New blog entry: Music, mud...and manuscripts: Medieval contributions to the 2012 Fanø Free Folk Festival

The quiet Danish island of Fanø is not perhaps the first place that springs to mind as a venue for a smörgåsbord of experimental music. Yet Fanø certainly out-hipped Soho during the 27th to the 29th of July, when it played host to the Fanø Free Folk Festival. The event is in its third year of showcasing performers who dare to experiment with the traditional. The schedule was peppered with electro-folk artists who created swirling soundscapes by recording, layering and mixing their live act, whilst accommodating for those who like their folk so organic that it can be performed using only voice, three axes and a block of wood. One thing that the diverse music had in common, however, was its freshness. Out in the wilds of Fanø, there was no sense of the music being over-produced; no chance of it being over-played. Most performances contained an element of improvisation, and musicians were often at the whim of a demanding audience, who refused to let lack of material for an encore prevent an encore. The artistic freedom and ingenuity of the performers was brought home to me on the second day of the festival, which included two medieval-themed acts. In the first, the words of Julian of Norwich were crafted into acoustic ballads. In the second, medieval dance pieces were given a new lease of life.
Mikael R. Andreasen (performing with his fellow musicians, Sarah Hepburn and Jakob Brixen, as ‘Kloster’) and Louise Øhrstrøm opened Saturday’s festivities with an intimate concert celebrating the medieval anchoress, Julian of Norwich, in words and music.  In 1373, Julian experienced sixteen visions during a serious illness, and upon recovery, recorded these encounters with God in the work known as Revelations of Divine Love or Showing of Love, making her the first known female author to compose a literary work in English. Louise Øhrstrøm, who is living on Fanø while she writes her second novel, translated Julian’s Showing of Love from Middle English into Danish in 2010. Her enthusiasm for Julian’s affective theology and lyrical expression not only inspired her to undertake a PhD project exploring the relationship between metaphor and emotion in the Showing of Love, but also inspired her friend, musician Mikael R. Andreasen, to compose a series of songs based on the text. Mikael commented that the quality of Julian’s writing had a ‘melodic tone,’ which lent itself to musical adaptation. Using five extracts from the longer version of Julian’s text, Mikael’s songs explore how Christ’s love and his affinity with humanity provide comfort in times of trial. ‘Our Clothing’ revolves around the striking image of Jesus as the clothing which enwraps those who worship him; in ‘Suffer,’ Christ stresses the reciprocal nature of his relationship with creation, telling Julian that if she is glad of his sacrifice, he is fulfilled (‘If you are paid, I am paid’). True to the cadences of the text, Mikael’s songs flow without divisions of verse and chorus, as if presenting a stream of thought. During their live performance, Kloster captured the simple, and indeed, ‘homely,’ tone of Julian’s meditations, but were also skilled at lifting her words to a roaring crescendo, with a heaving harmonium underpinning their close vocal harmonies. Louise read from her Danish translation between each song. Despite being unfamiliar with the Danish language, I was nevertheless struck by Louise’s sensitivity to the rhythms of the Middle English, accentuated by her engaging performance. The concert ended with some good old audience participation, medieval style, with a room full of festival-goers singing a haunting motif while Kloster mixed a Julian song, ‘Comforting Words,’ together with the Latin ‘Silentium.’

In contrast to the laid-back minor tones of the morning, the later serving of medieval-inspired music was a set of dance songs by Izar. Named after a double star in the Boötes constellation, Izar consists of Classically-trained recorder player, Pernille Petersen, and Jazz percussionist, Magnus Olsen Majmon. Two of the instrumental pieces that made up their lively set were estampies taken from Manuscrit du Roi (Paris BN fonds français 844), a book that has been transformed as it passed through the hands of at least four owners, containing eleven instrumental pieces (estampies and dances) and numerous examples of trouvère songs, troubadour songs and some of the earliest known French motets. The remaining songs in the repertoire, including sprightly dances such as ‘Trotto,’ and more sombre pieces, like ‘Lamento di Tristano,’ were taken from the late fourteenth-century MS London, BL 29987. With no indication made in the manuscript as to how the music was to be arranged, Izar had artistic freedom to determine what instruments to use, and how to bring the music to life. Their arrangement remained more or less faithful to the original music (as transcribed by Timothy J. McGee) but also embraced improvisation, with Magnus delivering a syncopated drum solo at one point. The Italian dance music was also given an Arabic twist, reflecting how musical influences moved from Arabic Spain into fourteenth-century Italy. Certainly, Pernille’s recorder trills and Magnus’s drumming on the Middle Eastern frame, darbuka and daf drums gave these dances a heated rhythm that was hard to resist. It’s a shame that most of the audience – attentive-listeners, though hardly terpsichorean – did not clear a space for some of the circle dancing that would have been likely to accompany the music in the Middle Ages.
To lift and transform the words and music from in the pages of medieval manuscripts, which so few consult first-hand, and place them back among the people, is to enter into the true spirit of folk music. While Julian would have received visitors at the anchorhold in Norwich (as memorably recorded in The Book of Margery Kempe) and each owner interacted with, and altered, the contents of the MS du Roi, it is all too easy to see medieval creatives, and their works, in isolation. It is at boundary-pushing events like the festival on Fanø that audiences witness, and enter into, the dialogue between old and new forms, and that writers and musicians can awaken listeners to sounds that charmed medieval readers and listeners.
Sophie A. Sawicka-Sykes

Sophie, thanks so much for

Sophie, thanks so much for posting this. It must have been fascinating to listen to such a creative reworking of medieval music. 


This sounds like so much fun Sophie. I wish I'd been there! Did they talk about the songs while they were performing them, or did you speak to the performers yourself? I've been listening to some BL Additional MS 29987 songs on youtube this week just because they are related to the chapter I'm working on. Way more engaging than my reference list! Well, I'll post those on twitter.
It's interesting to hear about the Julian novel--she really has inspired quite a bit of fiction. A professor I knew at U of T is writing a novel about her life I believe. 
Thanks for this post!