Over a dozen bards performed their best in the wonderful acoustic Masonic Temple hall that served as a beautiful medieval backdrop to their different performances at Kingdom Twelfth Night in St. Swithin’s Bog.
The hall was well filled and I felt honored to be one of spectators present at this special event. Hersir Torvaldr Torgarson had organized this years’ competition after winning the honor of representing the Bardic Arts for Æthelmearc last year and it was quite the show. Each entrant could choose to perform either something about Æthelmearc or what they thought of as their best work. This was my first Bards of the Sylvan Kingdom Championship, and if this is what happens each year I sure have been missing out! As I quite enjoyed the different performances, I thought perhaps you would to, so I made a list of who did what for you to see what you missed… Enjoy, and perhaps we’ll see each other at next years’ event, organized by the newly minted Sylvan Bard Éadaoin Ruadh.
Hersir Thorvaldr welcoming all entrants and spectators.
Hersir Thorvaldr opened the competition after a short welcome to everyone competing and otherwise with a moving piece he wrote himself called the “Ballad of the Lonely Norseman.” Visit the Book of Faces post for the lyrics, or see the Moving Pictures here (Melody and lyrics by Thorvaldr, instrumental by Valadonis Stareagle)
Then THL Magge Illefoster, a Sylvan Bard of the past herself, blessed us with a wonderful rendition of the “Rose of Arindale” which she wrote in honor of Queen Gabrielle, as she was once again present to judge those true and worthy.
For more on the song click here
Kicking off the competition was Master Dagonell the Juggler, who performed “Paintin’ Flowers” as a filk to “Countin’ Flowers” by The Statler Brothers. Dagonell dedicated the song to Baroness Ekat, for putting the earworm in his head in the first place!
Visit the Book of Faces post for the lyrics
A hard act to follow, Bran o’Labradha performs “Perche dolce caro bene” with bellowed gusto!
A most surprising performance was given by Bran o’Labradha with “Perche dolce caro bene” – quite singularly my favorite, but then I do have a weak spot for classical guitar. Singing both the male and female parts, in Italian, while accompanying himself by guitar, was fantastic, even if the experience left Bran a wee bit shaken!
Master William de Montegilt read his original poem, “Something about Æthelmearc.”
Count Jehan de la Marche recited the Shakespearean speeches between Hotspur and Falstaff, both from Henry IV part 1, with a little help from His Royal Highness Prince Maynard von dem Steine.
Lord Éadaoin Ruadh performances “Towton’ s Creek,“
Lord Éadaoin Ruadh stole the day with his performance of a song called “Towton’ s Creek,” his filked version of “The Green Fields of France,” to cover the Battle of Towton from the War of the Roses, and which had the spectators humming along with him.
THL Alianora Bronhulle sang with a song “Raise your glass (to the Lady fierce and true)” – a fun song that made us all chuckle out loud!
Keris Silber sang the beautiful “My Sylvan Home.”
Visit the Book of Faces post for the lyrics
Maighstir Liam Macant Saoir did a strong rendition of his original piece, “Sylvan Soldiers Song,”
Lady Nicola Beese had us grinning with “Fortune my Foe,” a song about angst, and who does angst better than the Elizabethans, Lady Nicola implored us!
And Wulfflaed on Hehstaldes closed the performance with a heart-warming rendition of the traditional holiday song Oh, Tannenbaum, in German.
Count Jehan de la Marche enthusiastically reciting the speeches between Hotspur and Falstaff, with help from His Royal Highness Prince Maynard von dem Steine.
Hersir Torvaldr Torgarson then thanked all the entrants for their passion for the bardic arts, and for making the task in choosing his successor so difficult. Vivant, all bards of Æthelmearc!
All are Welcome on this day to enjoy music and song and dancing, good food, and good friends!
What is a Debatable Lands Twelfth Night like? Here are the top 12 things to do!
1. Bring some food to share. Our event is free, even the food! It’s a potluck. All kinds of food are welcome! (Mmmm, cheese balls)
2. Bring and/or taste some cookies! A perennial favorite, Master Urho runs our favorite cookie competition of the year. Bring some to enter, or just munch on the entries and vote for a populace choice winner!
3. Bring your A&S project to display! The event features the Debatable Lands’ Arts & Sciences Championship and Display. There are no limitations, bring your projects, old or new, finished or in progress, to display. You can even request feedback from our top artisans. And if you’re from the Debatable Lands, enter the competition!
4. Bring some beverages. Wet site. Nuff said.
5. Snowball fight! Jasmine of Clan Tarn has her elves working overtime making stuffed “snowballs” for an epic tourney for young and old alike!
6. Get ready to laugh. The Best Commedia dell’Arte troupe in the Knowne World – I Genesii – will be *cough* performing *cough* …multiple times. Don’t miss the most beloved court of Misrule.
7. Bards welcome – the Debatable Lands Bardic Championship is also taking place. Only Debatable Landers are eligible for the Championship, but all are welcome to perform. The theme is the Old and the New.
8. Speaking of performances, the Barony’s own Debatable Choir will perform at 5pm. Let their dulcet tones wash over your ears and hearts.
9. Stuff and cash, cash and stuff… our Twelfth Night Auction of Forgotten Treasures ™ will delight you with the garb, gear, stuff and do-dads available at this silent auction. Have stuff you don’t need? Bring it to donate! But wait, there’s more! We also have a few fine merchants.. peruse their artwork, chainmail, and more!
10. Courts and vigils and courts, oh my! The event features Mistress Graidhne’s vigil and induction into the Order of the Laurel, as well as many other awards, Kingdom and Baronial.
11. Stay for the dancing! After evening Court, our event always has one of the best dances of the season in the entire Kingdom. Don’t worry, we’ll teach you!
12. Bring a donation for Paladin’s Pantry! The Greater Pittsburgh Food Bank needs food items, blankets, and more. Read more here!
Looking for something to do at War Practice? Wishing to try your hand at a new art?
Come to the Great Hall and do just that!
In addition to classes in music and dance, and an embroidery salon run by THL Cristina inghean Ghriogair, you can try calligraphy and illumination under the helpful guidance of Mistress Yvianne de Castel d’Avignon and Mistress Liadin ní Chléirigh na Coille, play with fibers with Mistress Mahin Banu Tabrizi, or try cooking over an open fire with Mistress Katla úlfheþinn.
Scribal play time and the embroidery salon will run 3pm to 6pm on Friday; on Saturday, the various play times will be from 10am to 4pm. Stop in and try your hand at something new – embroidery, calligraphy, illumination, cooking, weaving in between attending the classes being run in the Hall. Or stop in and lend a hand to one of the areas, or just come spend the day doing something you love and sharing it with others!
Looking forward to the day.
Baroness Orianna Fridrikskona
Deputy Kingdom Minister of Arts & Sciences
My topics for this final essay address the act of composition, the premise or perception that original music is in any way less desirable within the SCA than “authentic” music, and the idea that the Arts and Sciences authenticity standards by which bardic arts are judged have become disjointed from the authenticity standards of composition and performance that many bards are attempting to practice.
One of the frequent criticisms faced by bards within the greater Arts & Sciences community is that when a bard writes something original, by definition it is not a period piece. Regardless of how “close” it may sound in style or lyric structure, it was written in the 20th or 21st century, not the 14th. No matter how closely the composer observes the “rules” of Renaissance composition, or crafts lyrics that show no obvious signs of modernity, it cannot be an extant, first-degree Medieval or Renaissance piece.
Over the fifty-year history of the Society, a lot of time, trouble, and tearing of hair has been expended by musicians who attempt to get as close to period as possible. Those who do not attempt it, or who are more comfortable with more modern structures, are frequently called out for writing them, and told that the work they produce does not rate high on the authenticity scale because it doesn’t match up to those rules. Those who write contrafait using post-period music are often put in an even worse position.
There are two separate but related suppositions within that line of reasoning that I reject. The first is the idea that there is only one “rule” for writing music that “sounds” sufficiently Medieval. As I theorized in my previous article about Medieval “folk music,” this is similar to the history in the College of Heralds, where for a long time, Fox-Davies was the only test of whether heraldry was “period.” In the same way, the test that many people use to whether music sounds period boils down to a very narrow spectrum. There’s more to period music than western European, liturgical, and court forms. We really have no way to know just how much popular music out there sounded somewhat similar to many a piece written within the acoustic / historical folk genre today. While many did correspond to the “rules,” there are also examples of pieces that did not. It may never be possible to sort out a definitive proportion, meaning that the debate can’t be resolved for sure. Thus, the “rules” school of thinking locks in the opinion that Western European church or court music is the only acceptable sound for a period-approaching piece, when clearly there are other influences and culturally accessible sounds which can readily be used as the inspiration for new music.
The second flaw in the logical argument is that even Medieval music was new, back when it was first composed. Court and church composers were constantly evolving and expanding their understanding of musical mechanics, and consequently they were constantly trying new things, experimenting with and introducing different “sounds,” modes, rhythms, and melodic structures. It was not until decades later that these “rules” were codified. Scholars today often refer to pieces extant from period that signal tonal shifts in the development of music, “revolutions” that represent precious examples of changing practice. However, it is important to remember that as with other arts and sciences, a “revolution” did not necessarily mean a sudden sea change. In addition, the number of extant samples of music is likely a fraction of what was being performed, sung, heard and written within the scope of our period. Bear in mind that some combination of chance and circumstance is vital to the preservation of most of the pieces we have. If only one example of a particularly exciting and different sort of piece survives, that may mean that it was completely unique for its time and that no one else ever composed to that model–or it may mean that it was part of a fad, or that it was merely the lucky winner of the preservation lottery because it was a “best” example or the “first” of its kind. Even if it is the only one of its type, it’s still acceptable for a modern artist to emulate the style, or to use it to inspire something else similar.
The reason these fallacies are important to expose is that they form pervasive standards against which the bardic arts are held. What is perplexing is that those standards are not applied in the same manner to other arts. We do expect cooks to redact recipes from period sources, but we also acknowledge that there are certain dishes which must be modified or updated in order to appeal to a modern feast-going audience. We do not expect them, however, to work with foodstuffs that we know will be unpalatable. We do expect clothiers to work from paintings, patterns, or extant examples of period styles of clothing, but we acknowledge that there are multiple garments for various classes, cultures, occasions, and climates. We expect them to choose natural fibers, but we would not actually expect them to work with 500-year-old cloth – nor would we expect them to use silk brocade to construct a working peasant’s garb. So why should we expect bards to work exclusively with 400-year-old or older music – and highly specialized music at that?
Bards were many things throughout the history and cultures that the SCA encompasses. They were singers, they were composers, they were instrumental musicians. They were storytellers and poets, whose job was not only to remember and recite the old stories, but to commemorate current events by immortalizing people, places, and occurrences. They were observers of nature and interpreters of the natural world. They could be lorekeepers, but also lawkeepers, and they were frequently privileged to speak truth with varying levels of protection from retaliation by members of higher rank or station. They settled disputes, they entertained courts and crowds, and they advocated for the social covenants that governed the communities they served. And not insignificantly, they performed their own work and the works of contemporaries in addition to the repertoire of those who came before. Note, not all cultures’ bards were all of these things, and not all bards within all cultures fulfilled all these capacities, but I think it’s fair to stipulate that SCA bards often present a conglomeration of those roles in their contribution to the SCA. Yet too frequently, they are not judged as embodiments of this particular art, but heavily judged on their material. In other words, there are period versions of a lot of different types of bards, and crafting one’s art to fit into one (or more) of those models is, in itself, an act of artistic accomplishment and worth consideration as its own separate category.
I would argue that whether our bardic community is writing to period or period-modal music is only one consideration among many in terms of accomplishment within the scope of bardic arts as they apply to the SCA. Why? Because almost alone among the arts practiced within the Society, the bards have the ability to embody authenticity not only through the forms they use, but in the acts of recording, preserving, reinterpreting, and presenting a window onto the Current Middle Ages. Their covenant is one that also includes firm grounding in the legends, histories, and traditions that inform, inspire, and engage the Society and its membership. The question may not be, “Does such-and-so perform period music / compose period-sounding music?” (or even, “Does such-and-so write period-perfect poetry?”) so much as it is, “Does such-and-so embody the spirit of bardic art, and propagate the bardic canon according to the precepts of that model?”
Does this mean they have no responsibility to “be medieval”? No, not at all. Bards must still be judged by and held to the same standards as other arts within the SCA–namely, that we must make “an attempt” to be authentic, and that authenticity is one of many components within the spectrum of accomplishment that make up the whole sum of a given artist’s skill and facility with their chosen form. But court and church rules are not the sole measuring stick of “medievalness”—nor do they necessarily provide a comprehensive definition of what is or was authentic.
The act of transforming our exploits into tales of glory heightens those feats and puts them on a spectrum with historical tales (such as the Song of Roland), with legends (such as Arthurian mythology), and with historical political commentary and editorializing (such as the long tradition of Scottish protest songs, many of which date to period or just-post period). Songs like “Bow to the Crown” immortalize our traditions and more importantly teach why those traditions exist. Retelling the legends, myths, and historical incidents in new ways keeps them fresh, alive, and relevant. Pieces that capture moments, observations, and feelings, rather than relate a specific narrative, also represent a period practice. More importantly, they provide a point of view which is informed by the experiences of individuals in the SCA–frequently as a direct result of some activity that they pursue or some event they witnessed. All of these compositions remind both the new member and the SCA veteran what is appealing about participating in the SCA, what ideals to uphold and for which to strive, and what might have drawn us to the Society in the first place.
Remember the principles I have been promoting for successful performance:
The material chosen must speak to some emotional grip on the audience;
The performance must move the audience to that emotional place;
The audience must be able to hear and understand the performance.
These guidelines govern the composition of a piece, as well. Thus, for the SCA bard who composes, the singular most important consideration is whether they are capturing the spirit of the incident, feeling, mood, or person they are writing about. The form they choose, whether it’s a story, a poem, a ballad or a drinking song, should be considered analogous to the fabric a seamstress might choose for a given garment. It should be able to successfully execute the second principle, which is to carry the listener to the emotional state desired. Or, to put it the way Stephen Sondheim does: Content dictates Form.
If the use of a period tune or format interferes with the composer’s ability to create a piece that will carry the audience to the desired emotional space, then the problem could either be that the composer’s not ready to write that piece, or that it could be the wrong tune or format to use for that particular project. If using a period form will have audiences concentrating more on the form itself, and less on the content, then they are failing to pay attention and thus may not understand the piece. If the composer’s grasp of the form is insufficient, then the product will be inferior, and again, it should not be used until the composer can do a credible job. The author is fighting the form, in these cases, and thus the result will feel forced or insincere. That’s not to say no one should ever stretch or set an ambitious goal; merely that it takes practice and dedication, and sometimes the moment requires a solution with more expediency.
There are, of course, times when the performer does not want to call attention to the performance. Playing ambient music, or providing background entertainment during a party or vigil or similar venue, it’s more important to set the mood than to grandstand. But, I am speaking primarily of the type of bardic performance where it behooves the performer to put on a show.
Finally, there’s another important and essential reason why it’s neither reasonable nor necessary for bards to tie themselves in knots writing exclusively “period” music: Writing music for use in the SCA is, in itself, a spectrum. Sometimes authors are writing pieces that have to bridge more than one type of audience, with different tolerance for more unfamiliar formats. Sometimes the melody that comes or the words that fit just don’t correspond to a particular Medieval mode of writing. Sometimes the attempt to force the form results in a song or poem that just isn’t any good, and needs to be discarded in favor of something that works better. When that happens to result in something that can’t be discretely documented, then the artist probably shouldn’t enter it into an A&S competition–but that does not, in my opinion, mean that the piece itself is automatically disqualified from being an “attempt” at period.
Am I advocating a departure from period music? Absolutely not! Bards should certainly be familiar with period music and poetry! They should have period pieces in their repertoire, and I believe the more one learns, the more one finds to learn. And the more one listens to period forms, the more one’s own composition efforts will be able to imitate that sound. But, even if it never leads to more “period-sounding” music, I still submit that that is often a secondary goal. The primary goal for many bards is to be conversant in the canon of sung and spoken word pieces that apply to the milieu of the SCA. That means being able to come up with authentic period music on demand. But it also means that the canon of a well-versed bard should include the works of SCA virtuosos such as Leslie Fish, Heather Alexander, Joe Betancourt, Michael Longcor, Bob Charron, Heather Dale, Arthur McLean, Scott Vaughan, Ken and Lisa Theriot, and dozens and dozens more. These are the songs and poems of our own history, and their work has shaped who we are as a Society just as much as work from hundreds of years ago.
With all that in mind, I propose that the debate about bards who write period material, or do not, is one in need of reframing. Bards are not necessarily Early Music scholars, nor should that be the requirement at any level of recognition. Bardic artists are not necessarily practitioners of period music composition, and nor should they be judged merely on that basis. They are practitioners of a different art – namely, the art of acquiring, learning, performing, teaching, and propagating all the types of music, poetry, and story that have been created to enhance the fabric of the Society, from period on up to today.
Before I go on, let me just say: There are many highly accomplished bards in our midst who are *also* highly accomplished period scholars in a particular area, such as “Arthurian legend” or “Norse studies” or “Renaissance poetry” or “Celtic culture.” There are even bards who are *also* qualified Early Music Scholars! What I am talking about is a different aspect of their skill, one that emphasizes their knowledge about performing and choosing what to perform.
Judging a bard on this basis, therefore, does not begin and end with the question of composition or authenticity. It should place emphasis on the skill with which they choose venue, select or create their pieces to suit that venue, pick their moments, and move their audiences through their selections. The question should concern itself with the depth and breadth of repertoire, including the ability to change gears, when needed, from period to SCA-original to a well-timed current reference. If they do compose music, and are to be judged on what they write, then the question of authenticity should apply as much to the construction of their music and lyrics as it does to the effect those compositions create. For example, if it’s a dance tune, does it fit the type of dance? If it’s a quiet mood piece, does it blend into the background while still creating a pleasant atmosphere? If it’s a show-stopper, does it live up to the expectation of the crowd? Writing in period styles need not be a prerequisite, but rather an additional, extra level of skill.
But I Still Hate Filk! I hear you cry.
Well…unfortunately, that’s a matter of taste, and potentially of appropriateness, not necessarily of whether the contrafait the bard performs is “authentic” because it’s not a period tune. To me, it’s a question of perspective–are we judging authentic practice, or authentic source material? In fact, one could argue that if one considers an expanded definition of “authentic” for the bardic arts, then the period practices of a skilled bard would support a newer song. A contrafait written to an obscure centuries-old tune, for example, might be considered a less authentic practice, because in period, a bard likely would have chosen a more popular or timely tune, one that everyone is already humming, on which to hang a modified lyric.
Besides, as I said in my article on contrafait, it’s deceptively difficult to write a really good one – and when it’s really, really good, and it’s used effectively, then rarely is there objection. The important question about using a contrafait tune is the venue in which one plans to use it, and sensitivity to whether using it will break the wall of immersion for the other people within earshot. Obviously, the brighter the spotlight on the performer, the more important it is to be sensitive to the piece’s qualities (e.g., its humor/gravitas, its obscurity/recognizability, its timeliness or its importance, or even the way in which the original informs the adaptation). These factors govern what will make the moment, or mar it. If the venue is one that values documentable authenticity more highly than any other factor, then a modern contrafait is likely to bomb no matter how clever it is. If the singer is only singing for a very select group of people who love the genre of the original source material, then it’s likely to go reasonably well assuming it’s performed well.
Ultimately, it all comes down to the performance, and the frame in which we as members of the Society choose to view the performing artist.
Again, this is a delicate balance I am drawing, here, and it’s easy to be mistaken for excuses or arguing that we don’t need any standards of authenticity when it comes to the bardic arts. Nothing could be further from the case. We still subscribe to a conceit that we are recreating the Middle Ages, with the clothing, food, activities, and amenities that would have been available between 600 and 1600 CE. We are still striving to immerse ourselves in an enviroment that consciously sets aside the modern. Bards must and should be cognizant of that. In their performances, they should strive as well to reduce the intrusion of the modern onto the medieval. I don’t expect a modern contrafait to score high in an Arts and Sciences competition based on its source of melody, or to exempt bards from any attempt to remove obvious modern references that tax the listener’s willing suspension of disbelief. Bards who refuse to play the game are just as culpable in their offenses as other types of “bad bards” who do not respect their audience or the venues in which they perform.
I do, however, believe that parts of the SCA have moved the needle, if you will, too far to the side of “period-and-nothing-but” whether inside or outside of A&S competition. Most particularly, I submit that what they perceive to mean “period” may be in need of adjustment and expansion, because it is often considered only within the narrowest of definitions. Those definitions have limits which are often too proscriptive when they are applied to the theory and practice of the bardic craft within the milieu of the SCA.
Throughout the course of this series, I’ve tried to expose the reader to the state of the Bardic Arts. I’ve discussed how to listen, participate, and encourage bards to improve. I’ve provided definitions of types of music found in the SCA. I’ve given a technical lesson on the sound of Medieval music and discussed why that sound is perhaps a very small percent of what music really sounded like. I hope that I’ve shed some light on the standards by which bards judge each other – and the standards by which I believe they should be judged.
Thank you for reading along and for all the comments I’ve received from many of you. I hope this is not the end of the conversation! Please consider checking out the classes and symposium at Pennsic, attend a bardic circle (or just get some singing going at an event), and especially, find me or my fellow bards and let’s have fun!
Before I sign off, I wish to thank Duke Titus and Countess Anna Leigh for having selected me as their Sylvan Bard during their reign. I offer my heartfelt congratulations and best wishes to Master William de Montegilt for succeeding me at 12th night last month. He knows the role of Kingdom Bard well and will, I am certain, continue to bring our Kingdom wordfame through his performances and his encouragement of other performers. It was my great honor and privilege to serve over the past year as Æthelmearc’s Champion for, and of, the Bardic Arts.
 Except in circumstances where it is impossible, impractical, or unattainable, for the intended purpose.
 In “Finishing the Hat,” Stephen Sondheim’s first volume of collected annotated lyrics (Knopf, 2010), he cites his three rules for lyric-writing: “1. Content dictates form; 2. Less is more; 3. God is in the details; all in the service of Clarity, without which, nothing else matters.” Rules to live by, indeed.
 There’s an exception to every rule. There is amazing, excellent contrafait to period music that is still relevant and fun to sing; and as we all know, there’s plenty of contrafait to modern music that misses its mark. Conversely, there’s a lot of modern stuff out there that does not make good filk. See my Filk Article for more on this.
Master Remus Fletcher reports on music happenings at Pennsic:
Remus Busking with Serpent
Did you know that there were over 30 European Music classes taught at Pennsic? These classes included everything from music Pre-1200 to Singing in Foreign Tongues. There were also singing and instrumental workshops and performances. Artisans’ Row featured Musicians Day, a hands-on demo were people could show off their instruments and jamming, or otherwise promoting instrumental music. The main stage hosted the Performing Arts Afternoon Series: European Music Exhibition that previewed musical performances and classes that would occur later during the War.
One of my interests is Loud Band. In the SCA a Loud Band is normally comprised of double reed shawms, and rauschpiefes accompanied by sackbuts (period trombones).
Period Brass Workshop II – The strangest Brass band in History – Sackbuts, Cornettos, non-period Euphoniums and Serpent
Military bands and Town Musicians known as the Waits played Loud Band instruments. Period musical instruments are divided into two types Bas Instruments and Haut Instruments. Bas instruments are the quieter instruments that are normally used indoors like the recorders, crumhorns, virginals and lutes. Haut referred to loud instruments that are more suitable for outdoors. Wolgemut, a popular performance band at Pennsic is a Loud Band. The Pennsic Great Hall has poor acoustics and the sound of recorders gets lost in the din. Loud Band instruments are used to provide processional and fill music for Æthelmearc Court.
Loud Band Workshop II – THLady Rachel Dalicieux in Blue on Soprano Schalmei (Shawm)
Pennsic is one of a handful of events in the modern world where you can get over a dozen people to from a Loud Band. The others are Early Music Festivals and Waits conventions in Europe. Pennsic even has an A&S tent on the battlefield that is known in the music community as the Loud Band Tent.
Mistress Deona von Aachen who has led the Pennsic Loud Band for many years has handed it off to Master Robyn Solarius. Master Robyn held two classic Loud Band sessions and two Period Brass Band sessions for cornettos, an instrument played with a trumpet type mouthpiece and fingered like a recorder and sackbuts. Mistress Rufina Cambrensis also held a Loud Band Sensitivity class. It was run as a Master Class with one person on a part with discussions on how to improve playing and performance techniques. Several “Instrument Petting Zoo” workshops were also held for people to try instruments and discuss how to correct problems with instruments they already own.
Remus teaching Serpent and Cornetto Class. The Serpent’s name is Augustus!
While music may be my interest, there are many other classes and workshops taught at Pennsic. Next year, look through the Pennsic book or Pennsic University website; you may find a class or three that interests you.
Loud Band Workshop – Mistress Elsbeth Anne Roth in red on Soprano Shawm
The Dean of Performing Arts at Pennsic, THLady Lorelei Skye of Sans Nomen, is very excited to be able to share a wide variety of performing arts, events, and performances; featuring new and returning artists from across the Known World!
Photo courtesy of the Pennsic University.
Here is the finalized schedule for Pennsic 44. You can also access it online.
I will return to my article series after Pennsic, but since we are now truly in the season to prepare for War, I wanted to remind everyone (or maybe tell you, if you didn’t know), that Æthelmearc traditionally sings on our way to Opening Ceremonies (and if there’s time, while we’re waiting). Anyone who is marching with a barony or group for Opening Ceremonies, or anyone else who just wants to participate with the kingdom, is encouraged to come and sing with us!
“But I don’t know any Æthelmearc songs!” you cry.
Well, have we got a deal for you! It so happens that the Æthelmearc College of Bards has many of our kingdom songs available at the College website:
Each of the songs has two links: one for a downloadable version of sheet music, and one for a downloadable mp3 of the song.
One caveat about the sheet music: most of these songs feature a lot of variation in the melody and rhythm from one verse to the next, depending on the demands of the lyrics and the singer’s individual preferences. This is not choral singing; the music is meant to be sung freely, so the notes on the page are more of a guide to the melody than an iron-clad representation of it. It’s certainly enough to get everyone going, though!
If you want a copy of the songbook… the 2007 edition (which is the last update we can find) is there for your printing pleasure:
The lyric sheet is designed to be folded to fit into a pocket or pouch or you can download either copy to your portable pocket girdle book (i.e., your phone or tablet) and carry the songs with you that way.
After Pennsic, there will be a new version of the songbook. No, really. There will also probably be an article on the difficulty of herding bards who are even harder to herd than cats….
Meanwhile, if the Songs of Æthelmearc are not enough for you, and you are desperate for more bardic advice, I recommend the excellent series of blog posts on the seven bardic sins written by Master Brendan the Bard.
Finally, I encourage everyone who will be attending Pennsic to find at least one performance, bardic circle, exhibition, or performance competition to attend. There is immense talent on the Pennsic stages, which can easily inspire and impress. There are also a complete catalog of bardic classes, including performance workshops, and the annual Bardic Collegium which offers discussion of the state of the bardic arts and tips and tales about performers’ efforts to grow and shape the community of performers within the SCA. Check out the Pennsic University for more details, and the Performing Arts schedule to find concerts, exhibitions, competitions, and other activities which will surely please and amaze.
Of particular note, Æthelmearc has been invited to participate this year in the inter-kingdom exhibition, which previously has been limited to the East and the Midrealm. More details to come, but the exhibition will be on Saturday, August 1, beginning at 5:00 PM. Come and support our Kingdom’s performers as they showcase their skills.
In my article about the different types of bardic music found in the SCA, I touched on contrefait, and said I would devote an entire article to the topic. This is a complex and often controversial issue within the SCA bardic community, particularly the sub-category known (some would say incorrectly) as “filk.”
First, some definitions:
Contrefait (contrafactum, or contra facta) is the period term for the practice of taking an existing tune and writing new lyrics to it. In period, the source tunes were often church music, since what was sung in the church was known to everyone, but secular tunes were used, too.
Broadsides were also composed the same way: by writing lyrics that could be set to popular music of the day (and sometimes more than one tune. It was not unusual for a broadside to list a number of “excellent tunes” to which one might sing the words). (“The Star-Spangled Banner” is one of the most famous Broadsides in the U.S…..) Broadsides were also a product of the world after the invention of the printing press, when it was easier to distribute music and lyrics.
Filk is used in the SCA to mean the same thing as a contrafactum, with one big difference: In the SCA, specifically, filk almost always refers to the use of a modern tune with lyrics that make little to no attempt at sounding period. They are often highly self-reflexive commentaries that poke directly at the “Anachronism” part of “SCA.”
For that reason, among others, the term “filk” is controversial, and in fact, offensive, to some.
“Filk” was supposedly a typo once upon a once, when someone trying to put a “folk music circle” into a con program misspelled it. The misspelling stuck. So “filk” as it is used outside of the SCA is not confined to rewritten lyrics to an existing tune. In the Sci-Fi-Fantasy Convention circuit, “Filk” is a catchall term meant to include any and all music of interest to the subculture.
But in the SCA, “filk” is also considered by many to be a prejudicial and derogatory term. I believe the other major reason it is viewed as pejorative is that “filk” in the SCA has become synonymous with works that are not as serious, or not as appropriate, or that otherwise “break” the medieval experience for other listeners. They are almost always set to popular or well-known modern songs. Very few of them are really “about” historical topics, or if they are, they often address those topics in self-consciously modern terms. Because of all that, the perception over time has been to think that filk music is somehow “lesser” than original music or even lyrics set to period tunes.
Now, I think it’s unfair to paint all “filk” with the same brush. I prefer to invoke Sturgeon’s Law when it comes to this sort of thing. It’s not that all filk is frivolous or scans poorly or doesn’t sufficiently change the source material as to count as new; it’s not that all filk uses aggressively modern music or that it is always self-reflexive or self-indulgent. I think it’s as simple as this: there’s a lot of it, and 90% of everything is crap.
There are different sub-genres of “filk,” according to the type of original source material, the topic of the lyrics, and other factors. I actually take my definition of filk in both SF con and SCA contexts one step further, by saying that a truly great “filk” really does at least one of these two things, and usually both:
It uses the audience’s familiarity with the original song to inform both the new lyrics and the subject matter being depicted;
It specifically addresses subjects that are meaningful to a subculture, such as a fan of a particular book, show, or movie, or, in our case, topics that are uniquely meaningful to the SCA’s subculture.
To my thinking, this differentiates “filk” from “contrefait” for our purposes because for the most part, using a period melody does not presuppose a familiarity with the original song (though it did, in period), whereas “filks” that take modern tunes usually do rely on that exposure.
Songs like this are often humorous and fall under the heading of parody, but not all are meant to be funny. However, almost all contrefait with a modern melody do pick the original tune for some reason that puts an ironic twist of some kind into the new lyrics. The catch is that that’s often easier said than done. One of the criticisms of SCA bardic performance in general is that there’s a low bar to entry. “Filk” gets its own unfairly poor reputation as one of the “lowest” bars for songwriting, because you’ve already got a tune, and you’ve already got a basis for the lyrics, depending on what prompted your choice. On the other hand, it can be deceptively difficult to do artfully.
The best way I can discuss this is with some examples. I’ll use my own work, simply because I have the right to reproduce it. All the songs I’ll be talking about have melodies that should be well-known to the reader, or are easily available if you’re unfamiliar with the tune.
My first example is a filk that uses audience familiarity with an original (modern) song to inform both the new lyrics and the subject matter in the song (point #1 above). Compare the original lyrics (left) to the rewritten ones (right):
Oh, they built the ship Titanic Oh, the jester came into the hall
To sail the ocean blue To entertain the crowd
And they thought they had a ship And he thought he’d sing,
That the water couldn’t go through But the noise was much too loud
but the Lord’s almighty hand So he dove into his trusty sack
Said the ship would never land To answer his king’s call
It was sad when the great ship It was sad when the jester lost
went down. his balls.
Oh it was sad! It was sad! Oh it was sad! It was sad!
It was sad when the great ship It was sad when the jester lost
went down. his balls.
Husbands and wives Nobles and Knights
Little children lost their lives Never had such a fright
It was sad when the great ship went down. It was sad when the jester lost
went down. his balls.
Obviously, they share the same scansion and rhyme scheme, and the verse and chorus share the same structure. Several lines of the chorus aren’t different at all. But that’s about all they share. However, if a listening audience member knows the Titanic song, they’ll automatically know how to participate in the chorus.
Lines or lyrical phrases that remain the least changed from the original source to the “filked” lyric are often referred to as “hooks.” In a lot of filks, it’s clear or at least relatively obvious which lines may have been the hook — in other words, which lines struck the filk lyricist as a reason to use the song as a platform for the new sentiment. Here’s one that I wrote years ago with really obvious “hooks”:
You must remember this You must remember this,
A kiss is still a kiss The gath’ring you can’t miss
A sigh is just a sigh Has fun for you in store
The fundamental things apply The two-week long Medieval tour
As time goes by Of Pennsic War.
And when two lovers woo And when two armies fight,
They still say, “I love you” Their ranks swelled up with knights
On that you can rely And squires and scouts galore,
No matter what the future brings You learn what heraldry is for
As time goes by. At Pennsic War.
Moonlight and love songs, Bardics with filk songs
never out of date bawdy, sweet or droll,
Hearts full of passion, Classes and parties,
Jealousy and hate the classic swimming hole,
Woman needs man The two-mile hike
And man must have his mate from the parking lot to troll
That no one can deny. That everyone abhors.
It’s still the same old story, It’s still the same old story
A fight for love and glory, A fight for love and glory
A case of do or die. And friends forevermore,
The world will always welcome We’ll live the Dream each year
As time goes by. At Pennsic War.
Once again, the original lyrics provide the rhyme scheme, the scansion, the structure, and in this case, some key lyrical “hooks” that twist the original song and give it a different context and meaning. However, this song also introduces an element of Filk Objective #2: It discusses a topic which is of significance to members who are already part of the subculture. I would say that this filk doesn’t completely fulfill that objective, because while it’s more meaningful to members of the SCA who have experienced Pennsic, it’s not impenetrable to people who have not. Unfortunately, it’s also not very good, so it fails in the cleverness department, in my opinion. It’s a fairly trivial song that doesn’t really deepen either the original or the new lyric.
My final example is one that is not an SCA song, per se, but one that really exemplifies the properties of an effective filk song. The tune to this is “Something There” from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast:
There’s something sweet There’s something here
And almost kind Not of our kind
But he was mean and he was coarse Yes, it’s a lifeform that is
And unrefined As-yet undefined
And now he’s dear Just what it wants
And so unsure We’re not quite sure
I wonder why I didn’t see it But there is something there
there before. that wasn’t there before.
She glanced this way It came this way
I thought I saw We thought we saw
And when we touched, It took a tentacle
she didn’t shudder at my paw! And stuck it down his craw!
No, it can’t be… No, it can’t be…
I’ll just ignore, We can’t ignore
There may be something there But there is something there
That wasn’t there before That wasn’t there before.
New, and a bit alarming Ew, this is so disgusting!
Who’d have ever thought that this Who’d have ever thought that this
Could be? Could be?
True, he is no prince charming It’s ripping out his stomach
But there’s something in him And before you know it
That I simply didn’t see The crew’s down to only me.
Well, who’d have thought? I’ll get away
And who’d have known? I’ll get back home
And who’d have guessed And when I do
They’d come together on their own? I’ll tell them everything I know
We’ll wait and see We’re not alone
A few days more And safe no more
There may be something there Because there’s something there
That wasn’t there before. That wasn’t there before.
First, this definitely presupposes a familiarity with the original song and the context of the original song as a montage of Belle and the Beast starting to fancy one another. The new lyrics then use that bouncy melody to relate the plot of a movie that could not be further from Beauty and the Beast. Note also that this lyric never explicitly mentions what it’s about. It relies on the listener catching on. Thus, listeners who are unfamiliar with Beauty and the Beast or the plotline of Alien might be able to appreciate the clever lyric, but certainly won’t get much out of the song.
As you can imagine, it’s deceptively difficult to write a contrefait of this type that really hits home on all levels. The downfalls of filk are many, but some of the most common problems include:
choosing a tune that is not easy to sing a capella or in a bardic context. A lot of modern music (especially popular or musical theatre music) is difficult and really challenging to sing without an accompaniment, or relies on the ability to “hear” the instrumental support, which one can’t necessarily bring to a bardic circle.
forcing lines to fit into the scansion or rhyme scheme of a song. Often lyricists, especially beginning lyricists, will “lose track” of the scansion as they are writing the new lyrics. (This is not limited to the SCA, in fact, and was famously lampooned in the Tom Lehrer song, “Folk Song Army”) The best way to avoid this is to lay out the original lyrics next to the new ones, to make sure things track as much as desired.
picking a tune that isn’t as well-known as desired. If you’re counting on your audience recognizing the song, make sure it’s recognizable.
being so obscure or subtle in one’s references that the audience doesn’t understand what the song is supposed to be about.
picking a tune or setting lyrics that are aggressively modern. In the SCA context in particular, successful “filks” either blend in with the medieval ambience or they are best reserved for a context in which they won’t jar the listener. Sometimes this can work as a conscious choice, as when the artist wants to be anachronistic for humor or irony. Unless you know your audience well, be careful that it doesn’t fall flat.
As with any performance, the usual principles apply:
The material chosen must speak to some emotional grip on the audience;
The performance must move the audience to that emotional place;
The audience must be able to see, hear, and understand the performance.
Without these factors, it doesn’t matter if the tune is “new” or “used” or the lyrics are clever or banal.
As for using (modern) contrefait, it’s absolutely valid, depending on the venue and purpose of the performance. In my opinion, they’re more appropriate for small gatherings, post-revels, late nights, or if you really know your audience wants that kind of contribution. It’s merely a question of the right selection for the right occasion!
In my previous article, I touched on the observation that so-called “SCA Bardic music” contains a preponderance of modern music in various forms. There have been countless classes and round tables at Pennsic and elsewhere devoted to discussions of the “types” of songs found within the SCAdian repertoire, which ones are and aren’t “period,” and what the difference is among “Period,” “Perioid,” “Traditional,” “Folk,” “Filk,” and “Original” music in the SCA.
This article is another brief discussion of that topic.
Curiously, a similar discussion broke out recently on the SCA Bards Facebook group (period vs. non-period). While it was presented as a choice, most all the participants took a “yes, and, both” approach to the question. Though there was a huge amount of variation in terms of what people thought enhanced the SCA experience and what people thought detracted.
This isnot a discussion of what’s preferable or which types of pieces are appropriate for various settings. That’s topic for another day. This is more of a survey of the sorts of music one can find being performed within the SCA bardic community these days.
Period Clearly, any music extant from within the scope of the SCA. Period music is diverse, rich, and if performed well or in the right context, accessible to a modern audience. Sometimes venues for period music are harder to find, though for ambient music, it’s almost always appropriate and a pleasant enhancement to a hall. Period music is relatively easy to find, but sometimes it takes a little research to verify that the version you’ve found is documented all the way back to period! Often only the lyrics have survived, so setting them to appropriate music can also be a challenge.
Near-Period There’s no single term that has been coined for this type of music. Essentially what I mean here is music or songs that “pass” for period, done in a period style, or that we can’t prove were from period but we have reason to believe may be that old. For scholars of period music, these pieces “sound” right or at least evoke the right feeling in their presentation. Near-period can also refer to something that is partly documented, and partly not, or something that is just outside of a period style but is otherwise inoffensive. A lot of broadsides and other extant music qualify within this category, as does the case where someone has created contrefait with a period or near-period tune, or has written a tune for period lyrics. Some also call this “perioid” but that term also gets used for other subsets of original music.
Traditional Traditional music is one of the widest practiced and oddly, least accurately presented types of music. It could be thought of as “gateway” music, especially since it’s music that lots of SCAdians learned growing up or in early adulthood, and they are often highly misinformed about its authenticity. Lots of different music from the early 1700s up through the mid-20th-century has been labeled “traditional” because the names of its authors have been lost, or because it got collected by song collectors who did not get attributions, or because it has passed into public domain, or because the singers learned “a version” somewhere and don’t actually know the song’s provenance. The thing about traditional music is that a lot of it is really fun, singable, easy to learn, and easily accessed, so it’s prevalent and often well-received. However, it’s also fairly recognizable. Lots of traditional music also has enormous clues that it’s well post-period. Most Irish and Scottish “traditional” music is quite clearly in this category.
Folk Like “Traditional” music, “folk” music is a frequent gateway to the SCA. These are classic sing-a-longs, some of which really are anonymous, most of which are public domain, many of which were specifically written to be performed anywhere, anytime. But nearly all “folk” music is not more than 200 years old, and, also like its buddy Trad. Folk usually has hallmarks that indicate it’s well post-period. By some definitions, “folk” music is specifically music that arose out of the population of a given region, race, or culture, with no author or, if there is an attributed author, that author “gave” the music to the people (such as Woody Guthrie or Pete Seeger). In the case of world folk music, frequently these pieces have been filtered and “Americanized.”
Contrefait This is the period term for the practice of taking an existing tune and writing new lyrics to it. Broadsides were also composed the same way: by writing lyrics that could be set to popular music of the day (and sometimes more than one tune. It was not unusual for a broadside to list a number of “excellent tunes” to which one might sing the words). The SCA has, somewhat incorrectly, adopted the term “filk” for this practice. There are a number of reasons the term “filk” is controversial, and in fact, offensive, to some.
“Filk” was supposedly a typo once upon a once, when someone trying to put a “folk music circle” into a con program misspelled it. The misspelling stuck. So “filk” as it is used outside of the SCA is not confined to rewritten lyrics to an existing tune. In the Sci-Fi-Fantasy Convention circuit, “Filk” is a catchall term meant to include any and all music of interest to the subculture. But in the SCA, “filk” is also considered by many to be a pejorative term. I believe the major reason it elicits that reaction is that “filk” in the SCA has become synonymous with works that are not as serious, or not as appropriate, or that otherwise “break” the medieval experience for other listeners. I think it’s unfair to paint all “filk” with the same brush, but I’ll cover that another time.
Whatever it’s called, however, the essence of a contrefait is that it takes a tune someone else wrote and rewrites the lyrics. Songs like this are often humorous and fall under the heading of parody, but not all are meant to be funny. However, almost all contrefait with a modern melody do pick the original tune for some reason that puts an ironic or meaningful twist of some kind into the new lyrics. (And that’s often easier said than done.)
I will have a whole article on contrefaits and filk and such at a later date. For now, suffice to say, contrefaits can be “period” if they borrow a tune from period, but since it’s always new lyrics, those are always going to be post-period, but might be perioid.
Original (Historical) / Perioid There are two segments of original music which have always been around in the SCA, but which continue to grow and change the bardic repertoire. The first of these is the “Historically-inspired” original song. These songs take their topics from period sources, but have been reinterpreted by an SCA artist and repackaged in an original tune. Some also refer to this type of music as “Perioid” – meaning that for most audiences, it “passes” for period even though it was written recently. Many of those tunes are themselves “perioid” in the sense that they evoke the right “feeling,” even if they are not written in a Medieval or Renaissance mode (more on modes in another article!). Sometimes the music and lyrics are more impressionistic, such as a song written from the point-of-view of an historical or legendary figure, and sometimes they tell the story of the original source material in the artist’s own way. These are new songs on old themes, entirely appropriate to the SCA’s area of study.
Original (SCA) The final type of music is original songs written for and about the SCA’s people, life, culture, and so on. Patriotic songs about kingdoms or local groups, songs that uphold SCA traditions such as Crown Tourney, songs that venerate a particular person (for example on the occasion of a peerage) – these are an act of preserving the history of the SCA itself. As with the historially-inspired songs, they are being written currently, almost always in very basic, singable modes, rather than in courtly or church modes. These songs add to the fabric of the SCA and often help to create the illusion of the “Current Middle Ages” in that they provide a pride of place and character intrinsic to the conceit that “AEthelmearc,” “The East,” “The Midrealm,” and so on, are just as “real” as New York or the United States.
Without making value judgments as to which type of music is “more” appropriate, since all of them have appropriate places, uses, and audiences, it’s easy to see why so much bardic music “feels” modern. However, consider that original music of both historial or SCA subject matter can be “perioid” – if it’s done well, it can almost pass for period. At the very least, it doesn’t “jar” one out of a medieval context. Some contrefait can be written to actual period tunes, leaving only the lyrics to alert the listener to modern use of language (and again, depending on the lyrics, that may be indistinguishable, too). So the types of music one can encounter really can intermingle.
And regardless of the choice of piece, the three key elements to success for any bard are these:
The material chosen must speak to some emotional grip on the audience;
The performance must move the audience to that emotional place;
The audience must be able to see, hear, and understand the performance.
Without those three things, it doesn’t matter whether the piece is period, perioid, or written last week. And it’s those considerations that dictate the appropriateness of a specific piece for a specific venue.
One of the oldest continuously run choirs in the SCA is the Pennsic Choir. Founded at Pennsic XVI in 1987 by Mistress Josselyn ferch Rhys of the West Kingdom, each year it brings Scadians from all over the Known World together to rehearse for a week and then perform a concert of Medieval and Renaissance choral music for the enjoyment of the Pennsic populace. Choir members have come from every Kingdom in the U.S. and Canada as well as Lochac and Drachenwald.
The Pennsic Choir
The Pennsic Choir is an open choir that anyone can join. There is no audition or requirement for prior singing experience. All you need to do is download the music from the Known World Choir website to practice in the lead-up to Pennsic, and then attend the daily rehearsals that run from 10 a.m. to 12 noon from Thursday of Peace Week through the middle of War Week. The concert is held on Thursday of War Week in the early evening at the Performing Arts Tent in the University district. If you plan to sing in the Pennsic Choir, please also go to the choir’s webpage on the Pennsic War website and register. It really helps the director to plan – if we know that we’ve got a major imbalance of certain sections, we can boost recruitment for the smaller sections. That said, well, it’s a choir, so we always need tenors!
Children, Youth, and Select Pennsic Choirs
In recent years, responding to demand from those who love choral music, the Pennsic Choir added a select, audition-based choir of 8 to 16 voices called Chorulus Pennsicus, as well as a Children’s Choir and a Youth Choir. All four choirs perform in the joint Thursday evening concert.
Directors for Pennsic 44
At Pennsic 44, three of the four Pennsic Choirs will be directed by gentles from Æthelmearc: THLord Kieran MacRae will conduct the Children’s Choir, Lady Rachel Dalicieux will direct the Youth Choir, and Mistress Arianna of Wynthrope will direct the full adult Pennsic Choir. Chorulus Pennsicus will be directed by Lord Cailin mac Aindréis of the Midrealm, who directed the adult Pennsic Choir at Pennsic 43.
If you or your children are interested in singing with any of the Pennsic Choirs, check out the Known World Choir website. Each choir has its own page, and there are also pages with resources for those more generally interested in choral music. Music for this year’s full adult choir is already available for download, and information on rehearsal and performance schedules for all four choirs has been posted. As Pennsic approaches, the website will be updated with additional information on the songs for each of the choirs.
The video below is from the Pennsic Choir performance at Pennsic 39: