Isokratema Technique In Modern Performance Practice

The term "isokratema" in Byzantine Music means the continuous horizontalco-sounding of the tonic of a mode or -more precisely- the tonic of a tetrachord or a pentachord with the melodic line. The word is composite: "ison" and "kratema". Sometimes we see only the word "ison" which means exactly the same thing, the "kratema" or "holding" of the ison. In music, ison is the first and only sign of Byzantine notation that is characterised as "the beginning, middle and system of all signs of the Psaltic Art. Without ison, there is no voice ("fwnh" = melody?). Ison is called "aphonon" (lit. mute) not because there isn't any melody associated with it. Ison can be counted ("metreitai") but not voiced. And depending on the amount of equal notes, the ison is chanted". That is found in all the prefaces of the theories of the old-method Papadike. From there it is, I think, that the etymology and literal meaning of the term "ison" derives: the continuous vocal repetition of the appropriate note each time, which note is called "ison", is the so called "holding of the ison" that is, the "isokratema". It is well known that the musical system of Byzantine chant is monophonic, modal, purely vocal, written-down, with well known composers and compositions that are artistic and complete musical works even though they are intended almost exclusively for liturgical practice in Church - which of course is the centre of the Christian's life. However, there are also compositions that can be chanted outside the Church like, for instance, "at the table" which nonetheless is a continuation of liturgical congregation. Written tradition is interpreted by oral tradition and complemented by it. The microtonal variety and the effects of the signs are core elements of a complete interpretation.

The isokratema, witnessed from the Byzantine times in manuscripts either with the mention of the name of the person that does it ("vastaktes" =holder/supporter) or with the definition of the job of a "vastaktes". Having observed the above terminology in some compositions of manuscripts, I could conclude that not all pieces were changed with "vastaktes" but only those that explicitly said so. Equivalent to the "vastaktai" of the East in Western musical practice are: the four last members (out of the seven) of Scuola Cantorum, that is the archparaphonist and the three paraphonists (the first three members are the primicirius, secondarius and tertius). So much with the evidence of "vastaktai" (holders) of ison in the Byzantine period because, in my knowledge, there is no evidence of written isokratema in composition, in Byzantine as well as in the post-Byzantine period. After the introduction of the new method of the 3 teachers (beginning of the 19th cent) the first evidence of written isokratema in books dates around the beginning of the 20th century. It is quite surprising that the first notated isokratema in the 19th century is not found in books of the New Method (of the 3 teachers) but in those of another method called the "Lesvios' system" (a system that was justifiably rejected by the Ecumenical Patriarchate because it destroyed irreversibly the link between the practiced method and the older methods of the centuries-old musical system).

A parenthesis: The huge importance of the connecting link between the older systems and the currently practiced one was pointed out and demonstrated first by Simon Karas with the identification of the effect of certain signs with oral (as well as written) tradition. Later research proves gloriously ("panygerika") the correctness and necessity of the views of Karas - let me mention the extremely well documented doctoral thesis of Georgios Konstantinou that was approved last year by the Ionian University. End of parenthesis.

So the first notated isokratema in the 19th century happens by Georgios Lesvios in the book "Meliphonos Terpsinoe" a two-volume anthology published in Athens in 1847. The texts were "converted" as interpreted by Georgios Lesvios from the method of the 3 teachers, to his own method. In the preface of that work, Lesvios notes: "In the most well known pieces of the second volume, we added the signs of change of the bases (or the isa) which should co-chant softly ("ta opoia thelousi ypadein ypechountes (isokratwsi)" the "isokratai" while the piece is chanted as is observed by those chanting n Constantinople and indeed in the Great Church. However, they (dk: the isokratai) should also be musicians otherwise they can make mistakes". The phrase here "as it happens" creates some doubts as to whether Lesvios heard and wrote the isokratemata exactly as they were done in the Great church or that he notated them following in general and "approximately" the standards and the tradition of the Great Church. Both assiptions are equally possible. The observation of this first evidence of written down isokratema is due to philologist M. Xatziyakoumis and took place while cataloguing the printed music books. I will not go into details regarding this notated isokratema as I have already given my texts to musicologist Sotirios K. Despotis, PhD candidate at the University of Vienna, who dealt in detail with the subject (for more information see his final year dissertation at the Ionian University titled "The application of the co-sounding ("synechetikou") system of Byzantine Ecclesiastical Music in Byzantine Ecclesiastical Melos through Theory and Practice of the 20th century", Corfu, 2002 and in a paper by the same author in the international conference of Vienna University (3-5 Oct. 2002): "Die Isokratema Praxis der Byzantinischen Kirchnmusik").

In 1902, the Protopsaltis of Smyrna, Misael Misaelidis publishes his "Neon Theoretikon" consisting of 3 parts: 1) About our Ecclesiastical music 2) About Ancient Greek Music and 3) Various Ecclesiastical Hymns etc. In the third part and from page 63 onwards, where the per-mode Cherouvika start, a capital I is written on the notes that the isokrates should change the ison. Much later, in 1924, Stylianos Hourmouzios of Cyprus will use the same method (capital I) with the same meaning in his book "Ecclesiastical Salpingx", vol. 3, Liturgy.

In the years of activity of the Patriarchal Committee of 1881-1883 we can identify a trend to seek a more systematic manner of co-sounding of the melodic line and the isokratema. Central figure in that attempt is the Fanariot (Constantinopolitan) Archimandirte Germanos Afthonidis, president of the Commitee. A very interesting piece of information that involves Germanos was kindly offered by Protopsaltis and researcher Konstantinos Markos. In a text by well known French musician L. Bourgault-Ducoudray, the translation of which will be published by K. Markos soon, it is mentioned that Ducoudray had repeatedly met and discussed with Afthonidis on the possibility of some kind of co-sounding support for the melodic line. Ducoudray suggested some solutions but without success because Germanos would not accept them. In the end, the French musician suggested to Germanos two co-sounding lines (deux harmonisations) which Germanos accepted and they named them due to their primitive simplicity (vu leur simplicite primitive) as "diplo ison" ("double ison"). I do not have any more information on the fate of that work but quite possibly that could have been the inspiration of the double supporting or co-sounding line promoted by K. Psaxos when he came to Athens from Constantinople, as the first teacher of the newly founded School of Byzantine Ecclesiastical Music of the Athens Conservatory (1904) . On Psaxos' double co-sounding line we observe the following: 1. He doubles parts of the melody in unison or an octave apart which results in the ison to lie in the middle and the melody to move higher or lower than the ison. When the second voice moves, the third is holding the ison and vice-versa, when the third voice moves, the ison is done by the second voice. 2. In this case the two voices chant together (in unison) while the third holds the ison 3. All three voices chant in unison, without isokratema.

The above cases are observed in both syllabic and melismatic pieces. In particular, the melismatic pieces differ in the melodic lines that are suitable for solo ("kalofwnia"). In such a case, the ison is held by the second or third voice in unison or as double ison (dk: two different notes). The in-depth study of the system of the 8 modes as well as the effects of the notation signs, led Simon Karas to build a teaching that gives clear, complete and justified answers to the issue at hand. In general, I could say that in the first half of the 20th century, the trend for some kind of enrichment of the isokratema, in order to counter the increasing popularity of Western polyphony, is quite strong. And Simon Karas himself goes a long way in a short period of time, from the first recording of 1930 (by Melpo Merlie) until the formation of his teaching on isokratema, on the basis of the system of the modes and the effects of the signs of the notation. The opration of "double isokratema", as he names it, is different from the co-sounding line ("synhxhtikh grammh") of Psaxos. Double isokratema of Simon Karas exists when there are common notes when moving from one mode to another inside a piece, with adjacent ("synhmmena") tetrachord (e.g. in cases of moving from low First Mode or Plagal Second Mode to Papadic Fourth Mode Agia). Whichever change of the isokratema has to follow the musical phrase from the beginning, something which often is not so clearly visible and easy. Especially in cases where a musical phrase can belong to more than one mode, depending on how it is chanted, applying the characteristic elements of this or the other mode. The structure of the pieces plays an important role as to the placement of the isokratema. In his "Theoretikon", S. Karas has a detailed teaching on the isokratemata of all modes for someone who wants to read more on this subject.

Modern psaltic practice appears contraddicting with respect to isokratema. On one hand there is a will for study, research and to follow all the rules of our musical system. On the other hand, one can see a carelessness ("proxeirothta") and adapting to the existing dead-end practices of education and knowledge. The worst is the view of isokratema using the logic of Western music and of vertical harmony which has absolutely no relation to our musical system. And even worse, the influence of such logic at the practical level, in cases where there is no knowledge of Western music but a modern aesthetic understanding which gets infuenced by Western and/or eastern sources and remains captive to manufactured sounds ("typopoihmena akousmata") that do not take into account neither the modal system nor the effects of the notation signs. The in-depth study, complete knowledge of the structure and operation of the system of the Octoechos (8 modes) as well as the effects of the notation signs is required for a justified documentation of isokratema.

L. A. Angelopoulos, Archon Protopsaltis of the Holy Archdiocese of Constantinople, Teacher of Byzantine Music at the Filippos Nakas Conservatory