Tom Hodgkinson: Bring back the spirit of the troubadours!


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Until two years ago I served on the committee of our local free pop festival in north Devon. Each year we would invite a bunch of bands down and throw a really fantastic party on the seafront in Lynmouth, Exmoor. This is a lovely setting for bands, with the cliffs on one side and the sea on the other. In the evening, the festival would move to the various pubs in the area and merry-making would ensue.

A couple of years ago, though, the festival was invaded by two local thugs. They went down to the Valley of Rocks, a local beauty spot turned into an impromptu campsite for the weekend, and set about beating up the campers. They were caught and sent to prison, but the incident somehow took the wind out of our sails. For one thing, the police told us that, as a result, the cost of policing the festival would go up to £40,000 – which was unworkable for us, as the total budget was £30,000. The committee resigned and the festival took a year off.

I was driving my car with Radio 3 on, thinking about this violent episode and also about how I have become bored by pop music. I have been a fan of pop since I fell in love with The Beatles aged 12, and I still love it deeply. But now – perhaps it's the onset of middle age – rock'n'roll is beginning to look dated and boring. Pop music is for adolescents and sad old men who still believe they are 17.

It lacks subtlety. It's also too loud, the band is too far away and amplified music creates a massive cost to the festival organiser. That's not to mention that rock'n'roll is a commodity invented to exploit youthful energy to make money for shareholders of big companies. And by the way, if I meet someone new and it later turns out that they are a fan of either U2 or Coldplay, my estimation of them will immediately plummet. I think I might actually find it difficult to be friends with someone who liked U2 or Coldplay.

Well, anyway, on the radio they were broadcasting some heavenly medieval choral music from a festival held at a church in Norfolk. Then it struck me: this was good music, uplifting music, real music, performed in a venue where there was no need for a PA system, where there was no adolescent preening, no drunken thugs, no vanity or worldly ambition, no mindless submission to the market. And no tedious 4/4 beat, the rhythm of work, of slavery. I immediately started planning an Early Music Festival. We would make merry in my local church and bring back the troubadour spirit.

Early music, a broad term meaning, very roughly, music from before 1700 or so, is very cool. The middle medieval stuff has much in common with pop, although it is superior. The troubadours of southern France, for example, were small groups of musicians – in other words, bands. There would be a singer, a bagpipe player, a lutenist, a drummer and a fiddle player. These bands would travel from court to court, singing beautiful secular love songs. Eleanor of Aquitaine's grandfather Guillaume is often known as the first troubadour, and she herself patronised the movement. One of my favourite records is Music of the Troubadours by the Vienna-based Unicorn Ensemble, which features recreations of beautiful lusty songs from the 12th century. The closest thing we have to troubadours in the UK today would be a group called the Princes in the Tower. Comprising crumhorn, drum and cittern, a poor man's lute, they play medieval and renaissance folk songs.

While I have not managed yet to organise my Early Music Festival, I have held many early music events at the Idler Academy. The latest of these took place last week. It was a school concert of sorts: we opened the evening with a performance from our ukulele class. Then Michael Tyack from the Princes on the lute and violinist Jennifer Bennett took over. They played some breathtaking music, including a virtuosic piece by Carl Heinrich Biber, the baroque violinist and composer, and "La Folia" by Corelli. They also played folk dances and songs. This was not just an exercise in nostalgia: they improvised at the same time, and the music sounded modern and even avant-garde at times.

The other wonderful thing was the intimacy of the setting: there were only 25 of us in the audience. And we were mesmerised: there was hollering, cheering, standing ovations. You can stuff your tedious pop combos with their electrically enhanced noise: this was the real thing, a never-to-be-repeated, unrecorded evening of beautiful music. You had to be there!

Tom Hodgkinson is editor of 'The Idler'

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