Sep. 17, 2017

Ee zo ee ~ The Thread of Life

Click here to hear Greek Orthodox Chanting

Today I attended a Greek Orthodox Service, part of which was in Memoriam for my husband's beloved Aunt, Thea Giannoula. In keeping with the theme that we are discussing on Chaos and Order, in addition to the role of music in Religion, in particular the roots of which are Chanting and the ever present drone, I felt myself tuning in to this aspect of the Service more closely than I usually do.

Most of the Service is sung, and is presented unaccompanied, as has been customary in the Orthodox Church since its beginnings, in ancient times of Byzantium. It seems to have no direction or pattern to it, but with closer observation, one can recognize a distinct tonal parameter, with a C# Harmonic Minor scale as the building block. This minor tonal progression is what seems to cause the feelings of holiness, and reflection; even if we cannot understand the words, we are drawn into all of these wonders, and the sounds can be quite haunting to listen to, serving perfectly to help us to contemplate the mysteries of life, and in this case, death.

The link above provides a brief snippet of the sounds heard in today's Service.

The primary voice moves up and down this scale reciting verses or simply humming while rituals are performed. On occasion, a secondary voice or multiple others will join in, humming the tonic of the scale and creating the underlying drone. The drone serves more than just the purpose of keeping them on key; it seems to convey the constance of life itself. The concept of this was communicated to me only a few weeks ago, when discussing a Schubert Lied and noticing the repetitive bass notes with my Coach ~ he pointed out that this repetition conveyed constancy, in particular in some of Schubert's pieces which are based on Goethe's philosophical musings. I then recognized that this custom began with the origins of the sounds we have made as humans.

Since I am not Greek Orthodox, I do a lot of listening to the sounds, and gazing around the space, taking in the Byzantine art and marvelling at the proportions and perspectives (or lack thereof), the beautiful golden threaded robes and ornate filigree work of the doors and partitions, and I can allow myself to be taken in simply by the scene around me, and the chanting; without even needing to understand the words, I am moved.

The Cantors in Greek Orthodoxy are called Psalti, which we can correlate directly to our Psalms when they are sung. I love learning the etymology of words and in my Greek studies I delight in finding words that are an integral part of our English language.

I observed the ritual of 'signum crucis' at each mention of the Holy Trinity, with people crossing themselves three times as is customary, but today I noticed a new activity, which was also the touching of the ground after every three crosses made. A genuflection is the ritual of showing servility by kneeling, which we see in the Catholic Church, but in this case, the adherents were bending forward to touch the ground.

That is where the 'order' seems to stop ~ the devout are focused on this aspect of the Service and yet the Service itself appears to be run in a chaotic fashion. There is no printed Order of Service, there is no sign indicating which hymns will be sung, and there appears to be no rhyme or reason to the comings and goings of the Priest and his clergy, yet they still accomplish all things that they have set out to do ~ a Baptism, a Memorial, a Wedding. The rituals continue during the Service with everyone flocking toward the front to receive Communion, candles being handed out randomly and lit, held precariously closely to the garments of the person in front. Yet, the church is packed to capacity, (quite possibly more than Building Code would allow) and we are shoulder to shoulder, in standing room only. After the Service, there is more flocking, toward the Priest to receive a personal offering of more bread, wherein we must kiss his hand, and then to the back, where the families of the deceased give out traditional cups of bulgar wheat, mixed with spices and pomegranate and cranberries, as another offering of Thanks, to those who came to pay their respects. There is no order to this, the masses simply seem to converge and all know ultimately where to go.

As in any Church Service, I am bound to the music, and have often wondered about the lack of choral singing, hymn singing, and accompanied performance in the Orthodox Church, thinking this to be unusual ~ why do they not celebrate using music in all its glory? However, I now recognize that while these Western musical offerings are beautiful and important, the Eastern Orthodox sounds and its Byzantine origins and composite sounds drawn also from Jewish music and monophonic vocal line is equally as beautiful, and somehow, draws us a little deeper into reflection, prayer, and awe. They never will, and do not need to change what they are doing, in order to 'feel' differently about worshiping God.

The past summer, we visited Meteora, Greece, where as early as the 11th Century, Greek Monks occupied caves and then eventually built Monasteries high atop the rocks, some as high as 1,300 feet. In man's quest to be closer to God, the Greeks achieved this long before some of the tallest Cathedrals were built. One did not even need to hear the sounds of music, instead, one could simply gaze across the vista, hearing only the wind. Perhaps this is where man's desire to augment these natural sounds came from ~ asking, how can we enhance this experience and participate in it ourselves? Yes, let's hum from the depths of our inner selves, a constant, low vibration, connecting all life forms in this Universe of ours, and we'll pray.

Here is some additional reading on the subjects!