musicology texts


1. Modality and polyphony in prehistoric Balkans

by Thanassis Moraitis

in collaboration with Demétrios Lekkas

(Πολυφωνία, July 2004)


The present paper is an attempt towards a basic integral approach to the phenomenon of Balkan and especially Epirote pentatonic polyphony.

   A historical restitution, based on theoretical and archaeological data, begins by pointing out the conceivable same age of pentatonic and heptatonic tonal structures. This is followed by a separate geographical placement of former and latter in the wider western and eastern Balkans, respectively, already by say 6,000 b.C.

   Then the paper presents the technical method by which five non-semitone pentatones are produced within the cycle of fifths / fourths via successive superposition. The said pentatones, which are listed, all consist of 3 tones and 2 non-successive trihemitones. Furthermore, another question is raised on the theoretical level, concerning simultaneously sounded pitches and the genesis of a harmony suitable for this particular tonal system. To this end, the paper lists all the top chords fit for it, as generated by mathematical theory.

   Balkan pentatones bear witness to an advanced consciousness of the perfect intervals of fifth and fourth and of their modal products; they are governed by elements of a rearranging and recycling potential, allowing placement of the ison (drone) either above or below the main melody indiscriminately; thus they pave the way towards harmonic accompaniment and contrapuntal movement in a manner strictly congruous to rigorous mathematical analysis. Thus Epirote polyphony is indeed contrapuntal and forms exactly the chords produced in the theory and no others.

   The historical dimension is completed by considerations of time (since when? strong probability of an unknown timeless origin) and place (where? focal areas, extension, dispersion, variations and differentiations). Through such evidence the paper can stress the historical importance of Epirote pentatonic polyphonic songs, their focal position and their uniqueness as inferred from their unparalleled degree of complexity.

   A next section attempts a technical approach and analysis, making detailed reference to the different voices and contours (partìs, yiristìs, clostis, isocrates, richtis), the melodic behaviour and role of each one, in direct reference to the three musical examples found at the Appendix annexed at the end.

   Concluding, the paper makes an indicative reference to intense and conspicuous linguistic residues borne by this musical idiom as carried over from antique languages, with their pronunciation and enunciation (in melodies) as well as their prosodic metric and rhythmic features (in its rhythmic patterns and in the dances accompanying it).