4.1.‘Phoni’, ‘Tetraphonia’ and my compositional method

At the same period I was introduced113 (click)  to recent research by Clara Mechkova,114 (click)  in which she gives a particular and unique reconstruction of the Byzantine modal system on the basis of the primary medieval sources on music theory.115(click)  I will not attempt to summarise her findings as that is beyond the scope of this commentary and would involve over-broad generalisations. Even the aspects that I will discuss here as points of inspiration for my compositional technique I will interpret in a way that might seem peculiar from the point of view of medieval research, as I operate from the framework of contemporary composition within this text, and therefore I must make these points operational terminologically and theoretically within this framework.

What I found particularly important in the context of the compositional technique that I am describing here, at the point of its development when I was writing Three Songs..., was the nature of the ‘atomic element’ of medieval Byzantine theory – ‘phoni’ (φωνί), as described in her research. Mechkova describes it as containing three sub-elements in its unfolding in space and time: 1. foundational sound116(click) ; 2. intervallic sub-element – a musical ‘space’ (spanning a second of a particular variable size); 3. resultant sound in which the previous two elements are reflected through memory. Thus, the third sub-element contains in itself the memory of both the preceding foundational sound and of the traversed musical space (interval).117 (click)   To illustrate that, I transcribe below an embodiment of phoni in the form of the first sound of the tetraphonia:


Figure 20: The first sound of the Tetraphonia: Annanes, illustrated in stave notation.


In this example, the d is the resultant sound of phoni, which contains the memory of the foundational sound, c, and of the traversed musical space (in this case a major second). Furthermore, Mechkova reconstructs the fundamental unit of the Byzantine modal system – the tetraphonia (τετραφωνία), in the form of, what I can best describe from the present perspective as: fifth-repeating modes. I will describe the particular application of fifth-repeating modes in my music, and some further psychoacoustic/psychological significance, in Chapter 6.1.

In the context of Three Songs..., the most important influence was the idea that even the most elemental unit, phoni, exhibits internal hierarchy and structure, a musical meaning of its own. Thus even a modal structure of 2 phonai, (which contains 3 pitches in total) could have (if structured in this way) a hierarchy that is internal to it, rather than coming ‘from the outside’, from presumed and predetermined functional, scalar and tonal hierarchies, as in tonal theory. Furthermore, a mode of 4 or 5 pitches could be also a complete mode, which could be further iterated cyclically as fourth-repeating and fifth-repeating modes, just as the octave-repeating modes are (further discussion in Chapter 6.1).

The influence of this fascinating economy of the medieval Byzantine system could be seen in my works from this song cycle onwards, in the form of a greater economy in the span of the modal networks (and sometimes of their cycles), as well as a particular kind of internal structuring of the modal centre and hierarchy, differing from that in The Mirror. The best way to describe that is by comparing the approach to the modal centre in Three Songs... and The Mirror.


4.2.Two methods for creating a modal centre

linear vectors, Ison

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