Process: Springboarding from Tradition into Modern Imagination

Guy Mendilow Headshot — Photo by Gretjen Helene.jpg

There is a spectrum between cultural curation, best described as an ethnomusicologically "correct" performance of songs from a  particular time and place, and artistic creation, which can be  regarded as an artist's unique interpretation based on his or her  personal aesthetics and experience. Artists working closely with traditional material from outside their own lived sphere have an added consideration: they almost invariably

replace traditional cultural identity markers— like vocal timbre, ornamentation and tuning — with elements from their own background. This places an added responsibility for such artists in acknowledging  where on the

continuum between curation and creation they lie, and in identifying their aims in  so situating themselves. In this case, it should be stated from the start that The Forgotten Kingdom does not aim for ethno-musicological authenticity. While my creative process with these traditional Ladino songs does indeed begin with ethno-musicological field  recordings, followed by research into the songs’ traditional  function and context, it generally takes major turns.

Most of these songs were sung primarily by women, in the home or community events like weddings, unaccompanied except perhaps for a drum. The themes may be dark, but the songs were normally sung in a familiar way, without melodrama. My own next steps generally lead me away from tradition, knowingly and deliberately. I ask compositional questions:  “What can I imagine the mood of the story, or the emotions of some of the characters, to be, despite the traditional ways the song would have been sung? If it were a film, what could be the setting? Were I to create a soundtrack for this film, how would I use the musical tools available to me, and the expertise of the Ensemble members, to  bring these tales, moods and emotions to life in a way that will be  personally evocative and that will move audiences powerfully and emotionally?”

As a composer and student of culture I readily admit that it is risky to recast such rich traditional material this way. We leap from tradition into modern imagination.My hope is that the resulting arrangements bring the stories to life in a way that will be vivid and fresh for modern western audiences — and that through the emotional resonance  created, these audiences will in turn also become interested in the  musical legacy of communities that, sadly, were all but destroyed  and whose traditions quickly fade in a rapidly globalizing world. — Guy Mendilow