quinta-feira, fevereiro 26, 2009

‘Beowulf’ comes to us in the mother tongue

‘Beowulf’ comes to us in the mother tongue
The Kansas City Star

How did they speak? How did they sound? How did they sing? And how did they make music?
Well, nobody knows for sure. But Benjamin Bagby thinks he comes close.
Bagby, you see, is drawn to music from a time before there was musical notation. Before written lyrics. Audiences can judge the result of his decades as a sort of cultural archaeologist Saturday when he performs “Beowulf” at Grace and Holy Trinity Cathedral.
Bagby, 58, performs the medieval epic about a Scandinavian hero in Old English (with super titles) and accompanies himself on a custom-made Anglo-Saxon harp modeled on surviving remnants of instruments played 1,000 years ago.
The harp he employs has six strings and spans an octave. The method of tuning and the style of playing are based on educated guesswork.
“It has its roots in my work in medieval music, which started in the late ’60s,” Bagby said from his home in Paris. “I was always interested in the re-creation of lost vocal forms and song forms and storytelling forms of the Middle Ages.”
Bagby said he began working on “Beowulf” in the early 1980s.
“I started with a very small scene of eight or nine minutes and worked on that for a couple of years,” he said.
In 1990 he was asked to perform a longer version of the piece.
“A festival in the Netherlands commissioned me to give a full evening of ‘Beowulf,’ ” he said. “It’s always been received rather well, but early on it was received with some consternation because they couldn’t follow the text.”
Bagby would include a modern English translation in the programs so that concertgoers could follow along, but it was easy for them to get lost. In 1999 he began providing the translation by video projection.
“It takes that burden off the audience,” he said. “That made the experience more immediate for the audience. It helped me too, because it changed my timing. The only guy who has to worry is the guy running the titles because he really needs to know where I am.”
Things usually run smoothly, he said, “unless I make a big mistake. Then things get a little dicey, but generally we can find each other again.”
Structuring the performance was the least of his challenges because the source material is so good. “Beowulf” in its original form exists in only one manuscript that is kept in a controlled environment in the British Museum.
“I didn’t have to do much work because whoever constructed this text — and it may have been more than one person, we just don’t know — (created) such a masterfully constructed piece. It’s so brilliantly put together, in terms of timing and dramatic tension. It’s really a first-rate bit of storytelling.”
But he had to learn Old English. He started with a bilingual edition of the book.
“It was a very strange edition, which had on one side the original and on the other a word-by-word translation,” he said.
“It makes for horrible reading, but I could study the original text and understand it as it would have been understood in the eighth or ninth century. But there are hundreds of translations in (modern) English, and they’re all a little wrong in their own way.”
The most famous in recent year was Nobel Prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney’s version, published in 2000.
“The Seamus Heaney is beautiful to read,” he said. “But it’s Seamus Heaney. One of the questions I’m asked is: What is your favorite translation? And my answer is: I don’t like any of them because I’ve always worked with the original.”
As he worked on the piece he consulted Old English experts, including John Foley, a professor in the English department of the University of Missouri in Columbia.
“I had to go back to school, basically,” Bagby said. “I found several experts in the Anglo-Saxon area who were willing to help me with this. These people tutored me. Although I speak German and can deal with Germanic languages, Old English is quite special.”
In the material Bagby found storytelling traditions that are still in use today.
“There’s a great deal of irony on the part of the storyteller,” he said. “There are places where I’m obviously the storyteller and I’m talking to the audience. There are those moments when I’m kind of looking at the audience and saying, ‘Well, just between you and me, this is the way it is.’
“At other times I’m various characters and sometimes it’s just a neutral description of what’s going on.”
He said the narrative also employs time in an interesting way.
“Time can pass quickly, it can pass very slowly, it can stop altogether,” he said. “It’s quite modern-feeling, to me at least.”
Bagby was born in Evanston, Ill., but his family moved to the Kansas City area when he was in junior high. They lived in Prairie Village and for two years Bagby attended Shawnee Mission East High School.
“I had some wonderful musical experiences in Kansas City,” he said. “There were some wonderful music teachers in those schools. They had fantastic music programs, at least they did in those days.”
He recalled that Shawnee Mission East had a “very ambitious choral program,” and one summer he attended a music camp in Lawrence. He eventually studied voice and German at Oberlin University.
As a medievalist, Bagby has worked on other early music and poetry forms.
“One of the big projects beginning in 2001 was a collection of Norse poems, which is in an Icelandic manuscript, which is called the Edda,” he said. “Most of our knowledge about the Norse gods and heroes comes from that manuscript.”
He and his ensemble, Sequentia, have performed some of the Norse material.
And then there’s the CD he released in Germany last year — “Fragments for the End of Time.” He said it’s a collection of “Old German and Old Saxon poems about the end of the world.”
“It’s lots of descriptions of how the world will end, how no one will escape judgment, and bribery won’t be an option any more, and the rich people will suffer just as much as the poor people.”
Bagby said the recording was unlikely to find a place on any music chart.
“Of course it’s a record with a very limited appeal,” he said. “We have no illusions that anyone wants to listen to it.”
the show The Friends of Chamber Music present Benjamin Bagby in “Beowulf” at 8 p.m. Saturday at Grace and Holy Trinity Cathedral. Tickets: $35; 816-561-9999;

FONTE (foto incluída): Kansas City Star - MO,USA

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