Listening to Byzantium

Icon of the Archangel Michael, Constantinople, twelfth century. Silver gilt on wood, gold cloisonné enamel, precious stones, 46.5 x 35 x 2.7 cm. Basilica di San Marco, Venice, Tresoro, inv. no. 16. Photo per gentile concessione della Procuratoria di San Marco/Cameraphoto Arte, Venice

Icon of the Archangel Michael, Constantinople, twelfth century. Basilica di San Marco, Venice. Photo per gentile concessione della Procuratoria di San Marco/Cameraphoto Arte, Venice

Darkness falls before six in the evening now, closer to five on dull days. It’s that time of year when life increasing centres around deep sofas, books like this and this, dark chocolate, alongside astonishment at our culture’s inexplicable failure to embrace hibernation as a universal human right.

Nevertheless, nightfall last Friday found me making my way to the Chapel of King’s University, London, to hear a lecture on The Heavenly Liturgy: Byzantine Psalmody to 1453, organised in conjunction with the Royal Academy’s magnificent Byzantium exhibition, supported by the London Centre for Arts and Cultural Exchange.

Now, persistent readers of these pages may reasonably object that while I know little enough about music in general — entirely true, by the way — my ignorance of Byzantine psalmody must surely be as perfect as ignorance ever can be. That, though, was precisely the point. For while it’s in the nature of an exhibition like Byzantium — a vast enterprise, in which more than 300 objects are made to represent a thousand years of history, played out on a stage that stretched from York to Moscow, Damascus to Belgrade, the deserts of North Africa to the shores of the Black Sea and beyond — to raise more questions than it could possibly answer, the questions it had raised regarding music were particularly insistent.

Why, though? Hurrying down through a crowded Covent Garden, enjoying one of those rambling inner ‘dialogues’, the prosecution of which give solitude amidst a multitude with such a large measure of its uniquely compelling charm, I tried to justify the whim that propelled me towards King’s College.

More than two decades earlier, back in those innocent undergraduate days when ignorance implied no barrier to interest, Prof. Grout’s A History of Western Music, an amiable survey text, had planted the seed of my curiosity, through the tantalising claim that Byzantine chant preserved in its traditions some faint yet audible echo of the otherwise vanished music of the classical world. Years later, a short but perfect visit to Athens — memories of dark unremarkable churches, smoke-blackened icons obscured by the gleam of their gold and silver frames, and most of all the old women who prayed, bowed and crossed themselves before emerging once again into the pitiless midday sunshine, their devotions an admixture of familiarity with formality unlike anything I’d seen before — only nurtured it. More than anything, though, the Byzantine world became real to me through time spent in Venice, Byzantium’s daughter and destroyer. In particular, the magnificent desolation of that church that matters so much to me, the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta at Torcello — so silent, now, so much of the time, as neither the tourists nor the ghosts make quite enough noise to fill those numinous spaces — seemed to yearn, at the very least, for some late offering of imaginative sympathy I was ill-equipped to provide, no matter how much I should have liked to do so.

And then there was the Royal Academy’s Byzantium, which deserves an account of its own. Suffice to say that much of ‘the artifice of eternity’ on show here remains so formidably resistant to secularisation — shrugging off the bogus worship accorded to aestheticised ‘works of art’ as thoroughly as the shadowy death-in-life that is the lot of the historical artifact — as to leave a certain sort of visitor wondering whether the experience on offer in Burlington House is, in fact, less cultural than spiritual — whether the exhibition is, in other words, precisely that meeting of heaven and earth that Orthodox practice claims to offer, at once alert to the realities of human weakness and the immanence of the miraculous. In any event, I wanted to find the aural equivalent of these visual treasures. My ignorance was, at least, leavened with humility. What I didn’t anticipate, though, was how marvellous the evening would be.

King’s College Chapel, now largely restored to George Gilbert Scott’s original scheme, glowed like a golden casket of mid-Victorian piety, refulgently positive and practical, replete with glazed tiles, improving mottos and a medievalism robustly self-confident in its eclecticism.

The lecture was given by Dr Alexander Lingas, of City University, London. A serious historian of the Byzantine musical tradition, Dr Lingas is also founder and artistic director of the Cappella Romana — an ambitious attempt at accommodations between academic research and present-day singing, early medieval chant and contemporary classical music, ancient liturgies and modern spirituality, East and West, theory and practice generally — as well as an energetic and convincing exponent of music that clearly means so much to him, on many levels. And he also sings, more than competently.

For despite the erudition, good humour and fluent vitality of the lecture itself, it’s the accompanying music — performed by John Michael Boyer, Protopsaltis (Chief Cantor) of the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of San Francisco, Dr Lingas and two other singers — that still echoes in my head now, and indeed may quite possibly continue to do so for some time, long after the words themselves have faded away.

For having briefly sketched the early history of Byzantine liturgical singing — the differences between what went on in Constantinople and Jerusalem, the differences between cathedral and monastic traditions, the development from relatively simple responsive psalmody to highly ornamented, imaginative devotional hymns — these four men went on to illustrate what Dr Lingas had described. The economy of means could hardly have been extreme: unaccompanied voices, singing monophonically against the background of the unifying ison, or drone. Hardly less extreme, though, was the other-wordly quality of the sound this produced. Byzantine chant operates on tonal conventions entirely unlike those familiar from traditional Western music. These conventions result in intervals that sound, to Western ears, not so much ‘wrong’ as like nothing on this earth. At the same time, the ‘harmonies’ created by the relationship of the melodic line with the ison create strange resonances that seem to work directly not so much on the senses as on the whole being. Strangers to this chant may, indeed, feel that, rather than ‘listening’ to ‘music’, they are being swathed in a texture of sustained vibrations, absolutely as strange and terrible as the angels from whom these chants were — and, who knows, perhaps sometimes still are — believed to have been transmitted.

Unfortunately — and it’s my single substantive criticism of this magnificent event — the organisers failed to provide a simple handlist of the works discussed and performed, along with their dates and places of composition, let alone a bibliography or discography for those who wish to learn more. The omission is particularly odd, given Dr Lingas’ commitment to Byzantine psalmody less as a dry academic specialisation than as a living, enlivening practice.

Byzantine music is not, it seems, for everyone. Dr Lingas’ lecture included some hilarious dismissals of Byzantine psalmody on the part of initially indulgent, sympathetic Western observers. And perhaps they have a point. The music does, to Western ears, sound nasal, repetitive, lacking in constrast, colour or what we conventionally recognise as beauty. Worst of all, though, it sounds far too ‘Eastern’ — those alien tonalities and flatnesses redolent, especially for those who lack much knowledge of the subject, of Qur’anic chanting, with all the negative implications that invokes in the more historically unimaginative, theologically shallow class of Western listener. It isn’t, in other words, easy. And given natural human laziness coupled with the wealth of other sounds there for the hearing, for some this will mean that Byzantine psalmody isn’t worth pursuing at all.

Yet for other listeners, the strangeness, the difficulty and lack of obvious ‘beauty’ may well be the point. Confronted with even the greatest examples European devotional music, a Western listener may well end up distracted by the puzzle entailed in trying to shoehorn whatever he’s hearing into all the usual narratives of secular historical development. Thus a mass setting by Dufay immediately conjures up not only a particular style of religiosity, but the architecture, painting and politics that accompanied it, as well as the music that preceded and followed it. Alternatively, and, worse still, the listener finds himself criticising the performance itself, so that whatever doctrinal messages Bach may have intended a particular sacred cantata to express, that meaning ends up dissolved into a preference for small ensembles over large ones, wonky old instruments for their glossy new counterparts, live performances over recordings, Harnoncourt instead of Rilling or Suzuki. Once lost, pre-lapsarian innocence cannot be recovered. If what familiarity breeds is, often, something rather warmer than contempt, it’s still a colder, more intellectualised sort of response than that first, uncritical, unmediated hearing.

All of which is relevant in this context only to a Western, parochial, rather unworldly listener. Self-evidently, someone who knew more about Byzantine chant would, faced with Dr Lingas’ lecture, quite possibly have encountered all these issues, the cavils and the quirks of individual preference, and perhaps even found in them a barrier to letting the work do what it was meant to do — in this case, I think, to draw the listener closer to God.

Still, on the evening in question, my ignorance protected me. When an intelligible word of Greek emerged from the flickering glow of sound, it came, lapidary and unarguable, with all the force of revelation. At other points, I might as well have been hearing angels conversing amongst themselves. Freed variously from the burdens of analysis, criticism and (however briefly) self-consciousness, I was free to lose myself in the magnificent noise vibrating through the bones in my head just as it echoed through everything else in the chapel around me — to exist in a space that was permeated by the sounds of Byzantium itself.

Or was it? Can such a thing really be possible? Now, after the fact, the question’s worth raising, less to challenge Dr Lingas’ interpretive strategies than to express some sort of delayed residual awareness that, even here, the headachey issues afflicting ‘historically informed performance’ — issues adumbrated, for anyone who’s interested, in Bernard Sherman’s stunning Inside Early Music — also arise. This isn’t just a question of whether the original performers would have chanted with the sheer professional skill, let alone the identical tone, pitch and tempo, of Dr Lingas’ ensemble — although, for what it’s worth, the performance of early music famously gravitates to a ‘best case scenario’, especially in recorded versions. Nor is it just a question about how linguistic, doctrinal and cultural familiarity shaped the way in which the original audiences — in the case of psalmody, of course, the ‘audiences’ might also be participants — received those original ‘performances’. Similarly, it is more than just a question of admitting that even real experts can’t, ultimately, do much more than make informed guesses at Byzantine music was like.

No, in the end, it comes down to a much deeper question about the purpose of this music, sung here, in London, in November 2008, in front of an audience largely unfamiliar with its conventions. What matters more — authenticity, aesthetic beauty, or integrity of purpose? And to what extent does emphasising one of these qualities require a sacrifice of the others?

Just to illustrate this clunkingly obvious point with what is perhaps the most extremely contrasting example possible, my other musical adventure last week consisted of hearing William Christie conduct Rameau’s Les Indes Galantes at the Barbican.

First performed in 1735, Les Indes Galantes was a truly revolutionary exercise in opéra-ballet, shocking critics and delighting audiences with its outrageous harmonics (storms rage, waves crash, volcanos erupt amidst much exertion by the overworked timpanist), abrupt shifts of mood, its fashion-conscious exoticism and, most of all, its resolute lack of high seriousness. And indeed, even now, it’s a spectacularly worldly piece of music. Not least, Rameau is hardly shy in drawing attention to the man-made cleverness of his musical inventions, his skill as a mimic, his jokes and sleights of hand. But there’s also an unabashed fascination with the things of this world — different countries, different customs, the sheer variety of human manners and mores. Religion features here, if at all, then as an emblem of cultural difference, useful to move the plot along, but largely irrelevant to the action itself, or to what we’re invited to feel about the characters.

Christie is brilliant at bringing out the humour, restlessness and frivolity inherent in this light-hearted masterpiece, but in a semi-staged performance it’s simply impossible do justice to the distracting quality of the sudden dances, the lightning-swift transpositions from one continent to the next, the gleeful shallowness of this essay in cultural tourism, complete with guaranteed happy endings. At the Barbican, perhaps to offset the resulting lack of pace, only three of the four original acts were performed. Authenticity was curtailed, in various ways, not only in the interests of practicality, but for the greater ease of present-day audiences. This was, I suspect, the correct decision, if only for the deference it demonstrated towards the overall purpose of the work.

For Les Indes Galantes is, above all else, a distraction. The surfaces are beautiful, the depth non-existent, the Hall of Mirrors enchantment complete as long as everything keeps moving, the lack of profundity absolute. Nor should any of this be read as criticism, at least in any purely negative sense. Les Indes Galantes was, after all, meant as an entertainment — sophisticated distraction was the point, not some sort of failure on the way to a different end.

If, today, that frenetic, kind-hearted, strangely innocent entertainment has acquired some tinge of sadness from our knowledge of the climacteric due to follow only half a century later — well, then, that is hardly Rameau’s fault, any more than it is our own. What it means, however, is that we cannot possibly hear Les Indes Galantes the way its first listeners heard it, any more than we can hear its more ‘advanced’ harmonics with ears entirely innocent of Mahler or Schoenberg, minds innocent of Law’s financial machinations or Said’s Orientalism, or without realising where Rameau and Christie stand in the current critical hierarchies of composers and conductors — or, indeed, without a wry, half-pitying smile cast in the direction of our younger selves, who, perhaps, once admired Rameau’s music with a particularly uncritical affection, buried now beneath the cumulative burden of knowledge that, for better or worse, has rained down on us ever since.

All of which brings us back, one way or the other, to Byzantine psalmody. As with Rameau’s Les Indes Galantes, this is music skilfully calibrated to produce a particular effect. How, though, to describe it?

At the lecture, I ended up sitting next to a flock of wide-eyed, glossy-haired American exchange students, immaculate of dress and radiating earnestness, reduced eventually to slack-jawed astonishment — as indeed we all were — by the sounds so recently surrounding them. As we were gathering up our coats at the end, preparing to leave, one of the girls put into words what, I imagine, many of us were feeling: ‘God, like, how good would we all be if we heard that every day?’

For at some level — and certainly giving more theological weight to that casual profanity than was originally intended — this sums up the most surprising and mysterious quality of Byzantine chant. Oh, it’s hard to write about this sort of thing without dabbling up to the elbow in the dangerous, dull, mephitic shallows of New Age pseudo-belief. And I’m fully alert, I hope, to the dangers of trying to pass off aesthetic admiration as some sort of surrogate for true religious experience. At the same time, though, there really was something about the sustained vibrations, the repetitions and the low drone of this music that somehow silenced, at least briefly, the inconsequential nonsense that normally occupies my mind — that made me feel different, for a little while, and in a good sort of way. I can only assume that this had something to do with the concentration these notes demanded, unless perhaps the sounds really have some sort of mechanical effect on the senses, some sort of weird, calming, clarifying force.

This is all starting to sound a bit mad, though, isn’t it? And yet, were I to delete this paragraph, to backtrack and pretend the effect this music had on me was purely ‘aesthetically compelling’ or ‘historically resonant’, what would I deny in doing so — and to what end?

In the spirit of prophylactic caution, however, let me spell out what I don’t mean by what’s written above. For one thing, it’s perfectly clear that listening to lots of Orthodox chant doesn’t immediately translate into the realisation of saintly forebearance and turning the other cheek — one can only hope that God saw the funny side of all this. Similarly, there’s a tendency to conflate miscellaneous brands of vaguely soothing, life-affirming spiritualism with regular exercise, clean living, alternative medicine, crystals and the psychotherapeutic equivalent of Blu-Tac, all of which, although possibly harmless in itself, should be kept at some safe distance from actual, theologically-sustainable religion — if only because at best, the result is (as it were) a cheap holiday in other people’s liturgy, while at worst — absolutely, ultimately worst — there’s the possibility of turning into, well, Madonna.

So it’s important, I think, to avoid treating Byzantine psalmody like an Alexander Technique for the soul, just as it’s important to be honest about the fact that it did something more to me, or at least something different, than music usually does, or seems to do.

In any event, as I walked back home through Covent Garden — the crowds had mostly dispersed, which seemed odd to me, as a pale, vaguely ovoid moon still hung low in the sky, and the clocks were just striking eight — it didn’t occur to me to wonder whether I’d actually heard, a mere hour before, the last reverberating timbres of ancient Rome, or whether my understanding of icons was much improved, or whether my mental picture of Santa Maria Assunta in Torcello now included some sort of rudimentary sound. Everything, however, seemed remarkably clear, calm, and stable. It was enough for me to observe that this was the case, and to feel pleased that it was so. All of which is more than sofas, chocolates and books — even rather good ones — reliably do for me.

A few days later, extensive research at, ahem, the Oxford Street branch of HMV indicated that Byzantine chant has some distance to go before it’s likely to encroach on the hegemony of the Latin rite, at least within the limited universe of classical CD sales. (Forgive a quick aside. On this rainy Monday morning, who should I spy browsing at a table of bargain books on the ground floor of HMV, but Charles Saatchi himself? As I passed, he scanned me with the sort of split-second, super-intense, forensic visual appraisal I’ve experienced only a handful of times in my life, before returning swiftly to his field of remaindered treasures. He looks at the world, in other words, in a way not entirely unlike that in which some artists do. And for what it’s worth, despite the fact that I’m no great fan of the Saatchi project, I thought better of him for this small encounter.)

So my innocence — or ignorance, or however today’s whim parses it — of Byzantine psalmody may remain largely intact, at least for the immediate future. Fresh in my mind, though, is the realisation of another, more general truth. Unremarkably — for, surely, this is the very essence of the human condition — it turns out that there is a great deal that I do not know about this world, past or passing or to come. And yet, these past few days have reminded me that at least some of this is marvellous indeed — like flakes of old gold sandwiched in old glass tesserae, luminous yet tough — impervious to barbarians, decay and every other stupid indignity time inflicts upon us — gleaming, as if lit from somewhere far beyond this world, against the surface of winter’s encroaching darkness.

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