Saturday, November 17, 2007

revisiting the plainchant thing

In a blog entry back in June, titled the tao of plainchant, I set out to relate, while it was still fresh in my mind, the encounter I had with a group of men in the community who gather on Sundays to sing Gregorian Chant. In that post, however, I all too quickly used up my meager personal blogging resources to fill in the background and describe the history of my interest in the arcane art form, only to cap it off by promising to describe in a future post my experience with the chant group.

Voila, a scant five months later, I’m delivering on my promise! (Sorry it took so long, O’Donovan.).

It was the end of May when I was invited to sit in with the group. I’d known about them for at least 20 years, and had always been intrigued by the improbable idea of a non-monastic (no cowls required) chant gathering in California, and was delighted that it was still going on.

Since Meera was attending Sunday services at a nearby church at roughly the same time, it was perfectly convenient for me to drop her and the kids off at the church and go to the gathering.

I parked my car on a residential street a good distance from the address. I was a little nervous about meeting new people, and I thought a walk would do me some good. The paved road with sidewalks gave way to a dirt road which as it descended into a cool gulch darkly shaded of by eucalyptus trees. Then, as it rose up the other side of the gulch, the eucalyptus canopy gave way to bright sunshine and an enchanting symphony of birdsong.

On this side of the grove I found a peaceful rustic neighborhood. I heard the cluck of a chicken as I made my way, according to the instructions I’d been given, to the back of the main house and entered a cozy work shed, its wooden panels unpainted and weathered gray.

I’d been told that the chanting went from ten to noon. I was 40 minutes late, but there were only two people there, neither of whom were Andy.

I was greeted by a short taciturn man with a trim gray beard, whose name I promptly forgot─something like Voldemort, but I knew that couldn’t be right. The other, named Mark, had a pleasant clean-shaven face and long dark hair in a ponytail.

I introduced myself as a friend of Andy’s. I couldn’t tell if they were expecting me, but my appearance didn’t cause surprise. The two continued a conversation they had been having on various things to do with East European languages and culture, something I was at a loss to talk about. Waldemar, whose name I was reminded of later, was from Austria, Mark was a music professor at the University.

I wanted to talk about Gregorian chant, share some of my own ideas about it, and learn more about the group, but I was shy, and didn’t want to be intrusive, so I just sat and tried to make myself comfortable while I listened to them talk. It was comfortably warm, a wood stove putting out modest heat. I glanced around at the variety of knickknacks and wall adornments that honored music, philosophy, poetry, and art. And saw, near the sink, a large espresso machine. Nice.

It wasn’t till about 11:00 that Andy arrived, accompanied by two more men with gray beards that I hadn’t met before. One of them had ridden his bicycle a great distance, and taken a long time to get there, having had a flat tire along the way.

As everyone got settled, good-natured banter and small talk were exchanged. Waldemar made espresso drinks for the guests, but I declined, having already had my coffee for the day.

At last, with little more than half an hour to go, we gathered around the table, and got down to the business of plainchant. I proudly produced my fine old battered copy of the Liber Usualis, but, because the pagination on my edition didn’t match, I had to use one of theirs, of which there were plenty.

Frank, the regular leader of the group, was out of town this day, so Waldemar directed, somewhat timidly. He wasn’t really adept at establishing the starting pitches and various modes. Mark was better at this, but not so good at reading the neumes. And, besides Mark, none of the men, including myself, were very confident singers.

It had been a while since I had attempted to read neumes, and it didn’t help matters that I had neglected to bring my reading glasses. So, no surprise, it was a very choppy beginning. Waldemar seemed to chafe at the errors and difficulties everyone was having, but said nothing. I’d like to think I was doing pretty well, though, for a newcomer.

When we took up the Gregorian sequence “Victimae Paschali” I gained considerable confidence. I knew it well, having studied and memorized it years ago. This freed me from having to interpret the neumes on the fly so I could concentrate on my tone quality and musicality. The time passed very quickly, and, just when I was hitting my stride, it was time to wrap it up.

Though I was disappointed that, after 20 years, the group wasn’t just a tad more skilled, I greatly enjoyed the friendly atmosphere and camaraderie; and just the very idea of a local Gregorian Chant gathering tickles me. I thought to myself, next time I will be more at ease and confident, and do better, and, once Frank has returned, it ought to go more smoothly.

Unfortunately, the next few Sundays Meera and I had other obligations to attend. And then, the regular pastor at Meera’s church took the summer off, and Meera lost interest in going. Without that facilitating convenience, I never went back One of these days, I will.

May the plainchant gathering continue for at least another 20 years, et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis.

    Tunes I blogged along to...

  • Not Dark Yet─Bob Dylan─Time Out Of Mind
  • Beautiful Land─Nina Simone
  • Raga Ramdas Malhar─Ravi Shankar, sitar; Ali Akbar Khan, sarod─Ragas
  • Down in the Valley to Pray─Doc Watson─The Best of Doc Watson 1964-1968
  • In the Mood─Glenn Miller & His Orchestra─Ken Burns: Jazz: The Story of American Music
  • Baya Wa Baya/Promo─Dandaro─Ndoenda Baba
  • Mo Ti Mo─King Sunny Ade─Synchro System
  • Embraceable You─Sarah Vaughan─At Mister Kelly's
  • Il pleut dans ma chambre─Charles Trenet
  • The Ploughman─Djivan Gasparyan, duduk─I Will Not Be Sad In This World


Anonymous said...


(Save the Liturgy, Save the World)

Nicola O. said...

You should go back! It sounds like something you would enjoy so much, and complements other aspects of your life.

Puzzled said...

I know you're right, Nicola, and your encouragement gives that knowledge an added kick in the butt that may just be the motivation I need to go out and chant among men again!