29 September 2007

A Clam in High Water

Man at tram stop: Девушка, балалайка опять в моде? Hey, is the balalaika back in style?
Me, smiling brightly: Нет, совсем не в моде. Nope! Not at all in style.

This exchange made me happy – it's the first time, in either Russian or English, that I've had a remotely snappy reply for someone who's made a smart remark about the instrument I was carrying. And that actually happens a lot when your instrument is six feet tall and you're only five foot two, or when your instrument wraps around your body. (I sure know how to pick 'em, eh?)

Yes, the balalaika is about as square as you can get in Russia. Kind of like klezmer in the U.S., or maybe the banjo – awesome, yes, but totally not stylish. I've had to assure a fair number of people that yes, I am aware that playing the balalaika doesn't make me "more Russian," and yes, I realize that most Russians don't know how to play the balalaika, and no, I am not trying to imitate anyone from the American film version of Dr. Zhivago. I realize that comes with the territory when you're a foreigner studying an instrument that Russians assume is a stereotype of their culture, and it doesn't really bother me. But almost every time I walk down the street with the balalaika, either a five-year-old child or a drunk eighteen-year-old dude will point and crow with delight, "BALALAIKA!" Really, I should start carrying "Captain Obvious" stickers to hand out.

So if I'm not trying to make like Lara and I don't like being pointed at, why do I play the balalaika? I actually don't have a good answer for that. When I got to Russia, I missed playing music, and someone suggested taking guitar or accordion lessons, and then I found out that accordions (also a Russian folk instrument) were expensive and balalaikas were cheap, and things sort of went from there. Not to say that I don't love it with all my heart. It's a fascinating instrument. Besides being shaped like a triangle, its main characteristic is the variety of ways in which you can get it to make noise – strumming with the thumb, wagging the wrist up and down and hitting the strings with the index finger, pizzicato and "two-sided" pizzicato, a fancy finger-spreading technique called a drop, a tinkling tremolo, a vibrato made with the right hand instead of the left, a sharp pluck made with the left hand instead of the right.

Anyway, I just got set up with a new balalaika teacher and had my first lesson. The faculty director of the institute's student club, who is herself giving me singing lessons (she's my kind of singing teacher – she prints off the lyrics to a bunch of folk songs, Okudzhava and Vysotsky, and we bash through them together with little to no regard for anything resembling technique), found him for me at the local music college. I'll admit, when I heard that my new teacher was a man, I had brief visions of a dashing young balalayechnik (who doesn't?), but Mikhail Semyonovich is seventy if he's a day. All the same, I'm really excited to have him for a teacher. All of my most effective music teachers and language teachers have had the same M.O.: be very, very kind, as well as honest and serious about your student's performance, and the student will want nothing more than to not disappoint you. This is exactly the kind of guy Mikhail Semyonych seems to be. He's very quiet and calm, takes care to correct every serious mistake I make, criticizes without judging, always checks whether I understand him, and addresses me, at least for now, на вы [using the formal 'you' rather than the familiar, which would be well within his rights considering our age difference]. I walked home from my lesson smiling all the way, despite the drunk eighteen-year-old dude who pointed and crowed, "BALALAIKA!," because I know I'm going to learn a lot from him.

One last thing: I learned today that a scale (as in do-re-mi etc.) is called a гамма/'gamma' in Russian. If anyone (linguists? music theorists? eh?) has any idea why that might be, I'd be interested to hear. (If you think the fact that I got through a whole year without knowing the word for 'scale' says something about my last balalaika teacher, you'd be right.)


Mike said...

Funny, my first comment didn't post through. Anyway, perhaps the use of "gamma" comes from a similar origin as the word "gamut." Back in the day, monks (who invented written music) used a movable do, except they called it "ut" instead of "do" (ut re mi fa sol etc). To specify your actual key, you had to identify which ut you were using. Ledger lines hadn't been invented yet, so the lowest note they could write was a G on the bass clef. Since German monks clearly spoke Greek, they called it "gamma." So if some monk wanted something sung in the "gamma ut," you know he wanted to use the lowest note conceivable. The meaning eventually changed to refer to the entire range of notes (and here comes my guess), much like a scale.

Leslie said...

Yay, I knew someone would have an idea! Thanks for the comment! It seems pretty likely that the words are somehow related, and even they're somehow not, it's an interesting word history! I should find out what a scale is called in German - I obv. don't know a lot about Russian music history, but it seems, from the terminology used etc., that when they decided they wanted to bring Western music to Russia, they went to the Germans...

Celine said...

Hey Leslie,

Glad you found a nice teacher!
As for the German: their word for scale is 'Tonleiter', litterally it means tone ladder. Not really a connection with gamut, I'm afraid. I did find out that in Dutch, sqeezebox (lovely word!)players use the term gamut as well, as a synonym for gamma, or, scale.... Maybe the word is especially used for certain kinds of instruments?

Lisa said...

My etymological dictionary seems to confirm Mike's guess. The entry shows that "gamut" and "gamma" are synonymous. Then (abridged) we have the following:

Gamut, entire range, (earlier) the entire series of notes in music, (earlier still), Guido D'Arezzo's 'great scale, (orig) the 1st of lowest note of that model scale, devised c1040: Gr gamma, prop the 3rd letter of the Gr alphabet... in the 'great sclae', the notes are named by letters + the syllable of the successive hexachords, ut (now usu do) being the 1st syllable...

Luke Thomas Smith said...

If what you say about the balalaika is true, the analogy the the banjo does not hold. Playing the banjo in an indie rock band is hipper than Pabst.

Leslie said...

What's a squeezebox? Oh, wait, I looked it up. What a hilarious word! Anyway, thanks for the information - I wasn't likely to get around to looking it up myself, with my complete lack of German skills... Also, regarding your other comment: haha, I totally forgot about your insane roommate. Olya, right? I never actually met her, and yet, I remember her so clearly. btw, did you hear Anna's in Russia again? I'm dying to go up to Moscow and see her. If you're interested in coming to Moscow for New Year's, we could all party together! :)

Hooray for etymological dictionaries! I'm glad I'm not the only geek who owns one (actually, two... but it's not my fault).

Well, I lose for not being up on current trends in indie rock. (I think I get a break for being very, very far away from any sort of indie rock scene, although as a side note, the word 'indie,' at least, is now worming its way into the Russian lexicon, as indie becomes more (sigh) mass-marketed and globally exported.) To revise my assertion, I'll say that the balalaika is like the banjo would be in an America with no hipsters around to take uncool things and make them ironically and/or legitimately cool. That kind of counter-culture is still a little too underground (that is, legitimately counter-culture? oh, what a confusing world we live in!) in Russia to have an effect on the mainstream.

Celine said...

Oh, you mean girl! Yes I heard about Anna being in Moscow, and yes I'm interested in partying there! I don't think I'll have the resources though... I'm still keeping it in mind, I hope to graduate before that time, and I think I deserve a break after that!
Oh, and yes, Olya was her name. To bad she shares her name with my lovely sister and millions of other perfectly normal Russian ladies!