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A Modern Music Guide to the Troubadour Canon

Statement of Intent & Methodology A link to the playlist can be found here:

The object of this creative project is to engage with the conception of Taruskinian authenticity in order to reevaluate how thematic concerns of the troubadour lyrics can be transposed across time. Given that Taruskin’s main point of contention is with critics and musicians who adhere to historical accuracy, it seemed appropriate to create a product that was decidedly not of the troubadour era. The idea behind the creation of a Spotify playlist was to show how the concepts and emotions that troubadour poets stood for were not simply germane to their time and place. Rather, the universality of troubadour lyrics can be found in the way that traces of their linguistic DNA can be found in objects of music that have no stated connection to the world of Ventadorn and Bertran de Born, Vidal and Cardenal.   

While the project began due to my noting that certain present-day musical artists were often referred to as ‘troubadours’ or ‘troubadour-like’ (Father John Misty, Angel Olsen, Julien Baker) in reviews of their work, I quickly found that simply choosing those artists would be to fall into the Taruskinian trap of equating stylistic recapitulation as authentic historical revision.  Therefore, the project took on a wide-ranging nature, and while the main critical resource I engaged with was Taruskin’s discourse on authenticity, each song has a defined term taken from the course that I see as reflecting the thematic or stylistic concerns we can see in song. These terms can range from critical conceits such as ‘contrafactum’ or ‘philological translation’ to specific poems and poets. In giving each modern song a point of historical comparison, we can analyse how the troubadour lyric has achieved a sort of musical timelessness. Unbidden, we can see elements of almost every part of troubadour poetry in the songs that artists compose today. As such, the prevailing modern trend seems to be a move towards Taruskinian authenticity – songs about love, loss and the possibility of often-erotic consummation have never left the canon, they have merely been reinterpreted.  

Taruskin, Richard. Text and Act: Essays on Music and Performance. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. Print.

Falck, Robert. Parody and Contrafactum: A Terminological Classification

Gaunt, Simon. The Troubadours: An Introduction Galvez, Marisa. The Voice of the Unrepentant Crusader. 

Song Blurbs

Father John Misty /The Night Josh Tillman Came Over -

Taruskinian authenticity – Perhaps no musical artist is a better exemplar of the notion of ‘authenticity’ in music than Father John Misty. Even from the very title of the song, layers of metafictional narrative are brought into play. ‘Josh Tillman’ is Father John Misty’s real name and the name he went by in his previous band, Fleet Foxes, yet this is never mentioned in the song. Instead, we get this portrait of a jaded singer, unsatisfied by his string of sexual conquests. This sexual jadedness and the biting nature of the lyrics (“I hate that soulful affectation white girls put on” makes me laugh every time I listen to this song) is also very reminiscent of the tone of “Companho, faray un vers” by Guilhem IX. The resulting image brings into question what is real when we think of music – is this a real event that happened to Josh Tillman? Is it a fictionalized tale of a real person? Such questions would absolutely align with “authentic performance”. This song’s heart lies not in its supposed realism, but in its portrayal of a profoundly sad romantic encounter.       

Angel Olsen /Stars -         

Natureingang – Broadly defined, a natureingang is an invocation of the glories of nature occurring in the first stanza of a troubadour lyric. Olsen’s desire to “scream the animals to scream the earth/ To scream the stars out of our universe” indicates a desire to reach that sense of pastoral imagery. The visceral desire to conceive of nature is reminiscent of the opening to Bernart de Ventadorn’s “Can vei la lauzeta mover”, which also uses metaphors of nature to invoke the loss of a presumed lover. By revealing to us the beauty of the natural world, both Olsen and Ventadorn make us reflect on the process of love and how even the merest remembrances in the outside world can leave fresh scars.          

Hannah Cohen/Claremont & Julien Baker /Blacktop -         

Trobairitz – Both these songs evoke the trobairitz tradition that was led by figures such as Azalais de Porcaragues and La Comtessa de Dia. Inverting the paradigm of male longing, they place the figure of the female in the ground, examining what it means for the female to exists in a place of erotic agency as well as a space of romantic entanglement. No longer does the woman act only as the ‘objet du désir.’ Much like Azalais when she says “tant ai lo cor deseubut/my heart’s in such disarray”, Cohen and Baker talk about their own issues and feelings. They do not succumb to thinking of themselves as the objects in their own lyrics – they are the subject, powerful and linguistically active.         

Natalie Prass /My Baby Don’t Understand Me -         

Tenso – The genre of the tenso is one of debate – a problem is posed and the poet then comes to a linguistic resolution by reflection upon their feelings, usually in conversation with their object of love. Here, while the loved partner remains implicit, the problems of understanding and emotional comprehension remain. Prass seems to strike at the heart of the main troubadour worry – what if I cannot adequately convey my passion to my love?         

Kanye West /Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1 -         

Alba/Reis Glorios – A foulmouthed alba, but an alba none the less. From its first lines, Kanye’s track is ensconced within the lineage of the alba. How else can we interpret “Beautiful morning/You’re the sun in my morning babe” and “I want to wake up with you in my beautiful morning.” There’s but a small step from here to De Bornelh’s “queus mi rendes per lejal companhia/to give you back to me in true companionship.” Both lyrics have a profound sense of what companionship means – the comforts of having someone to wake up with and to protect you, insulate you from the outside world. Despite the descent into classic Kanye braggadocio at points, we can still see how, unbidden or not, De Bornelh’s alba form is connected to Father Stretch My Hands. ·        

J Dilla/Welcome To The Show -         

Contrafactum – “When a melody or whole composition is reused, altered or unaltered, the result is a parody or a contrafactum, depending largely on when it was borrowed.” Such is the definition of contrafactum for Falck. That sounds a lot like sampling to me, which gives me a chance to talk about one of my favourite albums ever. Released just three days before J Dilla’s untimely death, every second of this album is created out of sampled extracts from other songs – a literal collage of contrafactual melody. I could have picked any song on this album, because I love them all, but I thought it was appropriate given the memorial status this album has, to pick the very last song J Dilla put on vinyl. ·        

The Smiths/A Rush and a Push and the Land is Ours -         

Sirventes – Using the classic structure of British Invasion rock yet infusing it with witty and often blackly comic lyrics, the Smiths used the trappings of their musical forebears to create engaging and well-crafted music that undermined and mocked just as much as it attempted to create catchy and melodic songs. If this dichotomy sounds familiar, it’s because many scholars such as Nichols saw in the crusade lyrics of troubadours such as Bertran de Born. Additional means of comparison are found in the fact that this song uses the metaphor of crusading to make its point about the impossibility of love. “The land that we stand on is ours and it shall be again” – to move from here to the papal justification for crusades is merely to translate the sardonic edge of the Smiths into the religious fervor of the 12th century. And much like Bertran de Born in poems such as, “Bem platz lo gais temps de pascor”, the Smiths do not mince their words for those that “are uglier than you and I.” ·        

Lord Huron/I Will Be Back One Day -         

The Unrepentant Crusader – Marisa Galvez describes the voice of the crusader in troubadour lyrics as unrepentant with regards to religious penitence. Instead, the troubadour “avoids this confession and established his penitential intention through the remembrance of the lady.” (116) This use of remembrance as apology is seen in this song, which focuses on the return home to a lover. Despite the singer’s absence, the call is not for absolution, but reconciliation. Secure in the knowledge that he will be back, he can appeal to the lady herself, a “personalized avowal” that “valorizes and authorizes.” ·        

Billy Bragg/Must I Paint You A Picture -         

Fin’amor – Fin’amor, the concept of honest or pure love for someone in troubadour lyric, is one for which the adage ‘the proof is in the pudding’ was written. Differentiating between the righteousness of fin’amor and the deception of fals’amor is largely of interpreting tonal and linguistic declarations by the speakers of the lyric. There is no ambiguity in Bragg’s paean to his lover. The strength of feeling are such that he can only think to express them in art, to give a new dimension to that which words cannot express. In doing so, he creates a touching tribes that accurately restates the values of fin’amor in a modern context. ·        

Jamie T/Jilly Armeen -         

Vollzug – Kuhn describes the nature of Vollzug as the act by which a troubadour attempts to bring about erotic consummation between subject and object. With that in mind, this song is perhaps a Halbzug, to follow Kuhn’s us of German terminology. However, the aspect of unrequited and indefinitely separated love is prevalent throughout this song, as Jamie reflects on the fact that he can only speak of his love under pseudonym. The aching loneliness that pervades this song pervades much of troubadour lyric as well – to see a consummated relationship would be to undermine Minnesang as there would be no goal left to achieve. 

dd elle/kind 2 u -         

Mezura – Simon Gaunt defines mezura as “self-discipline, the ability to moderate one’s passions.” The slightly chaste nature of dd elle’s song mimics this act of linguistic self-control on the part of the singer. To put it very simply, the fact that the singer is faced with behaviour that “turns me on”, he decides only to be “kind to you/” In doing so, he replicates the dilemma faced by troubadours of old – the acceptance of erotic fixation while maintaining a modicum of courtly reserve. ·        

U.S Girls/the boy is mine -         

Translation – Pound’s translations take existing troubadour lyrics and recreate them with a new philological persona – in Pound’s case this is the association of crusade lyrics with religious ecstasy. Here, Meghan Remy of U.S Girls embarks on a similar sort of narrative re-fashioning. Covering Brandy and Monica’s ‘The Boy is Mine’, she turns the brooding R&B hit into something much darker, with malice teetering at the edge due to the minimalist instrumentation and dark vocals. While the lyrics (text) remain the same, the character (spirit) of the piece is irrevocably changed. Pound would be proud. 

Har Mar Superstar/Restless Leg -         

Guilhem IX – I highly recommend looking up Har Mar’s Wikipedia page. Doing so makes my description of him as an ‘erotic bard’ make sense. HE takes on the mantle of Guilhem IX, as his songs generally portray him as someone who constantly has a lot of ‘horses in his stable’, to take from Guilhem’s lyrics. Restless Leg, especially, with its portrayal of someone who cannot remain in one place for long, has all the trappings of Guilhem’s unique brand of debauched eroticism. ·        

Parquet Courts/Outside -         

Melodic simplicity – Using Falck’s guide as a resource once again, it seems evident that contrafactum abounded in the medieval era as a result of the relative simplicity of melody. Therefore, I wanted to include a song that touched on the loss of love (a thematic concern of the troubadours) that also was very basic in melodic structure. Outside has the same riff for much of its two minute running time. It’s also taken from one of my favourite albums of the year, and speaks to the ways we reconstruct ourselves following the dissolution of a relationship. ·        

Arthur Russell/ I Forget and I Can’t Tell -         

Joi et joven - Sometimes you just want to put a happy song that you love on a playlist. The fact that this song happens to be about the sweetness of the first inklings of love and possesses the simple refrain of “Your light is so bright” is just an added bonus. Nothing captures the poetic wonders of finding the ‘joi’ in a relationship better than this song. ·        

Deer Tick /Twenty Miles -         

Pastourella – The entire lyrics to this present a singer who will travel across the desolate landscape in order to reconcile with his lover. We could consider this an inverted pastourella as it makes the landscape barren rather than idyllic, but the essential linguistic gambit is the same. Invoking the concept of the ode, Deer Tick creates a ballad that valorizes a country girl who means so much to the singer that he would travel across all the wilds of the desolate South. Only the nature of the landscape differentiates it from something like Marcabru’s “A la fontana.” ·        

Father John Misty/I Went To The Store One Day   -         

Troubadour - More than anyone else, Father John Misty was the inspiration for this project. That’s why he opens and closes this playlist. A quick perusal of the reviews of his last album, I Love You, Honeybear, reveals that an assortment of music publications described him or his music as ‘troubadour’ or ‘troubadour-like.’ Why? The answer is seen here, in what I would consider the sweetest song on the album. A simple tale detailing how he met his real-life wife, the track leaves Misty’s vocals nearly bare, with only sparse instrumentation interceding into proceedings, in a matter akin to many of the recordings of troubadour lyrics that we have extant today. The lyrics are heartrending and entirely to do with that most troubadour of topics, the search for love. Finally, at the end of all these tales of lost loves and loves still to come that we’ve seen throughout this playlist, we find a troubadour with a happy ending. Like Guilhem IX 800 years before him, he finds himself reformed, giving up his wild ways in favour of “sentiment re: our golden years.”

Songs of Love and War: Gender, Crusade, Politics (Sp16-FEMGEN-205-01/FRENCH-205-01)
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