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Old and new: Riddle Songs

This week brought more than the usual pile of bills in the post for, after what seemed a long wait, the pre-release of Stef Conner’s album Riddle Songs finally arrived on my doormat. A long time has passed since I first saw the attention grabbing crowdfunding campaign plea: ‘ALERT: The World Desperately Needs a Bardic Prog-Choral Concept Album in Old English!’. Who could turn that opportunity down?!

Stef’s aim was to combine the old and the new, breathing new life into ancient material, a particular compositional interest of mine, and such combinations can prove exceptionally fruitful and inspiring for composers and students to research and engage with. The texts for the pieces were to be drawn from the Exeter Book, a tenth century collection of Old English literature, containing a large amount of riddles. Some OCA students will recall that we included some of the riddles in the call-for-scores choices for a workshop back in 2016, some of which were set (in English) by students, with the very same workshop containing a piece set in Old Norse too! The Exeter riddles which really do lend themselves well to music (hint for those looking for texts to compose for the OCA virtual choir).

Working with ancient texts and dead languages might give one cause enough to steer away, presenting the composer with all sorts of challenges in interpretation and performance. Add into the mix historical instrumentation and such projects could easily lose focus, become too academically dry, or even a pastiche of itself. The key, in my opinion, to the successful combination of old and new, is that the composer needs to respect what both sides have to offer any potential soundworld and then somehow keep them in balance. 

In Riddle Songs there is a deep sense of respect from the composer and the resulting compositions combine elements of the medieval, along with folk music along as well as contemporary compositional styles. From a choral perspective, I feel that one of the most important elements that really pulls everything together in this project, was the decision to use a choir. Not in the usual English choral tradition of course, but rather in balancing the language and sound of today’s choirs with the language and sound of the past. One supports the other; the familiar suddenly swings into unexpected territory. 

And so, back to the album in my hand. It is a beautifully crafted piece of work, the concept well thought out, researched and documented in the extensive liner notes, and the recording is simply sublime. Below are snippets from two of my favourite tracks on the album. I’d encourage anyone curious about combining new and old music to have a listen and immerse yourself in a rich and intriguing soundworld, that is simultaneously both of its time and of our time.

For more information, and more sample tracks, please visit: https://www.delphianrecords.com/products/stef-conner-riddle-songs 

Dr. Stef Conner is currently a lecturer in music at the University of York. More information: http://www.stefconner.com/ 

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Posted by author: ChrisLawry
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