Musics lost and found

MC cover

  • Michael Church, Musics lost and found: song collectors and the life and death of folk tradition (2021)

makes an engaging diachronic introduction to fieldworkers, and the musics they documented, in societies around the world—a sequel to his 2015 book The other classical musics (favourably reviewed here). Of course, our labels of “classical” and folk” are flawed (see e.g. What is serious music?!): the two volumes overlap.

In his astute Introduction, Michael notes the role of “colonial curiosity, sometimes tinged with guilt”, as well as patriotism and the distortion of local traditions under nationalistic movements and then state socialism (cf. the observations of Milan Kundera and Yang Yinliu). He comments:

Some collecting has been a response to horrifying circumstances. The most heroic collector of Nazi death-camp songs was the Polish singer-songwriter Aleksander Kulisiewicz, who survived three years in Sachsenhausen and devoted the rest of his life to performing the songs he had memorised from Jewish fellow-prisoners. There was a clandestine Jewish choir in Sachsenhausen whose members told him that, if he survived, he should preserve their memory by singing their songs to the rest of the world. That became his mission; his 3,000-page typescript of death-camp songs—many collected from survivors of other camps whom he sought out after the war—is now lodged in the Washington Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Even in less extreme conditions, under authoritarian regimes such as the USSR the work of collecting was dangerous. Now I think too of Rahilä Dawut, distinguished anthropologist doing fine work on Uyghur culture until she was “disappeared” in 2017.

While Michael recognises that his selection is to some extent arbitrary, beyond the Usual Suspects (Béla Bartók, Cecil Sharp, the Lomaxes), the chapters tell fascinating stories, digesting a vast amount of material—focusing on pioneering fieldworkers before the 1970s but also showing the ongoing work of more recent scholars.

As to the thorny issues of “loss”,

Most of the work songs which Alan Lomax collected in Spain and Italy in the 1950s are sung no more. The same applies to the work songs which Komitas found in rural Armenia, and which Cecil Sharp and Percy Grainger collected in England a century ago. These songs are gone, because the reasons for their existence—the trades they accompanied—are gone. And after the death of the village comes the death of the songs marking its calendrical and life-cycle events; there comes, in short, the death of local music. This rule holds for all villages, everywhere.

And

Worn-out and irrelevant forms may not be replaced by new ones, because the conditions required for that process—community and kinship networks and the aforesaid shared religion or ideology—no longer obtain, and may never obtain again.

But Michael does well to observe that

The old idea of an immutable musical corpus is giving way to the idea of an endlessly mutable art; the primacy of collecting is being replaced among scholars by the primacy of interpretation.

And indeed he concedes that the prospect is not one of unrelieved gloom. “Migrants carry their music in their baggage”, and

New work inspires new songs: baggage-handlers for Amazon in Genoa, whose forefathers sang as they humped fish, have devised new songs to speed their parcels.

Michael contrasts fusions that are the spontaneous result of social shifts with those that are arbitrarily willed by producers. He ends his Introduction with thoughtful reflections on the role on Covid.

* * *

The chapters are loosely grouped in four sections. “Why it all began” begins with a prelude on the various motives for collecting song in 18th century Europe—political, colonial, and economic—introducing Johann Gottfried Herder and the concept of Volkslied. Chapters follow on the 17th-century broadside ballads and Francis James Child; Orientalists from France (Jesuit priests in Beijing and Salvador-Daniel in Algiers); and the Moldavian prince Dimitrie Cantemir (1673–1723), documenting Ottoman music in Constantinople after being taken hostage. Here’s a sample of Jordi Savall’s project on Cantemir with Hesperion XXI:

“The birth of ethnomusicology” opens with chapters on collecting among Native American peoples—from Alice Fletcher’s work on the Omaha to Franz Boas.

Michael moves on to the work of Komitas (1869–1935) studying Armenian song on the eve of the 1915 genocide; and the British folk-song revival with the “contentious” Cecil Sharp, followed by Percy Grainger.

Bartok 1907

In “Carrying the torch: collectors in Northern and Eastern Europe” (a misleading rubric, since the chapters range far more widely), after an Introduction (featuring collectors such as Pyotr Kireyevsky (1808–56) in Russia, Karel Erben (1811–70) and Leos Janáček for Bohemia and Moravia, Vasil Stoin (1880–1938) for Bulgaria, Bjarni Thorsteinsson (1861–1938) for Iceland), Michael offers a fine chapter on Béla Bartók, with his extraordinary fieldtrips before World War One collecting songs in Transylvania, Slovakia, Romania, Ruthenia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Algeria—and much later, Egypt (1932), Turkey and Syria (1936). Michael ponders Bartók’s prescriptive agenda, seeking the “purity” of “ancient” songs, disdaining “Gypsy” and “sacred” melodies. But he was always in search of connections:

In 1912, I discovered among the Maramures Romanians a certain kind of highly ornamented, Orientally-coloured and improvisation-like melody. In 1913, in a village of Central Algeria bordering the Sahara desert, I heard a similar melodic style. […] Who would have thought that the distance between the two phenomena—more than 2,000 kilometres—could be bridged by a causal relationship?

Lomax

This leads to a chapter on John Lomax and his son Alan, subsuming not only their work among (mainly African-) American folk-singers (cf. Bruce Jackson) but Alan’s work in the Bahamas, Haiti, Britain, Spain, and notably Italy, working with Diego Carpitella. Note the Alan Lomax Archive on YouTube.

Among the pioneers of Australian Aboriginal music cultures, Michael highlights the work of Theodor Strehlow with the Aranda. The old theme recurs:

I am recording the sunset of an age that will never return—every act that I see is being performed for the last time, and the men who are with me have no successors. When they die, they will take all their knowledge to the grave with them—except that part which I have recorded. Hence I am writing down everything in full detail, so as to give the clearest picture of an age and of a culture that no one else but I have been privileged to witness.

In Chapter 12 Michael introduces the Western fascination with gamelan, from the 1889 Exposition Universelle to Jaap Kunst and Colin McPhee. The site Bali1928.net has a wealth of (silent, alas) film clips.

The work of Paul Bowles in Morocco makes another vivid topic. Turning to Greece, Michael introduces the mission of Domna Samiou to document folk traditions there. John Blacking’s work on the Venda is a classic inspiration for ethnomusicologists. He goes on to explore the importance of record companies, introducing Moses Asch, Folkways, Nonesuch, Ocora, PAN, and Topic Records—before the label “world music” became a bland catch-all.

The final section, “Musical snapshots: the importance of sound archives” is introduced with notes on the Berliner Phonogramm-Archiv, the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian, East European archives, the British Library Sound Archive and the Golha Project on Persian music.

Chapter 17 explores the traditions of Central Asia—Kazakhstan, Kyrghyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Xinjiang—and further afield, Tuva. Despite the spectre of Soviet prescriptive innovations, collectors did some fine work, such as Viktor Uspensky and Viktor Belyayev, followed by foreign researchers like Jean During and Theodore Levin, and the Aga Khan Music Initiative. This leads to Afghanistan, introducing local musician-collectors, and the work of John Baily and Veronica Doubleday.

Chapters follow on Russia and Georgia—as a change from the polished stage presentation of many groups, here’s a Georgian group singing informally:

Musics lost and found continues with Pygmy polyphony in central Africa, with Colin Turnbull, Simha Arom, Suzanne Fürniss; and the radif of Persian art music.

Yang Yinliu 1950

Yang Yinliu, 1950.

Chapter 23 discusses China: the great Yang Yinliu, and my own humble fieldwork with the Gaoluo ritual association, the Li family Daoists, and shawm bands—all themes amply covered on this blog. Korean traditions (see my posts on Dang and Bowed zithers, 1) are introduced through the art of p’ansori; and Japan through taiko drumming—having left the more venerable traditions of gagaku, Noh, and kabuki to The other classical musics.

In the two final chapters Michael discusses the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage programme and its pitfalls, ending with a thoughtful overview of the book’s knotty issues. Besides the bibliography, each chapter ends with a basic reading list.

More digestible than the New Grove and Garland encyclopedias, sections in the two New Grove Ethnomusicology volumes, or even The Rough Guide to world music, this book leads audiences to a wealth of traditions. While scholars were poring over musty tomes in libraries, and composers busy composing, these intrepid collectors were busy in the field, seeking to make sense of the cultural life of grassroots communities.

While Musics lost and found covers an impressive amount of ground, there’s scope for a further volume. The story of Milman Parry and Albert Lord recording the “Homeric” epics of bards in 1930s’ Yugoslavia (archive here) would be grist to Michael’s mill. Bruno Nettl is one of the crucial figures in ethnomusicology, not only for his studies of Native American cultures but for his work in Iran. Also valuable are Bernard Lortat-Jacob’s explorations of the Mediterranean. The chapter on the Lomaxes hints at the vibrant field of Italy, but one might also adduce the work of Roberto Leydi, Tullia Magrini, and so on. Though the work of Richard Widdess in Nepal gets a mention in the Introduction, south Asia deserves a lengthier treatment, to include the likes of Arnold Bake and Nicolas Magriel. And so on…

* * *

Tom Service introduced the book with Michael on BBC Radio 3 Music Matters (here, from 17.01). The programme introduces English folk-song; migration and “climate change in music”; singing in Albania and Genoa; and (from 28.42) Veronica Doubleday discusses her outstanding work in 1970s’ Afghanistan and the current crisis—a clear instance of a culture that is very much under threat, of course.

It’s true that village communities have changed decisively. But we need a new model for the ecosphere of folk tradition. Such genres are not timeless; even Bach’s cantatas soon fell from favour, and whether or not they find new audiences is not something that I worry about, although recordings and documentation are clearly valuable.

In China I often feel as if I’m responsible for the dwindling of the folk traditions that I document; or to put it another way, the very forces that bring us to these sites are those which lead to change. The role of the fieldworker has come under increasing scrutiny, as in such works as Shadows in the field (see e.g. William Noll on blind minstrels of Ukraine). Further to Nigel Barley’s portrayal of the fieldworker as “harmless idiot”, I sometimes feel like a harmful idiot.

Tom Service opens with a soundbite much favoured by pundits: “folk music cultures are in danger of extinction all over the world”.  I’m none too enamoured with the concept of “endangered traditions”: since the beginnings of anthropology, fieldworkers have always supposed they were witnessing the last vestiges of a tradition. It tends to suggest a nostalgia for the halcyon days of child chimney-sweeps (cf. Edible, intangible, dodgy). Cultural loss is a thorny issue. As Michael indeed suggests, the book’s leitmotif—the fear that the music of collectors’ chosen field might evaporate before they managed to fully document it—may not be so well-founded. It’s always too late, and never.

* * *

The book was sonorously launched with an event at the Wigmore Hall, making a fitting tribute to live musicking after a long silence, as well as a reminder of the rich traditions maintained among UK diasporas. In an exquisite programme, it was wonderful to hear Veronica Doubleday again, followed by a cappella songs from the Georgian Maspindzeli choir, Persian classical music performed by Mehdi Namdar (ney) and Fariborz Kiani (goblet drum), and the Anatolian folk songs of Çiğdem Aslan accompanied by Erdal Yapici on baglama.

* * *

See also e.g. my voluminous fieldwork and world music categories in the sidebar; note Society and soundscape.

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