For centuries, there were basically two types of music in Europe: (what we now call) classical and folk. And although they differed in almost every possible respect, they gladly invaded each other’s territories.
For classical composers, there were many reasons to borrow from, or imitate folk music. Often to express some meaning attached to the folk style. Like the noble simplicity/boorish stupidity of the lower classes, the raw magnificence of nature, or the glorious soul of the nation. Sometimes just because they liked the tunes.
The last seems to be true for Luciano Berio, who wrote his Folk Songs cycle in 1964. It contains 11 songs from different traditions. Some are not ‘real’ folk tunes at all, but composed by other composers, including Berio himself.
Though leaving the melodies intact, Berio – known as a ‘difficult’ composer – combined them with more adventurous accompaniments. On the album Folk Songs, the Ficino Ensemble gives the front stage to the voice of Michelle O’Rourke and relegates itself to a supporting role. A wise decision, because O’Rourke’s voice – classically trained but with clear folk sensibilities – magnificently brings out the beauty of these ‘simple’ melodies.
Medieval saints and barnyard animals
While Berio’s folk songs are always a pleasure to listen to, I doubt Ficino Ensemble’s interpretation is an indispensable addition to an already extensive discography. What I really like about this album are the four new compositions that are inspired by the folk style.
The works by Kevin O’Connell and Garrett Sholdice are more avant garde than Berio’s. They deconstruct the folk idiom and rearrange the barely recognize elements on a blank canvas. Doubtlessly interesting, but not really my cup of nettle tea.
The two remaining works tap into another vein: the British pop/rock folk sound that’s been with us since the seventies – with its mystical, faux-medieval atmosphere. Cronachdain Suil by Kate Moore is based on traditional and folkloric spells evoking Saint Brigid and Saint Mary for protection in times of danger. It’s a brooding piece underpinned with a steady pulse but constantly shifting meters. At the end, its settles upon a 7/8 groove and climaxes in pagan ecstasy. They made a video that nicely captures the atmosphere and contains some barnyard animals silently judging you.
But for me, the high point of this album is its opening track: Judd Greenstein’s Green Fields of Amerikay. The lyrics talk about making the journey from Ireland to the United States. Around it, Ficino Ensemble weaves a tapestry of waves and flurries. After a quasi-improvisational start, the music gradually finds speed and direction until the journey ends in an eerie ‘farewell’. An impressive salute to a time when the US was still the promised land.