Lost Chords & Serenades Divine #18 by Stephen McClurg
Christopher C. King’s Lament from Epirus: An Odyssey into Europe’s Oldest Surviving Folk Music (2018)
In an interview, Christopher C. King said that he doesn’t listen to music after 1940. The least generous image that came to my mind was a Mr. Show segment in the episode “The Velveteen Touch of a Dandy Fop” in which a man offers a doughnut to someone who refuses and says he doesn’t eat food “approved by the masses.” He also carries a mini-Victrola and says it’s the only modern piece of equipment he will touch. When asked about listening to a CD, he says, “People were not meant to hear music with such clarity. People need to hear snaps and pops and that shit.” This leads to a skit about two rival megaphone crooners, who I believe are meant to be stand-ins for the East Coast/West Coast hip-hop rivalry of the time.
I’ve come to appreciate King’s perspective, though alien to my own. He offers the most generous image of the dandy fop, which turns out to be neither dandy nor fop, but an idealist searching for the point where music and humanity meet. The lament in the title is a type of music, but also meant to be a longing for music lived within a community, when music was the fire and breath of a people responding to the immediate world around them. This is music not as commodity, but as air taken in during celebrations and mourning, but also part of living daily life. The lament is not just an Epirotic genre that King gives us insight into while relating it to other forms like the memento mori, but also the lamentation for music in general and how we have chosen to relate to it.
Epirotic music comes from the Epirus region of northwestern Greece. This folk music is frequently driven by mournful clarinet or violin melodies set to drones or dancing rhythms. Think of something like Appalachian fiddle improvisations with lots of trills interspersed between long notes or imitations of bird song while being played as Roma ballads.
The book offers a listener’s journey, maybe something more fanatical in collectors like King, who travels to Istanbul and around Greece searching for living and recorded forms of Epirotic music, the focus of the book and considered to be the oldest surviving European folk music. This particular journey is cushioned in the ideas of the larger journey of how we search for meaning in our lives. Evidently, he is willing to take in certain types of live music performed obviously past the 1940 expiration date for recordings, though I’m sure the date holds for the time of composition of said live music. Given this, King has to weigh in on one of the trickier terms that one hears in relation to music and music criticism: authenticity.
Though the writing is worth reading on its own merits and covers related music history and theory in ways any reader can enjoy, I think even King would find it strange for someone to read the book without going to the music. There is a spectacular collection made for the book, and since its release, several of the artists have also had newly issued collections of their own work.
The music is undeniable, earthly and ethereal. Somehow familiar, but in total also not like anything I have heard. I hear qualities of American Appalachian music, itself borrowing from various European, African, and Native forms; there are drone qualities reminiscent of Eastern or Middle Eastern styles, elements of klezmer, Roma, and imitations of vocal and natural sounds. Taken together, the book and the music collection make a spectacular project.
Christopher C. King’s Lament from Epirus: An Odyssey into Europe’s Oldest Surviving Folk Music is available online and at book stores. The Lament from Epirus soundtrack is available from Tompkins Square Records.
Stephen McClurg (Episode 24) writes and teaches in Birmingham, Alabama. He co-hosts The Outrider Podcast, writes at Eunoia Solstice, and infrequently blogs. He has contributed music as a solo artist and with the group Necronomikids to past episodes of The Drunken Odyssey.