Posts Tagged 'byzantine notation'

Hey! Kids! Byzantine music books!

There’s a story here to be told another time, but this is another venture I’m helping out with. Interested in buying Byzantine music books in North America without the retail import and shipping premiums? Talk to us. Visit, and e-mail me at richardbarrett AT johnofdamascus SPACE org.

byz chant books flyer


That’s my boy.

That's my boy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the Patriarchate, 28 May 2012

From the Chief Secretary of the Holy and Sacred Synod

Okay. Back up a couple centuries.

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

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

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

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

There’s no shortage of other examples.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Greek Orthodox Archdiocese releases standard version of Paschal apolytikion

About a year ago, Vicki Pappas, national chair of the National Forum of Greek Orthodox Church Musicians, circulated an e-mail asking for people to send her the English translations of the apolytikion for Pascha (Χριστὸς ἀνέστη/”Christ is risen”) that were used in their parishes. This would be in aid of a standard English text for the entire Greek Orthodox Archdiocese. Despite not being at a GOA parish, I sent her the translation we use at All Saints.

Somewhere around late fall or early winter, following a St. John of Damascus Society board meeting, she asked if I would be willing to round up a few of my choir members to record the version that they were trying to settle on as the final draft. The recording would serve as a model, principally for priests. After Christmas, I put together a quartet, we learned it and recorded it, Vicki liked it, and said that the Synod still had to decide if it was the final version or not.

Earlier this week, the standard English version of the hymn for GOA was released. You can find it here. Alas, that’s not us singing on the model recording — it would appear that it went through at least one more round of revision, because that’s a different text than what we had, but oh well.

I am appreciative that a Synod would take the time to try to get everybody on the same page with respect to a particular hymn text, and I suppose this is as good as any to start with. I am also appreciative that GOA would go to the trouble of making sure that it is available in both staff notation as well as neumatic notation. There has been some discussion in some circles about how closely it follows proper compositional conventions; I would never dare to argue proper application of formulae with some of the people talking about this, but my guess is that the main point raised was probably known, and that preference was given to where people would be likely to breathe. It’s an issue that I suggest stems from the translation more than anything, and from what Vicki has told me, every nuance of the translation was discussed thoroughly, so what I think I know at least is that it’s a version of the text that says exactly what the Synod wants it to say. I’ll acknowledge that I don’t find this text to be note-perfect compared to how I might translate the Greek; to begin with, in modern English, “is risen”, while it used to be how you do a perfect tense in English, doesn’t really convey the same sense of the action as preterite ἀνέστη or even qam for the Arabic speakers — “Christ rose” would be the literal sense, but that doesn’t really “sing” the same way. “Christ has/hath risen” is an acceptable compromise, since the distinction between simple past and perfect is muddier in English than it is in Greek. And “trampled down upon” seems to me to be a little bit overthought as a way of rendering πατήσας. Still, I’d much rather sing this version than the one that’s normative for my parish, where the Greek melody is left as is, requiring “Christ is risen from the dead” to be repeated, usually with a rhetorical, campfire-style “Oh!” thrown in beforehand — “Christ is risen from the dead, oh! Christ is risen from the dead!” etc. Ack.

In any event, between being willing to argue about a standard text and acknowledging the neumatic notational tradition, there is much I wish the Antiochian Archdiocese would emulate here, and I congratulate GOA on taking the time and energy to at least make the effort, even if there wind up being tweaks down the road. I’m a little disheartened by the response I’ve observed in certain fora that basically criticizes GOA for making their standard version a brand new variant that nobody outside of GOA will ever use, that that’s hardly a unifying move across jurisdictions, not when there are translations that are common to both the OCA and AOANA. Well, maybe, but kudos for GOA for at least trying to get their own house in order first, even if maybe it winds up being a beta test.

The ison cannot be the “dummy note”: in which the author gets to be a Cappella Romana groupie and gets to know the Oakland Police Department better than ever anticipated

I’ve forgotten some things about what it’s like to be a “professional musician” in the intervening years since I went into remission for it.

First of all, I’ve forgotten that there really are things about it I enjoy. I’ve had a ball the eleven days or so that I’ve been here, getting to make music with people who know what they’re doing, in a setting where getting notes and rhythms right is assumed to be the basic starting point, not something unrealistically hoped for as the entirety of the final product, and in an environment, physically, acoustically, and otherwise, that is conducive to such an effort. The rehearsals we’ve had for the Josquin Singers have all gone by really quickly; the three hours are up before I know it.

It’s also a mode of existence that tends to be nomadic, and that brings together very interesting groups of people for short periods of time.

While we were planning my trip, John mentioned that he was taking a group of Cappella Romana singers to Pepperdine University for the Ascending Voice II conference while I’d be here, and that I’d be welcome to tag along if I wanted.

We’ll just say it didn’t take me long to think about it.

So, last Thursday, after singing Matins and Divine Liturgy for the Ascension at John’s parish, John, his student Dusan, and I took the short flight to Los Angeles, and there we met up with CR singers Andrew Gorny, David Krueger, and John’s dad, John S. Boyer (whom I had met once before in 1997 for a joint concert between Cappella and the Tudor Choir in which I sang). The six of us hopped in a rental minivan and drove to the Pepperdine campus in Malibu, met up with the other member of the crew Alex Khalil, and we were able to catch about three quarters of the evening’s Chanticleer concert (the showstopping highlight of which was countertenor Cortez Mitchell’s solo in “Summertime”).

The purpose of Cappella Romana’s presence at Ascending Voice was to give a Byzantine chant demonstration lecture and a workshop on Friday, and to sing a full Matins Saturday morning. John asked if, since I was there, I wouldn’t mind holding isokratima with David Krueger; sure, no problem, I said. So, following the concert, we rehearsed the demo repertoire.

Theoretically, really strong, solid musicians would be placed on the ison. It’s there so that the singers on the melody can hear the home note of the mode, and so it needs to be steady and unwavering. It can be really difficult even for singers who know what they’re doing. My experience with the drone note in parish practice, as a practical matter, is that it tends to be the “dummy note” — that is, it tends to be where people who can’t read music or who are otherwise not the most capable musicians in the choir get stuck. The intent is usually that even if singing the melody isn’t a realistic way for these people to participate, they should at least be able to hold a single note. Unfortunately, the result is often that non-singers wind up not being able to sustain the pitch; it goes flat and they can’t hear it, they can’t hear how the moves work, and so on and so forth. The deadly case is when such a singer decides that, because it’s the ison, it needs to be woofed up as much as possible, which usually means it goes way flat instantly, losing maybe a major third in pitch within seconds. In other words, the function of the drone — to be a tonal support and foundation for those on the melody — winds up being completely defeated, and those singing the melody have to work twice as hard in order to ignore what they’re hearing from those singing the ison and still stay in tune. There tends to be not much that can be done about this; yes, as stated, you actually do need strong musicians on the drone every bit as much as you do on the melody, but there usually aren’t enough people who are sufficiently confident with both reading and singing as it is to be able to spare them to support the isokratima. So you make do.

David Krueger, let it be said, does not have this problem. The guy is a freakin’ rock, and he’s got low notes that shake the floorboards. The rehearsal was a tremendously educational experience, and was great until the Southern Appalachian Chamber Singers came down around midnight and told us we were keeping them up. (“That probably wasn’t exactly successful evangelism,” John Boyer père quipped later.)

By the way, the very first thing I discovered Friday morning was that somebody was asleep at the switch in terms of finding a location for Pepperdine University. I mean, come on. What were they thinking? Terrible. Just terrible.

Both the demo and the workshop were fun; the lecture was largely the same as what John said at All Saints, but with live musical examples instead of recordings. Among other things, the examples included Ps. 102 and the Beatitudes (as heard on the Lycourgos Angelopoulos Divine Liturgy recording), the Polyeleos, and a setting of the Cherubic hymn, all off of Byzantine notation. The workshop involved teaching the participants music from the Divine Liturgy in English off of Western notation scores.

Matins on Saturday was quite an experience; we set it up with antiphonal choirs, we were all in cassocks, and we did the canons for the day in their entirety. I mostly held isokratima for the left choir, but lampadarios Alex Khalil was nice enough to let me sing a handful of troparia in the canons.

The priest who served was Fr. George Taweel of St. Nicholas, the Antiochian Cathedral in Los Angeles. Finding a priest was a bit of a challenge; John had called virtually every Greek priest in the area with no luck, but Alex knew Fr. Michael Najim, the Cathedral’s dean, and he was able to send Fr. George. Fr. George’s daughter Diana actually went to IU, and I knew her a bit from her time there. It was nice to meet him; we had lunch with him afterward, and he was a terrifically knowledgeable man and very interesting person with whom to have a conversation.

After lunch, it was back to the airport, back to Sacramento, just making it back to Annunciation for Vespers. It was a trip, short and guerilla-style as it was, that was great for which to be a fly on the wall; Alex Khalil in particular was a great person to meet. He’s an ethnomusicologist who just completed his PhD, and his dissertation is something that I think will have applicability for what I’m doing. Short version is that in his research, he applied a historical context to an ethnographic study of Byzantine chant; what I’m thinking about is sort of the reverse, where I’m interested in seeing if I can give an ethnomusicological context to a historical study of liturgy. I hope I get more of a chance to talk to him down the road.

I had hoped that friend-of-this-blog and Pepperdine employee David Dickens and I would have a chance to meet; we set up a lunch on Friday, but we managed to miss each other and he wound up being caught up by work anyway. Alas. Better luck next time.

After church on Sunday it was back on the road, heading first to Ascension Cathedral in Oakland for another Byzantine chant demonstration at their Greek festival. It was largely the same repertoire as what we did at Pepperdine, again off of Byzantine notation; I had assumed that I was holding ison again, but John pulled me over and had me follow along with the melody as best as I could. (This was, in general, a more successful effort on the slower pieces.) In the audience was my friend Ian Jones, a cellist who was the very first person I ever met as a student at IU, and for whom Oakland is home. He will hopefully be able to make the Friday concert at the Cathedral; in any event, it was great to see him on his own turf.

After that it was time to head to rehearsal, and as we had rehearsal again in the Bay area Monday night, John and I stayed overnight in Oakland at his friend and fellow Josquin Singer Andrew Chung‘s condo overlooking Lake Merritt rather than drive back to Sacramento.

In theory this was a smart move; we hopefully were going to have much of Monday to hang out in the San Francisco area, with seeing St. John Maximovitch’s cathedral being on the agenda. Unfortunately, John’s car got broken into during the night, leaving him minus a driver’s side window (although nothing got stolen, thank God), and we ended up  having to spend the day dealing with that. It took close to two hours just to file a police report; the form took all of two minutes to fill out, but then waiting in line to actually turn the piece of paper in to get a case number took upwards of an hour and a half. It then took another couple of hours to actually get the window replaced, and then — hey, look at that! It’s time to go to rehearsal.

Oh well. It happens.

Anyway, today has been the “day off,” which has consisted of pretty much just enjoying being in one place for the day on my part, and John furiously putting together the program for this weekend’s concerts. I don’t know how the guy does it; he’s got these concerts, his normal church duties, students, the Pepperdine thing last week, and then next week he has Cappella commitments in Oregon. He runs around a heck of a lot more than I ever did as a singer, vocally he’s always giving everything he’s got, and I know that if I were trying to do all of that, I wouldn’t last a week. He’s got to have vocal folds made of steel, that’s all I can say.

Tomorrow is the dress rehearsal, then the concerts are Thursday, Friday, and Saturday; after Liturgy on Sunday it will be off to the airport and I’ll be on my way home. It seems odd that I’m almost to the last stage of the trip, but there we are. More a bit later.

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