Some of you may know I took a shot at college back in the day; there was a State University out there somewhere that decided what the hell and gave me a chance. That was their mistake, and not mine, since they accepted me primarily on the strength of a five-page essay I wrote about Crimson & Clover and not on my actual intellectual abilities, which - according to my exasperated guidance counselor - were poor. My high school was so shocked that I made it to graduation day that they didn't even give me a cap and gown; instead, I received my diploma in my Papa Gino's Pizza uniform and went back to work.
So the fine University folks really took a chance on me, even going so far as to provide me with "food" and set me up with a cot in a cozy little dorm room. The place was full of amenities; it had an outlet where you could charge your phone, and was near a shower that could double as a toilet. Our spot even had a window that you could crack open about an inch when things really started to smell bad.
But don't get the idea that College was just some kind of extended vacation. The atmosphere was intensely scholastic and there was always some serious studying to be done, especially in valuable electives like Gravity Bongs 101 and Intermediate Talking With The Police. After long nights in the library mainlining coffee, I would have to drink an equivalent amount of cheap red wine just to sleep all afternoon.
It was intense, and I was unprepared for the academic rigors. So in my second semester I took a step back and decided to take a few classes outside of my major. And that's how I ended up in Music Appreciation - a course that I was disappointed to learn was not Beatles-focused. In fact, we didn't talk about rock and roll music at all; instead, I would have to march down to the lecture hall at 9 o'clock in the morning and join an audience the size of a small city in a linear discussion of pre-classical.
There ended up being a whole hell of a lot of critical writing on medieval music. It was pretty easy to get into the spirit of it, back at my dorm, when the school forgot to pay the power bill and I had to write about Gregorian chants by the light of a Yankee Candle - but at the end of the course I realized that I hadn't actually internalized anything. Pre-classical music was pretty impenetrable stuff, mostly commissioned by the church for liturgical services, and our modern understandings of dynamics (or guitar solos) simply did not exist. Sheet music was originally developed more as a visual art than a guide for musicians, and anyways for hundreds of years a lot of Western music was primarily a capella. So, even when these dudes finally got around to picking up a lute and flute, no one was sure exactly what it really sounded like in terms of tempo and timbre. The idea of rhythmic intention is actually a fairly recent musical development.
There are libraries full of medieval musical notations and manuscripts, and a lot of doomed nerds have made it their mission to make sense of it all. This was pretty difficult stuff to me when I was a college freshman. To make matters worse, the lecture was so early in the morning that I often still had a purple mouth from the previous night's Bacchanal.
So it was on a wild hair that, at my local coffee shop a few years later, I picked up In A Medieval Garden: Instrumental and Vocal Music of the Middle Ages and Renaissance by Stanley Buetens Lute Ensemble. Please do not rush out to Etsy to try and find a Stanley Buetens Lute Ensemble tour t-shirt; as far as I can tell, this is the group's only credit.
In A Medieval Garden was released on Nonesuch Records in either 1966 or 1967, which makes sense because the only time this kind of music had a market large enough to justify making a compilation was during the Free Love Era. I imagine that thousands of stoned twenty-year-olds bought this record in the bargain bin alongside The Exciting Sounds of Milt Raskin as insurance against a bad LSD trip, played it once, and then left it to languish for decades before sending it on its final flea-market journey.
It's sad, and universally true, that this is the fate of mid-century bargain records. Especially sad because this record is actually pretty cool. Not, like, discovering a new garage band whose tracklist acrostically spells out the word F-U-C-K cool, but I was surprised at how engaging this record is at first listen. Especially since I kind of bought it as mood music for the coming spring. Remember: I paid one crisp dollar bill for this.
The music is from the 13th, 14th, and 15th centuries. The instrumentation itself leans a lot closer to the Renaissance period than the Medieval, and the liner notes admit that there were a lot of artistic liberties taken in the actual making of it for the reasons I discussed above. Scholars took clues from visual art and poetry to try and figure out how these pieces worked together.
But dwelling on scholarship and speculation is not our goal here. The music is extremely mannered and formal in the same fashion that a lot of good elevator music is - there's something about the recordings that have an elemental, timeless beauty. It's probably a cop-out to say something like the combination of notes lift this record out of mediocrity, but it's true: a lot of these songs drift between ancient and modern just by virtue of their melodies, which sometimes suggest the middle ages, and sometimes suggest 19th- and 20th-century folk music. It's actually really nice listening, above and below the surface. Especially the final track, "Adieu m'amour, adieu ma joi," which, based on the title, is not religious music at all but is nonetheless played solemnly, with a churchly quietude.
And the best thing is you're just gonna have to take my word for it, or drop by the Bird Cave one of these days to play it over some Banquets, because none of it is on YouTube.
This record by the Stanley Buetens Lute Ensemble was found at Crackskull's Coffee and Books in Newmarket, NH