In Fall 2001 I taught a course on "Medieval and Renaissance Lyric"
Program in Comparative Literature at the University of Oregon. Integrated
into the course were concerts and class visits from two world-class early
music ensembles, Anne Azéma and Shira Kammen performing medieval music, and
La Venexiana, a vocal ensemble from Italy, performing Renaissance music. In
addition to performing an extraordinary concert of Marian lyric (whose
program I include here to clarify references made below), Azéma and Kammen
spent three hours fielding questions from my students and performing medieval
music from other programs they offer, including a program of Crusader lyric
entitled "Chanterai por mon corage." What follows is a transcription of that
conversation, with a few clarifying details added; the musicians are
identified by their initials, and their UO interlocutors by their full names.
(For information about booking, discography, scheduled concerts and e-mail
links, consult the web sites at: http://anneazema.com/ and
Anne Azéma and Shira Kammen began the class with a performance of Thibaut
Champagne's "Ausi comne unicorne sui." Their performance, like the song's
text, re-eroticizes the famous image of the animal laying its horn in the
maiden's lap - that image which the moralizing / theologizing bestiary
tradition had allegorized out of all physicality. Their rendition sounds
nothing like the repressed, stolid, and rather metronomic musical renditions
of some modern singers of medieval monody. When they perform Anne has only
the texts to consult, and Shira plays from no score or notation. The dramatic
variation in their performance from strophe to strophe tells the emotional
arc of the text, without our needing to understand the words.
Gina Psaki: Why did you choose to open the interview with this piece?
AA: Thibaut de Champagne's "Ausi comne unicorne sui" reviews all the stages
and symbols of courtly love: the images, conventions, tropes, etc. It is
considered to be exemplary in both its poetic and musical dimensions,
although the versions are not exactly alike: there are two quite different
versions, [check these] well worth comparing, though they're fused by the
editor. [what editor?] In Ms. O they are notated with square neumes: these
give us melodic but no rhythmic information. The first strophe is written
under the music; the rest follows in a text block. There is a historiated
initial showing a unicorn with its head in the lap of a maiden. This
manuscript [O] is generations later than the original oral tradition through
which this song would have circulated when it was new.
Navid Moshtael: The program of Marian lyric you presented offers various
versions of the same story. How do you prioritize them, choose which to
privilege in the performance?
SK: For the instrumentalist, the experience of accent is really different.
Spanish is fundamentally different from the accentuation of French: sounds,
sound-play, rhythms. How we arrange or juxtapose them are choices still made
by the performers, on the basis of aesthetic criteria. We've chosen to
perform "Ma vielle" with the miracle-story of the vielle interpolated between
the strophes, because the alternation of singing and recitation, of lyric
stanzas and narrative verse, works really well.
James Hein: I noticed that in your program of Marian lyric you had passages
which were recited or declaimed, but enhanced or intensified over simple
recitation. Is there a historical basis for that kind of declamation?
AA: We'll never know exactly how octosyllabic rhyming couplets were delivered
orally, since there's no exact description, either in the treatises or in
literary texts. As a singer, I find that the alternation of the spoken and
the sung word is very dynamic. I try to blur the boundaries of each, that
works best for me.
SK: Using all the vocal colors available is important. There is a Johannes de
Grocheo treatise, De musica from about 1300, which claims that the vielle is
"closest to the human voice;" my goal is for the instrument to sound as human
as possible when I play it.
Nancy Hart: Who was the original audience for the Marian lyrics, of Gautier
de Coincy for example?
AA: The Marian repertoire is so varied, it's hard to generalize. These are
paraliturgical pieces, not liturical ones; but there is such interplay,
borrowing, resonances, shared imagery, between the two registers [of
religious and erotic lyric], that each gains density from the echoes of the
Sabina Brown: What aesthetic criteria are most important to you when you
perform? For example, are you trying to make the material the most
historically authentic in verse and musical styles, or are you trying to make
the music a vehicle to make medieval lyric poetry more accessible to modern
AA: Whether you're more oriented toward historical or current performance
practice determines what you aim for. I want to be philologically correct
(about pronunciation, for example), but I'm not aiming for a slavish
reproduction of a manuscript which is not itself definitive, in some cases
not even finished.
SK: Yes, after all the Middle Ages was a period without standardization,
whether of instrument-forms, stanza-order in manuscript versions, pieces, of
AA: The person you're performing with changes the way you perform a piece.
You want to be consistent with that person's style as well as with the
Bumper Dames, Heather Reynolds, and Daimeon Shanks: When you confront the
manuscript of a poem that has been passed down without music accompanying it,
how do you go about assigning music to it? Are there common melodies that
traditionally accompany genres from which to choose? Do you decide to write
melodies for lyrics without music?
AA: We do turn to various song types; for example, there's a woman's-voice
alba for which we used the music from "Reis glorios," an alba by Guiraut de
Borneil, and it works well. The imagery common to specific poetic genres
often makes another melody in the same genre work. Jaufre Rudel's "Quan lo
rossignols el folhos" [When the nightingale in the leafy wood] and "Del
quatre caps" [ENGLISH TITLE] have the same line lengths, the same rhymes
throughout, so we sing the text to the one to the melody of the other. Or in
the sirventes genre, for example, some poems - Guilhem Figueras' "D'un
sirventes far" is an example - explicitly state that they are borrowing their
tune from another song. And when we perofrm it, we borrow the melody from
another sirventes - so it's a borrowing of a borrowing.
[they perform the piece "To write a sirventes to this tune that suits me"]
AA: Shira, why did you play this accompaniment the way you did?
SK: The text is a denunciation of Rome, and it contains edgy sounds, both in
its content and its phonetic profile (itz, ecs, etc.); on the vielle I
respond to them with staccato chunks of angry sound, with more or fewer
melismas, and by hitting the strings with the bow.
Enrico Vettore and Ryann Rush: Do you ever compose melodies for the poems? On
SK: Sure, sometimes a modern musician will compose an original tune for a
lyric. With enough recitation of the medieval text, a melody can emerge which
is really organic to the poetry.
Lisa Nelson: Do you ever write your own lyrics?
AA: We both do.
SK: A wonderful musician I worked with, John Fleagle, was beginning to. For
example, he tried to "find" missing verses of Middle English poems. Composing
"in the style of" is an excellent exercise, which puts you deep into the
making of music and verse, and sharpens your craft tremendously.
Kristin Smith: Did poets and musicians work closely in the eleventh and
SK: It's a good question. The Monk of Montaudan wrote a song ("Pois Peire
d'Alvergn'a chantat") trashing various poets/ players on various grounds, and
it's clear that poets and musicians were often the same person, but not
AA: The vidas of the troubadours are a set of retrospective bios attached to
the oeuvre of each troubadour in some of the manuscripts. Sometimes
troubadours were good musicians but bad poets (Albertet de Sisteron), or bad
singers but good composers of music and words (Gaucelm Faidit); some did
almost everything badly but compose:
"Elias Cairel ... sang badly and composed badly; he played the vielle badly
and spoke worse still, but he wrote words and melodies well."
The vidas distinguish between the functions of singing and playing, composing
and copying, writing words and writing tunes, and still other roles.
SK: A favorite book of mine, The Origins of Bowing, quotes Guiraut de
Calançon on the ideal minstrel:
"He must be 'good at story-telling and rhyming, and acquit himself creditably
in trials of skill. Know how to strike drums and cymbals, and to play the
hurdy-gurdy. Know how to throw and catch little apples on knives, to imitate
birdsong, do card-tricks and be able to jump through four hoops. Know how to
play citola and mandoline, know how to handle monochord and the guitar,
string a rote with seventeen strings, be proficient on the harp, accompany
well on the gigue, so as to enhance the spoken word. Jongleur, you should be
able to handle nine instruments (vielle, bagpipe, pipe, harp, hurdy-gurdy,
gigue, decadhord, psaltery and rote); and when you have mastered these, you
will be equipped to deal with every eventuality. And do not neglect the lyre
or the cymbals.'"
So it seems there were some minstrels who weren't expected to compose as well.
Cissy Jones: Do you have a favorite troubadour?
AA: Bernart de Ventadorn; Peire Cardenal; and as for the Jaufre Rudel canso
"Lanqan li jorn sont lonc en mai," it moves me to tears; I have never
performed it for that reason.
Laura Berryhill: Is there a modern genre whose lineage goes back to medieval
AA: Georges Brassens is completely in that tradition. His poetry is
phenomenal; the music is often average, and the accompaniment is very simple.
The vidas I read aloud before could be of Brassens or Jacques Brel.
Laura Berryhill and Tanya Flores: As interpreters of troubadour / trouvère
texts, do you find any differences between male-authored and female-authored
texts? If so, how do you treat them musically and dramatically? How do you
think these factors relate to your own gender as performers?
SK: We are part of a tradition, there's no doubt about that.
AA: How many women troubadours there were, and whether individual lyrics in
the woman's voice were authored by women or men, is paradoxically both
fundamentally important, and completely unimportant at the same time.
[Kammen and Azéma perform "Chanterai por mon corage," a woman's-voice lyric
about a lover away on the Crusades]
Lisa Nelson, Jennifer Myers, and Aimee Akwai: How did each of you come to
SK: It seems the obvious career for me. It's a profession which combines
rich, diverse, and beautiful poetry and multiple aesthetic universes. It's
very individual, with lots of improvisation. It's a multidisciplinary art,
not just music: it's quasi-theatrical. It's also not tonal, like modern
music, but rather modal. It blends the worlds of high art music and
traditional music. It's music from the inside out; it's scholarship and
treasure-hunt, but it's also creative exploration, where nothing is strictly
AA: Music was always part of my life, and I happened to become a singer. The
stories these poems contain show the strength and the relevance of poetry. We
perform a program of music of the Crusades, for example, and that repertoire
has never not been relevant to the state of the world. A lot of our everyday
life has been imprinted by this repertoire. As I singer, I can imagine no
greater thrill than manipulating all those elements Shira talked about.
Kristin Kelly: Do you ever perform in historical costume?
AA: Over my dead body. As a woman of the year 2001 I dress in clothing that
recalls the gap between our time and 1315. I sing medieval music of the year
2001, that's inevitable. And other musicians don't wear period costume -
maybe when I see a Mozart ensemble dressed in Mozartian garb, I'll reconsider.
GP: Since multiple versions of troubadour lyrics exist in the different
manuscripts, how dependent would you say your interpretation is on stanza
order and content?
AA: It's a very nineteenth-century question, isn't it? There isn't any
one-size-fits-all answer; it has to be done on a case by case basis. It's a
SK: Yes, for example, sometimes at the end of a piece we close by repeating
the first stanza. When we interpret the emotional arc of a strophe we
consider it in its context, not as a self-contained unit.
AA: Our choices are affected by the overall program, and by the format:
concert or CD, radio program or TV broadcast, junior high school audience or
an audience of scholars at a professional meeting.
AA: Are there canonical versions of troubadour lyric? A lot of performers
turn to CDs, and it's good to know the performance background of a piece in
the recent past. But, a certain version gets recorded and then repeated ad
nauseam. My version of a certain canso has been imitated and borrowed lately,
the same piece done with the same refrain in a way that's recognizably taken
from a recording we did.
SK: I'm torn. This music isn't meant to be frozen. I don't want to set this
accompaniment, but also, in the marketplace of music recordings, there are
intellectual property issues that there weren't in the strictly oral
AA: We're producing a snapshot, not a permanent conclusion regarding how a
song should be performed.
SK: Yes, but we're not learning by ear from each other anymore; we're
learning from each other's recordings and scholarship.
AA: For example, I did a concert program recently with Northern African and
medieval pieces. There were four women, two with no Arabic, two with some
Arabic. All four reacted drastically differently: one learned only orally;
one not at all orally, but with transcriptions on paper; I did a combination
GP: Is there a scrupulous almost-snobbery about genealogy of musical
versions, as there is in the folk tradition?
AA: I wish! I'd like to see more honesty and clarity about what's happening.
It should be acknowledged that some personality has forever marked the piece
and passed it on. Some light should be shed on the sources and thought
processes of medievalist musicians as they make a recording.
SK: What we're dealing with here is a broken oral tradition - a tradition
within a tradition - and if it's explicit, that's good. If it isn't, that's
not so good.
Navid Moshtael: But what do you use in the absence of an oral tradition? I
would think it would be helpful to have a standard to start from - a CD to
which other performers would add.
AA: The best standards are respect for the material, and trust. These are
strong and beautiful verses and musical organization, such as "Lanqan li
jorn" and "Can vei."
SK: Maybe this is too general, but you do need to expose yourself as much as
possible to how other, living, unbroken oral traditions deal with monophonic,
unaccompanied, long narratives. And if I can be allowed a digression about
modern music, we have all music available to us always, but out of context -
we're dealing with these CD's, and the original context of the music is
Navid Moshtael: But we're socialized to start out at the beginning, and
improve. How do you know you're improving, if / when improving means getting
closer to original singing styles?
SK: It's your choice. There is no way to quantify authenticity; it's an
opinion, because too much original information is lost. Still, it has to be
an informed opinion, based on experience and study.
AA: Shira and I have a mutual student, a search and rescue policeman, who is
not a singer but offered a strong performance of troubadour lyric. And
another student, a woman, vocally trained, delivered the strongest "Lanqan li
jorn" I've ever heard. Criteria vary, and the canons are large and moving;
we're happy just to have an impact on them.
Jocelyn Harley: How does the audience affect "authentic experience"? Any
SK: I've felt the most direct, "genuine" connection in doing a performance in
a language that people can understand - whether mediated by translations,
supertitles, etc. or in their native language. Instrumental music is
abstract; you can reach people through it in a way you can't in language,
especially a language they don't know. People have a visceral reaction to
music, though, even in the absence of comprehension.
AA: The first time the audience understands, such as the punning sequence on
"mugue" in Gautier de Coincy's "N'est pas merveille," is transporting. There
is nothing more horrible than when the audience is unmoved and the connection
fails. It's devastating, actually hard to live through. A concert creates a
community: the performers and the audience are doing the job together.
SK: Regardless of repertoire, sometimes even regardless of quality, a
connection with the audience can result in an ecstatic experience of
Jennifer Myers: Does the location of a performance matter?
AA: Yes, overall. Once I performed in a church in Angoulême with a
10th-century fresco of the Last Judgment, and it was something extraordinary.
Or a basilica in Ravenna, with a chant repertoire. This relies on a lot on a
community of cognoscenti who can savor a word, a poetic gesture, a
performer's ability to share. A cathedral won't help; the audience itself
must have a connection to the music.
Erica Legleiter: When you work up a piece, do you work together throughout,
or come together after you've been working separately?
AA: It's gradual, like a dance; we each go through our own line of music and
see where they intersect.
SK: Different people work together differently as well. You might try an
exercise: read the passage aloud and have your partner speak it back; then he
or she speaks it, and you repeat it back, without music. That way whatever
interpretation you come to grows organically out of the material. But
realistically, not too many ensembles have enough time for this. It's a lot
about process; it's no fun to sight read, but music becomes fun once you've
grown to know it. Working with one other person is more gratifying; you have
more responsibility, but you have more scope as well, to play with the
colors. With five people, there will be a collision unless everyone is
together all the time.
AA: Sometimes things just come. Shira was warming up one day and started
embroidering a line, and it entered into our version of "Unicorne"
SK: Musical collaboration is fluid; in the best case nothing would get
frozen. Musical renditions must change, not get hardened into habit.
Laura Berryhill: How do you (or do you?) change your vocal technique to deal
with music of different periods?
AA: A good vocal production is a good vocal production, period. What I want
the audience to hear is the core of the human being, the essence of the
voice, two cords joining on supported air, with the resonant capacities of
the body. How much voice, intensification is a personal and stylistic choice.
Medieval monody and Kurt Weill are not so far apart - unlike medieval monody
SK: As I look at the music I choose to perform, I notice that I've chosen
genres and periods that don't really work with a huge vibrato. Vibrato is a
natural impulse, but it can become an addictive habit rather than an
aesthetic choice. My choices - pitches with strong words, fifths, and
octaves. These don't work with a huge vibrato - it would sound like
barbershop harmony with vibrato. But I do think that musical decisions are
ultimately based on the kind of poetry you choose.
AA: Yes, so immediately rushing to the "to vibrato or not to vibrato" debate
is counterproductive. For me the question is, is the poetry communicated or
not? A voce bianca can be moving and expressive - or not; it's a personal
preference. There are medieval and late medieval treatises on liturgical
music and vocal production, but overall this was not a world of professional
Matthew House: How much of what we saw last night in your concert was
spontaneous, and how much prepared?
AA: But how important is that, really? To me it's all spontaneous. But then
again it's not, because we know each other; we have a frame. Some of our
pieces are metered and some aren't.
SK: Phrasing changes each time; the accompaniment changes; we're playing
around with pieces that we know very well.
Robert Kyr: Could you take part of a song and sing it in two different ways,
metered and unmetered, so people could hear it?
[The musicians perform "De l'estoile" twice. The first version is fluid, with
no predictable line length; the second version is measured, even inflexible,
Theresa Cuenca: Do you work primarily with manuscripts or from editions?
AA: It's aesthetically and musically satisfying to work with manuscripts.
Even if the scribe is making big mistakes and the manuscript version itself
isn't the most musically or linguistically useful, he's struggling the way I
am, and it's tremendously moving: we're working towards the same thing. I
feel like I'm walking alongside that person. But I also consult editions; I
need the help of scholars to discover the range of possibilities and
impossibilities. You can learn even from a mistaken edition, transcribed into
¾ time! And time pressure also dictates a recourse to editions.
SK: You run the gamut. I have to wait for the singer to get his or her stuff
together, before I can do my part. Right now, as an accompanist, I am a
reactive musician. I have to be given something in order to give something
back. For both of us, though, the question is: how will we best communicate
the poetic text to the audience? What will help us best create that sense of
community with the audience? We aren't dogmatic, but pragmatic: whatever
makes that happen, we will adopt.
Scribe: F. Regina Psaki,
University of Oregon