Posts Tagged 'both kinds of music: byzantine and gregorian'

John Michael Boyer at All Saints Orthodox Church, 22-24 January 2010

This has been in the works for a little over a year, but the time approaches quickly and with the new semester upon us, I am kicking the publicity into high gear (at least as high as I can working on my own).

John Michael Boyer, protopsaltis of the Metropolis of San Francisco (GOArch), protopsaltis and Director of Liturgy at Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church in Sacramento, and one of the principal singers of Cappella Romana, will be coming to Bloomington to conduct a series of lectures and workshops at All Saints Orthodox Church from 22-24 January 2010.

The schedule is as follows:

Friday, 22 January 2010
6-9pm: Lecture, Practicum, and Q&A – A Historical and Theoretical Overview of Issues in Byzantine Chant

Saturday, 23 January 2010
9am-12:30pm: Byzantine Chant Practicum, Pt. I
12:30-1:30: Lunch (on-site)
1:30-5:30pm: Byzantine Chant Practicum, Pt. II
6pm: Great Vespers
7-9pm: Conclusion of Chant Practicum

Sunday, 24 January 2010
8:30am: Resurrectional Orthros (Matins)
10am: The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom

Lecture, practica and services are free and open to the public; donations will be accepted, but just to clarify what’s happening here — between a private donor and very generous support from Indiana University’s Center for West European Studies, this is pretty much covered, but there are always last-minute expenditures one wasn’t expecting, and it is one of my goals to establish some seed money to be able to do something like this again. It’s good for All Saints to be able to do things like this that can draw the interest of the local and university communities, and musical events have a unique ability to attract a lot of different kinds of people. So, anyway, the point is, we’re not taking donations because this isn’t paid for; we’re taking donations because the next one (whatever it may turn out to be) isn’t.

If you want to come, there are two ways to register: You can either e-mail me at rrbarret (AT) indiana.edu and let me know that you’re coming, or you can RSVP on the Facebook event I’ve created. Either way, please let me know if you plan on bringing somebody besides yourself; it’s totally fine if you are, but I just need to know how many sets of materials to prepare.

If you want a press kit for this event to help get the word out, you can download a headshot here, get a press release here, and find a color flyer here.

(Side story about the press kits: on Monday, as I was starting to assemble a mailing of press kits to several different department chairs, newspapers, and neighboring parishes, I realized in horror that all of the materials listed the dates as 22-24 January 2009. This was, of course, after I had already spent money on color prints of the flyers, and naturally five different proofreaders had failed to notice it entirely. Twenty-four hours later, I had corrected versions of everything ready to go, and it was one of those weird quirks of fate that in putting together the 2010 version, I came up with an idea that made everything look far better than would have otherwise been the case. Of course, when I arrived at the post office with 27 individual manila envelopes to be individually weighed and stamped, the line to the counter was out the door and the line for the automated kiosk was about seven people long. Two or three of the people in line for the kiosk took a good ten minutes apiece; I felt rather self-conscious and guilty with my stack of things that was going to take a long time, and let several people go ahead of me who only had one thing to send off or who only wanted to buy stamps. When it was finally my turn, however, within about three minutes I had people hovering over my shoulders, until I finally turned to them and said, “With all respect, I let about eight people go ahead of me before you showed up.” They backed off, but I still got to be “that guy” for about 20 minutes or so. I at least waited to actually put the postage on the envelopes until I was out of line, but nonetheless, as Larry Miller said, “I was makin’ friends all over the place.”)

Anyway — more to come.

Update, 11 January 2010: A bit ran in the Bloomington Herald-Times about this on Sunday (won’t bother linking to it since it won’t do non-subscribers any good) and gave the church’s website as the only source of follow-up information. Thus, I have posted everything here.

Review — Cappella Romana The Divine Liturgy by Peter Michaelides and Ensemble Organum: Chant de l’Eglise de Rome: VIe-XIIIe Siecles

My copies of The Divine Liturgy by Peter Michaelides and the latest installment of Ensemble Organum’s Chant de l’Eglise de Rome arrived while I was traveling for Thanksgiving, and upon my return I was neck deep in finishing things up for the semester. Now that fall term of 2009/2010 is in the books, time to give these recordings its due attention.

My experience with a lot of the four-part Orthodox liturgical music that’s out there is that, frankly, it’s either terrible or plain mediocre. I have sometimes heard it said that Western ears are too used to harmony to like unison singing, so we have to add parts to chant melodies, and this attitude seems to be borne out in much of what we sing in our churches today. A lot of what I’ve encountered consists of Byzantine melodies harmonized very badly, as though somebody said suddenly, “Oh! I need a four-part arrangement of this hymn for tomorrow!”, proceeded to bang the melody out on some keyboard instruments, and wrote down whatever progression underneath it that was simplest and most tonal (and which also typically produced part-writing errors). A related problem is an overabundance, at least in some scenarios, of simplistic utility music. At the other end of the spectrum is really overblown, self-consciously polyphonic music — I can think of one example (which I decline to name) that seems to essentially ask the question, “What if Palestrina wrote a Divine Liturgy?” There are, of course, exceptions; Fr. Sergei Glagolev’s music is very nice and singable, for example, and I’ve expressed my appreciation for Kurt Sander before.

I am very happy to add Peter Michaelides’ Divine Liturgy to the list of exceptions. Michaelides’ choral music is certainly prayerful, and while it is certainly not an exercise in compositional excess (like, say, Tchaikovsky’s Divine Liturgy), neither is it so restrained as to simply be an unnecessary sheen over the text. The character of the music is evocative enough of the Byzantine tradition that it is identifiably Orthodox music; some of the melodies of Sakellarides are used as a jumping-off point, but then the medium of the mixed choir is used to its advantage, always sounding like a completion of, rather than an addition to, the melody. That is to say, the music actually needs the harmonies — the vertical and horizontal dimensions of the music are complementary rather than one being tacked on. The Cherubic Hymn of the setting is perfect example of this balance; the different voices intertwine and interlock beautifully but never gratuitously.

The recording strikes a very nice aural balance of clarity of text and resonance of the room, and it is a credit to Cappella Romana that they have the flexibility to sing this kind of choral music and the Byzantine repertoire as beautifully as they consistently do. One thing I am very appreciative of is that the setting is presented practically, as a real Divine Liturgy, with the Very Rev. Archpriest George A. Gray III singing the priest’s parts (including the Gospel reading) and Alexander Lingas chanting the Epistle. This is music that should be presented in a liturgical, rather than a concert, setting. As an additional “realistic” detail, parts of the setting are alternated between Greek, English and Arabic — both a nice touch and a nod towards the pastoral reality in many parishes. It is exactly because of this attention to liturgical authenticity, however, that Lingas speaking the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer by himself, rather than these parts being said by the entire choir, comes off as a bit jarring.

It has been said that, in terms of how Orthodox liturgical music might develop in this country, what the Byzantine repertoire has to offer is a richness of melody, and what the Western idiom has to offer is a richness of harmony. Along these lines, while acknowledging that the Sakellarides material does not necessarily represent the best of what the Byzantine tradition has to offer, Michaelides’ music nonetheless suggests what could be a way forward. Rather than haphazardly forcing modal melodies into a tonal box with sloppy part writing that’s little more than a sop to “that guy” in the congregation who instinctively sings parallel thirds to everything, with the result sounding neither like good chant or good four part music, it is possible for these melodies to serve as a springboard into something more carefully crafted and more, dare I say it, iconographic in quality.

Now, what does any of this have to do with Ensemble Organum’s recording? Hang on for a second and I’ll explain.

Over the last twenty years, Ensemble Organum has put out a series of recordings of Western liturgical music off of manuscripts that represent the so-called “Old Roman” repertoire. I’m probably the wrong guy, at least at this stage of the game, to try to go into all the issues surrounding this music; suffice it to say that the liner notes of these recordings present this is as the older, pre-Gregorian chant repertoire of the Roman church.

Now, these recordings are, essentially, reconstructions of what they think the chants sounded like; knowing what notes the signs represent are only half the battle, of course, there are also the questions of rhythm, tuning, ornamentation, and overall vocal approach. Working with Lycourgos Angelopoulos, Ensemble Organum has taken the approach of interpreting these manuscripts more like Byzantine chant than Gregorian chant, complete with isokratema (drone) and very Greek ornamentation. Are they right? I don’t know — it sure sounds convincing enough. On the other hand, I can imagine that there is no shortage of counterarguments. Maybe something like this: how convenient for Byzantine psaltai that the Old Roman repertoire, which may or may not date from before the sixth century, sounds exactly the same as their music (which of course isn’t really Byzantine at all, but Ottoman, per the “narrative of decline” which I’ve discussed earlier). I’m not a musicologist, so I can’t really argue one way or the other for Ensemble Organum’s performance practice, but I do think that seeing the diversity of liturgical practice within the context of a unified Roman Christian identity is a fascinating idea.

What I can say is that these recordings sound really beautiful. For that reason alone, whatever their musicological merit might be, I find them quite compelling.

The latest in the series is hymnody from Christmas; the Vigil Mass, the Midnight Mass, the Mass at dawn, and the Mass of the day itself. If you’re used to the Gregorian repertoire, something like “Puer natus est nobis,” the introit for the Mass of Christmas day, is going to be quite foreign to you. It’s over twice as long as presented by EO (almost six minutes, as opposed to the two and a half minutes the Gregorian version typically takes), it’s a much more elaborate melody, it’s in a different mode, and the earthy, rich Byzantine approach is very different from the austerity employed by the typical Gregorian schola.

I suppose the value of a recording like this is that it gets people thinking differently about the context in which the Gregorian repertoire emerged and what that might imply for how it should be approached. It also suggests a way we might aurally frame the united Christendom of the Roman world, and how could have been both alike and different from the modern received chant traditions inherited from that world.

In the case of both of these recordings — told you I’d get to this eventually — you have a suggested musical ethos that draws from both the Christian East and West. Michaelides uses Western harmonic vocabulary to elaborate Eastern melodies and does so in a way that creates something new; Ensemble Organum uses Eastern stylistic practice to interpret Western melodies in order to suggest something very old.

These recordings share a common problem, too — essentially, what is the impact either of these recordings could potentially have on modern parish practice? Is there a Catholic church out there that is going to be rushing out to incorporate the Old Roman repertoire in their Christmas festivities? Despite Cappella Romana’s presentation of the Michaelides setting as music for practical use in worship rather than as a concert piece, is it likely to find a place in a church culture that sees the Liturgy as a sing-along and defines “participation” as “everybody sings everything”? Are people going to hear the recording and say, “Wow, our choir should sing this!” or are they going to say, “Boy, that sounds like it would be too hard for the congregation to be able to sing along with.” One thing about bad part-writing that caters to parts people are improvising anyway — it makes congregational singing very easy, if that’s the goal.

At any rate, I would love for the answer for both recordings to be “yes”. I would love to think that this kind of music could find a place in the venue for which it was written, the church, and not be treated as concert pieces best appreciated at arm’s length. I would love for Catholic and Orthodox churches to be striving for musical excellence, and to be incorporating music like this as a way to pursue that excellence. Time will tell.

In any case, both recordings would make excellent stocking stuffers, and consider them recommended.

This sounds familiar somehow…

Ensemble Organum, singing the Introit for the Midnight Mass of Christmas Day, “Dominus dixit ad me” (Ps. 2:7,1). From the recording Chant de l’Eglise de Rome (VIe – XIIIe Siècles). Old Roman Chant (perhaps c. 6th century) from an 11th century manuscript. (Consider my hat tipped to The New Liturgical Movement.)

Vodpod videos no longer available.

more about “This sounds familiar somehow…“, posted with vodpod

 

We now return you to your regularly scheduled reality…

December is here. This means any number of things. It means NaNoWriMo is over, it means the semester is almost over, it means West European Studies will hopefully get back to me soon one way or the other, it means we’re hip-deep in the Nativity Fast with the Christmas feast fast approaching, and it means we just got back from a much-needed, if shorter than ideal, vacation over the Thanksgiving break. It also means that a week from today, this blog will be a year old. Sheesh.

There were no natural disasters; I simply did not finish Pascha at the Singing School last week. Between preparing to go on the trip, going on the trip, and Megan getting sick the night before heading out for the trip, it just didn’t happen. I wrote most of Thanksgiving Day, got about 2,000 words into the ending, and I am within spitting distance, I just didn’t get there. My hope is that this weekend I’ll be able to make one last push to finish a first draft. I wrote approximately 11,442 words during November for an average of 381 words a day; not a stunning average by any means, but at least it’s an average, and the bottom line is that it was a busy month without NaNoWriMo. I am on the whole pleased that the event broke me out of the gridlock that had kept me stuck since probably April or May, now I just have to keep myself honest. Next year I might have another project for NaNoWriMo; we’ll see. There is something I’d very much like to write, but this would probably be much longer than 50,000 words, and it would require a lot of skill as a writer I’m not sure I have at this stage of the game. Maybe I’ll be brave enough to give it a shot, and maybe I won’t.

The Thanksgiving break spent in Nashville was fantastic, and a very welcome getaway for us Barrettses. Check out pictures here. As noted, the Daisy Hill Bed and Breakfast (pictured at right με γυναίκα μου) comes heartily recommended by us; do consider them if you’re looking for a place to stay in the area.

Friday we had lunch at The Pancake Pantry with our friend Chelsea; it’s an experience worth having and the food is good, but if you don’t like lines and prefer a quieter dining experience, it probably won’t be your thing. We also saw the replica of the Parthenon, which is impressive, but I gotta say, it loses something being made from poured concrete rather than marble.

Country music is decidedly not my thing, but I nonetheless have to admit that the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum is a fascinating place to visit. Short version is that it is organized chronologically; you start at the third floor with early folk and gospel and work your way down, and you’re at the present day by the end of the second floor. I find that I am able to relate to and enjoy the early stuff a lot more than the music of the last 30-40 years; it seems to me there came a point where the musicians became very self-conscious and their music subsequently sounds, at least to me, extraordinarily contrived and false. The closer the connection to an actual folk tradition, the more genuine it sounds to my ears — to put it another way, somewhere along the way the musicians decide, “We’re going to play it and sing it this way because that’s what country music sounds like,” whereas before the mindset was perhaps more akin to, “Country music sounds like this because that’s how we play it and sing it.” As a result, at least to me (let me re-emphasize that this is subjective opinion) performers like Garth Brooks sound 100% calculated and processed, with everything intended to support a synthetic sound and persona. None of this is to say that musical forms can’t be codified or that something is inherently lost once there’s a formal idiom or tradition to which one adheres; that’s certainly what most classical is, and it’s definitely what liturgical music generally is. On the other hand, for a genre which — rather arrogantly, I find — claims to be “three chords and the truth”, it seems disingenuous to me that this would become prescriptive rather than descriptive. To quote the much underappreciated movie Singles, “You have an act, and not having an act is your act.” Good music is good music regardless of genre, but poseurs also transcend genre.

Anyway, back to the museum. There were a number of clever uses of speakers and acoustic tiles to create very localized sound exhibits, which in and of itself was interesting to see and hear. One of the things to which I found myself drawn was the archive section being visible in the center of the gallery behind glass; you can see all of their compact shelving, their sound editing stations, everything. It’s actually a useful reminder that the museum isn’t just a tourist attraction; it’s also a professional and scholarly resource. The stuff we see as the general public is really the tip of the iceberg at best.

But then, Elvis’ gold piano is pretty cool, too.

It would have been foolish to visit Nashville without hearing any live music, and we decided to go to a club called The Station Inn to hear The Roland White Band. Roland White is a bluegrass mandolin player who has been there, played that. He’s got a lot of institutional memory, as it were; he knows every song, knows who wrote it and when, and has probably taught somebody how to play it. He also has surrounded himself with a lot of absolutely fantastic younger musicians, most notably David Crow on the fiddle and Richard Bailey on the banjo. His bass player was also really good; tall, skinny younger guy named Andy, but I didn’t catch the last name. If anybody knows his last name, I’d love to know and find out what else he does. It was a show that was a lot of fun to see, and I plan on seeking out one of David Crow’s solo recordings. The Station Inn is also a neat little venue; it’s a dive that has Bud and hot nacho cheese sauce on tap and not much else, but it’s a dive with a long history, and best of all, it’s smoke-free!

On Saturday, we went to Andante Day Spa for much-needed and long-awaited massages, as well as an aromatherapy sauna. If you’re looking for something nice to do with a spouse or even just by yourself, these guys are very classy and quite reasonable for the services. We left there probably more relaxed than we’ve been in a looooooooooong time. Ramona is who did my massage, and I’d go back in a heartbeat.

After massages, we tried to go to Alektor Cafe and Books, the Orthodox bookshop in Nashville, but alas, they were closed unannounced. Perhaps this is not surprising.

Next we spent a couple of hours at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts, seeing their Rodin exhibit as well as their photography and film exhibit. Both were interesting; I’d say I liked the latter more. I don’t really have the vocabulary to discuss sculpture (or much else, let’s be honest) intelligently; let’s just say that to my eyes, Rodin goes beyond glorification of the human body and into the realm of fetishization, and leave it at that for now. The photography exhibit included a section on Moroccan photographer Lalla Essaydi, and that was captivating. She does a lot with Arabic calligraphy on the body as well as on everything else; it was interesting to me for several reasons, and I may talk a bit more about it later.

Vespers, to say nothing of Matins and Divine Liturgy on Sunday, at Holy Trinity was something else; it’s a beautiful church, they’ve got a large number of psaltes who know what they’redoing (three of them evidently having studied wtih Lycourgos Angelopoulos) and as a result they’re able to utilize a traditional two-choir setup, they’ve got a very broad 

demographic and economic base while keeping their practice pretty unapologetically Byzantine, people were nice, and Fr. Gregory is a young convert priest who seems very enthusiastic. Every parish has its problems, to be sure, but these guys seem to have a lot of very good things going on.

After Vespers Saturday we had dinner at a delicatessen called, appropriately enough, Noshville; the food was plenty good, but it was also on the expensive side for what it was — my one complaint. To put it another way, it was authentic New York delicatessen in every way, including price.

Another bit of a walk through Lower Broadway followed, as did some rain. We saw Ryman Auditorium, and we also found something neat for which we weren’t looking was a life-sized statue of Chet Atkins; Megan decided to play air guitar next to him.

We relocated to Tāyst for drinks and dessert; Tāyst is a restaurant with similar goals to those of FARMBloomington, but I’d say with significantly less of a gimmick quotient and without the self-consciousness. They have a terrific bartender, and wonderful desserts — next time we’ll actually try a meal.

Sunday was something of a demonstration that there are no accidents; we had loaded up the car before going to Holy Trinity and intended to just hit the road after Liturgy. Halfway through Liturgy I realized we had forgotten our large bag of Maggiano’s leftovers at the bed and breakfast, which necessitated a return trip to get them. It being 1pm or 

so by this point, we needed to eat something as well; being right in the neighborhood, we decided to return to the Pancake Pantry. While in line, we were chatting about the morning at Holy Trinity, when the two gentlemen, clearly a father and son, turned around to us and said, “Orthodox Christians?” Turned out the son was also Orthodox. We ended up eating breakfast with them and having an awful lot to talk about; it doesn’t seem impossible that we could have met somehow one way or the other — it is a small world when one is Orthodox, after all — but given attendance at different parishes that morning, it was one of things where the odds of running into each other randomly were infinitesimal. Had we not forgotten the food at the bed and breakfast, we would have had no reason to return to that part of town, and it certainly wouldn’t have occurred to us to go the Pancake Pantry again. As I said, there are no accidents, we know some of the same people (although not the ones I would have expected) and hopefully we’ll keep in touch. He’s going to be attending Cambridge University (yes, that Cambridge) next fall for the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies, and I’ll be very interested to hear about his work.

And with that, we were back on I-65 heading northbound. We had a ball in Nashville, we hope to go back at some point, and we were really happy with where we stayed and what we did. It was a much-need and much-appreciated getaway for us, and hopefully it won’t be another five and a half years before we get to do something like that again. I will say that I wasn’t thrilled to go back to work yesterday, but I also wasn’t exhausted from the vacation as I have often been on little whirlwind trips, so maybe we did something right in that regard.


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