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Archive for August, 2012

A contribution elsewhere

A couple of months ago, the people involved with new online Orthodox Arts Journal asked if I would be interested in contributing anything to their efforts. I’m a big fan of New Liturgical Movement, and as this is sort of an attempt to do something similar from the Orthodox side, I was thrilled to participate however I could. I suggested some things I can do, it seemed to make sense to all concerned, and as of this morning, my first post for them is up. Take a look, and peruse the rest of the site as well — they’re doing some nice stuff, and it’s an honor to be involved.

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That’s my boy.

That's my boy.

In which an English-language Prophetologion makes an appearance

A touch under three years ago, I posted a bit of a complaint about the current state of liturgical books in the English language, and one of the things I mentioned was the lack of a Prophetologion outside of the incomplete draft translation of Archimandrite Ephrem’s that is online. Since then, our parish has acquired an HTM Menaion, which contains all of the Old Testament readings for fixed feasts organized for liturgical use. Alas, most of our readers still wind up using a single-volume Bible that wasn’t intended to be read liturgically, or reading straight off the printout of the liturgical guide; to retrieve the Menaion volume from the psalterion seems to be an undesirable extra step, and our priest isn’t entirely sure how he feels about their scriptural translations. If I happen to be doing the OT readings (and as a rule I don’t do readings at all, since at any given moment we have a 3-5 readers, with me at the psalterion and the others at the altar; our priest likes to keep them involved, and under the circumstances, I’m happy to have a little less vocal stress), then I will do them from the Menaion, but since I already have it in hand, that doesn’t create any extra work, real or imagined.

It has come to my attention that +Demetri of the Antiochian Archdiocese has posted a draft translation of what is purported to be the complete Prophetologion on his personal website. This is the second major previously-unavailable liturgical book that +Demetri has published on his website, with the first being “a” Typikon — it’s an English translation of the Arabic reception of Violakis, basically, and I have to say it’s a bit amusing to note the places in his work where certain “thou shalt nots” that are strictly forbidden in the printed liturgical guide on account of being “Slavic practice” are prescribed as normative “Antiochian practice”. Oops. Well, what can you do.

The text is the “St. Athanasius Academy Septuagint” — that is, the New King James corrected for the Greek text as found in the Orthodox Study Bible. This means that it uses modern English, and thus varies from most if not all AOCANA liturgical books, to say nothing of the very nice Apostolos that the Antiochian Archdiocese just published, but there we are. (So we’re clear, I’m not at all opposed to modern English by any means — I think my admiration of Archimandrite Ephrem is reasonably evident — and I’m aware that +Demetri is not publishing under the imprimatur of the Antiochian Archdiocese as such.) I’m not entirely certain how a *.pdf is going to be useful liturgically if the practice is reading from the center of the church (+Demetri has suggested that it be printed and bound locally), but if it’s read from the psalterion (which I’ve also seen), then practically speaking, it’s a non-issue — an iPad fits very nicely on the psalterion.

I haven’t had much of a chance to peruse it yet, so I’ll be curious to hear peoples’ thoughts. In the meantime, it seems like a step in the right direction, and I’ll be curious to see what +Demetri works on next.

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.

In which I boil water

You may recall that a rather geeky purchase of mine proved to be difficult to reconcile with American wiring. An electric-savvy friend of mine came over and looked at our box to see what might be necessary to get it running without a transformer; the box itself would probably have to be replaced, since it was bought second-hand off of Moses, but that would probably be something that the landlord would take care of given sufficient justification. Once the box was up to code, it really wouldn’t be that big of a deal to put in a dedicated outlet for the kettle.

With a baby on the way, that was maybe sufficient justification to mention to my landlord, hey, a friend of mine checked out our fusebox and said that it probably wouldn’t be the worst idea in the world to have an electrician bring it up to date. I did so, and the landlord (who has always been a very cool guy to us) said, sure, no problem, here’s the guy I usually use.

Well, the electrician came out and definitely found some wiring issues that needed fixing, and said, yep, I can have a conversation with the homeowner about the fusebox. He wasn’t opposed to putting in a dedicated outlet, but said, you know, it’s possible that there’s a different base that will let it run on US electricity — check with the manufacturer.

But then other big things happened, and it kind of fell of my radar for awhile.

Then Madelene left a comment on the original post saying that she’d gotten this working without any massive rewiring of everything. The secret? That the US-based Chef’s Choice uses the same manufacturer as Russell Hobbs, and markets a variant of the same kettle in North America. It’s not exactly the same — no blue lights, the handle is different, other cosmetic differences — but the important thing is that the Russell Hobbs kettle will fit on the base of the Chef’s Choice version.

A phone call to Chef’s Choice confirmed the availability of replacement bases, and today the box arrived.

Which brings me to the moment where perhaps you will decide that six weeks of fatherhood have already robbed me of my sanity — yes, ladies and gentlemen, I’m posting a video of water boiling. One thing you’ll notice right off is that on American electricity, the whole “boiling in under a minute” thing doesn’t happen — more like five. Oh well. It still works.


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