A whole lotta hoot, and just a little bit of nanny

I’ve recently had the misfortune of having had to sit through a series of classes on Western Music History that managed to make just about every form of music prior to 1900 seem deathly dull, irrelevant, and inaccessible. It amazes me how they can do this. I mean, it’s not hard to find some truly amazing stuff even within the confines of “Western Art Music”, and present it in a way that’s engaging. So why don’t they? Do they not know? Are they just teaching it out of a sense of obligation? Did they sit through dull music history classes back in the day and figure that we have to suck it up just like they did?

The Medieval period. What we learnt in class: there was Gregorian chant, which was basically monophonic vocals without much rhythm or melody to speak of, and then mumble mumble something happened and there was polyphony, SURPRISE! RENAISSANCE!

Yeah right. As if that’s all that was going on musically in the middle ages. We’re talking about an era that gave you St Vitus’ Dance, an uncontrollable urge to dance all over the place as if possessed by the devil. You think they did that to Gregorian chant? Of course not.

Here’s Corvus Corax with a little something to show you how it’s done:

Yeah, those dudes have a lightshow and moshpit. Their interpretive choices for this Saltarello (a 13th century number, if I recall correctly) are, ahem, somewhat non-standard, but no more ridiculous than the early music ensembles that play medieval dance tunes as if they were lullabies and dirges. No self-respecting medieval musician would’ve been able to earn his or her living unless they could get the village green jumping.

Corvus Corax use a range of medieval instruments including medieval-style bagpipes, ear-shattering shawms (clocked at 98dB!), and of course a buttload of percussion. But if you really want to appreciate the full ridiculous awesomeness of medieval instruments, you need to check out some of these Youtube videos:

  • The krumhorn, which is what you’d get if you crossed a kazoo with an old-fashioned walking stick turned upside down.
  • The hurdy-gurdy, which would be the medieval answer to the keytar, except you have to wind a handle to play it.
  • The portative organ, which is basically the bastard child of a pipe organ and bellows, giving you a kind of early accordion. There are quite a few home-made portative organs on the tubes — looks like they’re a great hacker project.