Ensemble puts new wrinkles in old music – Dufay Collective
The Dufay Collective has made medieval melodies hot, so why are historic purists so upset?
Popular medieval music always has had its aficionados. But the six musicians of the Dufay Collective – a London-based troupe of specialists in medieval song – have begun to attract a passionate crossover audience.
Together since 1987, these classically trained troubadours have adapted the techniques of modern jazz to their music – an improvisational approach, potentially annoying to early-music purists, that may be closer to original performance practice than “correct” performances.
“It’s a fluke that this music survived at all,” says Peter Skuce, 37, the group’s nominal leader, who points out that most of the traveling musicians of the medieval era kept the music in their heads; it rarely was written down. “One dance was scribbled on the back of a saucer, like graffiti. Maybe a monk was doodling and wrote it down after listening to it in a pub when he should have been in church.” Another of the group’s pieces, “Danse Amoroso,” was discovered in 1989 on the back of a land-transfer register in the Florence State Archive.
“The ability of early musicians to notate was not great,” Skuce says. Rather, they improvised rhythms and ornamentation as the situation warranted. Much the same was true of the bards, or medieval poets, who memorized thousands of lines of verse and rhyme, tailoring each performance to the occasion. Consequently, Skuce and the Dufay Collective treat the written music they have uncovered much like “fake books” that contain the bare-bones melodies of popular hits. Jazz musicians then weave their own improvisations around the tunes.
Each of the collective’s “reproductions” involves painstaking collaborative “We learn the tune as best as we can decode” Skuce says, “and then we experiment with them.” With no idea as to a song’s original context, the musicians try different tempos, rhythms and arrays of instruments. “We eventually discover the best combination for each song, but we even vary this in different performances.”
The result? Rough, loud, boisterous, rhythmic, toe-tapping performances of these ancient popular tunes that sometimes have children dancing in the aisles – but not the older folks. “They don’t think it’s proper,” says Skuce, laughing.
Growing up in London in the 1960s, Skuce showed an early talent for music and attended the prestigious Royal Academy when he was 11 years old. “I studied piano, primarily,” he says, “but I was never very good at sticking to the right notes. I’d always find that odd place where the piece could definitely be improved. An unfortunate trait.”
While studying composition, he learned that jazz was more suited to his improvisational talents before stumbling into early music – a kind of fugitive subgenre, says Skuce, “a sort of closed shop.” Without definable performance standards, early music does not lend itself to a university setting.
Along with Paul Bevin, Giles Lewin, William Lyons, Raphael Mizraki and Susanna Pell, Skuce formed the Dufay Collective, deriving the new ensemble’s name from Guillaume Dufay, a fairly well-known 15th-century Flemish composer of masses and motets. Dufay composed in the French tradition but his music showed Spanish and Italian influences, which appealed to the new group’s eclectic tastes.
“Spanish works have Moorish influence,” Skuce says. “They seem to require instruments still in use in the Middle East today, like the Turkish lute, which has no frets and which gives you lots of mysterious Eastern quarter-tones. The Spanish pieces work well with these instruments.” In addition to the standard early violins and recorders, as well as the shawm (an early oboe), gittern (a kind of Spanish acoustic guitar), rebec (a bowed lute) and tabor (a small, soft-headed drum), the group has performed with African and Arabic instruments.
The collective also started doing vocals, even though none of the performers was a professionally trained singer. “Our own sort of gritty sound works well for the music and in concert,” cert,” says Skuce. They were an immediate hit at their first concert, a lunchtime affair in London, Skuce recalls, and they quickly signed a recording contract with the respected Chandos classical label. The group since has shown up on film in Franco Zeffrelli’s Hamlet. As with Ireland’s Chieftains, who first rocketed to fame playing background music in Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, the Zeffirelli film has earned them a new following, Skuce says.
The collective also has made a big jump into 17th-century middle-class repertoire, with popular songs and tunes. But its premier achievement may be pleasing a broad range of listeners. “We haven’t offended early-music buffs,” Skuce says, “and our music is a bit of fun for the old biddies, too.”
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