Publish or Perish?

As a great deal of unknown recordings keep emerging by William Kapell,

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one work risks being presented out of context and without  the objections it aroused in the pianist’s wife Dr. Anna Lou DeHavenon.

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DeHavenon had studied piano with Tarnowsky, Vladimir Horowitz’s teacher. Once we attended a concert of Indian ragas performed by the singer Pandit Jasraj and sitar-surbaharist Imrat Khan. Never in my life had I seen someone listen so intently, deeply immersing herself into every tone. I asked her afterwards if she ever had advised Kapell and she demurred, saying that she would mention details. They first met when she came backstage to congratulate him after a performance of Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto and made a few observations about his playing that turned him inside-out, struck by her acute perception and beauty. A good idea of her musical insight can be gleaned from an interview with her in 1995:

 

Once you knew DeHavenon, you could never have enough time with her and luckily an interview about her work as an urban anthropologist may be seen:

Soon after their marriage, Kapell was ordered by the martinet conductor Fritz Reiner

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to prepare Richard Strauss’ Burlesque for piano and orchestra. Not knowing the work and confident that his own choice of concerto would be accepted as a replacement, he ignored the request until receiving a phone call from Reiner, confirming their 1947 date with the Pittsburgh Symphony a week later. Realizing that Reiner meant business and there was no way out of playing the work, Kapell spent a traumatic week forcing himself to learn a work that was not in sync with his aims. After a Russian-heavy focus imposed on him by his teacher Olga Samaroff, Kapell sought to spend more time with Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, and others. Reiner knew the composer and often performed his works, making him a good ally for the piece but having to play it without the laborious preparations he usually devoted to all details in every work he programmed, the stress made it into a career nightmare.

Dr DeHavenon witnessed and tried to manage her husband’s anguish during a week of musical misery. The performance was recorded onto two discs: one was donated by the family along with his archive to IPAM (Interational Piano Archive, University of Maryland), but only half the performance seemed to have survived. One day while searching her Kapell papers, DeHavenon phoned to say that the missing disc had turned up and I was welcome to it. Eager to hear this one-time experience, warts and all, IPAM loaned their second disc and luckily it coincided at a time when Arbiter’s Sonic Depth Technology had been developed to rescue and liberate the sounds embedded within mediocre privately pressed broadcast discs. As this restoration is exclusive to us, we think best to offer the entire performance in this format, as most engineers favor a quiet vinyl-like playback that evirates the sound’s fullness.

 

When playing in the best of circumstances, with a simpatico collaborator like Maria Stader,

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Kapell breathes his musical grandeur. He and Stader offered six Schubert songs at the 1953 Prades Festival organized by Pablo Casals. This blossoming of his art makes it all the more tragic as belonging to his last year, one in which he planned more absorption with the classics and his concern to pioneer new music. We hear them in Schubert’s Im Frühling D.882 (In Spring), taken from the spring of Kapell’s life.

 

©Allan Evans 2016

 

 

Russian dreams lead to Debussy.

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Whenever we try to snare Debussy his seductive oneiric sounds allow him to keep safely away. How subtle of him to compose and publish pieces that only reveal their titles after the last note expires, in parens, as if ashamed that his ether has imposed expectations.

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Debussy absinthed his soul with Mallarmé and Baudelaire, hung out with the writer Huysmans

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and other Decadents at the bookseller Bailly’s that lured many such as the Symbolist painter Gustave Moreau

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and his pupil Redon.

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Their verbal interactions can only be dreamed of until their paths cross in one another’s works.

One primal Blues-era song projects American nostalgia for a lost mythical haunt: Jim Canaan’s saloon, a mecca in St. Louis immortalized by Robert Wilkins before his ordination proscribed earlier sinful singing.

Robert Wilkins

 

Keep to his French influences and you’ll only get so far as Debussy’s life changer struck in 1889 when Paris hosted its global Exposition. On the musical front came Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (painted by Repin) from St. Petersburg to conduct new Russian music.

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Rimsky-Korsakov introduced works that would influence his future pupil Stravinsky, who would become acquainted with and influence Debussy. Rimsky’s spirit possessed musicians in Paris in works such as King Dodon on the Battlefield (from Le Coq d’Or Suite, conducted here by Dobrowen & the Philharmonia Orchestra.)

 

One of the pieces performed was the Polovetsian Dances (Bilibin: Justice of the Kievan Rus) by his colleague Borodin who sought to evoke pagan rites.

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An early performance was captured in a Berlin studio with the local Staatsoper Orchestra led by Issay Dobrowen, c. 1928.

 

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His name is no longer familiar as is a great admirer during Dobrowen’s Stockholm exile – a young stage assistant of Dobrowen’s who took part in their Mozart operas: Ingmar Bergmann (photo: Irving Penn)

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Debussy heard two orchestral concerts that Rimsky-Korsakov presented and one can detect more than traces of the Borodin in his own Fêtes, an orchestral nocturne directed by Gabriel Pierné, a conductor he esteemed (Orchestre Colonne in 1929 on 78rpm shellac)

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The greatest impact on Debussy was his discovery of Musorgsky (by Repin; portrait detail),

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and one song in particular, By the River (played & transcribed by Vladimir Horowitz, 1947)

 

This overlooked work became a seed for his masterpiece The Engulfed Cathedral, played by Jacques Fevrier (seated), who knew Mme. Debussy and was in close contact with Ravel (standing).

 

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Leaving behind the tangible reality for mythic and oneiric quests, Debussy composed a glimpse of the water nymph Ondine (played by Eduard Erdmann in Berlin, 1928).

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The dream of Oenone,  a mountain nymph was to be part of the soundtrack to Antonioni’s film Zabriskie Point.

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The Pink Floyd’s organist and guitarist offered their subsumation of Debussy’s elusive Ondine.

 

Debussy also encountered Javanese music and dance at the East Indies pavilion in 1889 but that’s another trail to haunt and Rev. Wilkins’ legacy would later appear in the transformed modernist Debussy’s Minstrels and Golliwog’s Cakewalk.

Allan Evans ©2016

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fragments: a chain of threads

Fragments lead everywhere, usually to the unanticipated. Even our naming as Arbiter was the inevitable result of being irresistibly drawn into the arbiter Petronius’s Satyricon, a strew of incomplete episodes ending unresolved, like our pathetic grasp of history as a permanence but always in a constant overturning of the pecking order.

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Sometimes we catch a waft of something as thrilling as it is fleeting and unattainable, such as festive music caught and captured over the Adriatic from a then-closed Albania:

 

In contrast is the American middle class’ angst in feeling left out as everyone else is busy having all the fun, with one’s only recourse lying in addictive consumption.

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While some meditated on the errant Brad, a thrilling excitement hit New York in 1941 when the nineteen-year-old pianist William Kapell appeared with his debut solo recital.

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Fragments made it through time and one offers his conclusion to Bach’s Fugue in C-sharp minor (Book I), a work he didn’t record later on but these moments open onto an already substantial artistry that would deepen for another dozen years.

 

In the mid 1930’s Max Fiedler’s remarkable conducting was carried over Germany’s airwaves. Pegged as a Brahms specialist, very few have attained his state of a Haydn set forth in Berlin for his final 45 seconds of the 88th symphony:

 

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One voyeruistic fragment provoked our “featured image” as a backstage employee in Philadelphia dialed up Bell Labs who were trying to discover if a phone could transmit the music happening then on stage. Until recently, some phone lines echoed all the words and notes here we suffer from it as well since Rachmaninoff

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never allowed a single note from any of his concerts to ever be aired and here he’s caught magisterially laying down the final seven bars of Brahms’s Ballade Op. 10, No.4. . .

 

Along with Rachmaninoff’s official playing etched onto approved recordings, his compositions are usually obscured through a nostalgic cult-like worshipping they receive. What a startling contrast to happen upon a performer who exposes the internal visions of the composer’s Prelude in G, Op. 32, No.5, resurrecting lost feelings and their intangible existence. Years ago I’d receive a formal phone call annually from an elderly White Russian residing somewhere in a Siberian clime up north in Canada, beseeching me to seek out each and every surviving piano performance left by his adored Nikolai Orloff.

Orloff Sveresborg

He mainly emphasized that paying homage was a duty, to respect Orloff’s noble origins. His Romanoff-tinged nostalgic exhortations rang true when I fished out a paper reel of tape from the archive of a recording angel who had lived Taranto, Italy. He partially captured a 1954 Rome recital that bore a playing that proved to be quite noble. So now off to scramble and draw in more from Time’s magnetic web that leads to the essence of Orloff’s real life – one he lived on stage, as his studio playing is distracted, dragging his voltage lower.

 

©Allan Evans 2015

Russian Poets of the Piano

After completing a decade long Balinese project to retrieve and publish the lost 1928 recordings, I headed over to Paris to spend time with the pianist Henri Barda

who had recently played Brahms’s Op. 118 with a Chopin group in Brussels. His musical pianism is exemplary and inspiring and no one has approached his Ravel! A new path opened after seeing a painting at the Musée Orsay that led to my stumbling into Gustave Moreau’s home and studio across the river near Trinité, where Messiaen deputized as organist:

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Back home with my head spinning from Barda, Moreau, Restaurant Lao-Vietchoucroute garni, and Le Maison du Mièl,  a New York piano festival offered a Scriabin lecture with brilliant playing and comments by Dmitry Rachmanov.

His music often remains a lesser priority for the multitude of Rachmaninoff lovers and we chatted about the way he receives adulation from nearly every pianist raised in Russia and the Ukraine: all seem to revere his music as a primal spiritual experience.

It provoked a desire to chart an expedition into Scriabin’s legacy and find possible directions that developed and emerged from him, Rachmaninoff, and the other fall-outs after the Soviet Union developed a new culture. Poetic playing characterized the best of Russia’s pianistic art before the Revolution, one that gave way to a harsh, athletic goal of industrial strength that dominates the background in Soviet playing and pedagogy. Let’s bypass them all to how hear earlier Russian masters convey a once-thriving elegance, poetry, and sung narrative that pervaded their 19th century’s aesthetic, one that cloyingly dissipated during their Silver Age, a parallel of Huysmans’s reaction to Moreau’s art. I urge you to skim the facts and attempts to place the players in any sort of constellation or order, rather to listen and hear it through their ears.

Scriabin left Russia to explore Theosophy in Switzerland. We haven’t a trace of his own playing, aside from inaccurate mechanical approximations of the player piano rolls he left. A South African business man residing in Russia could have lured Scriabin to record on his cylinder machine but didn’t. There are other Russians from Scriabin’s time (1872-1915) who knew him and his playing. A schoolmate of his in Zverev’s boarding stable was Konstantin Igumnov (1873-1948),

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a pianist who knew Tchaikovsky, one who furtively arranged the visiting Henry Cowell to meet with colleagues and students in private and challenged the officials by arranging a concert for the young composer. Igumnov emanates fresh air amidst the stale Stalin regime by playing  Scriabin’s Poème, Op. 32, No.1 ( recorded in 1935.) Its flirtatious vagueness slyly eludes the obligatory confinement assigned to a basic melody expected by the reigning Socialist Realism:

 

Slightly younger, Elena Bekman-Shcherbina premiered works by Scriabin and received his approval. Her artistry was on a higher level than the heralded male colleagues who were regularly summoned into recording studios. On the cosmic scale, her  too few examples place her art above the others. Her poetic, colorful touch remained up to the end of her life. Bekman-Shcherbina (1882-1951) played this same Poème one year before her life was over:

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Another young man found acceptance from Scriabin and left us four sonatas. Samuil Feinberg (1890-1962) 6_313x

had been taught by Alexander Goldenweiser (1875-1961),

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who had spent considerable time in Tolstoy’s company (photo: Goldenweiser on the far right) and left a book of their discussions that was abridged in Virginia Woolf’s collaborative English translation. Feinberg composed concertos, piano solos, and songs, imbuing his playing of Scriabin’s Piano Sonata No. 2 from a composer’s vantage:

 

A decade younger, Alexander Kamensky (1900-1952)

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was a contemporary of Shostakovich and Sofronitsky. Again we hear someone playing too poetically to have been idolized in the Soviet culture, remaining an important teacher and dying young. Two Scriabin preludes (Op. 16, No. 4 and Op. 27, No.2) give an idea of his individuality and its roots:

 

If we reach further back in time, the first sounds of a master pianist come from the Odessan Vladimir de Pachmann (1848-1933).

Pachmann NY 1890s?

A great deal of information on him and an interview with his son Leonid are in our Music Resource Library. Pachmann knew Liszt and had lessons from Vera Kologrivoff Rubio, Chopin’s last assistant. His playing represents a mixture of mid 19th century styles, heavily influenced by the bel canto style that Chopin incorporated into his works in an improvisatory way. Pachmann had allowed only the second half of his 1912 recording of Chopin’s Ballade in A-flat, Op. 47 to be published. With earlier playback of ancient shellacs, critics and listeners downgraded Pachmann’s artistry by basing their opinions on inadequate restoration. New technology allows us to experience the shading, tone color, and projection not believed to have existed on acoustic pre-mic recordings:

 

Some twenty years younger than Pachmann, we are drawn to Vassily Sapellnikoff (1867-1941),

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who performed under Tchaikovsky’s baton. He fled the Bolsheviks by swimming across a river to safety in Poland and spent his final years in San Remo, Italy. Instructed by Liszt’s pupil Sophie Menter, who once brought him to meet her teacher, Sapellnikoff portrays the melodic emphasis that was exploited by Liszt’s transcription of the Schumann Frühlingsnacht for piano solo, played by Sapellnikoff for an acoustic horn around 1922 in London:

 

Maria Safonoff,

All Reproduction Rights Are Reserved And Restricted

daughter of an influential teacher and conductor Vasily Safonoff, escaped to Italy after the Russian revolution and lived in New York until c. 1990-1. She once described how once while her father was napping, Scriabin eased over to the piano and played his soft his Prelude in D-flat from Op. 11 and how her father commented that he was being transported from his dream to a waking one. An idea of her art is heard in Chopin’s Etude in A-flat, Op. 25, No.1:

 

Back to Rachmaninoff (1873-1943): was his playing shaped by such influences? Today his melodies are made prominent, whereas we hear him skirting their obviousness to have them challenged by the surrounding figuration, an early footstep towards Modernism and Deconstruction.

The composer was a startling interpreter of his works and evoked transformations through his playing of other composers. Felix Salzer, a music theorist, was a Viennese pupil Schenker and member of the Wittgenstein family. Once I asked this severe scholar which pianist had impressed him the most and he shouted out Rachmaninoff!!

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“He walked out onto the stage, so stern, his severe haircut and expression, and quietly sat down and out came such sound!”  Few have experienced his own playing since most restorations of his recordings are compromised to resemble the quiet playback of vinyl, destroying nuances and balance in the process. With new technology we can experience his vivid sound in his Humoresque, and hear how it influenced the younger Vladimir Horowitz:

 

If you wish to hear how piano-rolls capture a performance like the one above, try this:

 

Prokofiev (1892-1953) arrived shortly after Rachmaninoff’s launch. His musical training came from Esipova, a Leschetizky pupil.

A video finds him playing at his cosy dacha, using a body language common to Paderewski and Moiseiwitsch, his musical colleagues. Prokofiev’s works tend to be harsh but his older way of shaping tone underlines the Suggestions Diaboliques:

 

As Igor Stravinsky became the dominant Russian figure, his son Soulima Stravinsky (1910-1994) arose as an early champion of his father’s music which he played as his native tongue.

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He was instructed by Isidor Philipp, a central teacher and protagonist in the Parisian scene. This combination of Russian roots with French training left a precedence that shaped a model that many would later follow. Two of his father’s early Etudes, the pianist’s first solo recordings made in the Paris of 1939  capture the brooding moods and Silver Age forms.

 

Another Russian expat was Nikita Magaloff (1912-1992),

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who resided primarily in Switzerland, above Lac Leman in Clarens where Stravinsky composed his Rite of Spring. Also a student of Philipp’s, Magaloff inherited several traditions from partnering his father-in-law Joseph Szigeti who had worked with Bartók and from contact with Stravinsky and the practiced aesthetic of his time for Russians to align themselves to emerge by expanding their Francophilia. One evening he gave an impressive Chopin recital in New York, playing the Ballades and Scherzi, of which we hear the Fourth Scherzo in E, Op. 54:

 

Perhaps the catalyst behind the piano being played more mechanically came from a Polish pianist who generated hysteria on Russian musical stages in part due to his eschewing of the 19th century’s focus on lyricism by favoring a more compartmentalized approach. Josef Hofmann (1876-1957)

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had given years of recitals in pre-Soviet Russia and was advised in Dresden by Anton Rubinstein, the pioneering founder of Russia’s absorption of the piano. A disc made in 1916 of a tarantella in Liszt’s Venezia e Napoli exhibits a tendency that led to the dominance by the Moscow Conservatory’s mannerisms of profiling high and low notes with the middle material a mush:

 

Rachmaninoff admired how Benno Moiseiwitsch (1890-1963)

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played his music. A striking contrast separates Rachmaninoff’s avoiding overt themes from Moiseiwitch’s drawing them into a more emphatically melodic and streamlined strand. Through him and others, a 19th century background has been remade into an objective linearity. One hears it happening in Ravel’s Toccata‘ from the Tombeau de Couperin as frenetic repetitions and jagged figuration are smoothed into a tightened one-dimensional foray. This phase comes as a turning point that would either compel pianists to choose looking backward or attempt a redefining of the piano into a percussive or ever-more conceptual instrument: the 19th century’s feasting was over and done with.

 

Allan Evans ©2015

 

 

 

Nicholas Milroy (Etelka Freund’s son) in action

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A fascinating, erudite polyglot, Nicholas Milroy (1911-2000) saved the recorded and written legacy of his mother Etelka Freund (1879-1977), a pianist who was privately taught by Brahms, esteemed by Busoni, and an early friend and champion of Bartók. When the Baldwin Piano Company learned that their artist Bartók was ill, they requested he return the piano they gave him as one of their featured performers. Milroy learned about him being without an instrument and within twenty-four hours, a modest upright appeared at Bartók’s West 57th Street apartment. Milroy never mentioned this: it was Bartók’s son Peter who related it in his remarkable memoir “My Father”

Milroy was an intelligence officer for the U.S. Army during World War II and afterwards served as a diplomat in Morocco, Burundi and elsewhere. A paper of his “office work” came to light some time ago and is worth a glance.

<< LITERATURE OF THE HOLOCAUST Search for a (single) word: FILREIS HOME | NEWS ———————————————————————— U.S. report details close Swiss-German war ties —————————————————————— From: C-reuters@clari.net (Reuter / William Scally)

Subject: U.S. report details close Swiss-German war ties

Date: Tue, 17 Dec 1996 19:20:56 PST WASHINGTON (Reuter)

– An official U.S. report written after the second World War and made public Tuesday detailed economic and financial penetration of Switzerland by Nazi Germany that increased during the war years.

The report, newly unearthed in the U.S. National Archives, said gold deposits in Swiss banks doubled between 1939 and 1945, on gold looted by the Nazi regime.

It said Swiss industry was almost totally geared to the German war effort; Swiss banks were used for unfettered financial transactions by German financial interests, and Swiss railroads were “forced into the service of the German war economy.”

The 1945-46 report by State Department official Nicholas Milroy was released by Sen. Alfonse D’Amato, a New York Republican who has taken the lead in demanding that looted money in Swiss banks deposited by Jewish Holocaust victims be handed over to their families.

Amid pages of dry statistics, the report made these points:

* “Swiss industrial manpower, as well as her production facilities and products, were almost totally geared to the German demand.”

* “Swiss banks served as a safe haven for all kinds of deposits belonging to German firms and individuals … It is obvious that the tremendous amount of gold transferred by banks, firms and individuals to Switzerland could only result from looting.”

* Swiss machine factories were frequently paid twice or overpaid by German firms or clients so that new German-owned factories could be established under Swiss names or a credit balance created that could be used to deliver products years later.

In releasing the report, D’Amato said: “Switzerland was obviously not the neutral country they would wish the world to believe they were during the second World War.”

The report noted that German influence in Switzerland resulted from geographical and ethnic factors and Switzerland’s dependence on Germany for raw materials.

It showed that in 1939 Swiss imports from Germany totalled 440 million Swiss francs, or 23.31 percent of total imports. In 1942, at the height of the war, these imports rose to 660 million francs, or 32.22 percent.

In 1939 Swiss exports to Germany totaled 192 million francs, or 14.76 percent, growing to 656 million francs or 41.72 percent in 1942.

Swiss gold reserves totalled 2.374 billion Swiss francs in 1939. By March 1945 this these had risen to 4.672 billion, due almost entirely to German deposits, the report said.

It said the German government and business used Swiss professional secrecy laws to cloak their business interests around the world by creating a chain of holding companies in various neutral countries.

Although Swiss assets were blocked in the United States and Britain, Swiss banks operated freely in other countries ”allowing the financial transactions between the cloaks of various German interests to take place unhampered,” the report said.

It added: “Apart from these transactions aiding the German war economy and German interests in general, the Swiss banks served as a safe-haven for all kinds of deposits belonging to German firms and individuals”. —————————————– http://dept.english.upenn.edu/~afilreis/Holocaust/nazi-swiss-dealings.html

When we met in 1980, Milroy was reluctant to allow the radio broadcasts he recorded of his mother to be published, concerned about an intrusive announcer truncating one work, and some occasional wrong notes during the live broadcasts. For more than a year we collaborated weekly to translate the memoirs of Uncle Robert, Etelka’s older brother who had studied piano with Moscheles, Tausig, and Liszt. Brahms was in his hands when Freund and two other pals of the composer’s brought him to Italy on his 60th birthday. Freund taught in Zurich for many years and retired to Budapest where Bartók often visited with new compositions and wax cylinders he recorded in villages. A future entry on the Music Resource Center will contain our full translation of Robert Freund’s memoirs.

Milroy eventually allowed Etelka Freund’s performances to appear on CD: two works she learned from the composer are on our Brahms compilation.

To get an idea of his character, one may listen in to Milroy’s dark deep voice, one that graced Radio Free Europe’s Hungarian network during the Cold War, his sole appearance on New York radio to discuss his family’s musical life:

Sound Unchained from Time

 

Debussy and Stravinsky. photo by Erik Satie
Debussy and Stravinsky. photo by Erik Satie

Speed breaks the sound barrier but sound breaks the time barrier. Chronology, this heap of names, dates, all pulled together in some apparent order, is intended to vaunt some sort of alleged progress. Luckily, music finally benefits from a technology that reaches into the aether to pull out living pasts from the stream of historic sound, a Heaven and Hell of sonic existences.

Whenever a composer starts creating and playing masterpieces, any imposed pecking-order within History gets irreversibly shuffled. One action mirrors others as lost arcana reappear in new, anachronistic, radical, delectable dangers that cast conventional cliche believers overboard.

Working in a quiet atmosphere at home my ongoing research is often diverted with by a force of nature sent to earth by some divinity – Romolo – whose remonstrations take precedence.

Romolo

In any remaining free moments I proceed to explore composers in the act of enlivening their paper trail. The case of Béla Bartók has been in the forefront since I discovered his recordings as a pianist. Bartók is now served up as a paprika’ed Prokofiev seasoned with industrial sauce.

To hear Bartók in 1929 seated before a mic in a Budapest studio, recording his Romanian dance, a work that he experienced in situ, projects how traditional folk music unchained him from the bonds of socially acceptable musical development based primarily on the Germanic hegemony:

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Almost a decade before Bartók, Sergei Rachmaninoff came into the preparation of a new century that would dissipate and destroy the last phases of his origins. Rather than wax nostalgic, he set up a style that injected elements from his past into a revamp that tended to denounce prominent melodies, flitting them into a vaporous vagary enlivened through harsh accents and lighting fast flashes in a steely color. Like Bartók’s ongoing mechanization, Rachmaninoff becomes sentimentalized by performers who wring out each and every potentially melodic gesture with utter sincerity, unaware of how Rachmaninoff’s uniqueness lay in abandoning thematic narrative. A well know Etude is played here by the composer. Melody lovers will experience unfamiliar sonic conceptions in his tone (closely imitated by Horowitz) and an approach that slights potentially lyrical lines. Most attempts to restore Rachmaninoff’s legacy end up sounding boxed into a sanitized cramped compromise. Here he is, once again, after a long time’s absence:

l. to r.: Rachmaninoff, Walt Disney (American entrepeneur), Vladimir Horowitz. [n.b. tell-tale body language]

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A decade older than Rachmaninoff, Claude Debussy’s ethos surfaced by destroyed any lingering dependency on the eclipsed, passé Wagner; his approach was influenced by art and literature of the time, mores through a serendipitous exposure to Asian music and decadence. In later years Debussy metamorphosed into a different composer, one who brings stress to musicians grasping hard to surmount his change in a struggle to purvey the earlier smooth Impressionistic attire into a new craggy terrain. Debussy obliged by recording paper rolls via the inaccurate mechanical player-piano but his genuine pianism survives on four songs when he accompanied Mary Garden on an upright piano in 1903 at Paris’s branch of the Gramophone & Typewrite Co.

Debussy with Satie as guest
Debussy with Satie as guest

 

 

The lucidity and relief in Debussy’s touch casts doubts on the atmospheric Turneresque blur of the legendary Debussy specialist Walter Gieseking: nasal adenoids intruded on permitting a clearer sonic reproduction, therefore compelling his producer Walter Legge to make awkward mic adjustments decisions, creating an accepted misty mis-conception of Debussy’s music.

Debussy never set foot in Spain but a Catalonian composer born a few years before him dug deeper into outsider music. Although Debussy had limited acquaintance with Javanese music and once hosted a veena player in his home, Isaac Albeniz thrived alongside flamenco culture. Albeniz died young and obese, and any hopes to unlock his interaction with non-Germanic music and how it was absorbed into his innovative spirit seemed hopeless until the discovery that a Catalan-coast resort owner had bought Edison’s newly invented recording machine and urged Albeniz to sit before the horn. He improvised three works (in 1903) and anyone familiar with his composed pieces will hear something equal to his finest efforts.  (photo with his Italian pupil Clara Sansoni, who recorded several of his works):

Albeniz Sansoni

 

 

Before Debussy, Norway produced Edvard Grieg in 1843. His full-fledged Germanic training was successfully exploited to incorporate the folk traditions of his native realm into his creations. Grieg too sat at the same Parisian upright that Debussy played on while touring throughout Europe in 1903 and left twenty minutes of his own music. Note how Grieg’s Minuet from an early piano sonata bears a folk rhythm that is not indicated in his printed music, and  how his performance bears an energy and freshness that engage him long beyond the act of creation. Grieg’s irregular rhythm incites with a clue for playing Chopin’s Mazurkas:

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One year younger than Grieg, organist and composer Charles-Marie Widor exulted in the innovations achieved by the builder Cavaille-Coll, one that led to symphonies being composed for solo organ. Widor commanded Paris’s Ste. Sulpice and was recorded playing excerpts from his works at age 89. One movement from Widor’s Ninth Symphony shows how space influences coloring and density as the interior’s resonance flirts with his breathing mystical phrases:

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As folk music and Modernism destroyed the Nineteenth Century for good, Widor and others who explored the organ gave a base to Olivier Messiaen, a spiritual seeker who employed Indian raga scales and rhythms, chant, and birdsong. His first published organ work, Celestial Banquet, was one among many recorded by him in the summer of 1956. New technology helps restore the organ’s patina that was kept dim by record labels’s industrial standards:

 

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The past collides in the present as the present is in the past of the future so presently, Yoshi Wada performs tonight:

Inspired composers at large capture our attention:

Arnold Dreyblatt

David Borden

Allan Evans ©2014

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

James Gurley’s unchained guitar

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Janis Joplin abandoned Port Arthur, Texas and first emerged in San Francisco. Her singing came as a shock but also one feared that her straining would permanently tear up her vocalizing. A sword of Damocles at her throat. More exciting than her presence were the rare and unchained guitar solos offered by James Gurley.

 

Rare interview with James Gurley

The guitar’s  lines fight and soar over a steady pulse, creating remarkable tension, a liberation from being earth-bound, unpredictable, nuanced.

 

Outside the condensing studio limitations their band played for dances with light shows adding to the stimulation. Many of their early concerts were recorded at both Fillmore auditoriums (San Francisco & New York) in 1968. The following year Joplin dropped the band to get a more commerical and arranged sound, gaining popularity but losing her edge. A great part of her early bravura was due to Gurley’s presence as an sonic provocateur. Minus his shrill distortion her voice settled into a caricature of her former glory as the career propelled her into gaining greater recognition.

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Gurley had a more extended Summertime solo when his duet finished in one concert at 0:33:

 

One work that had a raw foray was omitted from their stunning debut album. Most groups tank with their second, the third being a live compilation and dissolution. Big Brother with Janis lasted for only one project. Their iconic cover by R. Crumb opened up endless suggestions and speculation.

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His career was sustained with a role by part in revival bands. A few years before he died days before his 70th birthday in 2009, Gurley offered these words about the role of creation in life and art.

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Gurley was a rare example of free forms emerging in a progressive experimental music that had a short lifespan yet profoundly influenced and infected anyone within listening range. The support and expression of each and every note bring to mind the sound heard by masters of the raga. Whereas the Beatles and others added sitars like seasoning to their music, Gurley grabbed pitches by the jugular and brought them in as the music’s blood .

Allan Evans ©2014

update: extended solo with Big Brother, 1967 (h/t Stefano!)

Rev. Gary Davis: the sightless visionary guide to a beautiful city.

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Keep listening to Rev. Davis and you’ll wind up with observing emerging architectonic details with each encounter. Meditate or think about it all and you  will be drawn into his thinking on a structural level. For example, in the mere opening of Twelve Gates to the City that he played at the 1967 Newport Folk Festival we find that each and every gesture introduces itself and will be worked out in time, as did Mozart and Haydn with a gambit readied in their opening themes (string quartets, sonatas, symphonies).

His melodic notes pop out in the mid range, a high voice, and some rhythmic action develops in the bass. Beyond notes, every piece he played bears rhythmic identity, actually two: the work’s, and his own.

The luscious A chord arrives after an open E string serves as its diving board.

 

He voices the chord polyphonically to bring two registers in with a rich baritone ‘C-sharp’ below a higher  ‘A’. When I played it with my fingers crushed on the second fret, he corrected my position with this spread he developed to play the chord with a unique voicing. His deliberate tonal balance of an A chord employs a resonant open E (6th string) leading to a a tightened A formed with the pinkie as the gang leader when it follows the E, resulting in a taut chord that he strokes.

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Next he swings the A chord and places an open D string before playing a very cool bent C with the open G string leading to more chromatic adventures via a G-sharp to E close, drawing attention to the ‘blue’ note that is bent between C and C-sharp: the modal role of the open D and inflected C shape the piece’s identity. To get that open D, the sprawled A chord’s hand position gets uplifted for a sec into space and lands with the index + middle fingers squatting on the second fret.

Moving to a D chord, he has an open A  grace note that not only carries on the presence of the earlier A triad but blends into a new harmony that maintains his rhythm.

With all the implications of higher notes itching to appear, Davis instead has the bass intrude with a lively bounce that resolves with a high-voiced E /E7 chord:

The E7 chord finds the melody continuing in a lower register and again, as the piece began, he punctuates the action with the lowest pitch on the guitar, its open E string that rings as he positions above another unique position at the 4th fret, an F-sharp-diminished -7th chord:

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With one motion he invokes the lowest frequency to cushion a flash of  the highest pitch so far atop an ornamented diminished chord  that rapidly returns to the fundamental A harmony that again, after a reply from the grumbling bass tones, he closes with a syncopated arpeggiation of the tonic chord in the bass to end the intro without making it feel stable as it lacks a full cadence, creating expectation that he will soon start singing :

These are but mere details, child’s play for Rev. Davis, but under our microscope we observe a strategy and nuance guided by his refined taste and style that lead right into the highest spheres.

After hearing these details, try listening again to the unbroken intro and notice  how you hear it now:

Learning his way of playing has remained a lifelong addiction and act of purification that I just can’t quit!

Allan Evans ©2014

Brahms meets Sitting Bull and Queen Victoria

How close can we ever get to Brahms? Trawling through an immense bibliography of research, one entry stopped me in my tracks. I had grown up loathing and despising his music, reeking of sanctimony and any professions of discomfort were quashed with implications of your having emotional or cultural deficiencies. Their smug piety didn’t offer an escape for my migraines. But here, an obscure author, one Arthur Abell, had produced a book probing the internal landscape of the elusive taciturn composer. It contained lengthy passages that assaulted the eye with their detailed discourses on spirituality, inspiration, the act of creation. Not only did Brahms quote from the Bible, but he backed his quotes with chapter and verse the way measure numbers are bandied about in rehearsal. And so did his colleague Joseph Joachim who was in the room with him, bantering away as they rounded out a double perspective that often found them in harmony, as sympathetic as their lifelong musical synchronistic collaborations.

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Brahms credited divine intervention for inducing sounds that were channeled through his being and fashioned into pieces. Perhaps this was a clue to his inner creativity. He turned to Joachim as said: “Of course, to the disciples it appeared that Jesus was walking on the water, but in reality, He was walking in the air. His spiritual power was so great that He could, by drawing on Omnipotence, rise superior to the Law of Gravitation. We call that a supernatural power but supernormal would be a better term. Jesus was utilizing a higher law of which his disciples in the boat were all ignorant, and their only explanation was that He had supernatural powers, being God Himself personified. Nevertheless, their terror was very great for we read in Matthew 14:26, ‘And they cried out for fear.’”

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Joachim instantly replies: “I am convinced of it and also that He knew that others could have the powers of levitation if they could operate that higher law as He did; otherwise how do you explain John 14:12?”

I was left speechless at this unexpected entanglement in their quest to explain how the creative process serves as a part of mystical contact with forces that could only be accessed by pure souls who kept themselves open for divine visitation. Their command of and familiarity with biblical passages and shared vision was unlike anything I had ever encountered or expected to find in a musician’s memoirs other than Messiaen. And how did this unique document come into being? Abell, the author, had served as a music correspondent in Berlin starting in 1890 and, although fluent in German, secured the services of a “bi-lingual stenographer” from the American Embassy in Vienna, who accompanied him to accurately notate a conversation with Brahms and Joachim that lasted for three hours. One could understand how the uniqueness of such an occasion couldn’t be compromised through any imprecision or loss of their precious comments, so an accurate transcription was carried out.

The resulting book, Talks with Great Composers, appeared in 1955: Abell’s preface reveals a promise given to Brahms that his innermost comments would not be made public until half a century after his passing, and Abell honored his request.

As my ears withered under the torture of Brahms performances, so did my eyes and focus as the text meandered into its esoterica, with both voices echoing similar perceptions, until they mentioned one Haekel as a source of ideas and opinions. The sound of this name shook away the torpor by evoking an unwholesome vision of this pair, a most inappropriate and vulgar digression from their charting a path to enlightenment:

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After the Bible had been parsed by the two masters, they turned their attentions to a contemporary British writer Alfred Lord Tennyson, whose passages were as endearing to them as the New Testament. For some reason I just could not shake off this Haekel, which must have intended another Heckel:

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And with a stenographer on hand, how could this error slip by an author who interspersed his work with German quotes to demonstrate his acumen in capturing whiffs of flavor from a revelatory spiritual banquet he fully translated into English?

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Admittedly I had heard piano recordings in 1979 by Etelka Freund (1879-1977), a Hungarian musician who became Brahms’s pupil when she left Budapest to study in Vienna at age fifteen. Although she lived in New York after 1946, no one had interviewed her. Many considered her playing to be eccentric, in its cavalier disregard of the strictly notated rhythms and her shifting around a singing tone and phrasing it to trash any suggestion that bar lines had even existed or were necessary. Such nerve!

Scherzo from Brahms’s Sonata op. 5

It was contrary to Brahms, Brahms and his interpreters, the thousands of pages of his music pouring forth from printing presses, the deluge of large and small works in concert halls throughout the globe, the thousands of recordings kept at home and aired on media, the writings, the scholarship, theoreticians slaving over the hidden structure of his constructions, and people singing in the shower!

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Her son Nicholas Milroy (seated on right) pulled out an unpublished manuscript written by his uncle Robert, who had been a close friend of the composer. Robert Freund also was close to Friedrich Hegar and Gottfried Keller, Swiss writers whom Brahms highly esteemed, as well as Nietzsche, so one could surmise that weighty and insightful conversations would have transpired during nearly two decades of their friendship. Freund writes of his friend’s visits to Budapest in the 1880’s:

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“I called for [Brahms] daily at 2 p.m. at the Cafe Hungaria, and once, when I was late, he appeared immediately at my door after two. We went on walks, ate dinner together, and wandered up and down the Danube until near midnight. I was of course completely taken with the [second] piano concerto (then still unpublished), especially its last movement, and even though I didn’t say much, Brahms knew exactly how I felt. For hours we walked side by side without uttering a word. At times, however, he became talkative and reminisced, mostly of his younger years.”

While there wasn’t time to discuss philosophy with Freund, Abell mentions how he evoked Brahms’s memories of Sitting Bull: “I first saw Sitting Bull’s name in print in the account of the Custer massacre in June 1876. I well remember that year because I was putting the finishing touches on my first symphony.” Abell regailed Brahms with tales of the chief being presented at court to Queen Victoria, with Brahms’s urging the writer on: “That is a capital story and I insist on your telling it in your book!”

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A day after picking up the book, stumbling over the magpies and comparing Freund’s description to the ongoing banter of the text, a recording arrived of a BBC radio talk given in 1949 by Edith Heymann, a pianist who knew Brahms through her teacher Clara Schumann. Keeping in mind Brahms’s stinging wit and thorny character, I was surprised to hear this about someone whom Abell presented as an expert on Tennyson and other British writers:

As much of Brahms Inc. shunned Freund and anyone else who played in her remote style, I wondered how academics covered Abell’s revelations.

A British critic reviewing for an Oxford University journal in 1965 seems to equivocate between admiration and hinting at an underlying peculiarity:

“As for the remaining talks with Strauss, Puccini, Humperdinck, Bruch and Grieg, the author claims that their remarks are preserved word for word in his English translation, and occasionally (for verisimilitude?) he throws in a handful of words in the original language. It is no doubt the process of translation or perhaps the elevated tone of the discussions as a whole that gives a certain similarity of style to the various utterances recorded here. Occasionally we meet identical turns of phrase: Joachim speaks of Beethoven as ‘a crescendo of Mozart’, and Strauss refers to Brahms as ‘a crescendo of Beethoven.’ Brahms declares ‘No atheist has ever been or ever will be a great composer’, and later in the book Richard, I mean Wagner, tells Engelbert, I mean Professor Humperdinck: ‘No atheist has ever created anything of great and lasting value.’ The book abounds in misprints, but these and the misquotations are small blemishes on a unique work. No reader attracted to the book for whatever reason is likely to be deterred by minor details of this sort, though there may be some who will feel that at 25s, this is rather an expensive entertainment.”

Decades later a California-based Brahms specialist surmises in a Cambridge University reader: “Although Abell might well have take some liberty with Bruch’s remarks there is no reason to doubt the general accuracy of the composer’s ideas. (Abell’s recollections of Brahms himself have always been treated with some reserve by Brahms scholars, since he provides information of a kind Brahms hardly ever vouchsafed even to his intimate circle, and because of the ‘psychic’ orientation of the writer.)”

And another sighting of Abell came as recent 2000, courtesy of a Cambridge review:

“Curiously, there is no discussion of the work of Arthur Abell who directly asked composers about their inspirations and recorded their replies in his book, Talks with the Great Composers (1955).”

Nicholas Milroy was ten years old when he snapped a photo of Fanny Davies while he and his family bumped into her by the Rigi in the Swiss alps. She had been very close to Clara Schumann and Brahms, a proponent of his music as a new experience and an eager champion of Janacek and other composers who followed. Davies immediately recognized Freund after decades had passed and addressed her: “You are a true member of our inner circle.” (photo: l. Davies. ?, janacek, Adila Fachiri).

Davies, Newmarch, Janacek and Fachiri

After Abell’s decease in 1958 at age 90 his archive was bequeathed to the New York Public Library. Checking through the documents and finding aid for the stenographer’s transcription of three hours with Brahms and Joachim the librarian and myself noted that not one item pertained to Brahms, except for a Florida newspaper clipping that Abell had filed thirty years after the composer’s death that was expanded and regurgitated into a final salvo.

Allan Evans ©2014

 

 

 

 

Country & Eastern, or The Mystery of the Bulgarian Voices Gets Solved

Until recently [1991, when this article was penned], few listeners in the prosperous and relatively safe West knew that an otherworldly singing was thriving over in Bulgaria. I first caught the Balkan blues six years ago [1985] in Berlin, close to the wall in the communist Eastern sector on a drab rainy day. Each Socialist Republic maintained a flagship store for hawking their worst nationalistic artifacts: kitsch, cutesy figurines and other alleged items of “culture”. Poland, Russia, Hungary and Bulgaria were in on this racket. A Bulgarian shop carried a few LP’s hard to find west of the wall. While you paid up with Monopoly money East Deutschmarks, a clerk hand-wrapped the record with straw paper. Tucked into my raincoat was a Balkanton LP of the Philip Koutev Ensemble’s arrangements. After a facelift, this same disc was packaged as Mysteries of the Bulgarian Voice, The Mystery on tour, well-known even to Madonna and George Harrison. Yet the lush and succulent singing was far from genuine. Where and what was the real music behind these adaptations?

In 1987 I arrived in Sofia, Bulgaria to play the blues and lecture on the minimalist music scene which swept away New York in the late 70’s, all very new to Bulgarians. Their government put me up in the swanky Grand Hotel, facing the parliament with the Ivan Nevsky cathedral just behind. Its doorman had a sailors cap and walrus mustache and at night some ladies would ask if I wanted “tak see”. Rising at six a.m. when all was still, the calm allowed notable buildings to shed their daily role as scenery and take on imposing airs:

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On breaks between lectures at the National Conservatory it was tempting to venture beyond the center and dive into outlying neighborhoods. Heading downtown on the main street one passed by a prominent mosque:

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and a side street led to a synagogue tacitly wedged in where its caretakers spoke the Ladino from their origins as Jewish citizens who left Spain after 1492. Its dome and façade are hinted at on the left:

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Arriving at the farmers’ market I checked to see what was still available in late February:

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At the market’s edge sat a khancho-mekhana (tavern) serving the restorative shkembe chorba (tripe soup) that resolved debilitating hangovers.

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As everyone was heavily smoking, it was impossible to breathe so I wandered off to a sleepy Tsar Simeon street, closely watched by a feline operative:

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It was a step into time travel, Ottoman splendor, and one solitary man returning from work looked aghast at a foreigner snapping pictures of many decrepit but intriguing homes.

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Once we found that German could get us through a conversation he advised caution as this suspicious activity might imply a later use for negative propaganda. My desire for tripe soup hadn’t abated after the khancho and we began discussing this new-found delicacy. Invited to his nearby home for a drink, he kindly wrote out his very own way of preparing the broth.

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The same kindness was returned by students and teachers at the Conservatory who reciprocated with a surprise for their first American, one lusting after their folk music. At days’ end a group of us set out for Bistritsa. a mountain village overlooking Sofia. Accompanying us was a folklorist mischievously smiling through his pointed oriental goatee, informing us that seven elderly women would receive us in their village’s community center where the dinner table had been set. Tiny bird-like Baba Menka, over eighty and resembling an ancient Roman matron depicted on frescoes. entered the rec-room with a home-made bread wider than her heaviest singing partner’s waist. At the table the Babas (grannies) still wore their blue day work smocks and demonstrated to their foreign visitor the right way to rub bread with chubritsa, a powdered blend of cayenne, fenugreek, wild thyme and summer savory which finds its way everywhere in Bulgarian cuisine. It later occurred to me that it resembled Georgian khmeli-tsuneli a spice blend, both possibly drawing on Central Asian traditions from where the Proto-Bulgars also originated.

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With it came tangy feta cheese shredded over tomato and cucumber salad, washed down with Rakia, their own potent anisette liqueur packed with more than 60% alcohol. As our heads started spinning, the Babas excused themselves, reappearing minutes later in traditional village costumes, singing antiphonally and dancing in a circle.

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It was soon clear why Orpheus was said to have come from Bulgaria. Their voices dovetailed each other above a droning tone. Such full-bodied and powerful harmonies were only hinted at by the Mysterious Voices, who now seemed too polished and sleek, their sparklingly clear tones caged within diluted rhythms. The Bistritsa Babas sang the way Aristotle described the Phrygian modal scale, which the Babas often used; “it makes men enthusiastic.”

Archaic polyphony

What was behind this, the authentic Bulgarian singing?

The mystery was probed the next day when I met Dr. Stoijan Djudjev, then 86 years old.

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The Bartók of Bulgarian folk music, he had devoted his life to its singing, instruments and their dances. “I studied linguistics in Paris during the 20’s. If modern Bulgarian has traces of ancient Greek languages, then why shouldn’t our folk music have retained it as well? This was my method for studying our music.” With all the shortages. it was hard to find LPs in Sofia of the real folk music, but some four or five were rounded up, including one with the old ladies of Bistritsa. Soon the Mystere des voix Bulgares was released in Switzerland and the US.

Summer of 1991: While the Bulgarian TV Ensemble and Balkana are touring abroad, thousands of villages throughout Bulgaria selected their best singers, musicians and dancers for their descent on a little mountain village east of Sofia: Koprivshtitsa. Every five years, this Balkan Woodstock explodes for three days on the second weekend of August. Baba Menka died a few years ago: worried over the Babas becoming a vanishing species, I grabbed a flight which stopped in Vienna for the Sofia connection. At the departure gate sat a man busily engaged in looking inconspicuous. Small headed, rat-faced, he wore dark: sunglasses, headphones, a sharply cut polyester suit, while a walk man rested on his locked briefcase as a prop: Bulgarian diplomatic ingenuity personified. Nearby a dozen freshly scrubbed blonde boys and girls wore “Elder” and “Sister” nametags in Cyrillic: Mormons from Utah! “We’re going over for a two year mission.” One Elder boasted of their grueling language seminar: “It was rough going, but we had Bulgarian classes 14 hours a day, 6 days a week for two months.” Maybe they needed three months as most couldn’t even begin to pronounce Koprivshtitsa which sounded like something you’d follow with gesundheit, but such meetings are normal now when heading towards the East. On any given trip chances are that you’ll rub shoulders with Bible salesmen or missionaries itching to hawk God’s aspirin to soothe the hangover when Atheism was dropped as the obligatory religion.

Four years earlier, the streets of Sofia were quiet. Those brave enough to speak openly looked over their shoulders while whispering about their run-ins with the secret police, schemes to marry foreigners or defect. The Communist Party building had been torched last winter. Like Lenin in Moscow, the embalmed corpse of their hero Dimitrov resided in a mausoleum across from the royal palace on a yellow brick road which runs along downtown Sofia. Now Dimitrov has joined contented worms underground while his old refrigerator is splattered with graffiti, the goosestepping honor guard gone. People seemed nervous but animated; makeshift stands of books, jewelry, stamps and objects were everywhere. One saw the Indian erotic manual, the Kama Sutra, being sold in a Bulgarian translation. Behind a roped-off area in a park, a group of homeless Bulgarians were on a hunger strike. “Break dance” was spray-painted onto a nearby wall. Many once-nerdy students now seemed to be trying their best to dress punk or hippie. New icons hung on the walls in a friend’s kid sister’s bedroom: Jim Morrison and Pink Floyd.

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Koprivshtitsa was slowly coming to life as people began flocking to this village.

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The first musician was sighted: a dark Gypsy led his chained muzzled bear across a stone bridge into the town’s square: the bear stood at full height on his hind legs whenever his mustachioed master played on the gadulka, a thin Balkan fiddle which hung on his waist. Any pleasure in watching the bear dance vanished when realizing the measures taken by the Gypsy to train his better half. The village houses were a few hundred years old, having massive barn doors leading to courtyards surrounded by high stone walls. These anti-Turk measures were once a necessity: the Ottomans held Bulgaria for 500 years and enjoyed collecting outrageously high taxes while arranging one-way trips to Istanbul for the town’s prettiest daughters to enter harem servitude. The festival is more like a fair, a gathering for Bulgarians with some foreigners straying about: above the town on the mountain-top eight stages go non-stop for twelve hours from Friday to Sunday. It all started in the 1940’s when two soldiers who began searching villages for old music and rituals wanted to assemble their finds. Many ancient Bulgarian traditions were being gradually destroyed when a heavy migration to the cities began in the 1950’s. While Bulgarian religion had always allowed pagan rites to continue for centuries by incorporating them, a tiny dose of sterile city life was enough to snuff them out since country living was less gloomy.

The government, always ready to manipulate nationalistic tendencies and distract the people from their oppression, gave the go-ahead for song festivals in the 1960’s, deeming them politically correct. Villagers once again took up their bagpipes and gadulkas while the Babas slipped on embroidered two-hundred year old costumes to sing out their village’s soul. Folklorists chose Koprivshtitsa in 196 5 for their first national happening, and since 1971 it has followed a five-year plan.

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It takes a good twenty minute uphill hike on the town’s stone streets to reach a paved road leading past grazing goats and horses into the fir and pine-ringed meadows with its scattered stages and narrow paths. Vendors set up tents or operated out of vans and East-block autos. Behind the tents are wooden sheds housing the famed Turkish toilets, where you plant yourself firmly on stone footprints and aim. The smell of grilling shish-kebab mixed with blaring cassettes of Yugoslavian pop, the Balkan version of Nashville which truck drivers feed on during their long hauls. In the roving crowd were Gypsies leading their begging bears, flocks of costumed Babas, folk-dance fanatics, Westerners – easily spotted in T -shirts with Cyrillic writing, Bulgarians -in Western T -shirts, mummers lugging their three-foot high animal masks with huge cowbells strapped onto their waists: 17,000 performers, 5,000 spectators.

There were problems this year. The government is now led by the opposition, yet the deposed dictator’s bureaucrats are still entrenched. No money was appropriated for the group of experts and folklorists who have planned the festival since its inception, and the little that was coughed up at the last minute couldn’t pay for the most famous groups. Villagers from the Yambol region didn’t seem to care, as they sent over a thousand musicians and occupied a stage throughout the event. The festival started up at nine a.m Friday. Each village was given a few minutes to sing two or three pieces. Eight ladies from the mountains near Dimitrovgrad wearing hortensia in the hair belted out their raw harmonies and whoops. They faced the crowd with hands on hips, a peasant’s stance, in two groups. I followed them as they left the stage to sit away from the blaring sun. Their costumes were bewilderingly ornate, hand embroidered in heavy wool: “This was my great grandmother’s- two hundred years old.” One Baba sized me up right away as a foreigner: ‘You’re from America?l” she smiled. “My husband left for America thirty-two years ago when I was pregnant. I tried to have the Red Cross search for him, but nothing ever came of it.” She sighed, but smilingly invited me to her village.

Koukeri: Mummers

A shamanic ritual with mummers known as Koukeri, said to have its origins in the Dionysiac rites, was revving up on the next stage. While a bagpiper bleated away, his drummer thundered out eleven beat rhythms on his waist-drum. The village’s men wore painted masks with protruding phallic noses, leading a wooden horse whose mouth gaped open and snapped shut. It was the Hunt of the Spirit, which represented the movement of the world. Circling and dancing around the beast, the sound of their cowbells nearly obliterated the music. The dance became more frenzied as they stomped in time to the drummer and began raining heavy blows with cut staffs on their neighbor’s padded backs.

Many villagers went barefoot in order to save their shoes for the performance. A group of mummers from Bourgas, by the Black Sea, readied themselves. Dressed in black vests, cowbells, wool legging on their shins, they mounted three foot high glittering headdresses and adjusted fake wool beards. Some of the masks were made from the heads of animals once slaughtered for village feasts, exaggerated in their grotesqueness by being mounted with fur and enormous horns. A goat mask symbolizing Satan: the Mummers encircled the Devil, rendering him powerless with their White

Soon after a helicopter descended and out onto the television’s stage stepped Zhelo Zhelev the Prime Minister. The crowd cheered wildly at his arrival as he is from the opposition party. Zhelev began by addressing them as “Brothers and sisters … “. Afterwards Dimo Dimov, the new Minister of Culture came up to the mike with a written-out speech which he drily delivered. Dimov, a top notch violinist himself, prefers to spend government money on classical music and is not very concerned with folk music. Many are worried about his attitude, as it threatens the survival of Koprivshtitsa and other festivals.

Noise came from the far-off Yambol stage where their mummers were off on a demon hunt, led by a rider on a wooden horse who was whipped constantly on its rump. A ‘bear’ came on the stage, symbolizing the forces of health, proved that the hunt succeeded by removing the demons away from a mother (a man dressed as a woman) holding her sick child. Afterwards, an unending stream of singers and instrumentalists took hold of most stages, with less mummery going on.

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The sun sank behind a far-off mountain and we headed down for another ritual: pleading with the town hotel’s headwaiter for a table and a meal. He was very sorry, but no tables were available. After keeping us in suspense for awhile, he did us a great favor by finding one. While we ate, several neighboring tables remianed empty. The bill seemed reasonable but shocked our Bulgarian friends; as there is no menu nor prices posted, you take what you get and pay what they demand. While chewing on kebab, a folklorist came by with the news that tonight the Yambol groups were going to dance and play all over the streets. Down the river’s road away from the center of town, the performers were put up in tents cordoned off in a muddy field segregated by their regions. “They don’t mix much, because one district wouldn’t know the dances or songs from another.” We searched in vain for the Yambolers. Sounds mysteriously emanated: ahead in a large tent packed with Babas who, lying side by side on their backs, sang one piece after another in the dark. Back on the road, we hit a crowd drinking beer, dancing wildly and singing all night long. If any doubt lingered as to the festival being a staged spectacle by people mechanically aping their ancestors way of life, their joyously frantic dancing and the Babas soaring above their tent in song hit me with the importance and meaning it has for them. They rarely have the chance to leave their villages, and this trip to show their most cherished possession – their music – to everyone is a great event in their lives. All throughout the festival, most of the listeners at each stage were the performers themselves.

On Saturday as the crowd swelled even further. an unimaginable apparition materialized: Turkish Women were openly strolling in harem pants with kerchiefed heads. Until the opposition took over, it was illegal to dress, speak or live as Turks. The secret police kept tabs on the few Mosques which were allowed to function. In the 1980’s the government sent goon squads to villages having Turkish minorities. The Turks were lined up before tables in the main squares where officials doled out new Bulgarian names: those refusing to abandon their Turkish names were shot dead on the spot. Nowt hey have their own newspaper. At this festival of Bulgarian-only music, a few dozen Turks were sprawled out on a slope behind a kebab tent, dancing away to their hypnotic rhythms while thrusting their hips and bellies at one another holding their outstretched arms high in the air, the women wriggling their huge breasts at their Elvises.

It was a big comedown to cross paths with hairy-legged vegetarians from the US who perfectly copy the choral singing. Many of them are fluent in Bulgarian, as were the japanese members of Koga, a Tokyo-based Bulgarian dance association, who content themselves with knowing and reveling in the many dances. These Bostonian wanna-be babas sing faithful renditions, but as pseudo-Bulgarians their tone is nowhere as full or convincing as the Babas. Chalk it up to their city-bred ideologies or never having needed to kill chickens for dinner, it showed the cult-like following which any great art inevitably draws.

One of the main events came on Sunday morning. Minus Baba Menka, the Bistritsa singers stepped out and proved themselves to be one of the festival’s high points. They sang for only fifteen minutes yet left everyone Koprivshtitsa began winding down as the performers headed back home on a caravan of government buses. The train to Sofia was crowded: an adjacent row of seats had a big card game going. One of the players left his bottle of moonshine on the floor and it overturned, filling the car with a pungent herbal fragrance. Ladies were dragging bags filled with preserves and vegetables back to Sofia from the garden plots at their country bungalows and dachas. The city seemed hectic after Koprivshtitsa but a bit soulless. I longed for the three day immersion which ended too soon, the ceremonies in which roasted goat meat was offered by ravishing young women who sat sewing, the mummers, and above all, the Babas, who seemed to have the best sense of what really mattered in life and could size up whatever happened before their shrewd eyes. Their honest work and living with their customs allowed them to see the West as but a source of both good and bad, unlike many Bulgarians who delude themselves into believing that all their problems will be solved by Western money and technology but not from within.

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I grabbed a taxi and reached Bistritsa in twenty minutes. Little private hotels now dot the hills along the Vitusha mountains. In the community center, just as it was four years ago, the Babas come in every night after a hard day of working to rehearse. Foreign guests are no longer a novelty: this night several English singers came to videotape their practice session and sing for them. Unlike four years ago, the old ladies were now joined by young women from the village who were foxy as hell and eager for some disco, yet loving their music as much as any other. Standing side by side with the old ladies they are slowly absorbing the Babas’ timeless art and a humanity which the last forty years of oppression failed to degrade.

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While some of Koprivshtitsa is pure but good theater, it is comforting to see that there are still some Babas to go around and new ones in the making.

And the mystery? Composers unable to write freely due to the regime’s prohibition of unofficial musical styles still had to produce in order to get paid: they arranged folksongs that the Koutev Ensemble and others introduced and the rest is history. But at the last moment of the 1991 festival, an ethnomusicologist explained that the National Academy of Sciences housed thousands of pre-war field recordings and most were deteriorating. It still needs to be addressed before Bulgaria loses even more of its remarkable heritage.

–©Allan Evans 1991, revised 2014

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