Blurring the lines between classical and folk music

Ailie RobertsonThu 24th November 2016

Composer Ailie Robertson explains how different musical traditions are more similar than you might think

As a composer with a background in traditional music, my work continually bridges the divide between traditional and contemporary music by combining ancient and contemporary techniques. I am interested in ways to bring the past and present together authentically. Notions of culture and identity change all the time and they’re probably changing faster now than at any time in history. Much of my work is an interrogation of what it is to live in the 21st century, when we seem so disconnected from history and the natural world. My work explores the ­relationships between people and place, and how we can deepen those relationships and increase our connections with what has come before us, so traditional music is an important tool for me in this pursuit.

As a performer of classical and traditional music for over 20 years I have always felt aligned to both ‘traditions’ and as such my natural response as a composer has been to combine the two. This happens both consciously and unconsciously, with traditional influences sometimes creeping in when I least expect them! Many of the skills that I developed as a traditional performer, such as improvisation, are important during my composition process, and I am continually grateful to the aural learning method for development of deep listening skills.

Combining classical and folk music is of course not new; many composers have sought to access the ‘spirit’ of folk music: Bartók, Szymanowski, Górecki, and Lutosławski to name but a few. In the British Isles composers such as Parry, Vaughan Williams, Mackenzie and Stanford frequently used folk influences. Grainger’s arrangements of folksong greatly influenced Britten, opening up classical and folk music to a more symbiotic relationship, now continued by composers such as Weir, Finnissy and MacMillan.

On the surface, traditional and classical music are certainly very different; they inhabit different worlds, have different social functions, different methods of learning. Indeed the juxtaposition between the two has not always been comfortable for me – I distinctly recall a university tutor assuring me that he would ‘beat all that "folky-nonsense" out of me’, and I wince whenever classical friends refer to folk music as ‘diddly-dee’.

Perhaps what I seek to change with my work is the classification of traditional and classical music as low and high culture respectively. This not only misses the very subtleties that make folk music special, but in fact has served to destroy much of its nature over the past 200 years. There are without doubt simple structures in traditional music, in the form of tunes and their shapes and modes. The simplicity of this basic material, however, affords the performer considerable freedom to ‘personalise’ the performance through ornamentation and variation – essentially a form of improvisation. A skilled performer is noted for their ability to weave around the tune, making it their own through their individual style. Ornamentation is rarely notated and is added at the discretion of the performer. This causes problems when trying to communicate the innateness and contextualisation of these ornaments to a contemporary performer.

Listen to Ailie Robertson's new single, Haven, below:

Another common misconception of tradition music is its supposed rhythmic simplicity. Superficially, traditional tunes are divided into time signatures with regular beats reflecting their function as dance music. However, one need only look at the rhythmic pushes and pulls of both ornamentation in dance tunes and the highly nonmetrical style of the singing tradition to realise that the underlying rhythms are very complex.

Failure to understand these intricacies has had a huge impact. During the 19th century, scholars and composers, seeing musical traditions being lost, initiated various efforts to preserve the music of the people. Collectors such as Bunting, Petrie, Child and Sharp worked to preserve a great body of traditional song, music and dance. Whilst these collections were undoubtedly valuable for preserving traditional material, they simultaneously destroyed and homogenised much of the culture due to the heavy amount of editing and manipulation of material that occurred. These collectors subconsciously imposed the limits of their own musical knowledge and experience on the material they collected. Lack of understanding of modal and rhythmic structures in traditional music resulted in the transcription of tunes so that they matched the ‘classical’ scales and metres that people were accustomed to, and they omit important details such as swing, ornamentation and phrasing which, when interpreted by a classical performer, result in a distinctly non-traditional sound.

Another consequence of these collections was the gradual adoption of equal temperament in traditional music. The arrangement of melodies for the piano or other keyboard instrument was one of the most damaging actions taken in ‘preserving’ traditional music. Combined with the introduction of various ‘new’ instruments into the traditional medium, such as the banjo and accordion, and the ‘modern’ invention of equal temperament, traditional music was gradually pigeonholed into this new temperament, blurring nuances in intonation that were unique to this music.

Through my work I hope to help people better understand the folk world, and continue to bridge the divide between it and the classical world. What matters to me ultimately is that, if composers are to use traditional material as source, that it is done so with respect and authenticity rather than cultural appropriation. The juxtaposition of two disparate aesthetic systems, when not treated with care, remains just that: a juxtaposition.

I personally see this challenge as exciting rather than limiting; a continual source of exploration and expression. In the rapidly changing world of music, the characteristics that we define as ‘traditional’ and ‘contemporary’ evolve, constantly blurring the borders between them. The development of contemporary music has resulted in the exploration of extremities, from very simple aesthetics to the most complex scores, but perhaps now, more than ever, reconnecting with the past and the local might be no bad thing.

Robertson’s new single Haven is released out now on Spotify and iTunes. She will perform at Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival on November 26. For more information, visit: ailierobertson.com

Ailie Robertson

Composer, arranger and harpist, Ailie Robertson's honours include being the winner of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra Composition Prize, the Sofia International Composition Competition and second in the 14th International Oslo Grieg Competition, she has received commissions and awards from Creative Scotland, Enterprise Music Scotland, Culture Ireland, Distil, Celtic Connections and the BBC Performing Arts Fund, along with residencies at the Edinburgh International Film Festival and Berwick Sound.

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