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Behind the scenes: ‘classical folk tales’ and pairing narrative with music

An interview with artistic director and violist Geoffrey Baker Archambeau

Why folk tales and folk music – and why this year, at the second annual WxNW-New England Festival? 

GBA: Coming from a family of immigrants like so many Americans, I’m fascinated by origin stories. My mother brought traditions from eastern France with her when she arrived on Ellis Island, later mixing those ways with my father’s Anglo, Irish, and German roots. It’s a certain range of songs and stories they knew which they passed down. I’m also aware of similar traditions of other cultures through siblings who married immigrants to the United States, whether from Oaxaca in Mexico, Calabria in Italy, or western Ukraine. Furthermore, I’ve studied and performed Sephardic music of the Jewish diaspora in Spain and Turkey and classical Arabian music, and learned of their cultural traditions in music and art.

Along with our roots comes an appreciation of traditions passed down through generations. Great composers like Haydn and Bartok actively knew this – the songs and dances they heard and saw in remote villages in Hungary and in the mountains of Transylvania were distilled over decades, or in some cases even hundreds of years. It was pure gold when transmuted into their quartets and symphonies.

Much like fine wine that is properly aged, art and music that is treasured and passed down tends to improve. A song’s emotional import is strengthened through repetition in different settings over time, whether at weddings and funerals or much less formal affairs, like casual family meals, fireside gatherings, or at taverns. 

At our concerts, you’ll hear what I’m getting at in Bártok’s ‘Romanian Folk Dances’ and Haydn’s string quartet, both based on gypsy music; Percy Grainger’s ‘Molly On the Shore,’ obviously Irish; native American folk song in quartets by Amy Beach and Tomlinson Griffes; and blues and spirituals in Gershwin and Florence Price’s ‘Four Negro Folk Songs in Counterpoint.’ 

Much of my inspiration comes via Antonin Dvorak, one of my favorite composers. Dvorak made real breakthroughs in our country, as a European composer who saw how rich our traditions already were at the end of the 1800s. He came to the United States to seek new opportunities, and while doing so learned about our musical roots via spirituals and native American music. He testified to rapt American audiences that the U.S. held a treasure house of folk music material all its own – this when he was at the height of his fame, in his own Euro-centric tradition, coming from Moravia and Bohemia. He proved his view to us by using our own folk music in three of his very best pieces, which he wrote in New York City: his Symphony No. 9, ‘From the New World,’ String Quartet No. 12, ‘American,’ and his cello concerto. Spirituals, the blues, and native American music run throughout these amazing works. 

In the same way that Dvorak mined American indigenous music for his symphonies, quartets, and concertos, American composers featured at this year’s festival like George Gershwin, Amy Beach, Florence Price, and Tomlinson Griffes sourced their inspiration from native and Black American music. In 2022, Conway Fine Arts’ first festival focused on the blues, and I find it fitting to do a follow-up in 2023 with a broader survey of folk music: blues and spirituals, of course, but also extending to native American song, as well as music of the Roma, Eurasia’s own nomadic people.

In terms of matching drama and verse to classical music, I’m deeply interested in what inspires all of us, creatively. I believe it’s never quite so simple as being one thing – one art form, one style, one time period. Art is inherently complex, as is creative inspiration. 

For example, when I hear some Gershwin – a piece like ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ – I see images. Perhaps something from the time period it was written, like a man wearing a straw boater hat, or an old car. People drinking fancy cocktails and laughing, having a good time in the ‘roaring 1920s.’ From there, I start remembering famous stories and famous names, whether fictional or real. ‘The Great Gatsby’ comes to mind. Then I begin researching stories from the time period. Florence Price, the first Black woman composer to be performed by a major American symphony, was well-known before the second world war. Furthermore, her music often samples spirituals and gospel, since church was a gathering place for Black communities. Langston Hughes, a primary voice of the Harlem renaissance, became a natural choice to accompany her music. 

Why Virginia Woolf? Her short story ‘The String Quartet’ is a wonderfully meta-cognitive tonic alongside an actual musical performance thereof. It’s about the thrilling yet cerebral experience of hearing a great string quartet performed by great musicians. A quartet concert is a special kind of event – when you go to hear one, you tend to have a sense that you’re getting into rarefied territory, touching something special and unique, deep and exciting. Quartets are the biggest chamber music form by a wide margin – there are thousands of them. Why? Franz Joseph Haydn figured this out in the classical period and laid the foundation for so many who came after. You have a perfectly balanced system of voices, from the paired treble instruments in the violins, to the mellow middle of the viola, to the soulful bass of the cello. Add the expressive capabilities of bowed string instruments, which evoke the human voice quite poignantly, and you have all the tools to express musical ideas very powerfully. 

A quartet concert attracts a certain demographic cross-section of concert-goer: usually well-informed and discerning, curious about ideas and complexity yet also attracted to bold expression. Virginia Woolf noticed this and wrote about it beautifully in her short story.

Will our audience end up feeling as though they resemble characters in Woolf’s story? Perhaps in the final analysis, it’s the awareness of how great music fires inspiration within us that is the greatest takeaway – not so much what we’re wearing on the outside to a concert performance but the music itself, as Woolf cleverly wrote.

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