OF CRUMHORNS, SHAWMS AND SACKBUTS
by Andy Lindstrom
Step lively to the instruments of yore, and feel the magic of music history
In a second-floor rehearsal room inside FSU's Housewright Music Building, a trio of students plays tunes that Shakespeare might have hummed as he polished his prose. Graduate assistant Jerry Cain fingers the melody on a flute-like wooden pipe issuing wails sounding something like a cross between a saxophone and a trainman's whistle.
Piano major Peter Manzi blows through a Rube Goldberg-looking contraption whose bass notes, with a little imagination, could come from a courting bullfrog. Organ major Holly Mulherin, tootling in cross-legged concentration, echoes Cain's lilting tenor lead along passages penned by 17th-century Baroque composer Hieronymus Praetorius nearly 400 years ago."I need an oxygen tank, I'm running out of air so fast," puffs Manzi, beet-red from his aerobic exertion.
"Just breathe where you have to," Cain offers at the next break. "Let's do (No.) 23 again. Only faster."
No, this isn't a practice session for some out-of-season madrigal. Or the masquerade musicians from Sweet Will's "Much Ado About Nothing."
It's the recorder section of FSU's nationally recognized early-music ensemble, about 40 instrument and voice students who gather twice weekly to play medieval, Renaissance and early Baroque pieces on the instruments for which they were written. Under the direction of Dr. Jeffery T. Kite-Powell (Ph.D. University of Hamburg), members of the ensemble have performed before such eminent musical organizations as the American Choral Directors' Association, the National Theory Society and have had guest spots on National Public Radio's Millenium of Music. The largest such university group in the Southeast and one of the largest in the nation, FSU's ensemble performs in public at least four times each year and consists, for the most part, of students whose "real" instruments are firmly wedded to the 20th century.
"We don't give instruction on these," Kite-Powell says of the 80 or so contrivances that line the walls of his rehearsal room. "This is just their aside, part of their musical education."
Odd sounding, exotic looking and--until their relatively recent revival--mostly extinct music-makers with such curious names as shawms and sackbuts, rackets and crumhorns, rebecs and regals, Kite-Powell's collection consists almost exclusively of modern reproductions. "Originals would be in museums," he says.
Such big-ticket items as the $3,300 regal (a two-person reed organ requiring both a keyboard player and a bellows pumper) and the $2,500 hurdy-gurdy (grinder and monkey not included) were purchased with money supplied by FSU's student government. Kazoo-like crumhorns and other smaller acquisitions come by way of the music-department budget. Although there is a thriving American market in reproductions, Kite-Powell says, most of FSU's are made in England or Germany. All take some getting used to. "You should hear the schreierpfeif," Cain says with a wry smile. "That's German for 'screaming pipe.' It's loud and it is obnoxious."
So, what's the attraction?
"Such beautiful music I knew nothing about," says Cain, a veteran of eight semesters with the early-music ensemble who plays six different Renaissance instruments including the tenor recorder.
"When I came here, I was into 20th-century classical performers--and jazz. I love jazz. But I've come to like early music as well. It requires the same kind of improvisation."
Spanning half a millenium from the Middle Ages to the mid-1600s, the early music that Kite-Powell's ensemble plays boasts a surprisingly rich inventory of instruments by whatever name they're known or idiosyncrasy they exhibit. Woodwinds and strings, horns and drums, keyboards and organs, they run the gamut from violas da gamba (Italian roughly translated as "fiddle held between the knees") to the hand-cranked hurdy-gurdy. They also come in so-called families with far more members than a modern symphony orchestra.
During their Renaissance heyday, Kite-Powell says, about the only unifying feature of all these instruments was that some played loud and some played soft. Blaring shawms and braying bagpipes, for instance, were favored for street dances and outdoor parades. Lutes and harps fared better behind the tender love songs of court troubadours and such. Whatever past combinations they might have inspired, his students find them at least as demanding as their present-day counterparts to play.
"They're not easier, and they're not harder," says musicology master's candidate James Grymes, pausing from an afternoon session with his bass dulcian, a forerunner to the bassoon. "They're completely different."
Modern instruments, Grymes says, have "tons of keys. They're more specialized." On the dulcian, range and dynamics are limited. Just finding the right note can be a challenge. "At times they're pretty temperamental," he says. "But the upside is getting to play the instrument for which this music was written. You learn to listen real well."
To an untrained ear, listening to early-music practice sessions can sound like a traffic jam at rush hour. Kim Wooley's aptly named racket contains nine feet of metal tubing stuffed inside its 11-inch wooden cylinder. "That's why it called a sausage bassoon in German," says Wooley, a doctoral candidate in bassoon performance.
Cain's raucously insistent schreierpfeif shreiks in earsplitting decibels. It also holds some marvelously lyric surprises. After all, this is the era of "Greensleeves" and some of our best-loved Christmas carols.
"They're all part of our musical heritage," says Mulherin. "Where we're going and where we've been. All these pieces say something to me."
Many of the pieces that Kite-Powell chooses for his ensemble are church-related motets, a special type of choral arrangement, and masses. Others pluck the secular rhythms of peasant songs and courtly dances. In concert, his Renaissance ensemble takes as its model the so-called consorts of similar instruments that became popular about the time of England's oft-married Henry VIII, a pretty fair viola da gamba player in his younger days.
As Kite-Powell explains it, a quartet of recorders makes up a consort. Individually, members play on instruments ranging from teeny to five-feet long. Sackbuts, the Renaissance trombone, play together as the brass consort. Add to that the crumhorns (a sort of umbrella handle with finger holes), the viols, the continuos instruments (including organs, harps and dulcians), and even the singers. Each is grouped as a consort. At FSU performances, consorts dressed in period costumes are stationed throughout the concert hall rather than mixed together on a single stage. The result, Kite-Powell says: Polyphonic sound. Perhaps not quite up to modern musical expectations, but amazingly effective when properly executed.
"The first time audiences hear us play on crumhorns, they usually titter," Cain says. "But a consort playing well in tune can be very impressive."
Before about 25 years ago, early music hadn't arrived at most university programs. At FSU in 1973, music professor Dale Olsen, along with Alan Thomas and graduate student Frank Hutchison, led a modest revival. But they never attracted more than a half dozen or so students, Kite-Powell says. Twelve years ago, Dean Robert Glidden recruited him from Miami to organize the school's first early-music ensemble. At about the same time, Dr. Karyl Louwenaar began FSU's Baroque ensemble, presently some two dozen or so students who perform on such period instruments as harpsichords, violins, flutes, recorders, oboes, horns, trumpets, trombones, and bassoons in small-group arrangements.
Musicology students are required to earn credits in both areas, Louwenaar says. In return, they're awarded a certificate in early music that often comes in handy after graduation when they're hunting for a job. So far, Kite-Powell says, at least two of his former students have started early-music groups at their new posts.
"Dean Glidden liked to tout our musical school as comprehensive," Kite-Powell says of the decision to bring him aboard. "Now, in addition to the early-music ensembles, we have more world-music ensembles than it takes two hands to count." Both Thomas and Hutchison are deceased. Olsen, who taught recorder and played principal flute with the Chile Philharmonic Orchestra as a 1960s-era Peace Corps volunteer, spends much of his time now with the 200-plus students in FSU's 12 world-music ensembles. He rarely plays his recorder anymore. "But you don't ever forget how," he says. "The hardest part is remaining sensitive to the Renaissance and Baroque style. Otherwise, you end up sounding like Rachmaninoff."
Kite-Powell came to early music by an alternate route. A high-school clarinetist in Tampa, he later traveled to Germany for his doctoral degree in musicology. After returning to the U.S. with his wife, Helga, and three sons, Kite-Powell spent four years at Miami-Dade Community College before coming to FSU. In addition to his teaching duties, he's edited and helped write "A Performer's Guide to Renaissance Music" and is working on a translation of Michael Praetorius's 17th-century music encyclopedia. Both at FSU and on the national scene, he says, the old music with its odd instruments continues to grow in popularity. Summer workshops are flourishing. Internet mailing lists buzz with the latest happenings. What is known as historically-informed performance has become a festival favorite at such widespread locations as Edinburgh, Scotland; Utrecht, Holland, and in Boston, Berkeley and colonial Williamsburg, Virginia.
"It's fun for the audience, and a challenge to the performer," Kite-Powell says in explanation. And what do his students think?
"I'm impressed every time I play this thing," says Manzi, still winded from his recorder session. "Just figuring out how those old virtuosos did it is hard enough for me."