Saturday, September 13, 2008

Fieldwork Expedition and Folk Music Festivals

Last weekend, I joined some students from the ethnomusicology department for their first fieldwork expedition of the school year. The department rented out a cabin by a lake near the town of Zervynos so their students could have a central base from which to make trips to smaller villages in Dzūkija, the southeastern region of Lithuania. Their goal in the area was to track down as many Lithuanian folk songs as they could in one week's time (I was only able to join them for the weekend), record them, and add them to Lithuania's extensive and ongoing folk-music archive.

I borrowed a bicycle from one of the ethnomusicology professors, took a train to the Zervynos stop (which is literally just a concrete slab, bench, and "Zervynos" sign next to the railroad tracks in the middle of the woods), and rode the bike several kilometers into the woods to meet up with the students. The students had split up into two groups in order to track down singers in the neighboring villages. Most of the time, this search involved little more than a small telephone tip followed by lots and lots of walking and asking around a particular village.

The most fruitful of these searches was in the village of Perloja, where the students originally sought an old woman who was apparently known throughout the village for her singing. After about 15-30 minutes of asking people in the village where she lived, we found her house tucked away on one of the smaller roads. Her husband, Zygmas, answered the door and told us that the woman we wanted to hear was either sick upstairs or out of town to see a doctor (my Lithuanian isn't that refined yet).

The students kept the conversation going, and when Zygmas mentioned he used to sing when he was younger, they seized the opportunity to persuade him to sing. He came up with every excuse he could- he was too old, he couldn't remember any songs, etc.- but the students persisted. After 5 or 10 minutes of coaxing, he invited everyone inside. From there he proceeded to sing, play accordion, show off his drum and cymbal, and show us all the photos documenting his musical life.

The most interesting was his singing, which was exceptionally strong for someone well into his 80s. He sang two partisan songs, one in a minor mode, the other in major. The Lithuanian partisans were those Lithuanians after World War II who chose to put up armed resistance against the occupying Soviet Union. Although this resistance was ultimately unsuccessful and mostly died out during the 1950s, many partisans continued to resist well into the 1970s (some say longer), hiding in the many forests in Lithuania. Zygmas was one of the earliest partisans.

I'm sure the students had countless other experiences just like our meeting with Zygmas, but I unfortunately had to cut my visit short. There will, however, be more expeditions throughout the school year (at least while the weather is still bearable).

In Vilnius, I was able to see some types of folk-music performance a little different than those of the fieldwork expedition. The week was filled by two giant international folk-music festivals, Kolokola and Griežynė, both overlapping (I don't know who schedules these things, but there could have been a little bit more coordination between the organizers of the two). Poor planning aside, I was able to hear several groups, both vocal and instrumental, from all over Eastern Europe.

There were concerts devoted to dance, song, and even some crossover experiments. Particularly interesting was the Lithuanian jaw harp duo, which yielded sounds reminiscent of the twangs, phases, and bleeps of early electronic music. I was both surprised and unsurprised to see Dr. Vyčinienė singing with Lithuania's premiere sutartinė (a type of Lithuanian polyphonic singing) group, Trys Keturiose. She later told me that the group has been singing together for over 20 years.

As I write, the festivals are still in full swing, and I think this is as good a time as any to sign off.

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