Artist re­vives a lost in­stru­ment


The Georgia Straight - - Arts -

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.”


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