Bob Dylan would have been a great goliard, scholar-poets who wrote satirical verses in the 12th century. Southwestern’s Goliards Medieval Ensemble would have also fit right in.
Led by music instructor Wendy Greene, the ensemble commemorated All Souls Day with the somber beat of hide-covered drums, the twang of a harpsichord and the hurdy-gurdy. They formed a musical bed for the poetic Middle English and Latin lyrics about death, religious figures, animals and love.
Old School music is seldom older and rarely better than this talented band of minstrel scholars, which resurrected thousand-year-old tunes with 21st century flair.
The Goliards conveyed deep emotion with each song. Their music had a quietly mystical, harmonious quality which, though dark, music instructor Cathe Sobke said it is part of the foundation of today’s music.
“It helps you understand where all of our modern music came from,” she said after playing a number of recorders, the folksy predecessor of the flute.
During a rendition of the 14th century Spanish song “Ad Mortem Festinamus” (“We Race Towards Death”), Greene poetically recited appalling facts about the looming presence of death in the Middle Ages, including passages about the bubonic plague, war and poor hygiene, underscored by a light musical accompaniment.
“Death in the Medieval era was more common and visible than we are accustomed to,” Greene chanted. “The dance of death, the danse macabre, came out of this.”
Greene said she revered the historical value of the songs, most of which are hundreds of years old.
“I love the fact that we are playing some of the first music that was written down,” she said. “The ancient character lends a very unique sound. It can be stark. It is quite different from what we have today.”
Greene’s friend, Susan Willis-Powers, a harpsichordist, said some of the music they played was 1,000 years old, including 11th century melodies “O Roma Nobilis” (“Oh, Noble Rome”) and “Sic mea fata” (“By Singing”).
Kyle Bayquen, a Jazz studies major, said he got involved with the Goliards through a class he took with Sobke, who has been a Goliard for six years.
“She lets everybody know because she is very enthusiastic about early music,” he said. “I fill in wherever I can. I just started singing.”
Willis-Powers said the singing of Bayquen and Greene was an effective vehicle for the melodies.
“I thought it anchored it beautifully,” she said.
Period-accurate instruments fired the authentic sound. Some had odd-sounding names. They included a harpsichord, a custom-made hurdy-gurdy, a treble viol, a harp and variety of recorders and goatskin-covered drums.
Because early music may sound odd to contemporary students, Greene said a good approach was to simply perform it and let the students ask questions afterward.
“We have them listen first and see how it resonates or does not resonate with them,” she said.
Some students asked about specific songs while another, a music student, asked if the harpsichord’s tune could be applied to jazz.
Willis-Powers said that playing with the Goliards has expanded her musical horizons.
“In my wildest dreams I never thought I would be playing early music, but it has really been great,” she said. “There’s something that happens when you are playing music. It just cleans your head so much and you are really incredibly stimulated and it’s intellectual and emotional at the same time.”