Photo by Michael Pereckas.
Written by: Jennifer Smith
Musical discovery these days rarely necessitates a literal journey. As fans flock to music festivals around the world, where they’re sure to meet new people and hear tunes they haven’t heard before, how we experience music in live performance hasn’t changed that much in a few millennium. There’s a performer and an audience; a dynamic in which the performer is elevated by way of their talent, theoretically. Because the music industry is in the business of making money, naturally someone must own the music and earn some profit. The song remains the same.
In its opposition to these ideas, a musical genre called “filk” is exceptional. Hard to define and marginally popular, filk endures as a true folk art, where the lines between performer and audience become hazy. Filk provides a musical category in which one’s enthusiasm for and willingness to share their ideas on a particular song is placed above their actual ability to sing it. Best of all, no one has found a way to monetize filk yet and probably never will.
“Filk was predominately about seeking the stars,” says Merav Hoffman, a veteran filker from New York City. “Going out and discovering, looking for other life and civilizations.”
Hoffman was 19 when she discovered filk. She took the train down to the local convention with a friend and got very lost. When they finally arrived, she could tell the convention was probably pretty hard up for money that year. The musicians were sequestered into one room and the turnout was low.
“I don’t think I slept much,” Hoffman recalls. “I sat on the floor and listened to everybody singing and singing and singing. I spent the weekend completely enraptured. I sat there untangling yarn.”
Hoffman describes filk as the “indigenous music of science fiction.” Filk as a genre came out of early 1950s science fiction conventions, where science fiction (or “SF”) fans would gather in hotel rooms and trade songs in the old folk tradition. Filk has since grown large enough to warrant its own conventions, but still takes place in a circle where anyone can join in and share in the experience of performing.
“This is really creative folk music,” Hoffman says. “This is not just singer-songwriter stuff. This is sort of where it all comes together.”
Due to the experimental nature of filk, the genre has grown to include many more pop culture themes outside SF fandom including fairy tales, food, and of course, cats. Since its inception at SF conventions, the term filk has also taken on a dual meaning pointing to both the genre itself and the social network around it, a big part of which is based on collaboration and parody.
“Parody is both sort of a basis and also sort of an intertextual thing,” Hoffman says, “but really where you get into the parody inside of filk is when people start to parody each other. It’s sort of ‘commenting’ on people’s songs. People will start to mash up … She did the song about zombies, and he did a song about puppies, so I’ve written a song to the tune of her song, but it’s about his song, and it’s about zombie puppies. So half the people will be laughing because they know the zombie song, and half the people will be laughing because they know the puppy song, and two people will be collapsed on the floor because they know both songs.”
While not exactly the defining feature of a filk circle, parody happens to work well with the more social aspects of filk, which feed on the idea of filkers cross-referencing each other’s songs to create a dialogue.
The circle may start with a group of people sitting in chairs and chatting. One person decides to begin and performs a song they think would start a good conversation. They pull out their songbook and play any song they like, whether it be a parody, a song they gleaned from the many filk songs archived online, an original song they wrote in reference to a movie or book, or just a song that ties in well to a popular filk theme.
“So someone will say, ‘I’ve got a song about sleeping,’ and the chain will go on from there,” explains Hoffman. “Then, somebody will say ‘I’ve got a song about dreams,’ and that will cause the chain to go towards dreams.”
Within a chain of songs, one might find dozens of references to filk culture and pop culture at large, which also lends itself to the social aspect of filk as filkers discuss the various inspirations behind the music.
Filk circles tend to govern themselves by following the connective thematic threads within the songs. A song that comments on the theme of the previous song is called “a follower.” Filk circles can be organized in different ways, but interaction is always a constant.
The emphasis placed on sharing and support within filk culture extends beyond musical performance. Thanks to the Internet, filkers have created a larger network outside the convention scene to stay connected with filkers across the globe.
For example, looking back to September 11th, Hoffman recalls how filkers created phone trees and prompted the whole filk community to check in on a site called “Filk Haven.”
“It sort of solidified this feeling I’ve had that we are all connected,” Hoffman says. “Certainly, I don’t know everyone in filk. Filk has grown tremendously in the last 10 years from what was effectively a small community to a very large international community. There are filkers in Israel and Germany. I know there’s at least one in Singapore. There’s some cross-cultural stuff going on, where we go visit each other when we have time and money.”
Filk may combine elements that at first seem bewildering (science fiction movies and folk music?) but at the heart of filk, lies a pretty old ideal where music still acts as a sort of universal language between people. Combined with a commitment towards building a community and a host of ways to keep in touch, filk has come to represent the organic, connective power music can have as a cultural force in the digital age.
“We talk to each other on our blogs. We get on Twitter, and we basically use social media as a way to stay in touch,” Hoffman says. “The fact that we’re all very physically disparate from each other doesn’t actually make a huge amount of difference.”
Editor’s note – February 24th, 2012: The impression of the turnout for the first filk convention Merav Hoffman attended as “low” or “hard up for money” is somewhat assumptive based on the fact it was her first time attending such an event. Hoffman specifies organizers “rented a hotel where there was only one function room, so we all were together in one room in a way that’s unusual today.” Furthermore, #filkhaven is an IRC channel not an actual website as originally specified in the article.