The musical language of the Balkans
Since the ’90s, horrendous images of war have dominated our perception of the Balkan Peninsula. To lay these images to rest, two European foundations engaged the universal healing power of music in “The Balkans—Crossroads of Civilizations,” an extravaganza of suites, sonatas and songs curated to underscore the cultural similarities throughout the Balkan nations. Her Royal Highness the princess of Bulgaria, as well as U.N. ambassadors and consuls general from Albania, Romania, Serbia, Slovenia, Macedonia, Greece, Cyprus and Turkey attended the event at Carnegie Hall on May 21.
Though spoken languages abound on the peninsula, the Balkan nations share a common musical language, characterized by Oriental sonorities, irregular rhythms like 7/8 or 5/16 and the rich harmonies brought to America by Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares. At the same time, similarities are also found in the coexistence of various musical trends, so that Balkan classical music halls comfortably offer atonal violin suites side by side with folk tunes.
In that spirit, “Crossroads of Civilizations” proffered a broad swath of styles, from the 12-tone Petite Suite No. 2 for Violin and Piano by Greek composer Nikos Skalkottas to an Albanian love song achingly drawn by cellist Rubin Kodheli, himself a composer of film music (Precious). The most emblematic work of the region—and the best received—were two excerpts from Petko Staynov’s Thracian Dances.
In 1933, Staynov co-founded the Union of Bulgarian Composers, whose aim was to encourage composers to recreate traditional music in artistic forms. With its halting 7/8 rhythm and buoyant melodies, Thracian Dances epitomizes the classical reiteration of folk material.
Expanding on that idea, Turkish composer Fazil Say, a Balkan Satie, composed Sonata, Op. 7, whose unearthly harmonies launch us into space only to be grounded by the thumping of a prepared piano suggesting the timbre of traditional instruments.
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