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Written in fRoots issue 304, 2008

A String Of Sutartines

Kuku SMF 033 (2008)

Sutartines are a form of polyphonic vocal or instrumental music that until the mid 20th century was a living tradition in Aukstaitija, Lithuania’s north-eastern highlands. Stemming from way back in the old layers of European music, they consist of ostinato figures from two or more singers or players that continuously overlap to make shifting patterns akin to the 20th-century ‘systems’ or ‘knitting-pattern’ music of classical avant-gardists such as Philip Glass.
      They’re a survival into nearly the present day of an archaic musical pattern-making, music made for the sound it makes, without beginning or end, rather than as an arc-structured piece, that’s found not only among neighbours such the Setu people of Estonia and the Polese of Belarus but in the old musics of cultures worldwide.
      Sutartines died out as a part of social life in the villages as the 20th century marched on, but recordings and transcriptions survive, and as has happened with other village musics across Europe they have been taken up by urban enthusiasts in folklore and choral groups, and also to an extent by jazz and other musicians looking for some roots identity and inspiration.
      Sutartiniu Pyne - A String Of Sutartines is a compilation mostly of 21st-century approaches by bands and singing groups but also including a handful of 1930s recordings, made by folklorist Zenonas Slaviunas, of sutartines that show the form as delivered variously by a group of singers, a group of players of ragai (birchbark trumpets), another group playing skuduciai (like dismembered panpipes, each person playing just one or two tubes), and a player of Lithuania’s parallel to the Finnish kantele, the kankles.
      The scratchy 1930s recordings contextualise the present-day approaches, in some of which sutartines are performed ‘straight’ but which generally show the ways in which musicians are interpreting and embedding them in new musical adventures, including rock, jazz and quirkiness. The twenty-eight tracks include the rock-connected Atalyja, Pievos and Zalvarinis, the ritualistic Kulgrinda, Lithuanian/North Indian group Lyla with traditional singer Veronika Povilioniene, folklore groups Sedula, Dijuta and Sutaras, and the vocal group Trys Keturiose on their own and in conjunction with techno fusion work of Linas Rimsa and Linas Paulaskis.
      It’s an album that not only gives a strong flavour of sutartines’ nature and possibilities but is also recommended as an intriguing and listenable window on the interesting musics evolving in Lithuania.


© 2008 Andrew Cronshaw

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