Look who’s Bartok-in’: folk song reinvention from Bela Bartok to Chick Corea and beyond

I recently watched a PBS documentary called ‘The American Epic Sessions’,  which features the producer and guitarist Jack White resurrecting a Western Electric recording lathe from the early twentieth century for modern-day use.  ‘The American Epic Sessions’ is the concluding episode of the PBS series ‘American Epic’; earlier episodes focus on early twentieth century U.S. musicians who used this technology when it was new, such as the Reverend Gary Davis, while final episode focuses on current pop, blues and jazz performers who re-record the earlier artists’ songs under White’s supervision.  Rev. Gary Davis’ ‘Candy Man’, for example, is performed in ‘American Epic Sessions’ by a contemporary singer-guitarist with a vintage name, Jerron ‘Blind Boy’ Paxton.

While ‘American Epic Sessions’ includes artists such as Paxton who faithfully recreate an earlier artist’s work, it also includes performers who compellingly update the earlier songs with a more modern sound.  When Elton John visits the studio, the old recording equipment is used to record a new song which he composes on the spot from a sheet of new Bernie Taupin lyrics, and which showcases the high level of technique and what might be called ‘blues literacy’ in his piano playing.  Although the use of antique recording equipment makes ‘The American Epic Sessions’ look almost like a project of ‘reenacting’ the earlier songs (in the sense of Civil War reenactments), the shrewd decisions White makes in combining songs and performers (such as Alabama Shakes covering Memphis Minnie) often results in a re-invention which gives the song new life, rather than just a higher-fidelity recording.  Even the more historically faithful performances, such as Paxton’s, are for me a musical demonstration of the Uncertainty Principle, which was developed by the physicist Werner Heisenberg around the same time as many of the earlier recordings featured in ‘American Epic’ were made.

In the process of studying small particles such as the electron, Heisenberg posited that ‘It is impossible to determine accurately both the position and the direction and speed of a particle at the same instant.’  In other words, Heisenberg posited that in his area of study, the act of observation itself changes the event is being observed.  Even though Paxton’s singing and guitar playing are modeled on that of Davis, and he is playing a similar guitar and singing into a similar microphone to the one Davis used, there is a modern swagger and vitality to his performance that helps the song reach a twenty-first century listener.

The Western Electric recording lathe used on ‘American Epic Sessions’ is also a star of the documentary; the camera shows how the machine’s slow lowering of a concrete block governs the three and a half minute limit of its recording capacity.  A Wired magazine article mentions that this time limit had a direct effect on the development of folk and popular music, as it led musicians who recorded on the early machines to devise shorter songs.

A piece of recording technology which predates even the Western Electric lathe, the Edison Recording Phonograph, played a central role in the music of pianist and composer Bela Bartok.  In the very early twentieth century, Bartok used the Phonograph to record folk music from a number of Eastern European countries (including Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria) on wax cylinders.

In Bartok’s field recordings, melodic lines are in the extreme foreground and the accompaniment is sometimes close to inaudible.  It seems likely that this is one of the factors which led Bartok to create piano music from the recordings in which the right hand plays a folk melody (often transcribed from his recordings) and the left hand plays a significantly altered (or in some cases, completely different) accompaniment.  Some of this music can be found in Bartok’s multi-volume collection entitled ‘For Children’, which has been beautifully recorded by my colleague Sylvia Parker. (Her CD ‘Peasant Jewels’ can be sampled on YouTube and purchased from Amazon.) One could say that in these pieces Bartok, like Jack White, had an artistic mission to  modernize the folk music he studied.  On the other hand, he was also responding to a practical need, using his considerable musical imagination to supply an accompaniment that was either missing or obscured in the recordings he made.  Bartok may well have also created the ‘For Children’ out of a need for attractive and appropriate pieces he could use to teach basic piano skills to his own children.  This is a long tradition among keyboard-playing composers; Bach’s ‘Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach’, Schumann’s ‘Album for the Young’ and Stravinsky’s ‘Les Cinq Doigts’ were created for the same purpose.

For me, some of the more affecting of Bartok’s pieces in ‘For Children’ are those in which he first sets up an ostinato (repeated figure) in the left hand.  After adding the folk tune in the right hand, he then works subtle variations in the left hand figure, creating a hypnotic effect.  Two of these pieces in Parker’s collection which are accessible to beginning pianists are ‘Rondo (There is an old witch)’ (titled ‘The Old Witch’s Sons’ in other collections) and ‘I lost my handkerchief’.

In other pieces from ‘For Children’ such as Song of the Rogue, the two-note chord voicings Bartok uses in the left hand (which usually combine the root of a chord with the third, fifth or seventh) have similarities to the two-note voicings used by jazz players such as Thelonious Monk (which I discuss in an earlier post, ‘The Neighborhood Hang and the History Hang’.)  While in some editions of ‘For Children’ the pieces are identified only with numbers, the titles given to the pieces in collections such as Parker’s provide enticing glimpses of stories, perhaps from original folk song lyrics, which may be hidden in the music.

In a 2013 piece for Harper’s Magazine titled ‘Bartok’s Monster’, Jay Kirk gives a vivid description of the process through which Bartok first collected the distinctively rough-sounding folk music of Eastern Europe and then transformed it into something of his own.  ‘Like Rumpelstiltskin,’ Kirk writes, ‘[Bartok] hurried back to Budapest to spin the bales of itchy straw into chaotic threads of Lydian gold.’  In addition to giving elements of Bartok’s story a phantasmagorical edge, Kirk gives a vivid account of his own trip to Hungary, where he visits a Bartok museum as well as some of the same villages in which Bartok made his recordings.  Kirk weaves all this into a compelling personal narrative, describing what he sees and what he hallucinates with equal lucidity.  I highly recommend ‘Bartok’s Monster’ as an absorbing read and a fascinating look into Bartok’s use of early recording technology.  Kirk has also been working on expanding the article into a forthcoming book, ‘Avoid the Day’, which I eagerly await.

I think Bartok’s piano pieces that combine folk tunes with ostinato accompaniment were likely a source of inspiration for jazz pianist Chick Corea in composing his tune ‘Children’s Song’, which has become something of a jazz standard and eventually led Corea to compose a whole set of similar pieces.  The version Corea recorded on his legendary duo recording with vibraphonist Gary Burton, ‘Crystal Silence’ includes only the composed melody, while version he recorded with his band Return to Forever includes improvisation.

Like Bartok in a number of the ‘For Children’ pieces, Corea creates a hypnotic effect through pairing a repetitive left hand figure with a folk-like melody in the right.  One of the more recent adaptations of ‘Children’s Song’ was made by the jazz vocal group Manhattan Transfer, who recorded it in an arrangement by pianist Fred Hersch.

I hope this blog post inspires you to listen to and practice either some of Bartok’s music from ‘For Children’ (the edition available from Dover Publications is a useful starting place) and/or Chick Corea’s ‘Children’s Song No. 1’, which is available (along with some other pieces from his ‘Children’s Songs’ collection) from musicnotes.com.  I also, as always, welcome any comments of any kind, particularly on any of the thoughts or links above, as well as any other links that this post might inspire you to share.  Is there other music based on ostinato patterns or folk tunes (or both) that you like to play or listen to, or which you’d like to learn?  Have you ever learned an existing melody and given it a new accompaniment, or do you have a favorite piece or song where that happens?

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3 Responses to Look who’s Bartok-in’: folk song reinvention from Bela Bartok to Chick Corea and beyond

  1. Bill Lipke says:

    Great insight and cross-disciplinary
    connections. Didn’t Satie also compose
    for children(Gymnopedes?)Would enjoy
    seeing your blogs turned into a book. Thanks
    too for reminding me of your colleague’s
    considerable contributions!(Sylvia Parker)
    Best, Bill

  2. Julie says:

    As an early-education teacher and musician I find this use of folk songs fascinating. How far and deep can you take a simple melody that you have known since you first learned to communicate? Taking something that you know deep inside of you; and then creating something new with it. It inspires me to think about how deep and far the imagination can go- but while giving the musician and listener something familiar to hold on to. I also use ostinatos often to help teach improvisation to my piano students. Thanks for the links to find the music from Bartok and Corea.

  3. Ryan Segal says:

    Article was really interesting, I always thought those songs had a kind of hypnotic effect to them, which seems to be done through the ostinato patterns used throughout the songs.

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