Indeed the subtitle to Hesperus's album "Medieval, Appalachian and World Music in Fusion" says it all. Only Dorian could concoct such a program and delight the senses in this way, a game of musical ping-pong that toys with time, often centuries-within a single track. Starting with the first piece two lively Renaissance bransles (mimed dances), with Scott Reiss hamming "Tangle Bransle" up on recorder-to the second, an American barn dance called "Say Old Man Can You Play the Fiddle?", Hesperus jumps an ocean and half a millennium and that makes for enjoyable, fun and oft humorous listening. Again it was during the 1990's that I would snatch up Dorian releases with not much more than a quick glance; everything was just that good in my opinion. Authentic Italian lute music, Sephardic tunes, 'World' albums, 20th century American composers...it was rainin' candy for an obsessed, music-worshipping-collecting freak like myself ;)
The mood perhaps can best be summed up by the traditional blues piece called "Shake It Down," played very effectively on recorder to the soulful accompaniment of Bruce Hutton's 12-string guitar and Tina Chancey's "kamenj", a Turkish folk bowed-stringed instrument with a light sound. This is probably a first, anywhere, and it works superbly. From the blues to medieval cantigas, from British broadside ballads to Cajun waltzes, from American contra dances to Scandinavian folk tunes, this quartet-Bruce Molsky rounds it out on various plucked and bowed stringed instruments with occasional vocal-brings surprising authenticity and great life to an enormous range of musical styles. The multi-talented Chancey effectively impersonates an earthy Cajun chanteuse in "La Valse de Guerdon," and Hutton contributes vocals with a twang, notably in "Little Rabbit," for which he also plucks a mouth bow. I could easily say that a release like this "isn't for everyone", however I think that it's more that it's not for everyone-but could be if you are willing to give it a few listens. There's all kinds of history and richness to this (fused) music, lighthearted or not and if one only enjoys a few pieces-it's a few more than you did this morning!
1. Bransles - Jacques Moderne (16th c. French)1. Bransles - Jacques Moderne (16th c. French)
2. Say Old Man Can You Play the Fiddle - Traditional American
3. Gracieusette / Cotton-eyed Joe - Jehan Lescurel (14th c. French) / Appalachian
4. Shake it Down - Classic Blues
5. Lady Gay - Traditional Ballad
6. Red Rockin' Chair - Appalachian
7. Chicken Tree - The Louisville Jug Band
8. Como Poden - Cantiga de Santa Maria (13th c. Spanish)
9. Rhymer's Favorite / Allemande & Ronde - Appalachian / Tielmann Susato (16th c. Flemish)
10. Contre le Temps / Back Door Man - (14th c. French) / Traditional Blues
11. Enhörningen (Unicorn) - Mats Edén (Scandinavian)
12. Captain Kidd - British Broadside (1701)
13. La Valse de Guedan - Cajun
14. Herdsman's Tune - African from Nande, Congo (Zaire)
15. Lady Hamilton - Appalachian
16. Little Rabbit - Traditional American
17. Midnight on the Water / La Shymyze - Traditional American / Mulliner Book (16th c. English)
18. La Bounette / Jenny on the Railroad - Mulliner Book / Traditional American
Typing out the booklet notes for those interested:
Scott Reiss: We call what we do on Unicorn "Crossover," as we have since we started doing it thirteen years ago with Mike Seeger. You see, for Tina and me, classically-trained early music performers, leaving the domain of reading music, getting rid of the music stands entirely and playing everything by ear, and learning traditional tunes from traditional musicians, really felt like crossing over into a new world. Some people have tried to talk us out of using the term, noting the confusion and ambiguities it engenders within the business. But the word crossover, transcending boundaries, really does say it for us.
To continue the story, we crossed over into this other realm–but why? In our early-music performing we had always felt there was something missing. Historically-informed performance was the goal to which we, and most other early musicians, were dedicated, but history left too many questions unanswered about the actual nuts and bolts of how to play the very early music. It seemed to us a little like trying to guess the colors in a faded old black and white photo. That’s why we wanted to connect our medieval music to living traditions. Mike Seeger was open enough and brave enough to try this little experiment with us, so we produced Ear Trade: Court and Cabin, a week-long workshop and concert of medieval and Appalachian music, at which we instructed our students to pack up their music stands-all the classes would be done by ear. Ear-Trade was an epiphany for me. Combining the medieval and folk instruments in the same music, and creating medleys juxtaposing the two styles infused our medieval music with new life. HESPERUS Crossover was born. We began working regularly with Bruce Hutton in 1985.
Bruce Hutton: What convinced me to work with Hesperus was hearing a tape of the Ear-Trade concert Scott and Tina did with Mike. It made me think that these different types of music and different instruments could be at home with each other.
SR: Over the years, our crossover music has continued to influence our "straight" early music performances; we have two ways of conceiving medieval performance now. In our other approach, which you can hear in Unicorn’s sister project, Neo-Medieval, we do not consciously utilize techniques and material from traditional folk sources, but rather draw on all of our collective experiences to create medieval music in an organic, improvisational style.
Bruce Molsky: I like our taking two fairly separate styles of roots music and finding ways to combine them without losing those really fragile elements of each one. Stop me if I’m wrong, but I think that in a sense early music is roots music; something that grows directly out of community and culture, as opposed to being more of a formal studied intellectual exercise. The music is not a separate exercise from living your life. If it is, then it becomes just a head study. I think that one of the reasons roots music doesn’t survive very well in a modern context is because stylistically it’s so fragile.
BH: I like the old modes, the sound of the old instruments, the way they add texture to the old American instruments, and the fact that everything is being created without an exact model that we’re imitating. In folk music there’s often a wish to sound just like your mentor or the person you learned it from, but in fact that can never really happen. Filtered through each individual, the music becomes part of that person’s style in addition to showing the influence of people he’s heard in the past. Some people are looking for authenticity in trying to re-create old-time music, and I think they can achieve it without slavishly imitating. In early music there are no mentors or arrangements to be the perfect, right model so your creativity in making it your own is fully opened.
BM: But you know, it's like Mats Eden's Unicorn tune, it’s an interpretation. I'm not trying to play it in a different style, I'm just trying to play it in a way that makes sense to me.
BH: Playing early music has changed the way I look at arranging everything I play. It's given me an idea that I can be myself and still be true to tradition. Now I'm less fearful, after hearing a piece played a certain way, in going out on a limb and doing it my way.
Tina Chancey: I like a lot of different things in our crossover: the rhythmic vitality that the folk instruments lend the early tunes, particularly the banjo and banjo-uke in Susato; the variation between rhythmic accents on the backbeat in traditional music and on the strong beat in early music; the way the tunes of both styles complement each other in feeling and architecture; the new things I learn to do on my instruments to play traditional music convincingly.
BM: You know, when we play together I change rhythmic emphasis: I play with a little more of a lilt; a little less bluesy. And I've been paying real close attention to Scott and Tina's sense of pitch, the notes in the scale, and I've been making some adjustments. That''s been the most difficult thing for me, because that's not something that I was trained to change at will. I'm always really impressed by the fact that you can say "Oh let's play that C# a little sharper." I also change dynamics more. Straight traditional old-time music doesn't use volume dynamics as much. But we do.
BH: I like the fact that early music has simple melodies that grab me just like folk melodies do. I think that a few notes eloquently put together can say a lot. That's one of the things that the oldest early music and the oldest folk melodies share.
TC: When we choose medieval and renaissance music for Crossover, Scott and I look for pieces with a strong personality (the Susato Allemande, for example), a striking scoring (like the two recorders and mandolin on Contre le temps), a catchy rhythm or phrasing (Gracieusette), something to give it character, so we can match it with an equally strong traditional number.
BM: When I bring in rep, I tend to look for things that have lots of harmonic possibilities, partially because of what little I know about early music, but mostly because that’s one of the things that I really like about Scott and Tina’s music in particular. I love their sense of harmony and it makes a lot of sense to me, I can get next to it. I find myself thinking 'I wonder what chords they would put to this?'
SR: Working with musicians coming from living, oral traditions gives me a better perspective on how all music lives. It grows and changes as it passes from one of us into the group, and it continues to grow as we work it out. One thing I've learned from working with Bruce Hutton and Bruce Molsky, and earlier from Mike Seeger and Jean Ritchie, is how a folk musician really inhabits a piece of music to perform it well. This is something I think a lot of us in the classical world have been afraid to do, because we're taught that the first authority lies with the composer and inhabits the written music, and doesn't lie with the performer. In folk music "genealogy," acknowledging where you get a tune, is important, but the authority always rests with the performer to make a piece his or her own.
BH: I think many in the folk music world have prejudices about classically-trained musicians, and I think many classically-trained musicians have prejudices about folk musicians. A common view among folk musicians is that classical musicians are snobs; they feel their training makes them better than musicians who learn other ways and that classical music is superior to all other kinds. For example, the notes on one album of symphonic re-creations of traditional fiddle music said that the conductor instructed his violin section not to tune too well so they would sound authentic. In fact, traditional fiddlers know how important it is to be in tune, even though they may have a different sense of tuning. The years I’ve worked with Scott and Tina have proved to me that classical training need not result in this condescending attitude. Just as they've been inspired by "ear" musicians, I've acquired a new admiration for the discipline and precision resulting from their training. This mutual respect has been key to the success of our performing together. Perhaps our crossover music can change the attitudes of others, too.
BM: One of the things I'm trying to do with my music is to look for commonalities in all the different traditional styles that I'm interested in, and to find ways to put them together without destroying them. Not like one group I know that does crossover-I call it a Ranchero. A Ranchero is a vehicle that Ford built that has all the bad features of a car and all the bad features of a truck. That’s exactly opposite of what I want to do in crossover.
TC: To me, crossover is like a window to the world, particularly after twenty-five years of playing historic music to a relatively small audience. The field of early music actually includes more than five centuries of music, but today it’s heard as a single voice. Crossover communicates that multiplicity of styles by pairing early and traditional pieces; it makes a medieval motet as real to modern audiences as the blues.
HESPERUS is a group with a vision. Innovative, historically-informed and multi-cultural, this ensemble performs eight centuries of music from four continents. Expert at creating a synthesis of living and historic traditions, HESPERUS is just as comfortable improvising a medieval dance as a 1950’s Chicago blues; recreating a haunting Inca flute tune as a 17th-century Irish ballad; dazzling with a virtuosic baroque concerto as with a rapid-fire Appalachian mountain breakdown. HESPERUS presents two kinds of programs: single-style early music programs, or fusions of European early music and American traditional styles. Whatever the genre, HESPERUS always performs with creative energy, technical assurance and a sense of fun.
Decide if it's gonna be moonshine or champagne...and enjoy the journey everyone :)