Sitting in a hot Adriatic Italian town with roosters and hunting dogs making their presence known out the window, a time of capturing a closed neighboring country’s music came to mind. The heat obliges me to ask In a gentlemanly way if you believe that classical music is more important or substantial than all other formats for content and expression. And if you feel so and snub what’s usually served up as Ethnic or World music, you might be right in some way but certainly not here so if this isn’t in your interest, your exit is but a click away
Now for those of you staying, delights await. This magnificent project is one such realization
Unbeknownst to most classical musicians, a parallel universe exists by its side, inspiring and denoting profound historic and stylistic shifts, and if you play with them, they will tell you things that no goddamn printed page can ever hope to imply.
So. . . just how far back in time can we reach via sound? There is the onion of Albanian music. Their dictatorship froze an isolated group of cultures after the 1940s that are identical to the earliest recordings from the 1920s.
Obsessively glued to a radio in Italy’s Marche region, I intercepted Radio Tirana’s local programming beamed across the Adriatic. With a cassette ever ready throughout the 1980s, some hypnotic moments wafted over:
An Ottoman tinge clings to their southern clarinet style, blending with a Greek Epirotic sound:
Epirus had an open border and Perikles Halkias recalled crossing over to serenade Albanian chicks. Their style, so similar, has a looser swing, Epirotika with erotica.
Unlike the even steadiness next door, Albanians shape their rhythm into a wild Balkan structure that sounds disjointed, yet is remarkably precise, elusive and unsettling to anyone lackng a rock-solid sense of beat.
Up in the North it’s totally different. Clarinets are replaced by çifteli, thin-necked lutes to support a florid popular vocal style.
Yet at the same time, something is on the scene that has held over from Byzantine modal moods about seven hundred years ago, as a pentatonic scale flits in and out of their mist:
An unexpected visit from Chinese and Mongols still echoes a thousand years or so onward in a dance requiring at least three legs as four beats morph into a group of nine, then ten before hugging onto a prominent four beat pattern:
We hit the deepest layer in polyphonic singing, all metric, with each voice having a distinct role in piloting an epic text.
We have no sonic evidence of how Greek tragedy choruses were chanted out but this may bring us up ever so close as their neighbors use prosody and multiple voices in a far earlier practice than the pile-up of sounds we recently peeled through.
But within hearing range is an example by the master-mind Bartók, who aside from having been one of our greatest composers and pianists, also invented the deep science of Ethnomusicology. One of his rare discs was released by the Hungarians, a performance of excerpts from his Hungarian Peasant Dances for solo piano. My recent discovery of the original recording brought forth sounds that the dull dubs accessed by the Budapest scholars failed to reveal. An excerpt, recorded on a Pleyel piano by Bartók himself in Paris, 1936:
Bartók crossed class lines to live, eat, breathe, and record the folk, the happiest days of his life, he always said. City dwellers wouldn’t dare venture beyond a trade of money for peasants’ goods at a market, whereas Bartók’s frightening entrance into their remote villages, a city dweller probably out to collect taxes or make their lives worse, soon evaporated as he set up an Edison cylinder recorder and cajoled them into offering their song. Note the shy ones peering over the fence:
Ligeti, a fellow Transylvanian, loved to admit how he composed elements from African music into his piano etudes, daring anyone to find them. Bartók left a smoking gun in the case of a section in his Improvisations for piano. Here we have a unique performance he gave after a radio program that was preserved, a work otherwise unrecorded by its composer:
And if one digs through his 1907 field recording cylinders, we hear how he secretly copied a woman’s tone, phrasing and articulation that remained within his ear and art after twenty years.
©Allan Evans 2012