February 25, 2005

Benjamin Bagby and band bring fresh "now" sound to medieval music

Last Friday, the Paris-based ensemble Sequentia treated us to the top 40 chart of 10th- and 11th-century secular European song. That might seem like a bizarre combination, but it made for an extremely well crafted and entertaining evening of music. These really were pop songs, with verse, chorus, repeat, not to mention love, deception, and shameless self-glorification. Friday's lesson: a millennium of repetition won't dull the ditty.

Sequentia's front man, Benjamin Bagby, knows the meaning of the word obsessive. He's spent years reconstructing the music of a thousand years dead man whose name he does not even know. Bagby collected this unknown output from scattered sources, ranging from the Canterbury Collection to torn scraps of paper, and has now arranged them for his four-piece band.

Sequentia's lineup consists of three singers, two lyre players, one harper, a drummer, and a flute player, which, if you do the math, equals four performers. When everyone's a multi-instrumentalist, a concert's flow varies nicely: three-part polyphony to solo song to instrumental interlude. We heard campfire ghost stories, something resembling a protest song, and bawdy tunes after Chaucer's heart. Would you like to hear a swan-bone flute? Listen to Sequentia.

I'm not being facetious when I say that one of my favorite parts of the concert was the tuning tune; a lyre has very few strings, and must be tuned to the key of each piece. Bagby and his second harpist would send each other tones to match across the stage, until Mandel Hall vibrated with the harmonic zone of the next song.

On the most general level, the concert was divided in two. The first half was dedicated to groups of songs that were all after a certain feeling: an ode to cosmic harmony, the image of the dawn, and so forth. The second half was more narrative-based, consisting of an 11th-century rendition of Orpheus and something of a 10th-century Nordic folktale.

I preferred the first half, because the focus seemed to be more on the music than on the words. The rules of harmony and voice-leading that dominated European music from the 17th century on were nowhere to be found. There were lots of open fourths and fifths, but also killer crunchy ninths and tritones. I have a feeling that Bagby is to thank even more than his elusive harpist for these elegant renditions of difficult harmony. This music simply had a different way of creating an arc, a different way of closing an idea, ways that were satisfying not only because of their novelty, but also because they were good unto themselves.

The second half, as I said, was very text-driven, and we were given only the translations in the program booklets, not the original languages. As a result, a person who is unfamiliar with 10th-century Icelandic might have had trouble following where exactly in the narrative he or she was. Incidentally, 10th-century Icelandic sounds quite a bit like Klingon, and not only because the story itself was particularly bloody. I'm also really tired of the Orpheus myth; someone please write an opinion piece on why we should care about it. It should be said, though, that the rest of the audience seemed to connect with these pieces more than with those on the first half, though I was rather bored by them.

The second half also had all the explicitly sexy songs: one about seducing a nun and one about an ambiguously homosexual roman aristocrat and his young charge. Their sauce might have charmed me, but the uncomfortable chuckles of the geriatric early-music crowd made me uncomfortable, too.

What did charm me about the evening was the complete absence of posturing, authenticity-mongering early music maniacs who mar so many performances of medieval music. Damn it, who cares what it would have sounded like? It has to sound like now! Bagby really loves this stuff; it's his music now, and he's frothing at the mouth to share it. He may in fact be a quivering weirdo who is far too incensed by modern performance practice for his own good. But all that aside, he loves what he does and that is far more interesting to listen to than highly authentic, highly hollow period instruments.

In the end, Sequentia is not about a history lesson. It's about sharing music you've never heard.