“Some accordion players will play their instrument and sing,” Marin told me in Romanian, his 18-year old son Sorin providing a halting but enthusiastic translation into English.  “What they play on the instrument, they imitate it with the voice.”

“You mean the instrument imitates the voice,” I prodded him, and Sorin dutifully interpreted.

“No,” he told me.  “The voice imitates the instrument.”

To me, this correction was nothing short of world-shattering.  Over the course of five or six lessons, Marin had already told me this at least twice, but my preconceptions from six years of playing Jewish violin were so strong (and the translation barrier so formidable) that each time I had heard what I wanted to hear, a perfect reversal of his lesson.

At some point during their meander across Eastern Europe, the gypsies split into occupational tribes; the musicians and dancers were called the Lautari.  Marin Bunea is a Lautari violinist, like his father, grandfather, great-grandfather, and great-great-grandfather before him.  The villages where they learned their trade were also home to the Jewish musicians, playing in a style that would soon sweep Eastern Europe, make its way to America, and be dubbed “klezmer.”

Klezmer distinguished itself from the other local musics by drawing heavily on the sounds of Jewish song, particularly khasones (the extremely emotive Jewish liturgy) and nigunim (simple repetitive table songs, especially popular with Hassidic jews).  Notes were ornamented with “krechtzen,” emulating the breaking of a voice near tears; glissandos emulated the voice’s natural rise and fall.

As I studied Klezmer music, it became very natural to me to think of a cultural instrumental music as an extension of the song, and thus as a more distant extension of the language.  Human brains, I reasoned, are programmed to respond emotionally to human voices, and a good instrumentalist must always be capitalizing on this hard-wiring.  I developed half-baked theories about the correspondence between instrumental music of other cultures and their languages.  I imagined that Irish fiddle ornamentation corresponded to the rapid, short syllables with simple consonants which I observed listening to Irish Gaelic, while the even glissandos in traditional Chinese melodies corresponded to the contour tone system of the Chinese languages.  In particular, I hypothesized that the elaborate ornaments applied to the melodies of Lautari tunes must have analogues to regularities either in the Romanian language or in the gypsy language Roma.  When Marin sang a tune, he would sing many ornamented notes as “lai” instead of “la,” leading me to believe that certain ornaments corresponded to moving vowels.

The first clue that Lautari music would not fit my mold was a beautiful ballad Marin taught me, with a Romanian name translated as “The Bird When She Is Ill.”  Many of the gestures in the tune were strongly reminiscent of bird song; in combination with the title, it was evident that we were imitating not a human voice but a bird.

When Marin revealed that the singers imitate the instruments, I was forced to face a culture of music in which the voice was not the gold standard for musical emotional content.  My language-based approach to music collapsed; in its place, I have begun to construct a more complicated picture.  To the musicians and listeners that collectively create a music culture, ANY sound is eligible for musical reference.  Music exists in the context of a cultural “soundscape,” and it evokes emotion partially by drawing on the key features of that soundscape.  Song and spoken words are key features of any human soundscape, but they may not be the only ones referenced by music, or even the most important.

Though it was the imitation of bird-song that first indicated to me that other sounds could take “musical primacy” over the voice, I now believe that in Lautari music, no single sound is more central than the violin itself.  After our lessons, Marin pointed me towards a delightful collection of Lautari songs, in most of which the singers used their eerily flexible voices to evoke the sound of the Lautari violin.  But the violin, while imitating birds, perhaps voices, and occasionally other instruments, sits near the center of its local soundscape: it is more imitated than imitating.  Its path to the heart is direct; it is beautiful in itself.

My new approach has interesting implications in a comparison of klezmer and Lautari music.  For one thing, the notes tend to come a lot faster in Lautari music.  I imagine that on the Jewish soundscape, fast motion sounded less meaningful than music at a singing pace because it failed to evoke the strong feelings associated with religious song.  But on the Lautari soundscape, fiddlers were limited only by the speed of their hands: they were the standard for good music.  Speeds increased as fiddlers competed for attention, and the singers had to keep up as best they could.  Second, I am increasingly convinced that though some Lautari ornaments are used similarly to the krechtzen of klezmer, they are not vocal flourishes but their own unique species of sound, evolved to be as elaborate as the ear can follow.

How does an instrumental style develop, if not in reference to particular external sounds?  I can only conjecture that it emerged under the influence of the natural motions of the players’ hands and the natural preferences of the human auditory system.  Though I still believe that the auditory system itself is wired to find meaning in human voices (as indicated by its preferred range of frequencies, etc.), there are more general principles at work that make sounds seem meaningful — the very existence of instrumental music is proof.  To the extent that an instrumental style is not referencing other sounds, it must be taking advantage of these principles in its own way.