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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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6 Responses to “The <i>ison</i> 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”


  1. 1 David Krueger 19 May 2010 at 1:03 pm

    Great recap, it was a joy getting to sing with you, enjoy the Josquin Singers concerts.

  2. 2 Dana Ames 19 May 2010 at 3:34 pm

    Sounds like a whole lotta fun, including the worship aspect.

    I’m only two hours away from SF and Oakland and would love to hear y’all sing, but this weekend is highly inconvenient. Husband and I celebrate our 32nd anniversary Thurs, and I have a little skin cancer surgery on Sat. So perhaps another time. Enjoy yourself, Richard, and break a leg 🙂

    Dana

  3. 3 Richard Barrett 19 May 2010 at 7:21 pm

    David: Likewise. Hope we get to do it again at some point.

    Dana: Too bad you can’t make it, but congratulations and many years on your anniversary, and prayers for your surgery!

  4. 4 Ivan 22 May 2010 at 4:01 pm

    In Romania, I’ve seen little gadgets on the kliros (presumably imported from Greece) that provided a synthesized ison when fed through the church’s speaker system. All the technical writing on the things was in Byzantine-speak…

  5. 5 Tracy 29 May 2010 at 7:50 am

    Hi, thanks for your blog. You dropped off my RSS feed and I had to come find you and figure out why. Now I can’t seem to resubscribe to your blog in general (although I can get particular topics). If you would be so kind as to restore whatever setting is needed, I would greatly appreciate it. Thanks.

    Enjoy the summer!

    • 6 Richard Barrett 30 May 2010 at 6:34 pm

      Hmmm — I’m actually not sure why I would have dropped off your feed. There will be a new post in a day or two — if it doesn’t show up, let me know and I’ll revisit this. Thanks!


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