Filk – science fiction music?

A topic I was asked to consider blogging about was science fiction poetry. I confess that this isn’t something I’m familiar with, except for the rather florid output of HP Lovecraft. Science fiction music is a different matter. It occurred to me that there are many songs fitting the theme: David Bowie’s “Space Oddity”, Elton John’s “Rocket Man”, and let’s not forget “Hawkwind” with Silver Machine, Quark Strangeness and Charm (one of my ’70s favorites) and more. And that’s just the stuff I used to listen to in the ’70s.

Wondering about the music of today led me to think about filk. It began in the USA in the ’50s and the name comes from a misprint of the word “folk”. It used to be performed at science fiction conventions, but now it has gatherings of its own. Although it’s sometimes described as science fiction folk music, that falls short of the full range of music that’s considered filk.

Filk isn’t that easy to define. It can be thought of as music with a science fiction or fantasy theme, but not always. It can be music in the folk style, but not always. A filk song can be a parody or a pastiche, but it doesn’t have to be funny. There are filk rock bands​, indie band​s​, and even choir​s​​. Although there is plenty of guitar-accompanied ​music, singing can be a capella, or accompanied by piano, strings, brass, percussion, and even ther​e​min.

Filk is more a mindset than a musical genre, but even that doesn’t really help, because not everything written by a filker is filk. To try to get my head around it a bit more, I chatted with Mich Sampson (keyboard) and Marilisa Valtazanou (guitar), who perform as the singer-songwriter folk duo Playing Rapunzel, and include filk songs in their repertoire.

Mich has been involved in filk since about 2000, when she heard about it at science fiction conventions but hadn’t heard any. She went to a music meet: “I discovered there a warm and funny group of people who made inspiring music about books and TV series that I loved.”

For Marilisa, it’s all about the community because ​science fiction​ ​and fantasy are not necessarily her genres of choice. “In 2001 I moved to the UK, and at university I made friends with a second generation filker. He dragged me along to a convention and I never left.”

Fundamental to filk culture is the concept of the filk community: you become part of it by coming to a filk circle. According to Mich, the key to trying to define filk is a performer’s involvement in the community: it’s music created by someone who has identified as filk (which rules out David, Elton, and Hawkwind). “There’s no hard and fast definition,” she says, “and no filk police saying what’s allowed to be called filk and what is not.” For someone who is part of the community, it’s a matter of personal interpretation whether the music they perform is filk or not. Some people sing non-filk songs at a filk circle. The question really is whether the community would appreciate it or find it meaningful.

Filk doesn’t always have a subject, although the majority of filk songs fit that definition. There are also songs about science, computers, cats, ​historical events, ​myths and legends, fairy tales, ​and about other filkers. They’re not always in the folk style, although this is the most prevalent. In its early days, a lot of filk songs were new words set to existing folk tunes but these days, many more songs are created with original music than are parodies.

As illustration, Mich told me about this award winning filk song, with no speculative elements. It appeals to me because it speaks of the importance of libraries. It is a politically left-leaning song than what you might expect to hear at a folk club: “The only ‘filk’ elements are that filkers love books, most of them are left or liberal and that the creators sing it at filk circles.”

Filk has established communities in the USA, Canada, UK, and Germany with an emerging one in Sweden. Mich and Marilisa were delighted when FilkContinental, the main annual German filk convention, invited Playing Rapunzel to be guests of honor this year. As well as performing at the convention and running workshops, being an attentive and supportive participant is key, and accomplished by encouraging others to sing, accompanying others, making friendships, and helping to create the warm atmosphere that they experienced when they first arrived in filk.

Mich and Marilisa recommend filk conventions where there are “lots of concerts of wonderful music, interesting workshops, and (perhaps most importantly) filk circles where anyone and everyone can sing, regardless of ability. Some would say that’s the best thing about filk music – new and shy people writing or sharing beautiful music to a fantastically supportive community.” Playing Rapunzel’s new album ‘Hanging by a Hair’ is available to listen to and buy on Bandcamp.

For readers in the UK, or who are planning to head this way, the next UK filk convention, ‘Enharmonicon‘ and is on 2-4 February 2018. Updates on UK filk music can usually be found here.