The ison problem

There’s something about the use of a drone that automatically puts it into the category of Something Not Us for the Western ear, at least on this side of the water. It seems to dislocate the listener either geographically or temporally, maybe both. This seems to be true whether we’re talking about Scottish bagpipes, reconstructions of medieval music, or — you guessed it — Byzantine chant; the drone itself functions as what various disciplines call a “chronotope“, something that represents, or maybe is evocative of, information about time and space. More simply, the drone calls to mind other places and other times for our ears, and if I had to make a really prosaic guess, it’s because American music by and large doesn’t use it. That’s actually more of a significant point than it presently seems; I’ll get there.

The first time I was ever exposed to music that employed a drone where I was aware it was doing so was singing the Byzantine-ish choral compositions of John Tavener in my first concert with The Tudor Choir way back in the fall of 1997. That’s a story for another time, and has an active role in a different narrative presently in progress, but what I can say for now is that that particular bass section wailing away on the drone in the amazingly resonant acoustic of St. James Cathedral in Seattle was transportive. It was so simple, so distinctive, so grounding, and so powerful.

A similar experience was to be had seven years later in Auer Hall at Indiana University, when in May of 2004 Cappella Romana performed their Fall of Constantinople program as part of the Bloomington Early Music Festival. Again — that particular group of singers on the ison, in that hall… it was something else.

As much of a sine qua non as ison seems to be for Byzantine chant on initially hearing it, however, what also seems to be the case is that it is so easy to get wrong. First of all, the so-called “Western ear” (whatever that really means) has the impulse to harmonize the melody, usually by making up a line that moves in parallel thirds, and once you’ve done that, it’s a quick hop to treating the drone as a bass line that needs to move according to the requirements of functional harmony. Follow the Bouncing Ison.

Most music in the world is modal. That means it is categorized and organized according to different kinds of scales that themselves are used for different kinds of melodies. Western music, which frankly represents a small portion of the world’s musical output, is, for the most part, not. It is tonal, which means it has whittled down the modes to two, major and minor, and has instead focused on building vertical sonorities that have particular functions based on building up of harmonic instability and subsequent resolution of that instability.

Something else Western music tends to be, at least on paper, is tuned so that all keys sound exactly the same except for the range. I had a music theory teacher who once said, “Before all of this equal-tempered nonsense, keys actually sounded like themselves and there was actually more of a musical reason to modulate [change keys].” Most modal music, however, is not tuned this way. And, really, in practice, Western music resolutely holds on to some of the old way even if we’re used to sanding off most of the corners. Singers and fretless string players have to carefully tune thirds and distinguish sevenths from leading tones, for example.

Quick demonstration of the difference — here’s the Christmas carol “What Child Is This”, a melody using a minor scale and arranged for choir using rules of tonal harmony:

Now, here’s the original melody, “Greensleeves,” using the Dorian mode rather than our typical minor (that is, Aeolian) scale:  I had a devil of a time actually finding a decent version of Greensleeves on YouTube, so this probably isn’t as clear of a demonstration as I’d like it to be, but hopefully some of the difference of character comes through.

To begin with, Byzantine chant is modal and not tonal. For purposes of liturgical organization, there are eight modes; in actual musical terms, however, depending on how you count them, that number is probably doubled. This is why harmonizing it ultimately doesn’t work, and why the automatic tendency some people with very decent ears have, to place the ison on whatever the lowest note is that they perceive can function as the root of a major or minor scale, is not only wrong, but robs this particular musical idiom of its proper character.

A somewhat more subtle point is why the ison needs to not move in parallel to the melody as though as it’s a bass line, and that’s because it’s not a bass line.

Let me say that again for emphasis: it is not a bass line. Therefore, it doesn’t need to, and in fact shouldn’t, move like one.

Here is an excerpt from the essay, “A Brief Overview of the Psaltic Art”, that starts out the Byzantine Music: Theory and Practice Guide that just came out:

The Psaltic Art is… strictly monophonic [emphasis in the original]. In other words, it is performed by a single cantor or a choir singing one melody in unison… It should also be noted that psaltic melodies are frequently accompanied by the ison (drone), which is a constant humming of a single note (the root of the main tetrachord in which the melody is moving). This… practice is sometimes considered a form of proto-polyphony. However, its primary function seems to be tonal stability rather than “harmonic” enrichment of the melody (p. iv).

So, it is not intended to be harmonized, and the drone is intended to provide stability — that is, a structural foundation — for the melody rather than instability — that is, the harmonic function of a bass line. Not only that, where the drone is pitched has to do with where in the scale the melody is, which itself is a function of what mode the melody employs. If you’re in the first tetrachord (that is, the initial division of four notes of the scale) of sticheraric Plagal Fourth Mode (a/k/a Tone 8), the ison is not  going to be sung on the same pitch as a melody written in irmologic Fourth Mode (a/k/a Tone 4) — and yet, that’s exactly where some people instinctively want to put it, and if you gently point out to them that there actually is a right way to do it, ask them nicely to do it the right way, and even if you sing it the right way in their ear, they will adamantly insist that the two modes must be the same by shoehorning them into the same Western framework of tonal harmony.

It has been suggested to me that this constitutes “organic development”, and that we don’t need to treat the Byzantine modes as anything special when there are twelve major and twelve minor keys in Western music. I cannot agree; what this constitutes is, plain and simple, doing it wrong.

Can we agree that there is a right way and a wrong way to do this stuff, and that stubornly improvising harmonies in thirds and making up drone notes that are on the wrong pitches and not functioning within the musical texture the way they’re supposed to, no matter how much you may like to sing that way for yourself personally, represents singing it the wrong way? We can deal with equal-temperament later — first we have to at least come to terms on the fundamental approach towards the music. Are we going to learn to sing it the way it’s supposed to be learned, or are we going to insist that we get to sing it in a way foreign to its nature because we’re American and thus special?

And please don’t bring up Russian music. If Obikhod is what you’re thinking of, well, there is Russian liturgical music composed before Russians started learning composition from the Italians that would singe the hair of your toes.

Why does this matter? Is it because we musicians want to control everything and force all of the regular folks in the congregation to either shut up or to do things our way? No, it matters for the same reason that you don’t get to make up your own version of the Lord’s Prayer to say when the time comes in the Liturgy for the congregation to say the Lord’s Prayer, or your own version of the Creed. It matters for the same reason that iconographers are supposed to depict the Mother of God’s veil as red and the rest of her clothing as blue, and not make up a paisley print and polka-dot pattern. It matters for the same reason that we’re supposed to use a particular kind of stamp on the Eucharistic bread rather than carving our names into the loaf. There is a way things are to be done, decently and in order, and we don’t just get to make up our own way of doing things, even in the name of “participation”. There is this impulse among some people to special-case music so that these concerns don’t apply in that sphere, and I really don’t get it. On a broader level, how I might put it is that I have never myself experienced a musical scenario where people can successfully argue that they have the right to sing wrong notes, but that comes very close to what I sometimes hear given as the response to these issues.

Update, 30 January 2012, 7:04am — I made a big point of saying that American music doesn’t generally use drone and that that was something important I’d come back to, and then I forgot to come back to it. Hazards of blogging right before you go to bed.

A related idea — I’ve had some very interesting conversations with people that lead me to believe it is possible to simply be culturally uncomfortable with monophonic music. I don’t have a clue how or why this could be, but I’ve had people tell me before, “Do I have to sing melody? Can’t I just make up a harmony? It feels wrong not to in my voice.” A couple of my attempts at Orthodox hymns that would employ some features of American folk music have met with the reaction from more than one person, “Hey, nice melody. When are you writing parts?” Explaining that I’m intentionally writing a melody to be sung in unison usually generates a confused stare and the question “Why?” asked in such a way that tells me I’m not going to be able to explain it to them.

Back to drone. I’m hardly an expert on anything, let alone American folk music, but I can’t think of any examples off the top of my head that use drone. Drone is usually discussed as a characteristic of either medieval music or “world music”, which subtly makes it a different beast than it would be living in a part of the world where it’s a characteristic of the local “folk music” rather than “world music”. I hesitate to go whole hog and say that we’ve constructed an orientalizing narrative about kinds of music that use drone, or that’s it’s a feature of “primitive” music whereas harmony is how “advanced” societies think of music, but I think there might be some relevant thoughts there.

In any event, because it’s not a feature of American vernacular music, as soon as we hear it, we know it’s either from the old country (whichever old country that might be) or just plain old. That at once seems to validate it as “authentic” and also prompt some people to look for sharp corners that need to be filed off. The chronotope is a double-edged sword.

My solution is education; cantors need to be able and willing to explain what it is, what it’s doing, and what the right way to sing it sounds like. This has to work both ways, however; people need to be willing to ask, “How is this supposed to be done?” and then willing to follow the instruction they’re given. Unfortunately, I’ve seen instances where the attitude is, “If I can’t sing it along with you in a way that seems instinctive and natural to me the first time I hear it, then you’re excluding me from participating.” It’s a tricky business, to be sure.


11 Responses to “The <i>ison</i> problem”

  1. 1 David Krueger 30 January 2012 at 10:10 am

    Isocrats Unite! Its a lovely chant, but can you please keep it down, I’m trying to hear the ison

  2. 3 Ole Kern 30 January 2012 at 12:56 pm


    Care to elaborate your thoughts on “how” to do an ison, as in words/no words/vowels; if no words, then what “vowel” sound to do; etc.?

    As to words (or not), I’m rather indifferent, but I’ve heard someone say (who we both know) mention something about what some theologian/holy father said about the text being of utmost importance, we should not babble and thus this person thought we should always sing words. Of course, this opens up a can of worms about pieces like the Kratima.

    Assuming just a vowel is ok, I’m not a fan of doing the supposed traditional “ee” sound. I think it works ith harsher sounding languages like Arabic, but some type of softer vowel (e.g. an “oh”, “oo” or schwa) is better for English.

  3. 4 Richard Barrett 30 January 2012 at 1:19 pm

    From a practical perspective, my experience is that words on ison means there’s just too much to coordinate, and under some circumstances can lead to cacophony and chaos, making the text less understandable, not more. Again, since the person holding the drone isn’t singing a bass line but serving a different musical function entirely, there’s no reason to force isokrates to sing words as some do. Since the isokratis typically winds up breathing at the same time as the person singing the melody if they’re put on words, that also tends to defeat the function of ison. A hum or a neutral vowel such as a schwa is, I think, workable across the board regardless of language.

    Here is a very useful overview of some technical points.

  4. 5 melxiopp 1 February 2012 at 4:16 pm

    In most things like this my general rule is: try your hardest to do it exactly right, exactly like they do it in a particular place in a traditional Orthodox land.

    The necessary corollary is: you will not be able to do it exactly right, you will almost inevitably always have an ‘accent’ if you grow up here (whether cradle or convert). Some people can learn foreign languages without an accent, the vast majority cannot (and many around the world cannot even learn a second language at all.)

    The trick is to neither accept nor disdain that ‘accent’. Yes, the accent is the first step in creating a truly local tradition, however, under no circumstances are we to rush that process and formulate and enforce a new local tradition. Such rushing is really just innovation, and it isn’t necessarily ‘local’ so much as it is ‘personal’ and perhaps ‘cliquish’. Local tradition is the result of people doing their best to do it right but failing, not understanding or forgetting, and sooner or later we all accept the economia of reality and do things the way they’ve been done for what will then have been for “quite some time”, accidentally but stably.

    • 6 Richard Barrett 1 February 2012 at 6:08 pm

      I agree with the core of this. What I would say is that it is possible to be earnest and wrong at the same time. (I am often an, uh, excellent example of this.) There are accents that are co-intelligible with each other and accents that are not. Cradle friends of mine have opined before that the last thing it seems Americans want to hear is, “There’s a standard way of doing that,” but it also doesn’t help that there are bishops who also act like that’s the last thing they want to say.

      The other problem is simply that in certain parts of the country, there isn’t really an option beyond making up certain details as you go along, because there isn’t anybody else around to teach you.

      • 7 melxiopp 2 February 2012 at 2:19 pm

        Well, the thing is that the bishops aren’t totally wrong regarding there not being a single ‘standard’. This is an obvious point when discussing different local churches (Russian vs Greek vs Romanian, etc.), but it’s as true within local churches (Great Russian v Ukrainian, Greek v Cypriot). And that’s without going beyond ‘traditional’ differences and discussing the difference between the old guard Arab tradition and the monastic revival, e.g., the different ‘standards’ of a Met. Philip and a Fr. Touma Bitar. And all that’s without getting into either local traditions of 100-year old communities here in the U.S. and their local traditions, and other more recent innovations excused as ‘local tradition’ and ‘economia’.

        That is why I very much recommend the idea of choosing a ‘sister parish’ or a ‘sister diocese’ in the Old Country, perhaps even more than one if one has (or wishes to have) faithful of more than one ethnicity around. Try as much as possible to do what they do, to deal with problems in the ways they deal with them. It’s at least a good check against the tendency to assume one’s own situation is either unique or faithfully representative of one’s ethnic heritage, which is usually not the case (we usually arbitrarily and politically pick and choose when we want to excuse our idiosyncratic choices ‘because this is America’ or ‘because we are [Greek, Russian, American, Romanian, etc.]’.)

        The making up certain details as you go along is an important part of only every ‘accidentally’ doing things different than whatever ‘standard’ parish in the Old World one chooses to follow. Practical inability and practical necessity is excusable with a good heart and good intention; it should be remedied if and when possible (and not placed on a pedestal called ‘local tradition’ when it isn’t, not really), but it should be accepted ‘economically’ when there isn’t a choice and cherished as our widow’s mite.

      • 8 Richard Barrett 2 February 2012 at 2:32 pm

        I like the idea of a “sister parish” or “sister diocese”. I have a feeling other commenters might have stronger things to say about your last paragraph than I do; for now, what seems to me to be the case is that one must be careful to not let economia and rhetoric about widows’ mites turn into either relativism or a reinforcement of other problematic behavior. Sometimes people prefer to make stuff up as they go along for reasons that are not necessarily honorable.

        I’ve said before that one has to be careful when talking about, say, “Antiochian Tradition”. I’ve heard that term used to refer to Antiochian Village practice, former EOC practices that have become somewhat widely-adopted, Slavicized Midwestern Antiochian parish practice, redacted “keep it short so we can get out of here” practice, and Old Country Lebanon practice. The thing is, we have a Liturgikon, we have books like Nassar, we even have a draft translation of the Typikon. These are all more or less reasonably in line with one another in terms of how practice is represented. But then you have something like the printed liturgical guide, which claims that certain things that all of those other resources tell you to do constitute “Slavic practice” and Antiochian parishes under no circumstances are to do them (even though the second edition Liturgikon that they just spent lots of money to produce tells you to). I mean, I think we all know what’s going on here, and there seem to be various sides that are arguing with each other about this stuff, but — Agh.

      • 9 melxiopp 2 February 2012 at 2:45 pm

        I was trying to be very careful not to point fingers, but… New Skete (OCA) is an example of a different type.

        On the more positive side, PennSLAVania parish practice is surprisingly stable and consistent in the way it approaches the services. It was denigrated as ‘not full’, but it is now far more ‘traditional’ in many ways than what one see in more ‘mainstream’ parishes.

        As I wrote above, the trick is to neither accept nor disdain an ‘accent’, especially when those accents are time-honored with a stable history. For instance, a parish founded 100 years ago and adhering to a pretty stable, but local, even idiosyncratic practices based on past practicalities is a different thing than a 20 year innovation brought in via a convert priest or a bishop too free with economia and wanting desperately to seem like blue- blooded Episcopalians of the Eastern Rite.

      • 10 Richard Barrett 2 February 2012 at 2:52 pm

        I can buy that; as I say, accents that are co-intelligible are one thing. On the other hand, I’ve seen Greeks who have been given to understand that “Antiochian and Greek practice are basically the same” get really frustrated at an Antiochian convert parish where “local custom” — that is, “anything goes” — overrides everything else.

      • 11 melxiopp 2 February 2012 at 3:18 pm

        My experience has been more from the ethnic side of the ‘local tradition’ excuse. That is, ‘Greek practice’ is whatever the local Greeks want, whether it looks anything like what would be done in Greece or not. why things are done a given way is usually a mix of “because this is a Greek church” and “because this is America” – the former being used against converts and ‘modernizers’ trying to use English, the latter being used against traditionalists trying to use the Typikon.

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