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25 February 2009

Ruth Lee Martin on composing and folk music

Ruth Lee Martin Image: Ruth Lee Martin  

In the first half of 2009, Ruth Lee Martin is composing works for vocal ensemble and choir in collaboration with the poet Alan Gould, a project made possible by an ArtsACT Creative Fellowship. Simultaneously, her folk/fusion band Eilean Mòr is preparing to launch a CD and tour the folk festival circuit. In this blog article, Ruth Lee Martin writes about the way that growing up surrounded by folk music has inspired her work as a composer.

I think the intersection between folk music and Western art music is a really interesting one that has long been neglected in Australian commentary. In Scotland the divide between folk music and Western art music is there, but the edges are softened and blurred. Folk music has held a central place in my family and I’ve been a folk singer for as long as I can remember. I was born into a poor, working class family in Scotland. My mother used to sing Scottish folk songs for visitors from the chair on which she was placed for such occasions, and my grandmother and great-grandmother were often invited to provide the entertainment at local weddings with their unaccompanied renditions of the old songs. So folk music is my mother tongue.

In my twenties I heard some music by Ravel on the radio that had such an impact on me it completely changed my life. I immediately applied myself to concentrated formal music studies (somewhat obsessively, I think, in hindsight!) and I ended up a year or two later doing a Bachelor of Music degree. There my love of composing folk songs turned also into a love of composing works within the Western art tradition. I enjoyed the compositional craft that quickly developed and that opened up a whole new musical world. Curiously, as I look back, I kept my folk music composing and my Western art composing completely separate for some years. I think it had a lot to do with confidence – the way in which folk music is, or at least has been, perceived within academic and contemporary music circles as a kind of 'poor cousin'. Over time I found this artificial divide more and more difficult to maintain. As I began to slowly feel my way into my own compositional style, the folk influence emerged more and more because it was so much a part of me.

If you have an interest in using folk music, then Bartok’s your man – his writings are really terrific, interesting and illuminating. He often talks about the need for a composer to completely assimilate folk music to get the most out of it. In my case, I use folk music both consciously and unconsciously depending on context or mood. I use the songs or tunes in a variety of ways, but usually I use a fragment or two, or even a short phrase, and use the pitches and rhythms as cells to generate more material. Sometimes I place a phrase into a matrix – a technique I learnt from Larry Sitsky. At other times it might just be the title that provides the creative impetus – never in a programmatic sense but on a more abstract level. It’s really about externalising musically my emotional response to a certain word or phrase. I also try and embed the special characteristics of a particular folk tune or song into the work as a whole, as I think this is important on a number of levels.

The Gaelic songs of the Highlands are something that continually inspire me. This musical tradition is unbelievably rich and ranges from the most sublime and tragic songs of loss, to lively mouth music – a kind of vocal gymnastics – and to the steady pounding rhythms of the working songs: the women’s work songs in particular fascinate me. Often I listen to field recordings from the School of Scottish Studies that were recorded in the 1940s and '50s. There is an immediacy and rawness to these voices that provide a great antidote to the often over-produced sounds of today.

So that’s how I see it - I’d be really interested to hear from anyone else with a similar interest in using folk music as a basis for composing works.

Further links


Dr Ruth Lee Martin is active in many areas of music composition, performing and research in various combinations. In January 2009, she received an ArtsACT Creative Fellowship, enabling her to focus on composing works for vocal ensemble and choir - including Trinity College Choir, Halcyon, Gondwana Voices and SCUNA - the university choir at ANU. The new CD by the folk/fusion band Eilean Mòr (translates from the Gaelic as 'Big Island') will be launched around Easter. Two of the tracks from this CD are included in the Australian National Museum's new exhibition 'Australian Journeys'


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Quite agree

Everything you say, Ruth, resonates with me (no pun intended), especially the bit about fully absorbing the influence. Actually I think this goes for any influence, not just folk music. When a composer grabs something like a magpie and puts it in a piece, it remains on the surface - not that there's anything wrong with that. But when an influence is absorbed, it can give rise to aa deeper, subtler colouring of the music. I find myself turning to folk music for a kind of vibrancy. It's not usually real folk music (actual tunes) that I use, so much as gestures and techhniques from folk music, especially fiddling. Even scores that don't have any discernible connection with a particular folk culture will often be full of the use of open strings (for instance) or certain rhythms derived from folk music.