Monday, January 18, 2016

Musical Explanation 1/18/16: Pot Pourri des Rabbis and Tire l'aiguille by the Sirba Octet

You would think that the clarinet was invented to play klezmer music. There is no genre of music for which it is better equipped. Here, with pitch bends galore, it intones a shofar with near-perfect intonation in all its tropes: tekiyah, shevarim, truah, and tekiyah gedolah.

The soul of Klezmer, like the Romani music which inspired so much of it, exists in the dissonant blue notes between the piano keys - endowing music with a pickled tension you will never hear in the much more hierarchical world of classical music, where consonance and dissonance are set up as opposites to contrast. The whole point of Eastern European folk music is that consonance and dissonance exist together in a kind of musical goulash in which every chord has its own tonal ambiguity. When a Romani musician plays a scale, he usually starts on what we Western-trained musicians would consider the dominant note. In a sense, Eastern European music is a music where the dominant is tonic and and the tonic is plagal. Does that make the super-tonic the dominant? Well... in Eastern European music the fifth degree of the scale is much weaker. It still often has a dominant function, but nowhere near as often, so it's just one among many weapons in the Roma's endlessly fertile harmonic arsenal.

The nexus of Klezmer Music was in North-Eastern Europe, whereas the nexus of Gypsy Music was in South-Eastern Europe. Klezmer music was, therefore, much more influenced by proper notions of of what music should be. It is still hundreds of times more 'badly behaved' than most any dance music in the classical tradition until Bartok, but still, the Western influences make it a genre more proper, more prim, and perhaps less interesting, than that of its gypsy forbearers.

Folk music is usually prized for its simplicity. But simplicity is the least of its virtues. The greatest of its virtues is its perfection. It is music distilled to its essence, and from its essence, a musician can grow a musical forest's worth of possibilities. Folk tunes shouldn't just be prized for what they are in their unvarnished state, but the inspiration they can give to musicians who can interpolate the origins into something infinite.

It's just a shame that classical musicians, the very musicians who could make folk music into something still more unrestrained, usually place it further into the straightjacket - something which perhaps I did as well in the first incarnation of Schmuck. It's the ultimate form of cultural appropriation: take music that evolved in closed communities for millennia, then insinuate yourselves into those communities - learn their tunes and create exact copies of what other people have already done. But whereas these communities have lived with this music for centuries, for which it provided the entire soundtrack of their lives, we now have classically trained folk musicians that play this music with the inability to understand any of its context.

I don't think we should turn back the clock on music, but I'm sure some people would interpret what I'm about to write as that:

In the early 20th century, composers had a proper understanding of how to use folk music. We should not pretend that more educated people like us can have anything like the understanding which people who were born to this music have. Nevertheless, except perhaps to certain pop songs, we rootless cosmopolitans will never have a connection to folk music the way others do. The proper relationship to folk music is to put it in more complex contexts - the way that Bartok did, the way Stravinsky did, the way it was utilized by Ives, Ravel, Vaughan Williams, Copland, de Falla, Albeniz, Sibelius, Mussorgsky. We need to do as they did, but we need to bring the music a hundred years further still into the future.

If you're going to use folk music, don't pretend that you're a folk musician. Apply the entire arsenal of modern techniques, sounds, harmonies, rhythms. Human interest is fickle, so we need to ensure that this music exists as something other than a novelty in which people will lose interest. We need to preserve this music so that we can never forget our roots, but roots exist so that something can grow from them.

This is why I love the Sirba Octet. These are playing Klezmer music, but they realize that they could never be Klezmer musicians. They're using the entire gamut of instrumental techniques. Their treatment of the source material is quite respectful of the original sounds (far more respectful than I will be when I arrange some of the same songs), but this is Folk Music updated for an audience that's already heard what classical music sounds like. It exists as something more than just a novelty - it's a modern attempt to engage with something pre-modern.

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