The Black Dragon: Music from the Time of Vlad Dracula, the title of Canconier’s Sunday evening concert at St. Alban’s Church in Albany, may strike some readers as being less about the richness and diversity in sounds from 15th- century Eastern and Central Europe and the Balkans than as a vague memory of Bela Lugosi intoning, to the accompaniment of a wolf howling, “Children of the Night! What music they make!”
And maybe it’s a little bit of both that the virtuosic medieval music quartet has in mind, as Canconier co-founder and multi-instrumentalist Tim Rayborn explained with humor and erudition, speaking both about the historical figure every vampire story’s been grandfathered on, and the extraordinary array of music they’ve come up with to celebrate Vlad the Impaler.
“Vlad achieved a horrible reputation as being a human monster in his own lifetime,” Rayborn said, “but was seen by the Hungarian court and the Holy See as a shining example of a Christian crusader against the Turks. He’s still considered a national hero in Rumania. The legends come in part from German propaganda of the time, the Germans and Austrians being political enemies of Hungary. We’ll bookend the concert with selections from a poem of the 1460s, ‘The Study of a Bloodthirsty Madman,’ a propaganda piece, the first account we know of Vlad from outside Eastern Europe, set to contemporary German music—a technique of the period, ‘counterfacting,’ setting a new poem to existing music. Part of it will be narrated in English, so the audience can revel in the lurid details.”
He continued: “But we’ll also play Guillaume Dufay’s ‘Lamentation for the Fall
of Constantinople’—Guillaume, Franco-Flemish by birth, was the most important French composer of the first half of the 15th century—plus Byzantine court music, Ottoman classical music, Italian and German dances, Balkan and Moldavian folk songs and an example of Orthodox chant-ing still sung in the Greek tradition. The only thing we don’t include is Romany, music of the gypsy people—whom we know Vlad persecuted!—but for whom there’s no documented music before the 18th-19th centuries ... All this—‘Music of Vlad’s World,’—for a Wallachian nobleman, whose own brother had embraced Islam and served the Sultan, a convert to Catholicism from Orthodoxy to persuade the Papacy and Hungary to outfit his brief return to power, before being killed in battle—who didn’t employ a musician as far as we know!”
The “Black Dragon” of the concert title refers to the crusading order Vlad’s father belonged to, “Dracula” meaning “son of the Dracul,” the dragon. One of the historical figures whose work is represented in Canconier’s show was also a member of the Dracul and may have known Vlad’s father.
Rayborn spoke of the “great fun” Canconier had rehearsing the “diverse material, in many different styles of instrumentation and voice-instrument combinations” for the concert, which will feature “over a dozen different instruments, crazy ones most people haven’t seen, like the citole, a kind of medieval guitar; a medieval bell tree, just arrived from Germany—and a tromba marina, ‘trumpet marine,’ a long tube with a single string. There’re 15th-century portraits of angels playing it, the cylinder played with a bow, a movable wooden bridge—a buzzy, drone-y sound like a hurdy-gurdy, but if the player knows how to work the overtones by touching the string, does sound like a trumpet! It went the way of the Dodo.”
Canconier was founded by Rayborn and recorder virtuoso Annette Bauer, who first met in 2003, forming the “early music kind of super-group” in the summer of 2008 after “jamming a little, to see what would happen—and it was musical love at first sight.” The other members are singer Phoebe Jertovic and bowed strings player Shira Kammen, though the ensemble remains flexible as duo or quartet.
Canconier’s name is from Occitan for “songbook”—chansonnier in northern France—a collection of songs both secular and sacred, so “a modern medieval songbook.”
The group is medieval ensemble-in-residence at Music Sources, The Center for Historically Informed Performances, in Berkeley. Our concerts aren’t just concerts,” Rayborn said. “We like to talk about the music, during and afterwards, and have fun, with humor—and lots of bad jokes!”
Rayborn, who joked about the “depressing themes” of the ensemble’s premiere concert, entitled “A Time of Wars, Plague and Death,” also mentioned a more visual—and perhaps culinary—tribute to the grisly memory of Vlad, who impaled thousands of Turks in the path of the Sultan’s invading army, “a cork board, with gummy bears impaled on toothpicks,” a belated treat—or trick—or maybe just the strangest altar for Dia de los Muertos, dedicated to the memory of a Wallachian torturer.
THE BLACK DRAGON: MUSIC FROM THE TIME OF VLAD DRACULA
7 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 15,
St. Alban’s Church, 1501 Washington St. (off Solano Ave.), Albany.
at Music Sources, 528-1685.