Ison (music)

Ison (music)

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Ison is a drone
Drone (music)
In music, a drone is a harmonic or monophonic effect or accompaniment where a note or chord is continuously sounded throughout most or all of a piece. The word drone is also used to refer to any part of a musical instrument that is just used to produce such an effect.-A musical effect:A drone...

 note, or a slow-moving lower vocal part, used in Byzantine chant and some related musical traditions to accompany the melody
Melody
A melody , also tune, voice, or line, is a linear succession of musical tones which is perceived as a single entity...

, thus enriching the singing, at the same time not transforming it into a harmonized or polyphonic
Polyphony
In music, polyphony is a texture consisting of two or more independent melodic voices, as opposed to music with just one voice or music with one dominant melodic voice accompanied by chords ....

 piece.

History


It is currently assumed that ison was first introduced in Byzantine practice in the 16th century, but rather stresses the melody, while before that the Greek church chanting was purely monophonic
Monody
In poetry, the term monody has become specialized to refer to a poem in which one person laments another's death....

 (as it still remains in some more archaic traditions, such as Russia
Russia
Russia or , officially known as both Russia and the Russian Federation , is a country in northern Eurasia. It is a federal semi-presidential republic, comprising 83 federal subjects...

n Znamenny chant). It is possible (but not universally accepted) that the drone practice was borrowed to Byzantine music from the West, namely from Italy
Italy
Italy , officially the Italian Republic languages]] under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. In each of these, Italy's official name is as follows:;;;;;;;;), is a unitary parliamentary republic in South-Central Europe. To the north it borders France, Switzerland, Austria and...

. Traditionally the ison was not notated (see below), with the first example of notated ison appearing as late as 1847, and practice of notating the ison becoming widespread only in the 2nd half of 20th century.

There is some evidence for a use of a 2nd "auxiliary" ison in Patriarchal chanting practice, that would be pitched on a different tone (usually in a 4th of a 5th from the main ison, in a different tetrachord
Tetrachord
Traditionally, a tetrachord is a series of three intervals filling in the interval of a perfect fourth, a 4:3 frequency proportion. In modern usage a tetrachord is any four-note segment of a scale or tone row. The term tetrachord derives from ancient Greek music theory...

, but in some cases maybe even in a 2nd), and sang more discreetly, at the same time still effectively introducing the 3d independent tone in the chant. Simon Karas
Simon Karas
Simon Karas was a Greek musicologist, who specialized in Byzantine music tradition.Simon Karas studied paleography of Byzantine musical notation, was active in collecting and preserving ancient musical manuscripts, collected performances of folk Greek songs and of Byzantine chant from different...

 is known to be interested in a double-ison technique, and he tried to reconstruct how it could sound like in the older 15-16 century practices, when there appeared indeed some first attempts to create a "Native Byzantine alternative to Western polyphony".

The mobility of ison seems to gradually increase with time, with modern ison lines being much more mobile than those known from the end of 19th century. The main reason for this gradual change obviously lies in the influence of Western music over Byzantine chanting practices. Some chanters however tend to emphasize the influence of Simon Karas
Simon Karas
Simon Karas was a Greek musicologist, who specialized in Byzantine music tradition.Simon Karas studied paleography of Byzantine musical notation, was active in collecting and preserving ancient musical manuscripts, collected performances of folk Greek songs and of Byzantine chant from different...

, who was a supporter of much more mobile ison.

Chanters holding the ison were (and are) called isokratima (ισοκράτημα) in Greek
Greek language
Greek is an independent branch of the Indo-European family of languages. Native to the southern Balkans, it has the longest documented history of any Indo-European language, spanning 34 centuries of written records. Its writing system has been the Greek alphabet for the majority of its history;...

.

Modern use in Byzantine chant


The use of ison in byzantine chant is relatively flexible, so the same piece can be performed with isons of various mobility - starting from a stable drone on one note for a whole piece, and up to a more mobile lower tone, changing at least once within each musical phrase. Still ison is never as mobile as the melody, and does not introduce counterpoint
Counterpoint
In music, counterpoint is the relationship between two or more voices that are independent in contour and rhythm and are harmonically interdependent . It has been most commonly identified in classical music, developing strongly during the Renaissance and in much of the common practice period,...

 in the performance, but rather stresses the melody by introducing a base to pitch stressed or consonant (just) intervals against it.

The main logic of ison is the following:
  • for each Byzantine tone
    Octoechos
    Oktōēchos is the name of the eight mode system used for the composition of religious chant in Syrian, Coptic, Byzantine, Armenian, Latin and Slavic churches since the middle ages...

     it has a main stable note (such as D for the 1st tone, G for the 2nd, F for the 3d etc.)
  • whenever a melody transposes to a different tetrachord
    Tetrachord
    Traditionally, a tetrachord is a series of three intervals filling in the interval of a perfect fourth, a 4:3 frequency proportion. In modern usage a tetrachord is any four-note segment of a scale or tone row. The term tetrachord derives from ancient Greek music theory...

    , the ison is likely to jump to the base note of this tetrachord, either up or down
  • whenever a melody goes below the ison for a short time, the ison is likely to follow it down and then back up to the stable note, in order not to be above the melody (which is usually, but not always, undesirable)
  • in some modes the ison performs phrasing of cadences, following the internal logic of the tone (such as the D-C-D cadence in the Plagal 1st tone, or the G-E interchanging phrasing of the 2nd tone)


However, as it was noted above, for the majority of compositions a stable ison staying on the main stable note of the tone would usually work as well. With this in mind, in most traditional Byzantine scores prior to mid-20th century the ison was not even notated, as it was assumed that to perform it is just too simple to bother to fix it in writing.

For really quick, as well as for extremely slow and ornamental pieces the ison is usually sang without words, just as a kind of "humming", while for the majority of pieces performed in normal tempo
Tempo
In musical terminology, tempo is the speed or pace of a given piece. Tempo is a crucial element of any musical composition, as it can affect the mood and difficulty of a piece.-Measuring tempo:...

 the words are supposed to be produces in synchrony with the melody. There is also an "intermediate" approach, when the ison follows the vowel
Vowel
In phonetics, a vowel is a sound in spoken language, such as English ah! or oh! , pronounced with an open vocal tract so that there is no build-up of air pressure at any point above the glottis. This contrasts with consonants, such as English sh! , where there is a constriction or closure at some...

s of the text, but not the consonant
Consonant
In articulatory phonetics, a consonant is a speech sound that is articulated with complete or partial closure of the vocal tract. Examples are , pronounced with the lips; , pronounced with the front of the tongue; , pronounced with the back of the tongue; , pronounced in the throat; and ,...

s. The ison is also supposed to be held across the gaps between the phrases, when the leading chanters, singing the melody, catch their breath.

Modern use in other traditions


Apart from Byzantine chant, ison is also used in some Russian traditions, such as Valaam chant. Recently, under the influence of Byzantine chant, Znamenny chant also tends to be performed with the ison. This innovation is rather controversial however, as Znamenny chant follows different musical logic than the Byzantine chant, is less ornamental and mobile on its own, and also does not use different scales for different tones. With ison introduced, Znamenny chant tends sometimes to sound rather dull, and the chants of different tones become more similar, which is not always a desirable effect.