Interview with Stephen Esper, Cantor of St. George Church (EN)

(15. 01. 2018, made by Ellen Moysan in Pittsburgh, PA, USA; transcribed and edited by Joel & Dana Boyer)

Stephen Esper

Stephen Esper, Cantor of St. George Church (S.E.): In the Orthodox Church, as opposed to many other faiths, it’s void of any emotion or passion. You are not allowed or supposed to imbue the music with your own feelings because the words themselves, concentration on the words, and also the musical mode—tone—is what shapes how the individuals are supposed to feel. So for example within the Baptist faith, they have a lot of instruments within their services, and the singing, in and of itself is very joyful. But if you came to our Church its not not joyful, it’s just there. And it puts your soul in a state of prayer. At least that’s what it’s supposed to do. Because in Byzantine music, there are two portions. The first portion is what we call the isokratima. It’s called ison. And the ison is basically the drone. It’s the [singing: low extended /o/]. And then from that, [singing in Greek] and it always returns back to that specific note.

I’ll give you an example: This is one of my, favorite choirs from the holy mountain /aɪu:noros/.

EM: Wait, is it Greek? Do you sing in Greek?

SE: I sing in Greek. I sing in Arabic. And I sing in English. That was Greek. That was “Christ is risen.”

EM: Actually, it reminds me of the Gregorian chants.

SE: Yes, it is a similar intention. I think it might have its roots in Byzantine chant.

EM: Yea, yours is definitely more ancient. Are you first generation American?

SE: Yes I am.

EM: So you speak Syrian at home?

SE: A little bit, yes. I taught myself how to read… Ah, here it is! This is my favorite. [Recording of chant begins] How do you feel? Just think to yourself how you feel when hear it. So, you hear the underlying note. This is an important part here. Now listen to how the modes change. It changed. The ison and the mode changed. Listen to the ison. It’s going to come back now. It just changed.

EM: They added one voice?

SE: No, they didn’t add a voice. Everybody changed. It went from this note, to this note, to this note, and then back. And so [recording ends] the ison, theologically, represents the uncreated light. Have you ever heard of the uncreated light?

EM: No.

SE: The uncreated light refers to God. It is the brilliance of God. In the icon of the transfiguration this is what it is. He shines with this uncreated light. And if we concentrate on the word uncreated, it’s not created. It was always there, from the beginning. And the uncreated light is not like the sun that burns, but it’s an eternal light. And actually there’s a miracle where it shows every year. I don’t know if you’ve ever researched the Holy Fire at Jerusalem. But the Holy Fire at Jerusalem, where the Patriarch of Jerusalem prays at the Holy Sepulcher, his candles are spontaneously lit by the uncreated light. And you can see video of people putting the fire up to their face and not being burned, because its cool. It’s a cool fire. It doesn’t burn.

EM: It’s like Moses in Exodus 3, when the fire doesn’t burn the bush?

SE: The burning bush is the uncreated light. It doesn’t burn the people who believe. It doesn’t burn, but it’s there and moves through everything. That’s actually a type, a prefigurement, of the mother of God, because inside the mother of God dwelt the uncreated light yet she was not consumed. Here is the representation of the burning bush, that’s Moses, and inside the burning bush, that is what is taken to be mother of God holding Christ in her womb.

EM: So the music represents that?

SE: No, the ison represents the uncreated light of God that permeates through everything, the foundation for life and creation in and of itself. The uncreated light is never broken, you didn’t hear the ison stop. It just kept going, permeates through everything, and doesn’t stop. It’s the foundation upon which everything is based.

EM: But you have to breathe too. Do you learn how to breathe and where to breathe?

SE: Yes, you have to breathe. We’re humans so, I mean, you know, that’s it’s representation. If I tell people ‘Maintain the ison through the whole way’ then they stagger their breathing. So one person breathes here and the next person breathes there so there’s never any silence, okay? But that’s the theological representation of the ison, and then, so you heard the melody, right?

EM: Yes.

SE: The melody is all sung in unison. There is no harmony. Okay? The melody is chanted in unison. And it was specifically written that way, in unison, not in four parts, for a specific reason: because when we confess the faith by saying the creed—I believe in one God, the father almighty—we say it in unison, we all believe the same thing. And when we chant, we chant in unison because we all believe the same thing. So the words and the music are all together and everything is in unison. It represents one unified Church; one unified expression of the faith; one unified love, which is like the holy trinity, because the trinity is unified and they express everything with the same voice.

EM: I see. it’s a male choir, right?

SE: No.

EM: There are women too?

SE: Yes, we have women. It doesn’t have to be all males. In our Church we have both guys and girls. It’s good when we can have a girl choir and a guy choir, but if you don’t have that, mix. Everybody believes the same thing.

EM: Is it the same in Syria? Sometimes America is adjusting…

SE: Yes it is the same. There are many female chanters, there are many male chanters. They get together in Syria or in Lebanon, or wherever, and they have mixed choirs. The only reason you saw only males up there the other day was because the girls didn’t come. It’s not because we kicked them out, they just didn’t show up. If you had come to the Orthros the next day, you would have seen three girls. There is no exclusion based upon… Actually, that’s another reason why the Orthodox Church doesn’t have instruments, right?

EM: Why?

SE: You don’t see any instruments in the Orthodox Church. You see nothing but the voice. And the reason why is you don’t have to have a talent to worship, to pray, to praise the Lord. Additionally, when you play an instrument, you have to bring the instrument to the Church. But you don’t need to take anything. You take your heart. You take your spirit; you take your soul; that’s it. You take who you are and you come as you are to the Church with all of your imperfections.

EM: So you accept anybody in the choir, even people having a bad voice?

SE: I will accept anybody in the choir who has the commitment to come and be with us. And, yes, there are some people who do not have the best voices, and that’s okay. We’re not a music school. At the same time, don’t get me wrong, I mean generally the people who know that they don’t have the best voice, they kind of…

EM : …avoid singing in the choir?

SE: Well, they don’t avoid singing. You know, some people will still come up and they’ll be up there but that won’t be loud. And I have to, we have to, because the purpose of the choir is to assist the people in their prayer, and the reason why it’s important that the service be run in a smooth manner is because the service in and of itself, the divine service, the liturgy, or the vespers or the Orthos, this is an expression of heaven, of which the liturgy is the fullest expression because of the receipt of the body and blood of Christ, the Communion, the Eucharist. And so if we have people stopping and starting with their readings; if they keep tripping over the words; or if the music doesn’t sound good; or if you look on the wall and the icons aren’t good; then this also speaks to the people’s soul. The Orthodox Church appeals to every sense: the sight with the iconography on the wall; the music to the ears, that comes that permeates through everything; the smell with the incense; the taste with the communion; the touch as well. It appeals to everything.

EM: So you chant and the priest is also singing, right? How do you alternate between the choir and the priests?

SE: Well it’s a dialogue. So it goes [chanting] “Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever unto ages of ages. Amen.” And “Amen” is basically a reaffirmation of what the guy actually just said. “In peace let us pray to the Lord, ‘Lord, have mercy.’”

EM: So there’s no discontinuity in music during the Liturgy. It’s either the priest singing or you, but it’s always musical.

SE: Yes, yes, always musical. Always chanted. Because that’s the harmony of heaven! I’m not saying chanting is. I’m saying everything is in its own right, its own environment. Everything is done to help all people to experience heaven. And, plus, we know that the angels, who are found chanting at all times “Holy, Holy, Holy art thou Lord of Sabaoth”, all of the angels, they chant ceaselessly at the throne of the Lord.

EM: So I want to come back to what you said before, that you’re not supposed to sing with your feelings because the music is shaping your feelings. How does this music become personal then? First I ask you what you understand of inner song (an expression I use in my research). And, second, how this music which is not coming from you becomes you?

SE: Let me play you a recording. I want to say something. This might sound a little bit off or weird, but try to understand from where it’s coming. Whenever whatever I sing is able to speak to somebody else, it is not me singing. It is the Lord singing through me. Or the angels singing through me.

EM: You are an instrument?

SE: That’s what we all are. We are all instruments.

EM: Sounds the Franciscan prayer. “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.”

SE: That’s it. The music means something to me and I try not to imbue my emotions or my passions in the music because ultimately its meant to be emotionless.

EM: But you don’t think that your emotions will glorify the music or will make the music more full because you are fully participating in it?

SE: Well, take a listen to this. This hymn is sung on Holy Thursday which is celebrated in anticipation of Holy Friday. Holy Thursday evening is the service of the twelve Passion Gospels and it’s a very long service. And there’s a hymn that’s chanted that’s one of the only hymns in the Church that includes Christ’s words. The hymn is “They stripped me of my clothes and they gave me a scarlet robe to wear and they placed a crown of thorns on my head and they delivered into my right hand a rod that I may crush them like pottery.” This is the pain and the anguish that the Lord is feeling. So this is how I chanted it. [Recording of chant in English begins] So that’s it. [Chant ends]

EM: You want to say that you sing with all your heart but without specific emotion.

SE: Let me ask you a question. And feel free to answer whatever way you want. Did you hear the anguish in the Lord’s voice in that hymn?

EM : Yea. I mean it’s very intense

SE: It’s an intense piece of music. How did it make you feel?

EM: I really love those kinds of songs.

SE: But tell me, how did it make you feel?

EM: It’s hard to describe what music makes you…

SE: If you saw in the confines of the service, in the context of the service, where Christ is hanging on the cross, and He’s still alive, and He says “They stripped off my clothes and they gave me a scarlet robe and they put a crown of thorns on my head” He is looking at his creation who has delivered Him up to death.

EM: Yes, I know the literature.

SE: I know you know the literature, but what I’m saying is this chant and the way that it’s composed, it pierces you in a way that is not specifically describable. So I can tell you that I try and chant that bereft of emotion. But I chant it with all of my heart because the words mean so much to me; because His actions mean so much to me. That’s what it means to me. When I chant that hymn I get goosebumps. Not because I’m good…

EM: It’s a prayer. So you are speaking to God, right?

SE: It’s his words. You’re speaking his words. To the people. And to Him. Reminding us what he did. And it is not an insignificant act. Surrounded by all of that it is difficult to not think to yourself the enormous thing that He did.

EM: But it’s also because you have faith that it means something for you. It’s your culture, you have faith, but do you think it’s universal? I think we learn to be touched by those kinds of songs. I mean I am a musician so I got to know those songs very early and then I’m used to the liturgy and I grew up with faith so I think it touches me a lot because I share that. However, it’s also cultural, right?

SE: Is it?

EM: For you it roots you in your faith, it roots you in your culture. Have you been to Syria?

SE: No.

EM: No, so it roots you to your original culture and it roots you in a language even if you are also singing in English, right?

SE: yes

EM: Sometimes you use other languages too. There is a debate in the Catholic Church between having a liturgical language and a modern language. Do you think having singing in those languages impacts the way you relate to God?

SE: No, I don’t. And I’ll tell you why. When you go back and say, well I grew up in that culture. I sang, we did, six of us, just six of us did a concert for twenty minutes in front of four hundred or five hundred people in a Church. People who were not Orthodox, some people who were not Christian, some people who were atheist, whatever, and we sang, we chanted a hymn, Moses the Great.

EM: Yea, I think I know it. We can play it. I spent a good amount of time on YouTube…

SE: Six of us chanted that. That was a live recording. And that was the whole choir. Like 15 people. And you think we have wonderful voices but there are people in there for whom maintaining a good pitch is difficult. But that’s why we sing as a group, because it covers over their flaws. We protect our brothers and sisters. So we sang, just six of us, as opposed to a choir of 25 people, and we were just one Byzantine Choir. The rest were four part harmony, whatever, different things.

EM: When was that?

SE: This was seven years ago. Six of us were louder than a 25 person choir.

EM: I can believe that. Why?

SE: Because we sang in unison. That’s the first thing: sing in unison. And I told you that the concert was to people who were Christian, non-Christian, anything. Many people came up to us after we performed our part and said “what was Moses the Great?” and it spoke to them in whatever fashion. This doesn’t care about your worldly and cultural sense. This speaks to the soul, to something intangible within you. This speaks to something the Lord gave us all. And even if we have not cultivated it in our life it’s still there.

EM: Yes, because it’s prior. So, you say a song which is prior touches anybody, whereas the same song would be sung by someone or by people with no faith would be different?

SE: It would be different, yes, but in addition to that they would still obtain something from it. It’s not like, you can’t sing one of these hymns, or you can’t listen to something and be like ‘what’s, ugh, whatever.’ It’s difficult to do that because there’s something that stirs up inside.

EM: I like music from Bulgaria, for example the Bulgarian Voices, they are singing from their heart and  have wonderful songs but they are not singing to God. However, it touches too. I think it’s prior because it’s deeply rooted in a culture.

It’s based on the human voice which is the most elementary musical instrument, right? Your voice is you. Whereas when you play the cello or the violin you try to make a unity of two different things. But when you are singing you are actually one.

SE: Do you know how many people in this choir were originally Orthodox, or originally Christian?

EM: I don’t know, one?

SE: Two. Do you know how many people converted from Buddhism or Hinduism? Do you know how many people are Korean, or nothing even close to what an Orthodox person, a traditional Syrian, Greek, Russian, Romanian, Bulgarian, things like that? The choir is an eclectic group of individuals. And in this way, if I can quote St. Maximus the Confessor when he described heaven, he described heaven as a single body of voices, each of them an individual, but they made up the entire choir that all had the same opinion.

EM: It’s like St. Paul, right? One body, each Christian is part of the body and we all form the body of Christ?

SE: Yes. We all form the Church, we express the same faith, we all have the same opinion, we chant to the Lord saying ‘I believe in the Lord, I love the Lord,’ but each of us is an individual. And it doesn’t matter the culture, or anything. The culture, the only culture that is in here is the music. The 8 tones developed…

EM: …in a culture.

SE: In a culture. Absolutely. It absolutely developed in a culture.

EM: And God uses the culture to develop, to speak to the human people, right?

SE: Yes

EM: He used the Jewish people, he used Jerusalem, and Jesus had a culture.

SE: He absolutely did. And it’s interesting that you mention that.

EM: He was completely Jewish.

SE: Well, hang on though. Yes, he was Jewish, but he tore down the Jewish…

EM: He opened it.

SE: From the beginning, the Jewish people, the Hebrew people, were the people that the Lord decided to reveal himself through. Although Greek philosophers prophesied Christ. And so did Lao-Tze. They also prophesied Christ in different parts of the world. But the Lord decided to reveal Himself through the Jewish people, a patriarchal society, right, where the first son matters. If you look in the genealogy of Christ from Abraham to Christ, what do you see?

EM: It’s never the first son. I’m doing a Torah reading with a Rabbi and we went through this question.

SE: So, It’s not the first son. Esau was the first son. Jacob was the second son who went in disguise and stole the father’s blessing.

EM: Yes, it’s what we were reading two weeks ago with the Rabbi. Do you want to say that God doesn’t care about the human order?

SE: There is only one order and it is God. The other thing is when St. Paul says specifically:  “For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God.” (Romans 8:14). But why is that important? Is that sexist? Is that misogynistic?

EM: No, I don’t think so. It’s generic.

SE: It’s not even generic. He’s saying that God is not just for the firstborn son. God is for the firstborn son, the last-born son, the girls. So the girls have a chance to be a son of God because of the environment to whom he was speaking where the firstborn son was the most important, was the one who inherited. Christ came in and destroyed that, saying the Kingdom of Heaven is inherited by people who want it. That’s the reason why he said ‘these are the sons of God’ that we are all meant to be sons of God. Because of the culture in which it developed. So, yes, Christ came from the Jewish culture, he came from the Hebrew culture, he was raised in it. But he allowed himself to be raised in it for a purpose.

EM: To transcend culture.

SE: Yes, exactly!

EM: I think there are both of those. You need culture to go to God and God uses the culture to reveal himself.

SE: Do you need culture to go to God?

EM: I mean, we are all cultural beings. Nobody is without any culture. The more rooted you are in your culture, the more able you are to understand… I travelled a lot, I lived in different countries, I went to mass in Japan, in Prague, in Germany, and every time I was thinking “I am discovering a different face of Christ”.

SE: Because people make the liturgy or the mass what relates to the people there. Yes.

EM: One of the most powerful things in Christianity is that it’s rooted in culture, in any kind of culture, without carrying any specific culture.

SE: I agree with you. Nothing is in a vacuum. I get it. But what I’m saying is that the Lord transcends that. That you don’t need a culture to get to the Lord.

EM: No, so Christianity is not a culture. It’s rooted in cultures but it’s not a culture as such. We don’t dress in a specific way. We don’t have specific ways to eat. It can be adjusted to any kind of culture.

SE: Yes, which is what Cyril and Methodius did when they went to Russia and they put the language in Russian. They translated into the Cyrillic alphabet from the Byzantine empire to convert all of Russia. Yes, it takes on the form of the culture that’s there, but my only point is that everybody in that choir has culture but you’re still singing the same music, and the music did come out of a culture, definitely.

EM: I like when it is in Arabic.

SE: A lot of people like when it’s in a different language, and other people say, ‘Well, everything should be in English.’  If you ask them, ‘What did I sing in English?’, if you ask them, they say, “Well, I can’t understand if it’s in a different language’, then you go on and say, “I just chanted in English, what did I say?’ they’ll say, “I don’t know, I wasn’t paying attention.’ It’s not like it really mattered. To be honest, there’s sometimes an advantage to being in Greek or Arabic or another language, because it forces you to read what’s on the page. But it doesn’t matter because you know, if you don’t understand it, you know that you’re there, and you know that you’re in the Lord’s presence. What is there for you to understand? What are you going to understand? Nothing! You can understand the words and then you try to tell people, ‘OK, this is what’s to understand’, and then, after you try to explain it to them, when they want to understand, “Do you understand now?’, ‘Well, no, not really, can you explain it again?’ So, what’s to understand? To understand is to understand that we are waiting for the body and blood of Christ and to be patient. It’s to know you’re in heaven, that’s what’s to understand. It’s all a mystery.

EM: Interesting. Actually, when I go to the liturgy—I’m not Orthodox so I can recognize some things, but not everything I like going just to pray with other people and connect with God in different ways—but, I was wondering how much it’s important to understand what you are actually saying or doing, or what you are witnessing, because I witnessed a priest doing the liturgy and so many times I cannot understand exactly what is happening, but I like being there because of the prayer, just to be there.

SE: That’s a great question. What do we have to understand? What is it that we’re trying to understand?

EM: If you don’t understand anything, you probably lose the connection with God.

SE: I disagree completely.

EM: Like, why do people leave church? I think it’s because they don’t get what is happening.

SE: People leave church for a mountain of reasons. I have no idea why. Some people leave because the priest was mean, some people leave because, ‘oh, this isn’t in Arabic, this isn’t in Greek,’ some people leave because they don’t like the music, some people leave because, whatever. That’s not a reason. What is it that you are attempting to do? Get closer to God? Then come. Stand there, and listen to the Lord of mercy. People leave church because…

EM: …they are not connecting to God.

SE: Because they are not looking to connect with God, they are looking to connect with humanity. When somebody leaves the church because a priest makes them upset, or because the priest chooses to sell Pepsi products over Coke products for the fellowship hour, or they don’t like the donuts after church for the fellowship, that’s not the reason to not come.

EM: I agree with you.

SE: If people don’t come because everything is in Arabic, or everything is in Greek, that’s not the church.

EM: If you want to connect with God you will find him anywhere because He will reveal Himself to you.

SE: God is between you and I. What is it for the people to understand? The people should understand here comes communion, here comes the uncreated light, take communion, go out and love people. That’s what’s to understand.

EM: I mean, you learned all this, you learned theology and you had a good background, right? So, you understand what you are doing actually.

SE: But I’ve over-complicated it. You don’t need an education.

EM: It depends on how educated you are.

SE: Doesn’t matter. Some people need more, some people need less, certainly I feel connected to the hymns and through educating myself and as I got down the rabbit hole, which is the church, as I go down this rabbit hole like an Alice in Wonderland, it makes many more rabbit holes and I keep following every one, it’s an endless maze. It’s fantastic, it’s so deep, you can never drink it all. And you just continue to learn. But there are people – my grandparents included – who didn’t understand a thing. And they went and they received communion and then went out and they did good. That’s the whole point: to receive communion. Do you know how long it takes to get to communion? It takes an hour. So it takes a long time to get to communion. But you know how long church is after communion? It’s like five minutes. You know why? Get out of church and go do something good! Go love somebody while the light is still in you and shining! While you still have the reminder of Christ in you. Not the reminder, while you still have Christ in you. You always have Christ in you but you just received it and our thoughts are so fleeting. That’s why it’s so short right afterwards. It ends almost immediately. Get out, go do good!

EM: So, you say, when you sing, you don’t connect with God through rational thinking, because it’s not an understanding, you don’t connect with God with your feelings?

SE: With the soul. That’s how we connect. Let me give you an example. A few years ago, I was chanting something for Epiphany, the baptism of Christ. And, you know, I was chanting, and as I was chanting, I came upon a line, a verse. When Christ went to John the Baptist, the hymn begins, ‘at the voice of one crying in the wilderness, repent! For the kingdom of heaven is at hand. Christ came to the Baptist and the Baptist looked at Christ, and said. When Christ asked him to baptize Him, the Baptist looked back and said: ‘How can the lamp illuminate the light?’

EM: Why is that? It’s in the Gospel?

SE: No, it’s in the hymns. How can the lamp illuminate the light? And I stopped chanting. Because it’s…

EM: It’s a paradox.

SE: It’s not just as a paradox, all of a sudden, and it wasn’t a feeling, all of a sudden my mind was opened. ‘How can the lamp illuminate the light?’  I can’t put it any other way! The lamp, which is just there for the light, which is dark without the light, the Lord is asking for baptism from someone who is not the Lord, and John the Baptist is like, ‘What’s going on? I don’t understand what’s happening!’ In that one sentence I stopped singing, and so did Nick, my buddy next to me. And the choir shut down for like five seconds. And tears came to my eyes. Because, it’s not that I felt something, it’s because something spoke to me. There’s another line. There are two more lines that come from the feast. And one of the hymns it says, ah, the baptizer says ‘I’m the one who needs baptism from You. And Christ says do not hesitate to baptize me because I am in haste to destroy the enemy.’ The humility of the Lord. And then in the next verse they ask the river Jordan ‘what ails you that you flee?’ and the Jordan responds ‘because I am used to washing dirty clay pots and vessels but now I have someone inside of me who is washing me.’ Because the Jordan was a tributary to the entire world, to the ocean. And by stepping into the Jordan he goes into the oceans, and the water evaporated, and all of creation is sanctified. By that one act, when Jordan says ‘I am in need to be washed.’ Think about that. Water is in need to be washed.

EM: Yea. That’s typical from Christianity, right? Those paradoxes?

SE: Water needs to be washed. Water needs to be cleaned. When I chant that I don’t feel happy, joy, sad, there’s maybe a peace. But it’s within. It’s within what God gave me from my birth. Not even from my birth, from my conception. It’s what God imbued me with, my soul. And in that way, if I can talk about death for a moment, when the soul and body separate… Do you know why the monks dress in black? At least Orthodox monks.

EM: No.

SE: Because they’re always ready for death.

EM: It makes sense.

SE: They’re always ready for death. And they always have their mind on death. It’s not a morbid existence. It’s actually a very beautiful existence. And the reason why is because we should all be watchful for our death. When it says we’re living in the last times, if I told you the world had eighty years to live, yea, that would be the last time. But we all have eighty, eighty five years to live. So we’re always perpetually living in our own last time. So the importance of life, as I have come to learn from the hymns and the reading, is to train the soul. When the soul is separated from the body, the body was a comfort for the soul, what does the soul have to comfort it?

EM: The soul is looking for God, right?

SE: Well, if you looked for God and found the tools to know God, you will see God whenever He draws the soul toward Him. If you don’t, then even as Christ draws the soul toward Him

EM: You will not recognize him.

SE: You won’t recognize Him because you’ll be looking for something else. If you liked a boat, you’ll be looking for a boat. That is the whole principle behind training the soul. In the funeral service it says—and I love the funeral service—‘when the soul parts from the body she cries out to angels and receives no reply. She reaches her hand toward men but no help comes. Truly, God, you are the only friend of man. What are we training our soul for? We’re training our soul to recognize God.

EM: So singing is part of this training.

SE: Singing is a part of the training. So that when the soul resonates with whatever frequency, and when the soul chants, the soul knows what it’s looking for after it departs from the body.

EM: Actually, one of the expressions to describe this inner music is ‘resonates.’

SE: Resonates. It’s perfect. It’s a resonance. Soul resonates. I think. I mean I don’t know. Who knows?

Is it the resonance of God in me? Yes. Because that’s the divine. Music is not about emotion but music is about soul. Music is about the spirit. Music is about the soul. How do we train our soul so that when it leaves the body it knows where to go?

EM: You receive sacraments.

SE: You receive the sacraments so you can recognize. So that when you are tempted by the things—temptations don’t end until the final judgment—or not even judgment, no, we judge ourselves. We get whatever we want. If we like boats, we get a boat. And we’re alone. So, by receiving the sacraments, by training the soul—this is what I need to recognize, this is what I want, or this is what I want to be—the music helps us in this manner.

EM: So you are saying the music drives you to God.

SE: Yes.

EM: Do you think music drives you to God because it’s liturgical music or does any kind of music drive you to God?

SE: Any kind of music. I love Mozart. And when I experience Mozart I would say it’s a spiritual connection. For almost any composition. You anticipate it, it puts you in a state of ecstasy, harmony, because there are dynamics: there’s crescendo, decrescendo, mezzo-forte piano, there are big changes. That ultimately is different than liturgical music.

EM: Yea, but when you play, do you pray at the same time? Like, I like playing cello and addressing my music to God.

SE: I think that’s beautiful. I would say that playing the cello is a prayer.

EM: I think so too. Also because you are using your talents and serving through your talents.

SE: But overall that’s the biggest issue: how do you use your talents? Do you recognize that it is not Ellen who plays the cello but the Lord who plays the cello through you? Do you recognize that it is not Stephen who plays the violin but it is the Lord who has imbued me with a talent that I do not deserve? You know, in the baptism in the Orthodox Church there’s a beautiful moment—the baptism is great—because what they first do is they lather the kid, the infant, up with oil. You know why? It’s because when the Greeks, the Byzantine Empire, went to battle they would put oil all over their armor so that the enemy wouldn’t be able to grab them. It would slip through their fingers.

EM: Oh, really? Interesting.

SE: So they lather the kid up with oil so that when the enemy, the devil, the demons try to grab it, it slips right out of their fingers. It’s symbolic in that way

EM: A good symbol.

SE: Then the kid is dunked; dies and resurrects, dies and resurrects, dies and resurrects. That’s the whole point. Full immersion, which is different than a lot of the other faiths.

EM: Wait, the baby is fully immersed?

SE: Full immersion. The head and everything is completely under the water. We die and we rise with Christ. And then there comes a point when they cut the kid’s hair. Do you know why?

EM: Oh, really? No.

SE: So that, well, they seal the kid. They put chrism and they confirm the kid. In the Orthodox Church we have confirmation and communion, everything. And there’s infant communion, infant baptism, everything from the beginning. Because the kid is a member of the Church. Have the kid take communion. Let the kid’s soul start to recognize where the kid is going to go from a young age so that the child has less of a chance of straying. So chrism, and then hair is cut. Why? Because it’s the only thing the child has to offer thanks to God. It’s the child’s gift back to God to say, ‘Thank you. Thank you for my life. Thank you for the ability to be baptized.’ So your talent in playing the cello, my talent in playing the violin, your talent in writing your dissertation, my talent in whatever else I do, did I do something to deserve them? No.

EM: They are given to you.

SE: They’re given to me. And then I was fortunate enough to have people who helped me cultivate them. But I didn’t do anything for these things. So, by rights, they’re not mine. But it’s my job, because I’ve been given them, to cultivate them. But to cultivate them in a way that hopefully does not send people away from the Lord, but brings them to the Lord. Because that’s the point of life. The point of life is to love and to say thank you.

EM: Your talents are an instrument of evangelization.

SE: Everybody’s talents are. Because they’re not ours. They’re not ours. We did nothing to deserve anything.

EM: We are poor beings.

SE: This was fantastic. I was passed over for some kind of a promotion, way back, and I was so upset, my ego was crushed, and I was talking to my spiritual father, and I was like ‘Ugh, it’s terrible. You know, I should have gotten that. I should have done this.’ And he was like ‘Oh, and you felt you deserve these things.’ And I said ‘Yes.’ And he said ‘Well, you deserve nothing but death.’ And it was like I got punched in the stomach. I deserve nothing but death. And you know how true that is? You know why? Because we brought that on ourselves. We brought death on ourselves. Born into paradise, and we chose death over life. And yet the Lord still had mercy on us to not end us. He still loved us. And actually even death is a gift. It’s an end to sin.

EM: That’s the possibility to know God at the end.

SE: I have talents. But they are talents that were given to me. They’re not mine. I posse them for a short time. In the end is the Lord is going to ask me ‘Hey, how’d you do with the violin?’.

EM: How did you love?

SE: That’s the whole.

EM: Through your violin maybe.

SE: Through the violin. I did my best every time.

EM: You cultivate your talents by training in music too. So how do you—you brought that book, I’m curious about that.

SE: This is book three in a series of nine books. And then these are other books that have different hymns. Same hymns but different scores.

EM: They are Greek books.

SE: They’re Greek. I brought you Greek, I brought you some Arabic and I have English. So, lets go over the Greek first because my first chanting language is Greek.

EM: How do you know which note to start on?

SE: Well, I’m going to show you that here. Byzantine music is based on eight modes. Mode one, two, three, four. So, I don’t use a pitchfork because with the harmony and within the context of the liturgy I just try to go off the priest’s note. So, if the priest is here: [chanting] In peace let us pray to the Lord… [chanting in Greek], a good choir director will do is we will go based on what the priest does.

EM: You don’t have any instruments so it doesn’t matter.

SE: You go off the priest. that’s how we figure out the start. Now, if you’re just singing a hymn…

EM: That’s liturgically interesting because the priest is giving you the tone. So he’s the first one. He’s leading …

SE: He starts, but if we decide beforehand that we’re going to do this in mode one and try and start here, then, that’s all beforehand. In the context of the liturgy the priest is the one who starts everything. So here, this is basically first mode. That’s ihos is mode, and alpha—in Greek they count by letters—that’s one, so, mode one. And this is ‘pa’. But the scale is ‘do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti, do.’ In Greek it’s ‘ni, pa, vu, ga, di, ke, zo, ni.’ Basically the same.

EM: And it’s the same scale? More or less?

SE: Not really. I’m just using it for an example. You have to understand that there are different steps between each. So it’s not a half step and a whole step. We’re talking about quarter steps.

EM: Okay, I get you. How do you read that?

SE: This is a note that tells me where I should start the hymn based upon this note. So I know that’s mode one [chanting]‘ni, pa, pa.’ [chanting ends] That’s my start note. This tells me I should stay the same.

EM: Okay

SE: This tells me I go up three; up a fourth.

EM: So sing that.

[Chanting] “Cristos” [Chanting ends]


SE: And then this goes down one. Every note that follows is based on the previous one.

EM: Okay, so this is stable?

SE: No. That’s up one.

EM: What? This one? Or this one?

SE: That’s up one. That’s the same. [Chanting] ‘Same, up three, down one, up one, same, down one, same, down, down.’[Chanting ends] [Chanting in Greek]. So every note is based on the one before it. Same, up a fourth, down a third, up one, up one, up one, down one, down one, up one, down two eighth-notes, down one. That’s a half note, that little thing on top. That’s up one with a flutter. [Chanting in Greek].

EM: [Chanting along in Greek together] So how do you?

SE: Because it’s written in that way. There used to be hundreds of symbols for how to go up one. And hundreds of symbols for how to go down one until somebody came along and said ‘Stop, we’re using three.’

EM: Okay.

SE: [Chanting in Greek] And this also is a qualitative symbol. [Chanting in Greek] So that’s very interesting. [Chanting] ‘Christ is born. Glorify Him. Christ hath come from the heavens. Receive Him. Christ is on earth. Elevate Him.’ [Chanting ends] Word painting. It goes down: [chanting] ‘Christ is on earth. Be exalted. Sing unto the Lord, all the earth. And ye nations. Praise Him with joy for He hath been glorified.’[chanting ends]. There’s another hymn for Christmas that is ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace and goodwill among men.

EM: Yea, we have the same.

SE: But it’s at the end of the hymn. [chanting in Greek]

EM: Yea, so word painting as you were saying.

SE: Yea, so some things go through word painting.

EM: So in some way you have to understand what you are singing. I mean if you understand you get the music better. Right?

SE: Yea, absolutely. And that’s why when you understand what you’re saying, you stop. And you’re like ‘This is awesome.’ So this is the concrete. This is mode one. This is mode eight. Mode, or actually plagal, four. So there’s mode one, two, three, and four.

EM: Plagal and so on, they are the same as medieval music.

SE: Mode one, two, three, and four, and then plagal one, plagal two—no, the medieval modes are the same as the Byzantine—plagal one, plagal two, grave mode, and plagal four.

EM: Yea, that’s okay, I learned them at school. I forgot them.

SE: Yea, so, you know what plagal means, basically?

EM: No.

SE: On its side. So there’s a hymn that says [speaking Greek] ‘Joseph was amazed at that which he beheld in you, the virgin.’ So it was like Joseph was on his side. So the plagals are a cousin.

EM: Okay.

SE: So if we go to plagal four. [Chanting in Greek] I’m reading upside down for the recorder, so. So that’s plagal four. Now in Arabic. [Chanting in Arabic] And then in English. [Chanting] ‘Verily Moses having struck horizontally with his rod did cleave the Red Sea and driving Israel to pass on foot.’

EM: Yea, I was wondering how you manage the translation with the verses because the music is written for a certain language, right?

SE: It’s written for Greek.

EM: Not for Arabic?

SE: No.

EM: Oh, Arabic is a translation from Greek?

SE: The Arabs were using Greek up until the 1900s.

EM: Oh, wow. Very recently.

SE: It’s written for Greek. But we have had people put the translations into Arabic, and I’m one of them, I help to put the translations into English. Depending on whatever translation it is very difficult.

EM: Yea, that’s the reason why I prefer when it’s in Greek. Because the verses are better.

SE: But, of course, it all works. You can make basically anything sound good. [Chanting in Greek] [Chanting in Arabic]. That doesn’t sound [bad].

EM: So what made them transition from Greek to Arabic?

SE: Somebody came along who was able to do it.

EM: So there was no liturgical controversy.  It’s in Arabic.

SE: So it’s the same music you read from left to right, but each syllable is like this. So you have to do pretty reasonably well.

EM: So, yea, that’s the reason why you learned Greek before, right?

SE: [Chanting in Arabic] Now it’s really difficult to read upside down because my eyes have to go two different directions. [Chanting in Arabic]

EM: Do the other people of the choir know Arabic and Greek too?

SE: They don’t know Arabic. They know a little bit of Greek. But they all know how to read Byzantine notation. Established by St. John of Damascus. And many of the hymns were written by St. John of Damascus.

EM: So you trained them before mass?

SE: I don’t know, they just kind of learned. I mean I have students. I would say a lot of them are my students.

EM: Where did you learn yourself?

SE: The Greek Church.

EM: How do you know which rhythm you’re using?

SE: This is how smart the Fathers were. Because they wanted everybody to chant. [Chanting in Greek] This is a prototype hymn. It’s called [Something in Greek: I think it’s: ta anoksei to stma mou] ‘I shall open my mouth.’ So that at the beginning of a hymn it says up  ta anoksei to stma mou so that every hymn that follows until it stops follows that same rhythm. [Chanting in Greek]

EM: It’s regular too, right?

SE: It’s the same one. It’s the same hymn but it’s different words. [Chanting in Greek] And then the next set of hymns: [Chanting in Greek].

EM: And how do you know where you emphasize?

SE: Because the accent marks, the way it was written in Greek, the accent marks are right there. [Chanting in Greek] Because they wrote it specifically for that hymn. So these are called prototype hymns. And then, if you want to see who wrote it, they have it buried here in the back. If you look at the first letter of each of the hymns. St. Joseph the hymnographer wrote this canon. He spelled his name out in the hymns. It’s an acrostic. So too is this. The first letter of each of the things in the Christmas canon spells out an entire sentence. It’s an acrostic. This is a book from the Vatopedi Monastery for vigils. Very, very long hymns. And  then, if you want to know more, just ask me.

EM: I think I’m good.

SE: You’re good? Okay.

EM: Thank you very much for this lovely time!