When the folk song goes out into public, today as much as fifty years ago, it usually is dressed up for the occasion. Its clothing is bleached, starched, and pressed, and its face is scrubbed clean. Friendly smiles, made huge by the TV cameras, reveal teeth that have been made perfect through the efforts of a cadre of dentists. Calling all of this a lie might be a bit dramatic, but neither is it the truth – it's a reality that never existed, except in the imagination. The real "folk" neither look nor sound like this.
Luciano Berio has been interested in folk music – and in lies and truth – since his childhood in Italy. In the 1960s, he and his erstwhile wife, singer Cathy Berberian, created Folk Songs, a lively transformation of indigenous music from all over the world. Folk Songs respected its sources, but it was not idolatrous of them. That statement goes double – no, quadruple – for Voci and Naturale, which are the sequel, and the sequel of the sequel, respectively, to Folk Songs.
In Voci (Voices), Berio has taken the native music of Sicily – the songs of fishmongers, the songs of laborers, mothers, and lovers – and transcribed them for solo viola and two instrumental ensembles. Actually, that is a gross simplification. More than just transcription, Berio engages in (in the words of the booklet note) "experimentation" and "deface[ment]." Voci is a 32-minute fusion between Berio's relentlessly inquisitive mind (as a child, he must have loved taking things apart and putting them back to together again) and Sicily's unselfconsciously musical soul. In Voci, city meets village, performer meets citizen, and alienation meets community. It is no "prettier" than it needs to be. Berio challenges the listener just as he challenges the material itself. Voci speaks as much about Berio as it speaks about the Sicilian raw materials, but what it speaks is the truth.
Naturale is scored for solo viola, percussion (marimba and tam-tam) and tape; the latter contains Sicilian songs sung by an indigenous "performer." Originally a dance score (!), Naturale further explores the contrast between "art music" (music meant for the entertainment of outsiders) and "functional music" (music meant for the musician and his or her immediate circle). The 22-minute Naturale is more stripped-down than Voci, but it inhabits a similar intellectual and sonic world. Given its greater concentration, even more is asked of the performers.
And the performers give all that is needed to make this music communicate. Kashkashian is not the first violist to tackle Voci and Naturale, but she makes them her own, and her partners are in accord with her. These musicians take the listener out of his or her everyday world to a place that seems to exist out of time and out of geography.
Between Voci and Naturale, ECM New Series has included six recordings of the Sicilian folk music that inspired Berio. I find these artifacts utterly fascinating. If braided armpits and dirty feet made music, this is what it would sound like.
Copyright © 2002, Raymond Tuttle