Saturday, 5 March 2011

Interview with Chris Elmes on the Libre Vermell

So Chris, having transcribed the songs from the Libre vermell, it would be interesting to ask you some questions, so...

Chris Elmes
Helena: When was the first time you heard any songs from the Libre vermell?

Chris: I think it was when I bought a CD by Hesperion XX possibly in the late 90's...,.it was probably one of the first batch of Cd's I bought when I first started getting interested in the music,

Helena: Had you heard of the group whose version it was?

Chris: No, well it was Hesperion XX.

Helena: Is that the name of the group (sounds more like a record label to me,or am i thinking of hyperion!)?

Chris: Yes, its the name of the group, directed by Jordi Savall, pretty well known.

Helena: Oh, yes, you lent me that CD recently.

Chris: He's very well known, does a lot of things from a lot of Renaissance music.

Helena: Did you already have things by him then?

Chris: Probably yes, I think I had some 17th century music by him then, possibly a few other ones, its a bit hard to untangle these things was 15 years ago! But , I don't know if that necessarily influenced my buying it. The instruments that were listed on the back of Cd's were actually the criteria for which Cd's I was buying .

Helena: Was there a particular instrument at that time?

Chris: Well, fiddle (medieval), I had made my first fiddle at that point and I was very interested in hearing more fiddle music. I was generally interested in instrumental music, or the instrumental side of it, singing seemed to take a bit of a second place in the early days; impressions have changed considerably over the years...

Helena: I'm glad to hear it!

Chris: So that was one of the main things and also Jordi Savall is a fiddle player and also viol, so probably had quite a reasonable influence on buying it.

Helena: You hadn't actually heard the songs before? You hadn't actually heard it somewhere and decided you liked it and wanted to buy it? Its quiet interesting you bought it.

Chris: Yeah... I don't believe so, I bought a lot of medieval Cd's in those days, that were coming out, and I was just experimenting buying Cd's..

Helena: OK..

Chris: Sometimes I used to go into  shops and listen to records, back in the days when people used to go and listen before they would buy it... so possibly that, there may have been some other factors but I cant really remember that much about it.

Helena: Yes, its a long time ago to be fair...What were you first impressions? ...when you first listened...

Chris: Ermm...

Helena: Were you just listening to the fiddle and not paying attention to the rest of it!

Chris: Well yeah, I think that one doesn't necessarily have a lot of fiddle playing in it, but it was still quiet good, I think it was probably one of the first Cd's I had, or first music I was listening to, that had actually polyphonic pieces in it, whereas most of the other music  that I had listened to was only monophonic songs... the different ways of approaching that, the people I was listening to, like Sinfonie, Stevie Wishart playing fiddle..singing troubadour and trouvere music, and that was sort of really the sort of area I was interested in, and the cantigas, were probably the next thing to move along, and a few other areas I was listening too, but the Libre vermell seemed to be the first that I had heard with polyphonic music on it, although only half the songs on the it are actually polyphonic.

Helena: Its very singing-based though, the ten songs, there's no instrumentals, so its quite interesting you picked that one in the hope...

Chris: Yes, that's why I'm curious to think back... about where I got that, or how I picked it up. But, no it is a bit strange... but think I enjoyed the 'songs' when there were instruments in it. I wasn't that keen on unaccompanied singing. Particularly, I think I was developing my distaste for the English choral, choir-sound, the perfectly trained English tenor singing troubadour songs, which I never really took a liking to in any great way.

But, the first impressions, what I really remember was listening to Stella splendens and being very interested in the way that all the melodies ran. I thought I had the melody, but then all of a sudden it sounded like the melody was doing something else. I realised that there were these two melodies that were intertwining and crossing over. You could hear each of the melodies quite clearly, but that when the polyphonic lines came together, then the whole thing has a completely different feeling, and you can listen to it on very different levels. Either just as the full sound of all the lines going round, or you can focus in on an individual line, or you can focus on the different line in the same piece of music, and you actually hear the music differently by doing that. It's almost like line drawing of a cube, it can be facing one way then another depending on how you look at it.

That was probably the first, the earliest polyphony I was listening to, and starting to get an idea of what medieval polyphony was about really.

Helena:...Interesting. Have your opinions changed over time, now you put them in a wider context really,... cant you?

Chris: I know them now in a much broader context of knowing more medieval music round that period. In some ways, to the actual music, my attitude hasn't changed that much, but, that particular recording now to me sounds rather overblown, to many instruments and a bit too choral.

Helena: Is it a good representative of polyphonic music, the Libre vermell?

Chris: Yes, it is. I would say that Stella splendens is one of the best examples of two-line polyphonic music in the medieval style, in that it follows rules that the various theorists have discussed.

Helena: It's quite textbook then?

Chris: Yeah, if you want people to have an idea of what medieval harmony is about, putting Stella spendens in front of them as a two part piece of music is an excellent way to introduce them.

Helena: So it was quite a good buy, the cd then (in terms of discovering the Llibre Vermell)?

Chris: Yes.

Helena: What attracted you to transcribing this manuscript of songs? Was it many years later that you came to transcribe the manuscript.

Chris: It was a fair bit later, although I'd started transcribing the cantigas quite early. Even at that point the cantigas were scanned and were put on the Internet, and one of the smaller manuscripts had been put on there. And I got interested, the way I get interested in all things - I tend to get interested on all levels about the whole thing, down to the nuts and bolts and up to the big picture. Obsessed is possibly a better description! But in a controlled way.

So I was transcribing the Cantigas de Santa Maria for some time, just for my own use and just out of interest and also started looking at the Cantigas d'amigo, another earlier Spanish set. I'd started hearing different versions of the Cantigas d'amigo and noticed everyone did them differently, and wondering where these differences came from. There's only one source for this music, so going to the manuscript and seeing what was there and how people were interpreting it, made me realise that a large amount of transcribing music is actually artistic interpretation, because there's quite a lot of ambiguity, and you have to interpret it from the manuscript, you cant just read it off the page. And also the manuscript is slightly damaged so there's a number of different ways you can reconstruct it, to some extent.

So, I had thought of doing that, and then when I first started thinking about doing music for a living, after an extended period of unemployment, I thought about transcribing the Cantigas d'amigo. And also the Libre vermell was there as well.

Helena: They're not related in any way?

Chris: No, they're just two separate Spanish manuscripts.

Helena: Are they from the same period?

Chris: No, they're more than a hundred years apart. The Cantigas d'amigo are from around 1260; the Llibre Vermell is about 1380 

Helena: They're not from the same area?

Chris: No,...opposite sides(of Spain). Galicia and Catalonia. 

Helena: I just wondered why you published them in the same book?

Chris: The main reason was that there was no easily available set of transcriptions of either Cantigas d'amigo or Libre vermell. You could only find them in specialist music libraries in large, extraordinarily expensive volumes of medieval music.

Helena: So you saw a gap in the market!

Chris: Yes, basically! A lot of people have recorded them, a lot of people were playing them, and a lot of people liked them, but there weren't any readily available transcriptions of these songs. Which seemed absolutely stupid. And having done transcriptions before I thought I'd do the Cantigas d'amigo, and I knew the Libre vermell needed doing as well so I did my own set for the Libre vermell as well.

Helena: Do you get quite a lot of interest in this publication? As there's nothing really to rival it.

Chris: Reasonably. Ive sold about 400 copies of it so far. So its been fairly good from a commercial point of view. Yes, its been picked up fairly well and lots of people seem to be using it now. Course, its a relatively cheap set of transcriptions which you still can't get anywhere else.

Helena: So you're making medieval music accessible!(to the performer)

Chris: I hope so.
Helena: Is there a standout song from Libre vermell in your opinion?

Chris: That does keep changing, like your favourite food. Its either the last one or the next one.

Helena: Is there anything particularly well-written?

Chris: Well, I'd say Stella Splendens is an extremely good piece of music, its very accessible, it has all the elements of medieval polyphony, and also has a very good melody in both lines. It just is a good piece.

The others all stand up in different ways. Cuncti simus is probably the other best known song in that set. Its a very good, jolly rousing tune, which people always like as well.

The other polyphonic pieces, sort of tend to come and go a bit. Maria matrem, I quite like, but sometimes if I've heard too many other versions of it I go off it.
There are a lot of recordings of it(the llibre vermell), that i don't like listening to very often. I don't listen to it on CD much anymore, any version, because I'm moving more towards liking to hear music live, because its different each time.

Helena: So you avoid having it on at home?

Chris: I listen to new medieval music at home, I get new Cd's. But my capacity to hear it over and over again, the same recording, is diminishing somewhat.

Helena: I know you're not a fan of Polorum regina. Can you shed some light on this?

Chris: Mmmmmm...

Helena: Was it an instant dislike?

Chris: I think so. It is possibly because it's in a mode which largely corresponds to a modern major key. Possibly just sounds a bit too modern. But mainly because it comes across as very twee!

I was going to say I have this reaction to a lot of medieval music in that mode, but actually quite a few pieces of music in that mode I do really like as well. So it isn't that.

Helena: There's just something you don't like about it?

Chris: Yes. It's not really that I don't like it, it's just that by the 3rd verse I'm sick of it! I get bored of it very quickly.

Helena: It's quite a simple song, isn't it? Not really a lot happening.

Chris: There are some other songs that are quite simple. Cuncti simus is very simple too.

Helena: Its got a bit more fire to it?

Chris: Yes, that's possibly down to the different mode as well.

I'm not quite sure. I think its got something to do with that mode. Lots of tunes in that mode I find a bit irritating. Though there are some very good ones (in that mode) which aren't (irritating).  

Helena: Okay, so in Gaita you've played these songs in a variety of ways. Is there an instrument or instruments you think are integral for this style of music, this collection of songs?

Chris: No. I don't think any instruments are integral to any medieval music. It is one of the joys of medieval music - there is no set way of doing things. Almost all medieval music is written down as vocal music. So for all intents and purposes it is actually vocal music, so the only 'correct' thing to do is to sing it. But there are many other possibilities.

We do know that medieval musicians played instrumentally and we know that they played these sort of songs. There are explicit references to fiddle players performing particular songs. So we know they played these sort of songs, but we don't know how they played, and we don't know which particular instruments they used with the singing.

So, there's no particular instrument that fits. I generally think we've seen enough depictions of people singing and with instruments, that it was common to have them played together. (This is the slightly heretical British attitude towards classical music after Christopher Page books of the 80s.)

But, I don't think there is any instrument that is integral to this particular style of music. We have done these songs instrumentally quite a few times, sometimes on loud instruments, sometimes on quiet instruments with fiddles and harps, sometimes with lutes. It's something you can keep reinterpreting as an instrumental with different instruments and in different ways.

Helena: It would completely change the feel whether you were using shawms or were doing it on harps, wouldn't it?

Chris: Yes. You approach it differently by playing different instruments. You don't try to play the same way on fiddles as you do on the bagpipes or a lute or a harp.

By using different instruments you think of it in different ways and you come up with totally different arrangements. And, in fact, we've done the same tune on different instruments at different points of a concert before and people haven't realised we're playing the same tune. Because it does sound very different. This is the good thing about medieval music, you're reinterpreting it all the time.

Helena: In inviting Gaita to play some instruments and collaborate on our renditions - either intermittent to sung verses, or filtering through and intermingling with vocals - is there anything you'd definitely like to have in there? If you know that you're working with voices?

Chris: Its going to be interesting, because I've not actually tried doing that. With most of our music we've only had one singer, not a whole choir!

Helena: Vocal ensemble!

Chris: Yes, vocal ensemble! Sorry!

Probably not any fixed ideas. It's surprising how you can have an idea of how something could work and then you try it in reality, and it just doesn't come off. And you play around with a few different ideas, and all of a sudden it falls into place. In many ways it's interesting just to explore and see where you end up, as opposed to going in with too many fixed ideas.

Helena: You generally have your lute to hand though?

Chris: Yes. There are a number of instruments that are very characteristic of that period and place. The medieval lutes were basically introduced to Europe in Spain in the 13th century, and were still very strong in the 14th century. So that is an instrument I would definitely have in there somewhere.

Helena: Does the subject matter of the songs ever influence what instruments you choose? They're all mainly devotional songs, aren't they?

Chris: Um, they are, but they're definitely devotional songs in a lighter sort of style. I get the impression that medieval people had a different attitude to being devotional, in that it wasn't the pure, angelic, Victorian idea of being reverent. I think they could be pious in medieval times without being sickly sweet and they could easily have encompassed very rough and ready sort of styles, or very energetic styles. Probably, in approaching this kind of music, you would have a better analogy with something like gospel music, rather than choral evensong.

Helena: These songs were written down by monks in the monastery, weren't they?

Chris: Yes. They were actually written by the monks in the monastery, for the pilgrims to sing. As they say, 'for the pilgrims to sing in the squares', implying they were going to be singing anyway, so we'll give them some pious songs to sing. In fact, there's an interesting anecdote (possibly spurious) - that the pilgrims were coming to Montserrat, and after visiting the church, were going off to the taverns or sitting in the squares, and singing all these bawdy, lively songs that the monks thought were a bit unseemly. So they took the songs and rewrote the words. Which possibly explains why the tunes are of a definite sort of folk style (well, some of them), but with devotional words.

Another interesting way of performing the songs could be to be mostly drunk before you start performing it!

[excellent! not that the Hieronymous vocal ensemble would need much encouragement on this front.]

Helena: It says in the notes that one of the songs had to be sung in a respectful manner?

Chris: Yes, but 'respectful' can mean something different. Possibly you're not meant to do it in a tongue-in-cheek manner. But 'respectful' doesn't have to mean the angelic, Victorianised idea of what respectful.

Helena: Interestingly, was it quite rare for them to mention in the manuscript the dancing being done to these songs?

Chris: I think four of the pieces - Polorum regina, Cuncti simus, Los sept goyts and Stella splendens - are all described as round dances in the manuscript. Which is actually very curious as normally you wouldn't have associated something like Stella splendens as a round dance.

Helena: You wouldn't really think of it as being a dance at all, in fact?

Chris: No. Which is another interesting way of thinking about it and how you will approach it. It does seem to the modern idea, that having a devotional song - Polorum regina, maybe - but it being a dance. But there actually precedents for that. There are clerical dances - dances that were sung by clerics, and you actually see pictures of the clerics, holding hands, dancing in circles.

So, it's not a completely foreign idea, but its strange to modern sensibilities, I think.

Helena: It's quite a nice touch, to have that in the manuscript. It brings it alive a bit more.

Chris: Yes. It gives you some idea of the performance context. It's not necessarily going to be a piece where you just stand up in a church or choir and sing as a devotional song. It's probably being sung outdoors, and probably have instrumental accompaniment, and people were dancing, and if people had drums they would be playing them. So it gives you a different idea of how you could approach it.

Helena: Do you have any favourite versions of any of the songs that you would recommend listening to?

Chris: There are some. Not a complete collection. The Onyi Watters CD has a very good version of Stella splendens. Quite a free, improvised style.

Helena: That's live in concert, isnt it?

Chris: Yes, but it doesn't sound live till you hear the applause! Its very depressing!

There's a few others, scattered ones. I don't think there's actually a collection.

Helena: Not a definitive collection?

Chris: No. The more I'm doing this sort of music, the more I have an idea of what I think it should be, the harder it is to actually find anything that I think is a really good example of how I think it should be done.

Helena: That leads me onto my next question then. We're aiming to approach the songs in a lively way, injecting character and texture, with plenty of variation and contrast. Do you think this is the right way to go?

Chris: Indubitably! Yes. I think one thing about medieval polyphony particularly is that it needs to be approached by having contrasting voices so you can actually hear each of the lines as a distinct voice, particularly when they cross over. You also see instrumental ensembles in medieval times are always groups of instruments with contrasting sounds. You either have fiddle and harp together, or fiddle and citole (a strummed string instrument), or a lute with a bray harp.

So I think using that idea in the vocal styles is a good idea, having very contrasting voices, and not trying to make people blend their voices, but to have their individual voices and have individual characters singing.
Helena: It captures the spirit of the pilgrims?

Chris: Yes. And also not go for an insufferably reverential way of approaching music. Because I don't think that was how it was necessarily done. Possibly some choirs of monks may have done it that way, but I don't think that holds when you get out into the real world.

Helena: And, have you any Libre vermell trivia or anecdotes you can share with us? You did mention something about the cover of the book?

Chris: Yes. Its actually called the Libre vermell, it got that name in the late 18th or early 19th century, when it was rebound in red leather.

Helena: Oh, red leather. I thought it was red velvet?

Chris: Possibly red velvet. Or red leather. Libre vermell just means 'red book'.

Helena: Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts!

Chris: Half an hour of waffle! That's going to take a while to transcribe!

All of Chris Elmes' publications of medieval music transcriptions are available to purchase from Gaita's website, please find the link below.