Balkan Music: Re-Thinking Dissonance

In her book, Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy, author and cultural historian Barbara Ehrenreich contrasts the “epidemic of melancholia” that pervades much of the modern world with the “phenomenon of communal, shared ecstatic ritual” that existed in our own culture even until the 17th century.

I touched into this phenomenon during last winter’s ever-rains when I began exploring Vancouver’s burgeoning Balkan music scene. There, I found a lively and musically nourishing community of musicians, dancers, and singers. At an Balkan brass band concert at the Russian Hall, I found a brochure for a music camp put on by The East European Folklife Center and I knew I wanted more.

So with the stench of burning police cars still hanging in the air (and local hockey riot pundits insisting that ‘we’re not like that’), I decided to leave Vancouver and follow a niggling intuition that a week of village life was just what I needed. My destination: The Balkan Music and Dance Workshops deep in the Redwood forests near Mendocino, California.

After the music finally stopped, we’d make our way back to our darkened cabins by flashlight and starlight. The next day, the whole process of singing, playing music, and dancing would start up again.

Dissonance + Consonance = Harmony

I soon found that the camp is an ideal artistic environment for anyone with a propensity for musical intelligence, and also it’s a rare chance to return to a rustic existence of woodsy cabins, merry village folk, and a healthy sense of belonging—even if just temporarily. Each day was punctuated with music, dancing, singing classes, and mealtime feasts. Evenings were given over to story telling, group dancing and intoxicating late-night music warmed by the huge stone hearth in the kafana (Balkan coffee house).

Rachel MacFarlane, general manager, cautioned me about the picture of the camp as a perfect village; although, in the next breath she praised the “collective spirit of goodwill” that stirred fellow campers to give up their cabins to accommodate a rained out gudulka class.

The Desire for Dissonance and Instability

“Western tonal music is based on the dichotomy of dissonance and consonance where unstable dissonances seek their resolutions to consonant sonorities”, states Kalin Kirilov, the camp’s expert on Bulgarian harmony. “If you compare music to energy”, he continues, “the dissonances carry a more powerful charge in comparison to the consonances”.

In 2003, Kalin Kirilov met a guitarist from Detroit who asked him if he could teach him to play Bulgarian music. At the time Kalin said it couldn’t be taught in a formal way, but the idea persisted with him and over the next few years he did figure out how to crack the Rosetto Stone of Bulgarian music. In 2007, he defended his dissertation, Harmony in Bulgarian Music. He now teaches music theory at Towson University in Maryland.

In my music education, I’d understood that complex metres (time signatures) in Balkan music were somehow the needlessly convoluted work of a people who were, well, ByzantineKalin provided the necessary context: “Asymmetrical metres exist in a huge variety starting from 5/8 to 15/8. Pushing the concept of asymmetry further, Bulgarians combine different asymmetrical metres forming complex metric groups (for example: 7/8 + 11/8) or juxtapose different asymmetrical metres one against the other”. Then Kalin startled me, “mixed metres push the extremes of what it is to be human”.

Balkan music is rendered simple as soon as one steps onto the dance floor. Its loping, elegant rhythms soon reveal themselves—it’s how a body of conjoined dancers naturally moves.

Continuous Learning

When some adults might be dreaming of marble counter tops in the suburbs or slowly burning out to channel-changer stagnation, Rachel (who originally joined the camp as a singer), took up the tenor horn (central European euphonium) and was instrumental in forming Brass Menazeri, San Francisco’s pre-eminent Balkan brass band.

Not that learning a new instrument in mid-life doesn’t come with its frustrations. “I’m 44 and I wanted to just throw this thing in the Bay”, she says with mock despair. Rachel stated that the camp attracts a vast range of people year after year, many of whom “wait all year”, and then added, “it’s their nourishment”.

Asymmetry and Autism

Sanna Rosengren is originally from Lund, Sweden, but now lives in San Diego where she works a is project scientist at UCSD in the department of Rheumatology. Sanna plays violin and grew up on symphonic rock bands, such as Emerson Lake and Palmer, but soon found that not only was Balkan music immensely satisfying, but it bridge the communication gap between her and her daughter, Ellinor, who has autism.

Together, they learned the complex melodies and rhythms of Greek and Bulgarian music, including popular favourites Yalo Yalo. Although autism makes is difficult for Ellinor to dance, she has a keen sense for Balkan metres and even despairs at the dull simplicity of most modern popular music, which is invariably in 4/4 time.

Genetic and Musical Homecoming

Bruce Salmon’s musical journey spans many genres. He played rock music with bands, such as Alejandro Escovedo, until at mid life he began to ponder what sort of future he had touring as a rock musician. He, too, was draw to the rhythmic complexity of Balkan music and through it chose to take a new path in life—one that would take him to Greece, Bulgaria, and Turkey, including the Bulgarian Folk Music & Dance Seminar in Plovdiv, Bulgaria.

Klezmer music was a natural bridge into Balkan music for him, one that elicited what “felt like ancestral memories”. After a fellow musician mentioned his preternatural ease with playing Klezmer music, Bruce delved into his family roots and found a quashed memory of his own Jewish heritage.

Ageism—a thing of the past

Ken Blackwood, from Canmore, Alberta, is 77 and quipped that he may quit at 80. “I’m retired and active, rather than retired and dead” he added. Having witnessed him cut his way across the dance floor night after night (even after a day of Bulgarian, Albanian, and Greek dance classes), I knew he was serious.

A native of New Zealand and a regular at Balkan Camp since the early 90s, he maintained his father “practiced dying for years before he actually died for real”.

The Mystery of Bulgarian Music – Revealed!

Bulgarian music is at the centre of cultural crossroads. Like tectonic plates, three major musical systems have converged and overlapped the ancient pentatonic five-note scales (thought to be the oldest in the world­, as they can be found from Ireland to China). From Greece came the “Church” modes, which also form the basis of Western music (in the form Ionian mode (major scales) and the Aeolian mode (minor scales)). Makams, with their distinctive augmented second intervals and quarter tones, spread from the Middle East along with the conquering Ottoman Turks.

But the real trouble in the mix was tempered tuning system from the West. Far from be well tempered, it is built on a series of increasing compromises designed to allow musicians (particularly those of keyboards, such as the accordion) to play equally in tune (or out of tune as some argue) in all keys.

Bulgarian music draws its fascination by how it reconciles these seemingly irreconcilable differences.


Balkan Music in Vancouver

This week-end (July 30), you can immerse yourself in the wild and compelling music of the Balkan region at the Electric Owl on Main Street. Orkestar SlivovicaThe Tailor (gypsy/folk punk), and from Seattle, the Bucharest Drinking Team are the three bands that are playing under the banner, “Transform a crowd of strangers into a circle of friends!!!” If you’re not familiar with the wild ride that is Balkan music, you’re in for a treat.