Posts Tagged 'archdiocesan school of byzantine music'

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.

The foreword for Ta Prosomoia

As promised, here is my draft translation of the foreword for George Chatzichronoglou’s book Ta Prosomoia. I have tried to make it readable while keeping Chatzichronoglou’s word order and syntax as much as possible; I have occasionally paraphrased to solve “English problems”, as my first Greek teacher liked to put it. Occasional notes are in parentheses; feedback and questions are more than welcome.

Foreword

Acknowledging that you don’t “bring coals to Newcastle” (Greek: “κομίζω γλαύκας εἰς Ἀθήνας”, lit. “bring owls to Athens”), I am undertaking the edition of the present book, with an eye towards helping my brother cantors in the important and pious task which they perform, and to bring love and instruction to those who are today’s students and tomorrow’s brother cantors, and finally to contribute to the good order of the worshipping life of our Church.

The necessity of the existence of a comprehensive edition which will include all of the original melodies and model hymns in brief and slow irmologic versions and also include most of them recorded on a compact disc, is great. There are equivalent editions. However, I want to believe that in the present edition, recording all of the familiar model hymns, while adding on the one hand the common apolytikia of the Saints and the slow festal apolytikia, and on the other hand the compact disc, we come closer to the desire and the need.

The model hymns and the Anastasimatarion (the chant book containing the weekend resurrectional hymnody for all eight modes) constitute the original and prerequisite knowledge for the cantor to endure with dignity in his many duties.

With the term “prosomoia” we mean that hymn which is chanted precisely with the music of some other model hymn (that is, it copies it (προσομοιάζει σ’αὐτόν), so to speak) which we call a “Πρόλογος” (model hymn), since it is said for (προλέγεται) the prosomoion. In other words, above the text of the prosomoion there is an ascription: Mode I (ἦχος Α) “O all-lauded martyrs” (“Πανεύφημοι μάρτυρες”). We chant thus the prosomoion that follows according to the melody of “O all-lauded martyrs”. The music of the model hymns belongs to them exclusively; for this they are named, in addition to Πρόλογοι, also “Αὐτόμελα” (roughly, “the very melody”, “the famous melody”, “THAT melody”, “its own melody”, “the original melody”, etc.). There are a lot of original melodies and they are classified as “Ἰδιόμελα” (“unique melodies”). The original melodies, the automela, are a distinct category of unique melodies which “loan” their music to other hymns (prosomoia) while the unique melodies, the idiomela, we would say, keep their music for their own use.

Our age, the Information Age, the age of superficiality, the age of short-term thinking, the age of terrible haste, in which the ring of words has been lost, did not leave even our music unaffected. There are endless reasons for musical performances, for research efforts, for musicological opinions and such other important things, but at the same time there is a shortage of effective cantors. There is consideration for music as a noble craft but not as the noble craft of music. Our acoustic aesthetic has been disturbed by “crooners” (? φάλτσα) who are clothed in the legitimacy of science and by arbitrary personal musical interpretations, which lead outside of ecclesiastical boundaries. We are bombed by hymns of Holy Week, which singers (as opposed to cantors) and actors chant on TV, with the style of the “street” and the morals of the gang and we look at all of these things, helpless to respond and to express the view of the competent cantor, because all of the doors are closed. Thus “we pick at our scab” , as our wise people say, smugly self-identified as “traditional people”, as if somebody asked us that, as if they dοn’t hear what we’re saying, as if that’s what was asked. However, outside of titles and boasts, errors and omissions, our goal is and remains one. The service of the cantor, as conscious practice, towards the believer who steps over the threshold of the Church and enters into the midst of it in order for his soul to find peace with the fear of God. I am trying to “put in order” musically this fear of God and the service to the fullness of the Church, with this book, which whereby does the following:

1) Address the so-called “practical” cantors, who are the pillars of the services of Orthodox worship, embattled in all of the remote areas of the Greek countryside and in the whole Greek community. Helpless, without support, forgotten by all of us, we who haggle between ourselves for a treasure which is not rightly our and which we ought properly to serve with respect. The scope and objective of musical study is the “high and mighty” work of the cantor who appears at the analogion (cantor’s music book stand), with knowledge and faith as support.

My sympathy and my brotherly love is given for these cantors; it is a well-worn theme in my radio broadcasts for the Church of Greece. The moment has come, then, that I should do something for them.

2) Involve the teachers and the students of Byzantine music. On the hand, to the teachers [this book] is offered as a helpful tool, to the students on the other hand as a breath between boring paralaggi (Byzantine solfegge) exercises. These breaths, however, are so necessary for them to continue their lessons with new energy, as necessary as it is for the swimmer to lift his head out of the water and to breathe.

The interposed teaching of the model hymns for the duration of many years of lessons relieves and frees the student, offering at the same time useful knowledge of Byzantine music.

3) Address the proficient brother cantors who, chiefly in the slow versions of model melodies, are finding a way to brighten the sacred feasts of their parishes and to give something different and majestic. I did not put the slow versions of the model melodies on the CD, because if and when somebody wants to use them, he should substitute the hymn of the prosomoion of the feast in the already recorded melodic line of the model hymn. (Editor’s note: I don’t completely understand what he means here. The Greek text here is πρέπει νά ἀνακαταστήσει τήν ὑμνολογία τοῦ προσομοίου τῆς πανηγύρεως, στην ἤδη καταγεγραμμένη μελωδική γραμμή τοῦ Προλόγου. If somebody can clarify, that would be most appreciated.)

And finally:

4) I think that this book is useful for priests, who, apart from the spiritual task they perform in their parishes, they also have the obligation to chant correctly. For the most part, I am referring to kontakia and apolytikia, but also all of the prosomoia which are included, mainly in the Menaion. Let us not forget that enough cantors start their training in Byzantine music prompted by the priest. Therefore, as the first teachers, apart from the customary practice of the Church, which they know best, they should be the living example even in the study of prosomoia and of Byzantine music in general.

The novelty in this book is the recording of a sufficient number of apolytikia in slow irmologic melodic style. There are enough of them scattered about in older editions, but mainly they are personal compositions appropriate for sacred feasts.

Holding the conviction that with this book, which is my first, I am helping the cantors and the Church, I ask your indulgence for any errors and omissions, and I pray that the Triune God give us strength to continue to struggle for the best.

Athens, 22 August 2010

George Epam. Chatzichronoglou

Archon Ymnodos (“Chief Singer”) of the Great Church of Christ

Book review: Ta Prosomoia by Georgios Chatzichronoglou

One of the things that is at once intended to make Byzantine chant easier for the cantor and yet paradoxically also makes it seem impossibly difficult for the student in an Anglophone context is the use of model hymns for much of the hymnody. There are multiple factors that make it complex; in a Greek context, you see the incipit of the model melody and the mode, you look it up in the Prosomoia section of the Irmologion if you don’t know it (or in the otherwise appropriate section of the Irmologion based on liturgical function), and that’s that. And while yes, there are over 100 model melodies, from a practical perspective there are about 10 that you can get by for a good while starting out with.

However, if you can’t read Greek, then you have to rely on English incipits, and you probably have to know three or four possible incipits because we don’t have a standard English text (and some incipits may refer to hymns that a particular jurisdiction’s “greatest hits” liturgical book might not include). Then there’s the matter of metrical translations, which some translators don’t bother with (Nassar, Lash, etc.), making the use of model melodies basically impossible, and which some translators do (Holy Transfiguration Monastery in most instances, Fr. Seraphim Dedes). Still, even if, say, you’re going with all HTM texts all the time, what about the melodies themselves? HTM has a model melody book, but it’s all staff notation, so you’re getting one person’s interpretation of the melody, and some of what they include is a little idiosyncratic. Fr. Seraphim Dedes also has a model melody book that is theoretically available in both staff and Byzantine notation, where there is a traditional melody and a “popular” variation (as with, for example, the melody for the Kontakion of the Nativity of Christ) he includes both, and he’s even done the very nice thing of indexing his incipits to Holy Transfiguration’s, so that’s probably the best option in English, at least at this stage of the game.

Τὰ Προσόμοια: Πρόλογοι-Αὐτόμελα σε ἀργὸ και σύντομο εἱρμολογικό μέλος (Athens, 2010) “Prosomoia: Model Hymns and Original Melodies in Slow and Brief Irmologic Versions” by Archon Protopsaltis Georgios Chatzichronoglou is a single volume, Greek-language reference to all the model melodies (in both “brief” and “slow” versions where such exist), and the Greek Orthodox Archdiocesan School of Byzantine Music has just recently started distributing it in the United States. It simplifies the process only somewhat for the learner in an Anglophone context — a traditional Irmologion is a little difficult to find here, although you can find pdfs if you know where to look and whom to ask. Also, this arranges all the melodies in a format similar to Dedes’ with a nice index of incipits, and there’s a lovely CD of Chatzichronoglou demonstrating 69 of the melodies. Obviously this is going to be a difficult reference to navigate for somebody with no facility with Greek, but it could well be a good reference for a teacher who does have some Greek and who can help the student understand what they’re seeing.

I will say that one of the virtues of this book, besides its organization, is a very clean, readable presentation; with some of the classical books the plates are clearly a bit worse for wear, so it’s nice to see Byzantine music publishers taking advantage of digital typesetting. At the same time, what this reveals is that Chatzichronoglou has taken an analytic approach in presenting these melodies, writing out certain standard ornamental choices instead of reproducing the melody as it is written out in the classical books and leaving it to the teacher to tell the student what ornaments are traditional. Lest anybody see this as an arcane matter only impacting practitioners of Byzantine chant in Greece, there is a similar issue when it comes to publishing standard works in the Western classical repertoire such as Handel’s Messiah; one can buy scores where none of the performance tradition is written out and it is up to the performer to mark in what they’re choosing to do (or what the conductor directs them to do), and one can buy scores where a certain strain of ornamental tradition is written in. For example, here’s the last page of the opening recitative, “Comfort ye my people”, in the Kaplan edition, a fairly standard practical score:

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As somebody who has sung this probably hundreds of times in my former mode of existence, I can tell you that while that’s what’s on the page, just about nobody sings it that way. Your teacher or your coach or your conductor will have suggestions for what to do with it.

By contrast, this is the same page from the Carus-Verlag score, and you’ll see at the bottom possibilities of how to ornament certain parts.

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Those possibilities represent but one performance tradition; there are others, and your teacher, coach, or conductor will have their own ideas about what you should do. The point is, these sorts of variants in printed scores represent a point of similarity with Western music, not a point of departure from.

To show how this works in the Chatzichronoglou book, here is one of the most frequently-used model melodies, “ὡς γενναῖον ἐν μάρτυσιν”, itself the first troparion at “O Lord, I have cried” for the Feast of St. George (23 April), and commonly used as the model melody for troparia at “O Lord, I have cried” as well as at Lauds for martyrs. This is how it appears in the Irmologion of Ioannis Protopsaltis, one of the standard classical books:

os gennaion

And then this is how it appears in Chatzichronoglou:


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Much of what’s different consists of editorial choices that are aids to the singer; bar lines have been written in, isokratima has been added (although your protospaltis may well want you to do something else than what is written here), and breaths have been written in, in some cases rewriting signs that are held for two beats in the Irmologion to one beat plus a breath, in other cases adding a catch breath in time. All of these things are very similar to editorial choices that might be made in a Western choral score or hymnal (although I have had music directors at times say that such editorial decisions should be unnecessary for people who are actually good musicians).

At the same time, Chatzichronoglou has made choices in how he’s written this out that are more akin to the ornaments at the bottom of the page in the Carus-Verlag Messiah score above. One of the more obvious places where he does this is καὶ ἐδέξω ἐκ Θεοῦ, τὸν τῆς νίκης σου στέφανον, ὃν ἱκέτευε (third line picking up into the fourth line in the Irmologion score, fourth line into the beginning of the fifth line in Chatzichronoglou). I realize not everybody here is going to be able to read psaltic notation, so here’s a quick and dirty transcription of the first version:

kai edexw irmologion_0001

Which, as with Handel, probably isn’t how anybody would sing it, depending on one’s context; your teacher and your protopsaltis will tell you how they learned it.

Here’s how Chatzichronoglou analyzes it, more or less:

kai edexw chatzichronoglou_0001

Which is closer to how it usually gets sung, particularly at “ὃν ἱκέτευε”. One can see that the second one is an ornamentation of the structure of the first; it just comes down to a question of how you write it down, and that comes down to questions of pedagogy and tradition. Classical scores (in Western music as well, as we saw) tend to rely on the performance tradition being passed on by a teacher, whereas some modern editors are including (some might argue imposing) a layer of performance tradition in their scores. Your mileage may vary, but it’s important to be aware of the difference, to know which approach a given score is taking and what’s informing it. I should note that Chatzichronoglou gives a list of sources, for example, at the top of which is the Irmologion of Petros Peloponnesios, not that of Ioannis Protopsaltis, which doesn’t in fact make the list (but other books of Ioannis’ do). Petros’ Irmologion contains a version of this melody which is very different from Ioannis’, and which is also very different from what’s in Chatzichronoglou, reflecting a fairly wide variety of performance traditions where prosomoia are concerned (not entirely surprising for a practice that is largely an oral phenomenon — you’re not usually going to be looking at a score when you sing these). As with Western music, a teacher will help you navigate what kinds of choices to make where this is concerned.

Chatzichronoglou includes an introduction outlining his objectives for the volume that I will also translate, but as I’m already verging on 1500 words for the review, I’ll put that in a separate post.

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.

CD review: GOA Archdiocesan Byzantine Choir, Μέγαν εὕρατο (Vespers for St. Demetrios)

Archdeacon Panteleimon Papadopoulos was kind enough to send me a review copy of Μέγαν εὕρατο, the new recording released by GOA’s Archdiocesan Byzantine Choir.

The disc is a collection of the festal hymnody sung at Great Vespers for St. Demetrios (chosen to honor Abp. Demetrios), including the Anoixantaria (for those unfamiliar with the practice, Psalm 103 from “Thou openest thine hand, they are filled with good…” to the end is theoretically sung rather than merely read for major feasts in present-day Byzantine practice, although in my experience this is one of those things that a lot of people don’t do with the excuse that “nobody does that”), “O Lord I have cried” with stichera, Doxastikon, and Theotokion, hymns for Litya and Artoklasia, aposticha, apolytikion, and “Many years” for Abp. Demetrios. The ensemble, if I understand correctly from the list of participants, is a group of psaltes largely from the Northeast, including Dr. Grammenos Karanos, the current professor of Byzantine music at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, and others from the New York area.

The first thing that must be said is that this is a wonderfully sung program; the wall of sound produced by these gentlemen is never less than first rate, and hymns with slower, more melismatic textures such as the Anoixantaria are particularly beautiful.

One of the things that I try very much to do is to view recordings like this, labors of love by people who are clearly far more knowledgeable and able than I am, as master classes, opportunities to learn finer points that I haven’t had the opportunity to learn otherwise. I have been informed by a particular point of view that makes certain assumptions, and not everybody is necessarily informed by the same perspective and assumptions. (For example, given a number of factors, I tend to assume that even for Byzantine chant, choirs are ideal, with solo cantors needing to be judiciously used. However, I am well aware that for many people, for this repertoire, the solo cantor tends to be the assumption in terms of performing forces, with choirs only happening for special occasions.) To that end, there are questions that I have about aspects of the recording. Some of these questions veer into critical territory from an entirely subjective musical standpoint, but may well be entirely answerable in terms of style.

First off, something that is immediately apparent has to do with repertoire choices. These are, with a couple of exceptions, not selections out of what have been represented to me as “the classical books”. The melody used for the prosomoia at “O Lord I have cried”, for example, “Ὢ τοῦ παραδόξου θαύματος”, is not the melody found in the Irmologion of Ioannis Protopsaltis, and the Kekragarion is not from the Anastasimatarion of Petros Peloponessos, either. They’re not bad, necessarily (although I have to say I definitely prefer Ioannis’ melody for the prosomoia), but I am  curious about what informed the selections.

Second, there’s a tendency throughout the disc to cut off of endings of phrases (including isokratema) quite sharply; this is something that makes sense to me to do as a solo cantor, so that the congregation knows that the places where you’re breathing are intentional, but it makes less sense in a choral setting unless there’s a specific stylistic reason to do so. It’s obviously a choice, and one that is executed distinctively, carefully, and consistently, but I’m left wondering if it’s necessary for it to be as prevalent as it is here.

Third, the apichimata are sung chorally, which makes me wonder if there’s a performance tradition for apichimata that divorces them from their function. Soloists sing the verses at the “O Lord I have cried” stichera, so it’s not simply a matter of everything being choral for purposes of this disc.

Fourth, as performed, the ison moves around a lot more than I’m used to. I’m aware that this is a point where it seems everybody and their dog will tell you “the real way” you’re supposed to realize the drone, so I assume this is a stylistic point as well.

Strictly in terms of the physical presentation of the disc, it would be nice to have had more of a booklet; the performance is entirely in Greek, and while many of the texts are reasonably familiar, for those not used to Greek an included translation would help make the product more accessible. Doubtless this is a function of production cost; perhaps an “online booklet” or some such would be a way of accomplishing this in a cost-effective manner next time.

To sum up: this is a gorgeous-sounding recording that is probably best described as a snapshot of the state of Byzantine chant in Greek in the Northeast, which seems to be healthy indeed. I’ll be very interested to hear what the Archdiocesan Choir does next — the Archdiocesan School seems to doing a lot to try to raise the profile of Byzantine chant, and I’m looking forward to future developments.

“Learning to chant” vs. “learning to sing” – or, do you learn to play Mendelssohn or do you learn to play the violin?

I’m working through the recently-released Byzantine Music Theory and Practice Guide with members of my choir. Part of the motivation is to try to make them a little less intimidated by “the squiggles”; I’m also curious to see just how well the book actually works as a textbook for people of a range of musical backgrounds, everything from basically zero up to a degree in music education. It’s an interesting exercise; we’ve only had two meetings thus far, but I’ve been surprised by the level of willingness to participate. We’ll see where it all goes.

Last month, I was fortunate enough to get to spend a few days at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Theological Seminary. I’ve got more to say about that trip, but among other things, I sat in on a couple of the chant classes taught by their new permanent Byzantine chant instructor, Dr. Grammenos Karanos (also credited as providing the “academic oversight” for the Byzantine Music Theory and Practice Guide), and I also got to sing in the left choir for a few services. Dr. Karanos is doing some nice work, and as somebody who for the time being attends an Antiochian parish, I’m really happy that there are twelve Antiochian seminarians there right now who are benefiting from his efforts.

Something that I’ve wondered about in recent months is the relationship between learning Byzantine chant and learning, more generally, how to sing. To put it another way — I’ve encountered people who can read the notation, understand the modal theory, can do this, can do that, but what they can’t actually do is sing terribly well. This is by no means the rule — I also know cantors who can pretty much sing whatever you put in front of them, whatever the repertoire, whatever the notation, whatever the style — but there does seem to be some kind of phenomenon of “learning to chant” without any additional context of “learning to sing”.

There are some, I expect, who might argue that that’s not only okay, that’s preferable. I’ve heard a counterargument that goes something like this: Byzantine chant isn’t only music; there’s an ethos and a spirituality that goes along with it, and you have to learn the technical end of it within the context of that ethos and spirituality. Otherwise, if you come in with a musical education that you’re figuring out how to “apply” to Byzantine chant, then you’re always going to be approximating what it’s supposed to be rather than actually chanting the repertoire the way you would have if you had just received the tradition from the ground up without preconceived notions or grafted onto an existing set of musical concepts. Notation, vocal technique, performance practice, modal theory — it’s a whole package that you have to receive as a whole package, preferably by imitating the psaltis at the parish you grew up at from young age rather than by doing things like going to classes or learning from books. Conservative imitation starting as child. Any other way is really departing from the tradition.

Now, there are parts of this that I can see. The more I force myself to sing off of scores written in neumatic notation, the more it is apparent to me why transcription into staff notation can only ever be a halfway measure at best. If you’re trying to write in every last bit of ornamentation that you want somebody to sing using staff notation, your score is going to get really busy really fast. Intervals become problematic. And, to be honest, at least speaking for myself, there’s a “look and feel” issue, where the psaltic notation is a good visual cue that you shouldn’t sing this the same why you might sing Mozart.

Vocal technique becomes a trickier matter, however. There are people who are 100% “natural voices”. They’ve never needed a voice teacher, they’ve always instinctively known how to use the instrument that they have to great effect, and they can use it to do whatever they want. I am not, emphatically not, one of those people. Singing has been a 100% learned skill for me. I have had to solve a lot of vocal problems, and often the worst trouble I’ve ever been in vocally has been when my teacher has said, “Sing it like this,” and has me imitate him/her. I’d say that as I have gradually learned some of the things to do and things not to do with the Byzantine repertoire, what has changed the least has been the fundamentals of how I sing; I breathe the same way, in general I produce my tone the same way. Musicality and phrasing are still important. Projection, placement, and resonance is still important. (Incidentally, here I might say that I question the characterization of the proper Byzantine vocal quality as “nasal”. I’ve sung next to people who insist that it’s “nasal”, but to my ear, they’re not singing nasally. They’re singing brightly, with a good deal of pharyngeal resonance, but that’s not the same thing as “nasal”. Nasality is often a poor shortcut in solving resonance problems, so it seems to me necessary to make this distinction.) What’s different is a matter of doing less rather than doing more. For example, vibrato becomes an ornament, a choice to be employed judiciously, rather than where you’re living all the time. Nonetheless, it’s still important to drop your jaw and raise your soft palate on higher notes, it’s still important to keep your tongue forward, it’s still important to keep your vowels in line, and you still have a passaggio that has to be negotiated properly. I don’t think those issues magically go away just because it’s Byzantine chant, and I don’t think, unless you’re one of those 100% “natural voices”, you’re going to figure those things out instinctively by standing next to your psaltis starting at age 5.

To put it another way, if you want to learn to play the Mendelssohn violin concerto, you first have to learn to play the violin. You don’t just say, as somebody who’s never picked up the instrument before, “I want to learn the Mendelssohn violin concerto.”

Anyway, the point I’m making is that I think it’s probably necessary to learn to sing as a component of “learning to chant”. That said, I grant that there aren’t a lot of voice teachers out there who are equipped to teach vocal technique in a way that’s obviously applicable to a chant context. Somebody who wants to learn to chant probably is going to feel like their time is wasted on the 24 Italian Songs and Arias book, and Joe NATS Voice Teacher isn’t likely to have the slightest idea what to do with an Anastasimatarion.

Incidentally — as somebody with a voice degree, I had to do a term apiece of Italian, German, and French diction with no actual language comprehension; in addition, I also had to do a year apiece of normal language study of those languages. For me, then, it’s simply intuitive that learning Byzantine chant would involve some Greek and Arabic. Language study — diction and comprehension — is just part of the deal, and it has the extra added bonus of improving your ear and makes you more aware of how your apparatus is actually working while you use it. Yes, fine, there are those of us at English-language parishes who don’t understand why we as Americans need to learn anything in a different language, but there’s almost no musical study of any kind that doesn’t involve having to learn some kind of specialized vocabulary that isn’t in English. Even if you’re a Western musician, you need to know what diminuendo and pianissimo mean. If you sing Byzantine chant, you need to know what a kentemata and a petaste are.

I will say I like the “starting as young as possible” part of the “conservative imitation starting as young as possible” pedagogical model. If only there were some kind of model of a school that existed where that kind of thing was done…

Update, 6:28pmSomething I forgot to mention — amplification. Proper church acoustics + knowing how to sing = no need for microphones. My first semi-scholarly publication had to do with the impact amplification has had on both singers and listeners, and while I’d probably write the piece differently now 8 years later, my rather strong opinions haven’t changed. “Strong opinions” — as in, it shouldn’t exist in certain settings. This is where I have a certain sympathy for the guys who want to call electric lights in church a heresy; the trouble with certain kinds of technology is that it makes it too easy for people to do a bad job and have nobody notice. Church is one of them as far as I’m concerned. If the architect does his/her job properly, and the singer/speaker does his/her job properly, and the teacher of singing/speaking does his/her job properly, then there should be absolutely no need for “acoustic enhancement”.

New release: Byzantine Music: Theory and Practice Guide, Archdiocesan School of Byzantine Music (GOA)

The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese has released for purchase by the general public the textbook used by the Archdiocesan School of Byzantine Music. My copy arrived in the mail today, and while I haven’t had a chance to sing through the whole thing or thoroughly read through its contents, at first glance it looks wonderful and quite handsomely put together. It’s very similar in a lot of respects to the Margaziotis exercise book that’s floating around out there, except that it’s written in English and includes both an overview of some of the theory and an essay outlining the history and key figures relevant to the Byzantine musical tradition. There’s also a CD, and while the Margaziotis pdf has musical examples embedded, the CD introduces all of the exercises in English as well.

Here is the table of contents:

  • Acknowledgments: Archdeacon Pantaleimon Papadopoulos, ASBM Director
  • Foreword: Dr. Demetrios Kehagis, ASBM Instructor
  • Introduction: A Brief Overview of the Psaltic Art, by Grammenos Karanos, Ph.D. in Byzantine Musicology, Assistant Professor of Byzantine Music, Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology
  • Byzantine music theory and practice
  • Chanting with melos
  • Definition of terms
  • A synoptic theory chart & reference
  • Index of Byzantine music characters

Here is the book opened and compared with the full-size photocopy of the Margaziotis book that I was given:

And, mostly for size purposes, here it is compared with a standard Anastasimatarion:

The CD of musical exercises is nicely and clearly sung, and among other things, I think it will be of help to people who are trying to figure out where the intervals are in their own throats.

Anyway, I’m really impressed with the care that’s gone into presenting this material to an English-speaking audience, and on the whole the exercises seem very consistent with the method used in the Margaziotis. If somebody has worked through Fr. David Barr’s materials and figured out how to understand the version of Byzantine chant that’s filtered through Western music theory well enough that they want a new challenge, this book seems like a worthy next step.

The one potential downside is that the musical examples from actual chants are all in Greek, so you need to either be able to read the Greek characters or have access to somebody who can teach the hymn texts to you phonetically. The next step after this book is going to be a Byzantine music theory and exercise book that’s not just written in English, but also uses English music examples. Factoring that out, this publication looks to be the state of the art in terms of educational materials that make learning Byzantine chant (including notation) accessible in English. I’m quite tempted to order five copies to have on hand for people in my choir.

I would very much like to think that the Antiochian Archdiocese, particularly given some things said recently by higher-ups about wanting a renewed emphasis on the Byzantine chant traditions of the Patriarchate of Antioch, would take some cues from what the Greeks are doing with the Archdiocesan School. Right now there are scattered efforts to do things, but nothing systematic so far as I can tell.

You can order Byzantine Music: Theory and Practice Guide from the link above.


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