Ross Ritterman Guest Blogs on preparing the CCRMA for Tonight’s Concert

Guest blog from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Church’s Ross Ritterman:

The CCRMA Crew working to hang the
24 speakers for tonight’s performance

My name is Ross Ritterman and I am one of a group of about 10 people who help lead many of the services at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Church in Belmont, California. In keeping with the tradition of the Greek speaking Orthodox Churches, as well as by virtue of being attached to the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople we endeavor to follow the traditions of Byzantine Chant.

The Church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople (Istanbul) has always been a place that the Orthodox have looked toward longingly. Wishing to worship there once again it is at times near the forefront of our imagination as we ponder the throngs of people gathering there to worship in that magnificent temple “suspended from the heavens” upon the Earth.

When we consider the time during which Hagia Sophia existed as a Church, we have a lot of questions from a musical perspective. We don’t know exactly the style of what was chanted in the 6th century, that is in Justinian’s Day when it was built, and few if any manuscripts survive from that time (many were likely destroyed during iconoclasm). We are likewise challenged to understand the musical repertoire of the mid-15th century – the time of the capture of Constantinople by the Ottoman Turks. We do have medieval manuscripts that have made their way to other centers of Christianity and much research has been done to help us uncover some notion of what the hymns were chanted, how the music was notated and so on.

While we are forbidden to worship there today, our group of dedicated chanters had the opportunity to experience what it might be like – through the intersection of a professor’s research into sacred music and modern technology.

Stanford University’s Professor Bissera Pentcheva, a Byzantinist and Art Historian working with Stanford’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA) have collaborated on a project – called Icons of Sound – that will allow the world to experience this through the talents of Cappella Romana’s noted group of singers.

Things may begin small but that does not discount their significance, nor the constant working of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Konstantine Robert Buehler, a Greek Orthodox man from Chicago, IL doing his undergraduate studies at Stanford, also a member of the Holy Cross Orthodox Community at Belmont when in California, became a research assistant to Professor Pentcheva. Roughly 2 years ago we became privy to Professor Pentheva’s Research (she is one of 3 Bulgarian Byzantinists who are all teaching at Universities in the Bay Area) and some of us had attended a lecture she gave around that time – on her research on Hagia Sophia, its location on the Bophorus off the Sea of Marmara – (Marmara the Greek word for “marble”), and how the voices of the chanters in Hagia Sophia, believed to have been 500 strong on any given Sunday would reflect off the marble and created waves, reminiscent of the sea waves nearby.

After Professor Pentcheva began working with CCRMA there was an opportunity to display some of this combined research at an outdoor concert in September 2012. Kosta Buehler was at this time studying in England as part of the Stanford/Oxford program and was unable to assist in lending his voice to this but he put his CCRMA contacts in touch with our Church’s lay assistant, Konstantine Salmas, also a leader of our group of Chanters, and our new assistant Priest Father John Kocolas both of whom had studied Byzantine Music in seminary so that they could fill in. This led to further collaboration.

In anticipation of Cappella Romana’s February 1st concert at Stanford’s newly constructed Bing Concert Hall and this recently formed relationship with Professor Pentcheva and Johnathan Abel of CCRMA our group had the opportunity to participate in a sound check in early December 2012.

When we walked into this concert hall, in which at that time no other musical group had sung in (to my knowledge) I remember walking right on to the stage (something I would otherwise never get to experience at nearly any other venue) and being not the least bit surprised by how splendid a structure with just wonderful architecture, sight lines and clearly a lot of detail and thought into make it a world class venue.

Some of us did not anticipate that our imaginations could be opened to what it must have been like to hear beautiful, ancient Byzantine hymns in the glorious space of that majestic church in what was a comparatively miniscule space through digital processing technology. As one member of our group, Louis Busta, described it, “I think it would be best appreciated by closing ones eyes and letting the ears listen to the sound and let the imagination follow the echoes.” It could not be appreciated with just the eyes only. Nonetheless the Bing Concert Hall with its excellent acoustics was able to in fact reproduce some remarkable sounds when we began chanting hymns that were slower enough in tempo to account for the massive reverberation and echo that must have been present in the Church.

It took us awhile to get used to that echo – we tried to sing irmologic (1-2 notes per syllable, generally faster) hymns – the Katavasias of Christmas, or Χριστὸς γεννᾶται, a poem of St. Kosmas the Hymnographer from the 8th Century – but the fast tempo would often clash with the echo. We then switched from our choral repertoire to having a solo chanter sing a slow hymn while the rest of us held the isokratema (droning the basis note for a musical phrase). Our parish’s First Priest (or “Proistamenos”) chanted Θεοτόκε Παρθένε, a hymn to the Mother of God (nearly identical to the Roman Catholic “Hail Mary” prayer) sung during the blessing of loaves or an “Artoklasia” service – itself usually part of a Great Vespers service. This arrangement proved to be a lot more successful, as Father Peter was able to hear the echo more clearly and adjust his tempo so as to not overlap the echo and create dissonance.

We also chanted a simple version of the Trisagion hymn (the “Ἅγιος ὁ Θεός…”) which would have been typically chanted as part of processions, and very much still a part of the Holy Friday Procession of the Kouvouklion – Christ’s tomb – that the Orthodox faithful carry around the Church in remembrance of His death. As a very ancient hymn it was very likely a part of regular worship at Hagia Sophia and thus very appropriate.

We then tried once more to sing together as a choir, and were able to more effectively embrace the space and sing slowly enough to allow the sound to travel. One main problem we kept running into was our volume. We were singing softly because we were not used to the echo and mistakenly assumed that it would carry our voices and project our volume. But the sound engineers then informed us that they could not hear us in the back of the auditorium. They informed us to sing as if we were in the actual Agia Sophia, loud and strong. We took their advice, and it worked. The sound engineers said they could hear us much better in the back rows, and it enhanced the sound of the hymns and blended much better with the echo.

Ultimately we could tell that the CCRMA staff and Professor Pentcheva were eventually pleased with the results and we helped them to orient their expectations for Capella Romana’s visit in nearly 2 months especially working within the space and how the output of their voices may work with the digital processing.

The experience of chanting together unto God is powerful in the context of our worship but there was also something very satisfying about helping to contribute to an effort that touches the academic world and is still very much at the core of the Orthodox liturgical life and to be able to share it with the world – definitely a memorable experience. Our group spent over an hour and a half chanting liturgical hymns on the floor of an academic institution – certainly evidence of the Holy Spirit at work.

— Ross Ritterman