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The Mystical Supper
Who can sing in English in our Convent? What is special about liturgical music in English? I asked some of the people who took part in the recording of Mystical Supper — the first CD album of the chants of the Divine Liturgy in English — to shed light on these issues.
Part One. An interview with Nun Maria. on the English Language and the Language of the Liturgy
Nun Maria, what does the Liturgy mean to you?
Liturgy is life. We are renewed by the Liturgy and we are revived through communion. When we take communion, all our divisions and strifes cease, the walls between us and God and between us and other people fall into pieces. The Blood of Christ renews us, and we all become one.
The Mystical Supper CD album is a recording of the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom. St John said some very beautiful words about the Liturgy, "There isn't anything that exalts one's soul, gives it wings, lets it soar above the ground, releases it from dark chains, delivers a philosophy, or helps to achieve total contempt for earthly cares better than harmonious singing and guidance by the text of the Divine chants."
Yes, the value of choir singing lies in catholicity, in unity. Where there is unity, there is God. Of course, technically you can sing the Liturgy alone, on your own, but this is hard to compare. The sound of a choir, when people sing together and try to tune in to each other, is much better. It can be difficult at times because we all are different and each one of us is in a different spiritual state. However, we should exert ourselves to "synchronise" with each other, to seize that unity. It makes us closer to God and to each other. Unity with God and with each other is the purpose of the Liturgy.
Could you please tell about those who directly participated in the project?
The singers who took part in this project had not come from a certain choir of our Convent. The main selection criterion for them was, naturally, their proficiency in English. There were two sisters from the Monastic Choir, four brothers from the Festive Choir, Anton — a singer from the Male Choir, and Tatiana and Olga — one of them sings in the boarding home for children, and the other sings in other Minsk churches. Plus, Alexandra and Margaret — two MSLU undergraduates who sang in the student choir of that university — also participated in our choir.
Two of us knew practically no English — I mean Brother Konstantin and Nun Tatiana. Industrious people, they wrote Russian translations above the English texts in order to follow what we were singing. We all had to do a crash course in phonetics to level the variations.
Did you have any difficulties with translation?
We did not have to translate anything. The difficult part was in choosing one out of the many translations that exist. Since we sing in Church Slavonic, rather than Russian, in our church, we decided to choose a translation that would not sound too modern, a translation that uses…
The Shakespearean English?
No, not the language of Shakespeare, but a translation that uses some archaic and outdated words.
How did this idea come about? Why did people in a Belarusian Orthodox convent suddenly decide that they were to record church chants in English?
When we introduced our music CDs in Britain, people were asking, "Are they in English?" When we said that no, they aren't, we could spot the slight disappointment on the people's faces.
How did you choose the name for the album? Why not call it simply The Liturgy?
We tried to find a poetic name, which would sound equally good in Russian and in English, and be easily understood by all English speakers, be they Orthodox or Catholics or Protestants.
One of the chants has the following words, “Of Thy Mystical Supper, O Lord, may I today partake…” There is a tradition in some Orthodox parishes in Great Britain to sing this prayer during the communion, instead of the “Receive Ye the Body of Christ…” This is where the name of our album came from.
Part Two. An interview with Konstantin Karmanov, the head of the audio studio of St Elisabeth Convent. On rehearsals, mutual aid, MIDI tracks, and other technicalities of creative process
How long did it take to release this album?
We did the first recording in 2010. A lot changed during this time: we changed mikes and some members of the choir… At times, I was beginning to think that this project would never end. It was when we were choosing the best takes during the editing stage that we felt we'd made it, in spite of all obstacles.
What were your rehearsals like?
By the time we could manage it for a rehearsal, we all were tired, having spent an entire day at work. Apart from that, I had to learn English. However, I saw how passionate everyone was to sing, to create, to be involved in our work, and this gave me strength.
Sure, it is hard to sing using manuscripts: some want to write down their own transliteration of the texts or make notes but there is no place in the music sheets to do that. This is why I decided to type this sheet music using a computer. In addition, we got MIDI tracks, which one could play and learn their parts independently. Not everyone needed them but some of us did. It was like a crash course in music for people whose main profession was not related to it. Naturally, we musicians explained all nuances and details – the things that every musician must know by default — to them as if they were kids. It sounded new and interesting to them. For us, professional musicians, this is a routine not unlike breakfast, lunch, and dinner; for translators and interpreters singing was like a real feast. The linguists, for instance, would change some words in the text because we could not always follow the written text to a tee. This exchange of knowledge during the rehearsals produced a unique experience.
We would record even in summer. Even though our linguists had exams and were getting ready for various contests, they still found time to come and sing with us. It was like: we gather for a recording session, and there is a thunderstorm outdoors. We would sing one take, wait for a thunderclap to pass, and then sing another one. You know, the proverb goes that there is no bad weather.
Some professionals visited us during our rehearsals and recording sessions. One of them was Nigel Rose, an Englishman. He is a choir director in his home country. Nigel listened to our singing and remarked that they never sang like this, that the way we sang was unprecedented.
Our first rehearsals made it evident that our singing was too amateurish. We made painfully slow progress: we had to gather seven or eight times in order to record just two chants. Nevertheless, recording sessions, or, more precisely, their inevitability, were the best motivation for all of us. As soon as I felt that it was time to do the recording, I would say, “Okay, let’s record it!” We met for recording sessions in the evenings: we would gather at around seven o’clock in the evening and warm up for the recording, which would go on until eleven, and sometimes even later. We liked to sing together.
What makes the Mystical Supper album so unique?
This album is unique because of the incredible creative approach and fresh treatment of familiar chants in a new and beautiful language. Originally, we took the church chants that are typical of our region and are often heard in the parishes of our Russian Orthodox Church but we adapted them to suit the liturgical English texts. We learned these chants at a leisurely pace, appropriated them by singing, and then recorded them. Our choir consisted of Slavic people who know English – a language that is very different from the original languages of these chants – well enough to sing in it. I assume that, as a result of this concerted endeavour, we managed to create an interesting church music sound mix, consisting of Slavonic church chants inseparably combined with worship texts from English church tradition.
I would like to highlight the fact that all these chants have a common nature and belong to one and the same cycle of the main Orthodox service – the Liturgy. This is very important because one could sing the Psalms, or specific concert pieces, or praise songs, but here we have liturgical chants taken from the regular rite of the Liturgy. The order in which they are recorded on the disc is the same order in which they are performed during the Liturgy.
Interview by Vadim Yanchuk
- ► 2016 (336)
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