Nov 12, 2014

Byzantine Chant: the sound of prayer

Nektaria Karantzi is one of the most prominent women in Byzantine music. She has toured across Europe showcasing the ancient voice of the Church.

She is the Founder and Honorary President of the PanHellenic Association of Women in Byzantine Ecclesiastical Music. Her work has been honoured by the Byzantine Chanters [Ieropsaltes] through the Hellenic Musicological Society – Institute for Byzantine and Greek Traditional Music Studies and the music magazine "To Psaltiri". She is also the Public Relations and Press Manager of the Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra of Athens and the Artistic Director of the Traditional Music School "Chronis Aidonides".

I had the privilege of interviewing Nektaria Karantzi, despite being on a busy concert tour, to discuss her love for Byzantine chant, her influences and her exciting, up-coming project.

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You started chanting and performing at a young age. What inspired you to dedicate yourself to this scared art?

I grew up early on with this special kind of music, so it very much became part of my life. I also had the blessing to know during my childhood a contemporary saint, Saint Porphyrios the Kapsokalyvite, and with his encouragement I started my studies in Byzantine Music.


Byzantine chant is a life-long learning experience. What are some of the basics that make it unique to Western spiritual music?

Indeed! Byzantine music is a life-long learning experience – as well as any kind of the "real" music – and takes much study and practice to understand and be executed correctly. This kind of music has many special features that make it unique. There’s much to say about it, but for the sake of summarising, I’ll give a small sample of the huge variety of musical specificities in Byzantine chant.

Firstly, there’s musical modes. Byzantine music employs a wide range of modes. It does not distinguish between major and minor scales. Byzantine scales have precise tunings that have some intervals smaller than the Western half-step, so it sounds very different from any other kind of music, based on Western tradition. Also, the whole system of Byzantine music is closely related to the Ancient Greek system.

But, what I think is most distinct and important about Byzantine music is that this kind of chant is not only an art, but moreso a prayer. The prayerful mood is the quintessence of Byzantine music. Byzantine ecclesiastical music is foremost the art of prayer and spirituality. It has a psychotherapeutic value that calms the soul and leads the people to their natural state – their relationship with God.


You’ve toured all over Europe, what do non-Orthodox people think of Byzantine chant? Is it becoming popular?

European people welcome Byzantine chanting with great interest and an honest desire to learn! I have some really great memories from my tours all over the Europe. However, I don't think that it has been turned into a popular kind of music. Besides, popularity never was the purpose of this art. 


Do you think Byzantine chant can be incorporated into secular music?

In a musicological way, it could be, but in that case we cannot speak about Byzantine music. It's just about a kind of an arrangement. 


In your first recordings of chanting you accompanied Saint Porphyrios – what was it like to work with him and what wisdom did this great saint pass on to you?

Saint Porphyrios is the most important person in my life. I learned ecclesiastical music thanks to him, but foremost…I met a Saint of God in life. I grew up next to him, from a very early age, with my family. I remember Saint Porphyrios as the man of love. He had the experience of the Holy Spirit within his heart in his life. We thank the Lord for giving us such a great gift in our times... He always stressed that Christianity is freedom. He pressured no-one and he wanted whoever came to him to do it out of their own free will.

He loved Byzantine hymnography very much and he liked Byzantine music chanted by women during the Divine Liturgies or other liturgical services, at the Greek Orthodox churches. 


You have a new album coming out very soon. What’s this project about and why is it so significant?

It's the first part of my new big project, Byzantine Ecclesiastical: Hymns and Traditional Songs to the Mother of God! It's really something special because the total project comprises of more than 40 Byzantine Ecclesiastical Hymns and about 30 traditional songs with reference to the Mother of God which makes it unique and the first complete musical work of collected hymns and songs of the Virgin Mary from all over Greece.

The hymns cover the Great Feasts of the Mother of God while many others are included: Kalophonic Heirmos, some known hymns recently composed [i.e ‘O Virgin Pure’ written by St Nektarios, ‘Virgin Pure’ by hieromonk Daniel Koutanakiotis] and many other hymns such as the Akathist Hymn and the Supplicatory Canon to the Mother of God.

Regarding the traditional songs there has been an attempt to include all regions of Greece from Crete to Thrace and the one-time unforgotten Homelands [Sinasos in Cappadocia, Silivria, Tsesme, Alatsata, Kato Panayia]. Some songs of the project are unpublished, preserved either for the musical archives of the Hellenic Folklore Research Center of the Academy of Athens, the recording of which was edited at times by reputable musicians and musicologists such as the late Spryridon Peristeris or through amateur recordings of past generations, of which I was fortunate enough to have in my hands. The whole work has been distributed in three editions, each of these contains a double CD with traditional songs and Byzantine hymns of Theotokos.

I’ve also had the honour in this first edition to work with three special guests: the greatest performer and teacher of the Greek Folk Culture, Chronis Aidonids; the internationally acclaimed pianist, composer and conductor and ECM recording artist Vassilis Tsabropoulos and the internationally acclaimed folk singer of Hungary and a UNESCO artist for Peace, my very beloved artist, Marta Sebestyen!


When will the first album be released?

It's is going to be released in a few weeks, by the Radio Stations of the Church of Greece. 


What’s your next project?

It's a new album that is going to be released by ECM records with the internationally acclaimed pianist, composer, a conductor Vassilis Tsabropoulos. We have recently initiated a special collaboration with Vassilis Tsabropoulos which links the music of West and East. This gap is eliminated by the hands of a famous musician like Vassilis Tsabropoulos. The starting point of our cooperation is the deep inner intent to join two different worlds of music that seem inconsistent and sometimes incompatible. 

Vassilis Tsabropoulos has managed to highlight another aspect and development which the Byzantine music routes could have, when the soul is allowed to breathe freely, far from prejudices and attitudes which unravel and destroy the musicality and often become a hiding place for sloppiness surviving only with the façade of a disputed authenticity


What advice can you give to other young women who want to chant?

Close your ears to the "popular" songs of sirens and don't be afraid of the difficulties and the loneliness of the path you chose with all of your heart.


by Chris Vlahonasios

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