Orthodox Music in America’s 40 Under 40: Kamal Hourani

Kamal Hourani has been a presence at analogia throughout New England for a number of years, participating as a cantor in the services of Boston-area communities like Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church, Annunciation Greek Orthodox Cathedral, and more. Although young, Kamal’s dedication and love for the liturgical and musical life of the Orthodox Church belies his years, and he is already emerging as a leader in his class who is respected across jurisdictional lines.

We interviewed Kamal via phone on May 4 2020.

Kamal Hourani at Hellenic College's 2019 graduation ceremony with his teacher, Fr. Romanos Karanos.

Kamal Hourani at Hellenic College’s 2019 graduation ceremony with his teacher, Fr. Romanos Karanos.

What is your name for the record:

Kamal Hourani. 

When is your birthday?

November 21st, 1997.

What you do and where you do it? 

My most recent regular position was serving as the lampadarios (“candle holder,” leader of the left choir) for the chapel of Hellenic College Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline, MA, with Fr. Romanos Karanos, the professor of Byzantine Music at the School and the Chapel’s protopsaltis (“first cantor,” leader of the right choir). I would also fill in for Fr. Romanos when he has had to serve as a priest. Unfortunately, since COVID-19 became a concern and the campus shut down, they haven’t been allowing people from off-campus, so unfortunately I haven’t been there since the Sunday of St. Gregory Palamas (March 15). Since then, I’ve been hopping a bit — chanting at my home parish, I chanted in Connecticut for a friend during Holy Week, and so on. Before that, I had a number of chanting positions, including Annunciation Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Boston.

I also teach; my senior year at Hellenic College I served as Fr. Romanos’ teaching assistant, I tutored students, and I also helped the leaders of the Chapel’s student chant groups prepare music. 

When I was 10, I started going to Matins at my home parish, St George in West Roxbury, Massachusetts, and at the encouragement of some friends from Antiochian Village camp, I would go up to read at services. Deacon John El Massih, known then as Rassem El Massih, was assigned there while he was studying at HCHC, and I would chant with him or just stand there and observe — that by itself was a very formative chant education. Having that kind of unique exposure from a young age definitely helped my ear, and by the time that I was a teenager, I had some sense of how Byzantine notation worked, even without formal lessons. 

In 2015, I started my freshman year at Hellenic College, and I went through the whole chant curriculum with Fr. Romanos Karanos and a few other teachers — Dn. John, Gabriel Cremeens, Irini Bullock née Koulianos who was Fr. Romanos’ teaching assistant at the time, and so on. I was exposed to a number of great teachers, and that was also a huge part of my formation with respect to Byzantine music. 

The liturgical life of the School’s chapel was also an important part of the learning process for me. Having antiphonal Byzantine choirs was amazing, it shoved prosomoia (hymns set to a model melody) into my ear, and it gave me a place to practice a lot. Also, having to serve as a domestikos (assistant) — making sure all the preparations for a service are in place for the leader of a given choir, like getting all of the books ready — and leading a chant group my last two years there taught me a lot I couldn’t have learned otherwise. 

I started chanting at Annunciation Cathedral my junior year, helping a friend of mine who was the protopsaltis at the time. He took the semester off at the end of our junior year, and suddenly I was thrown into the deep end. Luckily, I had two friends who were M.Div. friends and very competent cantors, who were assigned to the Cathedral as their parish assignment, and they were a big help. Even so, it was a lot of services by myself, juggling both Greek and English. It was a good training experience for me, it helped me improve my Greek and my chanting, and it also taught me to be diligent in preparing for services.

I received my Byzantine chant performer’s certificate in April 2018, and then graduated in May 2019. Following graduation, I was determined to put my talents to use in terms of teaching. One of my major objectives for the certificate was to be able to pass on what I had received, and in the last year, I’ve started working with private students, which has been very fulfilling. It’s been very enjoyable to see students progress and see their talents multiply.

With my most recent experience at the Holy Cross chapel, I’ve been Fr. Romanos’ lampadarios, although with him serving more often as a priest, I was often leading the right choir. That was a huge pleasure with very, very few limitations; we were generally free to take our time, pick compositions that one wouldn’t often get to do outside of that context, and savor singing them.

What was the experience of the certificate like?

My interest in the certificate was to get to a level of professional proficiency and qualification in Byzantine music. Not everybody has to do it; there are people who did well in the chant program at HCHC without taking that step, but I felt that it was important to pursue it.

The exam has three parts: a short theoretical presentation, a prepared repertoire list of eight different genres of composition with composition in each mode, and then a sight-singing section. You also have to be prepared to answer questions about theory and performance practice as you go. My theory presentation was about the setting of heirmoi (short hymns setting meter and melody for an ode of a canon, a long hymnographic genre); I had to talk about the general context of the hymnographic genre of the canon, what heirmoi and troparia (short individual hymns) are and how they function in that genre, and then compare English settings, including my own, to Greek scores. The required repertoire involves more difficult pieces in the papadic texture, like Cherubic Hymns and Communion verses, very melismatic pieces that belong to a style called Old Sticheraric, and then a highly virtuosic paraliturgical genre called the kalophonic heirmos. My list had classical and modern composers in both Greek and English, like the eighteenth century Iakovos Protopsaltis (c.1740-1800) to currently living composers Ioannis Arvanitis (1961-) and Gabriel Cremeens (1992-). My selections were very challenging at first, especially because some pieces, like the slow Doxologies and slow settings of “Lord, I have cried,” are pieces that we don’t commonly do in church here in America.

It’s an intense and intimidating experience. You’re singing in front of a panel of five master chanters who will hear every mistake that you make. Still, the intimidation made me and my cohort of examinees prepare even more fervently, and as nervous as we were going into it, after the first exam was over, we were all more at ease. We saw that, yes, the judges are master chanters and teachers and mentors, but at the same time they’re fellow workers and colleagues and we all appreciate the chant together. It was a beautiful day to see everybody’s hard work come to fruition; since we had all prepared together, it was as though when one person passed, we all succeeded in some way. 

It was a huge accomplishment for my undergraduate degree, and honestly, a big part of my college career was just working towards that certificate.

What motivates you to do what you do?

I want to help in whatever way I can to increase the liturgical vibrancy of the Church in America. It comes from a place of loving the services and having benefited so much from them in my life, especially in my time at college and in the Holy Cross chapel. Honestly, the chapel life of HCHC is the most important part of HCHC, period. Through the chapel, the School pulls in young Orthodox Christians in America from every jurisdiction, not just the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese, who want not only to receive an education but also to grow closer to Christ, and they are drawn in and fed by the chapel life. The more that we’re fed at the School, the more we can hope to guide other people and feed other people; honestly, I think the chapel could do even more. 

The Church in America, and I say that cross jurisdictionally, has functioned for a long time with minimal liturgical vibrancy; if we want to progress as a Church, we need far more liturgical vibrancy. The chapel cultivates a thirst for Christ and a thirst for liturgical vibrancy, and that’s the only way we’re going to be able even to begin talking about bringing that to the parishes. People have criticisms and suggestions about the chapel’s service length and how it does daily Orthros and so on, but to me it provides an important ideal of what liturgical vibrancy can look like, and an example of what we can take to the parishes — hey, the chapel does liturgies for these saints throughout the year, I can help my parish make those happen by reading or chanting, that kind of thing. But if the chapel isn’t going to offer that fullness, who is, and how will we know what it looks like to have that kind of liturgical life? You need this kind of cadre of young adults and adults who have been formed liturgically and who have been exposed to the fullness of the tradition of our worship. If they’re exposed, it allows them to pray more and also provides a template for them to teach others and to bring into your action, because if you want to be the people of God, we have to be exposed to God to spend time with God.

That’s where it comes from, a thirst for Christ and a thirst for a full liturgical life. I hope to translate that into my work and inspire other people to spend time in the services and spend time with God, and come to love them. I want to help us learn to order our calendars and our lives around the Church’s liturgical life, around our worship, instead of around work schedules and when our next vacation is and when my next appointment is.

Are there any projects you’re working on that you haven’t talked about yet?

Deacon John has been planting the seeds for an Antiochian Archdiocese Byzantine Choir, and I have been singing in that as he has put it together. We debuted a few months ago in December at the Order of St. Ignatius dinner at St. George, Little Falls, New Jersey. That was a pleasure to be a part of; people were very pleased and responsive, and they were supportive financially. It’s been encouraging to see the positive response. 

A more obscure project I’ve been working on is a catalogue of heirmoi. I’ve been going through the Menaia (liturgical books containing hymns for commemorations with a fixed calendar date) starting with September, and I note all the heirmoi that are used in a given month in the order of occurrence, with their mode and their occurrences, organized by Ode — here are all the heirmoi for Ode I, and so on. Then I go on to the next month and I highlight which ones are new that weren’t in the previous month. I’ve been working on this for the last two years, and my hope is that it will lead to an English Heirmologion that has a concordance, like Scripture has a concordance, with all the occurrences of the heirmoi, and variants in texts — it’s a project that I’m thinking could end up being developed as a critical edition of the Heirmologion.

I’m also working on cross referencing English liturgical books that we have, and understanding the differences between the books we’ve translated from Greek and the books we’ve translated from Slavonic — content differences, rubric differences, that kind of thing. For example, comparing the Menaion translated by Isaac Lambertson with the Holy Transfiguration Monastery Menaion. Where are the differences and why? That’s also got me studying older Greek manuscripts versus the newer printed Greek books by Apostoliki Diakonia — I’m looking at this collection of thirty-eight liturgical books from a monastery in Cyprus that have some really interesting differences from the modern books.

I have done some composition, mostly shorter, more syllabic pieces, and writing out prosomoia; I hope to do more.

Translation to me is very interesting, and within that, I’m a huge nerd regarding liturgical books, I’ve collected a lot of scans of different Typika (liturgical books outlining the order of services for the whole year) and liturgical books and manuscripts and so on, and I’m spending time comparing them.

I’ve been working on translating, slowly but surely, the Euchologia (Sacramentary) of Simonopetra Monastery on Mount Athos — not a direct translation, exactly, because I’m adapting and annotating a lot of their rubrics, but I’m taking them as a base for our use here in America because they’re so clean and well-researched. I’ve also been working on an Enkolpion (manual) that takes the Simonopetra Sylleitourgikon (concelebration manual) as a starting point. If we’re going to have liturgical vibrancy in America, we need the liturgical books and music available as well.

Are there any projects you’d like to work on that nobody’s asked you to do yet?

There’s a lot on that list; I want to take the work I’m on liturgical books, polish it, and make it more broadly available. That’s a question of getting myself where I need to be education-wise. I want to go back for my M.Div. in the fall, and even after that, there’s probably more formal education I would need — it would just depend on what the Archdiocese and the Metropolitan want me to do. One way or the other, it seems to me there’s a need for these books, and even if it’s just sitting on my computer for now, I can do what I can do on my own.

What is your sense of the big picture for Orthodox music in America?

I feel like we’re either in already, or at least approaching, a real liturgical renaissance in this country, which is so exciting to watch. I had no awareness of these issues as a kid when I started to learn how to chant. But it looks to me like there is a wave of interest in music and liturgical vibrancy on the part of youth, and it’s really inspiring to watch and be a part of. All of us working in music ministry should be very concerned with perpetuating that explosion, whether that involves the work we do at the parish level, as teachers, or organizing concerts or conferences that engage the public. All of these things work together, and all we musicians in the Church, whatever our varying opinions about styles or translations or all the little details we think about, we have to work together to continue to allow this to happen. If we can do that, God willing, we’ll come out on the other side of this liturgical musical renaissance as a Church that is known for the beauty and the richness of its services and its music and its arts. And, hopefully, that richness and beauty draws everybody in, whether they’re Orthodox, non-Orthodox, or even the faithful who perhaps lapsed or become indifferent, and inspire them all to fall in love with the beauty of the Church and to fall in love with God.