When tradition becomes experimental

Spotlights 02.05.2021

Traditional instruments are nowadays more and more frequently used in the context of experimental music. They also integrate the written repertoires of musical creation, as soloists or in ensembles. We no longer hesitate to add numerous electronic effects to them, or to transform their lutherie. Musicians with a traditional education and culture are happily crossing ever more permeable borders to explore other sound worlds.

If this phenomenon is taking off in an unprecedented way, especially with the new technologies and the infinite possibility of listening to a worldwide sound library made available on the Internet, written scholarly music has always been nourished by folk music of oral tradition: Whether we think of the folk songs and dances of the Renaissance integrated by composers into their polyphonic edifices; the Baroque suites, reusing popular dances in an aristocratic context; or the adoption of national traditions by the Romantics, both as a claim to an authentic art form close to the roots of the people and as a desire to exalt a powerful unifying patriotic feeling. The 19th century saw the emergence of numerous national schools throughout Europe, marked by these traditions, at the origin of strongly characterized music, well beyond the dominant musical nations that had been the main driving forces in the history of music up to that point: France, Germany and Italy. After an initial period marked, for example, by Frédéric Chopin's mazurkas and polonaises, evoking his distant and martyred country, or by Franz Liszt's Hungarian rhapsodies, important schools emerged: Russian, Norwegian, Finnish, Danish, Spanish, Czech, etc. This large-scale movement, illustrated by dozens of composers, intensified in the second half of the century, enriched by musicological research and collections, such as those of the musicologist Felipe Pedrell in Spain and the French folk movement. People no longer hesitated to claim their native land and to feed off it, as was the case in France with Emmanuel Chabrier's Auvergne bourrées, Guy Ropartz's and Jean Cras's Breton roots, and Vincent d'Indy's Cévennes references. At the turn of the 20th century, this movement took a scientific turn with the birth of ethnomusicology. One of its first representatives was the composer Béla Bartók, whose initial collections were made alongside Zoltán Kodály.

Then things slow down. Composers looked elsewhere, towards jazz, which was shaking the planet, towards the exploration of new complex grammars or new instrumental technologies. Meanwhile, ethnomusicologists continued to collect music, with the idea of saving a gigantic heritage that was disappearing. Extremely rich and diverse recordings are being made in many countries, like the exceptional work of John Lomax and his son Alan Lomax in the United States, recording a veritable musical treasure trove for the Library of Congress: work songs, sacred songs, wakesongs, dances and blues from the southern states and the Caribbean. It is from these important sources that a second wave of music was born, this time in the pop music of the fifties and sixties, called the "folk revival". Starting in the United States, where it was tinged with the beatnik and then hippie spirit, this movement spread throughout the West. After Leadbelly and the protest songs of Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Buffy Sainte-Marie, the Canadian Joni Mitchell and the British Donovan took the lead.

In France, among a myriad of groups that were to enjoy great success in the seventies, Malicorne and the Breton music of Alan Stivell and Dan Ar Braz stood out. Collections and recordings are also going well (Breton, Auvergne, Alsatian, Basque, Occitan heritage...). Anonymous performers sometimes found themselves propelled to the forefront of the stage, like the Goadec sisters and their immemorial heritage kan ha diskan. Hundreds of musicians have been recorded, notably for the labels Radio-France Ocora and Le Chant du Monde.

Again, the movement ran out of steam at the end of the decade, notably shaken by the punk wave and by the deployment of electronics in popular music, which gave it a cheesy flavour. Today, folk music is experiencing a revival and, above all, a new face. More than ever, its traditions are reinventing themselves and no longer hesitate to look to electronic technologies, to tangle with the experimental or improvised music scenes. While John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen were interested in exotic ensembles far removed from their own culture, respectively the Balinese gamelan and the Japanese gagaku, today's composers and performers are immersed in their own lands, or at least are interested in music and instruments geographically closer to them. There are more and more examples. Thus, since 2010, the Breton piper Erwan Keravec has made a specialty of commissioning works from more than twenty contemporary composers for his bagpipes; Kaija Saariaho gives pride of place to the traditional Finnish kantele, played by Eija Kankaanranta in the orchestra of her opera Only the Sounds Remains (2015); and the Kronos Quartet integrates the Russian hurdy-gurdy(kolesnaya lira) on Quartet for Five .

Erwan Keravec specifies that "bagpipes and binnacles have not been purified like other instruments in order to fit into bands, which means that they are very rich in harmonics. This particularity is specific to all these traditional instruments. Combined with their particular playing techniques, it allows composers to break away from a very standardised western instrumentarium, when the musicians do not involve themselves in experimental practices (drone, sound immersion, spatialization, In the image of the violinist Yann Gourdon and the collective La Nóvia to which he belongs, or of Kreis /collectif continu in Strasbourg, with Lise Barkas, Félix Chaillou, Léo Maurel, Lisa Käuffert, Ross Heselton and Léonie Risjeterre. At the same time, the labels of folk in a more pop domain have exploded over the last thirty years: indie-folk, folk metal, neofolk, laptop folk, electro-folk... It's a new age of folk, in a time when the blinkers have fallen off and all aesthetic crossings are possible. It is when they do not renew themselves that traditions are condemned to oblivion.

Guillaume Kosmicki

Original drawing © Carla Ladau


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