As musicians, we yearn to create, whether it’s through composing, crafting an individual sound or flipping a beloved piece on its head to make something that’s never been heard before. We long to breathe life into new ideas and to share stories that have not yet been told. In doing so, we create something that speaks to our shared experience, something that helps make sense of our world. But sometimes our educational institutions can muddle the realm of creation and recreation, preparing students to replicate that which already exists rather than foster personal creativity.
re/CREATE, an interview series from 21CM, provides a glimpse into the minds of musicians who create sounds unique to their own voice while celebrating the artists and traditions that have most influenced them. Join 21CM and host Joe Brent each month as we celebrate some of the most innovative musicians of our day, who pay homage to the traditions they love while creating music from the heart.
In this episode, Brent interviews singer-songwriter and VOCO founder Moira Smiley, who has long taken inspiration from both the music and life of Béla Bartók. Brent teams up with Smiley to perform her recreation: three songs by Bartók, arranged by Smiley and set to original lyrics.
Tell me about your experience of [Bartók’s] music. How did it come into your life and how does it relate to what you’ve been doing since then?
I brought in the first Béla Bartók book [for piano] that I ever had, and it was my treasure. So this was the beginning. I feel like Bartók has been a huge part of who I am.
Your musical journey is, in a lot of ways, very similar to his.
In some ways, yeah. Being a composer and a collector of songs. … He’s such a human being to aspire towards because his writing was so rigorous and daring, and also his collecting of songs – he just didn’t cut one corner. [Bartók] began the dance that I do between art music and folk music. I feel very much a student of that process.
One of the common threads in musicians that I’ve been talking to for this project is that they’ve all said some version of, “I don’t compartmentalize these things. Each one informs the other.”
It’s true. And my aesthetics have definitely been chiseled by being next to a group of grandmothers singing in Ukraine. They say, “Harmony’s nice, but the way you really ‘unzip the horizon’ is by singing in unison.” … It’s this idea of the collective music-making that they believe strongly in.
In these places [in] Eastern Europe where Bartók was working, and that you’ve been investigating, it seems more common that you have traditions that have been passed down orally over centuries. It’s hard to think of a tradition that’s that longstanding [in America].
I would say old-time and bluegrass are [two American] examples, and jazz is somewhat of an example, too. In all of these countries, too, folk music has taken a sidestep. Music as part of ritual lasted for a while longer even after popular music was around, but a lot of this folk music isn’t at the center of a young person’s life. … In Bulgaria, there are schools. The time of socialism in that country really brought folk music up into the classical realm. They’re still going. The people I’ve studied with in Bulgaria are products of these schools. They’re folk musicians, but they’re studied.
I feel like I want to keep that under my arm as a composer – this idea that you come from a place. You’re a functional part of society. That’s why I love to get big groups of people to sing. That’s when I feel useful. Or bring music to somebody that doesn’t get to hear it very much.
Can you tell me a story of a place where you went to investigate the music of a culture and were surprised by it? Where you found maybe a little bit of yourself that you didn’t expect to find?
What I found in Bulgaria was that even though a lot of the songs were sad – especially in women’s lives but also soldiers’ – the culture there was sort of “chin up” and positive. I gained a sort of wisdom about why I do music. I do love melancholy and feeling that soul in a performance, but I also feel like I want to lift people up.
I can tell you that your music has been part of a joyous experience for lots and lots of people. Thank you so much.
The above interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Can’t wait for more Moira Smiley? You can preorder her newest album, “Unzip the Horizon,” here.