The Rev. Seraphim Dedes, director of music ministry at Saint Nektarios Greek Orthodox Church in Charlotte, spent 16 years on Mount Athos in Greece, where Christian monks have resided since the fourth century and still chant the liturgy that has remained virtually unchanged for over 1,000 years.
As a monk at Mount Athos in the early 80s and 90s, I (thought), What a rich liturgical life we have here. Wouldnt it be cool if we could have that where I came from? says Dedes, 52, who grew up in Toledo, Ohio.
Today, people stepping into morning Matins or Divine Liturgy at this domed church on Kuykendall Road might almost think they are listening to a choir on Mount Athos.
But there are modern twists here. While the chant uses centuries-old melodies, the words are in English, the chanters are following the liturgy on computer screens, and half of them are women.
Its part of an effort, Dedes says, to change with the times to make chanting relevant to a new generation of American worshippers while honoring the past and helping people to rediscover the ancient riches of their Christian tradition.
Dedes and others helping facilitate their music dont have an easy job.
For starters, it involves translating ecclesiastical Greek poetry into English that makes sense to contemporary ears, yet honors the original text.
Theyre also writing Western musical notes for hymns that exist in Byzantine chant notation few parishioners can read. And finally, theyre trying to make it easier for ordinary parish choirs to navigate the thousands of hymns in the Orthodox church, which they have to sing at the right times and places during a Sunday combination of services that might last three hours or more.
This combination of complexities usually meant that in American parishes, the liturgies were chanted by people who had trained for years in Greece or in cities with large Greek Orthodox populations.
Orthodox liturgy is sung from beginning to end in a dialogue between priest and choir, or priest and chanter, or priest and people.
Its not like churches where most of the service is spoken, punctuated only intermittently with isolated hymns, says Lucy Zapsas, 53, choir director at Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Charlotte and president of the Southeastern Federation of Greek Orthodox Choirs and Musicians.
Orthodox Sunday services begin with early Matins and extend into Divine Liturgy, the Eucharistic service.
The liturgy is set. The same prayers are said pretty much every week, Zapsas says. You can go into any Eastern Orthodox service in the country and you will be able to follow it if youre familiar with the service.
However, there are variations in how the churches use available texts and music. Zapsas says that the choir at Holy Trinity Cathedral sings their first of two Sunday Divine Liturgies in English, and the second in Greek. They use Byzantine melodies that have been arranged into four-part harmony, and they play an organ to accompany hymns.
This is a typical setup for many American Orthodox churches, Dedes says.
Saint Nektarios liturgies feature a choir of men led by Dedes on one side of the sanctuary, and a choir of women on the other, singing hymns antiphonally in traditional monophonic (one-melody) Byzantine chant. The only instrument is a keyboard on which Dedes plays the yson, a base note that drones underneath the melody to guide the singer.
Purpose of music
When the immigrants came to America in the early part of the 20th century, wanting to fit in, they would take this Byzantine music and sort of Westernize it and harmonize it, make it sound like music you would hear in a Protestant or Catholic church, says Stan Takis, who lives outside Lansing, Mich. He and his wife Nancy, both 62 and former music teachers, created New Byzantium Publications, www.newbyz.org, a website that helps people learn about traditional chant.
Music affects us, says Dedes. If we had an orchestra and a band and whatever, it might be nice music, but in his tradition, he says, the purpose for church (music) is to lead us to compunction and even to go beyond the words of the hymn to a state of contemplation.
Lets lead them to compunction, he says, meaning both repentance and gratefulness for Gods mercy. Thats the purpose of the hymn both of the music and also the words.
Musical texts of Christian church music in Byzantine notation look to the untrained eye like an odd sort of Arabic. Dedes, Nancy Takis and others render the Byzantine symbols into the familiar metered notes of the Western musical staff.
English texts of the Greek hymns started to become available in the 1960s in America, translated by local priests or chanters, though these translations were not introduced uniformly into parishes across the country.
Often problems arose because the shorter English text didnt fit the music written for longer Greek words of five or seven syllables. In that case, Dedes tinkers with the existing melody to remove a few extraneous notes.
In 2009, Dedes magnified all his music, put it into binders and put the large-print music on stands so the choirs about 10 men and 10 women could share them. But the setup became cumbersome. I would have to collate the music all the time it was a pain. So I said, You know what? Were going to go digital.
During the liturgy at Saint Nektarios, the text of the entire service appears on the left side of a computer monitor. The choir scrolls down as they follow along the service. Every time the choir reaches a place where they are to sing, they click on the screen, and a window with the hymns musical score appears in the right frame.
Last year, Dedes, with the blessing of Metropolitan Alexios of Atlanta, created a nonprofit corporation called AGES initiatives to help other Orthodox churches adopt similar services.
At Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Wilmington, the choir director, physician Michael Rallis, 60, began bringing in his iPad to keep all their music in one place. Its a big ordeal to be constantly pulling from the multiple resource books of prescribed hymns, he says. Eventually, they got enough iPads for the choir to share.
In so many ways, that parish is the role model for the rest of us, says Rallis of Saint Nektarios.