Monday, 5 September 2011

A multitude of mediaeval musical instruments: Compagnie Giulia play at Bogan House Totnes, Sunday 4th September

Sunday evening this week saw the welcome return of mediaeval music group, Compagnie Guilia. Named after their founder, Julia Thomas, the group - formerly known as 'Mock Hobby Horse' have an exciting repertoire of familiar favourites - and several new pieces - played on new instruments. A small select audience enjoyed the concert in the comfort of the back room of Bogan House in Totnes High Street.

The concert opened in the thirteenth century with 'Miri it is', meaning that the summer is merry. After a very impressive opening by Julia on her trademark 'Leicestershire small pipes', the song turns to the miserable weather of autumn - very appropriate on a wet September day. The men supported her on their percussion instruments - two North African 'banadir' (singular: bendir) and tiny 'finger cymbals'.

Percussion: Howard Frey plays bendir

This gentle melody was followed by two lively, and lovely, fourteenth century Italian pieces. Julia's arrangements were based on songs from a collection of mediaeval manuscripts kept in the British Library. Julia played a small, but exceptionally sweet wooden whistle - very different from the pipes. Nick Millington brought a Greek touch with his bouzouki.

Nick Millington adds Greek flavour on the bouzouki

Howard Frey played the mandolin, and Simon Cassell demonstrated his expertise on the Turkish saz - and extraordinary instrument with incredibly fine strings on a long narrow neck.

Simon switched his saz for a Turkish bendir (somewhat bigger than the snared instrument shown top, known in Arabic as 'duff') for an English song of more intriguing provenance. 'Bird on a Briar' was discovered written on the back of a Papal bull which was found at St James Priory in Exeter. Julia sang to the gentle accompaniment of Howard strumming his mandolin - and the gentle stroking of the bendir by Simon - a very authentic arrangement.

Julia Thomas sings 'Bird on a Briar'
accompanied by Howard on the mandolin

Simon updated us all on the group's work since the beginning of the year, developing a new repertoire of pieces. The first new piece Simon started composing this year for the group was 'Gülüm', a Turkish song meaning literally 'My Rose'. Simon played his saz of course, but Nick surprised us all by accompanying him on what appeared to be a miniature bouzouki. This was the very high pitched baglama - a member of the bouzouki family tuned one octave higher.

Julia plays concertina & Nick plays baglama
in Compagnie Guilia's first new piece for 2011

Nick's solo was very high and piercing, and perfectly complemented by the softer but equally distinct sound of Simon's saz.

Simon Cassell's familiar saz

From Turkey we travelled to moorish Al-Andalus for 'Lamma bada yata thana' ('When she begins to sway' ... 'my beautiful loved one attracts me'). This kind of song is called a  'muwasshah' ('girdled'). The stanzas are hung form the 'belt' of a background refrain. Simon introduced another wonderful instrument - the oud (al-ud: 'straw' - a reference to its very fine woodwork). Precursor of both the guitar and lute, the oud is a very delicate fretless instrument with an equally delicate tone - matched by Simon's deep and soulful singing of the lyrics. The refrain was gorgeously augmented by short phrases on Julia's whistle, echoed by Nick, equally delicately, on his bouzouki - punctuated by isolated bass notes on Howard's bendir.

. . . and his beautiful 'oud'

Introducing an new instrument, after a very entertaining tune-up, Julia used her Leicestershire small pipes to play the opening fanfare of Ronda de Sanabria, a hypnotic Gascon piece representing the procession of the crowds to the Cathedral on Saint's Day wreathed in the smoke of the swinging thurible. The sound of the pipes moved from hypnotic to frenzied as the men chimed in with percussion, Simon on his tambourine, Howard on his cowbell and Nick once again on his finger cymbals - when he wasn't playing a heated solo on the bouzouki.

Then suddenly Howard had joined in on his mandolin, a perfect combination with the bouzouki, their combined tremolo breaking into counterpoint to the beat of Simon's bendir. Without warning we had moved from the French-Spanish border to Greece for 'To Zembekiko tis Evdokiaz' ('Evdokiaz's Zembekiko' - a Greek dance).

Nick switches to guitar for his Greek inspired composition

 The first half ended with Julia's arrangement of 'Cuncti Simus Concanentes' ('Let us sing together'), a song from Montserrat near Barcelona. The invitation to audience participation got only a limited response. Julia's haunting rendition of 'Ave Maria' was not easy to copy!

After a complementary drink for all audience members, provided by the owner of Bogan House, Anthea Tuckey, the second half opened with a familiar favourite. 'Douce Dame Jolie', featuring the eastern 'darbuka' drum and the bouzouki, has been heard several times on Phonic FM's 'Classical Journey', and at past concerts. Sunday's performance of 'Dame Jolie' was as joyful and entertaining as ever.

Along with 'Mon Livre de Pensee' (Inside . . . 'My Book of Thought') by the captive Charles d'Orleans after the battle of Agincourt - arranged by Julia, 'Kaneis edho dhen tragouda' ('Nobody here sings') - a popular Greek song of lost love, sung in Greek by Nick, and a traditional Shoror dance from Erzeroum in Armenia, the second half included a composition by each of the men in turn.

Simon's 'Sali Pazar'a gittim' ('I went to Tuesday market') was not a reference to Totnes market day but to the vast 'Kapali Carsi' or covered market in Istanbul, the city where Simon lived for many years. Naturally the tune was carried by Simon's Saz, with a perfect accompaniment by Julia'z whistle. Simon's Saz continuo to Nick's bouzouki solo recreated the authentic atmosphere of the Grand Bazaar.

Howard and Nick played the modern guitar a lot in the second half and showed how well its sound blends with the older saz, bouzouki and mandolin. They also played us their respective compositions. Howard played his own arrangement of 'Cancion de Almeria' ('Song of Almeria'). To the accompaniment of Julia's bendir, played energetically with a felt mallet, Howard and Nick combined the bouzouki and guitar in a delightful duet embellished by Simon's tambourine and the reappearance of Julia's whistle. A beautiful piece, like the theme of a western movie.

Nick's evocation of the 'Arab Spring', called simply 'Uprising', was a perfect collaboration between Howard and Nick on the mandolin and bouzouki. Nick's final bouzouki solo was a perfect end to the concert.

Except, of course, for an encore, a beautiful twelfth century song on saz, bouzouki and bendir - and one last blast on Julia's wonderful Leicestershire small pipes.

Last but not least
Julia's Leicestershire small pipes

Anyone who wants to hear more live music from Compagnie Guilia can hear them again entertaining the CAMRA members at the beer festival at the Bay Horse Inn in Totnes next Sunday afternoon, 11th September.

Also next Sunday afternoon the Totnes Festival Choir will broadcast the culmination of this week's workshops from the Soundart studio at Dartington as part of a day of Totnes Festival Radio. Like Phonic FM, Soundart is a community radio station. Soundart Radio broadcasts to the Totnes area on 102.5FM, and can be heard online at

(On Sunday evening, as a glorious culmination to the Totnes Festival, the Torbay Symphony Orchestra will accompany The Exeter Chamber Choir and Torquay Singers in a wonderful concert including Brahms' German Requiem
- at Totnes Civic Hall. See post below for details.)

Next Tuesday's 'Classical Journey' will naturally be starting with the beautiful music of Compagnie Giulia.

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