Saturday, August 6, 2016

Sacred Music Institute, 2016

I am a bit late in posting this.  Unfortunately taking 5 days off to go to a music conference in Pennsylvania threw a wrench into the rest of my life that I am just now extricating.  Still, I wanted to post about the experience, because it was amazing.

Our choir director, John, and I attended the Sacred Music Institute at Antiochian Village last month.  Our priest encouraged us to do so, and we were both eager to do so, though neither of us had ever been nor did we have any idea what to expect.  It was a combination of immersion in the music of the Church and information overload.  There is no way we could make use of all of the wonderful things we were exposed to, and yet we both left wanting to learn more.  The experience itself was great, we met a lot of new friends and even some folks connected to old friends, and in some cases "friends" we knew online but had not yet met in person.  We spent a lot of time learning from Bishop Anthony and being led by various choir directors and chanters.  And we got to see how others approach the unchanging Divine Liturgy we all celebrate each week, as well as the prayer offices, as well as chanting.  It's the same -- always the same.  And yet, within that sameness there is a beautiful variety available.

John spent most of his time "auditing" classes.  I don't want to misremember, so I won't try to recall each and every class he attended, but I can say he got a lot of exposure to information about small choirs, directing, different musical settings, and the like.  I know that he was impressed with the sheer variety of musical settings available for the parts of the Divine Liturgy such as the Cherubic Hymn and the Trisagion Hymn, as was I.  I am sure there are things we will use as we go forward, things we will try that simply will not work, and things that we will not bother to try.  I'm sure there will be suggestions vetoed by our priest or other members of the choir.  Even so, it was good to be exposed to them, and I feel comfortable that as we move forward, we will find use for some of the settings we used that week.

I, on the other hand, immersed myself in Byzantine notation for chanting.  My head is still spinning, but I intend to commit myself to learning this over the next few years (yes, years).  I found it interesting to learn that so much of what we do in Byzantine chant is actually written out in the notation, something that is more difficult to do in western notation.  I also found it interesting that resources for Byzantine notation are growing exponentially, so I expect to have greater opportunities to learn as the years pass.  Most especially, I found it valuable to be exposed to incredibly skilled and learned chanters who served at the prayer offices and the Divine Liturgy, including Bishop Anthony himself.  The variety of chanters allowed me to hear different interpretations of the Byzantine performance tradition, and to hopefully improve my own chanting as I continue to grow as a reader.  Right now I'm working on the most basic of the basics -- learning the various symbols used to denote what to sing and how those notes form natural attractions to each other.  I am not really exploring microtones at this point (there are 72 different tones in the Byzantine scale), but I hope to as I firm up my ability to read the music itself.

Despite the tight schedule, which had us basically occupied from 8:00 AM until nearly 11:00 PM, I managed to take some time away with the folks from the Byzantine notation classes to practice chanting and reading notation.  That is something I wish we could have done more of, because the practical aspects of chant practice are hard to learn when you have no time in the schedule and only sleeping and eating apart from the schedule.  As it is, we simply skipped some of the choir practice for the Hierarchical Divine Liturgy to make time to practice chanting.

This brings me to another great benefit of this conference -- the marriage of Byzantine chant with more modern choral arrangements.  We had the opportunity to celebrate the Divine Liturgy every day, using a different setting each day.  One of those was a traditional Byzantine liturgy, but the rest were choral arrangements.  And yet even within the choral arrangements, there was opportunity for the chanters to do the more traditional chanted pieces, especially for Vespers or for the Hierarchical Divine Liturgy, which was preceded by Orthros.  It was a beautiful and seamless joining of the older with the newer, and yet was still done in perfect reverence and with utmost beauty.

I hope to return next year if possible, and I would recommend that anyone interested in the music of the Church likewise attend.  It was a valuable week for us.