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Owain Phyfe & Wolgemut -- Ai Vis Lo Lop



An analysis of Owain Phyfe & Wolgemut's Performance of "Ai Vis Lo Lop" for Timbre and Environment

Owain Phyfe & Wolgemut -- Ai Vis Lo Lop

Timbre and the environment are musical concepts that are intrinsically linked. The timbre, or "tone colour" is often defined by the environment one comes from, plays in, or chooses to make music in, while the environment for performance is often dictated by the sound needs of the instruments one is playing. For the purposes of this paper, I have chosen to analyze a live recording of a group of musicians who function predominantly as street performers, combining modern and Renaissance-style instrumentation to make a unique sound and listening experience.

The musicians being discussed are a man by the name of Owain Phyfe, a vocalist and Renaissance Music enthusiast, and the band, "Wolgemut," who play a cross-section of modern and medieval instruments. Phyfe, in addition to providing the vocals on this piece, plays a 17th century Italian chordophone called a "chitarra battente," a guitar-like instrument historically used to accompany vocals. Wolgemut, on the other hand, are made up of a Rauschpfeifen, which is a capped, double-reed aerophone, a pair of bagpipes playing in unison, which are traditionally exterior instruments, a snare-enhanced side-drum, and a davul, which is a Turkic double-headed drum.

The music in the piece is very interestingly layered. Phyfe's chitarra battente has a very soft, warm tone, with overtones in lower ranges. The almost buzzing drone under the melody can be heard early in the piece, before the aerophones join the ensemble. You can also see, as well as hear, the percussionists holding back, as during the instrumental solos they increase their dynamics significantly. The play of loud and quiet, vocal and instrumental, creates an almost driving force behind the piece. While the piercing tone of the Rauschpfeifen and the drone of the bagpipes have their own call to participate, the quiet rhythm of the chitarra battente can still be heard under them, and the pulse can be felt even during the bagpipe interludes.

The chitarra battente and drums may give the basic rhythm and chord structure, but the melody line is taken up and played by the aerophones. Starting with Phyfe singing, the melody is rather soaring. Phyfe's vocals seem to reside in his chest, both projecting without booming, and creating a warmer, less shrill tone than the pipes that echo his voice. The drones on the bagpipes provide a steady lower-tone drone, very similar to that created by the chitarra battente, but because of the voluminous nature of the pipes' sound, as well as the much softer nature of the chitarra battente, some of the latter's effect is lost. The chanters, on the other hand, is much higher in range, both than the drones, and, really, Phyfe's voice. The bagpipe overtone series is in higher registers, and as such, adds an almost shrill dynamic to the piece, doing nothing to detract from the drive that's built from the pulsing drums and strumming chitarra, instead almost hammering into the audience with the force of the music. Add, then, the Rauschpfeifen, which is tuned harmonically to the pipes, playing a melodic counterpoint to the sound originally created by Phyfe's vocals and then the bagpipes, and the push becomes more of a shove. The piercing, almost trumpet-like sound the Rauschpfeifen adds to the layer again increases the overtone series, and in doing so, seems to enhance the lower tones heard (and felt) from the drones and the drums.

Beyond the instrumental layering, the ensemble toys with dynamics, which is difficult to do, given the outdoor nature of the performance. The musicians start small, having Phyfe's vocals and chitarra battente begin the process, creating the low drones on the strings and the driving rhythm, as well as the rich, warm vocal sound that brings the piece to your attention. Then they swell, increasing the volume on the drums and replacing the vocals with the soaring overtones of the bagpipes and the Rauschpfeifen descant, and the piece seems to drive. It fully commands your attention, no matter what else might be happening. Then, they pull back. Not all the way, but some, enough that those lower, warm tones and low buzzing from the chitarra can be felt and heard again, while still maintaining some of the upper registers from the pipes, and they layer on that Phyfe's vocals, unchanged in either colour or tone, and it seems to reaffirm the commanding nature of the sound. Even with less, you are still compelled and driven by the tones.

This dynamic play requires a large amount of technical skill, given the nature of the instruments being played. The two drummers have to not only know how to read the dynamics of their own instruments, but also the others and the audience, and to know how loudly to play. The bagpipers have to maintain excellent control of both their breathing and their instruments to squeeze the exact amount of power they want from the pipes, depending on the dynamic point in the piece. Phyfe has to both maintain his instrumentation while the swell happens, so that the low tones of the chitarra can be rediscovered gradually as the swell dies down, as well as to maintain his vocal control to keep the sound of his voice present and viable without becoming forceful and harsh. The most play, though, it seems, is done by the man on the Rauschpfeifen, who not only is very judicious on when to make his contribution to the overall tapestry of sound, but maintains an ear on the overall dynamics, visibly making timbral adjustments to various musicians over the course of the piece to maximize the effects that are being sought.

This ensemble uses a variety of instruments of disparate origins, functions, and timbres, and combines them into an effective musical tapestry. Through their play with dynamics, layering, and instrumentation, as well as their use of an open environment, this ensemble manages to create a unique musical timbre and to capture casual passersby into the audience for this outdoor street-performer-style show.

 
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