Saturday, April 30, 2011


This is a post that you could read many places and have probably thought about many times, but therein lies some of the pleasure. This is a post about live music. Specifically live medieval music. Specifically live music with a live story performance.  Specifically Dolores Hydock and PanHarmonium bringing the 13th-century romance Silence to life last night at DePauw (ok, this is the par tthat you probably haven't thought about many times).  This has been a dream of mine since I first saw even just the poster of the performance at Kalamazoo about seven years ago.  And in the calm of last year's sabbatical (in the now treasured memory space of our third floor study), I contacted Dolores and started gathering the funding to bring them here. I taught "Love and War in Medieval Art and Literature" in the fall and "Women and Medieval Art" in the spring, and thought and thought about those students and what it might mean to the to study the art and literature and see it come to life not just through their own questions and whatever gesticulations I can bring, but through this incredible performer, through these phenomenal musicians. I envy you if you've never experienced one of their performances, for to see medieval literature come alive beneath these notes and voices is sublime; I envy you more if you've seen more than one because, well, you have!

And the students came. They came in great, unexpected numbers - they brought friends and enthusiasts and we had ourselves a nice audience.  There were a couple of annoyances, the boils of modern performance: texting, but a valiant colleague kicked the student out, and the world Dolores and the musicians was left intact.  I have never ever in my life before seen an audience move so completely with a performer: laughter was somehow spontaneous and simultaneous, I could see students leaning forward as she leaned in with the next amazing revelation and twist in the tale, I saw one student's hand steal upon the arm of another in anticipation.  So this makes me think of several things: of ephemeral communities created by the shared experience of sound and anticipation, of the impossibility of communicating this to anyone who wasn't there (thus the sweet futility of this post), and, endlessly, of the intimacies and strange wonders of the presence of troubadours in medieval spaces.  My most excellent medieval musicologist colleague and I were talking and talking afterwards of the movements  (the freedom of movement?) of medieval troubadours: geographic, yes, but also class and fantasy and, in the case of Silence, gender.

For Silence is a girl, you see, raised as a boy because of "wise" King Evan's decree that no woman shall ever inherit in England again.  And this makes Nature furious (for she had lavished much upon the girl's beauty), but Nurture brings Reason when Silence is wavering about returning to her "true" nature, and Silence takes off and becomes a minstrel, a kickass jouster, and a valiant knight.  The ending involves Merlin and honey and revelations and a lascivious queen (gotta have one of those it seems) drawn and quartered (it's medieval, remember), and a return to the normative that questions itself.  Here you see her between the lady and the seneschal who raise her in the woods, but I also see Nature and Nurture on either side of her in one of two speeches where the two allegories have it out with each other. To consider: Silence is a 13th century romance (and exists in translation!); the mother of Silence is named Euphemism.

Medieval music is no picnic, as this manuscript begins to reveal: any score is more a series of notes about the proportions of sound than the trajectory of a melody.  Modern performances have more to do with jazz improv session than a classical sonata - and the sense is that so did medieval performances.  Perhaps this begins to explain the intimacy that modern musicians of medieval instruments have to the music they perform.  It is not a music that is easy to give yourself to (harmony? who needs harmony?) - it envelops strangely, reminding us of the gulf that separates us from the (our?) past.  But every once in a while, a phrase enlivened by the performer finds yet more life and presence in an instrument whose strain seems to be that of its emotion.

As I write this, I am becoming more and more excited about this afternoon's performance of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight - Oliver was in when I mentioned they'd be playing a shawm, which was described by Dolores as sounding "like a goose getting a wedgie" - Gilbert, one of the musicians, said that they seldom let it out of its cage.  Let's go!

The Green Knight!
 And so we did, and it was marvelous in every way!  Ever since seeing spring surround the Prindle Institute, I had hoped that we could have a performance there: it's simultaneously intimate and grand this place, and Dolores and the musicians drew the hundred or so (!!!) people in attendance all into Arthur's court.  They did it in front of the huge hearth and fireplace, and of course now one's thoughts turn to doing a performance in the actual season of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight - the week between Christmas and New Year's Eve.  Wouldn't that be a sight for all to see?  There were many more kids for Gawain (including our bunch, who came dressed each in their own interpretation of medieval garb - for Eleanor this somehow included those plastic Croc shoes and a claim that peasants had to run fast, so, yes, Crocs) and their responses were marvelous to watch.

Bertilak's Lady and Gawain
Of course Gawain is hardly children's literature, what with the beheading and the triple seduction and the general confusion of who is doing what to whom and why.  But is it marvelous, it is mysterious, and it awakens (maybe for kids, maybe for us) an awareness of the strange that we must have if we're going to think beyond the usual.  These two images are pulled from the unique manuscript of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (that it and Beowulf are both unique manuscript continues to blow my mind - the fortunes and vicissitudes of manuscript survival in history and all that) - above is the Green Knight about in King Arthur's court holding his head after Gawain had severed it with one blow (and why, oh my goodness, why this scene teeters between abject horror and slapstick hilarity will always fascinate); and here is Bertilak's lady seducing Gawain (which of the three times?) in the morning.  There are only four images to the manuscript (one of the Green Chapel and the other of Gawain's return to court) and they've received very little scholarly attention because they are of "poor quality" (love of God - but a claim that my dear friend Amanda Luyster takes on in an unpublished and terrific paper on these images), and because, I think, they are in competition with a phenomenally imagistic piece of literature. You are asked to see so much when you hear Sir Gawain and the Green Knight - and the beauty of Dolores and PanHarmonium is that they invite you to see yet more.

1 comment:

  1. Hello, could you tell me the author, title, and year of this painting?

    Thank you!