Tag Archive | early music

Aliénor la reine

A music typewriter on display in the music building

The UCLA Early Music Ensemble’s spring concert, Ex Tempore: Improvisations on Historical Musics, was this past weekend, and Isabelle and I went. Most of the concerts of theirs I’ve attended have been in the rotunda of Powell Library, but this one was in the organ studio in the music building. It’s a very intimate space, dominated by a pipe organ that sits on a dais. The performers were right in front of the audience; no one was more than four rows away. Besides the pipe organ, there was another organ behind us, as well as an upright piano and a harpsichord in the corner. This isn’t counting the harpsichord and the small organ-on-wheels that were on stage and actually played in the concert.

There’s apparently a tuba and euphonium ensemble on campus, and they were featured in a couple of pieces. I especially liked the arrangement of Monteverdi’s “Ecco mormorar l’onde” for two euphoniums, one trombone, and two tubas. The sound made the whole studio vibrate, and it was like being enveloped in the ocean. That madrigal was one of the ones I learned for the Jouyssance singalong last year.

I also really liked “My Lief is Faren in Londe” (I was surprised by how comprehensible the rest of the text was after the fairly foreign-looking first line; it turns out the song is in Middle English). It was fun to hear Vivaldi’s Concerto in D Major for lute on classical guitar, and the modern harmonies of the arrangement of Scarborough Fair were compelling.

The most delightful piece for me, though, was “Stella splendens in monte,” from the Llibre Vermell de Montserrat, a 14th century manuscript. It began with a sort of duet for symphony (a kind of early hurdy-gurdy) and musa bagpipe. The piper is the musician who played the musette at the hurdy-gurdy concert I went to my first year of grad school. Our paths have crossed multiple times over the years because he also sings shape note and Georgian music (yes, it’s all one cult). In fact, he just started coming to Datvebis Gundi’s rehearsals, and the first time he came he had the musa bagpipe and showed it to us! This particular instrument is unusual in that the drone can change notes (just to one other note).

Anyway, as the symphony and bagpipe played, I realized I recognized the tune as the Tri Yann song “Arthur Plantagenest.” Yes, this happened the last time I went to an Early Music Ensemble concert too. “Arthur Plantagenest” is about Arthur’s untimely end, but the song begins with his grandmother, Aliénor la reine, i.e. Eleanor of Aquitaine. Here’s a version of “Stella splendens in monte,” and here’s Tri Yann’s “Arthur Plantagenest,” from the album Portraits.

Early Spring Break

It’s not my spring break yet, but my mother was in town recently, so we went on some excursions. We heard the UCLA Early Music Ensemble’s winter concert, Bach? What Bach?: A Program of Early Music from Germany. They sang two selections from Carmina Burana, and one of them, “Bacche, bene,” was very familiar. I knew I’d heard the melody before, and I was pretty sure it had been in a Tri Yann song, but I didn’t know how I was going to figure out which one. Of course it was going to bother me until I figured it out. But it turns out Googling “Tri Yann Carmina Burana” gets you what you want! The song is “Brian Boru” from the album Portraits.

We went to the Huntington, as per tradition, and saw lots of camellias, as well as a heron, some hawks, some woodpeckers in palm trees, and other birds.

My pavilion

Heron in the Japanese Garden

Later in the week, we stopped by the ocean on the Pacific Coast Highway and watched the waves. At our first stop, I saw what I think was a seal in the water! I may have been mistaken, but I’d rather think it was actually a seal. At our second stop, we saw lots of sandpipers.

The PDR: Samsara

Back in August, my friend Michael told me about a friend of a friend who hosted musical salons/informal concerts in her apartment. He had been persuaded to perform at the next one and was planning to sing the Iron & Wine song “Naked As We Came” while accompanying himself on guitar. He thought it was the sort of event I’d enjoy and invited me to come. A few days later, he remarked that “Naked As We Came” had a subtle harmony line on the refrain. Would I like to sing it with him at the salon? I said sure.

We had one rehearsal after Georgian chorus one day, and then that weekend was the performance. The salon (that’s what I’m calling it) is called the PDR (for Playa del Rey, where the hosts live), and each PDR has a theme. This one’s theme was samsara, the cycle of death and rebirth.

I find the concept of a salon like this really appealing. I used to host music parties for my friends where we’d get together and play strange instrumental arrangements (flute, viola, cello, piano/bells) of classical and not-so-classical pieces I liked. These days, I host singing parties where we sing shape note tunes, folksongs, and rounds in two- to four-part harmony. The PDR is more performance-oriented, and the participants are mostly fairly serious, even professional, musicians, but the host explained at the beginning of the evening how her goal was to create a low-stress performance venue where musicians could play for a friendly audience and anyone was welcome to participate.

The opener was Monti’s “Csárdás,” performed by a violinist accompanied by the host on one of her two grand pianos. When I heard the title, I wondered if it was going to be that “Csárdás,” and it was. Next a flautist played Rachmaninoff’s “Vocalise,” also accompanied. I’d thought “Vocalise” had been written for cello (silly me); it turns out it was originally for soprano, with no text, and has been transcribed for every instrument imaginable. This was followed by a pair of piano pieces by Grieg, “Homesickness” and “Homeward.”

We were up next! I perched on a chair next to Michael, who was on a piano bench. “Naked As We Came” is a pretty short song, two verses, each followed by the refrain, and I only had to sing my harmony line on the refrain. Michael was doing all the rest, including the pretty guitar playing. The host thought it was the first time there’d ever been singing not accompanied by piano at the PDR, and we were also the only non-classical piece of the night. It went pretty well, and people seemed to enjoy it!

Next someone played a series of Beethoven bagatelles. In the meantime, I noticed that a musician who’d come in late had unpacked an instrument from what I’d thought was a cello case. It was not a cello but a viola da gamba! And he was next. He played “Death” and “Lyfe” by Tobias Hume, an English (Scottish, actually) composer and mercenary who wrote music for viola da gamba when he wasn’t fighting for Sweden. That’s what the viola da gambist told us, anyway. Before performing, he showed us the sheet music he was playing off of. It looked like a facsimile of the original, very old notation that vaguely resembled tablatures.

After the Hume, his girlfriend joined him with a Baroque violin to play a violin sonata by Élisabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre, a composer I had in fact heard of thanks to this very nerdy activity I did in high school called music listening. (My team made it to the state championship match every year, and when I was a senior we won.) Viola da Gambist told us Jacquet de la Guerre became a musician in the court of Louis XIV at the age of five (later Wikipedia browsing suggested she performed for the king at five but became a court musician only later). Anyway, the sonata was beautiful.

Lastly, someone sang three art songs while accompanying himself on piano, which was quite impressive. He sang Schubert’s “In Frühling,” Fauré’s “Les Berceaux,” and Mozart’s “Abendempfindung”; I especially liked the Fauré (chanson over lieder, I guess).

After the concert, I went to talk to Viola da Gambist and Baroque Violinist about Jacquet de la Guerre and the violinist’s instrument. I told them I was a cellist and was envious of people who played the viola da gamba, and Viola da Gambist told me he knew where I could get a viola da gamba for free. I wasn’t sure if he was joking or not.

Later, I was talking to Baroque Violinist again. She had lived in Boston all her life, and it turned out she’d been in youth orchestra with someone I knew in college. She also told me Viola da Gambist’s sister was a fiddler, and I put two and two together and realized she was my favorite local contra dance fiddler! Small world.

By this time, some people had left, and those who remained were chatting about Handel’s operas and whether they’d been trained to be better at memorization or sight reading. Then Viola da Gambist regaled us with his take on Italian Renaissance composer Carlo Gesualdo’s life (Gesualdo was another composer I’d studied in music listening). According to Viola da Gambist, Gesualdo had discovered his wife having an affair and killed her and her lover. Thereafter, he lived under house arrest. He wrote madrigal after madrigal for his live-in singers, and because he listened to nothing but his own madrigals being performed back for him, they got weirder and weirder (chromatic and such).

Just before we left, Viola da Gambist showed me the Hume music and tried to explain to me how the tablatures worked. I asked him whether he’d been serious about the free viola da gamba, and he told me about the Viola da Gamba Society of America or somesuch, which likes getting instruments into the hands of eager would-be viola da gambists. He even said he was looking for a student…but I did not rise to the bait, however much I’d like to play viola da gamba. I have my hands pretty full with the cello, the fiddle, and the hammered dulcimer, none of which I play frequently enough.

How Come That Blood

You might know that I’m a big fan of Tim Eriksen. Back in 2013 I heard him perform at the Ginkgo Coffeehouse in St. Paul, and he sang some songs from his new-at-the-time album, Josh Billings Voyage Or, Cosmopolite on the Cotton Road. I don’t remember for sure whether he sang “How Come That Blood” on that occasion, but this song is from the album, and I like it very much, for its melody and its sinister text. A young woman (presumably) is asking her love how came that blood on his shirt sleeve, and at first he answers that it’s the blood of his little gray hawk. She says that hawk’s blood was never so red, so he says it was his gray hound’s (greyhound’s?) blood. Same objection. So he says it’s his gray mare’s blood. Nope. Finally he reveals the blood is that of his “brother dear, whom lately I have slain.” Ahhh!

Anyway, not long ago I stumbled upon the duo The Vox Hunters and discovered that their song “Edward” is a version of “How Come That Blood.” The text is similar, but there are differences: in “Edward,” the young man kills his brother-in-law, not his brother, and their falling out was over a holly bush instead of a little nut tree (evidently some people have strong feelings about plants). And then somehow I found out that Sam Amidon, who’s sung some lovely arrangements of shape note tunes, had a version too. In his, it seems like it’s a mother questioning her son. My favorite is still Tim Eriksen’s rendition, probably in part because I heard it first.

In other musical connections news… Last year Isabelle taught me a 16th century French pavane by Thoinot Arbeau called “Belle qui tiens ma vie.” The other day, she heard it on the radio, specifically on KUSC, the classical music station out of USC (which I hadn’t heard of before this!). I was curious, and happily, KUSC posts what pieces they’ve aired, so I was able to look it up. To my surprise, what was listed wasn’t “Belle qui tiens ma vie” but something called “Capriol Suite” by Peter Warlock. Peter Warlock turns out to be a 20th century English composer who apparently chose the pseudonym Warlock because of his fascination with the occult. The movements of Capriol Suite are based on Renaissance tunes. I read that the suite can be considered an original composition, but the Pavane, the second movement, is quite recognizable as “Belle qui tiens ma vie.” I also recognized the first movement as a Susato dance.

Hmm, while writing this post I discovered that Tim Eriksen and Eliza Carthy’s “Castle by the Sea” and Annalivia’s “False Sir John” are clearly related (but it looks like there’s a whole big family for that song). Time to bring this pseudo-musicology post (brought to you in no small part by Wikipedia) to a close, I think.

Science and Books and Madrigals, oh my!

I packed a lot into Earth Day weekend. Saturday morning was the March for Science. I bussed downtown with three other friends from the department. It was much less nuts getting to this protest than it was getting to the Women’s March. We actually made it into Pershing Square this time, where a button hawker greeted us with, “I’ve got you covered, nerds!” I did not buy a button. We hung out in the park reading signs as the morning speeches wrapped up. I spotted one that read: “I should be doing research right now #gradschool.” Too true.

I was glad to see this member of the clergy

We marched from Pershing Square to City Hall, just like in January. People chanted, “Science, not silence!” and when a little boy started chanting the slogan on his sign, “Science is better than Donald Trump!”, people joined in. When we reached City Hall, we stood around for a while watching the rest of the march arrive. One of our syntax professors found us, which seemed miraculous given the crowds. I later learned a bunch of other linguists from our department had been there, though we never saw them.

From the march, I headed to USC for my third LA Times Festival of Books. I wandered through the booths for a bit. I glimpsed Yumi Sakugawa at the Skylight Books booth and witnessed the eerie sight of red-clad, white-bonneted handmaids walking in pairs about campus. There had been a WriteGirl workshop at the festival earlier in the day (I finally started volunteering with them!), but I couldn’t make it because of the March for Science. I stopped by the stage where the girls were reading in the afternoon, though, and listened to some of their pieces. Then I made my way to the Big 5’s children’s book booths, and at the Penguin Young Readers booth I noticed that Julie Berry was signing. I had read The Passion of Dolssa recently and also enjoyed All the Truth That’s in Me, so when she had a free moment, I went up to talk to her. I told her I was a fellow Viking Children’s Books author, and then we chatted about grad school and Provençal.

After meeting Julie Berry, I met up with Isabelle at the Small World Books booth by the Poetry Stage, where she was about to get some poetry collections signed by Hélène Cardona. After that, we explored the festival a little more before heading to the first of the two panels I’d picked out for the afternoon. This one was a YA panel entitled Faith, Hope, and Charity: Strong Girls in Crisis, which struck me as a little dramatic, but okay. The panelists were Julie Berry, Sonya Sones (who…turns out to be someone I think I’ve contra danced with in Los Angeles–no wonder she looked so familiar!), and the person I’d been most eager to see, because I loved Cuckoo Song and The Lie Tree: Frances Hardinge. The moderator was Jonathan Hunt of SLJ’s Heavy Medal blog fame. The authors talked about the inspiration for their latest novels, mixing genres, and whether/why their protagonists are girls. Julie Berry said that since she has four sons she gets asked why she doesn’t write about boys, and she said, “I’m a girl! It’s like what you are doesn’t matter once you’ve reproduced!” Which elicited much laughter, but there’s something dismal underlying that if you think about it.

Next we went to the other panel I’d picked out: the hapa panel! I’d been excited for it because Kip Fulbeck–author of Part Asian, 100% Hapa and creator of the Hapa Project–was on it (the other two panelists were USC professors). He was indeed the highlight of the panel for me. I enjoyed his self-deprecating manner and his sort of “you do you” attitude. He’s not interested in policing hapa identity, and he told one young hapa woman in the audience that one doesn’t have to spend every minute of one’s life fighting. Taking care of oneself is important too.

On Sunday, I participated in Jouyssance’s fourth annual early music singalong. Jouyssance is a local early music ensemble whose concerts I’ve occasionally attended. I know one of the singers because she used to sing in our Georgian chorus. Anyway, I printed the scores to the nine songs on the singalong program a week in advance and made myself a Youtube playlist to sing along to. I can sightread vocal music to an extent, but I had a feeling I would be in over my head if I didn’t prepare a bit. My favorites were Orlando Gibbons’ “The Silver Swan,” Claudin de Sermisy’s “Tant que vivray,” Thomas Morley’s “April is in my mistress’s face,” and Heinrich Isaac’s “Innsbruck, ich muss dich lassen.” There was also Josquin des Prez’s “El Grillo,” which I find annoying.

I arrived in the sanctuary of St. Bede’s Episcopal Church on Sunday afternoon, clutching my scores. A few singers from Jouyssance were there, but most of the participants weren’t in the ensemble. Everybody seemed to be a relatively experienced choral singer, though. The Jouyssance director complimented us on our reading of the first song and said she hoped we were all singing in choirs. The pace was relatively swift, and there wasn’t any hand holding, but everybody could handle it, and it was fun. Plus we weren’t exactly striving for perfection or speedy tempi.

My row of the alto section included our former Georgian chorister, a woman I know from shape note singing, and a French woman whom we told about shape note singing and who later told me she’d just started alto recorder. She showed me some of her music: “Pastime with good company”! “Belle, qui tiens ma vie”!

We didn’t do the Gibbons or the de Sermisy, to my chagrin. No French and too much Italian! I learned that Orlando di Lasso’s “Matona, mia cara” is not only quite vulgar but is also largely ungrammatical. After working on six of the nine songs for an hour and a half, we took a break for some treats and then sang everything in an informal “concert,” which Isabelle came to. (This concert was so informal that we occasionally started songs over again after a rocky start.) It was a lot of fun, and I hope I get to do it again next year!

I’m Back!

I passed my dissertation prospectus defense and am now a Candidate in Philosophy or somesuch.

A couple of news items:

  • ChinaInsight, a monthly Minnesota newspaper about Minnesota/U.S.-China relations, ran a profile on me and my books in their February issue.
  • In early February, I had lunch with the 5th grade book club at the Brentwood School near UCLA. I had a delightful time, and there’s a little write-up (with photo) here.

To celebrate my successful defense, I spent the weekend being excessively cultured. On Saturday, my friend Dustin and I went to the UCLA Early Music Ensemble’s winter concert, Half Empty: A Post-Valentine’s Concert. The theme seemed to be depressing love songs. The ensemble was smaller than at the fall concert. Most of the pieces were for a few singers accompanied by vielle or viol, or maybe recorder, or dulcian. A lot of the early (i.e. pre-Renaissance) stuff was not attributed to a particular composer but simply came from some manuscript or codex. The concert featured guest artist Emily Lau, a singer with a gorgeous voice. She told us Francesco Landini, composer of two of the songs on the program, was her favorite composer; I swear I studied him in music listening back in the day, but I can no longer remember any particular works of his.

The program progressed chronologically. We got to Arcadelt’s “Il bianco e dolce cigno,” and to Dowland, and Gibbons. The final song was “I’m Stretched On Your Grave”; the words are a translation of a 17th century Irish text. Emily Lau performed this accompanied by viol and violin, and I thought it was quite beautiful. I could also understand phrases here and there, which was nice after the Gibbons, which might as well not have been in English. Afterwards, I looked up the full text and decided the third verse was, uh, dubious, but I still liked the song enough that Kate Rusby’s version is my new earworm.

On Sunday, I went to the farewell reading at Alias Books, which is, alas, closing. I arrived quite early since I’d come straight from shape note singing, so I had ample time to browse. I wound up buying Edwidge Danticat’s first two books (a novel and a short story collection). Then, while waiting for the reading to begin, I continued reading the copy of Possession I’d bought the last time I was at Alias.

The reading included poems, an excerpt from a novel, and translations (from Polish, Spanish, and Italian). There were a couple of musical acts too, one of which featured a song about a sick pet tortoise who required intensive care in a bathtub. Two of the writers I’d heard at the post-election reading last fall. One of them, Deenah Vollmer, has a particular knack for expressing what I might call, for lack of a better term, millenial angst (from which I am not exempt). Afterwards, I walked home through the rainy night, my backpack full of books.