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Villon to Rabelais: music of the streets, theatre, and Court

CD Review

Most of the music on this CD was made between four and five hundred years ago - a long while to our time-obsessed minds. Yet what strikes us about it is its pertinence to us; and we may hazard a reason for that if we consider that the disc's title - 'From Villon to Rabelais' - recalls a time when the Middle Ages, reputedly an Age of Faith, was merging into the Renaissance, a time of re-birth and of intellectual and sensual experimentation. Today, entering the Millenium, we are taking a comparable scary step into a still unknown Electronic Age; we may even detect parallels between Villon (1431-1463)and Rabelais (1490 or 94-1553) and the icons of our own time. For Villon was a man of the late Middle Ages, an outsider-traveller who lived on his wits while writing and singing great poetry. As the Christian era foundered, he sang of the eternal themes of love, war, and death, with an awareness of the multifarious richness of life, countered by a mounting terror of death. 'Our' Bob Dylan, who can hardly challenge Villon as a major poet, was nonetheless another outside-traveller who wrote good verse, and sang with vivid immediacy of the world around him. Complementarily, Rabelais, a man of the early Renaissance, was a fanatical pluralist expert in many languages both ancient and modern and - like Shakespeare a little later - drunk on the potentiality of words, which crossed frontiers geographical, linguistic, and experiential. Connected with both Church and State, Rabelais was still a scholar-adventurer who garnered from the ragbag of several pasts tidbits of knowledge and secret lore, breathlessly heralding futures unknown.Today's Tom Wolfe has something of his omniverous curiosity, though as prose-writer he is even further behind Rabelais than Dylan as poet, is behind Villon.

The music on this CD, making a comparable transition from old worlds to new, covers most aspects of then-contemporary life, from street to theatre to court, omitting only the Church, which then mattered less than it used to, as it does today. We begin with dance music which, though often associated with Low Life, coexisted with court music, overriding barriers of class, and possibly of race. Given the fact that our electrophonic pop musics tend to be very loud, obliterating consciousness, whereas these ancient pop musics were mostly soft, allowing consciousness spontaneously to germinate, we may miss the affinities between Then and Now. Nonetheless, such affinities exist in that these monophonic tunes, mostly accompanied by percussion, are endlessly reiterative but non-developing, creating an eternal Present with no before or after, that being all, in a rapidly-changing world, most folk can hope to have knowledge of. These bucolic branles and other dances about going on - in the face of precarious peril, irreversible decay, and certain death. Our pop musics serve a similar function, though our post-industrialized and electrocuted society has forfeited the grace and sprightliness of the early models and has substituted, for their innocence, a wilful inanity, fatuity, and vacuity. Their lives may have been 'abrupt and short', but - on the evidence of their arts - they seem to have been somewhat less 'nasty and brutish' than ours; at least it is certain that while our electrophonic pop may nurture new modes of consciousness as well as new sonorities, their sonorities, piped on recorder and flute, blown on sackbut and shawm, plucked on lute and harp, bowed on rebec and viol, beaten on drum, tambour and tabor induced (and still induce) a sense of expectancy, wonder, and even awe. Many of the dances use drones, signifying the eternity against which people's frantic antics assert continuance, if not identity.

Copyright © Wilfrid Mellers, April 24th 1999

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