Sunday, June 16, 2013

354. The Life and Times of A Musical Virus - 12:Knowing When to Step

Now that I've presented a rough overview of the rhythm section, how it works, where it can be found (everywhere), and why I consider it "viral," it's time for me to come clean about how I got this bee in my bonnet in the first place, why I consider it important, and what I propose to do about it. And forgive me, but at this point I feel the need to present a bit of personal history.

Back in the early 1960's, I worked as Alan Lomax's collaborator/assistant on the "Cantometrics" project (see posts 4, 76, et seq.), devoted to the comparative study of world music. One of the many experts we consulted was the noted Swedish folklorist and musician, Gordon Tracie, a specialist in the study of Scandinavian fiddling and dancing traditions. During the course of a long interview, Tracie played a recording of a dance as performed by traditional fiddlers, which, as he pointed out, sounded quite fast to the untrained ear. He then demonstrated, by dancing along, that actually the tempo was slow -- but only someone thoroughly familiar with this tradition would be able to find the correct beat.

This difficulty of finding the beat resonated with certain things I knew from my studies of music history, regarding the sometimes very intricate and complex dance suites of the Baroque era - particularly the extraordinarily intricate dance movements of Bach's 'cello suites, which resonated in a very strange way with some of the Swedish and Norwegian fiddle music Tracie played for us.

To give you an idea of how intricate some of these folk dances can be, I'll direct you to a web page by folk fiddler Laurie Hart, devoted to the Polska in Dalarna & Northern Sweden. The Polska (not to be confused with Polka) is a traditional Swedish folk dance in triple time which can have very intricate rhythms that disguise the basic beat. If you go to the upper right corner of Hart's web page, you'll be able to hear some excellent examples played by two fiddles, as is traditional -- just click on the title of each dance to hear it. The last one is an "instructional version" in which the beat is provided by some foot stomping. (These are excellent performances of some wonderful music, by the way, so by all means listen carefully.) While these pieces are very different from Bach in many ways, their intricate rhythms and the manner in which they disguise the beat does, nevertheless, call to mind some of Bach's more complex and confusing "dance" music.

Here's another example of the sort of thing Tracie demonstrated, this time a Springar dance, from Norway:

Valdres Springar: Folk dance from Norway 

Here's another example of a Springar, only this time in an arrangement for 'cello:

Jonas Bleckman, cello - Valdres springar & Gangar

Played on the 'cello, this Springar strikes me as quite similar, in its rhythmic intricacy, to something one might find in one of the Bach 'cello suites. If it weren't for these excellent dancers, it would be easy to assume this wasn't really a dance at all, but a virtuoso display piece. Which raises the question: could someone thoroughly familiar with the various dances of the Baroque period similarly  dance to Bach?

Bach - Cello Suite No.1 iii-Courante (Mischa Maisky)

OK, OK, I get it, you're saying to yourself "all very interesting, but what's your point?" Well, my point has to do with what Gordon Tracie said next, which floored me: because of the difficulty most beginners would have in dancing to some of the more intricate Swedish and Norwegian folk dances he'd been discussing, he decided to add a bass part when performing them with his band, so beginners would know when to step

And suddenly, then and there, the scales lifted from my eyes and I saw a dim light on the horizon of my musical understanding. 

to be continued . . .

1 comment:

ogunsiron said...

I'd bookmarked this blog for a very long time but only now did I dive in and I'm glad. I simply had no idea that European folk dances could sound so intricate. The scndinavian springar are mind blowing. I thought that I had a good sense of rythm but I'm utterly and completely lost while trying to follow the dances lol.
I'm hoping to keep on reading your blog and to finally read your material on ancient music. Thanks for this extremely interesting material!