Ensemble Ison

„jene Virtuosen verstehen sich mit der größten Virtuosität auf die Ausbeutung der Journale und Journalisten. [...] Man spricht von der Käuflichkeit der Presse; man irrt sich sehr. Im Gegenteil, die Presse ist gewöhnlich düpiert, und dies gilt ganz besonders in Beziehung auf die berühmten Virtuosen. Berühmt sind sie eigentlich alle, nämlich in den Reklamen, die sie höchstselbst oder durch einen Bruder oder durch ihre Frau Mutter zum Druck befördern. Es ist kaum glaublich, wie demütig sie in den Zeitungsburaux um die geringste Lobspende betteln, wie sie sich krümmen und winden“

Heinrich Heine „Musikalische Berichte aus Paris“ (1843)

Despite the widespread need of self-celebration among musicians, this portrait does not try to describe the ensemble in the spirit of a sausage vendor, but to invite others to reflect about a lot of presuppositions and restrictions musicians have to face today. Before turning yourself into another sausage vendor and his sausage, you may also think and laugh about the vendors and their sausages — and please don't forget to buy and eat one (the sausage, I mean).

About the name “Ison”

The Greek name ἴσον is derived from the most powerful sign in Byzantine Round notation that you may find as an icon of the whole site or on top of the snail on the left. It simply means that a singer will not change to another pitch, however the note will be embellished by ornaments. The name is also used for the practice of singing a drone as the colour of a certain mode (ἦχος). It is said that the drone itself includes the whole melos of a mode: If it is prōtos (πρῶτος), the fourth (4:3) and fifth (3:2) is pure, but the second (12:11) and third (32:27) degree have very beautiful colours with the drone, these colours can even change to the chromatic genos using the phthora nenanō (φθορά νενανὼ). If it is devteros (δεύτερος), the fifth is pure (3:2), but the second (88:81), third (11:9) and fourth degree (11:8) are very colourful. If its mesos tetartos (μέσος τέταρτος) not even the fifth degree is pure. If it is tritos (τρίτος), only the fifth (3:2) and second (9:8) is pure, but the third (81:64) and fourth (243:171) degrees are quite colourful, except you use phthora nana (φθορά νανὰ), so that the fourth is pure (4:3) and the diatonic genos sounds “Western”. If it is tetartos (τέταρτος), the second (9:8), the fourth (4:3), and the fifth (3:2) are pure, but the third have the beauty of the interval 27:22 which is named after the famous ‘Ūd player in Baghdad Zalzal.

If you believe that the Ison singer is changing the colour of the drone according to the different characters of the ἦχος, then you may say that within the ison there is the whole melos. If you are singing with the imagination of all these colours, you are probably good enough to sing without ison. But today Greek-Orthodox singers usually have isokrates in a choir whose ἴσον underline the character of an ἦχος. This practice of isokratēma is part of a living tradition, although the old sources offer no evidence whether it was common in the medieval times. The same can be said about Western chant and its sources whose monodique form have no living tradition today. Like the enēchēma (ἐνήχημα) in Eastern chant, the use of similar intonation formulas as a startingpoint communicated among the Latin cantores was common practice between the 8th and the 11th century. Later these formulas given in the tonaries were replaced by another practice that the incipit was sung by a soloist: the precantor. There is no verdict in Latin theory that says that Western singers did not use the ison to show the character of a certain mode.

The restrictions of Carolingian theorists that there are only four places within the tonal system on which a mode can be established, was undermined by the Western practice of florid organum in which every note of the cantus could establish an own mode and sounded like an ison.

Ensemble Ison's Philosophy of Making Music

The musicians and singers joining the ensemble have not to fulfill any expectations connected with “being a professional”. In a first phase it was concerned to work with several musicians to face some neurotic expectations related to it, turning away from them any indivuality and reducing them to wannabe-professionals. According to my experience these problems are much more serious for those who already got some education in music than for those who did not even think that they have a voice or a musical talent. Finally these presuppositions which often infect those joining academic institutions like music high schools or conservatories, are based on purely economic and not on artistic reasons which are always in the mind of the so called “modern people” or the homo economicus, but there are quite unknown among common people who have not grown up with teachers obsessed by the idea that a human being has to start with music at an age of 4 or 5. It is a seduction to dictatorship, when teachers want to determine a human destiny, before their pupils have reached an age, when they are ready to make up their own decisions. But only musicians who are not forced by others, but who are instead following their own needs, have a possibility to find their own expressions uttered by their own voice. Everything else is a war during which we have good reasons to fear, that we will lose everything. But the truth is that we never had, whatever we have stolen from others.

Following or finding the own voice means that the usual borders and presumptions how to use the voice (vocal technique) have to be questioned. The prononciation does not need to follow any artificial concept and the singing voice is just a variant to the speaking voice. Because of the very complex anatomy every voice has very individual colours, and it will help the singer to discover and to accept them instead of imitating the voice of somebody else. The possibility of imitation shows how much can be done with the human voice, but it is only one choice among thousands. Listening to ethnological field recordings can help to try out other imitations, even a complicated one like this:

»Mlad mi se Georgi pobolia« Responsorial song for Holy George (Recording: Voukovo, Bulgaria 1970)

Fortunately you do not need to fashion yourself as “professional”, if you want to use such a large part of the voice's natural spectrum, as we can hear it in the singing of Spasouna Bisera Verk, recorded 1970 in the village of Voukovo (Doupnitsa region).

Although the first steps in improvisation of organum or kalophonic forms are far from the level which we may find in compositions of the old manuscripts, the singers are still on the right way, as long as they do not imitate others, but as they find their own way. The musician Sun Ra could have used these words: “History is full of repetitions, my story - like nature - never repeats itself. Why should it repeat itself?”

While musicians are dealing with very long and elaborated forms of soloist genres, the way of creating them is not making a long and elaborated form, but doing very few and unexpected things which have their own development. If musicians follow a very ambitious way, they usually get stuck into it in the very beginning. But in the following silence they will find everything what they need...

Different levels of expression

« Dans le temps lisse on occupe le temps sans le compter; dans le temps strié, on compte le temps pour l’occuper. »

Pierre Boulez « Penser la musique aujourd’hui » (1964)

Rhythm and tempo

Since the time of Ziryāb, the great champion of Andalusian music at the court of Abd’ ar-Rahmān II in Córdoba (9th century), there was the difference between našīd, a freerhythmic recitative, basīt, a song in a slow cyclic rhythm or meter, and ahzāj, a song in a fast dancing rhythm. This difference offers various ways how to create time in music, and it was also used in other traditions as well: We can see in the late 12th century Parisian school a similar difference between organum purum, free rhythmic embellishment of a cantus note within a slow pulse, discantus, quasi rhythmic following a regular pulse, and copula, an arhythmic contrast to dicantus, which made up the form section of a clausula in contrast to the other sections in organum purum. Closer to Andalusian principles is another distinction in kalophonic chant of 14th century Constantinople: Here we have a very embellished and melismatic melos changing between various genres and a fast dancing movement of time in teretismoi (τερετισμοί), while free rhythmic recitation exist in lectures or readings in the canonic books of monotheistic traditions (ekphonetic notation).

This is one level of expression and one level of form, combining poetic contemplation with dance.

Melodic models and their intervals

There is as well a correspondence to Boulez' categories temps lisse and temps strié that is concerning interval proportions:

Both in Western and Eastern traditions of religious chant we have microtonal shifts as part of the melodic models or melos — expressed in terms like “melodic drives”: melōdikes elxeis (μελωδικές ἕλξεις). These shifts can be regarded as a strategy of temps lisse to explore the expressive space between the rational proportions, usually defined as a supernatural proportion: (n+1):n. Every ethic classification of the modes is mainly based in these very details of a melodic model. Western musicians were often perplexed by this habit, and admitted that they have no feeling for theses expressions. What they really mean is that their practice is not familiar with modal principles any longer, so they tend to perform modal music without any expressions — which simply means: in a boring way.

Ornaments are often related with these shifts and their performance is not common among several musicians, but rather unique and individual according to the individual sound of the own voice. It is easy to intone correctly supernatural proportions: common intervalls known as the octave (2:1), the fifth (3:2), the fourth (4:3), the major (5:4) or minor third (6:5), the whole or great tone (9:8) or even less common proportions like 7:6 or 8:7 or 12:11. But other proportions which are not supernatural like the ditonus (81:64) or the half tone (256:243) or the tritone of the tritos (τρίτος) (243:171) cannot found at all by an orientation along the overtones. First we will listen carefully to a singer who knows a convincing way of intonation. The second step of finding an own convincing way is to adapt an interval to the colour of the own voice.

The advantage of this very careful method is that musicians will not get lost, if they have a profound understanding of the melos of a certain mode. On this fundament musicians are able to find their way through more complex forms of melos which go through different modes. So finally it is possible to get lost in music, but less because of the musician's ignorance than because of the fact that there is much cheerfulness in music.

Finding your way through music

During a discussion about “historical performance practice” and about the motivation to transcribe ancient forms of notation into modern staff notation once a musicologist argued: “For me it is not the ultima ratio to make music out of ancient notation.” I replied: “For sure it is not the ultima ratio, it is the very beginning into studies of a lost tradition. The second step will be to take into question our own attitude to this ancient form of notation, but even then you are still at the very beginning.”

A lot of musicians expect orders to go through a composition, they would never think that composition itself could be part of their competence. The musicians of Ensemble Ison worked within traditions in which composition is part of their competence. Composition simply means that some problems of formal architecture needs a prepared solution, while other decisions can be done spontaneously — a way which musicians today would call “improvisation”.

With a deeper understanding of the function that different notations have or had to fulfill, musicians will learn that most of the written decisions are meant rather as propositions than as prescriptions. This means that a lot of musicians today have to learn to make up their own decisions, so that they will get some own experience by doing so.

It is the aim of the Ensemble Ison to encourage singers that they will find their way back to a flexible and soloist performance style which can adapt any form of soloist chant genre to the given time within a ritual performance — whether it will be a religious rite or a secularized one like a concert.

Ensemble Ison's story

Ensemble Ison was founded after a seminary about performance practice of liturgical chant in Notre Dame Organum, 12th and 13th century polyphony based on Western plainchant. The seminary was an initiative of the ensemble's founder, it took place during two semesters between 1998 and 1999. The seminary was time enough to learn performing this music directly out of medieval notation (following some basic rules concerning Parisian modal rhythm and free rhythmic ornament shapes), as the participants did directly from the original sources at the Herzog August Library in Wolfenbüttel, which was sponsored as a „Gastseminar“ by the library itself.

But there was no time to do the second step, though it was already part of the seminary's concept: exploring the ars organi as an improvisational practice and not as the monumental and revised repertory of Leonin's compositions, collected in the manuscripts of Magnus liber organi. The aim was to liberate the singers from the notation which they learned during the seminary and to understand the formal decisions of the composer in a way which allows to follow their own decisions. In the year 2000 Ensemble Ison was founded as part of an “organum project” whose experiments were documented in a Master and PhD thesis by Oliver Gerlach.

An important inspiration came from a 13th century polemic which says that “Gallican” singers in Paris mixed the three genera (diatonic, chromatic and enharmonic). Before we only used the diatonic genus in chant performance, but now we had to learn from singers of living traditions who already know to do so. We visited traditional singers of Orthodox chant in the Balkans and they taught some singers of the ensemble, so that they became familiar with this practice.

Today the ensemble is working with various musicians from different traditions in various projects and its activities have spread over several countries of the Mediterranean.

Documentary recordings instead of commercially produced CDs

The reasons why there are no professionally produced CDs yet, but only recordings to document the first results, when the musicians did their first steps in an own performance in which they go their own way in the ars organi or psaltikē technē, are several:

The first is that liturgical music is part of a ritual and not part of an artistic performance that we want to listen to on a CD. If we have our memories what really happened during a ritual and its performance, we can even understand a documentary recording of it. But it is another ritual to celebrate music in the perfection of the studio and its technical possibilities, communicating indirectly with an audience familiar with several other recordings of the same piece and presenting now the own idea or interpretation of this piece. This is the reason, why you would not like to listen regularly to CDs with ritual music - even if they recorded very nice performances. CDs of liturgical music are often refused as boring or - especially field recordings - are usually mistaken as ambience. Of course, it is possible to make money with everything, but here we are talking about making music.

In an early experimental stage the perspective of having a perfect and representative recording can be a real handicap for the development of musical talents. There is a strange idea among wannabe-professionals that the first thing they want to have is a “demo CD”. In my experience those demo CDs are not only usually Frankensteins which are puzzled together by fragments taken from several performances, but they are quite often recordings of other musicians than those, who finally want to be represented by Mr. Frankenstein. If someone wants to judge musicians by a fake like this, there is no reason to worry about when it comes to reality. But for sure this is certainly not the fore mentioned communication through a recording, if musicians are so far to respect themselves as individuals who have their rights to live in the present and not in a monstrous future which does only exist in a virtual world.

The individual experiments of every musician are carefully documented here without any manipulation of the result, the context of any experiment is documented in detail. Oliver Gerlach did this, because he was convinced that there is nothing more miraculous and astonishing than the more or less hidden nature which lies behind “the results”.