- A Journey of the Vocal Iso(n) by Eno Koço
This is a remarkable book, simultaneously ambitious and aware of the limitations on what it can achieve. Koço sets out to propose possible connections between the ison (drone) of Byzantine chant and the iso as used in the multipart folk singing of Southern Albania, which is certainly a big undertaking. At the same time, Koço is very clear in his preface and introduction that this study is merely a beginning, an accumulation of scraps of evidence and working hypotheses that may be taken further by future research. He is careful not to re-hash historical arguments concerning the age of the ison in the Byzantine repertoire, though this question hovers in the background constantly.
The book is divided into three sections: the first two are entitled “Synthesis” and “Analysis,” and a third comprises three appendices. In the first chapter, Koço necessarily goes into the historical backdrop to the question at hand, situating Albanian culture in relation to the Roman and post-Roman periods and ending with a typically provocative question: “After all, is it not fascinating that these possibly archaic multi-part styles are still preserved and may roughly and symbolically define the ex-Roman Epiri borders?” (p. 12). The question is left in the air, but the second chapter, “Iso-based Multipart Unaccompanied Singing (IMUS) and Some of Its Components,” gives a useful overview of the situation with regard to the singing of Albanian, Greek and Aromanian/Vlach communities, and moves in the direction of answering it.
The third and last chapter of the first section, “Byzantine and Post-Byzantine Music,” gives a very simplified overview of Byzantine chant, but unfortunately relies too much on outdated literature (including terminology coined by J. B. Thibaut, articles and books by Egon Wellesz, and Dalia Cohen’s article “Theory and Practice in Liturgical Music of Christian Arabs in Israel” [Studies in Eastern Chant, vol. III (London: Oxford University Press, 1973), 1–50]) so that an overly simplistic picture emerges of both the Chrysanthine reform and the way in which Byzantine and Ottoman music might have interacted. It would have been salutary to see references here to more recent Greek scholarship on these matters. On the other hand, the final section of the chapter, which gives a panoramic view of the Arbëresh Byzantine liturgy and the scholarly attention that has been paid to it, is extremely useful, including its references to the work of Nicola Scaldaferri and Girolamo Garofalo.
It is the second section, “Analysis,” that contains the real substance of Koço’s work. He lays out his thesis in the following carefully worded paragraph:
The iso(n), as a sustained tone component to the chant/song, has evolved and become integrated into both Byzantine monody and the Southwest Balkan oral traditions of multipart pentatonic singing. . . . Such commonality may suggest that the integration and then consolidation of the iso(n) into these two traditions occurred in roughly the same Late Medieval Period. That the use of the drone in both forms of unaccompanied singing may have existed prior to this period should not be entirely ruled out, [End Page 712] however, further investigation is needed as there are no surviving written records which support this.(p. 40)
In this and the following two chapters, Koço expands on this thesis and provides a historically contextualized discussion of Greek and Albanian cultural legacies and explanations of the stylistic differences between the various Southwest Balkan IMUS repertories. He also addresses questions of text and metre, and the speculation on whether the use of instrumental drones has a parallel with bell ringing, which is rightly dismissed by Koço as “quite exciting but, in my view, hardly probable” (p. 98). Chapter 7, one of the most valuable in the book, examines Byzantine and related chanting in Albanian communities. Koço discusses Lorenzo Tardo’s views on the early existence of the ison and the...