Few, though, ply their trade in quite so many genres - folk, contemporary composition, improvisation, early music, even techno-pop - as Stevie Wishart. Tomorrow, in a rare London appearance, Wishart's group Sinfonye performs a programme of medieval music put together on the basis of Wishart's meticulous researches. 'Songs by the female courtiers of medieval France' says the Wigmore Hall publicity, and that seems a distinct enough category.
Yet even here, as Wishart explains, the music requires the kind of imaginative discipline acquired through work on the improvisation circuit: 'We know that the transmission of music in the Middle Ages was oral: things were written down, probably not for performance but for posterity, and often a long time after the pieces were composed. The musical notation is a little like a folk-song: you get the first verse, words and music. The rest of the verses may not have their music, so that all other musical decisions - whether you have instruments or solo voice, what tempo, how many verses to sing - all those decisions have to be made by the performers; and we know that the processes of composition, of transmission, and probably of performance all involved improvisation, in much the same way that you might find a ballad-singer in North Africa or India might perform a ballad with their own embellishment, perhaps adding a new verse.'
That awareness of music-making outside the dominant Western traditions is crucial to all Wishart's work: 'The important thing for Sinfonye is finding folk traditions that bear out the historical evidence, which might, for example, be Spanish church carvings of fiddles that have particular shapes that are unusual today; and then shepherd-fiddlers in Cantabria who are playing these unusual fiddles, and discovering how they might be playing or tuning them. So, combining historical evidence with surviving performance practice, I have been able to say, 'This is what it looked like in medieval times, and this is what it sounds like today' - and perhaps bring those two together. When I heard these people in Spain playing their ancient fiddles, they didn't know that much about other musics, except perhaps from the same village. That strong contact with a very specific time and place is something that we have to try to re-create in our performance, and that's very hard because it's not what we are, and it's not what the audience is. In England that wealth of folk culture has not survived.'
For Wishart, this is not music that is lost in the past, but music that resonates in the present: 'Medieval music had this great fascination with timbres, unusual musical textures and sounds, which I feel we get now in electronic music, or the way we use samples. There was a huge diversity of musical instruments, and they loved rich sounds - the bagpipe, the hurdy-gurdy - and that's something we can use in contemporary music and improvisation.'
The hurdy-gurdy is central to Sinfonye's music-making - the group's name derives from the medieval word for the instrument, which Wishart herself plays. She describes its now rather arcane music-making: 'It has strings, but instead of rubbing the strings with a bow, the player turns a handle, which rotates a shaft which goes through a wheel, the rim of which rubs the strings. You stop the strings with keys, rather like the keys on the piano, or with your fingers on the strings, like a violin - even in the Middle Ages you see various techniques and, in a contemporary context, that leads on to a whole set of extended techniques.
'We think it started as a two-person instrument going back to the 10th and llth centuries. By about the late-12th century - our evidence comes from manuscripts or church carvings - the mechanism had become smaller, more sophisticated, and we have pictures of one-person instruments. It seems to have been an instrument for experiment, which is how I use it today - it was, if you like, an ancient synthesiser, capable of making so many different sounds. But as music in Europe became more polyphonic, it moved away from the textures of drone-based instruments like the hurdy-gurdy. It died out except in more isolated folk traditions, and in the 19th century it became associated with beggars: there was one called Old Sarah who played in parts of London. Now, because the instrument is drone-based, it lends itself very well to improvising, and to sampling and electronic manipulation.'
Music-making is a continuum for Wishart; decisions made in performing medieval music inform her work as a composer and improviser: 'With Sinfonye I play music of the troubadours and their female counterparts, the trobairitz. The word troubadour comes from the verb trobar, to find, and that's what most musicians do. I compose in perhaps the same way the troubadours might have composed: I don't start by writing down, I start by improvising. Then perhaps after improvising on a certain idea for a couple of weeks, I have the piece from memory and only then do I write it down. Even as an improviser, I'm interested in clear melodies, a tonal feel; and that's partly because I haven't come to improvisation from a jazz background. My music grows out of medieval and folk music. Perhaps that's given me a stronger harmonic feel than someone whose background is in free jazz.' Still, though, there are boundaries and barriers: Sinfonye performs as part of a recognisable early music circuit that has little or no contact with the milieu of new music and improvisation.
In Europe, at least: for much of Wishart's working life is spent in Australia, and Wish, her new recording of her own compositions and improvisations, appears on the Australian avant-pop label Tall Poppies. The problem of categorisation is, Wishart feels, predominantly European: 'I studied in Cambridge, York, Oxford - places with a tremendous history behind them, this weight of culture that has already happened. In Australia, of course, there's a very rich indigenous history, but there isn't that sense of Western history. When I first went there about five years ago, I felt, 'I must do something now, because it hasn't all been done' - there's a real excitement about things new, and for the first time I felt out of place playing medieval music. In England there's not a lot of overlap between rock and jazz and classical contemporary music. In Australia those positions are not quite so obvious, or perhaps they are not even there: I keep going back because it makes me confront the new.'
Her latest compositional project, funded by the Arts Council via Women in Music, is perhaps an attempt to bring together the musical cultures of Europe and Australia. The components will be Wishart's own hurdy-gurdy and voice; the percussion and winds of Sinfonye regular Jim Denley; and the electronic wizardry of Julian Knowles, whose credentials include membership of the Australian indy band Even As We Speak. 'The musical language,' Wishart explains, 'will be drawn from medieval music - quite tuneful, strongly rhythmic - mixed with rhythms from pop and dance music. Music should have an emotional transparency; I need to be able to move to it, even if it's contemporary avant-garde. Early music is about strong melodies, powerful emotions, and to an extent you get that from improvising with people. Combining the hurdy-gurdy and techno-pop idioms brings those things together. Both the players and the audience feel the musical communication, which is never going to sound dry.'
Sinfonye performs 'Lo Douz Esgart e L'Amoros Semblan' (The Sweet Look & the Loving Manner: songs by the female courtiers of medieval France) tomorrow 7pm Wigmore Hall, 36 Wigmore St, London W1 (071-935 2141) pounds 4- pounds 10. Their CD of the same title is on the Hyperion label
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