Monday, January 17, 2011

Bela Bartok

Rumanian Village Musicians
(from a photograph by Bela Bartok)
20" x 16"
oil on canvas, 2011
The opening to the Top 100 exhibition not only has the 100 paintings displayed, the 100 songs are also played as a countdown. It takes about seven to eight hours to play a hundred songs. Sometime, back in the eighties, it took much longer; there were years I was so into classical music that I played whole symphonies or other orchestral works. The longest Top 100 took nearly two days to play. One of the composers featured in that one was Bela Bartok, I was intrigued how his compositions had all the greatness of your typical symphonic orchestra piece but also had a very modern and folkloric flavor. Bela Bartok has been back in the margins of the Top 100 as a musicologist, first, a few years ago, as a transcriber for The Smithsonian Institute of Slavic music, and now as a collector of folk music. He is well known for his work on the folk music of his native Hungary, but also collected Central– and Eastern European music extensively. Case in point is a CD with music from his collection I picked up the other day with folk music of Rumania (as it was spelled in 1951, when the music was first published). Just a week ago I mused about the mouthwatering catalog of the Folkways label, and how some of it is re-issued on CD format. I had actually never heard any of Bartok's field work, and —it will come as no surprise— I am completely in love with it. I feel that the Romanian CD is particularly interesting because of Romanian's history as a Roman (hence the name) province, home of the Gypsies (Rom people —hence the name), the cradle of Klezmer, with relatively little change to its traditions from Roman times until the modern period. The Bartok recordings are pretty old and have no other agenda than to study (and preserve) local traditions in Romania. What is heard are roots of Klezmer music, dance music sounding more ancient than any I've heard anywhere, as well as archaic burial laments. Bartok collected mostly in the Central Basin of Transylvania, an area once belonging to Hungary. Transylvania is of course bathed in myth, the place in the Southern Carpathians, veiled in thick mist, home to werewolves and vampires alike. I imagine that in the early 20th Century  many folklorists rather go and record among Amazonian tribes in South America or head hunters in New Guinea, than to wage their life going to Transylvania. In a British founded museum (in Calcutta of all places!) I once saw a kit for travelers to Transylvania: It contained crosses, a silver stake, and of course... garlic.

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