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Clara Barry's expanded folklore

While some people’s lives get muddled up in the meanders of complexity, others, on the contrary, dazzle by the clarity of their path, which they follow step by step according to the quiet rhythm of  self-evidence. It’s as if these steps had called each other and been arranged in such a way as to  seem natural. Clara Barry belongs to this second category, and the clarity of a form of quiet logic emanates from her conversation. So much so that she can sum up her life and this album’s programme in the breath of a single sentence: “Although I studied classical violin, I’ve always sung, immersed in this strong tradition of Swedish folk songs handed down by my mother. This favoured my encounter with Bartók and led me to present a project based on this mode of transmission, so simple and yet so refined, which requires the musicians to display a skilful blend of technique and improvisation.” Eight Bartók pieces, one by Kodály and two arrangements of Swedish folksongs creations: this is the fluid and balanced tribute of a clear idea, but nonetheless the result – since the idea alone is not enough! – of a long maturation process.

“Language is music”

“It took me an enormous amount of time to find the right musicians,” Clara Barry concedes. “When I fell in love with these Bartók pieces and decided to reappropriate them, I first gave it a try with a classical pianist, but it didn’t work out. It was the same thing with jazz musicians. I had to wait until I was preparing my Bachelor’s degree recital at the Haute Ecole de Musique de Lausanne  (HEMU) Jazz for something to happen. The click came when I met two Hungarian musicians, the pianist Emil Spányi and the double bass player Mátyás Szandai. They were the ones who enabled me to find the missing link between this intuition that I felt boiling within me, in the cauldron of my Swedish heritage, and the roots of their compatriots Béla Bartók and Zoltân Kodâly. However, the language remained a significant hurdle. I hadn’t realised how complicated Hungarian would be to master. And there was no question of compromising on this point: the language is itself music, so it would be an absolute betrayal not to master it!”

Taming Hungarian

So here is our singer grappling with words – sounds! – which are usually said to be related to Finnish or Basque, but which, she wonders, might not actually be brothers of Chinese! “At school, I found a Hungarian student who could read all these texts to me slowly and rhythmically so that I could soak up their music and overcome their difficulties, particularly the muscular ones. Hungarian is indeed a language that resembles none other. That’s what gives the whole thing such a strange, unique character. This work on words took over six months. Still, it was essential to do justice to these works, which comprise stories that are over a thousand years old in some cases. They were rescued from the fragility of oral transmission by Bartók and Kodâly, ethnomusicologists before their time who carried their first recorders throughout Eastern Europe and as far as the Orient.

Modernity behind the folklore

The music, polytonal and polymodal in essence, is itself a challenge, particularly regarding intonation. Both Bartók and Kodâly did far more than simply transcribe folklore. They drew from these immemorial songs truly modern pieces bearing the recognisable stamp of their own artistic identity. They then had to be articulated in relation to each other to offer the listener a coherent programmatic journey. “This is an essential dimension for me. There is a tendency to relegate it to the background with the advent of new digital consumption habits on listening platforms that split music programmes into playlists, thus transforming how we listen and discover works and artists”. The Hungarian pieces are stylistically very distinctive and unsurprisingly featured as an initial single block. But they prepare the way for The two Swedish folk songs that offers the listener a form of climax , like a bonus.


Paintings of life

“The concern for stylistic coherence is the same as for a concert. I begin with the ‘Hungarian Frère Jacques’ Kis Kece Lányom, whose original arrangement sets the tone for the rest of the programme. The text is nonetheless very strange. Even My Hungarian  musicians struggled to capture the meaning of this very ancient language. Let’s just say that it’s about a father who marries off his daughter... In the interest of contrasting tension and mood I decided to follow it up with two songs for voice and piano. To vary the colouring, I also introduced the trumpet in one of the pieces as part of a fast dance evoking an old woman’s flight into the woods to escape the devil’s clutches. Overall, these are all lovely songs depicting different moments of life – going off to war, marriage, harvest, festivals and their dances – despite a rather sombre and sad predominance.”

Creolisation à la Clara Barry

In short, this is an invitation to be taken as it comes – spontaneously, wholeheartedly, in one go, from A to Z – but it doesn’t tell us who Clara Barry is. Again, unsurprisingly, there are no convolutions: just one line, hers! “I was born in France, but my mother tongue is Swedish, which I speak with my mother and older Swedish sisters. I started studying the violin at the music school when I was six. I was so in love with the instrument that I slept with it! I then joined a special class so that I could  step up my practising. At home, we were immersed in music. Like all Swedes, Mum sang from morning till night. My American father added a touch of jazz to my musical culture: I knew all the Ella & Louis, Broadway musicals, Frank Sinatra and so on by heart. My parents were great music lovers and regularly took us to concerts and the opera. I didn’t start singing until I turned eighteen, possibly because of France’s somewhat  weak popular vocal tradition. Choral singing in churches was one of the mainstays of the vocal tradition, but the French Revolution disrupted it. I then entered the Regional Conservatory, a kind of antechamber to professional studies. It was there that I met Emil Spányi, the man who was to change the course of my life. He is open-minded and free spirited, bearer of a blend of great Hungarian tradition (Bartók and Kodály), Russian studies and jazz improvisation, and has experience in sound engineering, which was invaluable for this recording. I felt immediately connected. When I arrived in Lausanne, I also met Mátyás Szandai, an outstanding double bass player with the same rich classical and jazz education. Like Emil, he was generous enough to enhance my crazy project in the same mind of freedom and anti-partitioning”.

Antonin Scherrer

(Translation: Michelle Bulloch – MUSITEXT)



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