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Posts Tagged 'byzantine chant in arabic'

Thoughts from an intensive Arabic classroom

I’ve logged a lot of hours in various language classrooms over the last twelve years. Since 2001, I’ve had classroom instruction in German, French, Italian, Ancient Greek, Latin, Syriac, and Modern Greek; this summer, from the end of May to the end of July, I was in an intensive Arabic program, covering all of the first year in nine weeks. It was an awful lot to manage; four hours of class a day, two hours of language table a week, and then a movie a week, with other things peppered in here and there — and, oh yeah, two tests per week plus 2-3 (if not 3-4) hours of homework per day. At the end of program, even as intense as it been, I was at once marveling at how far it felt like we’d come since “Hi guys, my name is Richard” (مرحبا يا شباب، إسمي رشيارد) on the first day and yet realizing really how little we’ve done in the grand scheme of things of language learning.

A summer intensive course, as I also found with the Modern Greek classes I did in Athens, is a very different beast than an academic year course. Since it’s the summer, people are there for disparate reasons that maybe have nothing to do with academia, or even necessarily with wanting the experience of having a concentrated exposure to the language so that they can be able to speak it and write it. That might be there; it might not. At the Athens Centre, there were Greek-American heritage learners who had time to kill, there were people with touristy motivations, there was a guy who had married a Greek woman and wanted to be better able to raise his kids speaking Greek, and then there was a diplomat who needed to speak Greek for his job. Tourism, love, and heritage seemed to be the basic reasons the people I was in class with had for doing an intensive Greek summer course.

For Arabic, people still seem to have a wide variety of reasons that aren’t necessarily scholarly or linguaphilic, but tourism, love, and heritage weren’t really represented in my class much. The “18 types of people in your Arabic class” list is pretty accurate (even if, as a friend of mine pointed out, “nerdy Orthodox convert” isn’t on there), although there are only 10 people in my class. We didn’t have any Muslim converts, but we certainly have several of the other types.

That in and of itself makes summer intensive Arabic a unique experience, but the whole setup of spending around 40 hours a week for over two months being introduced to a language outside of your own language family also makes it its own thing. Starting out with a new language is already kind of like going on a first date; it’s awkward, it’s uncomfortable, you don’t know exactly what to say, and you don’t know how to say everything you think you want or need to say, but if you keep doing it you’ll get to a point where you can communicate more comfortably and naturally within a few weeks. The trick, especially in a smallish intensive course, is that the students have to embrace the awkwardness as a group, dive in, trust that everything is going to be okay, and realize that everybody’s in the same boat, especially in an introductory course.

Sometimes a contrary phenomenon can happen, however, and instead the students let anxiety dominate them early on, which results in the class atomizing into smaller groups that don’t overlap much, and really the groups are there for the purpose of resisting, rather than facilitating, language learning. This can give way eventually to something that’s always bizarre to me when I see it, and that’s a student getting angry at a language for not following what they’ve decided is how it “should” function. “I’m confused, because I would have thought that the words for ‘smile’ and ‘laugh’ would be related, and I don’t understand why they aren’t,” is an example that I’ve actually heard of this. The students ultimately spend an amount of time trying to negotiate with and complain to the teacher about what’s going to be on the exam that would have been better used absorbing the language. The opposite problem can also occur, which is that the student confuses being passive with being open to the language, so that effectively they absorb next to nothing — what my wife, seasoned language teacher that she is, describes as “rocks in a stream”. On the one hand, this person isn’t freaking out about the ways the language is different from their native tongue; on the other hand, they think that the effort they’re not putting into it represents effective study habits.

All of that said, it takes a lot of guts to take an intensive language course for a language outside of one’s own language family (especially if one has never learned a foreign language before, as was the case for some in our class), and I’m really glad I had the chance to take the course with the cohort and the teacher I did. It was an interesting group, and our instructor, Basem, a native speaker from Jordan, was absolutely terrific. I did find that Syriac was helpful in terms of at least preparing me for some of the linguistic concepts (as well as not being intimidated by the script); it wasn’t quite like going from Ancient Greek to Modern Greek, but it was sort of along those lines. I don’t know that I’ll get to do any more formal classroom Arabic (I’ve got to spend this year making as much headway on the dissertation as I can), but I’m going to keep it up as much as possible (along with Greek, now that I actually have people willing to speak some Greek with me), and also take advantage of such opportunities as I can to chant in Arabic. I have a set of the chant books by Mitri El Murr, and I’m working through them, albeit a bit slowly, as I’m able.

Anyway — شكرا جدا to SWSEEL and Basem for the language instruction, as well as to the Center for the Study of the Middle East for the FLAS!

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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.

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.


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