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Recording Trouvère Lyric in presentday NYC

For this post, I’ll begin by describing more broadly how I came to record these songs, and then focus in one one song in particular. I recorded these songs in New York City in my friend’s home recording studio (for some sessions we had to hang his comforter over the door; and for others take extra-long pauses in between takes to wait for the upstairs neighbors to settle down), but we were able to make some good recordings despite these issues.  To record each song, I began by looking at the melody and French translation of the text in Pierre Aubry and Joseph Bédier’s 1909 edition of trouvère song. Before I began learning the melodies, I chose the three stanzas of the poem I wanted to perform—always the first stanza (or exordium), and then two stanzas I felt created a contrast from that first verse and each other, and told the story of the poem even with a few gaps. I also included the tornadas at the end of each song if there were any, because they (as Peraino, Kay, and others have argued) often reflect a more “autobiographical” voice, and give some idea of location or historical patron.  After choosing the verses, I made a sheet music version of each song with the melody laid out between each verse. This made it much easier for me to see where melismas fell, and to understand how to emphasize the melody according to the natural textual emphases of the Old French. (These sheet music copies were also necessary for my recording technician, Joe, so he could put the songs back together after we’d recorded them). This way, I wasn’t figuring out text-setting while singing (which may have been a more natural way of performing these chansons, given how they are preserved in the chansonniers) and our recording sessions could be more efficient.  To work on my pronunciation of Old French, I listened to Margaret Switten’s The Medieval Lyric audio files, but I also relied on my work with Old Occitan both in the States (at Stanford and Columbia) and in the south of France (during my work and performances with the Troubadours Art Ensemble). In the end, of course, pronunciation of a medieval language is always subjective, and I tried to be as informed as possible while still making some artistic decisions of my own.  While recording the songs, I looked carefully at the themes and “general gist” of each stanza before deciding what emotion I wanted to portray. To convey these different emotions, I played around with musical elements like tempo (speed), articulation, rhythm (which is not notated in the manuscripts), dynamics (volume), and the stressing of certain words. I did this so that the performance of each song was interesting to the listener and had variety—and so that modern listeners who do not understand Old Occitan could perhaps understand a bit of the story these songs tell.  One of my favorite songs to perform and record was Marcabru’s “Pax in Nomine Domini.” I’ve listened countless times to Sandra Hurtado-Ros’s excellent recording with the Troubadours Art Ensemble, and upon reading the poetic text I decided I wanted my performance of the song to be different from hers. I like her reading of it very much, but wanted to try something different. Instead of the martial aspect of TAE’s performance, I focused on the devotional aspect of the first two stanzas I chose, and then moved to a feeling of warning and exhortation in the final stanza. The song has no tornada, so the final stanza is, in my performance, somewhat split—it moves from Marcabru’s condemnation of his French countrymen to a direct address to God, asking him to give peace to the soul of the count (possibly his patron). The rhythm in this performance is very free-flowing; I take my cues for that partly from the way the melody sounds to me, and partly from the types of emotional content I’m trying to express. Other songs (for example, “Chevalier, mult estes guariz”) I felt in a triple meter when I was singing through the melody. The text is also a call to arms for fighting in the Crusades, but the lyrics focus more on the bravery of the soldiers than on the failings of these soldiers to serve God well, so the triple meter (for me) implies motion and a rallying of the troops.  Anne Levitsky

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