Tuesday, April 1, 2008

folk, völk, and tauta

The below was posted at the bottom of the recent New York Times review of The Singing Revolution, a documentary film about the anti-soviet protest movements in Estonia in the 1980s.

Correction: December 29, 2007

A brief film review in Weekend on Dec. 14 about “The Singing Revolution,” a documentary about Estonia’s struggle to end Soviet occupation, misidentified the site of the Estonian song festival. It is in Tallinn, the capital — not Tartu, where some festivals were held in the 19th century. The review also referred incorrectly to the songs performed at the festival that are shown in the film. They were written by composers; they are not folk songs.

What interests me is the way "folk songs" are defined - they cannot be "written by composers."

Obviously every song must come from somewhere, and many (if not all) "folk songs" were indeed composed at one point, in many cases by an individual. And no, contrary to what we in our self-conscious modernity might want to think, the idea of the individual author was not foreign to rural pagan communities in 700 A.D., although of course one must imagine that authorship didn't mean what it does today. Regardless, the reporter is clearly not trying to make any kind of categorical argument in his assertion of genre distinctions, but the problem of defining a folk song is so integral to the study of music in this region that it is hard to let it rest.

The distinction being made is, in fact, blurrier than one might think. The songs referred to in the film are not original popular or classical compositions. They are arrangements and adaptations of previously existing "folk" material, transcribed or recorded by ethnomusicologists in the Estonian countryside in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The degree of self-conscious originality in the arrangement or the adaptation varies, but usually the aim is more to get the "authentic" material into a format conducive to trained choirs, and often to harmonize it in a way that enhances its appeal as spectacle.

So while on the one hand the imagined rootedness of the melodic, rhythmic, structural and, perhaps most importantly, textual material in the folk tradition is important, no one is bending over backwards to preserve its authenticity. A pre-modern, rural, improvisatory aural tradition is being adapted to a modern, urban, literate tradition. The implication of a connection between the contemporary mass spectacle and the idealized rural past is enough to satisfy the ideological needs of the völkish nationalist.

And yet many people refer to this choral repertoire as "folk songs." Are they incorrect in doing so?

Well, for one thing, there's an ambiguity between the English and the Latvian. The best kind of ambiguity.

First there is the problem of our word "folk" - it doesn't really mean völk, the German word which acquired its current semantic currency at the behest of Herder. In English, the "folk" tends to imply that imaginary group of people (living or dead? who knows...) out in the countryside somewhere - it's always somebody else, never "us". In Germany, on the other hand, völk means something like "people," in the sense in which we might say "the Latvian people." Thus it refers to a group with a common history, and in the Herderian sense, a common, pre-modern folk history: an ethnie or, for the few remaining Herderians out there, a nation.

Völk, thanks to the group of german-trained intellectuals who thought up half the Latvian language in the 19th century, translates directly to the Latvian Tauta.

So Tautas Dziesma, or "folk song" implies something slightly different in Latvian than it does in English. It is not "theirs" but "ours." But the confusion doesn't end there. There is the issue, once again nauseatingly germanic, of how to use the genitive, and as a result there are two DIFFERENT expressions: Tautas Dziesma (two words) and Tautasdziesma (one word).

The two-word version is used to refer to all those choral arrangements which, according to the New York Times correction, are not folk songs. It is also sometimes used to characterize newly composed songs which acquire so much cultural currency that they gain a common, "tautas" status. Several songs by the Latvian Schlager composers Raimonds Pauls, Zigmars Liepiņš, and Jānis Lūsēns have this status. Most of them earned it during the "singing revolution" period, when they stood for much more than their often benign lyrics implied.

Likewise, the term "tautas dziesma" doesn't require much discernment in terms of the provenance of "older" songs (i.e. those which come closer to being "folk songs" in the English sense). Many of the most popular songs of the Song Festival Repertoire (the repertoire represented by the film) are no more than two hundred years old, and have urban origins. Moreover, some have argued that Pūt Vējiņi, a "tautas dziesma" often referred to as Latvian's second national anthem, was actually composed by a professional musician in the early nineteenth century. But this isn't a concern for many people, because "tautas dziesma" has more to do with an acquired status - a popular cultural currency - than it does with authenticity or provenance. Indeed, the sense of "ownership" that is often cited as an essential component of the national song repertoire ("these songs belong to us, and no one else," as a conductor here put it) is linked not to the origins of the songs, many of which have German melodies, but to their function and the manner in which they are perceived. In this sense the "tautas dziesma" occupies the category of phenomenal, in contrast to the New York Times' noumenally defined "folk song."

Meanwhile, "tautasdziesma" is a more or less direct translation of "folk song," and moreover it probably emerged in order to create a distinct category for this Western notion of a noumenally defined repertory. It is the tautasdziesmas, then, that the ethnomusicologists continue to run around the countryside collecting, and that the die-hard folklorists and "ethnographically informed" ensembles claim to be performing. The millions of daina verses archived by Krisjans Barons in the early twentieth century also fall into this category.

The two different terms encompass two distinct conceptions of authenticity - one phenomenal, the other noumenal. In this sense, their parallel existence is really f-ing interesting. But I have to go for a run now or my entire body will atrophy into tautas lard, so I will leave all further analysis up to the imaginations of the aforementioned three people reading this.

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