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The folk of Bart


Folk music appears to have such rugged integrity. Steadfastly rooted in history, sung in foreign tongues and played on ancient instruments, it has always presented itself as an inflexible ode to the roots of human experience. These are the songs our mothers sang to us in our cradles and our fathers sang at their weddings, they claim wordlessly, and they should be preserved forever like some ancient wax cylinder recording.

Muzsikás’ The Bartôk Album includes several such ancient recordings, made by Hungarian composer Bela Bartôk during his many travels around Eastern Europe. The album couples these with new recordings of similar songs from Bartôk’s voluminous collection of field recordings, featuring the now internationally famous singing voice of Márta Sebestyén and the virtuoso violin playing of Alexander Balanescu. The Bartôk Album purports to be a musical exploration of the musical roots of Bartôk’s own, Hungarian-based classical compositions, and what the album discovers is profound; folk music becomes revealed as a thing of extraordinary flexibility, an idiom that shifts national and political identities with alarming frequencies. Bartôk’s interest in the folk music of Hungary coincided with the rise of nationalism – it was, in fact, the composer’s own nationalistic urges that inspired him to seek out the folk songs of his native land. In the hands of petty tyrants, this burgeoning nationalism would become part of the essential blueprint for fascism, and folk songs would become the soundtrack. It is worth noting that Bartôk has come under fire from some scholars recently, who argue that he was an anti-Semite.

But Bartôk quickly discovered that there is no purity in folk music; just as Flamenco in Spain has incorporated musical themes from sources as diverse as Cuba and North Africa, so too the music of Hungary turned out to be a melange of sounds – including Jewish and Gypsy influence. Whatever his politics, Bartôk was scholar enough to respect this weird cosmopolitanism of folk music, and his pioneering studies created modern ethnomusicology.

How fitting that Muzsikás should turn their attention toward Bartôk. Musically, they have trod similar ground, relentlessly studying Eastern European folk idioms – with Sebestyén’s solo records extending to encompass Arabic and Celtic sources. The band has always recognized the essentially international quality of folk music. Their musical history also reflects the shifting political meaning of indigenous music. Simultaneously useful for the right and left wings of politics, Muzsikás itself developed from the tanchez (“dance house”) movement in 1970s Hungary; this left-leaning movement played Hungarian folk music as a form of protest against Soviet occupation, which discouraged native Hungarians from asserting any independent, Hungarian-based culture. Additionally, filmmaker Anthony Minghella used Sebestyén’s voice extensively in The English Patient, a film that likewise explored the fluid nature of national and cultural identity.

All this would amount to nothing more than a musical curiosity – a cultural studies footnote in CD form – but for the fact that the resulting album is grand. Hungarian music, even with its influences, is unique; these songs have a swirling, rhythmically complex quality that charms modern ears as completely as it must have charmed Bartôk when he heard a Transylvanian girl singing “The red apple has fallen in the mud.” Bartôk instantly fell in love with the music, and it consumed the rest of his life. Listeners beware: this music has lost none of its beauty, and our lives are not so fixed that a snippet of The Bartôk Album might not similarly send us hurrying into the Hungarian mountainside with a microphone and tape recorder. “The time I spent on this work was the happiest part of my life,” Bartôk said; it might wind up being the happiest of ours as well.

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