In August 2001, I traveled to Plovdiv, Bulgaria, to study the Thracian folk style with clarinetist Nikola Iliev. Thracia is a region in Bulgaria that stretches over the Rodopi Mountains and extends into Modern Greece. Nikola - the father of my friend Ilian, also a brilliant clarinetist - is certainly one of the great exponents of Thracian music. He founded a folk group called Konushenska, which plays Bulgarian wedding music and travels around Europe to play in folk festivals.
Each day in Plovdiv, I would spend several hours transcribing and memorizing the songs Nikola played. His nephews Emil and Misha would assist him by translating from Bulgarian into French or English.
Nikola began by teaching me the easy arrangements, ones in 6/8 meter like "Shinka Le". I copied a few of those dutifully down, but swiftly informed him that I had really been hoping to learn tunes in odder, more complex meters. He seemed thrilled to hear that I desired to tackle the really challenging stuff. So he started teaching me all sorts of traditional repertoire: Paydushko Xhoro (5/8), Mizhka Richenitza (7/8), Daychovo Xhoro (9/8), and Krivo Pazardzhishko Xhoro (11/16), Buchimisch (15/16), and various ones in compound meters (5/8 + 9/8 + 13/8, etc.).
Transcribing helped me to memorize and retain the music correctly. I notated everything musical that seemed relevant: the pitches and rhythms, the inflections, the improvisations and variations, the formal structure. I was also aware that Nikola might - at some point – want to use my versions as an aide to help him publish his original compositions in the West. Nikola, however, had his own copies of the tunes. His sketches looked more like jazz heads, without chords. The harmony was implied; all that was notated was a melody line, some ornaments, and the basic form.
One day Nikola informed me that he was going to teach me a special Thracian song called Elena Moma. We began the transcription ritual; he played and I wrote it down: six eighth notes and a sixteenth, adding up to 13/16 time.
Nikola was looking over my shoulder as I wrote. "Nye!" he blurted, shaking his head, and immediately began to dig through some of this papers. He fished out a worn sheet of music with the title "Elena Moma" in Cyrillic. His version clearly showed that the music was felt in 7. I started to play from his sheet, but he stopped me; I was holding the last beat too long. He played it again. It sounded to me like what I had originally notated, in 13/16.
"The same" I said in my pidgin Bulgarian, pointing to my notation.
He shook his head furiously, then snatched my pencil and music paper from my hand. He began to write out his own version of the song, again in 7. It showed 6 eighth notes, then a dotted eighth beamed to a sixteenth. "Seven!" he explained.
I shook my head. “Thirteen,” I said, and wrote it out for him as I had done before.
He played it again for me, slowly, and notated it his way.
"It's not right!" I said. "I must keep what I wrote down." I closed the book. I was a bit resentful that he was telling me how to write music down.
Then something unexpected happened; Nikola threw a tantrum. In a huff, he began putting away his clarinet. Noting that something was amiss, Emil had wandered back into the basement room and began arguing with him, but Nikola was clearly fed up.
"My uncle says he can't teach you any more today," Emil shrugged. "He's had enough. I think he's a bit emotional about this particular song."
I started to protest, but Nikola was stomping upstairs in a fury, muttering to himself out loud.
"My uncle feels that you two just don't understand each other when it comes to this song, and he doesn't want to work on it any more," said Emil apologetically.
I felt rotten about insulting Nikola, but also mystified. How could a musician with such a consummate, nuanced ear be unaware that he was notating his own music incorrectly?
Suddenly Nikola reappeared, with his coat on, at the top of the stairs and said something curtly to Emil. "My uncle wishes that you come with us to visit a friend of his, who will help to enlighten you about this song."
Minutes later we were back in his sporty red Fiat hatchback, whizzing through the outskirts of Plovdiv. "Trebant!" Nikola exclaimed gleefully to Emil, pointing out a boxy East German car parked carelessly on the side of the road. "Lada," he snickered, indicating an ugly Russian jalopy heading in the other direction. I had no idea where we were going. At the outskirts of the town center, gypsy horsecarts carrying melons plodded over bridges. We finally screeched to a halt in the parking lot of a large, unremarkable building, which turned out to be the Plovdiv Academy of Music. Soon we were sitting in the office of Lyuben Dossev, ethnomusicologist and kaval player.
"In one sense," Lyuben was explaining to me, "you are right. Elena Moma is in 13/16, as you have expressed. However in another sense - the deeper sense - you are wrong; it is in 7, as Nikola has notated.
"I'm sure it's 13..."
"No, it's 7. The gypsy drummer will always feel 7." Most of the drummers in these Bulgarian wedding bands - like Nikola's - were gypsies. The guys in Nikola's group would often crack jokes at the drummer's expense, but they regarded him with fondness and respect.
"But suppose a Western drummer is playing this song?" I entreated him. He will feel 13; he'll have to. Otherwise he'll play it wrong."
"No, he will feel 7. Otherwise he will be playing it wrong."
I was exasperated. I had spent years training my ear to hear and notate inflections and their rhythmic irregularities. I was trying to do be exacting in my notations of Bulgarian music, like Smha Arom had been in his exacting notations of Pygmy music. "What are you talking about? I'm right, but I'm wrong?"
"You're correct empirically, but deluded musically. Think about jazz - How can I write what you call 'the swing'? It can't be written, unless I write something that looks ridiculous, like ratios of 3:2 within divisions of 5. But no jazz musician would ever read that kind of silly notation, because jazz is not felt in subdivisions of 5. It's felt in subdivisions of 2, and swung. If I write it in 5, I may be empirically correct, but I am not conveying the feel of the music; in fact, I am betraying it."
Something about his argument felt solid and just. But what Nikola had written seemed so clearly wrong to me. Because I felt stymied, I took a slight detour.
"Well, I understand what you're saying, as far as jazz is concerned. But it's even more complicated than you've painted it. I mean, there's not one way to feel jazz. You can feel that 3:2 rhythmic ratio, but if you're swinging like Louis Armstrong the ratio will sound more like triplets - or even dotted rhythms - and if you swing "cool" like Stan Getz, it will sound much less pronounced, like 5:4, or virtually even sometimes."
"Well," he replied, "my understanding of jazz is quite limited, certainly inferior to yours. But if you go to Sofia or Stare Zagora or even nearby in Pazardjik, they will play differently from the style that you hear here in Plovdiv. The songs will be different, the meters will be different, the swing will be different too. Nikola may write what looks to you like a 3 + 1 dotted rhythm, but to him - and to any Bulgarian musician - it means long and short."
"Right, but I'm a Western musician, and I need to write down what I hear, not what Nikola hears," I said. "Otherwise I represent it falsely."
"No, you are thinking backwards," he said firmly. "You write it wrong when you write it for Western musicians to read. That would be as if you tell me you want to learn to speak Bulgarian language, but you want all the words written out in English transliteration. No, if you want to learn Bulgarian language, you learn Cyrillic alphabet; you learn Bulgarian spelling. And if you want to learn Bulgarian music, you must learn Bulgarian notation, not read a Western interpretation. When they play Elena Moma they must feel 7, not 13."
"But...." I began, feebly. I began to realize that I was fighting a losing battle; the cultural arrogance of my approach was weakening my argument. "Some of the musicians for whom I write won't....be able to read Bulgarian notation. Why shouldn't they be able to read transcriptions in a Western notation?"
His face hardened imperceptibly; "You write whatever you want," Lyuben said, getting up suddenly from his chair with a curious smile. "But those people reading your transcriptions will be playing only a shadow of our music."