Music Village, Greece – Aug 2012

by Jeremy on September 2, 2012

Picture a 16th century village perched upon the side of a mountainous peninsula overlooking the Mediterranean sea. Every night families would flock to the town square to enjoy dinner from 11pm almost until dawn whilst taking part in traditional folk music and dancing. This is no fantasy but the scene of Agios Lavrentios and Music Village – a mini festival/workshop in Mount Pilion, Greece. I attended the workshop this August with approximately 100 other participants, mainly Greek, taking part in workshops that included dance, voice, theatre, traditional instrument performance, violin and of course saxophone.

The saxophone workshop consisted of around a dozen saxophonists from Germany, Greece, Canada and two from New Zealand (including the teacher). We worked with the enigmatic kiwi, Cologne based, Hayden Chisholm. You might have heard his name from his work with Nils Wogram’s Root 70, but he his now developing a name as a highly individualist player, who is involved in cross-collaborative art projects include installations, film scores, and poetry – becoming somewhat of a renaissance man. He has helped develop a micro-tonal language for the saxophone, can perform tibetan throat-singing (‘overtone’ singing) is a bare-foot running dedicatee, practises Tai-Chi, writes poetry, plays the Irish Flute, and has a growing number of disciples in Germany (and now one from Australia). Check out his website here and his ever interesting blog softspeakers here.

Folk dancing in the square (a traditional piece in 9/8):

The workshop focused on Hayden’s work with the overtone series combining his background in mircro-tonal saxophone techniques and eartraining. Hayden confessed to us that since he has delved into perfect intonation, it has opened up a new wound world and has changed the way he listens to music. He likened it to the Matrix film – you can take the red pill or the blue pill, but once you take the red pill, your life will be changed forever.

For those that don’t know what perfect intonation is, the physical properties of sound dictate that when a sound wave’s vibrations per second (its frequency) is doubled, it moves to the next note in a naturally occurring series. The first few notes in the series are pretty familiar to most music listeners – the octave, the perfect fifth, the perfect fourth, major third, but as we continue higher into the series, the intervals become slightly higher or lower than what our Western ear has been trained to hear. When these intervals are played together (as the saxophonists attempted to replicate in the workshop) they form ‘natural tuning’. Phenomenal things can also start to appear such as ‘difference tones’ whereby two notes from the overtone series are played together they can cancel each other out to produce a lower note within the listeners inner ear.

Hayden workshopped a portfolio of miniature compositions based on combining these overtone characteristics and applying them to the saxophone. They include a piece simply titled ‘Mirror’ in which eight saxophones navigated a series of tones with “percentages” or degrees of how sharp or flat to play the note. They players move along the line until the centre, in which the composition is reflected and the part’s move in retrograde. Several other compositions utilised similar principles, including taking notes from the series using numbers from the fibonacci series.

Hayden’s G-String demonstration

The biggest revelation behind this exploration of the fundamental properties of sound came when we began talking overlaying one note from the series against another, forming an interval. This forms a ratio of frequencies against another. If you could slow frequencies down enough, the ratio could audibly be made out as a rhythm – a polyrhythm to be exact. For example if you take the interval of a fifth, you are forming notes from the series – the second and the third. 2:3 is the ratio of the interval – and is also a pretty simply polyrhythm (i could clap that out on my knees). Take the minor third and you are forming a ratio of 5:6 etc.What this ultimately means is – sound is rhythm and rhythm is sound!! Pretty wild huh!? Hayden attempted to demonstrate this principle with a limp rope tied to a post (unfortunately it had a knot in the middle otherwise this would have worked flawlessly). In his dry sense of humour, Hayden aptly named the saxophone workshop “The G-String of Pythagoras”.

Music Village Balkan Brass Band 2012

The other part of the workshop revolved around a collaboration with renowned Greek trumpeter Pantelios Stoikos and his Greek trumpet students learning a set of Greek, Macedonian, Slovakian tunes and an original piece by Stoikos. Stoikos’s intense energy (or was it the Greek coffee he was drinking) contrasted to the learning style of Hayden (a student of Zen) in the afternoon sessions as Stoikos would rip through some of the pieces to demonstrate to his students. The first time he played us his composition, he presented a score which was difficult to read at best, and improvised half of what was on the page anyway. When asked to repeat it slowly (translated through our drummer) he said sure and ripped through another version, albeit at the same tempo but with different embellishments and improvising in the rests.

Despite this the inaugural Music Village Balkan Brass Band pulled the music together but playing the songs over and over again, sometimes for 15 minutes or more, until everyone had really learnt it. One of the afternoon rehearsals was here overlooking the ocean and watching the setting sun. We even tried to play and learn a dance at the same time. The piece was in 11/8 so it proved quite challenging. I discovered that learning music like this – a kin to ‘folk’ traditions – is similar to the way that jazz musicians learn from recordings or in a live performance situation. We simply play along, picking up bits and pieces of the melody as we go along until we emulate the performer. When we learn from a teacher one-on-one we tend to ask them to slow it down and separate the melody into bite size proportions, small enough to grasp. Learning the Balkan music ‘the old fashioned way’ proved that by the end of each session, i had comfortably memorised the music and had felt that I had been developing my ear at the same time.

The clarinets practising:

The week came to a close on the Friday night when we performed in square to an excited crowed and continued until dawn. Mount Pilion seemed a million miles away from the sad realities of Greek’s economic situation. The people enjoyed the week of celebration and music, as if there were no crisis however after some enquiry, some confessed that their families were struggling, and many of the younger people were returning to support the family businesses over summer.

The part of Hayden’s workshop that most resonated with me was his daily discussions on aesthetics and professional practice. Speaking as a middle aged artist, he reminded us of the importance to KNOW THYSELF i.e. to not forget who you are when you forging a path as an artist. Not to get caught up in an intellectual ‘western music bubble’, but remember what your roots are and explore your past. Take your experiences – the good and the bad – and transform them into music through composition and conceptualisation. Sound Heals.



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