Dimitri Rastoropov

A Brief Comparison of Albanian Iso-Polyphony and Lithuanian Sutartines

It may seem far fetched to compare such different cultures as Albanian and Lithuanian from most perspectives—including a musical one—but perhaps it is a needed step towards finding further connections between Balkan and Baltic regions, or to show that they have formed independently of each other. The catalyst for this study is the fact that dissonant folk polyphony exists in both Albanian and Lithuanian folk music, and the Indo-European unity of the two cultures.

Albanian folk music has had very little attention from scholars up until the middle of the 20th century, and this largely complicates its study. The first compilation of Albanian folk music was made by Pjeter Dunguin the 1940’s, but only in 1950, an Albanian musicologist Ramadan Sokoli started full academic research of the music. Since that date it was studied extensively, first mostly from inside Albania, and after the deconstruction of the communist state, foreign studies of Albanian music increased.

Lithuanian music had more focus on it from musicologists, beginning from the middle of the 19th century, through Soviet times, and up until today, and most of the Sutartines have been transcribed in the 19-20th centuries. What complicates the study of the Sutartines today is the fact that they are no longer a living tradition – they are only being performed by professional and amateur folk ensembles. With time, the area of outspread of Sutartines has been diminishing, and it also has been penetrated by influences of homophonic music with a major-minor harmonic structure, eventually this type of singing ceased to exist in villages. The latter is contrary to the situation with Albanian folk music, which even though it is also being performed by folk ensembles, and the fact that the phenomenon of the iso seems to be declining, the singing still continues to evolve – new polyphonic songs and texts with modern themes and problems continue to emerge, and there is also a rapidly growing tendency for performing iso-polyphonic songs with instruments (Ahmedaja, 2005: 225). This may not be good considering the preservation of folk music, but it is definitely a sign of life.

Albania, music wise, may be divided into two regions – northern (Ghegëri) and southern (Toskëri) which are separated by the Shkumbini river. The north is mostly an area of monodic song, and polyphonic singing is predominantly found in the southern parts of Albania. (Tole, 2004) Generally, it could be said that Albanian music, as it was first met by scholars, is like most Eastern European ethnic music, is by an extent, a result of different influences – Greek, Serbian, Macedonian, Turkish etc. Consequently, it is impossible to draw specific borders and, for example say that iso-polyphonic singing is entirely Albanian, because in the Epirus region of northern Greece, very similar iso-polyphonic singing is also exists. The same can be said about northern Albania, and perhaps even in a bigger degree.

Music in Lithuania is not as rigidly divided as Albanian, due to a few reasons. Geographically Lithuania is comprised mostly of plainlands, contrasting to Albanian highlands and mountains, and this suggests more connections and mutual influences between populated areas, and a more monolithic culture in general, than where each village is disconnected from other villages by mountains and other harsh terrains. Religion could be a force of unity in Albania, but according to some opinions, (Noli, 1947: 21) religion is not something Albanians are historically consistent with – multiple conversions from and to major religions according to the political situation is somewhat characteristic of Albanians and for example, a conversion from Orthodox Christianity to Islam of a major part of Albanians has not changed the core of iso-polyphonic singing even with time (Koço, Vocal Ison: Chapter 9). Nevertheless, Lithuanians today are predominantly Roman Catholic, and this may have also provided cultural unity. The Sutartines were located only in one of the five regions of Lithuania – the northeastern Aukštaitija, which is translated as “highlands” (the «highlands» do not go above 200-300 hundred meters, so a comparison with Albania is impossible). Other types of singing are spread more or less evenly on the territory of Lithuania. Sutartines, compared to Albanian iso-polyphony does not have any neighbours with somewhat similar singing, although Slavjunas (Славюнас, 1972: 8) mentions an earlier existence of two-voiced polyphonic singing with a drone in the bordering region of Latvia, but this singing ceased to exist in the 19th century. There is also a recent discovery by Raèiunaitë-Vyèinienë, of what she calls “Collaborative Sutartines” (Raèiunaitë-Vyèinienë, 2005: 1) – they are similar to the ‘normal’ Sutartines but have a drone, and present a more consonant style influenced by professional polyphony. Perhaps a more convincing reason for this difference of Albanian and Lithuanian music is much more simple: polyphonic traditions of Europe seem to belong to the indigenous population of Europe which have migrated to more remote and arduous regions like mountain ranges, big forests, etc. (Jordania, 2006: 216) This way, when state borders were formed, the people living in the mountains would be separated by the borders, and eventually would be influenced by the culture of the country they were attached to. Lithuania was in a better situation than Albania, because the formation of its borders did not divide the region where Sutartines singing was spread so drastically as it did to Albanian music in general.

Iso-polyphony is something south Albanian music is most known for, it is spread in four regions – Toskëri, Myzeqe, Labëri, and Çamëri each of which have their own traditions of performance of these songs. The prefix “iso” relates to a drone tone that is sung at least by three people (Stockmann, 1964: 94 in Ahmedaja, 2008). The term is derived from the Greek word ison, which is used in Byzantine liturgical singing, where it is a name for a neume. This held tone is performed in a similar fashion in the three regions of the south – in all except Labëri, there the venkorë (an Albanian analog of the Greek isokraton – one who holds the tone) holds the note with the vowel e (as in ‘rest’) with heavy aspirations. Labë usually recite a text with the ison, or give it some sort of rhythmical pattern; the vowel they use is ë, and they seem to be very fond of this and often stress this difference from other regions (Sokoli, 1959: 118 in Ahmedaja, 2008). Iso-polyphonic singing is performed by two, three, or four voices (only in Labëri) mostly by men, but also by women, separately or together. A typical texture of three- and four-part songs is when one group performs solo parts and the other group performs the ison. The inceptive singer is often called marrës, i.e. the one who “takes it up”, he is also called “ia beq” – the one who “pulls it”. The singer that steps in after the first one is called kthyes i.e. the one who “gives it back” or këmbore – a “bell”, and the reason for the latter is the repetition of rhythmically bell-like motives.Four-part polyphony is only found in Labëri and there obviously a third singer is present, at times he is called bedhës, i.e. “the thrower” – his role is to support the first singer, and to give him a chance to rest. At other times he can be called mbushës – “the one who fills it”, and his role is “filling” up the texture, more exactly – giving a second layer of the ison between the main tone and the third above it, but more rhythmically and melodically (glissandos, portamentos) elaborated (Ahmedaja, 2008, 217).

Instrumental music of Albania is spread mostly in the north. All types of instruments are used – strings, winds and percussion. They are used either solo, or as to accompany epic songs, which are most often recited to the sounds of the lahuta, which could be called a one-string violin. There are alternatives like the cifteli, a two-string instrument tuned by a fourth, on which one string is used for the melody the other for a drone, which is perhaps either a reason, or a result for why it is used more to the south than the lahuta. The more sophisticated string instrument is the llaute, a four-string instrument also tuned in fourths, on which like the lute, the strings are doubled – it is often used in ensemble playing. Wind instruments like the zumare (an instrument similar to a clarinet) are mostly played by shepherds along with a shepherd’s flute. Percussion instruments are mostly used for dance music and sometimes for the songs of the shepherds – def (a type of tambourine) is one of the most popular percussion instruments.

The Sutartines are an exceptional type of Lithuanian multi-voiced music. They stand out not only from inside the Lithuanian culture, but also from an international perspective, compared with the ethnic music of other cultures. This type of singing is in no way a primitive from of polyphony i.e. the Organum, where intervals are sung in parallel motion. Even though all Sutartines melodies are formed with thirds, have similar rhythmical structure, still, each voice has its own logic that does not depend on what the second voice is singing i.e. the melodic logic of this type of singing is purely horizontal. It seems that the reason for such dissonant sonority is not purely musical, and is based largely on psychoacoustical factors (Ambrazevičius, Wiśniewska, 2009: 54). The word sutartines comes from the verb sutarti, which means “to agree”. The particularity of the Sutartines is in their two-voice polyphony, built on the its most ancient types. The most characteristic sonority is the nearly constant sound of seconds, sometimes parallel and sometimes not. The themes and functions of the Sutartines spread unequally throughout nearly all known genres (work, ritual, calendar, family, historical and recited songs) and from this, is it is possible to conclude that the Sutartines are not at all accidental in the Lithuanian culture – they began forming a very long time ago, and once had taken a big part, equal with the part of monodic singing in the life of the Lithuanian people. In Sutartines, the one who begins singing, or the one who sings the main text is called the rinkėja, “the collector,” other variants include “the leader”, “the originator”, while the one repeating the refrain is called the pritarėja, “the accompanist” and at other times he can be called the “harmonist”. Considering that the Sutartines are very often women’s work (mostly weaving) songs, an interesting parallel is marked by Raèiunaitë-Vyèinienë – rinkinys,(a patterned or multicoloured cloth) could be the origin of the name for one of the Sutartines singers (Raèiunaitë-Vyèinienë, 2006), and in fact, sometimes the word rinktinė can be a substitute for sutartine.

Melodically, Sutartines are quite simple – they usually consist of two to five different tones, and the melodic line is built of unfilled major and minor thirds. There also exists a number of tunes with passing tones, with a lower fourth or a higher fifth. The basis tones are the prime and third tones. A typical feature is a syncopated and a hammered rhythm, performed in a moderate tempo very most often in 2/4 time or its variations. The rhythm consists of quarter and eight notes, with rare occasions of dotted rhythms. The structure of a typical Sutartines melody is symmetrical – it usually consists of two equally sized parts. In the most interesting examples, the second part is melodically either an answer, a contrast, or a variant of the first part, and is often performed a second higher or lower. The words of the Sutartines are sung in the first part, and the text of the refrain, which mostly consists of meaningless words and interjections – in the second.

Usually, the songs are categorized by the way of performance, they are sung either in two, three, or four parts (voices), which are respectively named dveijnes, trejines, keturines. Dvejines and keturines form the first group of Sutartines, which by analogy with Western polyphony could be called contrapuntal – singers start and end singing together. The top voice usually is singing the main text, and the second one sings the refrain. The main difference between dvejines and keturines is that in the latter, groups of two singers perform “antiphonally”. In the type of Sutartines that is performed by four singers, nothing changes in the voices that actually sound together – the difference is in the way each singer sings the same melody with different people. Usually, one group performs the song fully, after which, the same thing is repeated by the second group. The combinationsvary vastly, and according to the situations they are sung in. Four part singing is most often found in dance, joke songs and in other non-work situations (weddings, baptism, etc.), three and two part singing is spread throughout all types of occasions. The second group of Sutartines is trejines, and they by analogy could be called canonical – the first singer performs the first part of the melody, the second one joins after the first part has been sung, with the same first part, and the same text of the first part, then the third singer enters in the same fashion. When the Sutartines are being performed in three parts, the difference is only in the way of performance, as the resulting sound also does not exceed two voices as in all vocal Sutartines. The result of this singing is not only a dissonant polyphony, which consists of mostly seconds rarely moving into unison or other intervals (not bigger than a fifth), but also a dissonance of texts, in which the performers never sing the same text at one time (with rare exceptions, mostly indvejines).

The Sutartines described above could be called “standard”, the variations from them can go both ways, either into more a complex musical language, or into a simplification of it. In the first case it happens through various expansions, variations, or insertions. Sutartines that have a tendency for simplification usually have more consonances – thirds and fifths. Most of latest singing of Sutartines in villages belonged to this category, with a gradual tendency for not only the consonance, but for a simplification of voice leading, up to a stage when heterophonic Sutartines took place of the dying Schwebungsdiaphonie. Although this process is not exactly clear because there are songs of the heterophonic Sutartines, that actually belong to a more primitive layer, and apparently this problem is yet to be studied.

Singing in seconds is a hard task, as it was admitted by old singers, and it required constant practice. Often groups of people who sang the Sutartines formed a friendship forlife, and practiced this singing rigorously, inventing new types of voice leading, and perfecting the old ones.

Sutartines were always connected to instrumental music – usually it was performed on different types of wind instruments, and the amount of voices that sound simultaneously could reach up to five, in comparison to the two voices of vocal Sutartines. This perhaps leads to a conclusion that even though the singers themselves say that the pauses in voices were required for rest, because the Sutartines were often sung during work, itseems more possible that it is just the complexity of singing such dissonant music that stopped the singers from adding more voices. On the other side, in instrumental music, it is much more simple to play three or more voices without losing the intonation. 19th century sources often say that during work, rest and return from work in the fields women used to sing the Sutartines, while men accompanied their singing on instruments. Other examples also show this natural connection between vocal and instrumental Sutartines.

Even considering some of the existing non-musical theories (most importantly the mutual Indo-European heritage) on connections between the Balts and predecessors of Albanians, after examining the musical characteristics of the most archaic polyphonic styles in both ethnicities, I have come to a conclusion that from this perspective, the amount of similarities is close to none. Perhaps the only similarities that exist between the chosen types of singing is the fact that they are polyphonic, and that their vertical structure includes a big amount of dissonances. Everything else is different apart from maybe some accidental coincidences. The lack of a drone in the Sutartines is the first thing that anyone comparing it with Albanian iso-polyphony will see. Albanian drone is most probably of Byzantine origin and could be dated around the 11th century (Koço, Vocal Iso(n): Chapter 4), while the drone of the Collective Sutartines is of very late genesis and lacks nearly all characteristics of the ‘usual’ Sutartines – independence of voices, dissonant vertical structure, etc. and it is more reminiscent of Western polyphony because of very strong influences of the major-minor harmonic structure.

Even though the vertical coordination of Albanian iso-polyphony and Lithuanian Sutartines seems to be similar (a big amount of dissonances etc.), I do not consider this very important, because the sonority of the Sutartines is almost a constant pulsation of minor and major seconds, while iso-polyphony, apart from often sounding seconds (intervals), also give us all other intervals much more often that the Sutartines do. Although it is typical of all performers of dissonant polyphonic music (both Lithuanian and Albanian) to perceive the sonority as “sounding like bells” (Šeškauskaite, 2004: 87). Also, the role of the parts vary greatly in iso-polyphony with each of the singers having his own individual task, in the Sutartines we see only two functions, since only two voices sound simultaneously, and even in the instrumental Sutartines in which the number of voices can grow, we still do not see new functions.

Gender wise, we see both types of singing performed both by men and women. But we still have a wide tendency of iso-polyphony being performed predominantly by men, and the Sutartines predominantly by women, although exceptions do exist, especially considering Albanian singing. But, perhaps a uniting thread could be the fact that two-part polyphonic songs in Albania are mostly performed by women, and these songs are by some considered to be the starting point of other polyphonic songs with more voices (Mahony, 2011: 40). The most ancient Sutartines are known for being to a big extent work songs, and the repetitive style of singing suits the monotonous work of a weaver very much. Contrary to that, polyphonic singing in Albania happens on social events – weddings, funerals, harvest feasts etc. or any other types of events when the singers can “take their time”. With time, the Sutartines encompassed a big amount of dance and wedding songs, and these are more elaborate than the primitive Sutartines melodically and structurally.

The basic building block of all Sutartines melodies is a third (major or minor), the primitive Sutartines melodies consist only of one third interval moving back and forth. In Albania we see such melodies only in children’s songs, and the main scales used in the south Albanian iso-polyphony are the anhemitonic pentatonic scales. Even though pentatonic scales are considered to be one of the most ancient type of scales, it is thought that the intervals like thirds have a pre-musical past, because of their use in children’s and even adult’s cries (Reinhard, 1958: 15). Perhaps it is possible to speculate from this that Sutartines could belong to a more primitive layer of music, but what is more relevant is that the evolution of the Sutartines brought the them to a more developed system that includes whole and half steps, the basis of the system remained on singing of the thirds, each of the notes of which presented stability.

Rhythmically the Sutartines and iso-polyphony also present a big difference – even from the first look. Albanian polyphony presents a very free and expressive type of singing with a wide breath, while the Sutartines are rhythmically very straightforward – each syllable uses one note, and this is the main reason for a declamatory character of this type of singing. Both styles use a big amount of repeated motives, but while in Sutartines they are strictly locked in the symmetry of the structure which shows itself everywhere – from the building of motives, to the overall structure of the melody, in Albanian iso-polyphony these motives repeat themselves with a bigger amount of rhythmic variation inside the motives and inside their location of the rhythmic texture. But nevertheless, iso-polyphony has a tendency for simplification of rhythm in general (compared with monophonic singing) each performer has less space for variation, and the common rhythm signature becomes 2/4 or 2/8 instead of the 5/8 and 7/8 that is used in singing with less voices (1-2).

Overall, considering that drone based polyphonic singing seems to be of pre-Indo-European genesis, and that more ornamented and rhythmically free monophony came with the Indo-Europeans, (Jordania, 2006: 223) we could include the Tosk region of south Albania in this ‘mix’, and the Laberi region would go to the category of dissonant polyphonic singing with a drone, that has not taken influence from West Asian melismatic singing. Lithuanian Sutartines do not seem to fit in any group, although Jordania (2006: 233) suggests that Sutartines and Collective Sutartines belong to the same group, of which the the first lost the drone and embraced the use of the canon, while the other lost its dissonant character, taking up a more consonant style influenced by the sacred polyphonic music of the Catholic Church. This is somewhat doubtful because the Lithuanians were the latest nation to officially take up Christianity – the 14th seems somewhat late for a singing style to lose all traces of a drone and start using canonic and contrapuntal devices.

It seems more fruitful to compare the Lithuanian Sutartines to the singing of Ainu people that live in the north of Japan, not in search of any connections, but only to examine the evolution of isolated polyphonic traditions, both of which are based on canonic and contrapuntal singing and on the abundance of harsh dissonances.

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Published on January 31, 2015