When Benjamin Bagby walks onto a bare stage at The Hub this weekend with only an ancient harp to hold onto and accompany him in his solo rendition of Beowulf, it will be in stark contrast to pretty much everything else in Edinburgh International Festival. With no hi-tech jiggery-pokery, multi-media wizardry or cross-artform collaborations to gift-wrap it with, Bagby’s rendering of one of the most ancient stories to have survived is as about a pure a piece of story-telling to be seen anywhere in the early part of the 21st century. Half-sung, half-spoken in an arcane and captivating form of old English, the sheer guttural physicality of it punches the air with force as it regales the audience with its monster-strewn quest underground.
If any of this sounds like some dry and dusty heritage industry bore-fest designed for tweedy academics to poach from, think again. Because, so rich and so alive is a performances that fizzes with the power of suggestion, Bagby’s Beowulf is rock and roll mouth music of the most Anglo-Saxon kind.
“It’s not an antiquarian approach,” Bagby says. “I don’t perform in mediaeval clothes or anything like that. But it is too I suppose trying to get back and reclaim some of that heritage which is usually only kept in libraries, and attempt to breathe some life into it. In our culture,” Bagby observes in a way that suggests his Beowulf might actually have more in common with the rest of the EIF programme than first appears, “we’re much stricter in how forms are demarcated. Then it was very different.”
Born in Virginia, USA of German extraction, as a singer, composer and harpist, Bagby first made waves in 1977, when he founded the Cologne based Sequentia ensemble with his partner, the late Barbara Thornton. Taking an innovative approach to medieval repertoires through the voice’s harmonic qualities, the group specialised in performing and recording works by 12th century composer Hildegard von Bingen, as well as music penned at Notre Dame, Santiago de Compostela and Aquitaine. As well as Beowulf, Bagby has also tackled the Icelandic epic, Edda, and German music from the 10th and 11th centuries, including a recording of Lost Songs of a Rhineland Harper.
Now based in Paris with his partner, chant scholar Katarina Livljanic, Bagby lectures in the Sorbonne as well as playing and recording with Sequentia. It’s Beowulf, though, which he was first captivated by aged 12 after an Rnglish teacher gave him a copy of the text along with an edition of Dante’s Inferno, that remains Bagby’s labour of love.
Bagby’s current incarnation of Beowulf dates back to the early 1980s, when he came into contact with Anglo-Saxon scholar Thomas Cable, who’d written a book on modes of performing the epic.
“It was the first time,” he says, “I realised you can actually do story-telling in these old languages and make them work and be understandable.”
Short scenes were slipped into Sequentia shows, with Bagby consulting Cable at every turn as his own monster grew and grew. Premiering in Utrecht in 1987, Beowulf was chiselled at throughout thr 1990s, since when it’s toured the world. The Beowulf Bagby will present in Edinburgh will be just the first part, as seen on a recently released DVD. To do the poem in full, which was originally mooted a few years back, would take a staggering five hours.
Outside of Beowulf, Bagby is currently looking at a programme of 9th century German, Icelandic and Saxon texts about the Apocalypse. As you can imagine, “They’re very colourful,” according to Bagby. “There’s trumpets, stars and the sky turning black and mountains falling down. What’s most interesting, though, is that they tell us a lot about the legal system of the time, and how it’s not going to work because you can’t bribe judges to avoid the end of the world.”
As with any story left so exposed, and while Bagby’s physical prowess as puts his entire body behins the words, the audience too must work hard.
“With Beowulf,” Bagby says, “what more horrible monster can there be than the one only you can imagine. Everyone agrees that the monster is horrible, but no-one can agree on the details. I’m trying to recapture a way of telling a story which maximises its telling without recourse to special effects. It’s just me, the words and my instrument.”
And what an instrument. Hand-crafted by a Japanese instrument maker, Bagby now owns four very different harps, each with their own unique acoustic properties.
“It’s as authentic as any reconstruction of it could be,” he observes. “We know it was made out of wood and strings, but we don’t know how it was used. At that time there was no such thing as uniformity, not in design, tuning or story-telling. So it’s something of an anthropological dig, but very much much about keeping the language alive.”
Such fresh look at ancient forms drawn direct from the body as much as the mind is in keeping with the current wave in contemporary music which has ditched the lap-top and other kit and returned to primitive folk forms for inspiration. While such an approach might at first glance seem reactionary, it’s also a clear expression of a desire to get back to more primal forms, where words and music vibrate enough to be felt by performer and listener alike rather than be amplified through a ten ton PA system and bent out of shape at the flick of a switch.
For Bagby, such a rediscovery of words and music’s more visceral properties without recourse to plastic elements– and let’s not get into any misplaced ideas of hippified revivalism here – is perfectly understandable.
“It’s like jazz,” he says, “in that it’s not improvised all the time, but there are moments where, in performance, I can try things out. Everything’s flexible, but when those moments arrive, I find them both fascinating and terrifying. The appeal of that kind of new oral tradition I think we’re working towards is pretty simple to see. People like to hear people tell stories and sing, and people like to hear a wooden box vibrating.”
Beowulf, The Hub, Aug 18-22 (not August 20), 8pm
The Herald, August 2007