On Folk Music
By Edward Manukyan
A speech given at the California State University, Los Angeles. December 18, 2006.
Good evening, ladies and gentlemen!
I'd like to speak about folk music and its relevance in the contemporary world. Let me begin by answering a question I often hear from my friends and colleagues. Namely, “If you don’t use folk themes in your works, then what exactly is your association with folk music?”
I generally don’t use folk melodies in my music, both in terms of presenting them in direct quotations and “dressing them up” by colorful orchestration or other techniques. I still consider myself a composer who is heavily based on folklore traditions, because I use the very minimal elements of folk music, which, to me, provide greater wealth to a composition, than the mere incorporation of any specific melodies.
By studying the folk songs I discovered for myself that understanding the meaningful simplicity in music may be the best strategy for achieving higher goals as a composer. A composer, who is in search for more and more “depth” and often vastly preoccupied by compositional techniques, may easily leave unnoticed the most simple and beautiful ideas which might be all that were needed. Such ideas are born more often if the composer spends enough time listening to folk music and studying them.
For example, take this simple rhythmic motif - a dotted eighth note, beamed to a sixteenth note and an eighth note, and three eighth notes beamed together, as a six/eight pattern. This motif is widely used in Armenian folk music and in most countries near the Caucasus region and further east and south. The potentials of this minimal unit are simply astounding when you consider the extent of its use. It turns out that this small cell can explode into millions of potential melodic and rhythmic ideas in the hands of an inspired composer.
Now, it could be argued that any motif may be used to form such cells and that it perhaps makes no difference what that motif actually is. Sure, a master composer can turn anything into gold. We can all marvel endlessly at what Beethoven was able to do with a simple four-note motif in his fifth symphony, for example. But it can't be denied that the motifs, extracted from folk songs, possess an even greater potential. It is not surprising at all, if you notice that the most common motifs in folk music have certain characteristics that are appealing even by themselves, out of any context. For example, that six/eight motif I just referred to is capable of providing some kind of a comforting feeling that seems to set itself in motion and go in circles - comparable to a feeling an unborn baby may experience in its mother’s womb as she walks. Apparently, its appeal had been recognized by people, generations after generations, ultimately turning it into an inseparable part of Armenian folk music. Folk musics from other nations have characteristic elements that are similar to this.
The evolutionary explanation of folk music - the fact that songs created by peasants pass through a long process of filtering and refinement before they establish themselves as “folk songs” - is of profound importance to me. But on the same token, I must admit that such questions concerning folk music and its origins are better left for biologists and perhaps linguists. However, with a little understanding of sciences and some curiously, composers might be able to scratch the surface and discover things about folk music which will undoubtedly help them create more beautiful and meaningful original music. Thank you for your attention.