by Mike Telin
Like many of us, Benjamin Bagby first encountered the epic Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf during junior high school. A few years later, Bagby became fixated with the sound of medieval music. And as he writes on his website, “The Anglo-Saxons would say that this was simply my wyrd (personal destiny).” This weekend, Apollo’s Fire will present three performances of Beowulf performed by singer/storyteller and medieval harpist Benjamin Bagby, beginning on Friday, November 13 at 8:00 pm at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Cleveland Heights. See our concert listings page for additional times and locations.
“Humankind has always been fascinated with tales of man over monster,” Bagby said during a telephone conversation from his home in Paris. “It’s an archetypical story that still fascinates us today.” The fact that a new Star Wars film is about to be released supports Bagby’s thoughts.
Although the poem contains 3,182 verses — which would take roughly five hours to perform, Bagby’s recitation of Beowulf lasts slightly over 90 minutes. Bagby was quick to point out in our conversation (edited version below) that if people are unfamiliar with the tale, or with Anglo-Saxon English, they need not be afraid.
Mike Telin: How do you suggest people prepare to hear your performance of Beowulf if they are unfamiliar with the story?
Benjamin Bagby: It’s pretty simple in that it doesn’t involve learning any history. It’s a straightforward tale of a warrior band that is haunted by a monster (Grendel) who attacks them and eats them. This story reaches another country where there’s a young hero (Beowulf) looking for glory. He comes with his men and vows to fight the monster and does so. (Read a synopsis of the plot here)
During the performance there are video titles of a modern English translation, so it’s a painless affair for the audience because they don’t have to follow along with a libretto and a translation.
MT: Obviously you’re not using the translation of the story that you and I read as young teenagers. What guided you when creating this translation?
BB: I wanted it to be clear and succinct. Many translations come with agendas — they want to be as much like the original as possible. I wanted the translation to be as neutral as possible, just giving the actual content of what’s being said so that people who are reading it are not also being influenced too much by the words. They are simply taking in the information — what’s this person saying right now, what’s happening to this guy right now.
MT: How did you go about creating the music?
BB: The process began with the six-string harp that I use, which is the keystone to the whole project. We know that the storytellers in Anglo-Saxon England used such instruments, so the first question to answer was how was it tuned and how was it played, and what sort of role does it play with the singer. The only way to find that out was to have one built. It was a very long process because nobody had ever done that kind of work before. I couldn’t build on any previous studies. (Bagby worked with Vermont harp-builder Lynne Lewandowski to create the harp)
The tuning of the instrument is essential. There are numerous tunings possible, but not infinite. With a lot of trial and error I came upon a group of six or seven tunings which are highly possible for this instrument. I would be very willing to stake my reputation on these tunings being known in Anglo-Saxon England.
MT: How do you describe the vocalizations you’ll be using during the performance?
BB: Sometimes I choose to sing. I sometimes choose to speak, and sometimes I choose to use other vocal techniques. There’s an enormous gradation of vocal use between speech and sound. What we call singing is something that’s very fixed in our minds, and what we call speaking is also something very fixed in our minds. But for a storytelling culture there’s an enormous spectrum between singing and speaking.
I was interested in exploring all of that, and as the performance goes more into singing, these six tones on the instrument begin to play an important role. I don’t think of the vocal lines as melodies that I have worked out and written down. I never used any music paper for this project — it was all done with the text and the instrument only. In a way some of the singing is just chanting, in a way it’s modified chanting, in a way it’s kind of a pentatonic melody, although they weren’t thought of as pentatonic in the Middle Ages. And they’re always varied. There’s never an absolute melody that I’m using. It’s a series of tones that are endlessly varied and recombined.
MT: Do you decide all of this in the moment?
BB: Yes, but sometimes I don’t even decide in the moment, it just comes out. I’m in an oral tradition in a way, and I have certain ways of reacting to certain situations, which are 90% of the time going to be the same, but there’s always that 10% margin where something might go in a very different way from how I had performed it previously. For instance I’ll have three performances in Ohio, and probably those three performances will be rather similar but in a margin of ten or fifteen percent depending on how I feel, and what the hall is like. There are lots of factors.
MT: Would you call what you do improvisation?
BB: Not really. I have fixed models, and a lot of improvisers do have models that they can count on — and then they can depart from. Moving from “A” to “B” is a kind of free-fall moment which can be done this or that way. So in that sense it has an improvisatory character.
MT: I understand that you worked with an Anglo-Saxon scholar from the University of Missouri at Columbia to learn the language: was that difficult?
BB: It’s quite a difficult language. It has a lot in common with German, with English, with other Germanic languages, but it has a much more complex grammar than modern English. The vocabulary is a little bit similar. Of course modern English has tons of romance language influence thanks to the Normans, but Anglo-Saxon is from before that period. It’s strictly a Germanic language.
MT: Was there ever a point when you felt like giving up on the project?
BB: Not really. The great thing about the text of the Beowulf story — which only survives in one manuscript — is that it’s fantastically well-crafted. It’s one of those texts where you’re always discovering something new. I’ve performed it many times and I’m always stumbling on a new discovery. I’m in awe of the craftsmanship that went into the making of this text.
MT: What is known about the origins of the text?
BB: There are theories, but my own feeling about this, and it’s a feeling more than a knowledge, is that there probably were several different Beowulf stories circulating all around northern Europe in the early middle ages. It’s a fairly straightforward monster-hero-old king story. But this particular version just happened to have been written down at a time when writing was not so common. Everything was in an oral tradition. But for whatever reason, a monk or monks somewhere decided that this was a poem that merited being put in a manuscript, which meant that it had somebody’s approval in the church. It has Christian elements in it, which could have been added later.
It could be a heathen poem, which was kind of reshaped as a Christian poem. In a way it’s both. Christianity and paganism existed side-by-side. That question is never going to be solved, but what’s true is that thanks to the Christian scriptoria we have this manuscript, otherwise it probably would have disappeared along with thousands of other stories that we don’t have today because they died out over time.
Published on ClevelandClassical.com November 10, 2015.
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