4. Achieving a marriage between the ‘traditional’ and the ‘contemporary’

Salini voices succinctly the essential challenge:  “How does one take upon oneself such a strong heritage and preserve one’s attachment to this source whilst at the same time living one’s own epoch?” (disc notes to Cinqui Soís Chants Polyphoniques Corses).  One solution has been to employ a combination of traditional and modern signifiers  -  not necessarily in equal proportions  -  in an attempt to achieve a reconciliation which is both practical and symbolic (6).

(i) Signifiers of continuity with the tradition.

Of the specifically musical or paramusical features that are evoked in order to set aspects of new output in a traditional context, the most common are: 

(a) the incorporation of features of traditional musical structure and style,
(b) the fact of singing in polyphony,
(c) the practice of improvisation,
(d) the readoption of traditional Corsican instruments, and
(e) the utilization of the Corsican language.


(a) The incorporation of traditional structural and stylistic features
In some cases, new compositions are closely modelled on traditional genres.  Other songs incorporate traditional motives but combine them with more original elements, while others again owe their ‘Corsican’ sound to more general stylistic or procedural traits.  Features of the traditional musical language most often retained are freedom from a strict metre, the liberal use of melisma, reproduction of the older modal inflections, and, in the case of a cappella polyphonic compositions, the traditional hierarchy of the three voices, their distinctive timbral qualities, the characteristic staggering of the voices (both the initial staggered entries and, in the most dedicated examples, the more subtle décalage of the voices throughout the performance), and the tierce de Picardie type final cadence. 
Antoine Marielli (of the group Diana di L’Alba) does not see his new songs in the  chanson style (Note 7) as a separate ‘demarche’ (approach or direction) when compared with traditional material on the grounds that the ‘tradition’ is always in the back of his mind and inevitably influences his melodies and harmonies (interview, 1995).  Similarly for Petru Guelfucci, the styles of the traditional canon and the chanson repertoire remain closely related, the chanson body retaining “more or less the traditional root since my style of singing remains the same” (interview, 1995).  He comments in particular that ‘the melismas’ are common to both styles.  Other singers also refer to ‘the manner of placing the voice’, which is, to their ears, recognizably and characteristically Corsican and therefore endows any new composition with a distinctiveness and authenticity.  
An examination of the more or less subtle transformations of traditional musical features as a result of their meeting with technological means of production and reproduction on the one hand and stage performance culture on the other lies beyond the scope of the present paper.  (A preliminary discussion can be found in Bithell, 1996.)
(b)  Polyphony
The indigenous paghjella style of polyphonic singing underwent a phenomenal process of revitalization and revalorization in the 1970s and 1980s, following a long period of decline and repudiation (see Bithell, forthcoming).  As the broader enterprise of cultural renewal gathered pace, polyphony took its place as the keystone of the island’s musical heritage and the hallmark of contemporary Corsican identity.  The association E Voce di u Cumune, based at the village of Pigna, was particularly active in investigating and helping to reconstruct semi-forgotten polyphonic repertoires in the region of the Balagne and its 1987 disc, Corsica: Chants Polyphoniques, directed by Marcel Pèrès and released by Harmonia Mundi, represented an important document which made a significant impression on audiences outside Corsica.  Suddenly, in the early 1990s, it seemed as if every self-respecting group was releasing a disc devoted exclusively to polyphonic songs sung a cappella.  A Filetta’s ‘Ab Eternu’, Voce di Corsica’s ‘Polyphonies’ and Donnisulana’s ‘Per Agata’ were notable landmarks and set the trend by including a combination of traditional pieces, both secular and sacred, and new compositions of their own.  (In the case of Donnisulana the new pieces were by Mighele Raffaelli.) 
In retaining as a solid foundation the structural procedures and stylistic traits of the indigenous polyphonic system, these original compositions did not stray too far from the musical language of the traditional pieces.  Any novel elements introduced could be seen as an extension or elaboration of the traditional models through a relatively cautious exploration of new harmonic or modulatory possibilities.  The transition was both seamless and credible with the results sounding far more ‘traditional than modern’.  As the groups gained in musical skill and confidence and also felt the need to introduce an element of novelty into subsequent recordings, they became more adventurous (some would say audacious) in their experiments.  Meanwhile, the first disc of Les Nouvelles Polyphonies Corses set a new trend  -  aided by the group’s access to a range of high calibre international musicians as well as the best of modern technology  -  which involved polyphonic songs (both traditional and original), initially recorded a cappella, being overlaid in the studio with improvised instrumental lines contributed by Manu Dibango, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Ivo Papasov and others, their collaboration having been secured by Hector Zazou, who was responsible for the electronic arrangements.
What was now seen to be important, in terms of ‘remaining within the tradition’, was the fact of singing in polyphony as opposed to a strict adherence to a traditional formula.  Patrizia Poli comments on the process of reconstructing parts of a traditional mass setting as featured on the second Nouvelles Polyphonies disc ‘In Paradisu’: “We worked on these traditional songs in order to refind the voices and then again we worked on them but in a very contemporary manner because on the one hand we place the voices in the traditional mode while we also use harmonies which are not necessarily traditional but we are singing in polyphony” (interview, 1995).
At a broader level, the very concept of polyphony can be seen to have undergone a process of transformation whereby it has come to be applied first of all to any song featuring an arrangement of voices, including the essentially homophonic chansons of groups like Canta U Populu Corsu and I Chjami Aghjalesi (where the voices retain the traditional designations secunda, bassu and terza), and then to Corsican song in general, possibly via a transference to the non-polyphonic songs of groups who also sing polyphony and are collectively referred to by the media as ‘the polyphonic groups’.  Pieces which bring together voices and instruments or which are the result of a collaboration or musical dialogue with musicians from other cultures also tend to be referred to as ‘polyphonic’.
(c)  Improvisation
As is the case in many other Mediterranean cultures, improvisation is central to Corsica’s traditional musical activity.  The tour de force is the ‘chjamí è rispondi’, a spontaneously improvised poetic debate set to a relatively stable melodic prototype which is nevertheless personalized by each individual singer as well as being adapted to the shifting stresses of the textual line in the moment of performance.  In former times, the average male was also adept at improvising what might be referred to as ‘songs of circumstance’, while women specialized in extemporizing laments for the dead.  In all of these genres, however, an unbridled and theoretically infinite freedom in terms of improvisation applies first and foremost to the textual component.  As far as the musical component is concerned, the substantial collections of field recordings dating from the middle of the twentieth century and the exhaustive analyses carried out by Laade reveal a relatively restricted corpus of melodic prototypes, albeit with numerous variants.  Improvisation at the musical level occurred within well-defined limits and utilized a common musical grammar. 
In the context of the groups, the more experimental departures in the treatment of traditional material as well as developments in new work have in some cases been justified by the statement that improvisation is an integral feature of the Corsican tradition.  An example of this formulation can be found in the disc notes to Tempi di Sumente by the group A Cumpagnia: “Poetic and musical improvisation is the other angular stone (sic) of the musical heritage of the island providing an endless creative outlet for A Cumpagnia.”  A similar argument is used to support the direction taken by Les Nouvelles Polyphonies Corses.  In retaining improvisation as a central quasi-compositional technique, they are, in their own estimation, remaining true to the spirit of the tradition.  It has to be acknowledged, however, that the degree of liberty allowed to the performer in this type of project is far greater than that enjoyed by a traditional performer, particularly when the musicians involved hail from a variety of different cultures and so are not bound by the parameters of the indigenous musical language.
Improvisation is itself closely allied to the circumstance of oral transmission and recreation in performance.  Here again a link is made with new compositions on the basis that these are rarely given expression in any written form which would fix their structure but are developed orally by the group and modified in the process, thereby retaining some of the freedom and flexibility found in traditional polyphonic singing with the end product  -  which might continue to evolve even after it has been recorded  -  representing an act of communal creation.  In this sense, traditional procedure is respected and again this is something that remains important to the singers themselves. 
(d)  Use of traditional instruments
Those seeking to add a traditional flavour to their own compositions often incorporate instruments such as the cetera (a type of cittern), pifana (an aerophone made from a goat’s horn) or cialamella (a wooden reed instrument).  The introduction of these instruments does not necessarily mean that they are played in a traditional manner which, as far as the cetera is concerned, is in any case difficult to establish since the instrument disappeared from use before the age of field recordings.  As part of a statement with respect to ‘roots’, their inclusion in the instrumental line-up has an impact as much at the visual level as at a purely musical level (8).
(e)  Use of the Corsican language
Salini has remarked on how the term ‘traditional’ has gradually come to refer above all else to the use of the Corsican language, which in the early days of the riacquistu very quickly became  “indicative of Corsican-ness and hence of identity and of traditionality” (1996:197).  As a result, any song in Corsican may now be perceived by many as ‘traditional’, regardless of its musical structure or style, even if there are also those who are keen to establish that there is a fundamental difference between ‘Corsican songs’ and ‘songs in Corsican’  -  a member of the quasi-folkloric group A Mannella, for example, comments with reference to the more recently composed songs in the group’s repertoire: “we don't call this ‘singing the tradition’, we call it ‘singing in the Corsican language’  -  the tradition is something else” (interview, 1994).


(ii) Signifiers of modernity

For those groups like Les Nouvelles Polyphonies and I Muvrini who wish to project a contemporary image in parallel to their assertion of their traditional pedigree, modernity is most often represented by (a) a development of the traditional musical language, (b) greater variety and experimentation at the level of instrumentation, and (c) collaboration with musicians from other cultures, leading to the incorporation of elements of other musical languages.

(a)  Development of the traditional musical language
As noted under (a) above, while some new compositions adhere closely to existing models, others are more progressive in their employment of a greater variety of melodic formulae and, in polyphonic songs, more sophisticated harmonies and modulations together with a certain transformation in areas such as timbre, intonation and timing.  Whilst not necessarily proceeding from a deliberate attempt to sound more ‘modern’, these developments can nonetheless be seen to be part of a ‘modernist’ ethos.
(b) Greater variety and experimentation with respect to instrumentation
While groups adopting the formula originally established by Canta u Populu Corsu and other chanson singers in the 1970s use predominantly guitars with the occasional addition of violins, mandolins or other stringed instruments, those wishing to develop a more contemporary style add keyboards and synthesizers and also amplify traditional instruments, while involving increased technology at the mixing stage.  They might also include traditional instruments from other cultures, played by musicians from those same cultures.  The instrumental line-up for I Muvrini’s shows, for example, typically includes keyboards, bass guitar, mandolin, accordion, bagpipes, hurdy-gurdy and two sets of percussion, one a standard drum-kit and the other an assembly of ethnic drums and other smaller percussive instruments, together with synthesizers used to produce additional colorations and an impressive cohort of mixing decks and powerful amplification systems.
(c)  Cross-cultural collaborations 
The fashion for entering into artistic collaboration with practitioners from other musical cultures inevitably results in a ‘modernization’ or ‘evolution’ in terms of the musical product.  A parallel tendency in recent decades has been to look to other musical cultures for inspiration.  This impulse to reach out and embrace the other can be seen to belong to the new post-modern climate of global awareness with its perception of a shared humanity and its urge towards dialogue and co-operation, a sentiment which clearly informs Ghjacumu Thiers’ commentary in the disc notes to the Nouvelles Polyphonies Corses disc: “The Corsican voices here enter into a marriage with the four corners of the earth.  It is the story of an exquisite hybridization where plurality lives as synthesis and harmony.” 

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