Inspirations: The Early Music Weekend (3)

“Agricola Then and Now”

Alexander Agricola
Various pieces
Fabrice Fitch
Agricologies [First complete performance of viol book]

Michael Chance (countertenor)

“Illustrated Talk: Time Stands Still”


Emma Kirkby (soprano) & Anthony Rooley (lute)

“A Medieval Satire for the 21st Century”

The Clerks’ Group
Edward Wickham

Anthony Shuster – reader
Ian Duhig – poet
Colin Tan – designer & visuals

“The Orlando Consort & Perfect Houseplants”


Reviewed by: Josh Meggitt

Reviewed: 17 September, 2006
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall & Purcell Room, London

The best-made plans and all that … the writer had hoped to spend the afternoon and evening at all four events, but I was thwarted. But, for the record, Fretwork and Michael Chance – in the Purcell Room – juxtaposed Alexander Agricola (c.1445-1506) with contemporary composer Fabrice Fitch, who has created “a series of works using Agricola’s music as borrowed material…”, Agricola’s music was considered “bizarre”, one commentator writing that it is “crazy and strange.”

That programme was followed, also in the Purcell Room, by “Time Stands Still”. Through songs by John Dowland, the aim was for “this illustrated talk, through close study of songs, lyrics, imagery and portraiture, the identity of an emblematic figure that emerged from a large-scale painting of Henry, Prince of Wales, as being Sir Henry Lee, whose life-long interest in the personification of Time and Truth … is explored.”

I did, however, make the penultimate event in the Early Music Weekend, the Clerks’ Group with director Edward Wickham, in the Queen Elizabeth Hall, making an attempt, in more ways than one, to update the “Roman de Fauvel”, a 14th-century satirical poem. This involved much music and illustration, resulting in considerable entertainment and minor reservations.

Billed as an update for the 21st-century (already a tiresome cliché not even six years into it!), what this meant was that rather than leafing through the original manuscript (housed in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris), viewing the illustrations first-hand, reading the text and following the score – all of which feature in the original – Edward Wickham and The Clerks’ Group performed the music, the illustrations were presented and given digital life via Colin Tan’s Powerpoint presentation, all beside a new poem by Ian Duhig and read by Anthony Shuster.

“Roman de Fauvel” remains of considerable interest not just to scholars of early music (including as it does examples of almost all the notated music current at that time) but as a vibrant, many-layered example of early multimedia art. The narrative follows Fauvel the horse, his name an acrostic of vice – Flaterie, Avarice, Vilanie, Varieté, Envie, Lascheté – moving from stable to throne to ruin through decadence, temptation, lust and love, while social classes and mores are critiqued, mocked, and reversed. These Rabelaisian features are what most endeared Duhig, whose poem, the backbone of this performance, delighted in crass language, intelligent toilet-humour, self-reference and ubiquitous, though delightfully clever, double entendre.

Visually, however, things were lacklustre. The stage was simply decorated with a levered bronze screen, upon which ornate patterned shadows were attractively cast. The members of The Clerks’ Group made their way on stage as Shuster read the opening introduction, likening the work to “adaptations by Mel Brookes”, although “based on my earlier books”. Shuster’s delivery, although occasionally muddled between accents and styles, was admirable and his enthusiasm infectious, which overcame his less-than-ideal position behind lectern and computer-screen. The images themselves, a wonderful parade of pen-and-ink drawings marked by black outline and bold primary colours, recalled the simplicity and confidence of Picasso sketches, and when brought on screen in relevant moments – the marching, drumming monkey-beast for example – aided the performance. The images’ otherwise random procession and reappearance was disappointing.

The music was the real star, and The Clerks’ Group performed beautifully. The music moved from monophonic Latin song (one solo for mezzo-soprano particularly moving) through modern-vernacular French ballades, two-part 13th-century motets, three- and four-voice motets, street songs and liturgical chant. The finale, with chorus singing and a recitation concerning the end of this diversion and a universal demand for drink, brought the evening to a fitting close.

There was more: The Orlando Consort & Perfect Houseplants took to “The Front Room at the QEH” for a free event, the Consort consisting of four voices from countertenor to baritone, and the Houseplants, also a foursome, ranging from saxophones to electric percussion. Quite a mix, and I’m sorry to have missed it.

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