Mediations : The Example of a Mutation

Notes on Bela Bartok (excerpts)

Mediations: the Example of a Mutation


A succession of visual shots (1) with contrasting soundscapes form the synopsis of a film that is meant to be heard: in 1905, the composer Bela Bartok left on the back of a donkey to collect the music of farmers and mountain dwellers from the most remote parts of his country. Today, we cannot fathom what the depth of the silence of the world was at that time, past the last streets of towns and villages. Noises and sounds overlapped, from the closest to the furthest, from the most subtle to the coarsest, and their trajectory wasn’t perturbed. We are made aware of this thanks to the subtlety of the orchestrations of the time – Debussy, Richard Strauss, and, later, Ravel and Bartok himself. Such subtlety lies in the ways in which planes of sound peel away from backdrops of silence that aren’t “natural” but rather also “composed”… Once he had arrived at his destination, the musician noted with extreme precision the music he heard, lullabies, dances, harvest songs, etc. The letters he wrote testified of his amazement in the face of such finesse and invention. He had found the musical traces of a tradition which, before his arrival, had been transmitted orally from generation to generation. The music’s modal, melodic and rhythmical variations were still untouched by the erudite music of the cities and by external influences.

And yet, by setting this music on paper, Bartok payed a tribute that was to reveal itself fatal to the music he wished to serve, since this music based its identity on oral transmission as much as it did on its origins, and its character was linked to seasonal and domestic rites as much as it was on its mode of memorization. The relationship between its content – the message – and the way in which it passed from conscience to conscience, from generation to generation – the medium – was studied “in itself” by what is known as “humanities” only later, and in a broad sense, mainly by Mc Luhan (“Medium is the message”) and Régis Debray. And, therefore, set on scores – changing mediums – this music’s message was etched on a memorial stone that would soon be known as “folk music”, letting in a new era of annotated, classified and recorded cultural content which could, in the end, be “duplicated” on demand.



The First World War was to strike a fatal blow to anything that had stayed at the margins of the dominant cultural trends of cities in Central and Eastern Europe: soldiers came back to their home countries transformed by the collective and individual horrors they had suffered and by the cultural mix that such a reunion of soldiers fostered. Cultural intermingling gives rise to exchanges but also implies normalization and leveling. In 1918, the songs and dances, which Bartok had heard only 13 years earlier, no longer had the same status in the minds of those who sang them. These musical pieces had initially served a ritual function, but they were about to become the exact opposite: “cultural objects”. And what more should we say of the arrival of new techniques to reproduce music, or of the cultural and behavioral models that were to emerge with the arrival of film in the most remote parts of the countryside? Although these new techniques probably didn’t impose themselves as quickly as the Internet today, they did so decisively, just as we now write emails instead of letters!


A cultural object : Folk Music

The scene takes place in 1938 in New York, where Bela Bartok recently emigrated, fleeing the string of dictatorships in Hungary. He lives with his wife, the pianist Dita Pasztory, in a modest apartment in town. A few musicians associations try to assist him, as do friends like Yehudi Menuhin, who eventually commissions the Sonata for Solo Violin (1942). The organizers of a “folk” music festival invite the composer to listen to musicians coming from regions which Bartok had previously visited. It is said that Bartok only stayed ten minutes listening to the musicians. He left the room “without an explanation”, as the columns described. We are left to determine which feeling led him to leave: indignation, anger, shame?

The music Bartok wrote following his first trips are some of the most original and influential compositions of the twentieth century. These compositions owe a debt to all of the musical tunes that he transcribed and which were therefore stripped of their oral transmission modes, but which Bartok enriched, in turn, with all the relational capacities of his “vivid memory” as a Western musician. Bartok’s prophetism rooted in an ancestral tradition, and, at the same time, in a movement that far exceeded his best intentions: it seems like the world evolves through a series of mediological mutations in which we feature more as blind agents than as enlightened actors. Today, new mediations, which have taken the shape of the Internet and social media, transform everything that used to be indexed on standards which were relatively or tendantially seen as “objective”: the facts, truth…


From Sound Pictures to a Musical Film


This adventure is very significant in terms of what we do when we start to search for traces of our cultural memory: we fix these traces when they are fluid and mobile, we inventory them even when we know that they are still alive, and we omit to realize that, by changing the mode of transmission, by changing the medium, we transform the trace. Thoughts on cultural memory are a discussion on the passage from one mode of transmission to another, from the old medium, which is observed as being in use, to the new medium, which is the one used to make the observation. Creators have grasped this better than theorists. Chaplin was one of them. He demonstrated this brilliantly in “The Circus” (1928) in which he depicts what happens when one type of cultural mediation takes over another. He allows us to witness the ways in which the film overshadows the circus that is being depicted, and the demonstration is flawless. The circus is “overcome” by the film in more ways than one: symbolically, when the circus is no longer a symbolic anchoring place for the spectators, who laugh at something that no longer belongs to it (Chaplin, as an “offside” ringmaster); spatially, the limits of the ring are overcome, materially, by the acrobatic crossings of the unintentional hero. The comic effect stems from the mise en scène, which is no longer conducted by the circus, but by and for cinema. And the audience, who came to the circus, ends up applauding what is happening on the film set, without even realizing it. In short, if we are willing to hear it, the film manages to tell us, the witnesses of its rise to power, that the function which the circus used to serve in an artisanal world is now, in the technical and industrial world, served by film.



Bartok’s path followed the one traced by the dominant mediums of his time, such as photography, with which he rivaled in precision to affix the music he heard on paper. He then espoused the contours that the new dominating medium, cinema, was mapping. Bartok went back to record the same farmers whose music he had transcribed, this time to make a sound film of sorts. Bartok’s path, like ours today, followed the path of his era, or was in fact, the era itself. All Western intellectuals inevitably took this path when they went beyond their own cultural frontiers. What sets Bartok’s approach apart as a singular and exemplary case, lies in what he made out of this path, what resulted from his own development: a profoundly original work of music. Beyond his injunction, shared by all creators, to go ahead and consciously transform the things that are unconsciously transformed anyway, to use everything that we can lay our hands on, as the saying goes… we must also ask ourselves what a musical piece is (2) to better understand how Bartok’s approach can help us intensify the way we listen to our world, to our time, and to ourselves.



(1) DVD Gyökerek/Roots, a documentary film by Istvan Gaal. Hungaroton.

(2) Consciousness as  generative center of music : See in this site the article ELSWHERE and NOW :


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