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This centuries-old traditional folk performance, somewhere between singing and recitation, between lament and celebration, joins multiple voices into a unique synthesis and has spanned time and space to inspire anyone from 18th century poet Lord Byron to contemporary Albanian author Ismail Kadare, among many others.
Lord Byron could have never imagined that one of his personal letters, written during his visit to Albania, would much later become one of the greatest introductions into Albanian folklore. In the 200-year-old letter addressed to his mother, Byron describes in detail the impression the Albanian landscape and dress made on him:
“The Albanians in their dresses (the most magnificent in the world, consisting of a long white kilt, gold worked cloak, crimson velvet gold laced jacket and waistcoat, silver mounted pistols and daggers) … formed a new and delightful spectacle to a stranger.”
Against his friend’s and family’s wishes, discouraging him from visiting a perhaps unsafe, rugged and relatively unknown land like Albania, Lord Byron not only visited the country but enjoyed it and wrote about it extensively. Especially impressed by the epic iso-polyphonic sounds he heard while in this southern and mountainous region, Byron wrote of this strangely harmonious yet severe unison of male voices:
“On the smooth shore the night-fires brightly blazed,
The feast was done, the red wine circling fast,
And he that unawares had there gazed
With gaping wonderment had stared aghast;
For ere night’s midmost, stillest hour was past,
The native revels of the troop began;
Each palikar his sabre from him cast,
And bounding hand in hand, man linked to man,
Yelling their uncouth dirge, long danced the kirtled clan.”
What exactly is the “uncouth dirge” that binds men together and so naturally reveals itself to Byron? It is the polyphony’s characteristic lament that, through the perfect and gradual synthesis of multiple voices, takes the form of communication, becomes a natural commiseration and finally turns into a celebration. And while Byron’s verse does a wonderful job of describing the effect of polyphony on him, no words can do justice to such a fundamentally human performance. Indeed, polyphony is infinitely more than the sum of its sounds.
Countless local and international ethnologists and anthropologists have researched the origins of Albanian iso-polyphony. This unique art form, a UNESCO masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, is included in the world’s top 50 most fascinating attractions. Time has rewarded this Albanian legacy from one century to the next, from one mouth to another, from tribe to tribe, from land to land, from sound to sound. Like nothing else in the country, iso-polyphony was strictly and loyally preserved and protected throughout history, and not a single original sound has been lost.
The slow-tempo, low-pitched iso-poliphony consists of multi-part songs with usually four or more singers joining voices in a gradual, harmonious manner. The first soloist is called marrës (taker), the second is a kthyes (replier), and the third soloist is called hedhës (thrower). As one can understand from the set-up, the soloists pass the sound around and in turns introduce one another, giving each a chance to have a break. The larger choir, which gives the entire performance its dramatic (i.e. lamenting) notes, accompanies the soloists by prolonging the very last vowel sounds of their solo performances. Somewhere between reciting and singing, this artistic communication form, practiced in both southern and northern Albania, is thought to be directly linked to Homeric or epic oral tradition.
Two-voice polyphony is considered the original and most basic variant of this folk genre. The first soloist (marrës) and second (kthyes) harmonize with one another a text so simple and short that it can be easily remembered even by a first-time listener. The three-voice and four-voice polyphony, a much-respected tradition in South Albania, is the region’s most beautiful art form. In it, though the first and second soloists assume the main responsibility in endowing the oral recitation with harmony and power of expression and communication, the major structural element is the iso or “choral drone.” According to ethnomusicologists, the iso represents the song’s foundation and serves to express the approval of what is being said. In fact, the iso symbolizes support, a process which elevates each performer individually, eventually creating a harmonious and indestructible group.
Studies show that four-voice is-polyphony represents the most sophisticated version of polyphony, one known otherwise by the name iso-polyphony. Here, a fourth voice, hedhësi (thrower), is added to the first two voices and the choir. This fourth voice harmoniously repeats the words of the song in a higher register, creating an echo in the polyphonic space. As such, the song is almost hurled into vast distances, physically far away from where the sound began and metaphorically, as well, testifying to polyphony’s long journey through time and space. Four-voice polyphony is a must-hear experience, with the multiple voices beautifully unifying into one harmonious sound while still retaining their individuality.
Albania’s iso-polyphony has fascinated countless international authors, scholars, anthropologists and poets, all of whom have found the dramatic history of the country interwoven in the verses and sounds of this art form. The sounds are so inextricably linked to the land of their birth, that they naturally reflect the country’s spectacular yet treacherous landscape. Because of its complete authenticity and visceral character, polyphony has inspired all those curious souls to dig further into ancient history and, as a result, their own origins. Ironically, while many scholars continuously explore the origins of polyphony, they still remain enigmatic.
It is clear that the harmony of voices creating one musical body originates in the ability to sing outside the pentagram. Using the modes of oral transmission and, from a musical point of view, a nearly primitive choir of marrësi, who begins the song, pritësi, who collects the beginner’s words, the choir and its famous prolonged echo, and hedhësi, who pitches in for emphasis, dramatic effect and harmony, the polyphonic performers are some of the last to conserve the world’s oral tradition.
As the famous Albanian author Kadare writes, speaking is already one of humanity’s greatest accomplishments, an elevated version of which is Albania’s iso-polyphony.
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