Posts Tagged 'ecclesiastical chant'



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.

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.

Byzantine chant in The Word

In the current issue of The Word one may find an article on Rassem El Massih, a Lebanese-born cantor in the Antiochian archdiocese and a current student at Holy Cross. I reviewed the CD the article mentions back when it first came out, and I also met Rassem on my trip out there back in February. While I didn’t get to chant with him, I found him to be a great person to talk to and I enjoyed getting to know him very much, however briefly. It’s great to see that his star might be on the rise. I should note, as per a discussion going on in the comments of a recent post, that Dr. Grammenos Karanos, a supposed exemplar of “Patriarchal style”, is quoted with very strongly positive words about Rassem, who is steeped in the “patriarchal style” of the Patriarchate of Antioch.

By the way: I’d link directly to the article instead of quoting it in full, but the online version of The Word is distributed only in pdf form. An article of mine that ran in The Word I’ve seen reproduced in full on church websites, so I assume I’m doing nothing untoward here, particularly since I’m not making any money off of it and the Archdiocese distributes The Word to its membership for free. In any event, copyright is acknowledged as belonging to the Archdiocese and authorship is acknowledged as being that of Linda M. Thomas.

Rassem El Massih: A Voice of the Faithful

by Linda M. Thomas

Thousands of miles from the tiny church where he first began to chant, the pure and powerful voice of Rassem El Massih rings out in prayer. The first cantor at St. George Orthodox Church in West Roxbury, Massachusetts, embraced Byzantine music from the time he was a small boy growing up in a town called Anfeh, on the coast of north Lebanon. Today his voice and spiritual presence are felt during Vespers service at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline, as well as Sunday mornings in nearby West Roxbury.

On October 26, 2009, El Massih led the choir at UN prayer services presided over by the Ecumenical Patriarch BARTHOLOMEW, Archbishop of Constantinople, at the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity of the Greek Archdiocese.

Last December, El Massih and four other seminarians from Holy Cross were invited to perform at Carnegie Hall with the Archdiocesan Byzantine Choir of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. The concert honored St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church at Ground Zero, the only house of worship destroyed on 9/11, and in thanksgiving for the announcement of its rebuilding.

“Rassem’s voice is beautiful,” said His Eminence the Most Reverend Metropolitan PHILIP, Primate of the Antiochian Archdiocese of North America, who said he was “edified” listening to the first-ever Byzantine music concert at Carnegie Hall.

“When he chants, it sounds like a nightingale. His voice is very soothing to the soul and to the heart. Sometimes he is as gentle and soft as an evening summer breeze,” the Metropolitan said of El Massih. “Sometimes he roars like a waterfall.”

Whether he’s chanting inside a celebrated arena like Carnegie Hall or a small, out-of-the-way monastery, however, the thirty-one-year-old divinity student says he feels the same: “My goal is to praise God regardless where I am.”

Drawn to Sacred Music

“I was a very shy and quiet boy who was drawn to church and, specifically, its sacred music,” El Massih said. “After school, I would eat, then try to finish my homework as fast as I could, so I could listen to Byzantine chant. I definitely also wanted to play with my friends, like any other boy my age, but church was as important to me as playing with my friends.”

He began chanting in churches and in school when he was nine. Seeking to perfect his voice, he enrolled at the School of Byzantine Music of the Archdiocese of Tripoli and El-Koura, while at the same time directing the choir of Our Lady of Al- Natour Monastery, a serene sanctuary on the shore of the Mediterranean Sea just outside Anfeh.

“Anything they taught me, I would say, ‘You  don’t have to repeat the melody for me twice.’ Boom. I got it,” he recalled. “Because I was so in love with it, I would do anything to memorize it. I spent hours and hours practicing.”

In 2002 El Massih came with his family to the United States and settled in Boston. At the time, his parents spoke no English, so El Massih got a job to help support them and his two younger sisters while still a full-time student. He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in religious studies and a minor in human development from Hellenic College in 2010. Currently he is a graduate student at Holy Cross Seminary, and hopes to receive a degree of Master of Divinity in May 2013.

In his 33 years as a priest, said Very Rev. Father Timothy Ferguson, pastor of the West Roxbury parish where El Massih and his family are parishioners, he has not heard Byzantine tonation (or music) of the quality he now hears on a regular basis. “Rassem’s voice is a natural gift of that music – a God-given talent,” he said. “He teaches others and he’s gracious about sharing his talent.”

“He is one of the best cantors in the country,” said El Massih’s teacher, Grammenos Karanos, Assistant Professor of Byzantine Liturgical Music at the Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology. “He is also one of few people who can perform chant in three languages [Greek, Arabic and English], and may very well be the best at this in the United States.”

In addition to school, work and teaching Byzantine chant, El Massih has produced CDs. He directed a choir of nine for “The Voice of the Lord,” a compilation of hymns from the Feast of Theophany chanted in English with traditional Byzantine melodies.

“When you love something; you want to give it all you can,” El Massih explained. “You have to practice so in the end you focus not on ‘How am I going to read this musical piece?’ but ‘How am I going to pray?’ How will this piece help me pray, understand the words, live the words – and feel the words?”

“Maybe I’ll end up giving a nice performance,” he reflected, “but when I chant on a piece, I am not focusing anymore on the music, I’m just singing from my heart – I’m contemplating the words … I’m living the words while I’m chanting.”

“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.

A curriculum proposal for Byzantine chant

So, a couple of months ago, I suggested that learning to sing needs to be part of learning to chant, and even suggested that language and diction in the appropriate languages should be an expected part of one’s training, just as it is for a classical singer.

I’ve continued to chew on some of the implications of that post, and one of the outcomes of that was to draft a proposed curriculum for what a Byzantine chant concentration could look like in the context of an undergraduate music program. Obviously, this is all entirely hypothetical; I don’t know of any music schools that are itching to add this as a concentration. St. Katherine’s College could, I suppose, eventually try to incorporate something like this into their curriculum, but who knows. Hellenic College would probably be reasonably well set-up to do something like this, but they don’t even presently offer a music major.

A few assumptions I’m making: first and foremost, that there is an on-campus chapel with regular services. Second, that chapel services would make a full-on recital unnecessary; rather, have the student do a junior and senior exam that basically are an extended jury — where they prepare a certain number of compositions ranging in difficulty and sing 2-3 of them at the request of a committee. Third, that building a good cantor who is also a good musician will require some knowledge of Western music theory and notation (I’m less sold on keyboard skills, but it still seems instinctive to me to include) in addition to Byzantine music theory and notation. Fourth, that voice lessons won’t concentrate on things like “Caro mio ben” or “Silent Noon”. They may well include that kind of repertoire if the student really wants it and the teacher is able to do it, but beyond the universals of healthy production, the specifics will by and large be those of psaltic technique. Fifth, that the academic environment would be such that it would allow for patristic and theological discussion to occur within the context of music history courses.

One observation I make immediately is that this is a very full undergraduate degree. I started off with IU’s B. Mus. in Vocal Performance as a basis, while also consulting their Early Music Vocal Performance B. Mus., and then worked from there to focus it specifically on the requirements of Byzantine chant. As with IU’s Vocal Performance B. Mus., the general education requirements are quite minimal, but it’s still jam-packed. I think the keyboard skills part could perhaps be taken out/made an elective, maybe a case is made for 2 languages rather than three, and maybe you either don’t do credits for Chapel Choir or tweak the number of credits for voice lessons. But, all that said, the B. Mus. at IU is a very full degree, and that’s just how it is.

It seems that a couple of other useful curricula to come up with would be a B. A. degree, and perhaps a more general “Orthodox Liturgical Music” degree. It’d be nice to also include a course or two on Mediterranean folk music to be able to show the relationship between liturgical and vernacular musics (hinted at in the bit about “Mediterranean instruments”, which also assumes that such instruction would be available), but maybe that would have to be kept for the Masters degree.

Anyway, here’s the draft. I’m curious to hear thoughts.

Bachelor of Music in Performance, Byzantine Chant

Major Ensemble

Chapel Choir (1 cr.) required every semester of enrollment.

Performance Study

Voice. 3 credit hours each semester until senior exam is passed, at which point they may be reduced to 2. Required: entrance audition, freshman jury, upper-division examination, junior exam, senior exam.

Secondary Piano and Keyboard Proficiency

All students must pass a keyboard proficiency examination. Voice majors must take an examination for placement in a 3-semester class piano sequence (2 credits per semester) or take elective individual lessons (1-2 credits per semester) and continue study each semester until the keyboard proficiency examination is passed.

Core Music Courses

26 credit hours

  • Placement examination or Introduction to Musical Concepts (1 cr.)
  • Core Musical Skills I (1 cr.), Western Music Theory and Literature I (3 cr.)
  • Western Music Theory and Literature II (3 cr.)
  • Western Musical Skills II (1 cr.)
  • Byzantine Musical Skills I (1 cr.)
  • Byzantine Musical Skills II (1 cr.)
  • Byzantine Music Theory and Literature I (3 cr.)
  • Byzantine Music Theory and Literature II (3 cr.)
  • Byzantine Music Theory and Literature III (3 cr.)
  • History and Literature of Western Music (3 cr.)
  • History and Literature of Byzantine Music I (2 cr.)
  • History and Literature of Byzantine Music II (2 cr.)

The above must be passed with a C or better.

Advanced Music Literature and Music Theory

3 credit hours selected from:

  • Composer or Genre (3 cr.)
  • Topics in Byzantine Music Theory (3 cr.)
  • Pre-Reform Notation (3 cr.)
  • Analysis of Modal Music (3 cr.)
Other Music Courses

25 credit hours

Required:

  • Liturgics & Chant Literature: Services and Service Structure I (3 cr.)
  • Liturgics & Chant Literature: Services and Service Structure II (3 cr.)
  • Liturgics & Chant Literature: Idiomela I (3 cr.)
  • Liturgics & Chant Literature: Idiomela II (3 cr.)
  • Liturgics & Chant Literature: Anastasimatarion and Irmologion (3 cr.)
  • Applied Greek Diction for Singers (1 cr.)
  • Applied Arabic Diction for Singers (1 cr.)
  • Applied Romanian Diction for Singers (1 cr.) OR Applied Slavonic Diction for Singers (1 cr.)
  • English Diction for Singers (1 cr.).
  • Electives: 6 credit hours, including a minimum of 2 credit hours in pedagogy courses such as Introduction to Music Learning (2 cr.) or Vocal Pedagogy (3 cr.).

Electives may also include courses for music majors in sacred music, music education, techniques, conducting, composition, music history, music theory, opera, and unclassified courses. A maximum of 4 credit hours in early or Mediterranean instruments may be counted in this area.

General Education

23-35 credit hours

  • Written and Oral Expression English composition, 2 credit hours or competency.
  • Foreign Language 12-24 credit hours or proficiency, equivalent to two semesters of first-year language study.
    • Greek: Elementary Ecclesiastical Greek I (4 cr.) and Elementary Ecclesiastical Greek II (4 cr.); or Accelerated Ecclesiastical Greek (4 cr.).
    • Arabic: Elementary Arabic I (4 cr.) and Elementary Arabic II; or Accelerated Elementary Arabic (4 cr.).
    • Choice of:
      • Romanian: Elementary Romanian I (4 cr.) and Elementary Romanian II (4 cr.); or Accelerated Elementary Romanian (4 cr.). OR
      • Slavonic: Elementary Church Slavonic I (4 cr.) and Elementary Church Slavonic II (4 cr.); or Accelerated Church Slavonic (4 cr.)
  • Humanities 3 credit hours.
  • Life and Physical Sciences and Mathematics 3 credit hours.
  • Social and Behavioral Sciences 3 credit hours.
To Complete Degree

Free music or non-music electives as needed to bring the total credit hours to 120, excluding Chapel Choir.

Call for papers — Paraklitiki: The Journal of the Saint John of Damascus Society

(Please note that the website link is not quite live, but the e-mail addresses are, and there should be something up at the website relatively shortly. Soon enough, at any rate. In the meantime, you can also go to our Facebook group.)

Bloomington, IndianaThe Saint John of Damascus Society, founded in 2011, is a new sacred arts organization that seeks to promote excellence in the liturgical music of the Orthodox Christian Church, regardless of ethnic/national heritage of style, as well as support related outreach, educational, and academic efforts. We are pleased to announce our new publication, Paraklitiki: The Journal of the Saint John of Damascus Society. Publication in both print and electronic form will be twice-yearly, and the first issue will appear in January 2013. The language of the journal will be English.

Paraklitiki welcomes quality essays and articles dealing with any aspect of Orthodox liturgical music, monophonic and polyphonic, including history, theory, pedagogical matters and performance practice, theological issues, language, music as outreach, source studies, cultural aspects, and interplay with vernacular music. New compositions are also welcome, regardless of style, heritage, or type of notation.

Submissions should adhere to the following guidelines:

  • Submissions are accepted on an ongoing basis.
  • Conformity to the Chicago Manual of Style, 16th Edition, as appropriate to the piece.
  • Length may vary depend on topic and treatment; in general, submissions longer than 5,000 words may either be edited or split across issues.
  • Previously published material will not be accepted. Pieces that have been previously disseminated electronically (e.g., as a blog post or in a message forum) will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Please inquire via e-mail in this case.
  • Applicant’s name and contact information should appear only on a cover page.
  • Articles, essays, and reviews should be submitted in MS Word format.
  • Scores should be digitally typeset and submitted in PDF format.

Books and recordings will also be reviewed; review copies should be sent to The Saint John of Damascus Society, 2609 Spicewood Lane, Bloomington, IN 47401 ATTN: Paraklitiki.

Please send all manuscripts, as well as any queries concerning possible submissions, to submissions@johnofdamascus.org, (alternate: st.johnofdamascussociety@gmail.com) and please ensure that the subject line of the e-mail begins with the word “SUBMISSION” in all-caps.

Home page: http://www.johnofdamascus.org

E-mail: info@johnofdamascus.org (alternate: st.johnofdamascussociety@gmail.com)

Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/TheSaintJohnOfDamascusSociety

Twitter: http://twitter.com/StJohnDamSoc

Notes from the psalterion

I have been the choir director and cantor at All Saints since the summer of 2005. I sang there for two years before that, and I had been a professional church singer in Anglican circles for several years before that (in fact, an Episcopal church was the very first place that ever paid me to sing). As an Orthodox church musician, I’ve tried on several fronts to contribute to the conversation about our liturgical music; if you’ve followed my blog for any amount of time, you’ll be familiar with some of the ways I’ve tried to contribute, so I won’t recap all of that here.
Lately, I’ve had a number of discussions with people about what the operating principles should be for music in our churches. What is the function of the cantor/choir director? How should they conceive of doing their jobs? How should the quality of their work be measured? In the spirit of my recent post about principles regarding church buildings, I wanted to try to list some of my conclusions. There will be some definite overlap with the principles about building; in a way, the person who sings in church interacts with the building in a manner that others do not, so perhaps this should not be surprising. Some of this I also talk about here,
  • Principle #0: The act that you are performing as a singer in church is the sung worship of God according to the practice and tradition of Orthodox Christianity. One may fairly insist that this is something different than a concert; one may also fairly insist that this is also something different than a campfire singalong, an exercise in nostalgia, the affirmation of somebody’s childhood, or the salving of one’s insecurities. At any rate, understood this way, singing in church is at once a privilege, a craft, and a discipline.
  • Principle #1: As the object of this sung worship is God, it is to be performed as prayerfully, skillfully, and within the parameters of the traditions governing the chosen style of music as the singer is capable of doing.
    • Principle #1a: This assumes that “performance” and “worship”, properly understood, do not constitute a dichotomy but parts of the same whole.
  • Principle #2: The easiest way to establish a tradition of good singing in a parish is to do it right from the start.
    • Principle #2a: At the very least, “doing it right from the start” means identifying and cultivating and talent (assuming you don’t have somebody from the get-go who knows what they’re doing), and providing the person who has that talent with the necessary resources to continue to improve.
    • Principle #2b: It will be far more practical in the long run to pick one musical idiom that you can do well than to try to do several and do them all at varying levels of mediocrity. 19th century Russian polyphony and Byzantine chant were never intended to coexist in the same service, and they require two entirely different musical skill sets.
      • Principle #2b.1: When picking this musical idiom, fight your weight. If you have a choir of five or six people and are meeting in borrowed office space, big Russian polyphony probably doesn’t make a lot of sense.
    • Principle #2c: “Doing it right from the start” requires the will to do so from more parties than just the cantor or choir director.
  • Principle #3: Musicians are your friends. They are the ones trained to think about how musical matters need to be addressed, much as how an iconographer is the one trained to know how something is supposed to work with an icon or  an architect is the one trained to know how to design a building. If they hear something you can’t, that’s a good thing; that means that they’re doing their job.
    • Principle #3a: The best musicians will also be able to teach the non-musician how to do it properly. Let them.
    • Principle #3b: In the same way that you would expect to pay an iconographer or an architect, expect to pay your cantor/choir director. The worker is worthy of his wages. If this is simply not an option, then there needs to be some way that the value of the cantor’s job is expressed.
  • Principle #4: The amount of singing in our services, to say nothing of the number of “moving parts”, as it were, in any given service, means that rehearsal should be considered a non-negotiable point. If you wish to be among those singing in the choir, it is your responsibility to come to rehearsal. This is the “discipline” part of the equation.
    • Principle #4a: Along these lines, always be mindful of improvement; don’t be satisfied with maintenance. If we truly have God as the object of our worship, then there is no “good enough” as such.
    • Principle #4b: If you are fortunate enough to have a choir of people that can read music in multiple notation systems and four different languages more or less perfectly the first time, then you might be able to reconsider the need for rehearsal.
  • Principle #5: Another non-negotiable point needs to be provision of physical resources for the singers. At bare minimum, these should include proper acoustics, an intentional space for the choir, necessary liturgical furniture, and necessary liturgical books. Acoustics and space cannot be afterthoughts; a cantor who has to make up for a dead room will not be able to do so indefinitely — it really constitutes a physical danger to the voice, and I cannot stress that enough. In terms of space, people (and music stands) still take up space no matter how small your building is, and you must plan properly for that. There are traditional places for singers to stand, and generally those places work very well if planned for.
  • Principle #6: The various systems of modes and special melodies (and yes, even notation), as impossibly complex as they may initially seem, are actually there to help organize and simplify the cantor’s job. The better you learn them, the less stressful of a time you will have in the long run.
  • Principle #7: Good liturgy and good music aid each other. Good settings will do a good job of cooperating with the liturgical action that they accompany; clergy that are celebrating properly will also help good settings fit in naturally with the liturgical action. In other words, a good Cherubic Hymn will be long enough to cover what’s happening at the altar while it’s being sung, and a priest will find that a properly-set Cherubic Hymn means that he doesn’t have to rush through everything in preparation for the Great Entrance.

As I said, this has all come out of my experience as a church musician. As with the building principles, it’s a set of “core ideals” rather than a step-by-step guide — this doesn’t tell you when to schedule rehearsals or how to run them or what repertoire to choose and so on. These are all very, very important things, to be sure. This is, put simply, what I suggest as what the base assumptions should be.

So — thoughts? What am I leaving out? What do I have wrong?

The St. John of Damascus Society

I have been making random references to something called “The St. John of Damascus Society” for a few months now, and I can finally say something a bit more concrete.

The really short version is that in the planning for the Orthodox Music Symposium at Indiana University, it became apparent that it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world for there to be a group that had administrative and financial independence from the church for purposes of putting together such things. We were piggybacking onto the parish for our tax-exempt status, and that nearly cost us a couple of our major supporters; plus, it would just be cleaner if we were able to have our own checkbook. The initial idea was something like a “Friends of Music at All Saints” or “All Saints Music Boosters”, and I went to Hal Sabbagh, a longtime chanter at and founding member of All Saints, to see what he thought. He was supportive of the idea, and was willing to help out however he could.

We incorporated as a non-profit in the state of Indiana last July; the next step was tax-exempt status, which meant assembling a board. Our Advisory Board consists of all of the presenters for the Symposium — John Michael Boyer, Alexander Khalil, Kurt Sander, Richard Toensing — as well as Matthew Arndt, an old friend of mine, one of the cantors at St. Raphael of Brooklyn Church in Iowa City and music theory professor at University of Iowa (as well as a former student of Richard Toensing’s). Our Executive Board consists of: Hal Sabbagh, president; Vicki Pappas, national chair of the National Forum of Greek Orthodox Church Musicians, vice-president; Laura Willms and Brian Rogers, two more very supportive cantors at All Saints, are secretary and treasurer, respectively; rounding out the Executive Board are Franklin Hess, coordinator of the Modern Greek program at Indiana University, and Patrick Michelson, the newly-hired (as of the 2011-12 academic year) Russian Orthodoxy specialist in IU’s Religious Studies department.

All of these people gave generously of their time, effort, and advice. By November we had everything we needed to assemble our application for federal tax-exempt status, and that went in the mail on 14 November.

As Hal found out over the phone with the IRS two days ago, our application for federal tax-exempt status was granted on Monday of this week, and we will be receiving a letter within the next couple of weeks with our number. So, time to get serious.

The St. John of Damascus Society, with everybody who is involved, has developed its scope significantly beyond being All Saints’ music boosters. The basic idea is to promote the idea of excellence in traditional forms of Orthodox music as good outreach — that singing well and singing prayerfully not only do not constitute a dichotomy, but it can serve as a powerful witness to those around us. We have a number of ideas about things we want to do locally, regionally, and nationally, and while we’ve waited for tax-exempt status to be sewn up before we went public with anything, I can tell you you’ll be hearing more very soon, including ways you can be involved.

We hope to have a website up shortly; in the meantime, if you’re interested in the St. John of Damascus Society based on this little teaser, would you mind filling out this form? That’ll make it really easy for us to get announcements to you as we make them. You can also follow us on Twitter.

Thanks very much, and I will have more to say very soon!

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.

Reminiscences from PSALM, Chicago, 2-5 August 2006

A comment prompted me to look up a series of e-mail I sent to the members of my choir from the thus far one-and-only PSALM national conference held back in August of 2006. This was back in the days before I had a blog. I sent these to my choir partially because I wanted them to engage some of the things I was hearing while I was there; truth be told, I’m not sure they all understood why they were getting long e-mails from me. Such is life.

Reading through them, it seemed perhaps worthwhile to share some of those notes here. My perception — and someone can correct me if I’m wrong — is that PSALM peaked with this event; I think there was talk back then about trying to set up regional PSALM identities and events and then do a regular national conference every other year, but none of that ever happened, for better or for worse. My experience with the PSALM Yahoo! group in its present form is that the ideals expressed five and a half years ago are by no means universally held these days, or even necessarily approved of. I can’t really say for sure I understand what’s going on there, but there we go.

Anyway, without further ado —

Day 1: Hello from Chicago! Day 1 has been packed with a lot of stuff that hopefully will be useful for all of us in the long run, and the days to come look similarly stuffed. The Indiana representation has been significant: the opening remarks were from Fr. Sergei Glagolev, an Indiana native; Vicki Pappas and Fr. Joseph Morris (from Ss. Constantine & Elena in Indy) were both part of a panel discussion; the Paraklesis service was sung by IU alum Jessica Suchy-Pilalis; and I finally had the occasion to meet Lori Branch, about whom I have heard so much over the years. She sends along her love and best wishes to all who might remember her.

We had a rehearsal for the Divine Liturgy Saturday morning, and about two-thirds of the conference participants are making up the choir–that is, probably somewhere around 100 people. It’s like the Sunday of Orthodoxy choir, only about four times the size. In the enormous nave that St. George in Cicero has, one is bathing in the sound when all of sing. It’s quite something. Mark Bailey, one of the instructors in liturgical music at St. Vladimir’s, is conducting the conference choir–and it might be worth mentioning that, when we looked at the “Lord, have mercy” sections, the first thing he did was tell us to drop the r in the word “Lord” so that it came out “Lohd”. Just so you know that it’s not that I’m crazy. (Well, not just that I’m crazy, anyway.)

The Paraklesis service was lovely–unison women’s chant from Dr. Suchy-Pilalis and one other. Really very beautiful.

I’ll have a full account of all the goings-on later, but there are a number of things panelists and clergy said which I’m chewing on already. Some of them are pretty challenging and clear-cut in terms of communicating a strong point of view and expectation:

“There is no such thing as a quick fix, only hard work… We have to have the ability to change, because when things don’t change, they’re dead.”–Fr. Sergei Glagolev. Fr. Sergei also challenged us to think about what we want to pass on to the next generation in terms of singing in church.

Fr. Joseph stressed the need for the choir to be dignified and sober, and to have a servant mentality–that we come on time, and we are prepared. “If you can’t make it on time, you can’t make it on time,” he said. “Better to sing with the faithful in that case. You’re not a bishop.” He also noted that, in his parish, there is the expectation that the singers treat Vespers, Matins, and Divine Liturgy as one piece–that is, if someone is singing in the choir for Divine Liturgy, he expects them to have been there for Vespers and Matins as well. “My expectation is that my singers are Orthodox in practice as well as name,” he said.

Valerie Yova, PSALM president, observed that, in general, there is a lack of effective musical leadership in the Church in this country, and noted the following symptoms/factors:

  • Choirs are shrinking and aging
  • People are living further and further away from where they go to church
  • School music programs are dying
  • Parishes are falling into financial trouble
  • There are an almost impossibly small number of places to be trained as an Orthodox church musician
  • The old chanting masters are dying and not being replaced
  • The musical element of worship is being devalued

The panel discussion (David Drillock, Fr. Joseph, Fr. John Rallis, Fr. Lawrence Margitich, Fr. John Finley, Alice Hughes, Carol Wetmore, Rachel Troy, and Vicki) observed that synergy between choir director, singers, and clergy requires time and regular effort, and e-mail cannot be all there is. To that end, not only are regular rehearsals vital, but clerical involvement in rehearsals on some regular basis is also important. Vicki Pappas made the point that volunteerism cannot be an obstacle to excellence, that church musicians have a sacred role, that of being responsible for leading the people’s worship, and that this should inspire us to better things. Fr. Joseph followed this up by saying, cf. St. John Climacus, “If it is possible for one, it is possible for all.” One priest (Fr. Lawrence Margitich, I think) put it this way: we shouldn’t confuse volunteerism with stewardship. As church singers, we are stewards of God’s talents, not mere volunteers, and we should act and think of ourselves accordingly. David Drillock, choirmaster emeritus at St. Vladimir’s expressed this by saying that being in the choir should be a “high calling”.

Other nuggets from the panel: if we as singers are truly connected to the text we’re singing, it will be communicated to the congregation naturally. Also that the church school should be excellent recruiting ground for the choir. Fr. Joseph also suggested that congregational singing should not drag the Liturgy down; it should appropriately done and led. Dovetailing onto that, Vicki suggested a clear intent with respect to which sections we should encourage the congregation to sing, and those which we intend the choir to sing. Having said that, the panel followed that up by saying that it is foolish to replace something people love unless one knows it’s being replaced with something they’ll love at least as much.

Fr. Thomas Hopko, Dean Emeritus of St. Vladimir’s, minced no words: “I disagree that dead things don’t change. Rather, dead things become more rotten, corrupted and stinky.” He also issued a rather direct challenge: “The Orthodox Church seems to be the only place on earth where you don’t have to be competent to be asked to do something. How does this come about? What happened? Why will people join a community choir, not miss a rehearsal, pay attention to the choir director, and then then not do the same in their parish choir? If we’re not taking church and everything we do in it seriously, then we’re just re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic. You can’t raise the bar when you still have to convince people that there’s a bar to be raised in the first place.”

In aid of this sentiment, he told the following story: a parish started talking about buying a new chandelier. It came to the parish council, and one person stood up and said, “I am absolutely against this. We don’t need a chandelier, we don’t want a chandelier, and we can’t pay for a chandelier.” The priest asked, well, what do you mean? “It’s too expensive,” the man said, “and we don’t even know where to buy one.” (Scattered laughter from the audience.) He went on: “Plus, there’s nobody in the parish who can play one, and it’s not even part of our tradition anyway.” (More laughter from the audience.) He finished by saying, “I just can’t understand why we’re talking about buying a chandelier when what we really need is more light!” (Peals of laughter from the audience.)

Like I said, all very challenging stuff, but there was a truly remarkable consistency to the message I heard today. It’s going to take me a while to process all of it, but there was one more thing that was stressed today, and I’ll close with that for now–

Fr. Thomas Hopko also said that, as church musicians, in terms of purpose and practice, we must start no other place than Christ crucified and glorified, that it is only by starting there we will end up in the right place. In the same vein, the panel also reminded us of Metropolitan +ANTHONY Bashir’s insistence that, once love is manifested, all things are possible.

All of these things are worth thinking about, and I encourage you all to do so as well.

More to come on Day 2.

Day 2: Again, too much to summarize in one e-mail, but a small handful of highlights:

First two presentations this morning were from Fr. Ephrem Lash, who looks and sounds like Gandalf as portrayed by Ian McKellen (and who has a wonderful website, http://www.anastasis.org.uk), who is also a scholar from England (I believe he is a colleague of Bp. KALLISTOS Ware, but I could be mistaken) who has quite a bit to say about translations of the Bible and liturgical texts into English, and Mark Bailey, instructor of liturgical music at St. Vladimir’s. The topic for both was the fittingness of English as a liturgical language, the necessary approach to translating texts, and then how best to set these texts to music so that a) the meaning is communicated and b) the musical tradition is carried on. Both had wonderful things to say about the necessary principles to make these things work. Before the first presentation, we sang “O Heavenly King”, and Fr. Ephrem noted that the setting took the word “impurity” and placed the stress on the last syllable, making it “impuriTEE”. “In the language I speak, English, it’s pronounced ‘imPURity’,” he observed. Mark Bailey had all kinds of fantastic practical examples of good text-setting and bad text-setting, and further suggested, “We’ve gotten our parishioners and singers too used to bad settings, and they’ve become attached to them as a result.” Fr. Thomas Hopko then commented, “Most of our churches are just copying what they’ve heard on recordings. Can we put out new recordings that do it the way you’re talking about?” Something to think about.

The second morning session consisted of presentations from the various heads of jurisdictional sacred music departments as to what they’re up to–Chris Holwey from the Antiochian Archdiocese, David Drillock from the OCA, and Vicki Pappas from the Greek Archdiocese. While interesting, I found it fascinatingly unnecessary to have such redundancy. All three of them are essentially doing the exact same job, providing the exact same resources in exactly the same manner. One fervently hopes that eventually there will be no need for multiple separate departments of sacred music.

The afternoon panel I attended was on the topic, “Educating Liturgical Musicians in the 21st Century.” Vladimir Morosan, a musicologist who specializes in the Russian repertoire, was the moderator. He framed the panel discussion by asking, “How do we explain that the oldest and richest singing tradition in Christendom does so little to formally prepare liturgical musicians? What do we do about it?”

Anne Schoepp, a choir director in the OCA in California, argued passionately that Orthodoxy is a singing culture, and we need to do everything we can at the parish level to start our kids singing and to get them used to singing and loving singing. Fr. John Finley of our own Archdiocese suggested that the model of the Classical School that is starting to pop up in Orthodox circles could be a way to disseminate this kind of curriculum; I suggested that there’s an even more obvious answer, the tradition of the choir school as it still survives in England and even some places here in the US like the St. Thomas Choir School in New York and the Cathedral Choir School at the Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City. “Let’s talk,” Fr. John said.

However we do it, the panel continued, people need to be immersed in good liturgy in order to be able to do good liturgy–it must be soaked in, the liturgical aesthetic must be ingrained in us. To this end, one panelist said, the power of the priest cannot be underestimated in terms of cultivating potential–kids as well as adults need to come to events like this, for example.

After the afternoon panel was choir rehearsal; Mark Bailey is very exact, and it’s a real learning experience to watch him conduct. It continues to be something else having a 100-voice choir singing in a church where the acoustics are as favorable as they are here. Then Vespers, where a small ensemble sang the stichera and whatnot, not dissimilar from what usually happens at All Saints.

After dinner was a concert performed by a group called the St. Romanos Cappella (as opposed to Cappella Romana, a completely different ensemble), singing a program entirely of music by modern Orthodox composers–all but one of whom were in the audience. Tikey Zes (who composed our All Saints troparion), Ivan Moody, Kurt Sander (formerly of Indiana University Southeast), James Green (the one not in attendance), Mark Bailey (man, the guy is everywhere), and Fr. Sergei Glagolev. Each one of them brings something different to the table, but it was all wonderful. It would be nice to learn several of these (particularly the Glagolev, Sander, and Bailey material), because it would be a shame to have all of this beautiful music out there representing a living continuation of the tradition and then have it never actually be sung in our churches. It would also be especially nice to finish learning Fr. Sergei’s setting of Psalm 103/104 for Vespers; now having heard what it actually sounds like in a church and not just on a recording, I’m more convinced of this. (And Bp. MARK already approved it back in December, which is handy.) Besides Psalm 103/104, they also sang one of his settings of the Cherubic Hymn, the Anaphora, the Megalynarion, and the Alleluia before the Gospel (including the refrains), and it was made very evident what a treasure trove his liturgical music actually is. He received a standing ovation at the end of it–surely every composer there deserved one, but he was quite appropriately the man of the hour. It was very moving.

After a looooooooooooooooooong, far-reaching conversation with Dn. Kevin Smith, choirmaster at St. Vlad’s, we managed to miss the shuttle back to the hotel and had to get a ride back from a Bulgarian woman named Danielle. And now it’s time for me to fall over and go to sleep. More to come tomorrow.

Day 3: There was a lot of theoretical stuff talked about today. I found it fascinating, but there’s little I can just summarize into an anecdote. Mark Bailey again had interesting things to say on a variety of topics; one issue he described was that of a common faith not necessarily uniting the Orthodox into a common sense of heritage. In terms of what that means musically–well, for many of us who are converts, “all Orthodox music is music for all Orthodox”, but that’s a very unique attitude to some (by no means all) American converts. He noted that in Russia right now there’s an argument over what kind of liturgical music from their various indigenous traditions (common chant, znamenny, etc.) will adequately represent the Russian culture. In this country, we have the opposite problem–we as yet have no indigenous Orthodox musical tradition, and so are trying to determine what bits and pieces from other national practices will best express Orthodoxy as it exists in America. Do we do a little bit of everything and make it a “checklist”-style approach? Do we pick one thing–Byzantine chant, Russian 4-part chant, whatever–and try to make it our own?

Mark Bailey is really big on liturgical singing doing no more and no less than supporting the liturgical action. That is, that liturgical singing either prepares for, accompanies, or is a liturgical action or rite. To do something other than one of these three things is, therefore, not liturgical and therefore spurious as far as this context is concerned. To that end, he says, musical form should elaborate on, and therefore draw the member of the congregation in to, a sacred action. At the same time, David Drillock two days ago reminded us that a large part of what we do is “proclamatory”–the exact opposite of drawing somebody in. I’m coming to the conclusion after hearing all of this discussed for two days that, as is so often the case in Orthodoxy, it cannot be “either/or”–it must be “both/and”. Part of its musical beauty come from the way in which the liturgical event is supported, and part of its ability to support the liturgical event must come from its beauty.

See what I mean about a lot of theoretical stuff?

One really practical thing he said with which I really agree is the idea that we need to not turn antiphons into anthemic pieces–they are a liturgical dialogue, not a big choral moment. What does that mean for us at All Saints? I don’t know yet; as it is we have a soloist sing the verse followed by the choir singing the refrain. What about this–rather than soloist plus choir, maybe it’s something like having the men intone one verse, the choir sings the refrain, the women intone the next verse, choir sings the refrain, etc.? We will play with possibilities at future rehearsals.

The afternoon panel, “Where do we go from here?” was interesting. People talked about a number of things, from PSALM formally getting behind issues like jurisdictional unity and a standardized English translation, to spearheading an English musical setting of the entire Octoechos (using, of course, this as-yet nonexistent “American chant” as the medium), to devising a music curriculum for use in parish schools. I think there are all kinds of things we can accomplish, we just need to think big. One of the issues, of course, is that in the past it has been possible for these issues to be solved in a “top-down” manner; the patriarchate or synod or whatever ruling body standardizes the practice/text/chant/whatever and promulgates it. The reality in this country, however, is that we’re having to solve many of these problems from the grassroots level on up. There’s a lot of “rolling our own” that takes place (as I found out earlier this week when I thought I needed a hierarchical “Before Thy Cross” and couldn’t find one to save my life), simply by necessity, because if we don’t do it, nobody else will.

Vespers was lovely. The large conference choir sang everything, and it was something. Being able to worship together (and commune together, tomorrow morning) is what makes this more than just a conference.

The evening panel, on composing liturgical settings for the English language, was made up of Ivan Moody, Fr. John Finley, Fr. Ephrem Lash, Mark Bailey, Fr. Sergei Glagolev, Vladimir Morosan, Tikey Zes, and Nicolas Resanovic. All I can say is–to have all of these people in one room was simply stunning. Not just their brilliance and talent, but their clear love for God and the Church as well. Ivan Moody provided a deft touch of dry, droll Englishness as the moderator. He provided a wonderful quote from St. John Chrysostom: “The tongue is made holy by the words when spoken by a ready and eager mind.”

There was a question where somebody described the situation of somebody coming up to the kliros or into the choir and being told, “Here’s the music for this service. We don’t actually do it that way, but here’s the music.” Big understanding laugh from the audience.

There was a fascinating moment where someone stood up and said, “You know, I’m from the Deep South. The South is a ripe field for Orthodox evangelism–the people there are crying out for the truth. Culturally, however, if we don’t bring it to them in English, their English, they are not going to care what we have to say.” This prompted Mark Bailey to remind us that, in this country, we are a missionary church with a missionary imperative, and that must inform what we do musically.

And then that, as they say, was that.

Day 4: Day 4 was short and sweet. With a 7:30am Matins service, I had to wake up at 6 to check out of the hotel. They did Matins and Liturgy as separate services, as opposed to Matins running right into Liturgy. There was a pause of a few minutes as Mark Bailey got set up to conduct the conference choir, and as the octet (into which I was roped) got into our places.

I may quibble with some (but by no means all) of the settings that were selected (I’ll be honest–the Russian chant in English is very jarring to my ear), but I have to say, having that 150 piece choir singing most of it and getting to sing in the octet that did the rest, in that church, with that conductor, was absolutely something else. I wish you all could have been there to take part, and my hope is that when this happens again, perhaps more of us can go. Fr. John Finley celebrated and homilized; it being the Pre-Feast of the Transfiguration, that was his topic. He started out with the quote from the Gospel reading, “It is good to be here.” It was quite apt. He exhorted us to “embrace the struggle” that we have adopted over the last few days, which was well-taken.

And that was that, more or less. There were some parting remarks at breakfast, and I think a lot of people are coming away from this event feeling like it was something seminal, that there has been good seed sown. Time will tell how God’s hand is in all of this, but one way or the other, it seems that the conference has exceeded everybody’s expectations.

A funny anecdote and a really cool thing: I went up to Fr. Ephrem Lash (the priest who looked and sounded like Ian McKellen’s Gandalf) and asked for a blessing. He sized me up and said (you’ll have to imagine the Ian McKellen-like voice), “Young man, did you receive Holy Communion this morning?”

“Yes, Father.”

“You never ask for the priest’s blessing after receiving Communion. You never ask for a blessing or kiss an icon. You have the Lord inside of you, so what can they possibly add? The Russians and the Arabs have gotten very bad about this.” I took it in stride, because I’m aware that it is an issue where there is not uniformity of practice or opinion. It was funny nonetheless. I then told him that I found his talk very edifying and he said, “Ah, ‘edifying.’ I never mean to edify, my boy; I only wish to make people laugh.”

So there we have it. Thanks for reading my ramblings; I just wanted to make sure that you all knew for sure I was where I said I was going to be, and hadn’t just taken off for Hawaii or something for a few days. If anybody wants to know more about anything I’ve talked about (or anything I haven’t, for that matter), let me know, I’d love to talk about it, particularly now while the memories are all still fresh.

In Christ,

Richard

 


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