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musical substance

Authentic and alive: musical substance travels from Orkney to the Baltic Sea in a heartbeat of recognition: grandfather dances on the table

The only time I ever saw my grandfather drunk, he danced on the table. He was singing a folk song too. There was a certain “iuch hey” of a descending third in the song. This was in Germany near the Baltic sea on a farm around 1970. My grandparents sang in Plattdütsch, a language more related to Frisian, Dutch, Anglo-Saxon or English than to German. There was a language divide between the generation of my grandparents and parents. My grandfather’s iuch-hey resonates in my heart and comes in a major chord. The older generation seemed to have more fun. This was because their language had hilarious word-combinations and they were allowed to swear in more variety. The Plattdütsch people were always making fun of somebody or something. Iuch-hey is a common expression that sums up the fun and can be shared by all, at predetermined places in song or speech. It is a sort of jump, appended to the bar. As a word, appended to a person or statement, it means ‘happy’, but also ‘daring’, or ‘careless, not minding consequences of action’.


50 years later, I heard it again. An Orkadian tune, played on harp and fiddle, once heard on the radio, became a rhythmic conundrum. It caught my ear, itching my head from inside for many weeks. I couldn’t understand the rhythm of the song. There was a certain change of time signature in the development, a descending third… and there it was: iuch-hey! Now I understood the rhythm and the structure of the song. It contained my grandfather dancing on the table.  

Musical substance is leaking out from an appended bar with a descending third in an Orcadian tune; a drop of substance enters my ears, incubates for many weeks as an earworm, then emerges as my own grandfather dancing drunk on a table. His humour and his language are contained in this drop of musical substance, a certain way of having fun and a certain way of singing songs, a jump, a shout. The substance of the Orkadian tune felt like remembering the laughter but having forgotten the joke. How did yuch-hey end up in Orkney?

'Do we need a concept of musical substance?'

Izaly Zemtsovsky travelled from St Petersburg far into the Russian countryside in 1956, in order to do field-recording. Here he received a ‘culture shock therapy’, when he heard a group of 16 women working and singing in a field. The experience of ethnic music was so fundamentally different from his previous musical education, that he perceived it as an unknown substance that seemed to linger on the field timelessly. As I suffered a similar culture shock from Gaelic and bagpipe music, I appreciate this concept for musical substance.  

Zemtsovsky describes musical substance as an ‘existential force’, ‘predetermined’ in the ‘melosphere, in which all ideal forms of music making exist independently of concrete acts of performing’.  The ‘ethnic sound ideal dwells in sonic substance and does not require verbalisation’.

Zemtsovsky suggests differentiating between matter and substance. Matter is formless and dead, while substance is pregnant with forms. He likens musical substance to water. Just as a fish does not experience hindrance through the substance of water, so musical substance remains unnoticed. Plunging into the substance, ‘facilitates the birth of form’. Cultural form, however, ‘is the ability to work and function in a situation of incomplete knowledge’, (Zemtsovsky quotes Marmadashvili).

‘Tradition endows substance’, but ‘substance goes unnoticed’: a paradox. Musical substance is not like clay to the potter, surrendering dead matter to form, on an artistic level. It is alive, pregnant with forms: a modus vivendi of a predetermined kind, you plunge into it, like into water. It is the condition for performance. This substance does not exist independently from the musician. “Do we need a concept of Musical Substance?” (Zemtsovsky, 2018).


Zemtsovsky, I. (2018). Do we need a concept of "Musical Substance"? Journal of Ethnograpgy and Folklore, 29. Retrieved from

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