Spanish Old Time Music Band

The Alfonso X Memorial Medieval String Band, Santiago de California

The musical group was founded around 1968 as a platform for my ideas about recreating medieval music in general and early Spanish music in particular. (Though the X in the full name stands for ‘the tenth’, the short name is ‘Alfonso X,’ pronounced ‘ex.’) The original members included Duane Thomas (my right-hand man) and David Dunn (fiddler extraordinaire). The number of players has varied over the years from three or four to around a dozen. At one point we even had a women’s vocal group, playing tambourines and dancing in Mediterranean style.

The phrase ‘string band’ in the full name of the group comes from American folk music circles. It describes the style of ensemble that arose out of the early days of radio and recording when individual rural performance styles were beginning to be blended into each other in urban settings. More importantly, even nowadays, it implies a tradition where individual players, who do not necessarily practice together, share a repertory, stylistic elements, and attitudes toward performance and can come together to perform with creativity and spontaneity. Many of you will see the model of the folk festival or fiddle festival in this, as was my intent. I wanted to retain, or recreate, that flexibility which I believed would emphasize the improvisational nature of early music performance. And even though we were a group which did practice together I wanted us to sound as if we did not. In addition, as time went by, and members of the group went their separate ways, I wanted to establish a framework within which we could maintain our music-making skills, so that when we did come together our individual evolutions would create even more spontaneity.

Training mostly classical musicians in improvisational attitudes like this was not easy. I started from the specific to the general: I gave each of my performers long listening assignments in ethnic versions of their instrument. I used to say that I locked David Dunn in a room with his rebec and records of gadulkas, rebabs, and old time fiddlers and told him he couldn’t come out until he had mastered it all. I didn’t really have to do that: he took to it naturally. Our first big concert was for the American Musicological Society meeting at UCLA in 1970. August Wenzinger was there. He came up to David after the concert, raving (in his thick German accent), ‘vere did you learn to play rrebec like dat? Dat’s ze best rrebec playing I’ve ever heard in my life!’

My original dream was not to train classical musicians to play improvisational music but the other way around. I envisioned an institute bringing together traditional musicians from around the world who played modern versions of medieval instruments. I would have Spanish, Hungarian, and Bulgarian bagpipers; shawm players from Morocco, Serbia, and Iraq; lute and psaltery players from the Middle East; Persian and Indian dulcimer players; long-necked lute players from Turkey, Iran, and Central Asia; end-blown flute players from Bulgaria, Turkey, and Iran; harpers from East Africa and Burma; fiddlers and recorder players from all over. And then I’d start on the singers, but I’d limit myself to the Mediterranean: Spain, Morocco, Sicily, the Balkans, and the Middle East, with maybe an extension into the Caucasus. Once I had them all together I would take particular ensembles and teach them one of the Cantigas, orally. Then stand back. I confided this outrageous dream to Mantle Hood one day. His response: ‘Why didn’t you do it?’

I hasten to add that I do not believe that any combination of Morocco, Sicily, Bulgaria, Syria, and Iran, stirred or shaken, would produce ‘Medieval Spanish Music,’ any more than Rope, Snake, Wall, and Fan can create an Elephant. The intent is to let traditional musicians who have mastered the techniques and capabilities of their respective instruments bring those elements to explore the possibilities of the remaining musical skeletons from the Cantigas.

The chances for relative success would be enhanced by two factors: instrumental and musical. Most of the medieval Spanish instruments, and all the important ones, have close descendants still being played around the Mediterranean. Clearly, much has changed in seven hundred years but the instrumentalists themselves, with their idiomatic techniques, are as close to their ancestors as we will ever get. That is not to say that organologists could not work with the traditional musicians in a joint project to more closely approximate the physical instrument. But, as I constantly remind my students and co-workers, instruments don’t make music, people make music.

The second area, the musical, is like unto the first. I do not pretend that Andalucian music in the Maghrib today is the same as that heard by Ziryab or Ibn Bajja. But the cultural, philosophical, and musical context is part of the same tradition along with their melodic and rhythmic attitudes. Again, musicologists could work together with modern Andalucian musicians to reconstruct archaic styles and repertories, stripping away, for instance, Turkish chromaticism dating from the renaissance.

Let us be frank: we have lost too much information to ever be certain that we could fool a medieval musician who arrived from a time machine that he was listening to his own music. It seems to me the best we could do would be for him to accept it as ‘music’ and attribute it to ‘those crazy guys over the mountain,’ or Germans, or Saracens.

But, of course, the audience we have in reality is in the 21st century, not the 13th. That only makes it more difficult to evaluate our successes.The plaudits we seek are not just those of the musical public, but of those sophisticated enough to understand and evaluate our efforts. It is for that reason I append this review by Jonathan Saville, which appeared in the San Diego Reader back in the early 1980’s. Saville studied with Curt Sachs just before he died, and wrote his Master’s thesis on the medieval alba, which was awarded a Clarke F. Ansley award and published by Columbia University Press as “The Medieval Erotic Alba,” in 1972. He has taught at the University of California, San Diego, for many years and is a regular reviewer of musical performances in the area.

“The serious music of the past has in general come down to us in finished scores, and the task of modern performers is to play what is written. This is not the case with much medieval music, where the scores indicate only a few basic elements of the music and the rest must be reconstructed by musicians and musicologists. A case in point is the famous collection “Las Cantigas de Santa Maria,” compiled under the direction of King Alfonso X of Castille in the second half of the Thirteenth Century. These are musical praises of the Virgin Mary or musical narratives of her miracles. There are some 400 of them, and they constitute an immensely rich anthology of Spanish music in the High Middle Ages, including dances, troubadour songs, and other secular works converted to religious uses. But the collection usually offers no more than the melodic line: instrumentation, performance styles, expressive devices, tempos–all are omitted. We are given the skeleton, but not the living body.

The Alfonso X Ensemble is a San Diego group dedicated to performances of the “Cantigas”(and of similar collections such as the fourteenth-century “Llibre Vermell), and their concerts constitute a model of musicological acumen and inventiveness in the realization of this wonderful but obscure music. The five members of the ensemble have mastered a large number of medieval instruments which paintings of the time suggest were used in performing music like the “Cantigas.” There are various plucked string instruments of the guitar, lute, and psaltery families; bowed fiddles; dulcimers (stringed instruments in which the strings are hit by mallets); woodwinds such as the recorder; a wide variety of drums; and the difficult -to-classify hurdy-gurdy, in which strings are sounded by a cranked wooden wheel rubbing against them. The musicians’ high degree of techical polish in playing these instruments is matched by their easy familiarity with a number of performance styles that modern musicological research suggests are appropriate to the music. For want of more direct sources, some of these styles derive from Arabic performance practices in North africa and the Mideast, on the assumption that the styles of Moslem music in medieval Spain have been preserved more or less intact in those other parts of the Mediterranean world. [Not my intention, CB.] The result sometimes sounds anomalous: a hymn to the Virgin Mary in the droning, whining, colorful manner of a Moroccan folk orchestra. But the mixture of peoples in the Spanish peninsula of the Middle Ages makes such a performance style plausible, if not certain.

From the point of view of the ordinary concertgoer, what counts more than archeological accuracy is the musical effect these performances make. The sounds produced by the Alfonso X group at their concert last week were in fact delightful, and sometimes ravishing. Perhaps most impressive were the blooming, bell-like sounds of the dulcimer (played by Curt Bouterse) and the thin, ingratiating buzz of the loose-stringed, lightly bowed rebec (played with amazing verve and expressiveness by David Dunn). The orchestration–invented, of course, by the musicians–changed from piece to piece, giving a stimulating variety to the program. Subtlety of phrasing is not to be looked for in this music, which is played (and sung) at fixed dynamic levels; the subtlety in the Alfonso X performance was to be found in the combinations of tone colors and textures which gave those plangent medieval melodies their sensual vividness.”

Jonathan also valiantly reviewed one of our concerts for the San Diego Reader, in September 20, 1979, during the worst fires and heat waves in our history.

Last Sunday seemed like the end of the world, what with hundred-degree heat and the sky ruddy with the ashes of burning cities. The atmospheric conditions inside the Great Hall of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church were beyond belief. I myself was exhausted by the flu and a racking cough, and the concert I was attending consisted of twenty-seven excerpts from the Cantigas de Santa Maria, a thirteenth-century compilation of hymns to the Virgin and musical narratives of her miracles, performed by the Alfonso X Memorial Medieval String Band. With the singing and playing, and the introductory comments and explanations by the group’s leader, Curt Bouterse, the proceeding lasted an oven-baked three hours. After each piece, barely clinging to life, I would mutter to  myself, “Just one more, and then I’ll leave” – yet when the time came to drag myself out of my seat and into the stifling night, I would find myself staying for still another cantiga, just to hear what the performers would do with it. Ultimately, I remained to the very end of what – under normal circumstances – I might have called a delightful and fascinating concert.
Curiosity about how the performers will treat each piece must be a prime motive in any listener’s fascination with the Cantigas. These 400 songs, compiled under the aegis of King Alfonso X (“The Wise”) of Castille and Leon, consist of nothing more than the texts and a simple indication of the melodic lines. The manuscripts do not tell us how the songs were sung and played, what instruments were used, how (if at all) the melodies were embellished, whether tempos were fast or slow, whether dynamics were loud or soft, or what kind of expressiveness was appropriate to each song: even the meter is not indicate without ambiguity (two beats? three beats? twelve beats?). A fairly large number of the tunes are exceedingly dull; and of the good ones, there are very few that belong in the category of those great melodies that are in themselves enough to justify and sustain a piece of music. If a realization of the Cantigas is to be successful, it requires more sheer imagination on the part of the performers than a performance of the Wagner tetralogy.
The necessity of turning the skimpy notation into live music, of giving color, variety, expressiveness, and meaning to those bare, simple melodies, dictates the work of musicians like Mr. Bouterse. But that is not all. One might take one of these tunes, harmonize it according to the late Romantic vocabulary of, say Fauré, and score it for grand piano and impassioned, throbbing violin. Such a setting might sound very good as music, but would lack the other criterion generally applied to performances of medieval music: historical plausibility. The music is not only expected to sound good; it is also expected to sound approximately like what medieval listeners would have heard. Every performer of medieval music therefore becomes, perforce, a historian, an archeologist, and a theoretician.
This is precisely what Curt Bouterse is. In a conversation I had with him a few days before the concert, he told me that he considers his Alfonso X ensemble as primarily a research group, and that its performances are intended to instruct as well as please. The direction of this research is an interesting one. Mr. Bouterse maintains that the place to look for information about medieval performance practice is folk music: the way folk musicians  – in Albania, the Caucasus, the Arab World, Central Asia, even the American Appalachians – perform analogous works. By investigating these various these various folk styles, we can get an adequate idea of what medieval instruments sounded like, what vocal techniques were used, how the voice was accompanied, and so forth. This notion results from the bold and controversial thesis that similar social situations and levels of civilization will produce similar styles of music. The specific connection between Arabic music and a medieval Spanish work like the Cantigas is, admittedly, a more direct one: Arabic influence on Spanish culture in the Middle Ages is well attested, and many of the musical instruments we see in medieval painting and sculpture are know to have been brought into Europe by the Arabs. But the association between the medieval music we know practically nothing about and the modern Arabic music, whose style we can study in the flesh, is still and association of analogy – speculative, controversial, chance, in spite of the notorious conservatism of folk styles. And the more remote analogies – from Georgia in the Caucasus to Georgia in the Old South – have even less concrete evidence to give them support.
Still, what is the musicologist to do? I he wants to perform the Cantigas at all, he must make a series of crucial stylistic decisions, the notes will not perform themselves. A setting in the manner of Fauré, however piquant in its sweet and sour nostalgia, would not be historically correct – that is something that can be said with utter certainty. A setting of a cantiga that makes it resemble a Moroccan dance may not be sufficiently grounded in certainty to deserve the label “authentic,” but it is not, on the face of it, absolutely wrong. Mr. Bouterse is modest in his claims for authenticity. He considers his realizations of the Cantigas to be hypothetical, and he recognizes that there is no way of our really knowing what medieval music sounded like. His method simply supposes that, of all the possible hypotheses about medieval performance practice, his “folk” hypothesis is the least likely to be completely off the mark. One thing is sure: this comparative ethnomusicological approach can achieve musical results that no other comparable approach is capable of. Mr. Bouterse gives an example of these benefits: “When the great Swiss musicologist and string player August Wenzinger heard our rebec (a kind of fiddle) player years ago, he said, ‘Where did you learn to play rebec like that? That’s the best rebec playing I’ve ever heard in my life!’ Taking nothing away from our rebec player’s fine musicianship, I am certain that it was the many hours of listening to Appalachian fiddle, Bulgarian gadulka, Turkish kemanche, and Arab and Persian rebab players that made the difference.”
A musical performance must be judged, finally, in musical terms. A certain confidence in the authenticity (or hypothetical likelihood) of the style may make us feel more comfortable, but the real question is, “Is it good music?” Much of this concert was in fact a pastiche of various ethnic musical styles, variously intermingled. One cantiga, scored for axabebas (wooden flutes) and percussion, was played in a Caucasus style; another, for rebec, lute, psaltery, darabukka and tabor (types of drums)had the rhythmic pattern of much Bulgarian music (3+3+2+2+2); one played by bagpipe, shawms (whining wind instruments), and tabor sounded like a fusion of Japanese Gagaku and a Scottish jig; many of the instrumental pieces opened with meditative sections in free rhythm that were reminiscent of the introductory alap of Indian classical music; and when Mr. Bouterse sang and accompanied himself on the guitarra morisca, he sometimes sounded uncannily like Pete Seeger plucking syncopated chords on his five-string banjo.
Call it pastiche, or call it hypothetical reconstruction – what counted was that each of these styles made a persuasive case for itself, and that in each case the melody from the Cantigas was illuminated and vivified by its setting. The variety of tonal color, the rhythmic vitality, the virtuosic skill in ornamentation – these gave a continually renewed interest to a series of pieces that might otherwise have become unbearably monotonous. I think it is likely that Mr. Bouterse’s endless experimentation, his willingness to go out on a limb for the sake of musical effect, and his group’s astonishing ability to imitate a whole range of ethnic styles, gave us a performance of far more variety than what King Alfonso himself must have heard. If I had been transported to some blazing Castilian summer in the Thirteenth Century I doubt very much whether my musical curiosity would have sustained my enfeebled body through three hours of charbroiled cantigas. Whatever that music originally sounded like, it certainly did not keep its audience guessing whether the next song would sound Albanian, or Persian, or Japanese!
The only thing I objected to (aside from the weather) in the concert of the Alfonso X ensemble was its treatment of the religious texts. Mr. Bouterse treats the Cantigas (and quite rightly) as an anthology of medieval Spanish music in various genres. The scholars who compiled the collection must have taken the melodies from nay different sources – troubadour love songs, liturgical chant, popular dances – and the collection therefore offers us a window on the whole music world of its time. Mr. Bouterse’s group performed many of the pieces instrumentally, without any singing, and in these cases the texts are clearly of no relevance. But they also sang many of the Cantigas; and since the human voice is the best of all musical instruments, and since voices sing words, these performances had a special potential for communication that the purely instrumental settings could not achieve. Mr. Bouterse’s own singing, his “duets” with Duane Lakin-Thomas, and a chorus of three or four women’s voices, produced effects of great beauty and expressiveness. But although the program contained full and interesting notes by Mr. Bouterse on medieval performance, it did not contain the texts of the cantigas that were performed vocally, or a paraphrase of their contents, or even their titles! These poems, in medieval Galician, are often exquisitely crafted, limpid in diction, and full of the spirit of medieval Catholic piety. They are not mere adjuncts to the melodies, just as the melodies are not mere adjuncts to the poems.
The art of song, in other words, is always a double art, both musical and poetic, and one does not do justice to it if the communicative power of the words is ignored. This is as true of the Cantigas de Santa Maria as it is of a song by Schubert, an aria by Verdi, or the latest popular hit. If the purpose of Mr. Bouterse’s splendid group is to educate, why not teach us something about medieval Spanish poetry at the same time that we are learning so much, and with so much pleasure, about medieval Spanish music?
By the time you get to read this, you may have been fried to a crisp, and so may I. But if you are still there, and if you’d like to practice your medieval Galician, perhaps you’ll devote a couple of minutes to a flawless little poem that encloses a vast history – the reason, from a medieval Catholic point of view, that there is such a thing as the Cantigas de Santa Maria.
  Santa Maria leva
  o ben que perdeu Éva.
  O ben que perdeu Éva
  pola sa neicidade,
  cobrou Santa María
  per sa grand’ omildade.
  [Holy Mary restores
  the good which Eve lost.
  The good which Eve lost
  through her temerity,
  Holy Mary regained
  through her great humility.]