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Posts Tagged 'ensemble organum'

Some last-minute gift ideas…

Obviously it’s Thursday, and Christmas is Sunday, so this isn’t even last-minute but last-second. Last-millisecond, even. Nonetheless, here are some suggestions for those of you foolish enough to think that my taste might be the slightest bit relevant:

Consider giving a gift to International Orthodox Christian Charities. Their mission: “IOCC, in the spirit of Christ’s love, offers emergency relief and development programs to those in need worldwide, without discrimination, and strengthens the capacity of the Orthodox Church to so respond.” They do a lot of wonderful work throughout the world like Palestine, Syria, Romania, Ethiopia, and more — including the United States.
A Tom Bihn Checkpoint Flyer. My Samsonite leather satchel fell apart on me over the summer, and I contemplated whether or not I could swing a Saddleback classic briefcase (my godson Lucas has one and it is a thing of beauty), but then Larry Anderson suggested I check out the options from Tom Bihn. I got a great traveling laptop briefcase for about a third of what the Saddleback bag I was considering would have cost, it’s got a lifetime guarantee, and it’s been perfect for when I’ve needed to travel with my 15″ MacBook Pro. Of course, the day after the bag arrived I bought an iPad 2 (yeah, yeah, earlier than I said I would, but no regrets, let me tell you), so I have tended to need to transport the laptop less (short version: to the extent that laptops have become desktop replacements, iPads are laptop replacements), but it’s stil been exactly right for what I need. It’s very elegantly designed, and it’s very good at making sure there is a place for everything. The one caveat I might add is that while the bag is plenty sturdy, the stretchy shoulder strap may feel like it’s more stressed than it actually is if you overload it. Not an issue if you don’t, well, overload it, and the bounce the shoulder stap provides makes the bag a lot easier to carry once you get used to it (it basically seems to function as a shock absorber).

Cappella Romana’s new disc Mt. Sinai: Frontier of Byzantium. A full review of this is forthcoming, but for right now suffice it to say that it’s a beautifully-sung account of medieval Byzantine chant manuscripts from St. Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai. Repertoire includes material for Vespers of the Feast of St. Catherine, as well as from the Service of the Three Youths in the Fiery Furnace, which used to be served on the Sunday before Nativity. Some of this has been recorded before by Lycourgos Angelopoulos and the Greek Byzantine Choir for a disc called “Byzantine Hymns” (and one can find the audio on YouTube but I can’t find out anything about the disc, so if anybody knows anything about it, please let me know), but Cappella Romana is a very different ensemble from GBC in a number of ways, and their rendering of the material is very much worth hearing. Like I said, full review coming, but this is a great stocking stuffer. For that matter, so is the reissue of the Epiphany disc under their own label. And, of course, their recording of Richard Toensing’s Kontakion on the Nativity of Christ is a must-have. One can also make a gift to Cappella Romana, either to their general operating fund or to support one of their several in-the-works recordings.

If you’re an iPad user who thinks that the soft-tipped styli that you’re likely to find at Best Buy don’t really do what you need them to do, I highly recommend the Jot-Pro. It makes handwriting and drawing much easier.

For another music suggestion, Marcel Peres/Ensemble Organum’s recording of Christmas music from the Old Roman Chant repertory, Chant de l’Eglise de Rome: VIe-XIIIe Siècles, is a fascinating and beautiful reconstruction of a time when East and West had a lot more in common, culturally and spiritually, than we’re used to now. “Reconstruction” is often a euphemism in early music circles for “making nonsense up”, but as I’ve noted before, I think Peres (collaborating with Lycourgos Angelopoulos) makes a pretty compelling case.

If you’re a Mac user and a writer who needs to manage a decent amount of research, notes, ideas, dates, etc., Scrivener and Tinderbox are a pretty powerful one-two punch. If you’re already a Scrivener user, there’s also deal on Tinderbox. I’m new to Tinderbox myself, but I’ve been using Scrivener for several years now, and I find it to be fantastically helpful in terms of its set of writing tools. I’ve written (and am still revising) a children’s book and several academic papers with it. The only thing I wish it had was cleaner EndNote integration, and I also have to make sure I remember to not send compiled *.rtf documents as finished drafts (must save as a Word doc or a *.pdf), lest the person on the other end simply open it in a text editor by default and think I’ve made the rookie mistake of not including any footnotes. (Yes, this has happened. Recently.)

Horrified as I am by the K-Cup craze, I’m going to suggest the paleocafephile route (I think I just invented a word) — the briki/ibrik, with which one makes Greek/Turkish/Arabic coffee. You don’t have little plastic containers that keep you from ever handling grounds; nonononono. Heh. No. Instead, you grind the beans to powder, boil the grounds directly (no filter), pour it into a cup, add sugar (and maybe cardamom if you’re Cypriot), and then you deal with the sludge at the bottom of the cup. It’s the only way to fly in a word that wants to make your coffee experience as safe and plastic and single-serving-sized as possible.

Michael Uslan is, without doubt, the comic book geek made good to end all comic book geeks made good. His memoir, The Boy Who Loved Batman, is tremendously inspiring, and is a must-read for anybody, whether they’ve read a comic book or not, who has ever been told, “Kid, you can’t get there from here.”

All right — may the last few days of the fast treat everybody well!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(hack) Thanksgiving leftovers (koff)

It’s the first day of December. How the heck did that happen?

On the way out to New Mexico last week, I sat between a married couple who were both sick and kept coughing across me. It was Southwest Airlines, so seating was first come first serve, and they made it clear they would rather have me in the crossfire than give up either an aisle or a window seat. It must have been clear how this came across, because as we were getting off the plane, the wife said to me, “Don’t worry, you won’t catch anything from us — we’ve had this for the last four weeks.”

My stepfather was sick when I got to New Mexico. Flesh of My Flesh was sick on Thanksgiving day. My mom was getting sick over the weekend as we were preparing to leave.

So, perhaps it was inevitable, but Sunday evening I started developing a sore throat on the flight home, yesterday it was getting worse, and today I’m staying home trying to keep from getting worse or giving it to lots of people. I hate to be “that guy” who suspiciously gets sick immediately following a break, but here we are.

As I drink my gallon of Throat Coat tea, there are a few things upon which to muse:

  • My review copy of Cappella Romana’s recording of the Michaelides Divine Liturgy arrived in my absence, as did the Ensemble Organum disc I mentioned earlier. A full review will come shortly; for the moment, I will say only that both are worth your time and represent, in an odd way, flip sides of the same coin.
  • If you do iTunes, Lycourgos Angelopoulos’ 1993 album of Byzantine hymnody for Christmas has been rereleased in that format. It has been out of print for years as an actual disc, although there seem to be some used copies on Amazon. (Note that the iTunes release has a slightly different title: The Glory of Byzantium: Christmas Hymns.)
  • Rod Dreher is leaving the Dallas Morning News to become director of publications for the John Templeton Foundation. Close to four years ago, I started hearing various grumpy old men murmuring about “crunchy cons”. My godson Lucas at some point started reading the book and recommended I read it. It resonated quite a bit with me as somebody who looks more to Russell Kirk than Glenn Beck or Sarah Palin as a model of what conservatism should look like, and the point of the book seemed to me to be to ask how conservatives might, y’know, actually conserve something other than money or power or status. I gave copies of it to a lot of people, and I’m reasonably sure I know everybody in Bloomington who has read it (I’ll let you decide if I’m joking). I’ll fess up that, while a lot of Dreher’s critics had no patience for how he discussed food, I really appreciated what he had to say about a sacramental approach to it, and even if Michael Pollan isn’t using the word “sacramental”, his work and Dreher’s demonstrate that it can be a topic where liberals and conservatives can make common cause (and of course, Dreher interviewed Pollan for The American Conservative last year). Since the book came out, it has seemed as though he was searching unsuccessfully for a way to follow up what should have served as a strong statement of purpose; what he touted as a “sensibility” never quite materialized as a movement, exactly, eventually Crunchy Cons went out of print, and the hinted-at sequel about “the Benedict Option” never materialized, presumably because (as he kept saying in his blog) his newspaper job had become an exercise in self-preservation. A lot of water has flowed under the bridge in the last four years; Dreher converted to Orthodox Christianity, and right now conservatism seems to be floundering on the very cultural essentials the importance of which he was trying to stress, consequently lurching even more towards negativity and hostility. My hope is that a break from political commentary will allow Dreher to follow up on the issues discussed in Crunchy Cons from a more purely cultural perspective, because I think that’s where his heart has wanted to go with it anyway.
  • There was an interesting article in the New York Times this last Sunday about the traditional Latin Mass. Even more interesting has been the discussion of it in places like The New Liturgical Movement and Commonweal. I’m really not sure what a “liturgist” is — a liturgical scholar? a liturgical composer? a person who interprets rubrics? — but what I find striking is how for many modern Catholics, it seems like the rupture from tradition is in fact a selling point. I was in a large, old stone Catholic church once where they were doing a lot of work to restore the interior. The high altar was still in place, and I asked somebody if it ever got used; the person I asked looked highly offended that I would even dare to mention the high altar’s existence, and said, “No, Vatican II turned the altars around and returned the focus of the Mass to the people,” and made it clear that was the end of the conversation. Sometimes it seems like the majority of Westerners truly and actively yearn for their worship to be sentimental, banal, and tacky. At any rate, I don’t have a dog in this fight (except insofar as I strongly disagree with certain parties who think Orthodoxy needs its own Vatican II), but it seems to me that the traditionalist and modernist narratives are irreconcilable, as the comments on Wolfe’s article indicate. What I will say is that the invocation by a commenter at Commonweal of C. S. Lewis (“The modern habit of doing ceremonial things unceremoniously is no proof of humility; rather it proves the offender’s inability to forget himself in the rite, and his readiness to spoil for every one else the proper pleasure of ritual”) seems quite apt, and the apparent need, not just for the 1970 Missal to be embraced but for anything that ever came before it to be wiped from the face of the earth, is very telling — at least to me. At the risk of elevating aesthetics over all other concerns, I’ll point out that the Mass of St. Gregory inspired people like Josquin and Palestrina; the kinds of composers the Novus Ordo appears to have inspired are, shall we say, not even close.

Okay. I need more tea.

This sounds familiar somehow…

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

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

 


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