Posts Tagged 'isokratima'

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.

The ison cannot be the “dummy note”: in which the author gets to be a Cappella Romana groupie and gets to know the Oakland Police Department better than ever anticipated

I’ve forgotten some things about what it’s like to be a “professional musician” in the intervening years since I went into remission for it.

First of all, I’ve forgotten that there really are things about it I enjoy. I’ve had a ball the eleven days or so that I’ve been here, getting to make music with people who know what they’re doing, in a setting where getting notes and rhythms right is assumed to be the basic starting point, not something unrealistically hoped for as the entirety of the final product, and in an environment, physically, acoustically, and otherwise, that is conducive to such an effort. The rehearsals we’ve had for the Josquin Singers have all gone by really quickly; the three hours are up before I know it.

It’s also a mode of existence that tends to be nomadic, and that brings together very interesting groups of people for short periods of time.

While we were planning my trip, John mentioned that he was taking a group of Cappella Romana singers to Pepperdine University for the Ascending Voice II conference while I’d be here, and that I’d be welcome to tag along if I wanted.

We’ll just say it didn’t take me long to think about it.

So, last Thursday, after singing Matins and Divine Liturgy for the Ascension at John’s parish, John, his student Dusan, and I took the short flight to Los Angeles, and there we met up with CR singers Andrew Gorny, David Krueger, and John’s dad, John S. Boyer (whom I had met once before in 1997 for a joint concert between Cappella and the Tudor Choir in which I sang). The six of us hopped in a rental minivan and drove to the Pepperdine campus in Malibu, met up with the other member of the crew Alex Khalil, and we were able to catch about three quarters of the evening’s Chanticleer concert (the showstopping highlight of which was countertenor Cortez Mitchell’s solo in “Summertime”).

The purpose of Cappella Romana’s presence at Ascending Voice was to give a Byzantine chant demonstration lecture and a workshop on Friday, and to sing a full Matins Saturday morning. John asked if, since I was there, I wouldn’t mind holding isokratima with David Krueger; sure, no problem, I said. So, following the concert, we rehearsed the demo repertoire.

Theoretically, really strong, solid musicians would be placed on the ison. It’s there so that the singers on the melody can hear the home note of the mode, and so it needs to be steady and unwavering. It can be really difficult even for singers who know what they’re doing. My experience with the drone note in parish practice, as a practical matter, is that it tends to be the “dummy note” — that is, it tends to be where people who can’t read music or who are otherwise not the most capable musicians in the choir get stuck. The intent is usually that even if singing the melody isn’t a realistic way for these people to participate, they should at least be able to hold a single note. Unfortunately, the result is often that non-singers wind up not being able to sustain the pitch; it goes flat and they can’t hear it, they can’t hear how the moves work, and so on and so forth. The deadly case is when such a singer decides that, because it’s the ison, it needs to be woofed up as much as possible, which usually means it goes way flat instantly, losing maybe a major third in pitch within seconds. In other words, the function of the drone — to be a tonal support and foundation for those on the melody — winds up being completely defeated, and those singing the melody have to work twice as hard in order to ignore what they’re hearing from those singing the ison and still stay in tune. There tends to be not much that can be done about this; yes, as stated, you actually do need strong musicians on the drone every bit as much as you do on the melody, but there usually aren’t enough people who are sufficiently confident with both reading and singing as it is to be able to spare them to support the isokratima. So you make do.

David Krueger, let it be said, does not have this problem. The guy is a freakin’ rock, and he’s got low notes that shake the floorboards. The rehearsal was a tremendously educational experience, and was great until the Southern Appalachian Chamber Singers came down around midnight and told us we were keeping them up. (“That probably wasn’t exactly successful evangelism,” John Boyer père quipped later.)

By the way, the very first thing I discovered Friday morning was that somebody was asleep at the switch in terms of finding a location for Pepperdine University. I mean, come on. What were they thinking? Terrible. Just terrible.

Both the demo and the workshop were fun; the lecture was largely the same as what John said at All Saints, but with live musical examples instead of recordings. Among other things, the examples included Ps. 102 and the Beatitudes (as heard on the Lycourgos Angelopoulos Divine Liturgy recording), the Polyeleos, and a setting of the Cherubic hymn, all off of Byzantine notation. The workshop involved teaching the participants music from the Divine Liturgy in English off of Western notation scores.

Matins on Saturday was quite an experience; we set it up with antiphonal choirs, we were all in cassocks, and we did the canons for the day in their entirety. I mostly held isokratima for the left choir, but lampadarios Alex Khalil was nice enough to let me sing a handful of troparia in the canons.

The priest who served was Fr. George Taweel of St. Nicholas, the Antiochian Cathedral in Los Angeles. Finding a priest was a bit of a challenge; John had called virtually every Greek priest in the area with no luck, but Alex knew Fr. Michael Najim, the Cathedral’s dean, and he was able to send Fr. George. Fr. George’s daughter Diana actually went to IU, and I knew her a bit from her time there. It was nice to meet him; we had lunch with him afterward, and he was a terrifically knowledgeable man and very interesting person with whom to have a conversation.

After lunch, it was back to the airport, back to Sacramento, just making it back to Annunciation for Vespers. It was a trip, short and guerilla-style as it was, that was great for which to be a fly on the wall; Alex Khalil in particular was a great person to meet. He’s an ethnomusicologist who just completed his PhD, and his dissertation is something that I think will have applicability for what I’m doing. Short version is that in his research, he applied a historical context to an ethnographic study of Byzantine chant; what I’m thinking about is sort of the reverse, where I’m interested in seeing if I can give an ethnomusicological context to a historical study of liturgy. I hope I get more of a chance to talk to him down the road.

I had hoped that friend-of-this-blog and Pepperdine employee David Dickens and I would have a chance to meet; we set up a lunch on Friday, but we managed to miss each other and he wound up being caught up by work anyway. Alas. Better luck next time.

After church on Sunday it was back on the road, heading first to Ascension Cathedral in Oakland for another Byzantine chant demonstration at their Greek festival. It was largely the same repertoire as what we did at Pepperdine, again off of Byzantine notation; I had assumed that I was holding ison again, but John pulled me over and had me follow along with the melody as best as I could. (This was, in general, a more successful effort on the slower pieces.) In the audience was my friend Ian Jones, a cellist who was the very first person I ever met as a student at IU, and for whom Oakland is home. He will hopefully be able to make the Friday concert at the Cathedral; in any event, it was great to see him on his own turf.

After that it was time to head to rehearsal, and as we had rehearsal again in the Bay area Monday night, John and I stayed overnight in Oakland at his friend and fellow Josquin Singer Andrew Chung‘s condo overlooking Lake Merritt rather than drive back to Sacramento.

In theory this was a smart move; we hopefully were going to have much of Monday to hang out in the San Francisco area, with seeing St. John Maximovitch’s cathedral being on the agenda. Unfortunately, John’s car got broken into during the night, leaving him minus a driver’s side window (although nothing got stolen, thank God), and we ended up  having to spend the day dealing with that. It took close to two hours just to file a police report; the form took all of two minutes to fill out, but then waiting in line to actually turn the piece of paper in to get a case number took upwards of an hour and a half. It then took another couple of hours to actually get the window replaced, and then — hey, look at that! It’s time to go to rehearsal.

Oh well. It happens.

Anyway, today has been the “day off,” which has consisted of pretty much just enjoying being in one place for the day on my part, and John furiously putting together the program for this weekend’s concerts. I don’t know how the guy does it; he’s got these concerts, his normal church duties, students, the Pepperdine thing last week, and then next week he has Cappella commitments in Oregon. He runs around a heck of a lot more than I ever did as a singer, vocally he’s always giving everything he’s got, and I know that if I were trying to do all of that, I wouldn’t last a week. He’s got to have vocal folds made of steel, that’s all I can say.

Tomorrow is the dress rehearsal, then the concerts are Thursday, Friday, and Saturday; after Liturgy on Sunday it will be off to the airport and I’ll be on my way home. It seems odd that I’m almost to the last stage of the trip, but there we are. More a bit later.


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