Letter: So, Justin, what ARE The 12 Most Useful Dance CDs?

[ This article appeared in volume 4 of the Letter of Dance. ]

[The question was posed on the sca-dance email list. Justin posted his answer there (calling it a letter is a stretch), fleshing it out so it would be useful in the Letter of Dance, as well.]

from Justin du Coeur (Mark Waks -- justin@inmet.com)

I've finally remembered to bring in The Little Black Case, so I can look into it. A couple of caveats: these are the disks that I carry around when I expect to be teaching. My collection isn't necessarily complete, so it may not include quite all of the best discs. These are chosen for practical value, rather than aesthetic, although pretty much all of them are pretty. And your mileage may vary, depending on your tastes and which repertoires you teach. (I teach almost all of them a little bit, so this is deliberately pretty inclusive.) In the order in which they are in the Case (which has no relation to preference or anything like that):

1. Arbeau's Orchesographie, by The New York Renaissance Band

Not quite a perfect recording of Arbeau; some of the dances run too short, and I occasionally find them to be less-than-perfect to teach to. (For example, the Aridan is a suicide rendition, which makes a relatively hard dance harder -- great for experienced dancers, but lousy for teaching. And the Hey is arranged for three people, which isn't how I prefer to teach it.)

Still, this is unquestionably the best recording. It covers more or less everything in Arbeau, and the arrangements are always danceable. The music is all quite pretty, and every dance has a distinctive and interesting flavor. A Must-Have.

2. English Country Dances, by The Broadside Band

A selection of dances ranging from the 1st through the 12th editions of Playford. Only eight of the 22 tracks are 1st edition, so the utility of the disc is a bit limited; on the other hand, it manages to include several of my favorite later-edition dances, like Epping Forest and Mad Robin (my personal favorite duple minor). For quite a while, this was my only source for Faine I Would and one or two others.

Not an exceptional disk, but pretty and often useful. Most useful liner listing I've ever come across -- it actually lists not just the length of the dance and the number of repeats, but what sort of introduction to expect before the dance begins (upbeat, chord, once through the dance, etc). Worth Getting, if you can.

3. Country Capers, by The New York Renaissance Band

Again, the NY Ren Band does the single most useful disc for a repertoire. This is an entire CD made up of 1st Playford dances, all specifically arranged for dancing. The arrangements are principally by Marshall Barron, who probably has more experience on the Playford repertoire than any other single person, and it shows -- almost every track has a sensible arrangement, and matches my reconstructions. 26 tracks in all; I've only gotten around to using about half of them, and this is still the single most-used disc in my collection.

There is exactly one stupid bug in this disc: the dances are collected into "suites", which get in the way. For example, track one is "dances for two couples", and includes Rufty Tufty, Heart's Ease, and Argeers. The dances don't actually run into one another -- there is a good pause between them -- but the fact that they are grouped onto one track makes it a pain to cue some of the dances. They could quite easily have given each dance its own track, without changing the sound of the disc at all; I wish they had done so.

Still, this is the best Playford disc, and a Must-Have. Sally Logemann (the director of the Band) deserves the SCA's eternal gratitude...

4. Mesura et Arte del Danzare, by Accademia Viscontea i Musicanti

The most sought-after disc by those in the know about the early Italian repertoire. I'd say that this disc has done more than anything else to shift the SCA back towards the Italians, by making the music accessible. (But not very accessible, I'm afraid -- the disc is an import, and sometimes hard to find.)

16 tracks, covering all of the high points of the Domenico/Ebreo repertoire, ranging from the light and easy (Anello and Petit Riense) to the unspeakably complex but fun (Vercepe). Generally good reconstructions, but bear in mind that they have to pick a single version for each dance, which may not match the source you are working from. (Many of the dances changed subtly between Domenico and Ebreo.)

A Must Have If You Can Find It, if you have any interest in 15th century dance...

5. Il Ballarino, by The Broadside Band

A disc devoted specifically to the more complex 16th-century Italian repertoires: principally Caroso and Negri, but with odd little bits tossed in from obscure music sources like Gardane and Mainerio.

I don't use this one much, I confess, since I don't teach the late Italian reperoire often. (I'm not great at it, and haven't studied it deeply, so I leave it to Sion, who has made a specialty of it.) It does have one track that I've worn deep grooves into, though: the single prettiest recording of Ballo del Fiore that I am aware of. Only twice through, but still very, very nice. It also has versions of several other dances often done in the Society (Allegrezza d'Amore, Dolce Amoroso Fuoco, Il Canario), but I leave it to Sion and Urraca to comment on how well this recording fits those dances.

Not Essential, but very pretty, and the only good CD recording of Ballo del Fiore.

6. Dance From the Inns of Court, by Jouissance

Trahaearn and Janelyn's new disc -- you've already heard me rant about this, but for the record: the only good CD recording of the Inns of Court repertoire (and, indeed, the only good recording period since Musicke for Dauncinge went out of print). Has all of the Old Measures, each one recorded twice. (First it has all of the dances with four repeats each, then it has them with the number of repeats that appear to have been used in period.)

A loving disc, perhaps the best dance recording to come out of the SCA to date. Good arrangements, with a highly varied flavor from dance to dance, so you can dance through the entire Old Measures without getting bored. Very pretty playing, as good as I've heard in the Society. And the optional booklet that goes with the disc is a concise yet complete overview of the dances and their social context (something all-too-often missed in the SCA).

Sets a new standard for SCA recordings, IMO. A Must-Have.

7. Balli e Balletti da Ballare, by Fonti Musicali

An Italian import, "Danses de la Renaissance Italienne" is the subtitle. The dances are mostly from Caroso and Negri, with a few items from other obscure sources.

I have to confess, this one is in the case on general principle; I don't often use it, but it was the first late-Italian disc I came across, and hasn't gotten knocked out yet. The music is pretty, but in working with it, I've sometimes found that I disagree with the choreography implicit in it (which was done by Andrea Francalanci). It does have several dances done a bit in the Society (Passo e Mezzo, Bizzaria d'Amore, Il Canario, Contrapasso Nuovo, Chiranzana), but I haven't gone through and checked how well the music matches our common choreography.

Nice, but not essential.

8. Dances, by Calliope

This is principally stuff from Praetorius and Attaingnant, so as usual it is filled with galliards, and basse danses and bransles that we don't have choreographies for. Nice, but at best mildly useful. (Although when I start doing choreographies for some of these period tunes...)

I keep this in my case for three back-to-back tracks; all are period arrangements of La Spanga, and workable for Lauro, the National Dance of Carolingia. (And my personal favorite dance -- if Lorenzo di Medici deserves fame for nothing else, he deserves it for this dance.)

Until quite recently, I actually had a second disc in the case for exactly the same reason: the disc "La Spagna", with recordings of the same three arrangements. I actually used that one more often, but one of them had to be displaced for the Inns of Court disc, and the Calliope disc is more likely to prove useful in the long run, if I get into choreography.

Nice, but not essential (unless you need a good recording for Lauro).

9. Silence is Deadly, by The Waits of Southwark

A relatively new disc (published 1995, I've had it since last summer), so I haven't had as much time to experiment with it as with some. Still, it appears to be quite promising. I have no idea who the Waits are -- I suspect that they do the renfair circuit (based on the picture on the liner notes of their garb), but it wouldn't astonish me to find out that they have SCA connections.

The disc is a somewhat motley collection, ranging from Childgrove to Martin Said to His Man, but the largest bulk is 1st Playford dances; those I've played with seem to be useful arrangements, and the music is pretty. It's the only disc I know with a recording of Road to Lisdoonvarna (to which there is a good SCA invention, which won the choreography competition at 3YC). It even has "Bella Goiosa", although I haven't checked that yet to see if it actually matches Gioso.

Definitely Useful.

10. La cour du Roi Rene, by Ensemble Perceval

An enormously mixed bag of continental music. It is, as it says, "Chansons et Danses", so much of it isn't dance music, but much of it is, principally from the Domenico/Ebreo ouvre. Includes Gelosia, Leoncello, Lauro, and Mercantia, all of which are commonly done in the SCA.

This is another disc I haven't used a lot, but which covers a good repertoire. Not crucial, but Useful.

11. Danses Populaires Francaises, by The Broadside Band

This is a French import from Harmonia Mundi (as are so many interesting discs), and is a bit misnamed. Despite claiming on the cover that it is an Arbeau disk, it actually is about half-Playford.

Unfortunately, neither the liner notes nor the disc itself lists the dances on it; I assume that the jewel case does, but that's at home. I've marked some of the tracks on my copy, which include both bransles from Arbeau (Cassandra, Maltese, Haye, etc) and several ECDs (Grimstock, Upon a Summer's Day, Rufty Tufty). I suspect that the entire disk is dance music, but I'm going to have to check that.

Anyway: pretty music, and some nice bransles. I use this as an alternative when I'm feeling tired of the NY Ren Band's recording. Definitely Useful.

12. Forse Che Si, Forse Che No, by the Ferrara Ensemble

Another new disc which I picked up last summer, and which I haven't had much chance to play with yet, but which shows a lot of promise. This is another disc of the Domenico/Ebreo repertoire, with 20 tracks. It covers largely the same ground as Mesura et Arte, but one can't have too much of a good thing. The music is pretty, and at a quick glance seems to be generally useable. (Although I need to work with it to get a clear assessment -- this is another Francalanci disk, and I know that my reconstructions, from the Brainard school, often disagree with Francalanci's.)

Largely Untested, but Very Intriguing.

Webbed by Gregory Blount of Isenfir (Greg Lindahl) (lindahl@pbm.com)