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.