imaginary European tour

I recently found a used copy on CD of an album some friends had introduced me to back in college, Breton musician Alan Stivell’s Journée à la Maison (or, since I know I have a number of readers fluent in Breton*, its original title An Dewezh ‘Barzh ‘Gêr). Stivell, like seemingly everyone else of his age, had a few embarrassing moments in the mid-sixties when “Flower Power” in its most insipid guise had its influences on him. In fact, he recorded a song of that title, which may be one reason the French had for a long time such a poor reputation in rock music. (Actually, there’s a relatively fine squalling guitar, but it’s buried in the mix beneath cheesy sub-Sgt. Pepper horns and flutey goopiness.)

Anyway, Stivell left Paris with his paisley between his legs, returning to his hometown in Brittany and, in the midst of that era’s widespread rediscovery of musical and linguistic roots, soaking up the local culture. An Dewezh ‘Barzh ‘Gêr was originally released in 1978. I heard it probably three years later, courtesy a couple of college friends into various Celtic musics. The song that really knocked me out was “An Try Marrak (The Three Knights),” primarily for its rich, very complex vocal harmonies. (And the damned cello, which I can never resist.) That song was one of the first that opened my ears to the way “dissonant” harmonies work texturally.

In fact, the harmonies rather remind me of the close vocal textures characteristic of more Eastern European musics, in particular the Bulgarian women’s choirs so celebrated in the early ’90s, or the less celebrated (but released shortly afterwards, in the Bulgarians’ tailwind and on the same label) Georgian Rustavi male choir. (This is less unlikely than it sounds: Stivell looked simultaneously backward and outward, incorporating some rock rhythms and definitely non-Celtic instrumentation, such as a sitar, into his recordings; it’s quite possible his folk-music research might have brought him eastward and southerly to Eastern Europe or even the Caucasus.) The textures of “Lashgvash” are much more emphatic (it is described in the recordings’ liner notes as a march). Curiously, I just now noticed a common harmonic feature of both songs: the use of what would be called a “false relation” in Western music. That is, each song establishes a particular scale or mode, and then introduces a chord one of whose notes seems to clash with that scale or mode, particularly at a harmonically crucial interval such as the third or seventh. Stivell’s song reads more or less as being in C minor, thereby implying an A-flat (which indeed, one hears often: chords are even rooted on it), but in the second half of the second phrase of the verse, the melody descends from the C ending the previous phrase down by way of B-flat to A natural. The Georgian piece is a lot harder to fit into any particular (Western) scale or mode, but roughly, the chordal outline of the melody is a suspension-like chord of A, D, and E; F with a major seventh; G minor; then F with a minor seventh (whose E-flat is used as a sort of turnaround in the bass melody, and from whose depths the song’s distinctive and startling rise – back to that A-D-E triad – takes flight).

So, back to 1967 (and away from the garage-sale music theory): while Stivell was embarrassing himself, some Americans, it seems, had already found some of those Eastern European folk harmonies. Damned if I can find it anywhere online, but years and years ago, I remember reading an interview with Paul Kantner of Jefferson Airplane in which he claimed that a lot of the band’s vocal harmonies in 1967 and 1968 were influenced by his listening to Bulgarian folk music. And indeed, the piercing, vibrato-free dissonances heard throughout Kantner’s “Won’t You Try/Saturday Afternoon” (from After Bathing at Baxter’s) support that claim.

* Okay, I don’t know whether the title is in Breton – I suspect so – or in Cornish, a closely related language and one in which “An Try Marrak” is sung. Is there a linguist in the house?

Alan Stivell “Flower Power”
Alan Stivell “An Try Marrak (The Three Knights)”
The Rustavi Choir “Lashgvash”
Jefferson Airplane “Won’t You Try/Saturday Afternoon”

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “imaginary European tour

  1. Tim Walters

    Journée a la Maison is the only Alan Stivell album I have, but I like it a lot–I should get more. I saw him at the Cambridge Folk Festival when I was but a lad of 12 or so, and he made quite an impression. Other good French folkies from the Seventies are Pierre Bensusan (before he started doing too-tasteful jazz) and Malicorne.

    There were a couple of American bands doing Eastern European music in the Sixties that were popular in folk circles–the Pennywhistlers and the People’s International Silver String Band (known, yes, as the PISS Band) come to mind. Field recordings (e.g. A Harvest, A Shepherd, A Bride) were also available. Bulgarian choral music may have become a bit trendy, but it’s still one of the greatest sounds on earth.

    Oh, and sharp-6 in minor = Dorian mode. Not uncommon at all in Celtic music.

  2. 2fs

    I should have phrased that better: it’s not that the sharp-6 is unusual, or even that its alternation with the flatted 6th is unusual – only that I noticed both songs play similar musical tricks.

  3. Peter J. King

    The People’s International Silver String Band were pretty good, in fact; I’ve been looking for a reissue of their (only?) album on CD, but so far not a sniff. My copy on vinyl has long disappeared, lent out and not returned, and all I have is a cassette I recorded from it.

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