minstrel: Performing in Feast Halls

Heather Rose Jones hrjones at uclink.berkeley.edu
Tue Mar 11 19:24:28 PST 1997

On Tue, 11 Mar 1997, Harold Feld wrote:

> I am curious as to what others think of performing in feast halls.  For
> myself, I try to discourage the practice and will not perform.  The caveat
> to that is incidental music, which I wish we would have more of during
> feasts.  But, frankly, I think it is rude for a performer to want to hold
> up everyone's dinner and socializing time.  (Astridh, do you have acopy of
> my "Response to Ioseph" piece that appeared in Bard's Fire?  I lost mine
> *and* the issue of Bard's Fire when I moved).

I suspect that opinions on this (among performers and audience alike) will
vary in loose parallel to local "feast culture". For me, my experience as
both a performer and as a diner brings me to the conclusion that this is
the place to do instrumental background music, _not_ to try to capture
everyone's attention and make them be quiet. I have found that diners are
seriously delighted to have low-level non-intrusive background music while
they are dining and conversing -- and when I've done this sort of
performance I've always gotten thanks and compliments afterward. When I
have seen feasts interrupted and "hushed" for featured performances -- or
when bards try to sing over the conversation to capture an audience --
I've generally seen as much annoyance as appreciation.

The one significant exception to this is at the annual Mists Bardic
Competition, where the competition pieces are performed while the courses
are being enjoyed, and where spontaneous performances at odd moments are
enthusiastically received and are the rule rather than the exception. But
from a structural point of view, this event is a performance event with
food, not a feast with entertainment.

I know several performers whose style or personality is not suited to
"featured" performance who do quite a bit of quiet background music -- not
only at feasts or courts, but also simply hanging around in camp. I've
always encouraged them enthusiastically -- such things add greatly to the
period atmosphere. For myself, I enjoy being in the spotlight, but I also
enjoy just sitting in the corner playing "Medieval Muzak" when the
occasion calls for it. The harp is a wonderful instrument for this. Guitar
players can take the opportunity to learn some simple instrumental pieces
(I have about three period guitar-type pieces I can play -- Frederick
Noad's "The Renaissance Guitar" and Ariel Publications' "The Classic
Guitar Collection, vol. 1" both have a number of easy arrangements of
period tunes). It's a great opportunity to practice those dance tunes
without the pressure of dancers staring at you. A small recorder ensemble
would also work well, although a solo recorder probably wouldn't even be
noticed. This isn't the time for those "loud" instruments like
double-reeds and sackbuts. I like using the opportunity to learn a new
period tune and then practice improvised variants on it. People won't tend
to notice if you're playing almost the same thing over and over again.

If the performers can deal with being background, this is also an
excellant venue for those non-vernacular period songs that tend to have
the audience squirming a bit after the fifth verse. So you've learned all
twenty verses to that troubadour ballad in the original Provencal?
Wonderful! Set yourself down with your accompanist in some manner that
makes it clear that you don't expect everyone to be quiet for you and
indulge yourself. (Sites with balconies over the feasting hall are really
cool for this sort of thing.)

Of course, as unobtrusive as you try to be, every once in a while you will
find that the hall has fallen silent and everyone is paying you rapt
attention. That's a real prize. Value it -- and make sure you come to some
appropriately dramatic conclusion before their attention starts to wander
again, so they have a chance to applaud if they wish; then let them start
conversing again before starting anew. Actually, the hardest part of doing
background music is convincing people that you _don't_ expect them to be
quiet. Once they get used to the idea, they really like it, though.

Tangwystyl verch Morgant Glasvryn

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