Posts Tagged 'follow the bouncing ison'

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.


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