5.  The technique in practice: examples of new compositions

By way of illustration of the manner in which the different ‘signifiers’ outlined above can be combined in practice, I move now to a brief examination of three compositions selected from the oeuvre of some of the groups already mentioned.  While in each case the overall treatment results in a style which can be seen to be characteristic of a particular ‘phase’ of the group in question, these examples are at the same time representative of broader trends and processes  (9).


(i)  Les Nouvelles Polyphonies Corses: ‘Giramondu’

The opening track of Les Nouvelles Polyphonies Corses’ first eponymous disc (Philips, 1991), is the song that was also chosen to open the 1992 Winter Olympics at Albertville and was subsequently used in a Philips advertisement which appeared world-wide.  The song (by Patrizia Poli and Patrizia Gattaceca) features the voices of Poli and Gattaceca themselves, joined by Jean-Paul Poletti and other singers from the Scola di Cantu of Sartne which Poletti directs (10).  The instrumental component here consists of ‘electronics’ by Hector Zazou.

The song features the basic arrangement of three voices found in the indigenous paghjella which operate within established structural parameters: the opening motive is in the solo secunda voice which is then joined for the completion of each line by a solo terza and a bassu which is here reinforced by several male voices; the latter two parts enter on the fifth degree of the scale and the tonic respectively, against the third degree in the secunda voice; the secunda remains within the compass of a fifth, while the terza uses the third, fourth and fifth degrees of the scale  -  resolving onto the characteristic tierce de picardie with a slightly flattened major third  -  and the bassu the root notes of chords I, IV and V.  The timbres of the voices and the melismatic treatment of the secunda  and terza lines are also recognisably ‘traditional’.  For the brief chorus, all three voices enter into parallel movement, a procedure familiar from its use in parts of the traditional sacred repertoire.  For the second stanza, a higher contra-terza is added which uses the upper tonic as its point of reference and also introduces the leading note, so bringing the piece into a more ‘western’ or tonal frame of reference.  (The addition of such a contra-terza is now a relatively widespread, albeit contested, practice).

Les Nouvelles Polyphonies Corses: Giramondu (mp3 file, 315 kb, 0.13 min)

As in other pieces on the same disc, the airy and expansive nature of the ‘improvised’ electroacoustic backdrop is redolent of the sense of openness and wider horizons to which the song makes reference both literally and symbolically, reflecting the rhetoric which invokes a global frame of reference with its promise of a shared humanity.  This contrasts sharply with the solid, earthy qualities of the voices with their specific echoes of ancient times.  The vocal and instrumental components respectively can thus be seen to be iconic of the local and the global, past and present, providing an acoustic image of the place of ancient roots in a contemporary environment, of Corsica’s place in the wider world.  The text itself talks of the loss of the self to the world of nature  -  in this case a specifically Corsican landscape referenced by images of ferns, a chestnut tree and the tolling of a bell  -  and to the spirits which animate the natural world and keep the earth turning.


(ii)  I Muvrini: ‘A Sculuccia’

This song appears on the disc Noi (Columbia, 1993) and, like the majority of songs on the album, features a solo voice with instrumental accompaniment.  As in the Nouvelles Polyphonies example discussed above, the traditional signifiers are again carried by the voice while the modern or contemporary signifiers are carried by the instrumentation.  The songs on the disc as a whole can be divided into two broad categories: one rhythmic and upbeat, clearly related to the indigenous chanson style of the 1970s but also aligning itself with the Anglo-American pop aesthetic through the employment of a drum kit; the other characterised by a greater metrical freedom, a more declamatory and melismatic style of delivery, and less conventional instrumentation.  ‘A Sculuccia’ belongs in the latter group.

As in most of the group’s output, the vocal idiom approximates quite closely that of traditional singers, retaining a number of characteristic elements in the realm of melodic structure, vocal color and ornamentation.  The stanza is sung to a single melostrophe  -   based on the pentachord  -  whose descending contour with its terraced structure is reminiscent of traditional monodic songs, as is the high density of melisma or ‘modulation’ in the voice.  Meanwhile, the relatively sophisticated instrumental score with its heavy reliance on synthesized sounds together with the unusual combination of hurdy-gurdy and cetera belongs to the ethos of the early 1990s.  In contrast to the treatment of the nouvelles polyphonies, however, where the instrumental component is improvised and superimposed over the voices at a later stage, the instrumental lines here have a more composed nature, forming an intrinsic part of the piece in providing support for, and interacting with, the voice.   More modern harmonies are implied in the instrumental accompaniment while the pervasive electronic presence denotes technological sophistication and mastery over the medium.

I Muvrini: A Sculuccia (mp3 file, 315 kb, 0.13 min)

The text itself is firmly rooted in the island and its concerns and belongs to a thread running throughout I Muvrini’s oeuvre concerned with the process of neglect which the island has suffered in modern times and in particular the much-debated problem of the desertification of the interior.  The present lyric follows in a well-established tradition of laments for the forgotten places and discarded artefacts of the old way of life, focusing here on the fate of a village school whose classrooms now stand empty, the only memory of the children who once filled them and played in the now overgrown garden outside being the graffiti carved into the old wooden benches. 


(iii)  Cinqui S: ‘Ma Da Chi Saraghju Natu?’

Featured on the disc Com Acqua Linda (Ricordu, 1994),  this is an example of the type of song that blends references to both the chanson and the traditional polyphonic idiom and that might be referred to in Corsica itself as a ‘chanson in polyphony’.  Thematically, it belongs in the tradition of the new post-nationalist anthems to Corsica.  In the lyric, the Corsican people speak of the sleepless nights of their troubled past, their pride in their birthright, and their desire only to live in freedom in their homeland while wishing peace to all mankind.

The piece begins with an elaborate instrumental section lasting over a minute and a half and also serving as the backdrop for a portion of spoken text.  The first stanza of the song itself is sung by the three voices a cappella.  For the second stanza a plucked guitar is introduced.  For the remaining stanzas the accompaniment becomes far busier, more rhythmic and more prominent with the addition of a darabuka and small bells and the shift to strummed chords on the guitar.  The opening line of each stanza is sung by the secunda alone, which is then joined by the bass and terza for the remainder of the stanza.

Cinqui S: Ma D Chi Saraghju Natu? (mp3 file, 267 kb, 0.11 min)

As in the traditional canon, the secunda line draws on limited melodic material, the same melody line (which occupies the range of a pentachord) being repeated for each of the four lines that make up the stanza and also for the first and third lines of the refrain.  An element of variety and tension is introduced by means of a diatonic modulation at the beginning of the refrain whose final line then returns to the original tonality.  The treatment of the text is essentially syllabic, as in the traditional monodic song and the chanson, with a similarly logical correlation between the textual and musical lines (in distinction to the paghjella style, which is more melismatic and ‘ecstatic’, resulting in considerable obfuscation of the text).  The bass voice here does not have the functional harmonic role of the paghjella’s bassu but is rather centered around a drone on the tonic.  (The secunda, unusually, does not ever descend to the tonic but instead treats the 3rd degree of the scale as an implied tonic.)  A greater sense of ‘polyphony’ is given by the way in which the bass and secunda occasionally sing two different lines of text against one another (the bass repeating the second line of the stanza while the secunda sings the third).  The interrelationship of the secunda and bass remains, however, essentially homophonic.  The conception of the terza voice  -  which enters with a drone-like incantation, in this case on the upper tonic, before moving into a descending figure to finally resolve onto the fifth degree of the scale in thirds with the secunda  -   is more evocative of the paghjella style, particularly in its melismatic style of delivery and in the way in which the melismatic figure at the end of the second line is extended to create an overlap with the new line in the secunda.  It is this terza line that creates the sense of a more polyphonic texture overall. While the strummed guitar and darabuka give the impression of anchoring the vocal component in terms of both rhythmic regularity and tonality, any attempt to bring the voices into conformity with a more ‘western’ or ‘modern’ aesthetic is ultimately subverted by the freedom exerted by the terza through its melismatic behaviour which pulls it out of the framework of the equal tempered scale on the one hand and of metrical symmetry on the other.  In this case, then, the tension between traditional and modern is found within the vocal arrangement as well as in the juxtaposition of voices and instruments. 

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