New Gregorian Chants Group Blends Modern and Ancient

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

“Ars’ an gobha fuiricheamaid
Ars’ an gobha falbheamaid
Ars’ an gobha ris an ogha
Na sheasamh aig doras an t-sabhail
Gu rachadh e a shuirghe”

(The blacksmith said, “I’ll wait”
The blacksmith said, “I’ll go”
The blacksmith said, in his confusion
Standing at the door of the barn
That he was going to go courting)

– Fionnghuala, by Anúna, early Gaelic

Interested? Confused? Both? With the new Gregorian chants group starting up, get ready to hear a whole lot more of ‘Fionnghuala’ on campus. The group had its first interest meeting last Friday evening and intends to have more rehearsals and performances throughout the semester.

The ensemble, initiated by Aaron Kroeber’16 and Canaan Breiss’16, centers on a form of vocal performance they both enjoy. “Sitting around procrastinating on a lazy sunday afternoon, we discovered we each liked chant; not many others do,” Kroeber said. “We figured it would be a crazy, cool idea if we got other people to come do this.”

The pieces are a form of a cappella performance where the words don’t overlap: “they’re all sung at once with certain characteristic harmonies, octaves and fifths” Kroeber said. Breiss pointed out that the group was “looking more at polyphonic chants that have different harmonies and drones,” and a more modern sound.

Traditional chant is performed in unison, without overlapping harmonies, leading to a monophonic sound very reminiscent of a liturgical atmosphere. Drones play a large part in creating the sound most people associate with traditional Gregorian chants: the sustained repetition of single notes throughout a melody was a common technique used in this form of chant. Polyphonic chants, however, consist of two or more melodic voices singing at once, creating a more contemporary melody.

This modern sound allows them to include female parts in a traditionally male performance. The group certainly does not lack aspiring female performers, like Phoebe Cook ‘15, who was pleasantly surprised to find a group on campus who shared her interest. “I’ve always liked chant and never known anyone else who did […] I was curious and surprised and just hope to chant!” she said.

The duo are looking at cobbling their own music together from various recordings. Due to the common lack of awareness and appreciation for chant, Breiss and Kroeber are using their past vocal training and many years of choir experience (both have been performing in choirs since their early teens) to lead the group, transcribing certain pieces and working out a form of musical notation that integrates traditional forms with modern ones.

Traditional chant notation used symbols called “neumes”: simple squarish figures that indicated with great precision tonal movements and the duration of a note. Most Gregorian chants, however, were performed from memory. Drawing on his musical experience with the cello, Breiss aims to complicate existing notation by transcribing available chant into a notation that combines the modern five-line staff and a cellist’s fingering chart.

Although most available music is liturgical, “we’re a secular performance group” Breiss says, “though robes may or may not be optional.”

Though the group is in its infancy and still hoping to attract new members, Swatties can look forward to performances that are energetic, entertaining and, (no pun intended) enchanting.

Photo by Ellen Sanchez-Huerta/The Daily Gazette

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