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MelanieSpiller and Coloratura Consulting
Last week, I created a series of classes about chanting. I know a lot about Gregorian chant, even more about Hildegard von Bingen’s particular kind of chant, even a fair amount about Ambrosian, Mozarabic, Aquitanian, and Icelandic. I’ve heard a fair amount of Jewish and Islamic chant, but don’t know much about them, really. What I really wanted was to collect the notation, recordings, history, context, and musicology about all kinds of chant, not just the Big Three world religions. These days, doing research is pretty easy. You just fire up a search engine on the Internet—heck, you can even search your local library’s holdings from home, if you’re lucky enough to live in or near a well-funded metropolis. But what if you don’t know what it is you don’t know? Like looking up the spelling for something in a dictionary, it’s a little frustrating, but you CAN get there from here. First I made a list of every kind of chant that I’d ever heard of. Here’s my list (not that I expect this to be useful to you, but I want to show you how I built a curriculum): African, Ambrosian, Armenian, Byzantine, Carnaic (Eastern Indian), Christian/Moorish, Cistercian, Gregorian, Hildegard, Icelandic, Islamic, Jewish, Tibetan, and a wild array of Indigenous American. Note: It’s important to point out that although I had some ideas about what I wanted to teach, I wasn’t married to any of them, and I could let my research dictate the actual coverage of the class. In some ways, that meant I did more research than was necessary, but it also means I own more of my topic than I need to teach it, automatically making me a better teacher than I would be if I gave my students every kernel of knowledge that I possess, or worse, if I guessed.With my list in mind, I poked around in my own collection of books and CDs to see if I could find any more types of chant. I was very interested in getting at least one from each continent, so that left South America, Australian/Aboriginal, South Pacific/Hawaiian, and Asian yet to be found. I found some vague mentions of Hawaiian, and I had lots of books with Indigenous American poetry in it, but no discussion of the melodies, what role was played by the chanter or whether the whole group chanted, nor whether any of it was documented in notation form. The back of a CD mentioned Tuvan Throat Singing, but I didn’t have any of that or any real discussion about it.At this point, it was time to go to the Internet. First, I thought I’d check my local library’s collection, as I was most interested in getting the notation for the music and learning all these different chants with the class. The history of music notation is quite interesting and I thought it would enhance the class experience to at least look at the original, even if we sang from modern notation. I live in San Francisco, which has a nice collection of scores and books on music in its main branch. Sadly, there wasn’t much about chanting notation, but there were a lot of books on new flavors of chant that I hadn’t heard about (my list now has 40 different types, and I’ve hardly covered the Americas). They also had some recordings that anthologized chant. I began to see that I probably had to leave behind the idea of collecting notation for most of the chants that I might find.Some of the books and CDs that most interested me were missing (checked out since 1992, and so forth), so I looked at Amazon.com and eBay. These Web sites have considerably more information about the contents of resources than the library’s catalog, so I also looked up tables of contents and playlists for some of the books and CDs that were available at the library. At this point, I had a tidy list of subjects, books, and recordings to fuel my research. I ordered a few things online and I toddled off to the library. At the library, I checked out a few books and CDs and made photocopies of a few pages from other books. Then I scooted back to my computer to check out a deeper level of information online, and to see what questions arose from my library collection.First, I searched for the kinds of chant I know, thinking I could learn something from the patterns I found. I found a stupefying amount of information, but deliciously, I found a site that examined a collection of Judeo-Islamic-Christian chant at exactly the level I wanted. I already have a lot of information about early Christian chant, so I printed out the pages on other subjects that I thought might be useful in class to read later, and moved on.Next I looked for Aboriginal, Hawaiian, and various flavors of Asian chant. These were less well documented, at least in English, but the more I looked, the more I found to help refine my search. Along the way, I found more on African, Mozarabic, and Korean Buddhist. I began to wonder about Indian, Japanese, and Chinese Buddhism, about Shinto, Sikh, Ayurvedism, and about the myriad Asian and African groups that must each have their own kinds of chant, even if they’re not part of a larger religious or cultural group. I also thought it was odd that there seems to be nothing at all on South American groups because that lovely pan pipe music must have evolved from something simpler.Now, with stacks of paper, books, CDs and Web pages to look at, I gathered the information into a spreadsheet. (Yes, Chris, I do use Office products.) I hoped to discover some way of organizing the material that I’d found and more readily seeing gaps. I discovered three groups: those with ancient and a more modern interpretation, those that are rhythmic or arrhythmic, and those that are drone-based. I could also see that I had a lot of information, even with the gaps, and needed to narrow the course coverage to fit into a single day or a series of single-day workshops.I decided to try to narrow my class to pairs of chants, such as an early version and a later interpretation, except where there are several within a kind of theme (like Hildegard and Icelandic, or Sephardic, Yemenite, and Ashkenazi Jewish), so my class could see how composers have tried to bring the ancient material forward in time while hearkening back. I made note in my spreadsheet of those for which I already had recordings, the duration of each recording*, and whether they were polyphonic, rhythmic, drone-based, or other relevant musical details. I also began creating a discography, so that I can properly invite my students to support the arts, and so that the various artists get recognition for their efforts.Now, with my spreadsheet handy, I could see where the gaps were, and I could reorganize based on human migration patterns, trends in the music itself, or the modern and ancient pairs. I was still not ready to make a declaration limiting the scope of the class, so I thought I’d see what happened when I began creating my lecture notes.Word processors are great because you can type in any order and easily rearrange at will without typing anew, so I just started my lecture notes with the chant at the top of my spreadsheet and worked my way through. (Every time I do a project like this, I think back on my early college days, before personal computers. What a chore term papers were!) I started making my lecture notes on each topic, trying to keep the structure of each discussion formulaic. As I worked, I realized that I could shorten the discussion between recordings by providing a list of definitions in the beginning. A handout of the definitions and discography also seemed in order.By this point, I realized that a one-day workshop could be divided into two comfortable sections, listen and lecture, and then build your own, for the hands-on portion of the day. I suspect that I’ll get the greatest attendance because of the build your own portion, this being California and all. To teach chant from notation would probably limit the day to two or three chants, depending on the musicianship of the attendees. To get the broadest (and largest) audience, I decided to do an overview of chant around the world and then invite people to build their own, based on what they’d learned in the morning.For future reference, I added a column to my spreadsheet so that I could tell if I have images of either the actual chant in historic notation or a chant of the same type. I can see that I have a lot of gaps in this department, so I’ll check out the local university library, if it seems important. Otherwise, I’ll just project a few on the wall as I talk, and not worry about it. Now, with my spreadsheet of appealing chants, a list of definitions, a discography, and my lecture notes well underway, it was time to create handouts or presentation slides. That’ll be the subject of my next blog.* Are there any Microsoft Excel experts out there who can tell me how to make a SUM in base 60? I had to do the math in my duration column myself and then divide by 60. Harumph.