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.