Forgotten & Surreal Instruments [#41]

Two nights ago we had the privilege of listening to the latest show put together by the Society of Strange and Ancient Instruments. Never heard of them? Well, neither had I. In fairness, had we not known one of the musicians (who, it turns out, was stepping in for another member) we still wouldn’t know about the Society and certainly wouldn’t have heard them perform.

Which is rather lucky, because both the members and the performance itself were brilliant. I had absolutely no idea what to expect and, frankly, even if I’d read a blurb or heard an explanation I doubt my expectations would have fitted the reality. In brief, the hour-or-so performance was a string quartet playing a medley of medieval and modern compositions, interspersed with readings from Sir Francis Bacon, the 16th century philosopher and naturalist. Oh, except the string instruments on which they played were not your standard violins, cellos etc. but rather the likes of the trumpet marine (one of the only ones in the world), viola bastarda (the only one in the world), gothic bray harp and utterly bizarre looking nyckelharpa (to name only a few, with each musician swapping instruments at least once throughout the performance). Layered on top of these medieval instruments were sound recordings, (occasional) electronic music and various distortions – these being the remit of the fifth musician, whom we know.

The result is a fascinating walk down both scientific and musical history. Francis Bacon has some wonderful excerpts on the nature of sound, the concept of his titular “Sound Houses” (from his New Atlantis, which I really must read) and Medieval anecdotes about noise in general. I doubt that a group of revellers truly did clap hard enough to “make the air thinner and cause the birds to fall from the sky” [paraphrased] but his observations on sound propagation are wonderfully modern and his vision for the future of music consumption is, at times, eerily prophetic. The excerpts were performed brilliantly by a live actor, lending a very clever degree of wit, movement and comedy to proceedings.

Alongside, and greatly overshadowing, the classical excerpts from Bacon was the music itself. For the most part, the musical performance was just incredibly well played Medieval fare. It’s a genre which I love, because it feels somehow incredibly alien whilst the core rhythms and structures, at times, feel almost pop like. The sound mixing was brilliant, allowing the whole medley to produce a wonderfully lyrical and complementary music whilst still permitting you to hone in on individual instruments, which you absolutely wanted to do from time-to-time. In particular, the trumpet marine was fascinating. A single stringed instrument with dozens of hidden vibration panels and sympathetic strings it could produce a bizarre array of sounds. I’m not so convinced as to the claims likening it to a trumpet, whose sound is much fuller and cleaner, but there is definitely a level of reverb and rasp which I’ve never heard from a stringed instrument before. I’m genuinely tempted to donate to their crowd funding campaign to get four of them made, just to hear what several of these instruments could produce together! Personally, though, my favourite was the weirdly altered bray harp, with small pegs fastened to the end of each string creating a very harsh, discordant noise completely antithetical to the classically perceived sounds of a harp.

Whilst there were new compositions interspersed with ancient, you really couldn’t tell them apart, and although the mixture of Medieval strings and modern audio sampling sounds odd on paper, in reality it worked extremely well. One of the last pieces performed, with the most electronic overlays, in fact felt ripe for sampling beneath a grime track, a combination I would happily pay to listen to. When paired alongside the esoteric poetry of Bacon’s prose and the atmospheric setting, an equally ancient church in the centre of a mist enshrouded town on the Moor, the result was wonderfully evocative and utterly riveting. An extremely fun way to spend the evening!