Saturday, March 7, 2015

Apologies to Marko

My mission in life is to help create a culture of flexible thinkers. Drawing from Orff and jazz and other practices that habitually break the rules to keep things fresh and new and forever contemporary, I’m in favor of all that thaws the ice of stubborn thought and mindless tradition and works to keep the waters flowing. At the same time, I honor the well-wrought building, be it Bach’s magnificent constructions or Chartres Cathedral or Ellington’s arrangements and see no reason to change them unthinkingly to “keep up with the times.” It’s the conversation between the notes as given and the notes as felt that interests me.

And so I came to Slovenia to give an Orff workshop and reach some peace with a weird little struggle I’ve had with a Slovenian children’s song, Marko Skace. It has been a big hit in my workshops and with my 4th graders this year, just the kind of simple, but effective song I like. It consists of two four-bar phrases in the pentatonic scale, with the second half of each phrase repeated in both the A and B sections. (A=ab, B= cb). So what’s the problem?

Well, I feel it as a symmetrical AABB form, but almost every version I’ve found (after first learning it from a Slovenian-Italian friend) sings it as an ABB form. It just felt too weird to me to do that A section once. The opening idea felt simply too short to not give the comfort of repetition. So ultimately, I just refused to do it, trusting my instinct and affirming my sense of what is musical. And I went down to Slovenia seeking permission for my choice.

I discussed it with my host at lunch and she reluctantly agreed that as a folk song, she supposed I could change it if I wanted. I only know one verse, but she sang a few and I had to admit that it might a tiny bit more sense as ABB with further verses. I then did the song in the workshop and brought the problem to the group of 60 or so students. The distinct vibe I felt was, “Eeeewww! It’s weird if you repeat the A section twice. It’s not how it goes!” (I also found out that a Slovenian music teacher actually changed the original Marko from a hexatonic six-note song to a pentatonic five-note song for pedagogical purposes. But that seemed more forgivable to the Slovenians and to me too.)

And so I had to face my stubbornness and arrogance and consider that the original song could eventually sound musical to my ears. And once I started letting go, I found myself getting used to it. The ice of my cultural bias and hubris began to thaw a bit. And of course, that made me wonder how many other biases I carry that form my judgments of the world and intentionally, or unintentionally, disrespect other’s point of view. I work hard on being aware of such flaws, but it’s a big world with lots of ways of interpreting it and while it’s human and even necessary to plant yourself in one point of view and not be blown randomly about, we always have to be on guard and consider opening the window a bit.

All this dangerously close to a musical nerd entry, but I’m fishing around here for a larger, more universal message. And I think it comes down to this:

Always sing the A section of Marko Skace once.

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