I have been smitten with medieval and renaissance music since I was in high school. Not sure why, though I think falling in love with the soundtrack to The Lion in Winter might have had something to do with it. About ten years ago I went to my first concert of the community college’s Early Music Consort. I was entranced. I’d never before seen shawms and cornettos, crumhorns and sackbuts, or dulcians and viols. Not to mention the full cadre of recorders, including a seven-foot tall bass aptly named “the tree.” Hearing the music live and seeing it performed on period instruments was ever so much more wonderful than listening to recordings. I attended the Consort concerts every year, and each time I thought to myself, “wouldn’t it be fun to play with them.”
I started playing soprano recorder a couple of years ago and got to join the community college Tuesday evening recorder ensemble. The idea of playing with the Consort stayed in the back of my mind – I knew I’d also have to be able to play alto recorder, and I’ve had my hands full with playing soprano as well as learning how to keep up with tricky Renaissance rhythms. But this past spring and summer I studied alto recorder via more individual lessons with my recorder teacher and classes at the Mountain Collegium. At the end of Mountain Collegium, the Consort director said I could try playing in the Consort for this semester, and we’d see how that goes.
She warned me that the music would be challenging, and that I would be working very hard to keep up with the much more experienced musicians in the group. It turns out that she is a master of understatement. The first challenge is that this group plays everything at least five times faster than the Tuesday evening recorder ensemble. The Consort reads through new music at a pace that may be faster than the Tuesday evening ensemble’s final performance tempos. And I am still a relatively slow sight-reader. Whole long strings of notes can fly by without my fingers ever being able to move fast enough to play them. After two weeks, my Consort strategy is to find some rather empty looking measures further down the page, wait for the group to get there, and then play along until the measures get too crowded with those pesky black dots for my fingers to keep up.
This semester we are playing exclusively medieval music. And I thought Renaissance music had funky rhythms! I’ve never seen or tried to play so many eighth and sixteenth notes stuck in so many odd places. If I’m lucky enough to find a few connected measures with notes where I can move fast enough to play, suddenly there’s a hard right turn to an entirely different pulse, and often a different time signature to boot. Yikes! In practice, I look like Hans the Counting Horse as I try to find and tap rhythms with my foot.
What is it that inspires me to repeatedly jump headlong into musical situations that are so way over my head and beyond my current abilities? For sure, I will be a much better recorder player by the end of this semester, but that can’t be the only reason. Perhaps it’s the music itself that seduces me, like the Sirens calling to the sailors on the Rhine, causing them to tie themselves to their masts so that they would not jump ship and drown in the roiling river waters. The music IS that beautiful. And I get such thrills out of knowing I’m playing (or trying to) music written to commemorate Henry V’s victory at the battle of Agincourt in 1415, or music that was composed by a trouvère in 1189, during the reign of Eleanor of Aquitaine. I am totally taken with being both witness to and interpreter of some long-ago person’s thoughts and hopes and view of the world. We are separated by centuries, yet we are contemporaries in music.
So unlike those sailors tied to the mast so as not to heed the Sirens’ call, I’ve jumped into the deep, rushing waters once again. Nothing to do but point my feet downstream, and tread water.