Congratulations to Axion Estin Foundation Symposium

11 02 2008

Congratulations are due to the Axion Estin Foundation for their second Symposium on Byzantine Music Education. I’ve included a commentary on the symposium that was published in The National Herald, 2 February 2008 Edition. Some of the commentary seems to ring some bells. This poor soul is stricken with the disease of love for the traditional Psaltic Art; may God have mercy on his soul!

The Art of Byzantine Chant: Music to a Growing Number of Americans’ Ears

By Christopher Tripoulas
Special to The National Herald

Last week, a three-day symposium on Byzantine Music Education took place at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center, focusing on how to build a Byzantine choir. On the evening before the seminar, world-renowned chanter/musicologist Lycourgos Angelopoulos and the Greek Byzantine Choir performed at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, undoubtedly one of the world’s premier museums.

For almost one week, one of the most recognizable and traditional aspects of Greece’s cultural legacy was on display center-stage in perhaps the world’s most cosmopolitan city. When the largest art museum in the Western Hemisphere and the largest urban university in the United States both decide to publicize and promote an issue simultaneously, it’s a big deal. These institutions attract the attention of people from all over the city, even the nation…and maybe, just maybe, some of the decision-makers in the Greek American Community too.

In its press release, the Met mentions that the Angelopoulos concert is presented in cooperation with the Axion Estin Foundation. It is worthy – pardon the pun – to offer the individuals comprising this organization a well-deserved round of applause. In one well orchestrated week’s time, they will have managed to do more to promote Greek Culture than many other much larger, more illustrious and better funded organizations! This is pretty remarkable when considering that this not-for-profit organization is still in its infancy, having only been founded in November 2005. During that time, it has organized two major conferences, in addition to a weekly radio program that is currently in its fourth year.

One-fourth of the foundation’s trustees and officers hold doctoral degrees. This is not noteworthy simply because these individuals possess a high level of education (there are plenty of educated clergymen out there for instance who haven’t lifted a finger to promote Byzantine music; even in their own parish). It is important because it allows bridges to be built between this living, breathing expression of Greek art and the world of academia. Let’s not forget that Byzantine chant represents a piece of the Hellenic legacy that captivates the interest of people worldwide, while holding it own in modern Greek society up until today. People can come into direct contact with this centuries-old art form, as opposed to just reading about it in history books.

This past week, we witnessed cultural diplomacy in the making. Oddly enough, the architects behind this skillful diplomatic display did not come from some powerful national federation, well-financed government institution, or even from within the “official” Church hierarchy. This ray of hope came from a group of bright young people (including second and third-generation Greek Americans) who love their heritage and use their education and cultivation to share their cultural inheritance with others.

Looking at the online list of sponsors, there are even two non-Greek, non-Christian entities who have contributed to this cause; namely, the CUNY Graduate Center Department of Ethnomusicology and the New York State Council on the Arts. If you visit AEF’s website, you’ll see a handful of recognizable names (countable on one hand) from the Greek American Community, one major ethnic Greek association, a handful of businesses, and two public benefit foundations.

With the exception of the National Forum of Greek Orthodox Church Musicians (which is so incongruous that it can be equated to P. Diddy, the Dixie Chicks and the NY Philharmonic singing at a taverna), there appears to be little sign of any direct contribution from Archdiocesan coffers, and even less from any Greek Orthodox parishes. All and all, one clergyman is listed on the foundation’s website. And yet, somehow, this relatively young and inexperienced organization is doing more to advance Byzantine music than most “heavy hitters” in the Greek American Community combined.

There are other organizations and chanters out there who are interested in helping this musical treasure grow and spread not only within the Greek American Community, but in American society at large. The complaint from many of these well-meaning individuals is lack of funding and lack of interest from the powers that be.

As the old saying goes “it ain’t over until the fat lady sings,” but for many of our churches, she’s not just singing, she’s bellowing. This historic musical genre, which contains many of the original scales of Ancient Greek music and serves as the basis for Greek (and Middle Eastern) folk music is being overlooked. We’re graduating priests that don’t know how to chant, much less care to learn. We’ve replaced the chanter’s robe and traditional Byzantine melodies with technicolor dreamcoat satin robes, sashes and pipe organs. In some places, church sounds more like the seventh-inning stretch at a baseball game or a dinner party at Castle Dracula. Even the priests who do care are afraid to do anything to change things because they don’t want to insult the wife of the Parish Council President who sings in the choir and thinks she’s the second coming of Maria Callas.

Isn’t it paradox that the largest Greek Orthodox Community in the United States or many Orthodox cathedrals throughout the country won’t even perform one Sunday liturgy with the traditional Byzantine hymns (the ones that the world famous Metropolitan Museum of Art and the City University of New York find so interesting)? When was the last time any comparable institution wanted to present an exhibition on Greek European choir music? The answer is probably never, because such a thing doesn’t exist. It’s like mixing beer and wine. Each element has its own unique history, but just because you put them together, doesn’t mean the concoction will work.

One well known church used to hold fundraisers so it could broadcast its Western-style Sunday liturgy (complete with organs…peanuts and crackerjack) on a Greek-language TV station! No viewership? No duh? I’m willing to wager that interest in Sunday morning soccer games suddenly skyrocketed during that same period. Let’s not forget the famous Patriarchal liturgy at Madison Square Garden (don’t feel bad if you missed it, this is bound to happen at some similar engagement) when European sheet music toting choirs did their utmost to deconstruct Byzantine hymns that generations upon generations of Orthodox Christians almost innately know how to sing. It was like Tschaikovsky disassembling La Marseillaise in his 1812 Overture. Obviously, the phrase a cappella is not in their vocabulary.

Despite growing international recognition, it seems like the art of Byzantine chanting will continue falling on deaf ears in some places. For those that realize its importance, one step in the right direction is to start bringing children to the chanter’s stand, and not only inside the altar. At some point, most kids outgrow being altar boys, but they never outgrow being chanters. This is also a marvelous way to improve children’s knowledge of Greek and expose them to some of the finest literary and musical masterpieces in world history.

For the moment, the funds and real support do not seem to be coming from the Church administration. It’s up to foundations like Axion Estin, individual parish efforts, and the tireless labors of Byzantine musicologists to preserve and promote this historical treasure. The good news is that these individuals seem to have gained the ear of major American institutions. Maybe as interest from universities, art institutions, and conservatories grows, more and more decision makers in the Greek American Community will start to listen too.