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Wednesday, 11 October 2006 22:13

The traditional music of Greece is dying, misunderstood, traduced and ignored. Not only do those musicians graduating from public and private music academies know nothing about it, many of them vehemently proclaim the inherent superiority of Western musical culture over all others. While city Greeks may go into raptures over classical music, exuberate over jazz or popular tunes, they have not the slightest inkling of the hidden wealth of the music of their fathers and grandfathers. As for the public at large, without any musical education, either formal or traditional, it is, deep down, ashamed of the music of the village, even though it is to this music it resorts in special moments.

This phenomenon has, first of all, a political explanation. Since Greece gained its independence, its history has been one of systematic and coercive Europeanisation, not least in musical culture. From the Bavarian musicians and Italian singers who entertained the 19th century Athenians in the newly-established capital, to the radio programmes and music lessons in the schools today, it is Western music which is projected and promulgated. Folk or demotic music is considered barbarian, cacophonous and primitive, being dismissed as Turkish or gypsy. In other words it is a strident and undesirable reminder of the nation's miserable, provincial past. The official stance, somewhat more succinct, is that demotic music is the naive expression of simple peasants, suitable for arousing patriotic feelings but hardly worthy of serious consideration.

Little wonder then that if, on switching on the radio in the morning, one hears the Marino, one fears there has been a coup d'etat. Demotic songs are only played at certain times of the day and are presented by announcers who know nothing about them and recite their lyrics as if they were translating a foreign language. It has never occurred to anyone to analyse traditional music on the same level and in a comparable manner to classical music. And so, alas, on March 25th, when Greece celebrates the War of Independence, the school music teacher plays the familiar demotic song "Tría paidiá voliótika" on the piano.

It is in the sphere of music that the dogma "Greece belongs to the West" is most fully expressed, even though traditional Greek music can in no way be considered Western. Quite the contrary, it is overtly related to the music of Byzantium, Turkey and the Arab world, as well as other musical idioms based on the same principles. All these forms of music ultimately derive from ancient Greek music, but Western music broke off at some point and followed its own, distinct evolutionary course, whereas the peoples of the Mediterranean continued along the path first trod by the ancient Greeks. Any attempt to Europeanise Greek traditional music is futile, for it can neither be enriched, varied or adapted in this way. It attacks its very foundations and is an affront to its peculiarity, its fundamental principles.

Alongside the ancient Greeks, other peoples (such as the Indians) also made considerable advancements in the formal elaboration of music and the making of instruments. However, it was the Greeks who were the first to devise a theory of music, based on the mathematical ratios of intervals of sound. This system was adopted by the Byzantines, Turks, Persians and Western Europeans and forms the basis of their own musical systems. For the past two thousand years the peoples living around the Mediterranean have each developed their own musical idiom, yet all based on the principles established in ancient Greece. From about the 13th century onwards the music of Central Europe pioneered a course of its own, based on entirely different musical principles, and it is this course which has determined all subsequent musical creativity in the West.

So in no way can Greek traditional music be cast in the same mould as Western music: it is the natural heir to the musical system of ancient Greece. And this is not surprising since the two major influences on the development of Greek music were the Byzantine hymns of the Orthodox church and the vocal and instrumental music of the Turks, Arabs and other neighbouring peoples. All have traits deriving from their common ancestor, which is none other than the theory of ancient Greek music, based on the Pythagorean system. In the following para­graphs some of the idiosyncracies of Greek music, vis-a-vis that of the West, will be examined, albeit in a simplified manner.

Greek music is monophonic: the music of the Ionian islands, the exception which proves the rule, is due to Western influence over the last two hundred years. An archaic form of polyphony has been retained in the songs of northern Epirus and the island of Karpathos, but its origin is an ethnological enigma. The only form of accompaniment permitted in authentic traditional music is the ison, a continual sound in the tonic or subtonic of the melody (as in song), or at an interval of a fifth (as on the lyra), common intervals in any musical system. There is no harmonic accompaniment, as is the case in Western music.

The actual scale on which the melody is played is different too. Greek music follows variants of the natural scale, while Western music follows those of the chromatic scale. The chromatic scale allows the division of the octave into twelve equal parts, semitones, which means that most of the notes have no correspond­ence and that the intervals created are not the same. The chromatic scale has two kinds of intervals, tones and semitones, while the natural scale has a variety of intervals. This is why Greek music cannot be accurately transposed and played on the piano, accordion, guitar or other instrument on which the notes are fixed and predetermined on the chromatic scale. The Marino (clarinet) is just such an instrument which is why the skilled village player "licks the notes", that is he tries to make them approach the natural scale, which is the one he knows.

Another trait of Greek music, nowadays retained only in Arab music, is that the scale is moveable; in other words it is not the absolute pitch of each note which is important but the interval between notes. In Western music the pitch of the note is fixed, which is why all instruments are tuned with a tuning fork emitting a specific frequency of vibrations per second. This is not necessary in Oriental music, where the instrument is tuned to whatever pitch is desired, usually according to the singer's voice. This explains why polyphony and harmony are impossible to achieve in Oriental music, and greater emphasis is placed on embellishing the melody, allowing considerable latitude with regard to the pitch of the notes and the intervals between them.

There is analogous licence with regard to rhythm. Oriental music displays an astonishing variety of irregular rhythms (5/4,7/4,9/4,11/4 time), rarely encountered in the music of the West. Oriental music (including Greek) makes free use of non-periodic rhythms, as for instance in the table songs and taxímia, but sophisti­cated urban listeners have, unfortunately, lost the ability to distinguish and appreciate these subtleties. Even in periodic rhythms, that is the songs for dances, the periodicity is not that of the metronome. The art of the traditional musician (especially the player of the daoùli and the toumbeléki - types of drum) is also apparent from his ability to achieve barely perceptible changes of rhythm, if possible within the same musical metre. This facility is of immense importance to the dancer, since it gives him the opportunity of "conversing" with the musician and vary his dance in response. The really good dancers in the village "build" their dance on the rhythm, stepping just ahead or just behind the beat of the daoùli. The lag is but a fraction of a second but creates the impression that the nimble dancer "flies" or glides over the ground.

Another peculiarity of Oriental music is the makams, the drómoi or trópoi (modes) of the ancient Greeks. Makams are equivalent to the scales of Western music, that is they comprise a series of intervals in specific sequence with particular determinant notes. However, apart from the technical side, expressed as an abstract structure, makams are capable of expressing an astonishing variety of nuances, quite beyond the comprehension of a European musician. A makam is expressly devised to evoke a particular psychological state in the listener. This is achieved by playing a succession of intervals of differing length in a highly emotive manner. For the sensitive listener a particular makam may mark a particular moment of the day, a season of the year, a geographical region or familiar situation. Over 70 makams have been recorded in Arab music, though only a handful have survived in that of Greece.

This cursory and synoptic introduction to Oriental music has two aims. First to demonstrate that Greek traditional music belongs to a musical family fundamentally different from European music, so much so that any transcription into the European system both betrays and impoverishes it. Second, to make clear that Oriental music is not simplistic or outmoded, neither is it primitive in comparison with European music, rather it is its equal.

Even though Western music (light and classical) holds sway today, this does not mean it is objectively superior to other music, merely that it is the musical expression of a technologically advanced industrial society. Industrial society has imposed, internationally, a new way of life, diametrically opposed to the way of life of traditional society. And in its wake the music of industrial society has displaced the music of traditional society, just as the dance of industrial society has ousted traditional dance. This in no way implies that the expressions of industrial society are inherently superior to those of traditional society.

This is a truth we who live in an industrial society tend to forget.
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