 Student
CLICK HERE TO PURCHASE TICKETS

Friday, May 21, 2010 7:30 pm
Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Ascension
4700 Lincoln Avenue, Oakland
$25 Suggested Donation
CLICK HERE TO MAKE RESERVATIONS

Saturday, May 22, 2010 7:30 pm
Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church
999 Brotherhood Way, San Francisco
$25 General, $20 Senior, $12 Student
CLICK HERE TO PURCHASE TICKETS

At the tail end of Paschaltide: in which the author finishes his first year of for-real grad school, counts a couple of mutually-exclusive chickens, and winds up unexpectedly in Sacramento

The first half of spring semester got away from me as a result of my extracurricular activities at the beginning of the term, and then my losing a week from illness. The second half of spring semester got away from me because of the remainder of Lent, Holy Week, Pascha, getting the Orthodox Hoosiers website up and running, presenting a paper as well as singing some Byzantine chant for IU’s Medieval Studies Symposium, and then finishing all of my regular schoolwork for the term. It now being the last 30+ hours of the Paschal season or so, I suppose I should say this one last time: Ortanne Laivino! Anwa ortanne Laivino!

Which reminds me: I’m about twenty pages or so away from finally finishing The Silmarillion. I’ve started it any number of times, and gotten a little farther each time, but I finally made a point to keep forging on ahead, come what may. It’s been a rewarding read; it’s not necessarily Tolkien’s most transparent prose and it is a bit challenging to keep track of who is who the whole way through, but that’s probably just because I’m not terribly bright and it is nonetheless very much worth it. I’ll have more to say on it later.

As the end of the semester was coming into view, a couple of interesting things happened. First, I wound up, somewhat unexpectedly, with a choice as to what I could do this summer. I was offered a summer FLAS again to go back to Greece if I wanted, but the truth is, as much as I want to go back, this summer just didn’t seem like the right time. For one thing, Megan is going to Germany for the next academic year, from the end of September ’10 to the beginning of August ’11, and it’s been six years since we’ve both been home during the summer. For another thing, the logistics of being in Greece this summer would be significantly more complicated than last summer was, and with airfare having jumped since last year, most of my stipend would be spoken for before I ever set foot in the country, and that mostly for “redundant” expenses (i. e., having to pay for two places to live for the summer, one in the States and one in Athens). For yet another thing, I have a mammoth Greek and Latin exam to take in about a year, as well as my qualifying exams in Fall ’11, and my advisor and I agreed that with those events on the schedule, eight weeks in Athens doing Modern Greek would probably not be the best use of my time this summer.

While I was contemplating some of these issues a few months ago, I mused to a colleague that it was too bad History didn’t seem to do any sort of summer support if you didn’t have an instructor position. “Oh, no, that’s not true,” he said. “The e-mail just went out — you can apply for pre-dissertation fellowships.”

“Really? I thought I wasn’t far enough along for one of those.”

“Are you writing your dissertation yet?”

“No.”

“Then you’re pre-dissertation. Apply.”

So, I went ahead and wrote up a research proposal for the summer. My advisor said that people either traveling somewhere or who have taken their exams tend to be more competitive, but that it would be worth a shot.

As it happened, a couple of weeks ago I was notified that I am the Hill and Lilly Pre-Dissertation Fellow for History. On a practical level, it is a much better deal financially than the FLAS was going to be, and it means that both Megan and I can be in the same place for the summer. On an academic level, the project that I proposed will do a lot to prepare me for my impending exams, so hopefully I’ll end the summer feeling reasonably ahead of the game. I will look at trying to go back to Greece next summer; it would probably be good for me to look at the American School of Classical Studies’ Byzantine Greek program, and the nice thing about that is that there are a few different possible avenues of funding which aren’t mutually exclusive. That’s sort of an issue with the FLAS — if you have it, you can’t have anything else. I think the idea is sort of that they want you to have enough money to get where you need to go and do what you need to do, but they don’t want you to have enough money to be distracted by other possibilities.

In any event, I have to blink a bit at the realization that not only has History opened their doors to me, but they also seem interested enough in what I’m doing to want to facilitate it during the summer, too. It’s a nice turn of events to have happened.

The other interesting thing that happened was that, a couple of weeks after Pascha, I got an e-mail from John Boyer asking if I might be available to sing in a concert he was putting on with the Josquin Singers in the Bay Area over Pentecost weekend. Long story short, I flew out to Sacramento this last Saturday, the day after finals week was over, and I’ll be here until Sunday, 23 May. I’ll give the details of the concert in a different post, but it’s a neat project in which to be able to participate, and I’m really glad it’s worked out. To be honest, it’s been a little strange how it’s all come together; I haven’t really actively sought out professional singing opportunities for about five years, and it isn’t exactly like I spent hours talking myself up to John while he was in Bloomington. The trip has already worked musician muscles I haven’t had to work in half a decade; as soon as I got off the plane, John asked, “How are your dictation skills?” Turns out there is this three-part Russian setting of the First Ode of the Paschal Canon for which the score has not yet been published, but John wanted to do it in the concert anyway, so I was given the task of transcribing it. It was reasonably easy until the last repeat of the troparion; that’s 40 seconds of polytonal madness, and it took me about two days to get anything that seemed even reasonably close. I will be very curious to look at the published score and see just how many laughs are warranted. (Many thanks, incidentally, to Ivan Plis at Georgetown University, aka “SlavicPolymath,” for giving it a listen and confirming that much of what I had come up with was about as close as we were gonna get.)

That’s the long and the short of it for now. More a bit later. One last time for this year, probably: Christ is risen! Truly he is risen!


Richard’s Twitter

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