Thursday 12 June 2014

The Society of Strange and Ancient Instruments capture the spirit of Will Kemp’s Nine Days Wonder on their new release, with performances that are hugely entertaining and have a natural, spontaneous quality

Will Kemp (c.1549-c.1603) is well known for his Nine Days Wonder when, in 1600, he danced a ‘morrice’ from London to Norwich .  It is not known whether his form of dancing was in any way similar to the dancing known as Morris dancing today. Certainly he would have had to have danced in a manner that allowed him to make reasonable progress on his journey.

Kemp was already famous in London and elsewhere as a ‘maker of jigs and merriments’ and as the most important stage clown of the Elizabethan period, playing with Burbage and Shakespeare. He was a partner in the building of the new Globe theatre in 1599. Kemp also had connections with Norwich.

Kemp appears to have left Shakespeare's company soon after the Globe theatre was built, beginning his dance to Norwich on 11th February 1600 and completing it on 8th March. His purpose in undertaking the dance to Norwich seems to have been partly self-promotion and partly financial. Being well known in Norwich as well as London made the destination an obvious choice.

Of course, it was not physically possible to complete the Nine Days Wonder without some rest. Kemp took sixteen days of rest thereby taking a total of around three and a half weeks to complete his dance.

Kemp wrote a pamphlet entitled ‘Kemp's Nine Daies Wonder’, in which he describes all the events along his journey, dedicated to Mistress Anne Fitton, a maid of honour to the Queen. His Nine Days Wonder created considerable attention along the way where he was received by many people from the poor to the well to do.

The Society of Strange and Ancient Instruments have just released a recording that seeks to capture the spirit of Kemp’s journey.  The Society takes its inspiration from a group of musicians, La Société des Instruments Anciens, who gave a series of ‘historical performances’ in Paris in the years around 1900. Their repertoire includes medieval, renaissance, baroque and traditional music, but like our predecessors we aim to enchant our audience with the unexpected sounds and sights of our strange and ancient instruments.


Jeremy Avis (Voice, Cittern, Percussion), Ian Harrison (Voice, Cornett, Pipes, Percussion, Whistle), Alison McGillivray (Violone, Viola Bastarda), Keith McGowan (Dulcian, Pipe and Tabor, Pipes, Flute, Jew’s Harp, Percussion), Steven Player (Voice, Renaissance Guitar, Cittern, Voice) and Clare Salaman (Nyckelharpe, Hurdy Gurdy, Hardanger Fiddle). More information on these instruments can be found on the Society’s website.

nine daies wonder opens with bird sounds that give the listener the feeling of the outdoors before tambourine and percussion introduce An Old Man is a Bed Full of Bones in which the rest of the ensemble join with a rhythmic, bouncing tune with some terrific sounds from this strange variety of early instruments, expertly played by this ensemble.

Thomas Weelkes’ (1576-1623) Strike it up, Tabor has even more rhythmic instrumental energy before the group of singers join in this song, full of natural vigour and charm. Maiden Lane has some really folksy sounds, building in intensity as it progresses. This is terrifically entertaining.

The Silver Swan opens with the violone in this more thoughtful piece soon joined by the renaissance guitar, then full instrumental ensemble. When a solo voice enters it is a natural, fine tenor voice, not individually credited here. All three male voices soon come together to complete this lovely song by Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625). I recently read a review questioning the use of a countertenor in Dowland songs. Here we have no such issues with these singers providing natural tuneful voices suitable to the songs.

The brighter sound of the cornett leads the ensemble in Essex Anticke Masque followed by John Adson’s (c. 1587-1640) the increasingly rhythmic Adsonns Maske. Hard by a Mighty Pine Tree commences with the rather comic sound of the Jew’s Harp before the singers join in this raucous, bawdy, comic song, surely a great re-creation of what might have been sung. Great fun. Kemp’s nine daies wonder is specifically commemorated with Kemp’s Jig, an infectious dance.

There is an unusual arrangement of Thomas Morley’s (1557/8-1602) Pavana, sounding very much like John Dowland whose two songs follow. Can She Excuse My Wrongs receives a lovely performance with some terrific textures and some pretty virtuosic playing as well as an attractive, natural tenor voice from one of the ensemble. John Dowland’s (1563-c.1626) Sorrow, Sorrow, Stay provides a moment of melancholy reflection, again with that natural tenor voice in this lovely song with beautifully blended instrumental accompaniment.

Anthony Holborne’s (c. 1545-1602) Muy Linda returns us to more rhythmic music with some unusual string and percussion sounds as well as the cornett giving an exotic sound. Rest Sweet Nymphs by Francis Pilkington is affectingly sung with gentle instrumental accompaniment, having a natural charm, full of atmosphere. Kemp is off dancing again in Corranto ‘Lady Riche’ with a gently buoyant dance rhythm.

Another affecting and naturally sung song by a certain Thomas Ford (c.1580-1648) is Unto the Temple of Thy Beauty with a finely played instrumental section including what sounds like the Hardanger Fiddle. Some fine string playing opens A la Mode de France before the hurdy-gurdy and percussion join in this rhythmically intense piece.

A Country Lasse is another infectious piece, full of life and rustic feel with the singers soon joining to the words, ‘A Country Lasse browne as a berry, Blith of blee in heart as merry…’

There is more Thomas Weelkes with his entertaining song Since Robin Hood before Trenchmore concludes with pipes, and percussion before, slowly, all the ensemble join in this joyful, lively piece with the sounds of dancing feet and bells fading into the distance as Kemp jig’s away on his journey.

There is a natural, spontaneous quality to these performances, full of fun and hugely entertaining. None of this conceals the fine musicianship of this ensemble.

They receive a fine recording from Ben Turner made in the Britten Studio, Snape Malting, Suffolk, England - not too far off Kemp’s route.

The CD insert is beautifully produced consisting of a single folded gloss paper sheet printed with samples of old maps from the route as well as extracts from Kemp’s journal. The label side of the CD is also beautifully printed.

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