SOME songs are for singing in the fields, some for the forests, and others for the house. Russian folk music is as various as the flowers of the field and, as sung by the Dmitri Pokrovsky Ensemble, every bit as beautiful. Liberated for world travel by glasnost, the company has toured the US four times with its once suppressed music, garnering praise from critics and loyalty from audiences wherever they've been.
Much of the music in the group's 2,000-song repertoire predates Russian Christianity, while many contemporary Russian composers have made music to suit the ensemble's special character. The haunting beauty of a medieval song based on Psalm 116 embraces and comforts the listener, while a love song of the Don River Cossacks kindles the desire to dance.
The singers sometimes dance, as if moved only by the spirit of the moment. The women use their hands in almost every song, whether they dance or not, the gestures suggesting the shaping of the exotic sounds.
It all started when young physicist/musician Dmitri Pokrovsky vacationed in 1971 in a small rural village in his native Russia. There he heard five old women sing an ancient song and found himself deeply moved. "It made such a strong impression on me," he told me at the Arvada Center for the Arts, where the troop gave two concerts last week. "They had such strength," he continued. "They sounded like young girls of 16."
Pokrovsky had never heard music like it - few, if any, from Moscow had. "It changed my life," he says. A graduate of the Gnesen Pedagogical Institute of Music, he decided to make the study of endangered Russian folk music his life work. It was no easy road, given the political repression of peasant culture and ethnic diversity under Brezhnev and his predecessors. Nevertheless, Pokrovsky was allowed to travel and collect songs from elderly peasants who remembered them - at his own expense - and eventually he wrote his doctoral dissertation on the music. It was a little more problematic to sing it in public, but sing it he did.
"As a physicist, I was interested in how the music was made," he says. "Professional singers cannot sing this music unless specially trained. I studied the work (cantometrics) of American ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax (there was one copy of his book in Moscow in the early '70s), recorded the music, and studied the recordings.
"But I soon realized it was impossible to understand this music from the outside. It is very alive - this music. If you want to understand it, you have to get inside it. So I went to sing with the peasants. I lived in the villages and tried to understand the sense of the words and what they mean to the people of the region."
Pokrovsky's studies quickly attracted the attention of other scholars. The eleven members of his ensemble come from a variety of academic and professional backgrounds, including philology, ethnomusicology, performance arts, ethnography, and engineering. Pokrovsky taught them the intricacies of the music. …