There are more than 20 years since the collection Ethnophonie exists. It was began by the ethnomusicologist Speranta Radulescu and, through the time, it developed in a real and unique archive of voices, typology of songs, characters which are nearby to disappearance. Until now there are 22 discs covering very different aspects of Romanian music: from singular fiddlers and family of musicians to brass bands, from occasional folklore to music played at traditional parties, instrumental dances or ballads and long listening songs, a fantastic and very emotional repertoire. It’s an activity done with a very clear cultural purpose, a powerful fight with the loss of memory, with a history that destroyed our traditions, with a present not at all friendly or concerned with the faith of those musicians and the values they are carrying. As an example of how time actions upon this music: Speranta Radulescu writes on the booklet of the last CD’s that love is disappearing from the texts of doinas, because the fiddlers only play them to old people, as young public lost its interest in this kind of singing (doina is a long song, with an improvised form, a creation through which one can express its deepest feelings, used to be very characteristic to the traditional Romanian tradition). The collection received important prizes – such as Coup de Coeur of the Charles Cros Academy. In this interview, Speranta Radulescu and Florin Iordan (a young ethnomusicologist and close collaborator of her), talk about the importance of the collection, the way they record, about the poetics of their activity of field recorders.
MB: How was the Ethnophonie collection born and what role have you set for it to play in our culture?
SR: I knew very well the traditional musics collection elaborated by Constantin Brăiloiu in the interbellum period. He had then collaborated with record labels such as Columbia, willing to accept this type of sonorous productions. I loved this collection very much, and on the other hand I think it is useful to know your past. Brăiloiu’s collection isn’t well known in Romania, it remained in the folklore archive and hasn’t been re-edited in modern format. I thought that the public doesn’t have any chance of finding out what the Romanian people was in fact producing, not hundreds of years, but even a few tens of years ago. And then, in the ’90s I came up with the idea of making such a collection of present time, but a present time that incorporates whatever remained traditional in modern musics, growing from the older tree of Romanian musics. I started out with cassette tapes, because the financial resources were extremely low, and continued with the next opportunity with CDs.
As our activity grew, our objectives also changed, because Brăiloiu’s collection was dedicated exclusively to rural Romanian musics. We figured that now, as the demographic situation has changed, the relations between the village and the city have also changed and the interest for other ethnic groups has risen, all of these should appear in our collection. That is why we have recordings of Jewish, Gypsy, Hungarian, even Romanian musics that we have recorded in collaboration with an Austrian researcher.
Our financial status is as low as ever, but our main problem is that in Romania the interest in such musics is extremely scarce; it is actually kind of strange – only a few of the refined intellectuals manifest their interest. But I am sure that, sometime, the Romanian people’s concern for it’s untrafficated past will rise.
MB: From that beginning of the 21st century to this beginning of a new century, the passion for going in the field and recording continues. What is actually happening in the field?
FI: Beyond the specific recording of the musicians, our goals also include understanding the role that the music plays in the communities and making inquiries, asking questions, which are sometimes even more consistent than the musical happening per se. You have been referring to a story about Bartok, told by Brăiloiu: Bartok once tried to convince a peasant woman to sing to him, but she refused; going over the hill, Bartok heard her behind him singing with a full and beautiful voice, and he was touched. I think that this is about the same phenomenon we are assisting to – getting inside the soul of an obsolescent humanity. A world that we lose – and this is how it happens, we don’t have any other choice.
MB: During the time you have worked on this collection, has your image about Romanian music ever changed?
SR: I realised that traditional musics, which are by definition in a continuous change, are getting a more and more fierce competition from newer other musics which dilute the regional representativity of older musics and cover wider surfaces, being influenced by all existent musics. The gap hasn’t broadened for good, but that is what’s next. One thing is certain – in this competition, between the traditional musics and the ones that are trying to take over, the former ones are losing more and more ground. It is possible that their perpetual transformations lead them towards a dissolution, falling into the popular musics of the present. We consider that we should protect and defend the traditional ones, for posterity.
Fl: We are doing a sort of cultural activism which we assume, so our policy is clearly expressed. Our action stays pretty marginal, we did not succeed in spreading enough information. But we are here, for those who seek the direction and don’t find it elsewhere.
MB: Do you have a concrete example of how the spirit of time works in transforming a play?
SR: Once I was in Gorj and a musician came to me and asked me: ”The lyrics of a song are like this: Riding uphill to my sweetheart/The horse’s shoes went loose, but can I say Riding uphill to my sweetheart/In my Nissan?”. And I told him ”of course you can” – even though we don’t necessarily like it, it isn’t that poetical any more and he does not address us like in the fairy tales, but it is true and we like true things, which show us that the folklore is alive, that people adapt to their present needs. If reality has changed, music and especially lyrics also change.
MB: How does the recording occur?
Fl: What we do resembles jazz recordings from the 1930s, that is – we need buildings with less echo, which are kind of difficult to find, most of the times, in villages; the buildings which can hold more people, like cultural centers, aren’t appropriate. So then we prefer someone’s home, filled up with rugs, cushions etc, but the space is smaller. We record with a small device (TASCAM), with two mono microphones or with a stereo one. The balance between the instruments is given by the way we place the musicians towards the microphones, and that takes some juggling and struggling until we are ready to record – placing the soloists or the violin players more in the front, or the bass players more to the back, but afterwards we proceed to the actual music recording. Usually it doesn’t start out like that – we listen to the musicians ar first, we know what to ask them to play, we record much more than we cut on the records. After this task is finished, we archive everything and, when we decide to use the material (because sometimes it happens that we need several recording sessions) we proceed with selecting and trimming it. We adjust a little bit the audio and informational content and we give it a light timbral color in the studio, to arrange the pieces in a unitary way.
MB: Have you ever heard of private, personal initiatives from people who come with a small device and, following their own interest or longing, just go in the field, seeking and recording?
SR and Fl: There is quite a number of foreigners who are looking for Eastern-European musics and come, either after getting scholarships, or just trying to learn.
MB: How about Romanians?
Fl: I don’t know many Romanians who do that…
SR: It requires a lot of money – the folk singers don’t play for nothing, so you need financing for such an initiative. At the beginning of the ’90s, coming with a cassette recorder and asking them to play something for you sometimes worked… but this barter doesn’t go that way anymore. I haven’t heard of any Romanians to do it and I think that, should they have been that passionate, we would have heard about them.
Translated by Andrei Ricinean