In an industrialised Europe that experienced the First World War, the virtuosic, personalised  and romanticised art of richness that 19th century represented did no longer serve the ultimate goal of artistic creation. 


For the avant-garde of the early 20th century, the return to the roots and traditions was a way to reach a purer idea of art, detached by any artificial civility1. Based on this, the vocal approach could not be unaffected. The Folk Voice, a voice closer to nature and the first memories of our species, started to appear in many important works of the time.

With this return, composers reconstructed the approach of the human voice in an attempt to establish a deeper connection between folk music and their own ideas about it2Being inspired by different origins, rites and customs, they were no more satisfied with the idea of a distant interpretation, but instead translated them into musical elements by exploring different singing techniques, material, vocal abilities and nuances.

The link between musical worlds and the involvement of folk singing techniques in the contemporary creation, gave a new direction to vocal aesthetics3.




Composition / Folk Songs



A typical early example is Les Noces (1912-1923) by Igor Stravinsky for vocal soloists, chorus, four pianos and percussion. The work was described neither as a ballet or an opera, but according to Richard Taruskin "in its conception and structure it approximates a new and specifically Russian type of spectacle that has been sketched only in the imaginations" of few other leading musical figures4. Presenting the rite of a Russian village wedding, the composer - also librettist - used laments and songs coming from wedding songs, traditional rhymes and texts mostly from a folk-song collection published in 1911 by the folklorist Pyotr Kireyevsky5. Stravinsky collected text extracts, musical notation and detailed descriptions of pre-Christian rites which later were arranged and manipulated into musical patterns6.


The composer Tikhon Khrennikov described: "In […] Les Noces Stravinsky, with Diaghilev’s blessing, uses Russian folk customs in order to mock at them in the interests of European audiences, which he does by emphasising Asiatic primitivism, coarseness, and animal instincts, and deliberately introducing sexual motives. Ancient folk melodies are intentionally distorted as if seen in a crooked mirror”7


In Les Noces the use of the voice, soloists and choir, brings a whole new vocal approach that imitates folk singing. The connection to Russian folklore aesthetic together with the idea of the lament created a need for a different use of the voice with ornamentation, accents, gliding pitch contour, glissandi, accacciaturas and vocalised breathings8. All these elements were “Stravinsky’s invention as an aural representation of sobbing and wailing, which makes his laments sound indeed like village laments”9The bride does not sing, but wails10On the other hand, "the folk manner of  choral singing"11 has a faster tempo and no complement of any ornaments, giving the illusion of recitation rather than a melodic vocal line.

The composer himself outlined that “Svadebka (Les Noces) is nothing other than a symphony of the song-like quality of Russian melos and of Russian speech.”12 


The way he handled the vocal lines in relation to folk practices led to fundamental changes in the use of the classically trained voice. Vocalists were expected to analyse the manner and quality of folk singing and understand technically and aesthetically the  difference  between “lamenting, as identified by vocalized breathing and loose pitch structure, and singing, as identified by fixed pitches. The two approaches embodied distinct types of vocalization”13






Following this exploration and reconstruction, a figure with a big interest in the aesthetics of folk music and especially its vocal approach was Luciano Berio. His anthology of eleven recomposed Folk Songs for voice and ensemble started during the late 1940s' and premiered in 1964. The songs had various origins (United States, Armenia, France, Sicily, Italy, Sardinia, Brazil , Azerbaijan) and each song represented a different musical and vocal style. 


Berio’s interest in voice and linguistics as pure sounds was translated  in eleven different atmospheres. The characteristic melodic lines of the folk songs, ornamentation and moods were combined with the various sounds of each language. At that time, eleven voices and styles according to the traditions were meant to be performed by one singer.

Folk Songs were written for Cathy Berberian, his then wife, vocalist and composer. Her contribution in their interpretation and study was enormous. Berberian devised different vocal techniques according to each folk tradition, managing to create a unique sound for every different language. Her ability to imitate various styles deviating from the classical singing technique, was a great inspiration for the composer; who himself spent time listening to folk singers14.

According to Berio: “My links with folk music are often of an emotional character. When I work with that music I am always caught by the thrill of discovery… I return again and again to folk music because I try to establish contact between that and my own ideas about music. I have a utopian dream, though I know it cannot be realized: I would like to create a unity between folk music and our music - a real, perceptible, understandable conduit between ancient, popular music-making which is so close to everyday work and music.”15 


Among other composers and works like Les Noces, Folk Songs and the innovative study and unique interpretation by Cathy Berberian, a whole new need appeared in the formation of the 20th-century voice. Folk elements were not only an abstract idea of synthesis or instrumental element, but their involvement in singing practices became bigger and deeper. The department from the operatic singing technique became a tool for the composers, and expanded the research for new possibilities .








The research of new timbres can also be found in the Art of Karlheinz Stockhausen and his interest in ancient shamanistic, mystic and meditative rituals as he sensed them in countries such as Mexico (Maya), Cambodia, India, Thailand, Greece, Persia etc.

With Stimmung (1968), he brought for the first time in the Western vocal repertoire the prime use of explicitly notated overtones16.  A seventy three minutes “hallucinatory ritual”17  for six voices (SSATBB) and six microphones was performed by shoeless singers sitting in a circle, with a deliberated impression of a private ritual. Singing phonemes on the overtones of the low B-flat fundamental, they occasionally recite names of ancient civilisations’ divinities.


Various forms of overtone singing were practiced in many traditions such as Mongolia, Tuva, Alaska (Inuits), Tibet, Kahkassia, Sardinia etc. Stockhausen “came to the technique” humming in order to not wake up his children18. The connection with the traditions was not perceived only through the singing technique, but also through the whole arrangement of the piece in terms of spatial requirements, text and aesthetics. The harmonic simplicity with the singers as “resonators”, the stability in terms of tuning with “mastery of intonation and balance involves a style of singing dedicated to purity of note relationships instead of range and agility of projection: a return, in fact, to pre- operatic vocal style”19

The return to the roots was a deeper search in humans, their nature and relationship with music. Robin Maconie commented: “In these musical traditions, manipulation of the resonances of the voice is often associated with closeness to nature, - provoking a response from the environment, - and also with magic and spirituality […]  The training of the singing voice in consciously directed modulation of pitch - a higher consciousness of the abstract beauties of sung words that gives meaning to monotone plainchant in the Ambrosian and Gregorian ritual, and indeed to any tradition of monotone chant”20


For a composer who experienced the tragedies of the Second World War and the loss of family as a young child, the turn to the roots was at the same time a vision for the future of mankind. It was a hope for a return to the lost awareness and sacredness of human beings. This hope was reflected through the use of human voices. This new horizon undoubtedly  influenced enormously many composers, as much as the public awareness and acceptance of voice modulation in world music. 




THEMATIC  I      B A C K   T O   T H E    R O O T S :  T h e    Folk    V o i c e


The beginning of the first lament at Les Noces

and a part from the choir (soprano and alto), bar 24.

Oi sūnelia dobiłelia:

A folk war song from Dzūkija (Southern Lithuania)

fragment 1: Tibetan monks from Shartse Monastery chanting a prayer in a tour in Spain, 2014. Monks tune in a foundamental and build it with overtones and alternating vowels. The singing technique is also known as throat singing.

fragment 2: Nordic Voices Ensemble performs Stimmung by Karlheinz Stockhausen.


fragment 1: An unspecified Azerbaijan folk song published in 1952.

fragment 2: Cathy Berberian singing the Azerbaijan Love Song from The Folk Songs with the direction of Luciano Berio.

Swiss Radio, 1976.

The beginning of Les Noces

Choreographed by Jiří Kylián and

directed by Teodor Currentzis

at Perm Opera and Ballet Theatre