Shrieks, slides and gypsies

I have been glued to youtube this week watching traditional Romanian folk dances, bandonean performances and Flamenco, Andalusian Cante Jondo singing.

I have always loved folk music, and now that I have the notes under my fingers, I need to start making some stylistic decisions, and learning the musical folk dialects that inform the music on my upcoming CD recording.

But I have to admit I have began to get a little obsessed. After listening to ten versions of one De Falla song, in Spanish, memorizing the lyrics, trying to imitate the words on my cello, then checking out a violin version, then five cello versions, then back to the famous singer, I am utterly confused. My brain starts to run in circles “now what was it she did that sounded so good, heavy on the first note of the 16ths? Or crescendoing into the final one, should I take out the slur, the text makes it seem like these should be more short and emphasized, maybe I need to change the bowing……” Three hours later, I have one measure figured out, and even that measure I am not so sure is completely authentic, or that I will even remember what I had decided after all the options I tried.

What is authentic anyway? I am finding that the Romanians argue as to whether Bartok’s music was based in gypsy themes, or peasant themes, and believe me, they really differentiate between these two groups. In truth, he collected from both populations. But in any given piece, this may affect whether the rhythm should have rubato, in a gypsy fashion, or be more strict, as in a peasant dance. One source I read insisted that the peasants weren’t simple and boring, that they sang with rubato and flair, even in their dances. Well, I suppose it depends on which peasant they listened to, no? When we think country do we think innocent, simple and not complex music, or organic, free flowing and unpredictable like the weather and crops?

Classical musicians have always had to master a diversity of styles. We wouldn’t imagine playing a Mozart Sonata in the same way as a we might play Brahms. But I think the tendency towards “authenticity” has intensified since the early music movement began making claims about how Baroque music should be performed. I will never forget that after a first introduction to historically accurate playing, a professor told me that I could not trust my instincts. I think I know what he meant, but that sounded like a dangerous direction to head it. How can I ever be convincing to my audience if I am not drawing from a deep musical sensibility? If I have to intellectualize my playing so much, aren’t I missing the point. Luckily, I naturally have a varied sense of musical style, and pick up inflections well. While I suck at accents when talking, I was always a good actress, and could take on any character I wanted. The same stands in music, if I internalize the feel and character of a music, the stylistic details tend to fall into place. Well, mostly. And its that “mostly” that had me glued to the computer splitting my brain over the little notes.

Once a diva could play most things in the same lush manner, and all would be well. Now, however, stylistic accuracy is akin to political correctness as a sign of cultural respect and education. I am all for it, and want to go as far from bastardizing some Folk tradition by ignoring the accents, sounds and characteristics of musical style to each particular region. On the other hand, I know that I will never be a “native speaker” . Classical musicians are criticized for always playing the some old “dead white guys music”, but we also get some finger wagging when we pretend to be something we are not, or profit from imitating an ethnic style that is not our own, and do it poorly. As the world gets smaller, our bag of tricks gets bigger.

While it is allot of work, I find the whole process improves my musicality, and is invigorating and challenging. On the other hand, I find it ironic that in order to sound like a peasant out in the field organically belting out tunes that my ancestors sang for centuries, I have to set aside my own natural tendencies. Is this inauthentic authentic playing?

Musical styles from various cultures have always interwoven to create new styles, music is a dynamic art form with both innovation and tradition. While Vaughan Williams weaves folk tunes into a classical piano and cello arrangement, I am bringing all my artistry as another thread to add to the fabric of style. While a great musician mostly gets out of the way of the music and allows it to speak through them, I also believe what we personally bring to the table should matter too, just as an actress might draw on her own life to understand and fill out a character.

So in the name of not becoming a museum piece that merely represents a correct style, or losing my unique expression or voice, I am getting in touch with my inner Andalusian Flamenco Gypsy, Romanian Peasant, Celtic fiddler, downtrodden prostitute in Buenos Aires slums, and Japanese Geisha. Once all those characters arrive, then I can be authentically authentic. And along the way I may get that Tango shrieking slide just right, and my de Falla 16ths might at last have that guttural and powerful throaty cry that sends a chill up my spine, in a good way, every time I hear a Cante Jondo song.

Flamenco Dancer

One thought on “Shrieks, slides and gypsies

  1. Jessica

    Just thought I would recommend a book to you to check out if you’re researching Cante Jondo and Manuel de Falla. It’s called Deep Song and Other Prose by Federico Garcia Lorca, translated by Christopher Maurer. It’s a collection of essays and lectures by Federico Garcia Lorca. Play and Theory of the Duende (one of the chapters) would be particularly appropriate for you. Garcia Lorca was friends with de Falla and the two of them put together a Cante Jondo conference.

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