The Greek Islands
Raphael, Susan, Strings
Under the Aegean Sun-enjoying violin music and the company of friends
How did we come to be here on an island in the center of the Aegean Sea, living in a tiny village, studying and performing traditional Greek music? Greek island music played on violin and laouto (Greek lute) is what brought my partner, Michael, and me here, and the path that led us is as mysterious and circuitous as taximi, the unmetered solo played in Greek music.
The annual, weeklong Balkan music and dance camps that I first attended in 1982 (held in the redwood forest on the Northern California coast where I lived) marked the beginning of a new life for me. For eight years, I cast aside the violin (on which I had played Baroque and Irish music) and took up the gudulka or Bulgarian folk fiddle. I traveled to Bulgaria, returned home, and played in a group for folk dancers. Then a wonderful violinist, Beth Cohen, came from Boston to teach Greek violin at the Balkan Camp. Shortly after, I journeyed alone for the first time to the Aegean.
It is not possible to separate Greek violin from the music played on it, which is characterized by two salient features: the modes (based on Byzantine, Turkish, and Arabic modal systems); and the meters of the pieces-whether songs or dances or both. There are many Greek violin styles and sets of techniques based on these modes. Many include microtones smaller than a half-step, which can be played on the violin and other non-fixed-pitch instruments such as oud (a short-necked, unfretted lute with gut strings), clarinet, or kanonaki (a zither-like instrument). The intervals that define such modes are also strange to the Western ear. For instance, one mode has a half-step between the first and second scale degrees and a minor third between the second and third. Such a mode beginning with D would have these notes: D, E(flat), F#, G, A, B, C, D (though with a slightly raised E(flat) and a slightly lowered F#).
Dance rhythms in Greek music are numerous and vary from place to place as well. They include "straight" rhythms that can be counted in 2/4 time, as well as odd rhythms that must be counted in a combination of groups of two or three eighth or 16th notes. For example, a seven-beat measure can be counted 3-2-2, or 2-2-3; or an eight-beat measure can be counted out as 3-3-2; or a nine-beat measure can be counted 2-22-3, or 2-3-2-2.
Different meters require different violin techniques, especially in the bowing. For example, the lively dance called sousta in the Dodecanese islands and in Crete (or its close relative on the Cycladic island of Naxos) must be played with swift, short bow-strokes in a syncopated manner. But the slower, more lilting ballos (a dance played in the Cyclades, the North Aegean islands, and the Dodecanese) will include longer bowstrokes and slow slides from one note to another. In addition, styles will vary even among islands; some styles are very idiosyncratic and easily identifiable. On the island of Kalymnos, for example, the bow is used very percussively. When I played a piece I had learned from a recording from there for a violinist on the nearby island of Kos, he remarked immediately on the Kalymniot "accent." Far to the west, on the islands of Sifnos and Kythnos, the bowing is very syncopated.
Though difficult to generalize, left-hand techniques almost always include an embellishment that involves adding a note higher than the one you've just played before moving on to the next note. This is often performed simultaneously with a quick bow change. …