Bernard Lortat-Jacob at 80

BLJ playlist

Bernard Lortat-Jacob is one of the great ethnomusicologists. I’ve already admired his work on Sardinia, and featured his recordings from Morocco, Romania, Albania, and Valencia. To celebrate his 80th birthday (cf. my sonic tribute for Stephan Feuchtwang), we have a splendid new volume:

  • Petits pays, grandes musiques: le parcours d’un ethnomusicologue en Méditerranée (2020; 512 pages).

BLJ Petit pays cover

Among BLJ’s main fieldsites, the focus here is on the Mediterranean, notably Sardinia—his early work on Morocco only features en passant. His remit also extends to India, Java, Iran, the Hebrides, Brazil, jazz, and Western Art Music. Most valuably, the text is cued to 63 wonderful audio and video tracks on this online playlist, so that we can instructively listen and watch as we read (or even before Rushing Out to buy the book). Meanwhile BLJ also considers changing ways of musicking (the French musiquer is good), and changing trends over his long career in ethnomusicology. One feels his rapport as participant observer; while applying thick description (cf. Geertz) to both social and musical aspects, his style is deeply engaged, full of character.

Bernard, Irgoli 1995

BLJ entertains villagers, Irgoli 1995. Photo: Maria Manca.

* * *

The Introduction by Giovanni Giuriati gives background on early influences on BLJ’s studies and the significance of his ouevre; while sharing many approaches with Anglo-American ethnomusicology, he has also been at the centre of a distinctively European tradition (cf. posts under Society and soundscape).

The main text is a parcours in three parts, each with nine chapters—an anthology of mostly previously-published articles, illuminatingly arranged by themes.

BLJ 462

Part One, “Improvisation: permanence et transformations”, unpacks the creative process (cf. Nettl).

BLJ 32

After an introductory chapter, BLJ offers three vignettes on Sardinia, featuring the launeddas (in memory of Aurelio Porcu); dances with organetto; and songs with guitar. Alongside detailed musical analyses, he always pays attention to social context (festas, bars, and so on).

“Bartók’s kaleidoscope” is a thoughtful tribute, dating from 1994. Focusing on Bela Bartók’s early recordings and transcriptions of the folk music of Romania (cf. my Musical cultures of east Europe), it’s further informed by BLJ’s own fieldwork there from 1991 to 1996 with Jacques Bouët and Speranţa Rădulescu (see A tue-tête: chant et violon au pays de l’Oach, Roumanie, 2002, with DVD, including amazing clips like #23).

Oach

Chapter 6 is a more general discussion of models and typology, in which BLJ spreads his net to Iran, India, and Scotland—as well as Morocco, illustrated by the Aissawa cult of Meknes (#15), and Turkey, with a fine taksim on the zurna (#18b).

He then continues exploring Romanian village traditions with chapters on the oral traditions of the Ouach (Oaș) and Baia Mare regions. He discusses the misleading dichotomy between fieldwork and the laboratory.

BLJ 124

In an intriguing experiment, the team asked local musicians to play their own transformations on short extracts played to them from a Brahms Hungarian dance, The four seasons, and West Side story (##24–27). While I appreciate the idea, here I’m rather less excited by the insights it yields.

BLJ 155

A numinous image, also used for the cover of Paul Berliner’s Thinking in jazz
just the kind of fusion of ethnographic and musical detail that BLJ practises.

Part One ends with a virtuosic entr’acte, “The jazz ear”, suggesting grander themes through two suggestive analytical vignettes. Seeking to assess contrasting evaluations of Chet Baker’s vocal intonation, BLJ gives a micro-analysis of his “deviant” pitches at the opening of I fall in love too easily (cf. Deep in a dream, and Chet in Italy). And the “cultural ear” is apparent too in his discussion of the harmonic implications in Charlie Parker’s different melodic renditions of Billy’s bounce. While this kind of analysis stops short of explaining why audiences are so moved by both jazzmen, it suggests fruitful paths.

This jazz vignette leads BLJ to suggest three approaches:

  • the imperial (“not to say imperialist”) position, whereby ethnomusicologists, with their universal science, declare themselves the omniscient authority, taking credit for the aptitude of others (Others) without asking too many questions;
  • the discouraging opposite view, as expressed famously by Bruno Nettl‘s teacher in Iran: “You will never understand this music”;
  • a middle way, which BLJ favours: that it is precisely the problematic accessibility of the music of others that is at the heart of our task.

BLJ 179

Part Two, “Chanter ensemble, être ensemble” (and the word ensemble is more evocative in French!) returns to Sardinia, considering vocal polyphony there (“Les mystères des voix sardes”). Five chapters explore aspects of the Castelsardo confraternities, with their annual cycle of rituals culminating in the Passion rituals of Holy Week, illustrated with magnificent video clips like #35 and #39 (more under Sardinian chronicles). Exquisite as is BLJ’s Chants de Passion (1998), he reflects that

les mots du livre sont beaucoup moins riche que les paroles qui leur ont donné naissance. […] L’écriture est toujours maladroite lorsqu’il s’agit de rendre compte des intonations et de la richesse de l’oral…

Musical notation too is an imperfect tool.

tenores 1998

BLJ in deep harmony with tenore quartet at wedding, 1998. Photo: SJ.

In the fourth chapter of this section BLJ expands his consideration of vocal polyphony in Sardinia to the more widely-known secular genre of the tenore quartet, including the distinctive group from Fonni, who open his 1991 CD Polyphonies de Sardaigne (#36b).

Chapters 5 and 6 offer more perspectives on the Castelsardo liturgy, reflecting on the aesthetic judgements of the participants, and on memory, individual style, conditions and constraints (the ritual cycle, sense of place), grammatical rules, preparation. With such factors in mind, BLJ analyses a 1993 Stabat mater (#41).

Chapter 7 considers such orally-transmitted group singing in the less formal (male) social interaction of the cantina. Describing the singer as “creator of empathy”, he notes that while such societies commonly refer to nos anciens, the word “tradition” doesn’t belong to such societies, but is an invention of the “professors”—an issue to bear in mind in China.

BLJ 297

This discussion makes a bridge to the last two chapters of Part Two. Chapter 8 is a version of BLJ’s 2013 article “Multipart drinking (and singing): a case study in southern Albania”. After apéritifs in Ancient Greece and the Andes, he describes the Tosk ensemble seated around a table (also a focus of Chinese musicking), singing in free tempo as they make toasts with raki (e.g. #45), revealing the correlation between social and musical rules and their spatial and temporal dimensions.

La performance a pour but de render contigus, de façon construite et progressive, le proche et le lointain, le present et l’absent et—pourrait-on dire plus largement—les mondes physique et métaphysique.

He notes the presence of virtual as well as real participants:

Il s’agit d’etres mythiques: héros convoqués par les textes des chants dont on célèbre l’importance, faits d’armes divers (en general contre les Turcs), fiancées perdues ou inaccessibles dont on ne sait pas meme si elles existèrent un jour. Mais aussi présences-absences: le chant est la trace d’un souvenir, d’une situation précédente, de l’objet de ses pensées, et qui se voit adoubé d’attentions expressifs particulières. De sorte qu’être ensemble revient à s’inscrire dans un présent, mais consiste tout autant dans l’évocation et le rappel des absents.

As to the polyphony of the Lab people further southwest in Albania, Chapter 9 discusses the mournful song Ianina, led by Nazif Çelaj (#48; full version on BLJ’s 1988 CD Albanie: polyphonies vocales et instrumentales). It was premiered at a 1983 folk festival in Gjirokastër, and despite being promptly elevated by the regime to national status, audiences agreed that it was both original and moving. This seems to have been a rather rare occasion in folk tradition to witness a song regarded as a “new creation”; while BLJ describes the innovative aspects of the vocal arrangement (always embedded in tradition), I’d like to know more about just how the song came into being.

One particularity of the song is its evocation of the funeral laments of women:

Il est comme un esquisse ou un rappel des lamentations funèbres dont les femmes ont en principal l’exclusivité. Il emprunte ainsi, sans le dire, au vaj (cri, plainte ou lamentation féminine). Il y a là un travestissement qui ne peut passer inaperçu. En fait, un double travestissement, car ce chant d’hommes emprunte aux femmes et il ne raconte pas seulement une histoire: il la met en scène en y insérant—en live—le chagrin occasionné par le mort du héros.

He concludes:

Chant de douleur de l’ancien régime, il renvoie au temps de la domination des Turcs. Mais aussi et sourtout au régime qui l’avait vu naître, comme si, à son tour, il ne pouvait plus s’extirper de ce passé encore brûlant. Cependant, il n’est pas nécessaire que son référent soit precis, car en tant que plainte masquée Ianina chante la douleur. Or, celle-ci ne manque pas des scénarios anciens ou nouveaux pour fair irruption: elle renvoie à ce qui fut autrefois, mais aussi à ce qui est aujourd’hui (l’instabilité morale, l’injustice social et l’émigration notamment). Et sans doute a-t-elle même l’étrange pouvoir d’inclure les douleurs à venir. Elle et à la fois précise et indécise. En cela réside sa fonction paradoxale autant que son charactère opératoire.

In Part Three, “La musique en effet”, we return again to Sardinia. Chapter 1 reflects on BLJ’s “home base” of Irgoli, opening with villagers’ apparent indifference to the intrusion of American rock music blasting from the TV in the bar. He contrasts the whole social soundscape with the silence surrounding vendetta. The tenore style of Irgoli has hardly been affected by the fashionable adoption of other such groups onto the “world music” bandwagon. And meanwhile the canto a chitarra, the improvised “jousts” of the gara poetica, and dancing in the piazza continued to thrive there.

Further pondering how music reflects the social structures in which it is inscribed (an idée fixe of ethnomusicologists), in Chapter 2 BLJ revisits the launeddas and the liturgy of Castelsardo.

BLJ 353

In Chapter 3, “Le cheval, le chant, la poésie”, he reflects on the limitations of comparison, even between the various festive cultures of Sardinia. Chapter 4 explores the connection between flowers and liturgical song. The following three chapters discuss Lévi-Strauss, the “science” of music, and affect—ending with an astute commentary on the speaking voices of women in Castelsardo.

In Chapter 8, BLJ’s return to Orgosolo in 2011 after thirty years prompts reflections on memory and the individual “proprietors” of repertoire among his various fieldsites. This in turn leads to a discussion of female mourners in Albania (#61), and the return of a celebrated Albanian singer to his desolate natal home, shown in BLJ’s film with Hélène Delaporte, Chant d’un pays perdu (2006) (extracts e.g. #62b and 62d).

For both performers and audiences, a complex, imprecise nostalgia may be involved in a synchronic event (as well as in later reception history, I might add). He ends with a note on music, memory, and possession—the latter here denoting the power of absent or lost beings in the performative expressions of the living.

This leads suitably to the final chapter of Part Three, on Georgia on my mind as sung by the “alchemist” Ray Charles. Applying the same methods he has developed for folk traditions, BLJ analyses the musical features that create the multivalent portrait of an elusive protagonist, with its “tempo-malaise”.

“Georgia”—l’être évoqué—existe a travers son énonciation chantée, des qualités d’intonation spécifiques, un timbre ô combien particulier, des transitoires d’attaque et de fin, etc., constituant non pas l’accessoire du chant mais son essence.

Noting the human voice as marker of social discrimination, he explores the “black voice”, anchored in the memory of douleur, and “le nègre blanc”; the pentatonic basis of the song, both gospel and rural (another pays perdu); and the arrangement by Ralph Burns. Nor does he neglect to pay homage to the 1941 recording of Georgia by Billie Holiday (and one might cite her Don’t explain as a succinct assessment both to support and criticise his method?!).

In his thoughtful Postface/Volte-face, BLJ reflects on the major themes that have emerged, describing the ethnomusicologist as both droguiste and acrobate-gymnaste. While noting the reduced local diversity of rural traditions since his first fieldtrips in the 1960s (a theme, indeed, that one might trace back to the origins of anthropology), he has remained alert to change, constantly refining his “models”.

All this makes one keen to explore the final bibliography, discography, and filmography—and do also consult the ear-opening CD set Les voix du monde, in which BLJ played a significant role. What—no index?!

This stimulating tour de force is both a survey of Bernard Lortat-Jacob’s lifetime immersion in musicking and another reminder of the wealth of Mediterranean traditions on our doorsteps, along with their relevance to a global understanding of local cultures.

2 thoughts on “Bernard Lortat-Jacob at 80

  1. Lots of good things to explore here. And good to remind us of an important researcher in the music of the Mediterranean and around. I love the music of Oaş in Romania, although for most people the re-tuned strings just make it too wild. The guy in the video looks like he’s been rubbing tuica on his chest to enhance the chest-hair!

    Liked by 1 person

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