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Musical Space: Ren Fest


As a musician, I always have to evaluate my connection to history. Most of the music I’m hired to play is from before I was born, and I have to decide how much to make it sound like it actually did when it was written.

The Great Plains Renaissance Festival takes place in town this weekend, which reminds me that often musicians are just historical reenactors. But this doesn’t mean living in the past. It’s a creative anachronism: We get to choose those parts that are the most fun. From the medieval and Renaissance eras, we can partake of the bardic arts and stories of chivalry, whilst conveniently forgetting about the horrors of feudal law and the plague. 


Medieval and Renaissance music is different enough from our own to be really interesting. Pianos and violins did not yet exist, instead there were instruments like lutes and recorders. The scales were much different from our major and minor. The notation systems are, to us, motley and baffling. This music is so foreign to current practice that it can only be played by specialists who have to guess how it sounded and decide how hard to try to be authentic. And therein lies the fun of early music. It is filtered through our own perspectives and sometimes deliberately distorted. And there are the inevitable fusions like neo-classical music, medieval folk-rock, and neo-medieval goth.

Knowing history means all kinds of musical flavors, from earnest recreation to Tolkein-like fantasy to Monty Pythonesque parody.


Listening list:
Ensemble Project Ars Nova, Jehan Suzay “Pictagoras, Fabol Et Orpheus” (14th c.); Ars Magis Subtiliter (Secular Music Of The Chantilly Codex) (1989), New Albion Records, Inc. Example from the “Ars subtilior” style - incredibly complex rhythms, beautifully notated using different-colored ink. Courtly music from the time of the papal schizm.

Josquin Desprez, “Ave Maria... Virgo serena (Motet a quatre voix)” Hilliard Ensemble. A masterpiece of renaissance counterpoint; you can hear the early use of triads and major scales.

Carl Orff, “O Fortuna,” Carmina Burana (1936); Herbert Blomstedt, San Francisco Symphony (1991). A stylized setting of 12th-century satyric poetry -usion of modern classical and medieval elements.


Fairport Convention, “She Moves Through The Fair,” What We Did On Our Holidays (1969). Medieval folk-rock, a logical offshoot of the folk movement. This is the first FC album with Sandy Denny (Strawbs) singing; Richard Thompson’s first band. Let the way for Jethro Tull, etc.


This Is Sp?n?al Tap, “Stonehenge,” This Is Sp?n?al Tap (1984). “Druid music” - a perfect parody of how rock bands can appropriate early music.


Dead Can Dance, “De Profundis (Out Of The Depths Of Sorrow)” Spleen and Ideal (1985). Neo-medieval rock. AllMusic described their early work as "as goth as it gets."

Mark Foley is principal double bass of the Wichita Symphony Orchestra and professor of double bass and head of Jazz Studies at Wichita State University.