When most people think of the words ancient and Greek, they think of the Parthenon or The Odyssey. Very few outside of the Greek community would think of music.
Yet, the music of the Greek Orthodox Church, known as Byzantine Chant, uses the world's oldest continuous system of musical notation, 1100 years old, and the music itself predates the notation. As it has been passed down within a living tradition, there is a remarkable degree of continuity with the music, and elements of ancient Greek musical theory from antiquity are present.
You may be further surprised to hear that this musical form finds some of its strongest practitioners in Boston (or rather on the border between Brookline and Boston), Massachusetts at a small Greek college and theological school called Hellenic College Holy Cross.
Here, male and female students, undergraduate and graduate, share daily worship, morning and evening, singing Byzantine chant in Greek, English, and Arabic. Some are studying to be priests, and some are studying to be leaders in church and society. The musical program is so strong and vital that they recently embarked on an ambitious recording project aimed at capturing the sound of the Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology St. Romanos the Melodist Byzantine Choir, in its native location, the Holy Cross Chapel.
The school turned to producer and engineer Ross Cisneros to find a way to capture the ancient spirit of the music. Mr. Cisneros immediately had the innovative idea to use the Horus AD/DA converter. The Horus, made by Merging Technologies of Switzerland, is perhaps the world’s most sonically transparent microphone pre-amp. Translation, it is perhaps the only piece of recording equipment where you can really hear a room the way it is.
"From a producer's perspective, its important to know when to get out of the way of a musical presentation and allow it to stand on its own terms. While some productions benefit from my musical imprint and the intrinsic coloration of the equipment used, this project required that I be transparent–and I demanded the same of my microphone selection and A/D conversion." said Cisneros.
Byzantine chant, although tied to European culture in many ways, is different from Western music. It is modal and microtonal. The Horus captures these distinctive microtones in a way never before heard on a recording. The sound of this Orthodox Chapel on a hill is preserved.
"Listening back was uncanny as there was always a slight cognitive dissonance between what we knew was a recording (non-immediate reality) and what our ears perceived as immediate reality happening all over again." said Cisneros.
The resulting recording 'All Creation Trembled: Orthodox Hymns of the Passion Service' showcases selections from the most challenging service of the year on the Orthodox calendar, commemorating the crucifixion of Christ.
It transports listeners to the little chapel on the hill, where students explore their ancient faith in the contemporary world. The week prior they experienced the explosions of the Boston Marathon. And with ancient texts and melodies written to express the same, the members of the choir began the work of transfiguring anguish into joy, suffering into healing, death into life.
This recording invites the listener to join in this same process of transfiguration. The Horus technology opened a window on this sacred space and time, the media more immediate than ever before. According to Cisneros, "The technology's ability to fool us into believing it wasn't there at all was its greatest strength."