Artist revives a lost instrument
> BY ALEXANDER VARTY
We can promise you this: you haven’t heard anything like it. Unless, that is, you’ve written an ethnomusicology dissertation on Polish folk music or have access to a functioning time machine.
The violinlike suka, which Maria Pomianowska will play at two Chopin Society concerts this weekend, was all but forgotten until she brought it back from the dead—a task that was even more difficult, in some ways, than resurrecting the woolly mammoth. Paleontologists, at least, have actual mammoth DNA in their possession, courtesy of the Siberian permafrost. Pomianowska had only a dusty painting of a musician playing the suka and the will to connect her own Polish heritage with the South and Central Asian instruments she was studying as part of her own ethnomusicological research.
“This instrument I reconstructed, and also I reconstructed the technique of playing, together with [musicologist] Ewa Dahlig-turek and a violin maker, Andrzej Kuczkowski, who passed away two years ago,” Pomianowska explains in lightly accented English, on the line from a Chicago tour stop. “We reconstructed the whole instrument, which had not existed for 100 years in our culture. The last musicians were playing suka at the beginning of the 20th century, and the only information we had to recall it to life we had from ethnographical sources.”
No functioning or even partial sukas appear to have survived the ravages of the Second World War, she adds. What she and her accomplices arrived at looks like a viola with an oddly short and broad neck grafted onto its body; like the Cretan lyra, the Persian kamancheh, and the North Indian sarangi, it’s played with a bow, and by fretting the strings with the nails—not the fleshy pads—of the left-hand fingers. It’s a seemingly awkward technique, but one that Pomianowska says produces a uniquely vocal timbre—and that connects the suka to a centuries-old Silk Road tradition of bowed strings.
“As far as I know, bowed stringed instruments were invented somewhere in Central Asia,” she says. “It was those instruments that came to the Byzantine Empire, and also to China at the same time.…in old Chinese books it’s written that the barbarian people who conquered China played very strange instruments, putting an arch on the strings. And also in the 9th and 10th century we have information from the Byzantine Empire that they found this manner of playing from some eastern people. It was a new type of producing sound; plucked instruments are very old, but we know about bowed stringed instruments from only a thousand years.”
So what does this have to do with Frédéric Chopin? Well, the Warsawborn, Paris-trained composer was a keen student of folk music, and almost certainly heard the suka during summer vacations in his native land. Unlike later musicologist-composers Béla Bartok and Leoš Janáček, Chopin didn’t transcribe folk melodies note for note, but fragments of rural tunes appear in many of his best-loved compositions, and the mazurka was one of his compositional staples—he wrote at least 59 works for piano based on its lively barn-dance beat.
Pomianowska has transcribed several of Chopin’s mazurkas for her touring sextet, which will be augmented by pianist Lukasz Mikolajczyk, Barbara Bartnik’s Polonez Dance troupe, and the Canada West Chamber Orchestra under the direction of conductor Ken Hsieh. But she’s also preparing to take Chopin far beyond his ethnic origins: in the second half of her program, she’ll team up with an array of Vancouver performers to play his music as it might be reinvented in Siberia, Armenia, Iran, Africa, China, and the Balkans.
It’s not enough to play Chopin’s music as written, Pomianowska contends, noting that her famous countryman was also renowned as an improviser. “We want to share with him that creation moment,” she says, “to connect on these different levels of emotion and imagination.”