Saturday, January 10, 2015

Guru and Disciple (Yuri Arbatsky)

From 1933 to 1942, the composer and ethnomusicologist Yuri Arbatsky traveled in the Balkans, studying and recording the folk music traditions of the region. Much of the material he collected was confiscated and lost during World War II, but after the war his dissertation, "Das Mazedonische Tupanspiel," publication of which had been forbidden by the Gestapo, was translated into English and published by the Newbery Library in Chicago as Beating the Tupan in the Central Balkans. Though most of the book deals with musicological arcana, the following section, in which he recounts his apprenticeship with a sort of Albanian version of Obi-Wan Kenobi, an elderly master of the tupan (a kind of drum), may provide some amusement.
The facts as given in the following chapters are the result of my studies with the folkmusician [sic] and famous tupanist Mehmed of Spinadija near Prizren. These studies were made, with certain interruptions, in the years 1933-1937. […]

During my period of study with Mehmed I kept a detailed diary of my progress as a folkmusician, although I had no intention of making a special record of this relationship. I must confess that, being “spoiled” — Mehmed conferred that designation on everyone who had concerned himself with the study of Occidental art music — I did not at first take his teachings seriously. What could a primitive man teach me about music? With the first lessons, however, I began to perceive the subtleties of his instruction and the scope of the material to be mastered. All of my former studies and my professional practice of years were useless here. I began to work in earnest, and eventually advanced to a proper understanding and respect for the art of folkmusic. As a novice, and one even more handicapped than the native beginner who had been aquainted with the peculiarities of this great folkart since childhood, I worked at a great disadvantage. For even the untrained native, through constant contact with the music of his region, was furnished with some general knowledge of it.

When I began my studies with Mehmed I fancied that I had an excellent knowledge of this kind of music, to which I had often listened before. Thus my irritation was considerable when, on requesting him to play something to which I would “beat time” on the tupan, Mehmed, after smilingly taking up his zurla [a wind instrument] and beginning to blow, put aside his instrument and told me with deepest contempt that I was a dunce. I had always held my own playing in high esteem; I had often listened to how the tupan was beaten; and had of course read many books on Balkan folkmusic. But I was just beginning to discover that there existed other rules of which nothing is written in any book, and that the tupanist, in his playing, is bound by principles unknown in the Occidental science of music. I had yet to be convinced that it was insufficient to beat the tupan in the way I had seen and heard, merely by imitation. It is, indeed, hard for a person brought up in the Occidental tradition of art music not to consider these musical performances as primitive. How could I suspect that in this “indescribable din” lay concealed a wealth of musical wisdom?

In Mehmed's eyes I was just a musical dunce. When I urged him to tell me why, he only repeated again and again, “You are spoiled! You are spoiled!” When I pressed him for an explanation he remained mute. He was either unwilling or unable to explain his judgment of my abilities. I decided to become his pupil — and was flatly refused, in spite of my repeated entreaties. I offered him payment for his instruction, but that was the worst approach I could have made. He became furious and shouted: “You are my friend and I will never accept anything from you! But you are spoiled and will never be able to learn anything.” Nevertheless I finally succeeded in persuading him. He agreed to teach me, for the sake of God, but I had to promise never to resist his methods and “to obey him blindly.”

With the very first lesson I began to see how little I knew. I was told to beat with the drumstick on the tupan at regular intervals. This is usually the simplest of musical performances, if the intervals are short; but it is extremely difficult it the intervals are thirty to forty seconds apart. It was beating of this kind which Mehmed first asked me to do.

Needless to say, the first lesson was a complete failure. Yet I was warned for the second lesson. I looked at my watch — unperceived — and succeeded! Mehmed was puzzled and obviously content with my progress; he said that I might accomplish something after all.

With this measure of success behind me, I exercised myself thoroughly in the beating with long intervals. It took me about eight months until I had mastered this exercise which native musicians generally learn in two or three weeks. Moreover, I still looked at my watch during the lessons, but Mehmed was not aware of it. The lessons took place every day, for myself as well as for the native pupils. When Mehmed had made sure that I was able to beat slowly in regular intervals, he explained to me that there are short and longer beats and told me to perform a short beat and a longer one alternately. To my question about what difference there was between a short and a longer beat he was not able to give an answer; he merely ordered me to play.

Reflecting that a short beat might have the value of one unit, and a longer one that of two units, I began to play accordingly. Mehmed glanced at my compassionately, but did not give the least explanation as to why the intervals of the beats were wrong. He only said, “Now you can see how spoiled you are!”

I became impatient and was about to abandon his teaching when he reminded me of my promise to work obediently and never to offer any resistance. I then asked him to demonstrate to me on the tupan what he meant by short and longer beats. He only replied that this would be undignified — whether on my part or on his I could not tell. Nor did I dare ask another question, for he had become angry.

Finally, however, he took my hand and began to guide it. As it was hard for me to find out the real length of the beats, I again resorted to my watch for help. Thus I learned that the short and the longer beats had the proportion of 1: 1 1/2 to each other. Now I knew the proportion, and with the help of my watch, to Mehmed's great astonishment, I could perform correctly. Later I learned that the use of short beats and longer ones constituted a fixed musical conception among the natives, not requiring any explanation. […]

My studies with Mehmed lasted about three years. What deep and extensive knowledge must be at the disposal of the folkmusicians of great style who study for ten years or more!
Arbatsky comments on his tutor: “Mehmed himself, whose age was difficult to determine — he was then about eighty years old — declared that he had never attended a folkmusic school. When still a youth he had been taught by an old folkmusician who in his time had attended such a school in Koritza. But it was impossible to find out when this had occurred, since the Albanians consider a man of forty still a youth, and sometimes one of sixty a young man.… Mehmed at eighty did not in the least think of himself as an old man! He was only a man in the years of his maturity. Shortly before I made his acquaintance, he had married a girl of thirteen, who even gave birth to children of his. Who knows how long he would have lived had he not been killed in 1938 by a bullet while crossing the frontier west of Djevdelija!”

Arbatsky failed to learn longevity from his master; he died of a heart attack in 1963 at the age of 52.

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