Tuesday, 13 December 2016

The dilemma of folk music

Watching the news today reminded me why I'm trying not to watch the news anymore. I find myself feeling a perpetual sense of helpless anger and sadness whenever I hear about something else going wrong with the world. Today, for example, I felt utterly incensed on behalf of the poor bastards who are presently putting up with the ludicrous shenanigans of South Eastern Rail. It is utterly unacceptable that, for so long, hundreds of thousands of people living in a First World country have been unable to rely on train travel.

As for the hell which is going on in Eastern Aleppo right now, I have absolutely no words. Seeing those poor people leaving "final" massages to loved ones on social media was more than I could bear. They feel let down, utterly deserted, by their leaders, by the UN, by the rest of the world. They are without hope. I don't know how we can stand by whilst this is happening. We are always too slow to act in these instances.

I don't know whether it was the awful news, or the murky weather, but as I walked back from the cafe at lunch time I found myself thinking about the time, in my early twenties, when I lived on the Fortess Road in Kentish Town. I suddenly felt a huge pang of desire to go back to those days, which seemed so filled with optimism. A Labour government had been brought into office with a once-in-lifetime landslide election. It didn't matter that we were all poor. We were all young. None of us had responsibilities. Everything could be spontaneous. We'd go for long walks and picnics on the Heath. We had big dreams. We felt invincible...

I guess I'm feeling rather conscious about my age at the moment, and all-too aware that, despite feeling no older than twenty, I'm suddenly perceived by most of the people around me as an older man. I went up to one of the younger writers at last night's cabaret to congratulate him on a job well done and was rather aware of being looked through. I genuinely got the impression that he took one look at me and thought, "old bloke. Bit irrelevant." That, or he was shy, overwhelmed or entirely socially inept. Frankly, anything is possible with a composer!


I came home and mapped out a loose structure for my Nene composition. I've finished my "broad strokes" research and today's document has helped to focus my thoughts in terms of what remains to be done. Composing in earnest will begin in January.

I discovered one folk melody today which made me weep because it was so beautiful. It was one of the ones collected by Vaughan Williams in Cambridgeshire. His tireless quest for folk melodies never really took him up as far as the Huntingdonshire-end of the county, which is where the Nene runs, but the melody in question was collected from someone who'd spent time in the north of the county and is all about the fens, so feels spot on. Folk melodies can travel hundreds of miles via oral transmission, but often develop very little as they go. I've already come across a melody I used in A Symphony for Yorkshire which purports to be Cambridgeshire through-and-through. The version I used in the Symphony was in a collection at Cecil Sharp House, which had very specifically been gathered in the West Riding of Yorkshire. Interestingly, the version I found from Cambridgeshire was essentially in a major key - with a somewhat bizarre "mixolydian" flattened 7th. The version which features in the second movement of A Symphony for Yorkshire is very definitely in a minor key, and I can't for the life of me remember if I converted the version I found into a minor key as a result of being a bit perplexed by the flattened sevenths, or whether the Fenland variation is unique in being in the mixolydian mode, or simply written up wrongly in the book I found!

Folk music is a veritable can of worms just waiting to be opened. All too often it becomes impossible to know whether words or music have been altered, re-written or entirely reworked by a living composer, so you absolutely have to be sure of your sources to avoid someone suddenly claiming ownership and suing you for plagiarism! Quite an interesting quandary with the folk song I've fallen in love with is that RVW transcribed the song without lyrics, and though a version exists in a modern song book with (very beautiful) traditional folk lyrics attached, I can't ascertain whether these were the lyrics which originally went with the melody, and therefore can't really be sure whether the woman who published the book would retain a copyright for introducing the traditional melody to the traditional lyric. It's painstaking work trying to work out where the truth lies. It may well be simpler (and possibly more appropriate) to write my own lyrics based on one of the stories or myths I've uncovered.

I went into town this evening for a meeting with my agent and a producer friend. We were plotting. I won't reveal anything more. I don't want to jinx it, and we're just throwing ideas about. It would be hugely exciting, however. Hugely exciting.

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