Italy: folk musicking

 

Italy map

With our common image of Italy dominated by elite culture, it may seem to make a less obvious fieldsite for folk traditions than east Europe. But as I observed in my jottings from Lisbon (and in my posts on flamenco in Spain, starting here), there’s far more to musicking than opera houses and symphony orchestras. Even the court musical cultures of Italy were regional—there was no “Italy” until 1860, and regional consciousness still persists. As in China, where the “conservatoire style” dominates the media, the image of the iceberg is useful.

Local folk traditions are a major part of people’s social experience today, as throughout earlier history—alongside more elite productions such as the painting and sculpture, art music and opera that dominate our image of Italian culture (for early modern Europe, see here). Some regions show little or no influence from art music, others more. But we should adjust from our image of Barbara Strozzi and Artemisia Gentileschi [PC gone mad—Ed.] [What you gonna do about it? SJ], Verdi and Monteverdi, La Scala, and so on.

In Italy—whose population of around 60 million is comparable with a single province of China!—we find the usual interplay between general surveys “gazing at flowers from horseback” and detailed studies of one particular community. As ever, we may start with The New Grove dictionary of music and musicians, and The Garland encyclopedia of world music. Alessio Surian’s article for The Rough Guide to world music pays attention to the more recent roots scene, and Italy features regularly in Songlines.

I’ve already outlined some issues in the taxonomy of expressive culture in China (e.g. here). In her Grove article on Italian folk music, Tullia Magrini essayed a broad classification by style and structure rather than by region or context:

  • Narrative-singing (ballad, broadside ballad, storia, Sicilian orbi, and so on)
  • Lyrical singing
  • Others: including children’s songs and lullabies, work songs, polyphonic songs for entertainment (cf. Voices of the world).

After reverting to context in her penultimate category:

  • Ritual music—always among the most interesting rubrics, including life-cycle and calendrical rituals (the latter including carnival and Passion).

she concluded by outlining

  • dances and instruments—the latter including not only piffero and ciaramella shawms (for shawms in China, see here) with bagpipe (zampogna, müsapiva) and the distinctive Sardinian launeddas, but also northern violin traditions.

* * *

The fascist era discouraged meaningful study of folk traditions, so serious research began in the 1950s, as society continued to change. Gramsci’s contrast between subaltern and hegemonic cultures inspired the ground-breaking collaborations of Diego Carpitella with Ernesto De Martino and Alan Lomax.

Carpitella’s work with De Martino features in my post on taranta, which includes both their footage of taranta in Salento (1959) and funeral laments in Basilicata (1952).

Lucania

Meanwhile—just as Chinese fieldworkers were busy documenting their own regional traditions—Carpitella was also working with Alan Lomax (who said the 1950s were boring?!). Their 1954–56 audio recordings were published in 1958 as Folk music and song of Italy, and reissued (basic notes here). Many tracks on the playlist are remarkable—such as Alla campagnola, a polyphonic love song sung by women of Ferroletto in Calabria while working in the fields, with both harmonies and unison cadential pitches taking one by surprise:

And here’s a bagpipe saltarello from Citta Realle in Lazio:

The album covers the north too, such as this dance song from Val di Resia in Friuli:

For a review of more albums in the Lomax collection, see here. Italy was among the fields where he developed his ambitious Cantometrics project, exploring the links between styles of singing and social structures (see also Voices of the world). And for his remarkable archive, click here.

The pioneering work of Lomax and Carpitella inspired many impressive series of audio recordings on labels like Folkways, Dischi del sole, Albatros, I suoni (Fonit Cetra), and Ethnica. Meanwhile Carpitella edited the important journal Culture musicali (and I’m keen to read his analysis of The Rite of Spring!).

Following in their footsteps, among luminaries in Italian ethnomusicology were Roberto Leydi and Tullia Magrini, under whom such studies took root in Bologna. And as a welcome change from all those gondolas, Venice has become a lively centre for the promotion of folk cultures of Italy and further afield, with the Fondazione Cini, and ethnomusicologists Giovanni Giuriati and Giovanni de Zorzi (for an instance of the latter’s explorations, see here).

Despite all the “cultural homogenization” epitomized by the vacuous inanities of Burlesque-only TV, RAI has played a role in promoting regional cultures.

The south
The Mediterranean south has remained poor—Puglia, Basilicata, Calabria, as well as Campania, all have deep local traditions (see also here and here).

Again, Lomax and Carpitella made some fine recordings in Campania:

And apart from Sardinia (which I introduced here), Sicily is a rich field, introduced in early work by Giulio Fara and much studied since (see also Songs of Sicily).

Central Italy and the north
The poor south, attractive by virtue of its “otherness”, attracts a wealth of documentation; but the more affluent north also has significant pockets of folk activity. Roberto Leydi and others erased the old bias that considered the northern regions “corrupted” by economic and social development.

Fieldworkers have found distinctive traditions around Lazio, Abruzzo, Tuscany, Umbria, Le Marche, and Emilia. Tullia Magrini made a special study of the Maggio drammatico (cf. Morris dancing in England!). Note also her edited volume Music and gender: perspectives from the Mediterranean (2003).

All along the northern border of Italy, local traditions have been documented around Piedmont, Liguria, Lombardy, Veneto, Trentino, and Friuli. Again, we can consult the recordings of Lomax and Carpitella, with this 1972 LP from Piedmont, Emilia, and Lombardy:

In Ponte Caffaro, Brescia, fiddle bands accompany carnival:

The films of Renato Morelli are also impressive—see this trailer for Voci alte, on the festival of Premana in Lombardy.

In the 1990s, as another perk of my touring life, during interludes from playing Mozart opera in Parma and Ferrara I visited cultural offices for a taste of their work documenting local folk traditions—somewhat evoking my exploratory visits to their counterparts in China. While doing gigs in Genova I also found trallalero choirs:

In the northeast, traditions are related to Slavic culture, with dances accompanied by violins or the piva bagpipe. Here’s a 1983 clip from Val di Resia in Friuli:

Collectors have also worked with emigrant communities (cf. Accordion crimes). Alan Lomax and Carla Bianco issued a fascinating album of their 1963–64 recordings in New York and Chicago (playlist here, notes here), with a sequel recorded by his daughter Anna in New York, New Jersey, and Rhode Island (playlist here)—from the latter, here’s a duet with piffero and ciaramella:

This may not immediately spring to mind when thinking of the soundscape of 60s’ New York.

And having long been a land of emigration, and internal migration (from rural south to industrial north), Italy is now also a vexed site for immigration, which will further enrich the picture.

While I’m not venturing into the roots scene here, it seems obligatory to cite Fabrizio De André’s wildly popular Crêuza de mä (1984), sung in Genovese dialect (here with Italian subtitles):

* * *

All the energy in making audio recordings was admirable, helping us focus on the remarkable variety of regional soundscapes: both vocal and instrumental tracks are stunning. But it tended to entrench an image of disembodied, reified sound documents; the later shift towards visual anthropology places a greater stress on musicking in society. At LEAV in Milan Nicola Scaldaferri leads splendid collaborative projects, such as Musica Lucana and the Maggio in Accettura. And here’s a trailer for Rossella Scillacci’s fine 2007 ethnographic film Pratica e maestria on the zampogna in Basilicata:

* * *

Here, as often, I can only “gaze at flowers from horseback”, but all this is a reminder that as in China, England, and everywhere, popular regional traditions persist alongside more elite cultures, changing along with society and encouraging us to revise a narrow concept of “culture”.

Yet more Chinese clichés: music

minyue

To follow Chinese art clichés, for this list of Chinese music clichés I revert to the Catechism format immortalized by the great Flann O’Brien (for my previous essays in the genre, see here and here).

Seriously Though Folks: since we need to study expressive culture in the context of changing society, it’s important to unpack the language of propaganda, in this as in other fields!

What kind of history does Chinese music have?
An ancient 悠久 one.

And how many years of history does any genre you care to mention have?
Two thousand.

And what kind of fossils are these genres?
Living ones, of course.

To what do they belong?
The glorious heritage of the Chinese peoples.

What kind of colourings did such music often have before Liberation?
Feudal superstitious ones.

How did the government treat folk music after Liberation?
They esteemed it while systematically dismantling its entire social basis.

And what kind of foliage did folk artists turn over then?
A new leaf.

What does folk-song express?
The sentiments of the labouring masses.

In praise of whom did folk-singers create new songs?
Um, Chairman Mao.

How did they present their art 献艺 to the Party?
Selflessly.

So they weren’t malnourished and desperate, then?
Oh no.

What are they keen to do with what?
To preserve and develop their precious heritage.

Now (here’s an easy one) what are the ethnic minorities jolly good at?
Um, singing and dancing 能歌善舞。

And how are their relations with the Han Chinese?
Brotherly, of course.

What kind of scale does Chinese music use?
A heptatonic scale based on anhemitonic pentatonic melodies, with occasional temporary modulation up or down a fifth creating a new anhemitonic pentatonic set.

[consulting script anxiously] WHA-A-T???
Oh all right then—pentatonic.

How might we characterize southern music?
Mellifluous.

And northern music?
Rugged and angular.

For what irresistible yet cumbersome title does one scurry to get nominated, nay inscribed, these days?
The umpteenth batch of China’s National List of Intangible Cultural Heritage zzzzz

Whereupon what means of perambulation will the genre in question adopt in what ubiquitous direction?
Marching towards the world 走向世界。*

Such is the flapdoodle we have to plough through, reading between the lines… Plenty more where that came from under the heritage tag. And for illustrations of different mindsets, see here. For a veritable masterpiece of international cliché, see Away from it all.

Yangjiagou band, 1999

Yangjiagou shawm band, funeral 1999.

 

* Ironically, “Marching towards the world” is the title of ch.18 of my Daoist priests of the Li family, on the foreign tours of the band—but all is explained:

You may be thinking, “Aha, so now we’re going to see how local ritual goes global and gets adapted for the concert stage!” Well, forget it—the basic context for their performance remains the local funerary business that I describe throughout the book.

For Bach marching towards the world, see here.

 

Global audience

map

An entertaining feature of the WordPress stats for authors shows me the figures for viewers of this arcane blog by location—rather like a map of empire.

countries The list of countries also evokes the Olympic medals table—with USA, China, and even the UK ranking high, pursued by France, Germany, Australia, Japan, and so on. Further down, Romania, Thailand, and Brazil put in plucky performances. I like some of the fortuitous juxtapositions that it produces daily (left).

More intriguing are countries near the foot of the table, such as Estonia, Morocco, PNG. and Bolivia (as well as some I’ve barely heard of…). I like to think that my arcane ruminations have a certain niche following among the indigenous* populations in such places, but I also entertain the charming notion that it’s just one single deranged British viewer (Mrs Ivy Trellis, perhaps) with a taste for exotic holidays and an unlikely obsession…

You might think all this would encourage me to tone down some of my more obscure allusions and usage of language, but no.

 

* You can read that in the New Age sense if you like.

Playing with history: HIP

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Butt

On the HIP (“Historically Informed Performance”) movement, further to my article on Richard Taruskin, I’ve added a page on

  • John Butt, Playing with history (2002).

I’ve already mentioned Butt’s thoughts on performing the Bach Passions, as well as related posts like Bach and Daoist ritual and Alternative Bach.

Indeed, he expands on the ideas of Taruskin, rigorously unpacking the views of a wide range of pundits on both sides of the notional fence, surveying the HIP tendency in the broad context of 20th-century (and earlier) social and political change, philosophy, architecture, the Globe Theatre project, and the Heritage movement. So this is a far wider topic than “mere” music.

He notes affinities with ethnomusicology, and unpacks the history of “notational progress”—among his examples is Messiaen! Butt’s stimulating final chapter takes its title from Lucy Lippiard’s definition of retrochic:

  • “A reactionary wolf in countercultural sheep’s clothing”?—historical performance, the heritage industry and the politics of revival.

He points out antecedents earlier in the 20th century and much further back in history. Despite the growth of HIP following the disruption of war, Butt finds that the whole phenomenon is more complex than the “trauma thesis”, and that (as with Morris’s Arts and Crafts movement) it attracts people from a range of political stances.

In a thoughtful, generous, and optimistic investigation, he sees the HIP enterprise as

a starting point for experimentation, an opening of options that could not have been envisaged, rather than a form of closure that more strictly delimits the definition of a work or repertoire.

I conclude with some thoughts on China and its heritage industry, where such complex issues are barely recognized.

 

More Chinese clichés: art

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Ni Zan

Further to my Chinese clichés (inspired by Flann O’Brien), a young scholar—whose own enterprising fieldwork suggests a radical reassessment of Chinese temple murals—has sent me this telling critique (“On visiting the Asian Art Museum but finding the Indo-Tibetan section closed for renovation“):

New AAM Exhibition Reveals How “Chinese People Used to Like Porcelain Pots that were Glazed mostly White but sometimes Other Colors, and Paintings of Water and Mountains, And Stuff”

April 12, 2019 / Khanat Beg

SAN FRANCISCO
“A lot of people think they know Chinese art,” says curator Adreanne Chao. Slim and straight-backed in a black turtleneck by Japanese designer Yu Amatsu, Chao is sitting on a bench in the second-floor gallery, unrecognized by the stream of museum-goers around us. Together, we watch two women speaking Mandarin pose with a selfie-stick in front of a painting by the 14th-century Chinese artist Ni Zan.

Chao says, “People come in here, and they think they’re going to see monochrome ink-paintings of mountains, water, clouds. Sometimes there’ll be a lonely fisherman out poling across the lake, or a scholar-recluse composing poetry in an old pavilion.”

But Chao’s new exhibition, which opened April 1st at San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum, has sent ripples of surprise through the art world. Chao leads me over to inspect a scroll painting, twelve feet long and one wide, by the 15th-century Chinese literatus-painter Wu Liao. “But these artists are really toying with convention. Here you can see the painter has used monochrome ink and brushwork to create the impression of clouds, water, and mountains.” Chao laughs puckishly, “And yes, I’ll admit it—there’s also a fisherman poling a skiff past an old pavilion!”

We haven’t even got to the room with all the little porcelain pots and pans, glazed mostly white but sometimes beige or off-green. […]

 

I may add that the solitary boatman is not to be confused with this tribute to Uncle Xi:

See here for spoof Tang poems that I composed in my own Yoof (“precocious signs of the pointless inanity that was to distinguish my later writings”). Among posts under the art tag, try this, and this.

And for Chinese music clichés, see here.

A post-concert gaffe

Many years ago, Maureen Smith was leading an orchestral concert in the north of England, at which the great clarinettist Tony Pay was playing.

After the gig Maureen was having a drink in the pub with some friends from the audience when Tony walked in, now in plain clothes, so she introduced them:

“Hey guys, this is Tony Pay—he plays the clarinet.”

One of them looked at him and went,

“Jeez, they could have done with you tonight!”

Tony likes to tell this story himself.

For other less-than-favourable reviews, see here and here. For many more stories from orchestral life, see here, and under the humour subhead of the WAM category.