“An example of new thinking in area studies, Retuning Culture is an important book, valuable for its originality and for its overall statement regarding the nature of culture in political change. Of all the professional discourses brought to bear on the study of Eastern Europe in the past, musicology has been the least developed. This book will change that.”—Michael Holquist, Yale University
Retuning Culture: Musical Changes in Central and Eastern Europeby Mark Slobin
As a measure of individual and collective identity, music offers both striking metaphors and tangible data for understanding societies in transition—and nowhere is this clearer than in the recent case of the Eastern Bloc. Retuning Culture presents an extraordinary picture of this phenomenon. This pioneering set of studies traces the tumultuous and/i>
As a measure of individual and collective identity, music offers both striking metaphors and tangible data for understanding societies in transition—and nowhere is this clearer than in the recent case of the Eastern Bloc. Retuning Culture presents an extraordinary picture of this phenomenon. This pioneering set of studies traces the tumultuous and momentous shifts in the music cultures of Central and Eastern Europe from the first harbingers of change in the 1970s through the revolutionary period of 1989–90 to more recent developments.
During the period of state socialism, both the reinterpretation of the folk music heritage and the domestication of Western forms of music offered ways to resist and redefine imposed identities. With the removal of state control and support, music was free to channel and to shape emerging forms of cultural identity. Stressing both continuity and disjuncture in a period of enormous social and cultural change, this volume focuses on the importance and evolution of traditional and popular musics in peasant communities and urban environments in Hungary, Poland, Romania, Russia, the Czech Republic, Ukraine, the former Yugoslavia, Macedonia, and Bulgaria. Written by longtime specialists in the region and considering both religious and secular trends, these essays examine music as a means of expressing diverse aesthetics and ideologies, participating in the formation of national identities, and strengthening ethnic affiliation.
Retuning Culture provides a rich understanding of music’s role at a particular cultural and historical moment. Its broad range of perspectives will attract readers with interests in cultural studies, music, and Central and Eastern Europe.
Contributors. Michael Beckerman, Donna Buchanan, Anna Czekanowska, Judit Frigyesi, Barbara Rose Lange, Mirjana Lausevic, Theodore Levin, Margarita Mazo, Steluta Popa, Ljerka Vidic Rasmussen, Timothy Rice, Carol Silverman, Catherine Wanner
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Musical Changes in Central and Eastern Europe
By Mark Slobin
Duke University PressCopyright © 1996 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
Dmitri Pokrovsky and the Russian Folk Music Revival Movement
To a friend of the enlightenment the word and conception "the folk" has always something anachronistic and alarming about it; he knows that you need only tell a crowd they are "the folk" to stir them up to all sorts of reactionary evil. What all has not happened before our eyes — or just not quite before our eyes — in the name of "the folk" though it could never have happened in the name of God or humanity or the law! — Thomas Mann, Doktor Faustus
The phone rang in the austere one-room apartment that Dmitri Pokrovsky, founder and artistic director of the Pokrovsky Ensemble, subleases on the fourteenth floor of a nondescript high-rise in central Moscow. Boris Yeltsin's office was calling. Would the Pokrovsky Ensemble be available to perform Russian folk music at a party celebrating Boris Nikolayevich's inauguration as President of Russia? And just one request: could the ensemble please be prepared to sing Boris Nikolayevich's favorite song, "Ural-skaya Ryabinushka" ("The Ural Rowan Tree," a sentimental worker's song from Yeltsin's native Ural region)?
"I'm sorry, we don't have that song in our repertory," Dmitri Pokrovsky told the caller from the Kremlin.
The caller pleaded, "But if you'll just learn it, this one time ..."
"I'm sorry," Pokrovsky repeated. "You don't understand. We don't sing such songs."
Pokrovsky chuckled as he recounted the story in a conversation that took place in June 1994. "They found some other musicians who agreed to perform "The Ural Rowan Tree." Everyone sang along, and Yeltsin played the spoons. It was all fine, but I'm glad I didn't agree to do it. I don't want to be a court musician to the czar of the new Russian empire. And after refusing to sing Yeltsin's favorite song, I'm sure they won't invite me back again soon."
The imperial culture from which Pokrovsky felt estranged had been amply displayed on Moscow television the evening prior to our conversation. The occasion was Russian Independence Day, 12 June (1994), and a gala celebration had been organized in the Rossiya Concert Hall, with President Yeltsin in attendance. "It was a performance that conformed to the norms of Stalin's time, not to mention czarist times," Pokrovsky commented. "It used to be that they would hang a portrait of Stalin in the background. But in the Rossiya Hall, instead of Stalin, they had Don Cossacks carrying an icon of St. George, and everyone had to stand and sing Glinka's "Slava!" ["Glory"] chorus from [the opera] A Life for the Czar. In the opening part of the concert, there was grandiose classical music: the Alexandrov Russian Army Choir, a symphony orchestra, opera arias performed by singers from the Bolshoi Theater. After that, there was a transition to national folk culture: the Krasnoyarsk Dance group, the Kuban Cossack Choir, Nadya Babkina — all with a lot of military pomp on stage. Those sorts of imperial ensembles are the only kind of folk or national cultural group that can be successful now. Our ensemble wouldn't fit in. We wouldn't be successful. We wouldn't be invited, and I wouldn't go. Artists are going to have to make a choice: to be part of the imperial system, or to say 'no' to it."
Pokrovsky's acerbic antiestablishment sentiments might have come as a surprise to some of his Russian critics — and these days there is no shortage of them. "Pokrovsky has become too slick; he's lost touch with his roots," is one commonly heard jab. "He's responsible for a lot of the ugly nationalism that's crept into performances of traditional folk and sacred music" is another. "He's sold out and become a rich capitalist by spending all his time touring in the West," goes a third. Pokrovsky is alternately annoyed and amused by the criticism. "My ensemble and I are doing very much the same thing now that we were doing twenty years ago," he retorts. "We're just doing it more professionally and more seriously. We're not the ones who have changed; what has changed is people's interpretation of what we do."
How and why have those public interpretations changed? Why has Dmitri Pokrovsky, the leader of a small Moscow-based music ensemble, become such a celebrated and controversial public figure in Russia? Why does folk music, and the hermeneutics of folk music performance, matter so much in Russia? Why has folk music so often been forced to be more than itself, to assume a purpose beyond the aesthetic, as an art engagé, in which artists become, or are beheld as, the victim, handmaiden, or shill (or some of each) of politicians and bureaucrats?
I sought answers to these questions in a series of conversations with Dmitri Pokrovsky, whom I have known since early 1986, the dawn of the glasnost age, when Pokrovsky was just beginning to emerge from a lengthy period of official disfavor. The vicissitudes of Pokrovsky's career and his changing relationship to the vlast ' — the "power," as all levels of government are so often collectively referred to in the former Soviet Union — are instructive for what they reveal about the to and fro of cultural politics, and about how Russians continue to redefine and reimagine their sense of nation, national past, and perhaps, national future.
Pokrovsky's experiences as a cultural activist and folk music revivalist challenge the chaste image of traditional folk song, still common in the West, as music filled with an unambiguous moral power rooted in an authentic "spirit of the people" and accepted at face value by listeners. In fact, Pokrovsky's career demonstrates, to the contrary, that meanings and associations attributed to folk music in Soviet and post-Soviet Russia have been eminently protean. And if a conventional representation of Soviet cultural politics has it that abstract and expressionist art and music were held at bay while folk art, folk music, and artistic production derived from folk sources were made to flourish, then the roller-coaster saga of Pokrovsky's artistic life must again serve as a caveat against such easy generalizations. During most of the Soviet era, authentic Russian village music, with its weird dissonances, bawdy textual innuendos, and fervent religious undertones, was considered as ill-suited for the aesthetic and ethical development of the "Soviet" citizen as the much maligned music of the avant-garde.
I asked Pokrovsky, who was born in Moscow in 1944, to tell me about his musical life, about how he had come to the idea of forming his ensemble, and about how the ensemble has evolved over the twenty years of its existence. Our conversations were in English, which Pokrovsky has learned to speak with astonishing fluency during the last half-dozen years of intensive touring in the West. The quotations that follow are Pokrovsky's own words, with minor style editing.
"In the mid-1960s, I was a student at the Gnessen Institute, in Moscow. I played the balalaika and was interested in authentic instruments, but I thought I wanted to be an opera conductor. I became an unofficial student of Alexander Yurlov, the head of the choir conducting department, because I figured that I ought to learn how to conduct a choir as well as an orchestra. Yurlov was a young and energetic person, and during those years, he had opened a department of folk choir conducting. He invited Russia's leading folklorists to come to the Institute and teach authentic folklore. It took three or four years to get the idea of teaching authentic folklore through the bureaucracy. It started in the time of the Khrushchev thaw. I became involved, and soon I was arranging expeditions to villages.
"I started thinking about why people in different regions of Russia sing differently, and came to the conclusion that it's due to an unconscious connection with acoustics. My hypothesis was that singing is basically like a kind of long-distance connection. Different kinds of singing had to be developed in different kinds of acoustic conditions: forest, steppe, river valleys, mountains — they all have different acoustics, and folksingers use their mouth and throat differently than do academic singers because of the different acoustic demands. It seemed so obvious, and I began to organize expeditions to show this. I became immersed in research and started taking x-rays and using equipment for working with the deaf that allowed me to see on a screen not just frequency spectrums but different aspects of speech sound. Finally, I developed a theory. I didn't have a singing voice, but I had to find out whether I was crazy or whether I was right. So I gathered together some friends, and we started to do experiments. We didn't tell anyone what we were doing. Our first rehearsal was on September 16, 1973.
"In the beginning, none of the musicians in my ensemble was a singer, and they had nothing to lose by trying to develop their voices in a certain way. I took them to villages, and they got really involved. But we started from nothing. We didn't know what we were doing it for. Three or four months after we started, we sang in a Georgian restaurant in Moscow. Everyone applauded. 'It's wonderful; sing more,' the customers said. That was exciting. They thought we were Georgians. After that, I decided to go to the Folklore Commission [of the USSR Union of Composers] and tell them that we had this group, but I was afraid that they wouldn't like it. So instead of telling them that I already had a group, I told them that I wanted to start one, and asked them how I should do it. Their suggestions turned out to be exactly what we'd already been doing. I was relieved. These days, a lot of people are singing the way we do, but can you imagine that at that time no one was singing like that outside of the villages. You can't just start to improvise this sort of singing. You have to know how to use your voice, how to sing together in a particular style. A style is based on a certain kind of sound, and you have to be able to create that sound. For example, if you try to sing northern songs with the sound of southern songs, you won't be able to do it.
"Up until the late 1920s, there were commercial folklore ensembles that sang absolutely authentic folk music — for example, the Piatnitsky Choir. But in the 1930s, everything changed. On the recordings, you can hear the year and the moment when it changed. Stalin ordered the creation of official Soviet folklore. The Piatnitsky Choir was a good institution to do it, and so they were ordered to create this folklore; and all other folk choirs became like clones of Piatnitsky."
Mitrofan Piatnitsky (1864-1927), the son of a Russian Orthodox sexton, had been an amateur singer and a member of the Moscow Society of Amateur Scientists, Anthropologists, and Ethnographers. In the first years of the twentieth century, he had assembled a large collection of ethnographic costumes and musical instruments, and made some of the early phonograph recordings of Russian folk songs. In 1910 he organized a choir of peasant singers that became a sensation in Moscow and other cities, riding a wave of interest among urban Russians in "national" folk art and folk music. However, it wasn't until the beginning of collectivization, in 1929, that ethnographic interest in Piatnitsky's work metamorphosed into a political program. "All politics changed at that moment," said Pokrovsky, "and the folk choirs were affected along with everyone else. There were two stages. In the first stage, singers maintained an authentic style, but changed the words of their songs. They started to put political messages in the texts so that the songs became propaganda for the Soviet system. In the second stage, composers were invited to write new music — so-called 'mass songs' (massovie pesni), and these songs became the main repertory of the folk choirs."
Gradually, peasants were replaced by trained singers. "The professional folk choirs with their composed and arranged songs have continued down to the present. But in the 1960s, under Khrushchev, there was a strong idea that art done by amateurs would replace professional art; that professional artists and writers would be replaced by a whole population that would become artists. It's a very Bolshevik idea. The Khrushchev 'thaw' was a time whose main symbol became restoring Lenin's system of Communism, which had been ruined by Stalin. It wasn't that Khrushchev was anti-Communist; he wanted to return to Lenin's path. So all the ideas of 1917 and 1918 became central ideas again in the state system. It was at that time that the Folklore Commission was established, and that they added the position of "folklore specialist" (metodist po folkloru) in all of the "houses of folk art" (doma narodnogo tvorchestva) run by the Ministry of Culture."
Pokrovsky became one of those folklore specialists. As he explained it, the job of the folklore specialist was to support the amateur groups in the villages that sang authentic folklore. "Another of their jobs was to make sure that thirty percent of the authentic folklore would be fakelore. That is, thirty percent had to be songs about the Soviet system and how great it is, about collective farms, tractors, and so on."
I asked, "Were the folklore specialists only in the Ministry of Culture's houses of folk art or were they also in the Union of Trade Unions' houses of amateur arts?"
"No, the trade union houses didn't have them. Instead they had people who worked with patriotic workers songs. Workers are workers; they're not supposed to have anything to do with folklore. Peasants are peasants; they have to have folklore. Even if they don't have it, they have to have it. So every village had to have a folklore choir. The folklore specialists who ran them did a good job; mostly, they were real folklorists, and they supported folklore, not fakelore. They were often amateur composers as well, and they'd write the thirty percent Soviet stuff. They knew folk music, so a typical love song became a song about the Twentieth Congress of the Party. They just changed the words. It's really easy to change the words of a folk song, especially because no one can understand them anyway." (Despite the lyrical stereotype of Russian folk songs like "Stenka Razin" — actually a composed folk song from the end of the nineteenth century —or "Kalinka" — a composed song from the beginning of the twentieth — traditional singers do not perform "songs" in the sense of setting fixed texts to fixed melodies; rather, short segments of text and melody are spontaneously and variously combined during performance, and may lead toward any one of a number of different subjects or images. In this process of musical extemporization, words may be chopped up, stretched out, or accentually distorted to fit the rhythmic scheme of a melody, not to mention that nonsensical sequences of phrases frequently make texts incoherent in any case. Hence, substituting particular segments of song text for other segments would not in principle have been considered outside the norms of tradition.)
"I remember Yurlov's course for choir masters," Pokrovsky recalled. "I remember their graduation exam. The first song they sang was about two falcons on an oak tree. The falcons represented Lenin and Stalin. It was a fake song from the 1950s. They still had to sing it in the mid-1960s, but by that time, there was, of course, only one falcon on the tree. That song was published as folklore by folklorists. To publish any collection of folk songs at that time, you had to have a song about Stalin at the beginning; a song about electricity, a tractor; and after that, you could have your love songs, calendar songs, or whatever. After a while, no one looked at the first few pages of those books.
"All that I've said about fakelore and the system that supported it is to show why, outside of the villages, no one was doing what we were doing in the early 1970s; why it seemed so strange and subversive. For the first five or six years, we were an unofficial group, and beginning in 1974 or 1975, the KGB prohibited our performances. It wasn't really because of us. It started when we were scheduled to perform in some house of culture, and that very day the KGB used bulldozers to destroy an art exhibit in an empty lot [in Moscow]. Probably they just cancelled everything that day that wasn't absolutely official. For us, the cancellation was fortunate; it was the beginning of our success. We were supposed to have performed with Evgenii Bachurin and some other singer-songwriters. They had a small but pretty avant-garde audience, and when people came to the theater and found that the concert had been cancelled, Bachurin said, 'Let's all go to my studio.' There were only thirty or so people. I'm not sure the concert would have been successful, but when we all got to the studio and people started to perform, and after someone came and told us about what had happened on the streets — about the art show being bulldozed — we all started to feel a real camaraderie. We got involved with this group of people whose performances were being prohibited, and afterwards, the KGB started to prohibit our performances, too. As a consequence, people got interested in us, and we started to get invitations to sing.
"We became an underground ensemble. We didn't try to create this image. But from the very beginning, we were prohibited. I can't say why we were prohibited. People are always asking me now why we were prohibited, and I can never give them an honest answer. I have to make things up. I say, 'It's because we sang songs that weren't about the Soviet Union or Communism, and people couldn't understand the words, and so on. But I really don't know why. It just happened."
Excerpted from Retuning Culture by Mark Slobin. Copyright © 1996 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Mark Slobin is Professor of Music at Wesleyan University.
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