Jana Lewitová: vocals, viola, spinettino, percussion
Vladimír Merta: vocals, lute, theorbo, guitar, cither, flutes, double-bass, percussion
One stumbles into folklore, comes to it in a roundabout way. The direct routes have been blocked up with the silt of education, prejudice, and insensitivity. By sheer chance, which ought rather to be called a fateful meeting, when I was 18, I played by memory a few simple traditional songs on my first LP, Ballade de Prague (recorded and issued in Paris in 1968). I'm almost ashamed of it. In the days without freedom one eloquently hid one's personal message behind the anonymous song. I sent my own folklore joke out into the world. It came back to me two years later dressed as a bit of folk wisdom. Events had come full circle. At a wedding in the village of Strani I saw the girls in the kitchen complete their mischievous quatrains on paper bags left from the flour they had used while baking cakes. During ski trips with friends in Slovakia at Christmas I went round as a shepherd in a Nativity scene, and recited improvised verse to make my part last a bit longer.
Jana Lewitova, on the other hand, sang her way to the Moravian ballad via "Otep myrhy" [Bundle of myrrh], Dowland's melancholy, and Sephardic songs, as well as Kundera's Joke, and Martinu's Novy Spalicek, Madrigaly na verse moravskych pisni [A new anthology. Madrigals on the verse of Moravian songs]. "I was enchanted with the arrangement by Bohuslav Martinu," she says, "and asked myself what effect the original would have on me. Nothing lasts forever in this world. All is vanity."
The person who dives beneath the surface of the pond of ballads ends up trying to catch his or her breath among the basic questions: What is original? Where to look? Whom to listen to? Is it at all possible to search for today's sensibility in the unrepeatable natural scenery connected with the ballad as half-narrated popular gospel, the way Susil, a 26-year-old student of theology, perceived it in 1826? Or, rather, accept the intellectual judgement that unexpectedly leaps out at the unprepared reader of The Joke? "When you stand face to face with the whole of our traditional music," Kundera writes, "it is as though a naked woman from The Arabian Nights were dancing in front of you, gradually casting off one veil after another. [...] And when the fourth veil falls to the ground, there remains none beneath it. The dancer is dancing completely naked. Those are the oldest songs. Their origin extends back to ancient, pagan times. [...] The first great Slav empire from the ninth century A.D., the Great Moravian Empire, arises before your eyes. Its frontiers were swept away a thousand years ago, and yet they remain impressed till this day in the oldest level of traditional songs!" Only a native or an enthusiastic devotee can perceive them so erotically.
"Far from the River Morava the full tones of the song O uásko, uásko [O, love, my love] undulated forth. The voice of girls doing the washing echoed off the nearby slope, and ran across the surface of the water, and dissolved into my soul. [...] But I hardly recognized the same song in the cut-off tones without sparkle, in the dryly occurring intervals in the stuffy hall at the parish, where, in the next room, the measured footsteps of the parish priest could be heard. Cold, stiff forms!" These are the words of Janacek, a man who did not follow in Susil's footsteps. He collected songs in inns, in the fields, wherever he happened to be. "And perhaps because of its enchanting, fleeting lifespan, because the source hinted but didn’t let on, because of the elemental nature of the milieu, because of its obviously belonging to the free life in the meadows, to the summer, the distance, the water, and perhaps because of all that, I loved it more than any other song; but of all those Straznice songs it was in that untamed, unflagging lively form that I was least able to note it down," sighed the botanist Úlehla in Živá píseň [The living song]. Today, to capture the emotion and passion of our predecessors means not remaining in one place, and abandoning the achieved and the refined, forgetting what has been learned.
The photographer Josef Koudelka was the one who first dragged me out to Straznice, telling me, "That's where you can still hear Moravian blues." It was raining n, and my flip-flop sandals sunk deep into the mud. I left them there, and spent the rest of the festival barefoot. Since that time I keep going back. I'm addicted to folklore. Moravia, or more precisely, its frontier with Slovakia, Slovacko, is entwined with magic. Like an ancient Celtic settlement or a sacred tree standing alone on the horizon it can change one’s way of seeing things. As a vagabond desiring to hear a song in its authentic form I walked everywhere, but didn't hear it. "The ballad is dead!" cries the pragmatist. "The only thing dying is your soul!" retorts the musician. Lying on my back under the stars in Spania Dolina I recalled a song I had never known. Was archetypal memory making itself heard, or do ideas return and we simply attribute them to ourselves? To become involved with the ballad is risky business, like working in a powder mill. With frivolously intended hollering you can insult the experts and the natives alike, but involuntarily you fan the flames of an unflagging source of passion. You make it clear that you want to listen. We experienced that at Jura Hudecek's place the year before last. The flood had carried off property and lives. The Hornacko festivities both took place and didn't take place. We sat round the table like the disciples, and Jura Hudecek, Jura Petru, and Martin Zalesak kept the music going. One impatiently took over from the other, and sometimes two sang at once. Outside the rains of the Scriptures were pouring down, and inside there was order, humility, and defiance. A feast of song. We didn't bother asking where those ballads were written down. As long as the singers find the tune, one ought just to listen and keep quiet.
Interpretation is the art of selection. Jana Lewitova has chosen songs with the undertones of old modes, derived from the modes of the ancient Greeks. "The spirit of antiquity is still alive here. Straznice is the Moravian Hellas", Rodin is said to have proclaimed at Jozka Uprka's place in 1903. The connection between folklore and ancient Greek tradition fascinated Zavis Kalandra. His rebel essay "Ceske pohanstvi" [Czech paganism], so often criticized by the ethnographers, was a source of strength for me while writing the screenplay for the film Opera ve vinici [Opera in the vineyard]. The ballad is memory put to music. The deified memory of the poet does not endeavour to reconstruct the past. It is the principle of the brotherhoods of recollecting. We hear mere tidings, a sung rumour, which eases extreme woe, a song of horror, prophetic songs, inadmissible songs.
We went against the flow of time, and came to learn that the collector Susil talked about his shortcomings. Nothing stimulates the imagination so much as being aware of one's ignorance. The edition from 1860 leads one to ask a number of questions. Is a transcription as precise as differentiation of dialects? Did Father Susil have any sense of the secret passion, the ritual pagan gesture, the wildness of the syncopation, the erotism of its flavour, the paganism concealed in the rhythm, the physicality of the dance? "The tempo is determined by the nature of the song," writes Susil in his Preface. Are we to rely on our idea of that nature, or are we to try to reconstruct the flow and experience of time in those days? What days? The days when the song was written down, or the days when the song seems to have been created? Look how easy it is to fall into the grave of musical archaeology! A lute-player of the Renaissance travels with his employer on the latter's unfathomable journeys. (Lute-players served as escorts to ambassadors, kings, and popes, and played "ambient music" in the background during important negotiations.) The coach travels through unknown lands. Singing is heard coming from the distance. They stop at an inn. The singing softly winds its way into the rooms of the noble guest. The lute-player goes downstairs and into the hall, curious to find out who the local players are and where the strange melodies are coming from. — Cut to another scene: the same musicians wading through the snow to the squire's castle. — The enlightened lord wants to demonstrate to the noble visitor that he is a philanthropist and a music connoisseur. The best singers from the church assist in the festivities. And again one hears the artfully consistent melodies with the grandness of the choral, but without its rigidity. The noble visitor listens with mild contempt to the local players. The melodies that had been heard during the festivities keep returning. The lute-player in a dream strokes the strings, and improvises from memory. A Moravian song with lute accompaniment is born.
Contact with the Protestant choral and courtly music surely influenced the nobility of the folk ballad. Its melody and decorative figures, alternately, could anchor themselves in the memory of educated musicians. The noble and the base meet in the ballad as naturally as the heavens and Earth; they are connected with one other as the forms of the crown and roots of a centuries-old oak. None of the selected melodies offers any single reading. One can make one’s way to them only by singing, and by playing. The ballads have no established key or tempo — in the low registers they sound noble, in the outdoors jubilant, relaxed as one’s footsteps, and at the studio microphone inappropriately quick. The ballad resists the yoke of the pre-selected tempo. In church its time flows spontaneously, but in the studio you hit upon the right tempo of the base track only after the tenth take. You drive it along with percussion; the ballad resists. After many attempts we called into the studio musical sounds of the real world. We played teapots filled with water, wooden spoons, little logs, bowls, and vases, and we clinked glass marbles, whistled, and scraped a zither. Biting into an apple is also an attempt to charm a piece of nature into a compact-disc. I played the bass here for the first time in my life, the zither and the mandolin without any instruction, and the lute as a folk musician. Or perhaps as a jazzman. An unwritten symbiosis of tradition and immediate improvisation. What musical century are we actually in?
The grazing sheep ignores one blade of grass, and gulps down some other. It distinguishes between the two with a speed the botanist could hardly manage. Thus I came to recognize what is genuine in each song, what has been added, what is correct, and what is contrived,’ Ulehla writes. We have tried here, no matter how futilely, to taste the ballad, at least from a distance, with today’s senses.