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Eddas, Elegies & Epics, à la mode

Benjamin Bagby and Sequentia bring medieval spells, songs and stories to EMV

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And for that risky leap of hip-shooting derring-do, Bagby’s sidearm – his harp – turned out to be his best ally. It’s a far cry from the six-foot-tall, 47-string gilt and fluted concert instrument that Harpo strummed; rather it’s a snub little ovoid, about the length of an Uzi carbine, which Bagby brandishes like Indiana Jones’ Smith & Wesson.

The harp’s Saxon Lyre six-stringed design is a work of meticulous scholarly reconstruction, but Bagby’s playing style is his own pure intuitive inspiration. Even in his teens, when he formed his first “medieval garage band” back in his native Illinois, Bagby had thrilled to Gottfried von Strassbourg’s 13th century romance Tristan. The harp wizardry of that poem’s eponymous hero so enraptured King Mark of Cornwall and his courtiers that they “forgot their own names; hearts and ears began to lose touch with reality, like mesmerized fools.”

A paean like that could fire a young musician’s virtuosic ambitions, but offered no practical hint as to how such music was actually made. Hard to impute such mesmeric power, though, to the sort of “Neo-Victorian delicate melodies and arpeggiated chords” that passed for “medieval harp music” back in Bagby’s undergrad days at Oberlin Conservatory in Ohio.

Anyway, such concoctions hardly suited the spare Saxon Lyre of Bagby’s research, with its weak upper and lower registers, concentrating all its resonant strength in a few central tones. So what kind of living music might come out of such an instrument?

He found his touchstone not by delving into any sources about harps or the Middle Ages or even the Western World at all. The breakthrough came when he chanced to pick up an anthropological monograph by Paul F. Berliner on the mbira, the hand-held “thumb-piano” metallophone of Zimbabwe’s Shona people.

Not that Bagby purports to “hear mbira music resonating in King Mark's castle, nor transcribe mbira riffs for the harp,” he concedes. But Berliner describes an “intact tradition” of arduous master-to-student technique transmission whose greatest adepts have a “shamanistic power” to transport players and listeners alike into “altered states of consciousness.”

The characteristic mode of each piece, Bagby writes on his website, is developed “not as a musical scale, but rather as a collection of gestures, codes and signs which can be interiorized, varied, combined and used as a font to create musical ‘texts.’”

His cherished freedom to do so, paradoxically enough, derives from the absence of more prosaically transcribed texts on paper or parchment. Over his half century spelunking the grottos of modal music, Bagby has enjoyed deep dives into living cognates – everything from modal electronica to Hindustani dhrupad. But, absent time-travel, he has no way to tap into a reality check with the medieval forebears of his own artistic lineage.

Which might not be a bad thing, he admits. “What if we had access to the original sound and to the master’s living art, but we simply did not like what we heard?

“Those few of us who labour on the outer chronological fringes (some would say the lunatic fringe) of early music,” he goes on to write, “find ourselves irresistibly drawn to the earliest-known musical cultures. Although the chances are slim that I will end my professional days crouched in an accurately-reconstructed she-bear cave, rhythmically grunting obscure syllables as I pound two historically-informed rocks together, the hunger is always there.”

If you share his hunger for ever-earlier Early Music, don’t miss Bagby and Sequentia tonight and tomorrow.

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