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A Medieval Christmas (Downe in the Heart of Texas) – The Curator

A Medieval Christmas (Downe in the Heart of Texas) – The Curator

I’ve been surrounded by musical varieties all my thirty-four years of life. My Dad performs piano and guitar, my Mother can do a stunning concord, my Grandfather was a Baptist minister of music, my Aunt sings a heat honey alto, one other Aunt and I share a genetic admiration for sure albums, and musicians have been all the time the boys to catch my eye. My associates are sometimes musical, too, or über-artistic, and thru a number of of those friends, I met Kemper Crabb a number of years in the past. I can truthfully say that I’ve by no means met anybody like him. His off-the-wall humorousness was fairly a shock to my shy little soul, he had a Gandalf-like demeanor (which might be a results of what number of occasions he’s learn The Lord of the Rings), and he all the time spoke knowledge like a sage. Moreover, he’s a local, die-hard Texan, an Episcopal priest, and a gifted instructor – fairly the all-around trendy Renaissance sort of man. I’m grateful that we’ve remained associates – largely as a result of, as destiny would have it, I met my drummer-husband by way of Kemper and one other scheming couple. Kemper’s been one among my biggest academics, altering my worldview for the higher, typically by recommending a implausible guide.

Again once I met Kemper, I used to be within the midst of a folk-only musical part, foaming on the mouth over the Indigo Women, Joni Mitchell, Lucy Kaplansky, Dar Williams, The Story, and so forth. Kemper’s music stopped me in my Birkenstocked tracks. There are ten albums in his discography, however my introductions have been The Vigil and A Medieval Christmas. I ought to have the ability to describe his style, but the music of Kemper Crabb is almost inconceivable to pin down. The Vigil, for example, is an idea album based mostly on a knight’s ritual of preparation, and probably his hottest album up to now (impressing the likes of Stevie Ray Vaughn). And I’ve lamely tried to categorise him: “artwork rock“, “previous world/new world”, “historic/future exotic-acoustic”, “head-spinningly eclectic.” You have to hear his music to know my dilemma, and by chance for you throughout this month of Creation, you simply can.

Simply within the nick of Christmas-shopping time, Kemper launched a DVD and CD entitled Downe in Yon Forrest: Christmas From the Center Ages – footage of a live performance filmed at Church of the Holy Apostles in Katy, TX, and its soundtrack. This festive challenge is a brand new, expanded association of his earlier album of holy-day hymns and carols (A Medieval Christmas). And, a model of Downe in Yon Forrest will air on PBS this month on choose stations nationwide. I’m fairly joyful about all of the hype as a result of I’ve attended a number of of his Medieval Christmas live shows through the years, and ignoring any private bias, I by no means discover the set listing to develop previous – a aid to my Muzak-saturated ears this time of yr.

Truly, there’s an upside to that annual, dreadful slaughter of excellent music in elevators and chaotic buying malls on the onset of Thanksgiving. The harmless melodies themselves are pretty, many written by inventive medieval people. Individuals from that point are sometimes branded as Darkish Aged dolts or dimwits in historical past books, but their songwriting experience is tough to disregard. We will’t assist however sing these songs each single yr, and few know that we’ve caroled with gusto and cheer for over a millennium. A few of these tunes have been written as early because the eighth or ninth century (and a few lyrics date all the best way again to the 4th century). As Kemper likes to say in live performance, “The medieval Christmas carols are the best hits of the Western musical canon.” In newer many years, numerous musicians have tried their hand at these beloved songs, too. I personal a combined bag of Christmas albums by Johnny Money, Over the Rhine, Emmylou Harris, and Sufjan Stevens, and as a lot as I am keen on them, Kemper’s tackle Christmas is one thing magical and multicultural, displacing our sense of time.

His present lineup is a black-clad troupe enjoying a motley crew of historic and trendy devices: Kemper, in fact (mountain dulcimer, recorder, mandolin, bazouki, vocals), Ryan Birsinger (bowed psaltery and harmonium), Garett Buell (tabla and numerous percussion), Christina David (violin), Frank Hart (cello, sitar, vocals), David Marshall (guitar, recorder, bazouki, mandolin), John Simmons (um, sure, an in depth relation; djembe, doumbek, shakers, vocals), and Chris Whittington (guitar, vocals). On the Downe in Yon Forrest DVD, this harmonious bunch carry out seated in a semi-circle, book-ended by percussion; spiritual icons and falling snow are interspersed with the reside footage.

The ringing doumbek kicks off “What Youngster is This”. That is one signature facet of Kemper’s imaginative and prescient – the percussion is outstanding, to mirror what this music may need appeared like on medieval streets, versus the extra refined courtly custom of the time. With tribal taste and a gypsy, raucous vibe, Kemper makes widespread songs new once more and restores reverence to age-old lyrics together with his clean, lilting tenor. Trendy takes on vintage preparations with riffs, Center Japanese drones, and satisfying, head-bobbing rhythms assist us to listen to that “music of the Center Ages was a fusion of (at the least) three main issues: Church music, Church chants, and indigenous European music with Muslim affect via the Crusades and centuries of commerce.” Singing in rounds and three- or four-part harmonies brings out the joyfulness and wonder that our Medieval brethren meant as they celebrated Christmastide on the Church calendar.

Apart from friendship and toe-tapping music, I’m ceaselessly grateful for Kemper’s historical past classes throughout every live performance. Historical past provides us course, and my religion is actually rooted within the historic. One other Kemper-proverb is, “When you don’t know the place you’ve come from, you can’t know the place you’re going.” That is the honest-to-God fact. But, all too typically, historical past books are dry and poorly written, a monotonous listing of dates as an alternative of the story of the individuals who got here earlier than. However creativity and educating are deep inside Kemper’s soul, and by incorporating audio and visible features, he provides us the most effective kinds of historical past classes and rollicking songs as well. Some years in the past, I may need mused that folks from the Center Ages have been simpletons, not almost as superior as we’re in 2008. Then I heard Kemper state in live performance, “I’m all the time amused by how superior moderns assume they’re when you think about that modernity gave us Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Mao Tse Tung, chemical warfare, nuclear weapons, organic weapons, and the abortion holocaust. Extra individuals died within the 20th century than had died in all the remainder of human historical past collectively.” He goes on to say that we will look to medieval society as one which self-consciously tried to duplicate what they believed to be the town of God on earth. They failed in fact, however “the autumn injects somewhat bone-headedness into the whole lot we [all] do.” My two cents is that I don’t see a lot structure similar to the Gothic cathedrals in Europe; not sufficient, anyway.

In as we speak’s America, there’s a longing for the lyricism discovered within the artistry of those hymns and carols. The very phrases train us fact, and why this season is celebratory in any respect. Commercialism has elbowed the sweetness out of December for many intents and functions. In my little suburb, for instance, probably the most hideous garden decor is propped up with satisfaction, and I’m speaking big, inflatable snow globes and Santa Tigger. You may see some kind of Nativity scene, however don’t rely on it. My husband and I gap up in our front room and order as many presents on-line as attainable in a determined try and not set foot in a mall filled with frantic, stressed-out consumers. I do consider giving packages tied up with string is a stunning image of the best present to our tradition, and to the world – a swaddled toddler Jesus, crying in full humanity whereas already King. However I feel gift-giving has now reached ridiculous proportions and misplaced the richness in simplicity and which means. Many individuals come to Kemper’s vacation live shows and discover a vapid gap crammed; a spot to take a seat, hear, see, study, and keep in mind that there are greater than sufficient days on this month, and lately are holy. The previous lyrics maintain us grounded in actuality, too; as Kemper says, “Our society is pretty unrooted, so lots of what’s pushed the return to Celtic and extra historic types of music is the will to sink into what we will conceive of as roots versus the infinite novelty.”

Good artwork speaks to individuals, regardless of the time interval. Bringing numerous parts collectively is a part of the cultural process of an artist in addition to making artistic works their very personal. I do know that, for me, the namesake of Kemper’s latest undertaking, the music “Downe in Yon Forrest”, is fascinating each single time. In some trendy circles it merely isn’t hip to say “I really like my Lord Jesus above something”, but I problem anybody to not discover that music beautiful. The lyrics are completely poetic and the musicians play in such a approach as to make my coronary heart ache with the sheer great thing about all of it, so lastly I simply requested Kemper, “Who wrote that tremendous music?” Sadly, the writer is unknown. It’s typically considered an Appalachian track, however one factor Kemper does know for sure is that the track is British, courting again to the late 1400’s or early 1500’s. A music by an unknown medieval songwriter continues to be common at the moment as a result of it was handed down from household to household, church to church, century to century, and historian to an avid reader (Kemper matches that invoice). As he performs these historic carols, we’re reminded that for all the great of up to date music – and there’s so much – we should not overlook the previous songs; it might be to our peril as a tradition.

The various instrumentation additionally opens our ears to cultures with which we is probably not acquainted. And since our relationship with the Center East is, nicely, a bit of tense, you could be intrigued by what number of songs make use of their native drones and dissonance. Many consider the Japanese cultures are lifeless ends, however this merely isn’t the case. I’ve all the time discovered Islamic artwork – the luxurious, intricate shapes and patterns – to be lovely. Muslim individuals (and people of each tradition, far and large) are made within the picture of God. They, too, have one thing to contribute to what’s truthful. There’ll all the time be one thing pretty to behold whether or not it’s meals, drink, visible artwork, music, or in any other case. I don’t ascribe to their faith, and I discover of their choices damaged types of magnificence. However on the similar time, it’s my job to domesticate what’s true and delightful from multicultural sources and mirror again the entire image, as greatest as I’m feebly in a position. And lest I and my fellow Christians overlook, our religion originated in the identical locale. Kemper needs his music to be a logo of hope for the longer term as we change inventive, financial, and political concepts with the East as soon as once more (as within the Center Ages). And that we’ll “stroll away from these songs with an appreciation of the truth that our forebears might produce issues of surpassing magnificence.”

With such an ideal mind to select, I simply needed to ask him my favourite Curator-related query: “What do you discover to be rehumanizing in our tradition at present?” He notices a renewed seek for thriller, with individuals grounding their which means in some type of narrative, and sees that a lot of artwork is drawing individuals out of themselves into a bigger dimension. But, with the straight-shooting knowledge he’s recognized for, he summed all of it up by saying, “It’s solely by means of issues that finally lead again to God; in the event that they don’t discover the connection to Christ – the one one who lived out humanity in its fullness with out jacking it up in any means – then they’ll by no means be utterly rehumanized.” I can’t inform you how a lot I really like to listen to somebody state that opinion so plainly within the month of December. Since our artwork inevitably reveals what we consider, Kemper’s matter-of-factness is the first cause I really like the Medieval vacation music. Whether or not you share his religion or not, you’ll by no means hear Christmas music fairly like this, no less than not within the mall. Step away from the Muzak and into the Center Ages.


To see Downe in Yon Forrest, please verify your native listings or name/e-mail your native PBS station.

To buy the Downe in Yon Forrest CD and DVD (and Kemper’s different albums), please go to the Kemper Crabb retailer.

To buy the Downe in Yon Forrest DVD as seen on PBS, please go to the PBS retailer.


[Originally published in 2008.]

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