What is Fantasy Music?

Now that the CD production is finally under way, it is perhaps time for a little exercise in definition. Ever since I left the straight path of “classical music” and “authentic performance practice” to which I once was sworn, I have found myself in limbo. What should I tell people about the kind of music I do? Which slot in the record store would it fit into? Not that I am particularly fuzzed about these sort of categorizations myself, artistically speaking, but people generally like to put things into neat little rows of boxes. So, I will try.

When I set out to study harp in Germany in the 1980’s, it was accepted that if one wanted to be a professional harpist, one would learn to play modern pedal harp. My idea, at the time, of what a harp looked like, was more than hazy – I turned up for my first harp lesson never having seen one up close, and was severely disappointed: that huge, heavy, mechanized monster had very little to do with the mental image I had formed, mainly from reading and re-reading Lord of the Rings - I spent several years living in Middle-earth as a teenager, and it is what gave me the idea to learn harp in the first place.

Nonetheless, I enrolled in Conservatory to train for a job in a Symphony orchestra. Just a week into the course, I drove down to Basel with a friend to attend the first ever international gathering of scholars, performers and enthusiasts of historical harps – that was in 1986. At that time, the average musical dictionary used to gloss over medieval harps merely as primitive predecessors of the modern pedal harp, then bluntly declare that “there were no harps during the Baroque era”. Discovering the vast variety of harps that had existed during those periods, and the fascinating palette of sounds one can produce on them, opened up a world to me. Now this was what I imagined the peoples of Middle-earth would play! I was hooked.

I started listening to early music on the late-night radio – my first encounter with Hesperion XX’s now classical recording of the Llibre Vermell de Montserrat is something I still remember. I bought a rather makeshift Gothic harp from an amateur builder, and started to attend the one class there was on performing music before Bach’s time. Some three years later, I saw a poster announcing a course for “Lutes and Harps” to be held at the Academy for Early Music in Bremen, starting the very next day. The next morning I called to ask if I could still come, and that same afternoon my dad drove me all the way from Berlin to drop me off in Bremen-Walle. The week that followed was to shape my life for a long time to come.

I dutifully finished my orchestra degree in Berlin but started driving up to Bremen for classes every two weeks during my final year, and then went on to study full-time at the Academy, where the guiding principle was full immersion in the culture and history of those times – from reading renaissance treatises on the theory of music, to baroque dance class.

Those were the days when early music performers were still regarded as iconoclastic misfits, playing “self-built instruments in an out-of-tune fashion”, as one reviewer rather unkindly put it. By the time I finished my studies at the Academy, the movement had become reasonably established – Nikolaus Harnoncourt, one of my heroes at the time, was now directing the Berlin Philharmonics. But it was all very exciting, these new discoveries and experiments how to perform music that had been buried in musty manuscripts for several centuries.

At around the same time, another movement began to gather momentum, sharing the same late night radio slots where I had first heard performances of medieval music - now I was entranced by the then utterly exotic sounds of an Indian raga performance, a Balinese gamelan orchestra, or some buried tradition of European folk music.

Alan Stivell’s Tir Na Nog, a "Celtic Symphony", building on the near forgotten harping traditions of his native Brittany, left a lasting impression. Traditional tunes from Ireland, Scotland and Wales added a whole new dimension to the classically educated harpist’s repertory. My dad brought me some recordings of Latin American harp music from his work stint in Mexico, a rhythmical style of playing so different from the airy-fairy sounds that are all too often associated with the instrument, but much more in line with the historical repertory I was then discovering. During one of my stays in New York, a friend gave me a tape of West African kora music, which snapped into place with my own research into the Spanish harp tradition of the 17th and 18th century – particularly the pieces collected by the cleric and music enthusiast Lucas Ruiz de Ribayaz, which I had edited and published by then.

By the end of my two years in Bremen I was already busy performing – one of my first professional gigs was a recording of Monteverdi’s Orfeo with the ARTEK ensemble in New York. I continued working with them for the next six years, and there I encountered a way of engaging with historical music that was more playful and creative, less academic, less concerned with how the music had sounded in its own time, and more interested in how it sounded in ours.

Both the “historic performance practise” and the “world music” movements had had its origins in academia, and there used to be a great emphasis on authenticity, on “getting it right”. So much so that I felt compelled to follow a course of academic studies in Utrecht, Holland, and then went on to do a PhD in London, on a research topic that was going to combine historical sources with research into traditional practises – and discovered that a PhD was absolutely not what I wanted to do.

I was not interested in “getting it right”. To me, the whole point of engaging with music that had been buried by time, or was outside our mainstream musical culture, has always been to eventually be able to create something new. I was interested in understanding the music I was playing and something of the culture that created it, yes – but often, particularly with very old music, there is so little knowledge left that there are vast spaces to be filled by the imagination. It is a play with possibilities, all of them equally valid, rather than an attempt to arrive at one “correct” version of a tune fit to be displayed in a museum. After all, the tunes were alive in their own time, and there was never only one correct way of performing them.

The performances I enjoyed most were those where musicians, building on a solid foundation of knowledge, allowed themselves to use their intuition and imagination, where there was playfulness as well as respect for tradition. Performances that asserted their right to be original, rather than pure.

This is not to advocate random eclecticism, or some of the more naïve attempts at “crossover”. There seems little point in trying to strum out a Celtic tune on an African kora which has been designed for an entirely different kind of music. But where people start to listen to the similarities between seemingly far different traditions, where they start to elaborate on some essence of music distilled from that common ground, there things tend to get interesting.

There are a number of contemporary musicians I admire, who dance between the cracks of the currently accepted genres. A few of them even play, or use, the harp. Canadian singer-songwriter Loreena McKennit deserves pride of place – her blending of Celtic, Mediterranean, Middle-Eastern and native Canadian traditions with a contemporary music sensibility perhaps comes closest to what I would like to define as “Fantasy Music”. Go here for a selection of her recordings.

A less widely known example is the Swiss based ensemble Bazaaris whom I met in Edinburgh last year. They chose to call what they do “Bazaar music”, but it is really the same thing. They are great by the way, check them out.

I would like to count in Icelandic sound-smith Björk - maybe just because I am a huge fan of her work. I am thinking particularly of her 2002 album Vespertine with its combination of harp, female choir and samples of nature sounds looped into rhythm tracks, and also of the more recent Medúlla, with its vocalizes somewhere between renaissance polyphony and Luciano Berio.

I should also mention Susheela Raman, a South-Indian grown up in Australia and now living in London, who is equally at home with jazz, blues and funk, and with the classical singing traditions of India. Her album Salt Rain is the most convincing “crossover” experiment I have encountered yet. Daringly for an album that aims at a fairly mainstream audience, she chose religious texts in various Indian (and one African) languages for most of her lyrics.

Here in New Zealand, I might count Whirimako Black – she comes at it from a different angle, as a Maori singer intent on keeping alive a Maori tradition of songs – but the result, at least, sounds similar. And perhaps in the end the concern is not all that different from the European early music movement I grew up with – European cultural traditions and ways of doing things have also been swept under by industralisation and the scientific revolution. It does not always take being colonized to loose touch with one's roots.

But why “Fantasy music”? Where is the link with “Fantasy” as genre, style or movement in literature and art?

I will not attempt to define the slippery term “Fantasy”. Other people have done a better job – I particularly recommend a slim collection of essays I recently came across, Fantasists on Fantasy.

Most definitions I have read focus on the narrative aspects of the genre, the inclusion of some element of magic or the supernatural, the fact that its stories usually draw from sources in mythology and history. Music as such does not have a narrative, unless it is explicitly the setting of a narrative text – but I would not want to limit my definition of “Fantasy music” to the nature of the lyrics used. Besides, that would include some of what is clearly “psychedelic rock” or “heavy metal” – not to mention “late 19th century opera” or “film music”. Even where the music illustrates a narrative, it is more concerned with states of emotion than with a sequence of events. That makes it hard to define the “fantasy” element in music. Archetypes can be painted or their stories told, but how does one sing or play them?

There is another element which I think is significant in Fantasy (and Science Fiction) literature, one that has not been elaborated on all that much: In some way or other, they all tell about a clash of cultures. The archetypal plot of a fantasy adventure is that of a journey. A character travels into a parallel universe, undertakes a dangerous quest, or meets Beings of a different order. Sometimes it is the arrival of a Stranger, which is just a shift of narrative point of view. It is a literature of dislocation. And in an age where dislocation and clashing cultures have become the daily experience of quite a large number of people, we should not be surprized at the popularity of the genre. It might also explain why fantasy fan communities are so prominent on the internet.

Of course, that plot is not restricted to fantasy literature – there are perfectly realistic literary genres which use the same theme. Travel literature for one, and a reasonable portion of historical novels (the borders with fantasy here are sometimes fluid). But these genres are concerned with an account of real happenings, based on personal experience or careful research (at least, one hopes so!). Fantasy literature (and art) offers a playful elaboration of these themes. A “what if…”, an exercise in imagining possibilities rather than distilling facts. That is not to say that it is completely arbitrary – on the contrary, nearly everyone who has spoken or written on the subject seems to agree that fantasy needs to obey its own strict inner laws of plausibility, needs to be firmly rooted in an inner logic derived from the real world, in order to be convincing.

Fantasy literature and art has often been accused of being “escapist” – of allowing people to disengage from the real world. To me, like myth, it is more a matter of taking a step back in order to see the bigger picture. It is all too easy to get caught up in the surface detail of a particular place and time, which is what “realistic” literature largely tends to deal with. Fantasy on the other hand, just like myth, is concerned with the larger structures underlying any society or culture, with that which is common rather than that which is different.

Archetypes - heroes and journeys, wise guardians, foolish pranksters, magical objects, talking beasts, nature as a living entity with a mind of its own rather than a resource to be exploited, exist in virtually all cultures – and that makes fantasy a good candidate for truly universal appeal. It is a way to address issues (current and universal) in a playful rather than a preaching manner – imagining solutions and their consequences, engaging people to think things through, rather than offering ready-made answers, which is the domain of so much “realistic” and “politically aware” writing.

In an age where it often seems that there is an infinite choice of spiritual beliefs and moral guidelines, political stances and personal philosophies, being encouraged to actually think about these issues and arrive at one’s own answers, rather than just pick any currently fashionable cocktail of creeds, seems to me an important thing. Fantasy is not New Age – in this respect, Fantasy is the opposite of New Age.

As a harpist, I am always in danger of being co-opted by or confused with the New Age people, so I would like to keep that distinction clear. Granted, there is a considerable overlap of people, interests and concerns. But the attitudes, I think, are very different. Fantasy does not try to deny the findings of science, and its fans are more often found in a modern computer lab than in a cabin in the woods. They may dress up in medieval garb for the weekend, but chances are that their costume will be meticulously researched, their tools and weapons and armour fully functional. Fantasy is about learning from the past and keeping that knowledge alive, not about turning back time.

Tolerance, accepting and dealing with difference and different ways of doing things, are very much a concern of our own time. So is the preservation of nature, and accepting the rights of other living beings to be more than just a resource for human convenience. So is the realisation that some of the old knowledge and experience humanity has gathered over the millennia is well worth preserving, and that human science, just like all other human knowledge, has its limitations.

One time I was working in New York, we were rehearsing a “Dance of the Three Kings” for a Christmas show. King Balthasar was acted by a dancer from the Ivory Coast. I felt quite shy around him, not quite knowing how to relate – at the time, I was not used to being around people who did not have a European or European-American background, and there was some vague early-instilled fear of dark skinned men, as well as an equally early-instilled guilt about being fair-skinned and European, playing out a silly drama in my head.

We started to rehearse – I was to accompany his dance with a piece of music entitled Zarambeques from a Spanish collection of dance music compiled in 1677 – a piece which I thought was quite reminiscent of traditional West African harp music. It seems the dancer thought so too – in any case, as we rehearsed he did not only dance, but started to sing a traditional tune with my music. After we finished, I looked at him, he looked at me, we grinned – musician to musician, human being to human being. No reason for either guilt or fear. At that moment I understood something – something deep, about music, dance, the nature of prejudice, and humanity.

text: © Asni 2007