11 September 2015

Dabbling with Sutartines

A lot has has happened since my last post, Firstly my sister got married and I moved into my new flat in Seskines (on the outskirts of Vilnius). Hence why it has been quite a bit here. On the plus side, I have managed to grab a good stash of scores and recordings from the Music Information Centre in Vilnius; so I will be talking about each of them over the coming weeks. But I wanted to start off dabbling with Lithuanian folk music first. At first I can imagine this is a confusing jump, considering my last articles have been about composers still alive and kicking, but it is with good reasoning. Because of the demands from the Soviets for 'social realism' in art and music, many Baltic composers resorted to exploring their countries folk music.On top of this composers like Juzeliunas, Montvila, and Kutavicius approached their national folk music in a process a kin to the early works of Peter Maxwell Davies or Harrison Birtwistle, who looked at Britain's ancient music for a fragment of 'tradition' to draw upon. 

So what is sutartines?  In a brief manner of speaking, surtatines is a Lithuanian folk music which is traditionally sung by women in groups of three or four. Sutartines translated into English essentially means 'singing together or in accordance with each other.'  The music becomes very fascinating, firstly the jarring dissonance.  The music is heavily focused around the interval of a second and a third false (a third of Halfway Between a major and a minor third).  On top of this it is structurally rather interesting, the nature of the text and the music means there is no naturally occurring cadence, in theory sutartines could last forever. As can been seen from the video below, the structure is as follows: 

Beginning (Leader starts) --------- Collecting (other sings join in) -------- Ending (Which is mad by a hoot or -ooh sound)

This structuring gives great importance to the lead singer or the rinkeja (Which literally means collector). The rinkeja will ultimately define the mood, speed, and overall character of the sutartines;  as well as bringing in the other musicians and concluding the piece. But why would a folk tune need a leader? Ultimately this links back to original sutartines function, work music. Sutartines, when originally sung, were folk melodies to accompany everyone's work; this obviously was not the case with all sutartines, some were for celebration, war or mourning, but a significant amount were. 

Sutartines also makes many cosmic references. As Daiva Račiūnaitė-Vyčinienė points out in her wonderful book Sutartines: Lithuanian polyphonic music; 'The structure of sutartines is best expressed by the symbol of a wheel'. As mentioned earlier, sutartines effectively is continuous. This roundness links back to folk symbolism where the wheel depicts the Sun, the Universe and the Universal Tree. So the music is one with the universe. To expand this further a Lithuanian riddle suddenly draws an interesting comparison: "Where is the centre of the Earth? - In the centre of the wheel". This can instantly be compared with the Buddhist ideals of 'finding the centre' but it also  highlights the curious similarity in function of sutartines and Tibetan ritual music, which also has a leader co-ordinating everything to prepare all for meditation. It is a curious similarity, but I will not go on to try and prove sutartines singers are like Buddhist monks chanting while they work, it is just always nice to reflect on interesting coincidence.

Earlier you said composers drew on sutartines, how else is the tradition being kept alive? Well ultimately sutartines enjoyed quite a remarkable renaissance in the seventies and eighties, as it became a symbol of national identity against the Soviets. Today many Lithuanians are very proud of this heritage. Ensembles like Trys Keturiose perform sutartines  in a traditional manner but still experiment by performing with many other musicians like Abraham Brody (see below). Alternatively bands like Zalvarinis bring elements of sutartines and other Lithuanian folk music into their heavy metal music. 

So as can been seen from this brief introduction, sutartines is as pinnacle to Lithuanian music as Mozart is to western classical music; it exists as it is, because of it. As for the future of sutartines, its future seems bright and will continue to be so as long as it is seen as a symbol of Lithuanian identity, but as the world becomes more globalised how will it affect its national identity?

Sources from

Daiva Raciunaite-Vyciniene - Sutartines: Lithuanian Polyphonic Music - A Cosmic Explanation of the Role of the Sutartines and the Lead Singer

Youtube for recordings of Trys Keturiose and Zalvarinis.

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