Thursday, 7 February 2013

Bartok and folk music; fiction and folk tales

There are many ways of inserting the folk tale into the modern

 Recently on this blog I stumbled through an analogy between folk music and writing or tale telling, only to find, when reading an academic book afterwards (typical!) for my PhD that the author did exactly the same thing. Obviously his analogy was more eloquent and better thought out, but it is not hard to understand. The book is Cycles of Influence:  Fiction, Folktale, Theory by Stephen Benson. In it he describes Bela Bartok’s method of collecting folk songs and melodies and using them in various ways in his own new music. He picks out three ways of doing this that Bartok identifies in his own essays:

1. Taking an existing melody and either creating an accompaniment around it or using it as a motto in something greater
2.  Inventing a new melody inspired by originals
3.  Creating new music that, regardless of melodic links, is ‘pervaded by the atmosphere of peasant music’

In the course of reading for my PhD literature survey I have come across many equivalents of these in the way contemporary writers use folk tales.
Fairy and folk tales have always been rewritten and retold, indeed that is part of their nature, but in the late twentieth century authors such as Angela Carter, Emma Donoghue, Sara Maitland and Margaret Atwood took these tales, in the way Bartok and Grainger took melodies, and made something greater from them that spoke to their times with themes of feminism, sexuality and post-modern fragmentation. 

Likewise their literary inheritors of the fairy tale have written entirely new stories that use the templates, characters and motifs of the genre, notable examples being stories by Kate Bernheimer, Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum and Claire Massey

In the third category, writing new material that uses the atmosphere, or feel, of folk tales, I would place work by Margo Lanagan and Jess Richards amongst others.

So, I was already trying to explore this alignment between musical and fictional appropriation of folk materials, when I went to the Southbank’s weekend festival ‘The Rise of Nationalism,’ part of their  year long exploration of culture in the twentieth century, The Rest is Noise. There I found the Bartok analogy can be pushed much further in the details. One fascinating workshop (with Rachel Leach) picked apart the structures of Bartok’s Romanian Folk Dances and the folk songs underpinning them. Another (with Ivan Hewett) explored the transposition of collected folk songs into new works by Bartok, Grainger, Falla and others.

Ivan Hewett talked about the “common practice” – a kind of accepted syntax of classical music that had developed and existed from 1600-1900, and was suddenly challenged by the new folk interventions. Rachel Leach’s workshop backed this up, showing how Bartok moved away from our traditional scales to using modes, and introducing augmented and diminished intervals which instantly evoke exoticism to Western ears. This spoke back to Hewett’s idea that Bartok found that the journey away from and back to the tonic (or ‘home’) note in music could take unexpected turns.

All that might sounds obscure to someone not versed in music theory, and while I did learn about such things once upon a time, I can make much better sense of it all now as a writer. If we think about the engagement with psychological depth demonstrated by writers such as Henry James, Virginia Woolf and James Joyce, then the pared down, one-dimensional, plot-driven narrative style of the folk tale is a shock to the system. And yet, just like a move from scale to mode in music, a shift to this kind of narrative style has come about in some short fiction. Likewise, there has been a resurgence in the ‘weird’ or the uncanny in short fiction in particular, with writers using fantastical elements to dig into inexpressible emotions and anxieties, rather as exotic and unfamiliar tonal turns did in Bartok’s music. These are ways of showing us our world anew.

There is clearly a rich vein here for thinking about fiction in terms of music, and so much more to say (which I will try to do in future posts). For now I’m happy to have found the vein and begin the digging.