Authenticity and the use of Folksong

In the last couple of days I've been remastering a recording I made 10 years ago of my settings of 12 of Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus; and this has given rise to certain thoughts in relation to the significance of using ‘folksong’ – by which I mean stylistic allusions to a ‘ready-made’ /identifiable idiom which is distinct from a composer’s/my own. (These thoughts are largely restricted to an English cultural perspective, because that is the only one I have intimate knowledge of.) I’m interested in pondering it because I’m trying to reach the nub of an issue that really intrigues me. I have a hunch that (use of) folksong is a kind of nexus between the ‘private property’ of personal musical idiom and ‘collective ownership’ of the vernacular idioms of mass market music.

I see the classic use of folksong by Vaughan Williams et al as representing an Arts & Crafts dream where Æsthetic Socialism meant an engagement with the proletariat by those of privileged education, from/by which the middle-class composer acquired an 'authenticity by association.’ But VW especially – his associates to a lesser extent – represented the privileged Edwardian upper-middle-class where there was little competition for personal space and thus there is an argument to be made that they used folksong-like material as a bridge for the public to enter their personal space. (A Marxist critic might say that it was their way of colonising a ‘public’ space; but I don't think that does justice to VW's breadth of vision.)

For composers who entered music during the interwar years not only was the ‘marketplace’ considerably more crowded but Modernism had swept away most of the patrician assumptions of the preWW1 generation, and thus altho someone like Britten played the folksong game to brilliant effect in works like Noye's Fludde, other less astute musical politicians such as Rawsthorne felt it compromised rather than enhanced their authenticity as modernists. After WW2 one gets the explosion of serialism championed by Glock and led notably by Birtwistle. True to his modernist roots he uses little actual folksong but instead grounds his soundworld in a self-referential mythic imagery of feeling-archetypes.

I was never attracted to the post-Darmstadt modernism in which I grew up, and for me the search for authenticity came throu the English Choral Tradition. Altho I don’t have a useful singing-voice I am much more engaged by the parameters/epistemology/limitations created by the human voice and the scale it imposes than I am by instrumental mechanism which, while it liberates the imagination, also tends towards a gigantism or inflation, in the Jungian sense, and ultimately to the potentially-ungroundedness of synthetic music, which much engaged me prior to 1990.
In Sonnets to Orpheus I do not use folksong, but I do use q a lot of musical material which is designed to evoke ‘ready-made’ feeling/s-references (which, in terms of musigue concrète would be called non-musical sound sources) that are intended to have psychic resonance for an audience - just as Rilke does with his quicksilver vocabulary of allusive images. As my own musical imagination works more in sound images or word-sense images than as a linear narrative (which is why I’m not much drawn to composing abstract music) – when composing I know when my psyche is fully grounded within my material because I can feel clear mental images throu music /sound. That, for me, like dreams of which I’m intensely aware, counts as communion with my inner otherness – what Quakers would call ’that of God within’ – and is its own reward for the travails of composition.

This is why I feel radio is almost my natural medium. After all on radio any sound has to convey exactly what you want otherwise it fails entirely. My most fully-achieved, and final, radio composition Notes From Janàček’s Diary  is full of ready-made sound images, and I would’ve hoped to continue developing those ideas, but it was not to be for all sorts of reasons.

Having thought about this subject a lot recently, I would say that folksong and ready-mades are part of a process of searching for authenticity, a composer locating within hirself the ‘private property’ of personal truth that has the communicative power of the vernacular, ie evokes the broad outlines or ‘over-simplicities’ of popular music.

Obviously all music worthy the name is about that process. But there is something about folksong which has that quality of presence that is Orpheus for as long as the music lasts. It is music that speaks from the unus mundus, the timeless inner world of the eternally present, a place of indivisible wholeness of the soul – music that appears unmediated by intellect and communicates without artifice uniting all in a common experience. I don’t see folksong as needing to be anonymous: any popular song that enters the truly-public domain (EG, football chants, hymns songstrels such as Lennon & McCartney) counts; notwithstanding ‘private

The myth of Orpheus is central to all music – the idea that  there is actually only one voice who speaks throu each and every songsmith-composer, making whomever the gods choose to be their mouthpiece 'for as long as the music lasts' in its given context. Thus ‘Orpheus' is the impulse within any lyric musician who opens himself to bring forth song from the heart alone.

A further question (which is part of it, but I must stop wasting time by thinking about now) is what is meant by ‘vertu’ or the energy /innergy of authenticity. Perhaps in the sense found in the Tao.

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