Monday, June 09, 2008

Arranging the Folk

Joseph Drew has a review of a new Nico Muhly album. I don't do reviews and, for that matter, stay away from most recordings, but will note that I was impressed by the recording, especially for its comfort with sounds made unapologetically rough. I share Drew's assessment that the strongest work was The Only Tune, a piece which has, as a point of departure, an arrangement of a folk song performance by Sam Amidon. In fact, Muhly has elsewhere arranged other traditional material sung and played by Amidon and -- as far as I've heard -- this seems to be territory in which he is most inventive and even, to his credit, controversial. Sometimes, with the addition of the most modest of instrumental accompaniments or studio techniques, Muhly is able to venture, with a respectable lack of caution, all along the margins and borders of the repertoires framed and framing. Amidon's vocal style is, in its own way, educated, all artifice, but cultivated from traditional vocal styles well outside standard practice art song, which makes the framed and framing relationship ever more interesting.

Musical repertoires wear taxonomy uneasily. That's because a repertoire is real music that real people have gathered together and a categorizing impulse is, at best, weakly distributed among real populations, even under the strictest of regimes. People like to mix things together, even when we're well aware of conventions, etiquette, or rules that would rather have us keep things separate. Thus categories of the sacred and the secular or folk and popular and art musics are always going to be defined by usage rather than content and character of the music itself.

Nevertheless, music has often been produced in which the makers consciously both identify their own repertoire, creating a frame from which to point outside, towards some "other" music. Beginning, at least with Beethoven, the habit began of taking music identified as folk and placing it, as if between quotation marks, into the frame of an Art Song. Such an arrangement typically took collected material (or, in many cases, invented materials in the style of...) and re-formed it, through both compositional technique and performance style, into a hybrid, in which elements of the source tune were adjusted to fit a regularized pitch, metre, tempo, timbre and, frequently, given an instrumental accompaniment.

(The subject of "folk music" (and how one goes about collecting it, transcribing/notating it, publishing it, etc.) is complex and others handle the topic much better than I can. The politics of it are equally complex, so I will limit myself to noting that when identifying people as a group and identifying that group with a body of music, the music is being placed into a context which is socially and politically charged. Actually, the whole damn topic is so complex that I nearly trashed this item a half dozen times because I couldn't figure out whether or not to use the word "folk" and if I used it, whether to capitalize it, put it between quotation marks, italicize it, or color it bright green.)

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