Folk Songs from Mother Russia

Ensemble tours US with once-banned music ranging from modern to pre-Christian. MUSIC

SOME songs are for singing in the fields, some for the forests, and others for the house. Russian folk music is as various as the flowers of the field and, as sung by the Dmitri Pokrovsky Ensemble, every bit as beautiful. Liberated for world travel by glasnost, the company has toured the US four times with its once suppressed music, garnering praise from critics and loyalty from audiences wherever they've been. Much of the music in the group's 2,000-song repertoire predates Russian Christianity, while many contemporary Russian composers have made music to suit the ensemble's special character. The haunting beauty of a medieval song based on Psalm 116 embraces and comforts the listener, while a love song of the Don River Cossacks kindles the desire to dance.

The singers sometimes dance, as if moved only by the spirit of the moment. The women use their hands in almost every song, whether they dance or not, the gestures suggesting the shaping of the exotic sounds.

It all started when young physicist/musician Dmitri Pokrovsky vacationed in 1971 in a small rural village in his native Russia. There he heard five old women sing an ancient song and found himself deeply moved. ``It made such a strong impression on me,'' he told me at the Arvada Center for the Arts, where the troop gave two concerts last week. ``They had such strength,'' he continued. ``They sounded like young girls of 16.''

Pokrovsky had never heard music like it - few, if any, from Moscow had. ``It changed my life,'' he says. A graduate of the Gnesen Pedagogical Institute of Music, he decided to make the study of endangered Russian folk music his life work. It was no easy road, given the political repression of peasant culture and ethnic diversity under Brezhnev and his predecessors. Nevertheless, Pokrovsky was allowed to travel and collect songs from elderly peasants who remembered them - at his own expense - and eventually he wrote his doctoral dissertation on the music. It was a little more problematic to sing it in public, but sing it he did.

``As a physicist, I was interested in how the music was made,'' he says. ``Professional singers cannot sing this music unless specially trained. I studied the work [cantometrics] of American ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax [there was one copy of his book in Moscow in the early '70s], recorded the music, and studied the recordings.

``But I soon realized it was impossible to understand this music from the outside. It is very alive - this music. If you want to understand it, you have to get inside it. So I went to sing with the peasants. I lived in the villages and tried to understand the sense of the words and what they mean to the people of the region.''

Pokrovsky's studies quickly attracted the attention of other scholars. The eleven members of his ensemble come from a variety of academic and professional backgrounds, including philology, ethnomusicology, performance arts, ethnography, and engineering. Pokrovsky taught them the intricacies of the music. ``It is difficult to learn, but once learned, easy to perform,'' Pokrovsky says. ``We can sing for hours and hours and not get tired.''

So, the ensemble was born under the suspicious gaze of the communist bureaucracy - folk music was considered somehow retrograde in an era when individual subcultures were officially ``encouraged'' to meld into one national culture. Sometimes harassed, the company persisted in collecting, preserving, and occasionally performing its folk works. Only under Gorbachev has Pokrovsky been free to travel and to share his discoveries with Russian urban audiences and the wider world.

Several smaller groups started by his students have mushroomed, each specializing in a particular region. Pokrovsky directs his own private institution, the National Center for Traditional Culture, which, along with the ensemble, forms a ``living library as well as a cultural laboratory.'' Pokrovksy sends his ensemble out in groups of two or three according to their special regional interests to find new songs. He and other scholars continue to write about the music, and their methods of data collection and analysis are hi-tech - complete with electronic models of local styles.

Songs handed down from one generation to the next retain ancient forms of dialects, yet improvisation is an essential feature of this oral tradition. So a single song by a singer and his or her family will be recorded at least five times. Most of Pokrovsky's informants are well into their '80s. ``We research style,'' says Pokrovsky, ``and it is very important to find the core, the essence of the style. We look for the most complicated and at the same time the most typical songs of a region.''

A song is studied and memorized in all its variations before the ensemble adopts it into the repertoire. A fan may never hear a particular song sung the same way twice because the singers improvise within a certain frame of reference just as their peasant models do. ``It is a lot like jazz,'' Pokrovsky says, ``because the singer brings a lot of his own technique to the song. If you don't improvise it isn't true to the music. This is polyphonic music, highly developed.''

Numerous dances have been added to the ensemble's performances, and the costumes worn - like the dance - are absolutely authentic. Comic songs spike the program and provoke laughter as Pokrovsky translates - he has learned English in order to talk and interact with English and American audiences.

In Russia, urban teenagers and young adults are particularly drawn to this folk music, partly perhaps because it opens up a new fountain of history and heritage for them. Pokrovsky says that today there is more of a celebration of individuality going on in his country.

The Ensemble continues its tour tonight at Rensselaerville Institute in New York; tomorrow at Vermont's Middlebury College; and Sunday at the Norwich Russian School in Vermont.

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