Sounding out the past

Poet and blogger, Meirion Jordan, reflects on Leah Stuttard’s recent performance of ‘The Wool Merchant and the Harp,’ at Beverley and East Riding Early Music Festival, 2013

Almost exactly twelve months ago, I sat in Bradenstoke Hall listening to the Welsh storyteller Esyllt Harker singing an 11th-century Welsh praise poem over a 13th-century Galician melody. On the surface, it could hardly have been more redolent of pastiche: Bradenstoke Hall was a gift from William Randolph Hearst to his mistress, dismantled and transported from Bradenstoke Priory to St. Donat’s Castle in the Vale of Glamorgan. Harker was accompanied by musicians on guitar and Boehm-system flute (no gaitas, obviously, but no harps either). We sat under electric lighting, on steel-framed stacking chairs clipped together in a multicolour parade that could have been a metaphor for the eclecticism of the event’s gatherings from across medieval Europe.

Yet it was a moving, mesmeric experience. The obvious sincerity of the performance, with its unselfconscious praise of the Trinity, made the ephemeral conditions of listening seem just that. The hall and the stacking chairs, even the blue sky with its reminder of the festival’s white tents in the garden below, seemed to disappear. The presence of the performer, and our unwillingness to look away from another human being engaged in revealing their art, created a magnetism able to answer the challenge of that art’s modern situation. When presented with a real and living art, it seemed that Bradenstoke hall was just medieval enough to become the elsewhere that artistic performance asks us to inhabit.

Both in person and in performance, harpist Leah Stuttard poses a similar challenge to her listeners: as Stuttard put it in her introductory talk, however authentic our re-creation of medieval music, we must listen to it with modern ears. In many ways Stuttard represents all that is difficult about that act of re-creation. A student of historical harp guru Bill Taylor, she plays on a gothic harp with bray pins set to buzz against the strings, creating a ‘diphthong’ in the sound that is uniquely strange to a modern listener. No historical documents exist that can tell a modern practitioner exactly how to set their bray pins; we can’t be absolutely certain that we are experiencing the same distinctive sounds that contemporary listeners describe. But the repertoire for her performance, lovingly re-collected from manuscripts from across England and the rest of Europe, reflects the belief that modern scholarship can and will translate into medieval art.

By studying the past we make these leaps of faith on a daily basis. Stuttard’s performance is an articulation of the enduring relevance and importance of medieval scholarship to modern creative practice. Where George Cely was able to pay his harp tutor to set his bray pins and create the nasal buzzing that brought out the vivacity of his music, specialists like Stuttard and Taylor have worked for decades to re-create the sound of the bray harp. Even now, the sound of Michael Praetorius’ ‘ordinary harp’ is a little extraordinary among performers of medieval harp music; some ensembles, like Joglaresa and Micrologus, prefer the cleanness of an unobstructed gut string. Like the renaissance of traditional instrumental and vocal technique occasioned by successive waves of European folk revival, the bray harp stands as a challenge to neatness that we look for in modern music. Our childhoods of being drilled on violin, flute, or piano, playing the classics our parents adored (whether Beethoven, Chopin or The Beatles) have made us associate buzzings and scratchings with ineptness, crudeness, or immaturity. The bray harp, like the bagpipe, jouhikko or crwth, asks us to look deeper into these tones and see a new refinement and grace. Stuttard’s playing urges us to a new perspective on the sounds that seem most pure to a modern musical ear.

Stuttard’s music, just like the work of scholars across the field, questions the very nature of that ear. By exposing us to the past’s otherness, Stuttard reminds us that the modern ear is not an absolute thing: like its medieval counterpart, it changes and adapts to its surroundings. Part of the magic of Esyllt Harker’s singing on the dais at Bradenstoke Hall was that it prompted me to switch into new modes of hearing; and Leah Stuttard’s harp in Beverley’s Guildhall did the same. Their work’s relationship with performance spaces provided just enough cues for my ears to imagine an elsewhere in which I could listen.

This prompting has a double sense, however, which impinges upon how Stuttard places us in George Cely’s world. The challenge of hearing her music in unfamiliar surroundings invites us to review the disjunctions that she reveals in Cely’s own identity. We can articulate these disjunctions in terms of spaces, too: Cely saw no difficulty in being a merchant in one room of his house and a musician in another. In moving between them he engaged in the same process of artistic discovery and realisation that Stuttard invites us to enjoy. Stuttard’s sensitivity to the place of performance demonstrates that Cely did not pluck his repertoire out of the air, but that he first created a space in which his ears and hands could attune themselves to the sounds of fashion, newness, and delight.

We may be more or less malleable in our outlooks than Cely. We may live from day to day in modern mental environments, tapping out our lives on machines that seem incomprehensible to Cely’s contemporaries. Still it never fails to surprise me how easily this present falls away when presented with medieval art in performance. In recent years creative practice has sought to re-establish connections with medieval art from Welsh, Irish and Scottish bardic traditions through to the songs of the Roman de Fauvel. The ties between historical scholarship and performance have only grown deeper as scholars have realised they can use the presence of performers to create intimate spaces for experiencing that art. The dialogue between performance and its location can be used not just to transfix audiences but to abduct them, carrying them away into strange places that look less and less like the modern world.

The fact that this is a dialogue implies that some guesswork is inevitable. A few decades of further research might suggest that Stuttard’s bray pins were in fact mis-set by a fraction of a millimetre; her unusual technique of fretting harp strings with a ring (to add some chromaticism to the harp’s diatonic tuning) may prove a more recent innovation than previously hoped. But these points of debate only remind us how the experimental character of Stuttard’s work blends the art and the science of history, how the performer’s patient fostering of technique combines with an environment, an atmosphere that moves the music just as it moves us.

Truly embracing the modernity of our ears would lead us to the same conclusion in any case. Our multiplicity of digital lives has finally coaxed us into acknowledging that reality, or authenticity, is a matter of hearing the right music in the right room. Or to put it another way: Bradenstoke Hall has been disassembled and rebuilt. It has been re-roofed, re-pointed and filled with stacking chairs. It was still, on a hot July afternoon, the perfect place to hear praise of a vanished church and the Trinity that filled it. I’m glad to say the same for Beverley’s guildhall on a May morning, when Leah Stuttard took up her harp and handled George Cely’s world before our very eyes.
Meirion Jordan

Barthes, Heidegger...

Great piece, Meirion! There seems to be a lot at play here. I am particularly struck by resonances with Roland Barthes ('Le Grain de la voix', bien sûr). A colleague in Finland has done a lot of work on the 'buzzing' sound of the Finnish folk instrument the kantele; he is working on a book which traces both the instrument's history and his own quest to recreate this sound. (Marko Aho, University of Tampere, now Jyväskylä.) 
Another thought which springs to mind is that you skirt the concept of the Heideggerian 'world' here. Heidegger didn't write particularly much on music, but others have followed in his vein. The work of Erik Wallrup (in Stockholm) is particularly relevant to you here.
It was lovely to read this and to make connections which I otherwise wouldn't have made. And, of course, I would love to hear Leah Stuttard one day.
Thank you for sharing such thought-provoking reflections.