Interview by Xavier Julien-Laferrière:
Violinist of "Orchestre philharmonique de Radio France," Artistic Director of "Festes Baroques en terre des Graves et du Sauternais," professor of "Francis Poulenc / CRR" conservatory in Tours
• In most notarized registrar's there are no traces of music. How do we know that it was also sung (of oral tradition), through the form of the poems? Trough ancient testimonies?
Murmur Mori: The poems we have set to music, taken from the notarial registers of Bologna, have been transcribed by the notaries and come complete of the caption “ballata” or “cantilena” written on their side. Despite the lack of musical notation, it is therefore certain that they were sung and set to music. For other lyrics, on the other hand, it is evident from the graphic signs that we find on the text, as in the case of the reprise of the ballata "Pur bii del vin, comadre", where graphic signs indicate the beginnings of the stanzas and consequently where the refrain is to be placed. The lyrics (canzoni, sonnets and tensos) contained in the Vatican Latin manuscript 3793, which is in fact defined as a songbook despite the lack of musical notation, were almost certainly performed with musical accompaniment. In reconstructing music, the meter of a poetic text indicates its musical character. For example, the ballata, linked to convivial situations in which one participated by dancing, with lyrics performed in the vernacular already existed in the thirteenth century and these lyrics are proof of this. In addition to this, what indicates their folk / popular nature is also the historical context. Performances by singers and jongleurs were the order of the day in the squares, as evidenced by the municipal statutes of Bologna from 1288; precisely the same period of the ballatas contained in the libri memorialium. In those years, the Lauda Spirituale was born, a sacred music and poetic form in the style of the jongleurs, to spread, using the vernacular of the people, religious themes.The most profane compositions wanted to be eliminated from the squares because singed loud over the voices of preachers who preached the word of God devoutly and remaining unlistened, precisely in the statute of 1288 are named and banned French singers who performed the lyrics of courtly love and the chanson de geste (which were well loved and understood by the Italian people of the communes and whose direct legacy will be found up to the beginning of the 1900s in Sicilian cantastorie's performances). Daily life in the medieval period took place mainly outdoors and work activities, including notaries' desks, were located on the street, often under the portici (covered walkways) still present in many medieval cities such as Bologna. This is the possible origin of some of the Bolognese vernacular poems of 1200 that notaries have transcribed in their registers by listening to them directly from the source. As happened for the cantus planus, the oral tradition was the only means of transmission of the songs, just as it happened for the popular folk songs of the spontaneous singing tradition of the XIX-XX century before the advent of audio recordings and ethnomusicology studies. The 13th-century notaries who had access to writing acted also as researchers, collectors of stories and poets to leave memory of those songs. We therefore know that many of the poems that have been written in notarial registers are the only testimonies we have of the oral tradition. The poems contained in these documents are often simply noted down in the form defined by paleographers as "trace", that is, as notes unrelated to the content of the manuscript or document, for example a written in vernacular in the margin of a page that contains a Latin text, a written that appears on purpose by the same hand but in a different direction or position, etc ...The case of the Bologna Memoriali is different because the poems are perfectly paginated within the books with the same care and graphic style as the notarial deeds; in fact, the culture of notaries, unlike the mysterious one of traces, shows a true awareness of wanting to pass on the vernacular poetic heritage. Notaries were the first to be mediators between the written culture and the spoken language of the people, having to draw up deeds and contracts for the people and having to transcribe their declarations in their spoken vernacular. This certainly led them to better understand the poetic forms that developed in vernacular songs and among popular street jongleurs, also to appreciate them and maybe then transcribe them as happened in many notarial deeds throughout medieval Italy, which continue to be the richest sources of poetic writings in the vernacular. In the Bologna Memoriali there are also author's poems such as Dante's, whose poems were sung by court musicians, street musicians or by the people. In a famous short story written by Franco Sacchetti, Dante Alighieri is horrified and explodes in a fit of anger when he hears his verses sung to the rythym of anvils by a blacksmith who could not remember the words perfectly and was misquoting it. In the notarial registers there are also poems in the vernacular written by notaries themselves, being the most famous poets of the Italian Middle Ages also notaries such as: Giacomo da Lentini, Bonagiunta Orbicciani, Francesco da Barberino, Brunetto Latini, Lapo Gianni, Jacopone da Todi, Rinaldo d'Aquino and many more... The notary poet, or who preserves poetry, is a peculiarity born in the shadow of the medieval Italian communes. Notaries have transcribed, as Giosuè Carducci stated, those poems that were best known and passed from mouth to mouth, and therefore that were certainly sung. Trying to reconstruct the sound of the poems, restoring voice and music to what is now only considered a chapter of literary history, is the primary objective of the Murmur Mori project. Even the metric forms show us where there is a sonnet or where a ballata, that musicality and written poetry went hand in hand in the squares of Italy. Another linguistic indicator lies in the fact that the presence of group dance is reiterated within most of these same texts, eg: carola, rota …
• How you choose the "invented" form of the music compared to the "authentic" text?
Murmur Mori: The first investigation to be done in order to reconstruct a melody is to locate the period and the writing area of the text. Subsequently approach it to melodies of the interested area that have come down to us, whether they are melodies taken from manuscripts of the Italian area, or traditional melodies of more recent centuries. In popular and traditional music ways of performance and musical execution often survive long period times and those can help us imagine different performative ways.
We must be careful not to continue a performative interpretation that is too tied to the forms that have now become the canon of the interpretation of medieval music, since this use is creating a separate tradition that is based on stylistic and musical choices that are often derived from nineteenth-twentieth century interpretative canons, and we believe that without the knowledge of folk / traditional performance methods, the reconstruction of medieval popular music tends to become something other than how it was practiced, listened to and lived during the Middle Ages. An emblematic example of how a composition can be misunderstood and dogmatised in a musical practice that does not belong to it is the famous "Tarantella del Gargano", actually a sonnet by the Apulian musician Andrea Sacco "Accomë j'eia fa 'p'ama' sta donnë ”, Sung by him and played on a chitarra battente. His composition was performed in front of Alan Lomax who recorded it in the 1950s. The original recording, splendid, is Andrea Sacco's desperate voice accompanied by a pressing and gloomy guitar. This composition has been revived over time by various "educated folk" revivalists and classical musicians who have arranged it to such an extent that today it is still often mistakenly considered a baroque composition of the 1600s! Another thing to consider when composing or reconstructing a melody is the word itself, as it is the main musical source of a text without musical notation. Every language and every dialect have accents and cadences that directly show their rhythm and musical intent. Pronouncing the words is the first step, identifying the dialectal form and making parallels with the still existing dialects, which in Italy are still widely spoken and in traditional and popular music used exclusively. The metre of the poem can suggest us how the language was pronounced and performed, it is important to take into account the narrative will of these texts, this serves to create a way of performing the lyrics that is as faithful as possible to the words, to their musicality, to what they want to convey emotionally and tell the public. We therefore try to combine both suggestions, those of Italian melodies of the historical period of the poem under examination, and the music modalities of traditional music, creating a melody that can be historically sensible for the text. From medieval sources we take the data, the story, the metre and we learn the melodic forms on which to elaborate music. By combining historical information with geographical ones, we can, through miniatures and other testimonies, understand which musical instruments to use so that they are suitable and plausible for the historical context of the text. From popular music instead we take the rhythms, the vocal approach, the modal scales. Medieval melodies come to us from manuscript sources. Popular performances from old field recordings or from direct knowledge of folk songs that we are lucky enough to be able to experience and participate in here in the Alps, where many elderly people often meets for singing old songs in the baite (lodges).
• What is your composition process? From simple melodies that still circulate in folk music? Completely invented?
Murmur Mori: There are melodies that we use as a model and starting point on which to create something new, for example we know that Adam de la Halle in "Le Jeu de Robin et Marion" used popular melodies of his time, moreover he wrote the opera while he was at the court of Naples. The manuscript that contains the Carmina Burana circulated in Italy in 1200 or 1300 and we know it because it contains texts that have traces of the Friulian language, so some of those goliardic music can be a good basis for reconstructing the sound of a satirical or bacchic song. Then we have saltarelli and dances, and the lyrics that we have set to music often emphasize the presence of dance performed outdoors. From this historical basis we compare the closest practices, from musical accompaniments to the circular dances of the Sardinian ballu tundu to traditional spontaneous singing. Improvisation plays a key role because we unfortunately weren't able to be physically present in the Middle Ages to hear these performances, it is a matter of reconstructing that music using all the data we have, selecting them as correctly as possible and performing them in the most natural way possible, with the more plausible choices. Obviously popular and traditional music has changed over time, but there are forms that have remained atavistically the same and recur, such as the modal nature of spontaneous chanting where it is not accompanied by instruments, accompanying oneself when singing with a string instrument or drums and tambourines to accompany dances or attract the attention of the audience. It is about reconstructing the situation or feeling as close as possible with the historical and musical data we have.
• How do you choose the musical instruments?
Murmur Mori: In the beginning, it is good to contextualize the poem you want to set to music, what period is it from? Who wrote it? Where was it written? Once these questions have been answered, you can start to visualize the context in which it was performed based on the time and place. The geographical location certainly changes the rhythmic possibilities, the types of instruments used. From the North to the South of Italy there are great differences that we know both through the history of medieval instruments and iconography, and thanks to the heredity of traditional music, which reveals the sounds that have prevailed in the history of a place. On this basis we then choose how to arrange a song. The abundance of diversity inside Italian's languages goes hand in hand with musical differences, which can be seen changing according to the geographical area: musical instruments vary between North, Center and South, for example the rattle tambourines with the warm rhythms of Taranta, Pizzica or Tamorra are born in the South, if we go up from there we see a persistence of tambourines in the Center, and a much less important role in the North where instead we find more complex vocal traditions.
• We find your old albums, Radici, La Morte dell'Unicorno, Joi, Solatz e Dolor, more modern folk. What is your position know with that, do you still practise this repertoire?
Murmur Mori: No, that repertoire is no longer performed because both our instrumentation and our research fields have completely changed. The Murmur Mori musical and artistic project has always had a deep interest in the historical use of music as a vehicle for the transmission of information, basically storytelling. In 2015 Murmur Mori was born and the first step taken on this path brought us closer to the popular musical tradition. The cantastorie (storyteller / singer) has always been our guiding figure. The songs on the old records were a compendium of Italian stories, like that of Alaric and the Busento river, or legends and fairy tales like that of Colapesce, and folk tales figures as the Götwiarghini. All stories and the tales that were once recounted around the fire taken from: field recordings interviews of people, the collection of fairytales by Italo Calvino, legends set in poetry by pioneering medievalists such as Giosuè Carducci.
A jongleur in his time carried around the stories and tales that he could learn, to educate his audience on current affairs, narrate the epic deeds of an hero or teach a moral lesson. Approaching to compose a storyteller's repertoire we approach the musical and performative ways of popular music and we discover that the storyteller is a figure that has long survived in the Italian popular musical tradition, we have in the north the Milanese Barbapedana or the Sicilian storyteller figure, one of which we have a precious recording of Alan Lomax from 1950 in which he sings about Orlando and Rinaldo in a public square. These figures represent the direct descendants of medieval jongleurs, so our research has led us to dig even deeper to find out what the possible repertoire of a medieval giullare was, but returning to this figure the folk characteristic that distinguished him / her and that is often forgotten. The fact that performative modes considered heirs of the Middle Ages have survived in Italian popular music, also testified by their contents (the Carolingian cycle sung in a Sicilian square still in 1950!) prompted us to investigate medieval sources. What remains fundamental for us is that music can tell stories, in Italy the Renaissance is considered the highest and most culturally fertile moment, but if we knew more about the stories that the jongleurs of the 1200s sang around villages and cities, we are sure that the idea that most have of the Italian Middle Ages would be quite different. Fortunately, many contemporary historians are managing to correct and refute the erroneous opinions bounded to the very long Middle Ages, a work that Régine Pernoud had already started in France in the 40s, but there are still too many aspects that are not taken into consideration and that we can find in the stories that the vernacular poetry has handed down to us. The poetic texts were meant to be sung and it is necessary to do it again if we want to learn more about the lives, cultures and artistic ferment of the 12th-13th centuries in Italy. Since this is a field in which it is necessary to bring to light something forgotten, there in that historical period we are continuing to research.
• The duration of your CDs is relatively short, is it a natural choice?
Murmur Mori: In each CD we take the time we need, if we have a project in mind and some songs ready we go to record them without waiting to have a precise number or standard of audio reproduction. For example: we are now working on the new pieces that will be part of the new program, we are reconstructing two incomplete fragments of melody and love poetry from the late 1100s and mid-1200s and we are working on a document from 1240 from the Biblioteca Ambrosiana which contains a popular song, from the area around Piedmont and Piacenza, of extreme interest. A citole reconstructed on the basis of a bas-relief from the baptistery of Parma has also been added to our musical instruments. Not even for these new works we ask ourselves the problem of the possible duration, and we already have registration targets within the year (first recording session this october!).
• How do you explain that we can find everything on internet? How can you sell the Cd after that? What is your philosophy?
Murmur Mori: The Internet is something exceptional when used constructively. A phenomenal means of information and communication and should be used as such. Our idea is to keep the level of communication as high as possible, avoiding junk publications or personal thoughts that have nothing to do with our artistic project and our research. A means of exclusive professional use, which can bring benefits both to us and to the reader. Compared to record sales, the internet today is our main source of livelihood as if it were a gigantic and world record store, since we ourselves buy several CDs from the internet otherwise unavailable in the few remaining record stores, probably closed also due to the very low quality level of music offered.