Over the past two years, I’ve been listening to a lot of instrumental medieval music. Or, I should say, the modern interpretations of it. Several aspects of it attract me, especially the timbre of the instruments. I love the smoothness of the recorder and the fuzz of the hurdy-gurdy. The melodies have a pleasing purity that never fails to inspire me.
The appeal of such music to modern audiences comes as no surprise. To start, there is the visual attraction of exotic instruments and the costuming of conscientious performers who care enough to dress up. But at its root, much of the music is ultimately folk music, sharing the same basic sociology that has driven subsequent vernacular forms such as jazz and rock. The Salt Lake-based ensemble Dorian Mirth (formerly Vis Sit Tecum Musicorum) exemplifies this populist spirit. This self-described “Renaissance garage band” has been playing together since 2000 and performed at TheOneRing.net’s 2003 and 2004 Oscar parties in Hollywood. You can see pictures of Dorian Mirth wearing smashing costumes and getting cozy with movie stars and buy their album Pluck, Rattle and Blow (which reminds me somewhat of Atrium Musicae’s classic Musique Arabo-Andalouse) at their website: http://dorianmirth.com/
I discovered Dorian Mirth through Gina Strack (Webmistress, Publicity, Recorders, Percussion), who is a professional colleague of mine. She and two other members, Rachel and Melonie, graciously agreed to answer some questions about the group (regrettably, their director Kierstin was unable to take part). They cover diverse topics such as recording, performing, and web development. Oh, and where you can buy a crumhorn.
I’m curious about how you recorded your album Pluck, Rattle and Blow. What can you tell us about the process (choosing location, equipment, producers, etc.)?
Rachel: Our recording process was less about choice and more about what was available. My then-boyfriend, now-husband ran sound for live events at a theatre and we therefore used that space and equipment. He mixed our sound as well, being in a class at the time where he was learning ProTools. Our first album was a big learning experience for all, and by the time we started working on our second album, we had worked out a lot of kinks and even invested some funds in our own copy of ProTools so that Kierstin (director) and I (assistant director) could work on mixing the music at home. Sadly I moved away, with the program and my husband, before we could finish the second album. But it has always been the hope and intent to finish it some day.
We are self-produced. Too many people expect free or basically free music and we enjoy playing and therefore do it anyway, so it’s not a real source of income. We like to think of ourselves as a Renaissance garage band! Our CD has allowed us a small measure of income which helps pay for expenses such as the website.
Your website gives very gratifying detail into the history of your ensemble and biographical information about its members. Is there anything you want to tell us about the process of making and maintaining the website?
Gina: The evolution of the website parallels my own learning of HTML during much of the same time. I began with audiblebeauty.net in 2000 so that is why our first site was audiblebeauty.net/vissittecum (as Vis Sit Tecum Musicorum was our initial name). Registration of our own domain finally came in late 2003, with full hosting at that site in 2005. Since about that time, website design and updates are completed using Dreamweaver software for web pages, with photographs served through Gallery open-source software. We also use an internal wiki to track information and sell CDs along with costumes in the online store at our side business, Stitches of Mirth. It’s a learning process that will likely never end (a good thing).
A few of my questions deal with the challenges of getting together an ensemble like yours. I suspect that finding a music store that sells bass recorders, crumhorns, bowed psalteries, etc. might not be easy. Am I right? Are such instruments more available along the Wasatch Front due to its traditional/folk music scene?
Melonie: The internet has played a key role in our group for many reasons and one of them is instruments. We’ve purchased most, if not all, of our instruments online due to price and availability. Ebay has been a great resource (I recently purchased a Bass Recorder from Ebay!) but finding basic information about which instruments are the best quality for the price proves more difficult.
Rachel: Our ensemble may play 800-year-old music, but we are certainly modern in that all of our instruments were purchased online. Ebay got us started in a big way and is still the best place to go to find some of the more unusual instruments, such as krumhorns and our hurdy-gurdy. I believe the only instruments not purchased online were those that existed before the ensemble (Janette’s guitar), or before certain members joined (Cristine’s gamba). (Oh yeah, and Kierstin’s lute, which was purchased used from a sibling’s friend.)
Gina: Besides buying instruments online, the Internet also allows communities to form and for sharing information for such a niche interest.
Besides finding the instruments, was it challenging to get enough musicians together who are interested in early music? How much do you think your location has to do with it?
Melonie: I’m sure we all have something to say about this, but when Kierstin and Rachel approached me, it was more of, “hey we have been taking this really cool class and we thought it might be fun to try playing it in a group!” and I was all for it! For my part, I got involved in early music as an interesting and unique way to spend more time with my friends and have since fallen in love with the music and the historical aspect of it.
We are lucky enough to be a group with similar enough interests that almost all of our group wanted to be involved in some way.
Rachel: It has less to do with location and recruiting members than about old friendships. We began as a solid core of members, the same handful of people that hung out together, danced together, got excited about movies together, and enjoyed the arts together. Over the years people have come in and out of the group (including me) but we still love getting together and playing music! And we’re always thrilled when movies/books exist that promote activities which could use our music, such as LORD OF THE RINGS movie releases or HARRY POTTER book releases at the library, because then we get to combine two favorite passions: music and costuming.
Gina: Although somewhat interested in music all along, I did not pursue it in school such as with band or orchestra. So imagine my delight the day I realized that thanks to this group I could identify as “musician.” Above all though, the friendships cannot be topped!
Has anyone in the ensemble tried to find other like-minded musicians outside of the Wasatch Front?
Melonie: I wouldn’t say we actively pursued it, but as often happens in circles of interest, we have had many early music enthusiasts cross our path which has led to an interesting and exciting broadening of our circle and, consequently, our knowledge and love for the music and the instruments.
Rachel: Because we were formed AFTER friendship existed, and we grew and improved as a group, I have found it extremely difficult to find a similar group [now living in another state]. I have found the problem is finding a balance like ours: friendship first, supplemented by music and events and passion. Other groups I have found have been strictly professional or go to the other end of the spectrum and aren’t musically creative like Kierstin. She is truly the heart and brain of Dorian Mirth!
What can you tell us about the process of learning to play early music? Did it involve much research, or did you find enough teachers and previous work available that research wasn’t as necessary?
Rachel: Kierstin and I were lucky enough to have pursued music at a very early age, though our experimentation with early music didn’t begin until college when we took a recorder ensemble class together. After that, the fire was lit and opportunity led us toward regular gigs and a growing passion. Everyone in the group has had some kind of musical training, so it wasn’t hard to transition to ancient musical instruments. Most of our members are self-taught on these instruments.
Melonie: For my part, I just do whatever Kierstin, our director tells me to do. Occasionally, I have looked up books, YouTube videos and the like, but Kierstin (and Rachel when she still lived here) has been my main teacher.
Gina: I also generally do what Kierstin gives me in the form of arrangements and instrumentation. Sometimes we collaboratively decide such things, but I trust other people’s musical instincts very much.
What have been your most memorable performances?
Melonie: We have had so many! But I’d definitely have to say the Oscar Parties in Los Angeles were particularly memorable for the sheer scale of the events. However, The Highland Games at Thanksgiving Point remain some of my favorite gigs.
Rachel: The HARRY POTTER book release party at the library sticks out in my mind because it was the last big gig I was a part of (by “big gig”, I mean one that involved months of preparation, including elaborate new costumes). Such well-planned events are always what stay with me, so obviously those events which involved costumes and road trips (LORD OF THE RINGS parties and conventions) will always hold a special place in my heart.
Gina: There was so much excitement and drama surrounding our appearances with the Oscar Parties, it was almost overwhelming and nearly impossible to top (not to mention providing some excellent bragging rights). Overall, we’ve had such great opportunities to meet other people with similar interests, whether it be film or kilts.
For the LDS band members (and anyone, really): how does your faith influence your musical activity?
Melonie: We are lucky in the LDS culture that music is encouraged and therefore we have had ample opportunities to play for meetings as well as weeknight activities. Having been raised in a home where music was a vital part of our lives also helped because I had a basic musical knowledge and some performance experience.
Rachel: It has long been my feeling that being religious and being spiritual are not the same thing. Music has the power to move all, no matter what beliefs are held by the listener. That is its power: it’s a universal language.
Gina: I have long connected best with faith through music, either in sublime melodies or words that say it just right. It has been nice, especially lately, to stay in practice by playing musical numbers and in other activities in between the “big” events.
Does your religion have a bearing on your choice of music, or is it personal taste?
Melonie: What we play is decided based on the gig. At the Scottish Festival/Highland Games, for example, we play a lot of traditional Scottish music with some Medieval or Renaissance music thrown in. Much of the music that still exists from the Medieval and Renaissance eras is religious in nature already, and there is rarely a conflict of morals.
Although, there is often a temptation to play some of the more bawdy drinking songs simply because they are lively and fun. We just don’t sing those songs so the audience doesn’t know what we’re really playing!
Since I was in high school, I have been involved with a sizeable LDS subculture of medievalist interests, creative anachronism, speculative fiction, etc. What has been your experience with this?
Melonie: We have played a few gigs with the SCA (the Society for Creative Anachronism), but apart from being friends with some SCA fencers, we haven’t really been part of it, or anything like it.
Gina: We’ve connected with some SCA folks over the years, but never became active. There aren’t really organized Renaissance fairs in our immediate area, either. Much of our interest in popular franchises (speaking for myself mostly) is not along traditional lines of fandom. However, this does not preclude many individual people that have become friends of one sort or another who could very easily be involved in any or all of these areas.
What plans do you have for the future?
Melonie: We are always willing and excited to work on new music, but with our current situations in life, the occasional gig is certainly sufficient.
Rachel: Get the next CD done, work toward the next Scottish Festival, and wait an agonizing two years until THE HOBBIT!
Gina: As the Webmistress, I’m hoping to redesign our site (when doing some recent tweaks, I was shocked at what I now know in coding). Plus, I want to try to get us more into the web 2.0/social networking world. To be honest though, I STILL don’t get Twitter.