The musicians of PanHarmonium collaborated with me to blend this beautiful old music into the medieval love story of Eglamore and Cristobel and the stunningly contemporary story Silence: The Adventure of a Medieval Warrior Woman. In both those stories, the music instantly creates a context for the audience. The opening crash of the riq (which is a combination tambourine/drum) and the bird-like trill of the recorders immediately place the listener in the middle of an ancient world of troubadours, castles, gallantry, and adventure. Could that same setting be created with words? Of course, but the music is a kind of shorthand that does in a few notes what might take three minutes of verbal description.

The musicians – Susan Marchant, Gilbert Ritchie, and David Cantrell, shown in the photo above – have played this music together for over 30 years. When we begin a new project, we start with the story. I share with them an outline of the story, let them know the time period and location of the story, the cast of characters, and the major themes. Then they begin to assemble an assortment of tunes that might fit, and we begin the slow collaborative process of finding the music that matches: Is it 13th or 15th century? Old France, England, or the middle East? A rollicking adventure or a tender love story?

In Eglamore and Cristobel, for example, the three main characters – Eglamore, Cristobel, and the Father – all have a theme song that subtly introduces them to the listener.   Finding those themes is a back-and-forth, trial-and-error process, trying to find the best blend of music to match the character and the text. Cristobel’s theme, for example, eluded us for a long time. We couldn’t find “her,” until Susan took a song we’d already rejected, and played it in a different time signature and on a different instrument – a tenor recorder – that conveyed just the right tone of quiet courage, compassion, and loneliness that was essential to Cristobel’s character. Eglamore’s rousing theme is a medieval pilgrimage march that shows his strength, determination, and adventurous spirit. The wicked father appears against a backdrop of the haunting, sinister sound of the hurdy-gurdy.

Throughout the story, there are places where the music rides under the story, giving another dimension to the pictures created by the words, and letting the listener experience the ideas, images, and emotions evoked by both the story and the music all at once. At other places, the music stands alone, either as a bridge between two different story segments, or as a non-verbal extension of a particular part of the story that allows the audience to finish the experience of one idea or image before the next one begins.

The process of collaborating with the musicians involves, of course, many decisions about important details: When should the music play under the story? When should it play independently? If the story and music overlap, exactly where does the music start, how long does the music play before the story begins again, and exactly when does the music stop? Which song has the right tone, the right theme, the right tempo for a particular part of the story? Do the three non-storytelling musicians get to make suggestions about the story? (Yes, absolutely.) Does the non-musician storyteller get to make suggestions about the music? (Yes, absolutely.) Does everyone work hard to respect each other’s area of expertise and still hone and prune and tweak to make the piece as good as it can be? (Yes, yes, yes.)

What I’ve learned from these collaborative efforts is that the result is not just a story with music – the result is a different story, and a different experience for the listener than it would be with either element standing alone.

And every performance is a little bit different. Just like jazz.

Medieval BeBop
       ...Collaborating with the musicians of PanHarmonium

They remind me of jazz musicians. The music they play is from the middle ages, and there’s no time signature, no instrumentation specified, no harmonies already lined out. The three musicians of PanHarmonium start with just a melody line (the only thing passed down through the centuries), then begin to interpret the tune: Play it as a march or a dirge? Make it bright and peppy on a soprano recorder or solemn and mournful on a tenor viola da gamba? Sing the Latin or Old English words in tight harmony or in a soaring solo? They shape the tune, interpret it, riff on it – like jazz.