Archive for June, 2012

Thoughts on Prometheus

When I was probably five years old at the most (c. 1981), I remember my parents getting this really amazing machine called a VCR. Well, actually, it was an array of machines; there was the VCR unit itself that the tape went into, there was a separate unit that served as the TV tuner and timer (and I remember the hours that we had to spend turning the little knobs for each channel on that thing to get them to actually come in clearly so we could record TV), and then the humongous camera that connected to the VCR (which you then had to carry around with a shoulder strap if you were recording anything).

I don’t know why I remember this particular detail, but I do; the first movie my parents watched on that VCR was Alien. Maybe part of why I remember it is because they allowed me to be in the room, but I had to have my back to the TV the whole time, which I didn’t understand.

I didn’t actually see Alien myself until probably sometime in the early 1990s, perhaps some time after the time I first watched Blade Runner, which itself was probably around 1990 or so. Now is not the time necessarily to write a full-length essay about my love of Blade Runner, but what I will say is that it was a vital step along the way in my movie geekdom. Batman (1989) had gotten me excited about a number of things when it came to film — director as auteur, production design, the importance of the score, and so on — but Blade Runner really got me thinking about the process of filmmaking and how things change, evolve, progress, and yes, sometimes get messed up in the journey from page to screen. It was the first time I was introduced to the idea that there might have been a very different movie left behind somewhere in the process, and that it might be well worthwhile to restore those other concepts. (I’m sure somebody has mused at some point about the parallels between scholarly production of editions of texts based on application of theories of textual criticism to manuscript culture and the phenomenon of multiple existing cuts of a film.) Although I missed the original theatrical run in 1982, I saw it at the Neptune Theater in Seattle once if not twice in 1991, I saw the “Director’s Cut” (that wasn’t really a director’s cut, but never mind) at the Egyptian Theater in 1992, and I was also fortunate enough to see the so-called Workprint at the same theater in 1999. Another thing I remember is that each time I saw it, the place was packed to the gills. And yes, I’ve got one of the Final Cut briefcase sets. It’s right next to the Inception set. Don’t judge me.

Since Blade Runner, I have found Ridley Scott to be always creatively ambitious in the process with the final product being somewhat hit or miss, depending on the film. I still think The Duellists is an incredibly underrated and underappreciated piece of work; Legend (of which I’ve only ever watched the director’s cut with the Jerry Goldsmith score) is a movie with some fascinating ideas and beautiful visuals but that clearly was trying to overreach in terms of what could be done at the time (and in general makes me glad that nobody seriously attempted a live-action Lord of the Rings any sooner than they did); Black Rain and Hannibal are both technically terrific, and I like both movies, but they’re clearly work-for-hire efforts; Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven (the extended cut, anyway) are both great; I liked American Gangster and Body of Lies well enough even if neither were exactly earth-shattering; Robin Hood seemed like a fantastic idea with epic scope that somewhere along the way got scaled down to an attempt to use some leftover bits from Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven for a younger audience, and while it had its good points, it never seemed like I was actually watching a final product anybody intended me to see, but rather something that got assembled more or less by committee.

Which brings me to Prometheus.

The idea of Ridley Scott returning to what we might call “fantastic” fiction for the first time since Legend and getting to play in the Alien universe again has been an intriguing one to me from the get-go. He’s certainly a different filmmaker than he was in 1979, and technology has perhaps caught up more to the way somebody like him thinks — so what would he do? He’s said many times in interviews over the years that he would be interested in asking the question where the big guy in the chair in the first Alien came from, so presumably that’s where he would go. How would he get there and what would he do with it? At the same time, the business of filmmaking has changed a lot since 1979, so how would that impact the movie?

I saw Prometheus last night in IMAX 3-D. I’m not really going to write a review of it, as such; I can tell you that I enjoyed it immensely, thought it had a great cast, was stunning visually, told an interesting story that I expect is really just the prologue to the movie Scott really wants to make, and that it’s really more along the lines of SF adventure that has some tense, squirmy moments, rather than being a horror movie set in an SF context the way Alien was — but writing a critical evaluation of it point-by-point isn’t what I’m interested in doing. Right now I’m really quite turned off by a certain subset of movie geekdom that seems to go out of its way to tear down to component atoms anything that dares to not be exactly the same movie they’ve already made in their head (see the comboxes on a site like Ain’t It Cool News, for example — man, that site used to be pure gold; how far the mighty have fallen), and that’s not where I want to go. I’m more interested in talking about the ideas in the film, and how they link up with other things one finds in Scott’s filmography.

I will, however, acknowledge up front the impact that present-day moviemaking economics appears to have had on Prometheus so I can get it out of the way. There was a lot of nattering over the film’s rating; would it be R, like the original Alien, or would it be PG-13? Would the business side of how movies get made today allow for an ambitious R-rated SF film? You could do it back in 1979 for a number of reasons, but with today’s emphasis on the biggest opening weekend possible, it would seem to be a harder sell. When Prometheus was finally announced as having an R rating a few weeks ago, there were some who assumed that it was a “soft” R — that is, it had been edited down as much as possible in hopes of getting a PG-13, but ultimately couldn’t get there, and by that point it was too late to say, “Okay, we’ve got an R movie, it is what it is, let’s go ahead and throw everything back in.” And yes, that in fact seems to be the case. There is a lot of, shall we say, connective tissue that is missing from certain moments in the film that I assume to have been cut out in the quest for a PG-13. There are a couple of events that I suspect are the, shall we say, irreducibly minimal R-rated bits (if you’re a pregnant woman, you’re probably not going to want to see this movie until you’re well past delivery, I’ll say that much), but aside from those, in terms of language, general level of violence, sex, nudity, etc. there’s nothing that makes this a characteristically R-rated movie in the way that, say, Watchmen is. Does it come across as creatively compromised as a result? Not exactly, but I’m very curious to see how the inevitable unrated Director’s Cut differs when it comes out on Blu-Ray.

Warning: spoilers ahead.

I had a conversation the other day with one of my fellow DO summer school students in which the seeming affinity on the part of certain Evangelical Christians for Judaism and Israel came up. My colleague said, “Well, when you’re a kid, if you don’t like what Dad tells you [i.e., Catholicism/Orthodoxy], you go and ask Grandpa [Judaism]. Makes perfect sense.”

Prometheus is a story about going and asking Dad questions, and Dad not really liking that you asked and you not really liking the answers. In this way, it’s really more of a piece with Blade Runner, which in terms of theme is all about the creation getting to ask the creator, “Why did you make me, and why did you make me flawed?” It’s a moment that also crops up in Gladiator, when Commodus demands to know from Marcus Aurelius why he’s getting passed over (which is also paralleled in Prometheus by a scene between Guy Pearce’s Weyland and Charlize Theron’s Vickers). “Your faults as a son is my failure as a father,” Marcus Aurelius tells him, which echoes Tyrell telling Roy Batty, “You were made as well as we could make you.” The consequences are the same for both Tyrell and Marcus Aurelius, with the artificial golden-eyed owl in the former case and the statue heads of the Antonines in the latter case all impersonally witnessing the patricide.

Ellie Shaw has to do the same thing to her creator, her genetic “father”, but in this case it’s because her creator is about to kill her. She has led seventeen people to a far corner of the universe in order to meet the race that she believes engineered the human race, only to find out that God does not like us very much. Why? Well, that’s a question that isn’t directly answered, but the title combined with certain details in the film suggest some intriguing possibilities. Prometheus the Titan gave mankind fire against the will of the gods, and subsequently had to endure being chained to a mountain peak and having his liver eaten by an eagle every day for the rest of eternity. Were we created without permission? Certainly the film makes a visual point of the Engineers’ ship at the very beginning being a completely different design from the ships we see in towards the end, suggesting different factions. Are the Engineers ultimately victims of their own hubris, with their propensity for meddling with natural biologies resulting in weapons they can’t control, among which they count us? Certainly that would tie the iconic image of the xenomorph chestburster (which, yes, we do see in some form) to Prometheus’ mythological fate — which, incidentally, is why I don’t think the film’s final scene is “tacked on” in any way, as some have argued. It is part and parcel of the imagery and themes invoked by the title, and hardly just thrown in to underscore the obvious.

Back to the idea of going to Grandpa when you don’t like what Dad tells you. David, the android that is participating in the mission, is one part Ash (Ian Holm’s murderous robot in Alien), one part Roy Batty, one part HAL 9000, and a bit of Lance Henriksen’s Bishop from Aliens, but Michael Fassbender makes it entirely his own thing, too. He’s not terribly impressed with his creators, but he’s fascinated and delighted by what he encounters of the Engineers. David’s actions are never entirely benign, but neither is he exactly vicious in the way that HAL and Ash are. I’m certain that he was acting under Weyland’s orders to infect Holloway and get the impregnated Shaw into cryosleep as quickly as possible, but he also acts genuinely curious to see what will happen when he carries out those orders — like Ash, he admires what they’ve found, and wants to see the end result. David isn’t all that interested in why humans made him; one gets the impression that he wants to ask the Engineers (i.e., Grandpa) why they bothered making the humans in the first place. My guess is that the Engineer knocks David’s head off because he sees David as the result of humanity’s hubris, the same hubris that seems to have resulted in whatever happened on LV-223’s installation 2,000 years ago (what I assume to be an outbreak of xenomorphs, judging by the burst chests of the Engineer corpses).

I said that I expect Prometheus to be a prologue to the story Ridley Scott really wants to tell. I say that because of the narrative problem of deciding to tell the story of “the big guy in the chair”. In order for such a story to work, it has to be told from the standpoint of a human being, an audience surrogate. This protagonist has to have a reason to seek that race out, and how do you do that in a way that makes sense when, in terms of storytelling logic and what appears to be the framework set up in Alien, there’s no way the protagonist could know they exist? Well, by the end of Prometheus, Ellie Shaw knows they exist and has a reason to seek them out on their own turf, and it’s propelling the story forward into another film.

Miscellaneous comments: Ridley Scott has a thing for closeups of eyes. Instantly-recognizable shot from Blade Runner:

And Holloway in Prometheus:


I rather liked that David’s head was leaking milk. Nice visual tie to Ash in Alien. I also noticed that Ellie is dragging his body along as well, so presumably he will be whole again in a sequel.

I assume there is more of Patrick Wilson as Ellie’s father somewhere on the cutting room floor. Otherwise, why bother casting Patrick Wilson? Seems like luxury casting for five lines. Along similar lines, I assume there was footage shot of a younger Peter Weyland, because it doesn’t make sense to me to cast Guy Pearce specifically to put him in old age makeup. I could be wrong on both counts.

In terms of narrative ties to Alien — I’m sure we’ll find out more for certain in any future film, but it seems to me that the Engineers’ rush to leave the installation 2,000 years ago (and I’m intentionally not going to discuss the implications of that date in terms of Earth history) is probably what results in the ship that crash-landed on LV-426. Their weapons stock got out of control, and David mentions that there are “other ships”, plural, so not just the one that he and Ellie are flying to the Engineers’ home planet. The one on LV-426 was perhaps the one that actually was able to take off.

However, one point that I find really intriguing is the possibility of what the star map that David was interacting with might have been. Was it keeping track of every place that the Engineers had interfered or interacted with the evolutionary process? If so, they’ve seeded a lot of worlds. What else is out there to be found in this universe besides xenomorphs?

Even in its clearly toned-down form, Shaw’s self-caesarean was pretty rough going (and I assume it was ultimately one of the barriers for a PG-13 rating). I found it very uncomfortable to watch as a man; I can’t imagine what it would be like for a woman, let alone a pregnant woman. I won’t be suggesting to my wife that she watch it until we’re well past the birth. I’ll note that it is also one of the ways the imagery of Prometheus having his liver pecked out and eaten is invoked; Shaw’s faith and optimism are ultimately used against her, and this is the price. This is maybe overthinking it a touch, but as a name, Προμηθεύς means something like “forethought”, which Shaw seems to lack — she didn’t really think her ideas through sufficiently.

Anyway — Prometheus has my recommendation. Go see it and draw your own conclusions.


Byzantine chant in The Word

In the current issue of The Word one may find an article on Rassem El Massih, a Lebanese-born cantor in the Antiochian archdiocese and a current student at Holy Cross. I reviewed the CD the article mentions back when it first came out, and I also met Rassem on my trip out there back in February. While I didn’t get to chant with him, I found him to be a great person to talk to and I enjoyed getting to know him very much, however briefly. It’s great to see that his star might be on the rise. I should note, as per a discussion going on in the comments of a recent post, that Dr. Grammenos Karanos, a supposed exemplar of “Patriarchal style”, is quoted with very strongly positive words about Rassem, who is steeped in the “patriarchal style” of the Patriarchate of Antioch.

By the way: I’d link directly to the article instead of quoting it in full, but the online version of The Word is distributed only in pdf form. An article of mine that ran in The Word I’ve seen reproduced in full on church websites, so I assume I’m doing nothing untoward here, particularly since I’m not making any money off of it and the Archdiocese distributes The Word to its membership for free. In any event, copyright is acknowledged as belonging to the Archdiocese and authorship is acknowledged as being that of Linda M. Thomas.

Rassem El Massih: A Voice of the Faithful

by Linda M. Thomas

Thousands of miles from the tiny church where he first began to chant, the pure and powerful voice of Rassem El Massih rings out in prayer. The first cantor at St. George Orthodox Church in West Roxbury, Massachusetts, embraced Byzantine music from the time he was a small boy growing up in a town called Anfeh, on the coast of north Lebanon. Today his voice and spiritual presence are felt during Vespers service at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline, as well as Sunday mornings in nearby West Roxbury.

On October 26, 2009, El Massih led the choir at UN prayer services presided over by the Ecumenical Patriarch BARTHOLOMEW, Archbishop of Constantinople, at the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity of the Greek Archdiocese.

Last December, El Massih and four other seminarians from Holy Cross were invited to perform at Carnegie Hall with the Archdiocesan Byzantine Choir of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. The concert honored St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church at Ground Zero, the only house of worship destroyed on 9/11, and in thanksgiving for the announcement of its rebuilding.

“Rassem’s voice is beautiful,” said His Eminence the Most Reverend Metropolitan PHILIP, Primate of the Antiochian Archdiocese of North America, who said he was “edified” listening to the first-ever Byzantine music concert at Carnegie Hall.

“When he chants, it sounds like a nightingale. His voice is very soothing to the soul and to the heart. Sometimes he is as gentle and soft as an evening summer breeze,” the Metropolitan said of El Massih. “Sometimes he roars like a waterfall.”

Whether he’s chanting inside a celebrated arena like Carnegie Hall or a small, out-of-the-way monastery, however, the thirty-one-year-old divinity student says he feels the same: “My goal is to praise God regardless where I am.”

Drawn to Sacred Music

“I was a very shy and quiet boy who was drawn to church and, specifically, its sacred music,” El Massih said. “After school, I would eat, then try to finish my homework as fast as I could, so I could listen to Byzantine chant. I definitely also wanted to play with my friends, like any other boy my age, but church was as important to me as playing with my friends.”

He began chanting in churches and in school when he was nine. Seeking to perfect his voice, he enrolled at the School of Byzantine Music of the Archdiocese of Tripoli and El-Koura, while at the same time directing the choir of Our Lady of Al- Natour Monastery, a serene sanctuary on the shore of the Mediterranean Sea just outside Anfeh.

“Anything they taught me, I would say, ‘You  don’t have to repeat the melody for me twice.’ Boom. I got it,” he recalled. “Because I was so in love with it, I would do anything to memorize it. I spent hours and hours practicing.”

In 2002 El Massih came with his family to the United States and settled in Boston. At the time, his parents spoke no English, so El Massih got a job to help support them and his two younger sisters while still a full-time student. He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in religious studies and a minor in human development from Hellenic College in 2010. Currently he is a graduate student at Holy Cross Seminary, and hopes to receive a degree of Master of Divinity in May 2013.

In his 33 years as a priest, said Very Rev. Father Timothy Ferguson, pastor of the West Roxbury parish where El Massih and his family are parishioners, he has not heard Byzantine tonation (or music) of the quality he now hears on a regular basis. “Rassem’s voice is a natural gift of that music – a God-given talent,” he said. “He teaches others and he’s gracious about sharing his talent.”

“He is one of the best cantors in the country,” said El Massih’s teacher, Grammenos Karanos, Assistant Professor of Byzantine Liturgical Music at the Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology. “He is also one of few people who can perform chant in three languages [Greek, Arabic and English], and may very well be the best at this in the United States.”

In addition to school, work and teaching Byzantine chant, El Massih has produced CDs. He directed a choir of nine for “The Voice of the Lord,” a compilation of hymns from the Feast of Theophany chanted in English with traditional Byzantine melodies.

“When you love something; you want to give it all you can,” El Massih explained. “You have to practice so in the end you focus not on ‘How am I going to read this musical piece?’ but ‘How am I going to pray?’ How will this piece help me pray, understand the words, live the words – and feel the words?”

“Maybe I’ll end up giving a nice performance,” he reflected, “but when I chant on a piece, I am not focusing anymore on the music, I’m just singing from my heart – I’m contemplating the words … I’m living the words while I’m chanting.”

A response from a commenter

Well, that didn’t take long. I got a fairly lengthy response to the previous post via private e-mail. I present it here in full, save for the respondent’s name, which I leave out because it seems to me the issues are already personal enough for some people, and while this individual’s thoughts are worth airing, they did not express them publicly.

In response to your thoughts, perhaps there is something that the proponents of the Karas Theory refuse to address. That the Theory is based on false premises, that it is largely not in line with any historical or musicological facts, that manuscript and oral tradition debunk it and the fact that its founder, Simon Karas never had any measurable or documented training as a chanter.

The musicological arguments against the Karas Method can be summarised as follows:

1) Are the tonal intervals proposed for the genera in line with the intervals of oral tradition?

2) Simon Karas introduced (rather, re-introduced at his discretion and quite arbitrarily) Old Paleographic symbols to denote (in a stenographic manner) oral ornamentation. How faithful are those ornamentations to anything in oral tradition at the times of Karas and anytime between the 1940s-1970s?

3) Simon Karas proposes that the Patriarchal oral interpretations of music (and indeed the reformation of the musicall notation) are not in line with what, in his mind, were the interpretations of the old psaltae. Yet, given that he had no formal teachers and given that at least a century had passed between the reformation and the time he engaged in his studies, just how credible is this assertion?

4) The two chantors/scholars widely accepted by the Constantinopolitan musical circles as the most learned regarding the old paleography in the late 1800s were Nileas Kamarados and Konstantinos Psachos. In none of their works does one find the arbitrary and quite incredible proposals of Karas.

5) Angelopoulos took the Karas interpretations and further embellished them. Others have gone even further to vocal acrobatics that are short of ridiculous in the context of the history of Byzantine musical interpretation.

This is a very simplified summary of a subject that was discussed and considered by three conferences at the request of the Church of Greece on the matter. The Karas proponents were well-represented. Their arguments (historical/musical/musicological) were detailed, comprehensive and with lots of data. At the end, and in consideration of the overwhelming volume of contrary evidence along with the oral tradition, their arguments were unconvincing. The Church of Greece thus issued two edicts sensitising the musical community that there is no reason to consider anything else than the accepted tradition (Chrysanthine notation, consensus interpretations).

The debate should have ended there and then. However, the Karas proponents maintained their militancy. They continued, in very provocative terms, largely through positions in Greek academia and music conservatories some of them had obtained in the meantime, to question quite disingeniously the obvious. One can speculate that since the money was being thrown around liberally in Greece in the 90s, and many academic experts found easy sources of funding, the Karas “legacy” became a source of government money. Evidence for this comes from sizable sums of grants allotted to the choir of Angelopoulos, as well as block grants to various scholars. So, there was also a financial and professional incentive to carry on with the Karas “legacy”.

I could go on, but you may consider this wordy response as militancy. Mr. Barrett, people like myself have been on the DEFENSIVE for years facing an onslaught of a musically-untenable fabrication and every time we rebut with SCIENCE, HISTORY and FACTS, the Karas “proponents” resort to avoidance of directly addressing our points. If they are scholars, then they should be respectful and answer scholarly comments.

The Patriarchate’s role is to protect its legacy from arbitrary and unauthoritative alterations. The Patriarchate has followed this debate for years and indeed has also requested and received scholarly considerations. You may not know, but Mr. Angelopoulos was called to Istanbul recently and over a period of many hours he was asked to explain the entire matter.

The Holy Synod took his views into consideration, but in light of the overwhelming facts against the Karas “Theory and Method”, the Patriarchate ultimately did not agree with his reasoning.

It also sensitised Mr. Angelopoulos to work in Greece and abroad to find a way that would return peace among the family of chantors.

That Mr. Angelopoulos, continued his provocations after this, left the Patriarchate with no choice but to protect its legacy in the most direct manner possible short of something more serious reserved for ecclesiastic heresy.

The argument that the Patriarchate is clueless on musicology, has no “experts” at its disposal and thus does not understand the Karas “legacy” is completely bunk. It is being disingeniously thrown around currently by those who have a lot to lose by the Patriarchal decision. The fact is, as I noted above, that the Patriarchate for over a period of years, consulted with renowned musicologists, including those of the Karas camp.

In the end, the pro-Karas arguments were unconvincing.

Until the time the Karas movement accepts that the Theory has (at the very least) some serious flaws, or accepts (as do the overwhelming majority of chantors and musicologists) that it is largely an arbitrary fabrication of a person who had no serious background in Byzantine music, questions like those you raise in your thoughts will remain.

The Patriarchate has issued, through this decision, a very clear direction to church musicians. Whether one chooses to follow them or not is largely a personal matter which reflects one’s real character in terms of “respecting the church”.

As for enforcement, I cannot know. In the past, the Patriarchate has been known to be lenient or to be very strict in enforcement. Time will tell, as regards this matter.

Let me ask you this question Mr. Barrett:

Is it formally possible that what you hold so dear may be factually and historically incorrect?

Thank you for your consideration.

I would like to express my gratitude to the person who sent this to me; it is quite detailed and informative, and I expect that there will be those who will have things to say in response. I ask that any comments veer as far away from personal attacks as might be humanly possible; I don’t need my blog to become a boxing ring.

My main comment is this. If Patriarchal Style is such a clear-cut entity that is what anybody who learns Byzantine chant needs to know, then I would expect no end of easily-accessible learning resources to be made available to any and all Orthodox communities where the EP has jurisdiction, including America. Such would seem to me to be the necessity of ensuring proper training in Patriarchal Style. If conservative mimicry is how one needs to learn this stuff, then there needs to be real-time in-person access to somebody whom one can mimic.

This is, I’m afraid, not the case. From Bloomington, Indiana, I had to go to Greece to have any access at all to a teacher, and Ioannis Arvanitis was the one who was willing to teach me. That was ultimately far easier to do than travel to New York or Pittsburgh or wherever that which is considered Patriarchal Style is taught.

If this matter is as black and white as the commenter would suggest, than it seems to me that the burden is on him and those like him to see that it’s actually possible to have realistic access to the right teachers, and with all due respect to those who produced them, the YouTube videos that certain entities have put out are not adequate substitutes. It strikes me that there are productive and constructive solutions that are not happening; what there has been, rather, is a lot of sword-sharpening and saber-rattling while people Iike me are left to their own devices.

“My teacher can beat up your teacher” throughout the ages

Hello from… well, not Dumbarton Oaks, not quite. I’m in Washington, DC, at the George Washington University Mount Vernon campus, where our housing is. Friday night I went to bed at 12:30am so I could wake up at 2:30am so I could leave for the airport at 3:45am to get on a 6am flight so I could get to DC by 10:30am… except that we couldn’t check in here until 3pm.  Well, my longtime e-acquaintance Ivan Plis took pity on me and hung out with me for lunch, taking me to Nando’s Peri-Peri just off of DuPont Circle, which is easily the flame-grilled Portuguese chicken I have ever had. Yes, it’s also the only flame-grilled Portuguese chicken I’ve ever had, but it was still delicious. After lunch, Ivan walked me around the area a bit, or at least as much as was possible with two suitcases, and then we parted ways. Getting the rest of the way here was a bit of an adventure; my iPhone 3GS just will not hold a charge anymore, and it died just as a bus was coming that may or may not have been the bus I wanted to get on. I got on, only to realize about fifteen minutes later that it was the wrong one. I got off to wait at the stop across the street for the bus going in the opposite direction, which theoretically should have been about a half hour away… except that it was an hour away. It finally appeared, and I was able to get off at the right stop, only to still have a half mile left to walk, with most of it uphill. I guess I got my exercise today. This morning I attended Matins and Liturgy at St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral, which is about a mile away as the crow flies (but of course it’s not that simple; it’s about 2 miles by cab) and has a new protopsaltis in residence; I spent the afternoon walking around the area, attending Choral Evensong at the National Cathedral (right next door to St. Sophia, as it happens), and had a lovely day all around until I tried to go home and took a shortcut through a park’s forest trails. Zigged when I should have zagged, I had three bags of groceries, and wound up getting stuck with an uphill route I was trying to avoid. All in all, it took me about an hour and a half to get home when it should have taken about twenty minutes. Oh well. Orientation at Dumbarton Oaks is 9am Monday; we’ll see what happens.

By the way, there is going to be a group blog for Andrew Gould‘s expanded New World Byzantine concept, sort of an Orthodox version of the New Liturgical Movement. It looks like there are some definite parallels between what the Saint John of Damascus Society has in mind and what Andrew is trying to get going for liturgical crafts across the board. Should be fascinating to see where it goes. (And incidentally, there are already some big things in the works for SJDS, things that have already started to come together much more quickly than we thought might happen. Announcements to come soon.)

A few months ago I got invited to review a book titled The Past is Always Present: The Revival of the Byzantine Musical Tradition at Mount Athos by Danish ethnomusicologist Tore Tvarnø Lind. My review will be appearing in a future issue of Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies, but since I was limited to around 2,000 words (yes, I said “limited”), there was a lot that I wanted to say that I didn’t have space for (all good stuff — the book is great). I was going to have a blog post specifically about the book, but then I had to get my paper in order for the North American Patristics Society conference, do what I could to help get the house ready for impending baby, and then pack for D.C., so that didn’t quite happen.

But then, Friday, there was an unexpected post someplace I don’t check all that often.

So, I’ve noted before, perhaps somewhat infamously, that there are ways in which the internet is a problematic venue. Every imaginable cause in the world probably has a website out there run by a person for whom the sun probably only rises and sets because that issue has his voice advocating for it properly; heck, I’m sure probably somebody thinks that about my little corner of the net. Anyway, I’m somewhat reluctant to participate in many online forums, or even to monitor them too often; I’m not sure, to name but one example, that Byzantine chant needs its own version of Facebook. But, you know, it kinda has its own version of Facebook anyway, and it has its utility as a resource. Still, there are a lot of disputes that get hashed over there that I don’t care to get involved with, and the one time that I got noticed enough to be mentioned in that forum it was bad news (although my friend Taso Nassis is somebody I would not have met without that incident, so all’s well that ends well, I suppose).

On Friday, a notice was posted by one of the more argumentative individuals on that forum about a statement released by the Ecumenical Patriarchate. The Greek is here; this is my (somewhat hurried) translation:

Bulletin from the Holy and Sacred Synod on the subject of ecclesiastical music.

The Ecumenical Patriarchate, from the decision of the Holy and Sacred Synod of 29 March 2012, upon relevant public notice of the Patriachal and Synodal commission concerning divine worship, from 23 March 2012 concerning the subject of our ecclesiastical music, because of the fault of some cantors in applying a theoretical work, at first on the one hand imperceptibly, with time on the other hand more systematic, [a work] published in 1982 under the title “Method of Greek Music: A Theoretical Treatise” [by Simon Karas] and [which] created an uneasy situation, declared that:

1. It dismisses and condemns the “Theoretical Treatise”‘s self-willed, irresponsible, showy retractions to the liability and authority of the decisions of the Mother Church, as even an attempt to disseminate something – as characterized above – outdated and abnormal to the prevailing canonical order of the theory and practice of our ecclesiastical music.

2. It denounces every work of difference, adulteration, and forgery in appearance of old musical works of composers formally recognized by the Mother Church that is unlawful and strange to the prevailing works, and

3. As a musical system it recognizes, applies, and teaches according to the theory, practice, and tradition, [the system which] was established in the years 1812-14 by the Three Teachers, Chrysanthos Metropolitan of Prousa, Gregory the Protopsaltis, and Chourmouzios the Archivist, as “The New Method of Analytic Notation of Musical Melodies,” and approved by the Mother Church.

In the Patriarchate, 28 May 2012

From the Chief Secretary of the Holy and Sacred Synod

Okay. Back up a couple centuries.

As Lind’s book lays out quite well (and he’s not Orthodox, so he doesn’t himself have any particular dog in the fight), in the early part of the nineteenth century there was a reform of the notational system we usually call “Byzantine notation” or “psaltic notation”. This reform reduced the number of signs used, and also introduced a way of being able to more accurately notate rhythm, tempo, and accidentals. Well, the problem is obvious: when you change how something is written down, you effectively fork the tradition, and that’s what happened. Cantors who were trained before the reform continued either singing from old notation or singing the new notation as though it were the old notation, thus passing on the pre-reform tradition. Cantors who were trained from books compiled after the reform without any level of pre-reform tradition learned something different. Subtly different, perhaps, but different, and this appears to have become known as “patriarchal style”, as in the style practiced at and endorsed by the Ecumenical Patriarchate. The Three Teachers didn’t really give an account of their system of reform, so were they intending to preserve what came before, only simplifying how it was represented on the page, or were they intending to turn it into something else? This is the crux of the problem, it seems. (Oh, and if I’m over-simplifying or getting things wrong, please jump in. I’m trying to give a reasonably economical account here of what I think I know, but I don’t want to misrepresent anything.)

To give but one example of the practical difference that I have seen: there is a sign in Byzantine notation called a klasma. It’s a little half oval that can appear either above or below a sign depending on the sign.

Now, the way I was taught to realize a klasma by (now-Dr.) Ioannis Arvanitis is that adds a beat to the sign, but that it also has the function of adding an ornament — a little break in the voice. This ornament is suggested by the name klasma, and according to Arvanitis, it’s a holdover from the old notation, with the ornament being what distinguishes it from simply adding a dot (which also extends the sign by one beat). A somewhat clumsy way of realizing this in staff notation might be this:

When I visited Holy Cross Seminary, I got to sit in on Byzantine chant classes with Dr. Grammenos Karanos, who I’m told is an exemplar of patriarchal style. He told his students that the klasma has the principal function of adding a beat, and only in the context of a relatively small number of specific phrases does one add the ornament. Otherwise, it’s the same the thing as an aplē (adding a dot) and is maintained separately from the aplē for orthographic purposes. That would mean the above phrase would look like this in staff notation:

There’s no shortage of other examples.

Anyway, Simon Karas was an ethnomusicologist who was interested in these differences maintained through oral tradition, as well as the relationship to Greek vernacular music, and he tried to systematize what he observed in the 1982 book referenced in the Patriarchate’s bulletin. (I translated an article about him by Lycourgos Angelopoulos last year that goes into some of this.)

One can perhaps see the divide between those who sang as though the new notation were the old notation and those following the new notation more strictly in the Patriarchate’s choice of the word “outdated” (παρωχημένος) in point one. The irony that I see is that both approaches are conservative; one is performatively conservative, the other is notationally conservative. There is almost a sola Scriptura issue here (but even patriarchal style is informed by oral tradition, so not quite).

Among other things, Lind’s book talks about how Karas’ work influences the monastery of Vatopedi on Mount Athos; students of Angelopoulos (“grandstudents” of Karas, then) work with them on manuscripts, vocal style, and so on. The monks want to preserve an authentic tradition going back before the reform, and there is concern that something is lost in how the reform has been realized. One of the things I find interesting is that the tensions surrounding these preservation efforts seem to follow the old theoretical poles of cathedral (or city) and monastery, with an additional pole of the university. Vatopedi is trying to assert a certain authority and pre-eminence regarding psaltic tradition, Constantinople is trying to do the same thing (as represented by “patriarchal style”), and Karas and his legacy represent a line of academic inquiry that influence how both sides act and react. Who “owns” the tradition? Who speaks for it? Certainly there are issues surrounding how Byzantine chant is understood as something authentically “Greek”, with Constantinople looming large for obvious historical reasons, but with Karas perhaps trying to contextualize Constantinople in a larger “Greek” picture. Constantinopolitan cantors (and those faithful to them), Athenian academics, and Athonite monks — I’m not sure I can think of any particular equivalent issue in this country that’s working itself out in precisely the same way.

The thing of it is, speaking from my previous life as an opera singer, none of this is anything new. “My teacher can beat up your teacher” is part of any musician’s game from the first day they step into the studio. I remember the first time I ever took a lesson with my first voice teacher in college, and he asked me to tell him how I was thinking of certain things. I explained it the way Dennis Kruse taught me, and I can still picture the patronizing smile on this guy’s face when he said, “Oh, that’s all wrong. We’ll fix that.” I can also still remember the way Dennis shook his head when I explained to him what the new guy was telling me, saying, “He doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Get out of his studio as soon as you can.”

Heck, just speaking in terms of the Greco-Roman world, none of this is exactly news. If you were a student of rhetoric in what we might broadly call “the ancient world”, you could count on getting hazed by students of other teachers, you could count on getting beaten up by students of other teachers, and there was even a possibility you could get kidnapped upon arrival in the city by students of other teachers and forced to study with somebody other than your intended teacher. Studying something so marinated in tradition that requires a close relationship with a teacher makes this kind of thing simply inevitable.

Still, nobody here has been declared either a heretic or anathema, there’s nothing here that says “Whatever you do, don’t sing a klasma with the ornament lest your soul be in danger”, and on the whole I can’t really imagine how anything in this notice is going to have any practical force whatsoever without something that looks a lot like an Inquisition or HUAC. “Are you now, or have you ever been, influenced by the 1982 Method of Greek Music by Simon Karas?” Nope, I just don’t see that happening. This strikes me as a sop to somebody at most, but I really don’t know enough about the inner workings of the Ecumenical Patriarchate to know to whom or by whom or why. With all due respect to the Patriarchate, this comes across as over-the-top and heavy-handed, to say the least.

In any event, Ioannis Arvanitis, however poor of a student I may have been, was my teacher (and I hope someday he will be again), he’s one of the great cantors and composers of our day, he’s one of the greatest men I’ve ever had the privilege to know or learn from, and he was a Simon Karas student. Given all of this, I’m left scratching my head at what seems to be the disconnect from reality.

Anyway, I may have more to say about Lind’s book later — perhaps when the review is published I’ll put together a “director’s cut” of it. In the meantime, consider it recommended; it’s a very readable work and should be of great interest to people interested in monasticism, Byzantine music, Greece and modernity, and so on.

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