How can you tell when a noise is courtly or when a court is noisy? I don’t have much of a clue, though I had recently discovered a local ancient music group which specializes in enlivening the small venues they play in with music that is much more than just noise and a lot more infectiously homely than courtly. Courtlÿ Noÿse is a friendly ensemble of six early music lovers, some professional musicians and some enthusiastic amateurs, who share a passion for European music from the 1600’s.
Laury Flora is a physicist and electronic engineer who builds the group’s Krummhorn, rackett, psaltery, performs them and sings tenor. Penny Hawkins is a music professor who sings, plays the recorder, and “occasionally hits things with sticks”. John Cassaboom is an SDSU trained electronic engineer who sings bass when he isn’t strumming the mandolin or tootling a recorder or a Krummhorn. Vickie Jenkins has a music degree from Scripps College, sings soprano, and plays recorder, cornamuse, and percussion. High-voiced Jay Sacks sings alto and tenor and also plays recorder, cornetto and Krummhorn. And Sandra Stram, another music grad from SDSU, sings soprano and plays viola da gamba, vielle, recorder and Krummhorn.
When I first saw the listing of Courtlÿ Noÿse concert at the San Diego Museum of Art in Balboa Park on Easter Sunday I expected to be rather bored by the end of the hour long performance the way I usually get listening to Baroque period music (the arias are gorgeous on their own, but after a few of them in a row they start to sound pretty much the same). How roundly wrong I was! The selections were so varied and the performers so perky (and they looked good in period costumes… tights included!) that they still had the audience swaying with the tune at the end of the hour – so much so that we clapped the tired sextet into giving us an encore number.
Not being a Renaissance music specialist I had no idea how stylistically right or correct their performance was, of course, but I do know that I liked what I heard very much and would gladly pay to hear it again. That, after all, is what music is supposed to be about in my book. The group got their ideas and enthusiasm across in a way that others can enjoy and participate in… And in doing so, they are keeping alive an art form that was born in the days before the USA first appeared on the map. The group is surely worth learning more about!
Smorg: What drew you to music from the Renaissance Period? Why does it appeal to you more than other types of music?
Laury: I have no idea why I like Renaissance music. Why do some people like rap? Part of it is probably early exposure, starting with a high-school madrigal group. I know that I like Renaissance more than Classical because it seems more fun and less formulaic.
Penny: I began a compulsory study of the recorder in elementary school, and was intrigued to find out that it was a “real” instrument and not just something for kids. I’ve maintained a connection with Renaissance music because I enjoy the timbres of the instruments, and because it’s an interesting transitional phase between the sometimes bleak and other-worldly sonorities of the medieval period, and the functional harmony that we hear every day. In addition, the general history of the period is fascinating to me – but I also love many other types of classical as well as rock music.
Jay: Oddly, a baseball injury directly led to my interest in Renaissance music. I had been studying classical clarinet and jazz/rock saxophone when a baseball injury led to the development of a traumatic abscess under my front teeth. The vibrations from my woodwinds were unbearable (like touching a fork to a filling!). At the same time (I was 14) I came home and found my little sister’s recorder lying on a table. I picked it up, played it, felt no pain, and fell in love. What clinched it for me was when I heard David Munrow’s Early Music Consorts of London’s soundtrack to Henry VIII. Seeing the roots of jazz and rock music based in Renaissance music was a further attraction since I always loved improvising.
Smorg: Tell us how Courtlÿ Noÿse formed? How did you guys and gals find each other and what do you hope to do with your performances?
Laury: There were two parallel threads which came together. One was the demise of an earlier group (the Waites of Saint Mark) and an effort to build a replacement. The other was a group that met informally at the yearly San Diego Early Music Society workshop. I perform mostly because I enjoy it, but also because others love to hear it.
Jay: A number of us saw each other every year at the early music workshop. Laury called me one day to ask me to join a Renaissance group he was forming. At the time, I was over-extended musically, and couldn’t bear giving up another night of the week for rehearsals. I quit one of my other groups and joined Courtlÿ Noÿse and am sure glad I did.
Penny: The San Diego Early Music Society which runs the workshop Jay and Laury mentioned, is a great catalyst for bringing together people who love this music. We would love to reach a broader audience with our performances, but I think we’ve also accepted that this will always be a niche interest. We’re having fun, basically.
Smorg: There seem to be at least two major ways of performing classical music: some people strive to replicate the sound and performance style as they think would have been heard in the original period while others aim to recreate the music in their own flavors, striving instead to induce similar period audience’s reaction without worrying too much about always being ‘stylistically correct’. Where does Courtlÿ Noÿse fall into?
Laury: We lean toward performing the music as it was performed in the Renaissance: the playing styles, the instruments, the costumes, no use of electronic amplification, etc.
Jay: My almost complete lack of formal musical education has landed me squarely in the camp of less-than-slavish adherence to stylistic correctness. My attitude is I would rather please a wide audience than keep a purist from cringing.
Penny: Our varied musical profiles range from graduate degrees and specialized training in early music to purely avocational musical interests. As a result, spirited discussion usually culminates in our finding a middle ground between mind-numbing pedantry and cheesy anachronism.
Laury: You may have noticed that it isn’t clear as to who the leader here is. That’s because we don’t have one. Although I put the group together, I’m not the director nor the leader. we don’t have either. I tend to be the organizer. “Leading” is done by something between a democracy and an anarchy. If you watched our performance carefully enough you may have noticed that different people directed entrances and endings, often varying within a piece. There are even cases where one person directs the pause before the last note and the attack of it, while a different person directs the note’s cutoff. We decide each of these details depending on what the music dictates, who is visible to the rest of the group, who has a hand free for movement, etc.
Smorg: Do you play mostly music of the Renaissance courts or do you play music heard in everyday life in that period? A bit of everything?
Laury: We play anything that came from that period.
Penny: The art music of the aristocracy tends to be a bit more fully realized, whereas everyday music is frequently just a melody line, which means that a little more reconstruction is needed. But bear in mind that whatever we play, we almost always have to determine whether to sing it or play it, on what instruments by which people, how fast, etc. Renaissance composers left a lot to be dictated by the individual performer – another reason why I like this stuff. We also have a few non-Renaissance novelty numbers up our (voluminous) sleeves…
Smorg: How important was music in the Renaissance period? Was music making more important or significant to the folks then than now since they didn’t have the luxury of records and could only hear music when performing or attending a performance?
Laury: Live music was far more important to people then than now. People would get together and make music using whatever instruments or voices they had. Churches and royalty strongly supported musicians. A large percentage of the population played instruments and/or sang.
Penny: There’s never been a society without music – I’m sure it must have been no more or less important to our forebears in the Renaissance than it is to us today. However, I’m sure the needs of simple subsistence trumped any musical aspirations that the lower classes might have had. I don’t doubt that there was a lot of a cappella singing, but I’m also sure it’s a fallacy that everyone was gamboling through the meadows strumming lutes and tootling on recorders or getting their viols out after dinner. You have to be careful not to generalize too much from a few specific details.
Jay: What she said…
Smorg: You perform on replicas of period instruments – many of your own making. How do you go about researching how to make the instruments and how they are supposed to sound?
Penny: I’ll let Laury answer that.
Jay: I agree with Penny
Laury: Fortunately, many researchers have gone before us, so we don’t have to go to the museums and get permission to look at and measure the instruments. That has been done, and we benefit from the researchers’ work. For example; the Early Music Shop in England is a font of instruments, kits, and information. As to how they are supposed to sound, we have to depend on written description, which leaves room for lots of “discussion”.
Smorg: As I understand it, the tuning fork wasn’t invented until 1711, so there wasn’t really any standard tuning pitch for music in the Renaissance Era. But, all the same, do you tune to any specific pitch (modern standard A = 440? Baroque A = 415? Handel’s A = 422.5? your own set pitch?)?
Penny: A=440 seems to be by and large the “industry standard” for Renaissance music -that’s what we use.
Laury: There are more instruments built for that pitch than any other.
Jay: Sometimes the standard pitch is less an issue than the ability of the musicians within the group to tune to each other. Some of these instruments (unlike modern instruments) are devilishly difficult to play in tune.
Smorg: Tell us about the group’s recently released CD, ‘Courtlÿ Noÿse: A Portrait’?
Penny: Our CD was compiled in response to all the requests that we received for one. The easiest and least time-consuming thing for us to do was to clean up a selection of our live recordings made over several years and put them together. As you can imagine, trying to coordinate six people’s schedules can be challenging at the best of times – we’re all too busy to get into a studio.
Laury: We would rather be performing than recording.
Find out more about Courtlÿ Noÿse, their performing schedule and recordings at www.courtlynoyse.com