ALERT: The World Desperately Needs a Bardic Prog-Choral Concept Album in Old English!
No, seriously! Keep reading and I will convince you...
I'm Stef Conner, a singer and composer who crafts new music out of ancient poetry. For decades I've dreamt of releasing a CD of beautiful vocal music in Old English, the very-different-sounding early ancestor of my mother tongue. Classical choirs the world over often sing in Latin – the language of the elite, the aristocracy and the church. So isn't it time they also breathed some new musical life into the ancient language of the people, spoken in markets, the mead-hall, as magical charms, and by storytellers around the fire? The Old English language itself, and its rich poetic corpus, is inspiring. It's time we heard more of it in modern choral music...
This project is a lifelong dream – and I need to raise £6K (£7.5K including the campaign expenses and platform fees) in three weeks to make it happen! It's a challenge, but with your support it can be done. If you pledge even a little, you'll help to bring the first contemporary choral album in Old English to life, supporting new culture, as well as making connections with lost cultures of deep history, and celebrating an under-appreciated shared heritage that sparkles with creativity and wisdom. Anglo-Saxon England has been slandered by the description "Dark Ages" for too long – its poetry is dazzling! Let's make it resound in song!
I make music by delving into ancient history for inspiration, plundering the imagined soundscapes of lost worlds, and revelling in the musicality of oral poetry. I was doing it in funding-free but creatively fulfilled obscurity until I hit upon the idea, along with my wonderful and crazy collaborators Mark Harmer and Andy Lowings, of recording a CD of sung ancient Mesopotamian poetry, accompanied by Lowings' reconstructed Lyre of Ur, a 4000-year-old, giant, gold, Sumerian bull-headed lyre. On a budget of near-zero we recorded our album, The Flood (see the title track performed in the video below), and released it in 2012, as The Lyre Ensemble. Much to our surprise, it went viral!
On a high from the wonderful response to The Flood, I acted on a whim and emailed one of my musical idols, Benjamin Bagby (director of Sequentia Ensemble for Medieval Music) to tell him about it. I wanted to delve more seriously into reconstructing ancient music, mixing some serious medieval into the modern, as I continued my creative love affair with Old English. I knew that Ben, the master-singer of Beowulf, was the best person in the world to learn from. Well, in life good things happen when you take risks and throw yourself into the unfamiliar. And now, a few years on from swallowing my insecurity and writing that email, I am in the very fortunate position of singing with the mighty Sequentia. Working with Ben, as well as Norbert Rodenkirchen, and Hanna Marti as part of this iconic ensemble is one of the most inspiring experiences of my life.
With Sequentia, I have been thrown into a world of medieval modes, magical charms, lost heroes, heartsick exiles, and ingenious riddles, immersed not only in the language of Old English poetry, but also its most closely related musical traditions, which come down to us in manuscripts from the 9th–12th centuries. This deep, rich inspiration has flooded into the music of Riddle Songs. The CD is also spectacularly enhanced by the expertise and creativity of my fellow Sequentia soprano Hanna Marti, who features heavily. Her gorgeous voice will blow you away when you hear it!
What does it sound like?
Riddle Songs gives lyrical voice to the riddles of the 10th-century Exeter Book, interweaving rich, multi-layered choral textures into glacially sparse songs for voice, harp, and lyre. I have drawn inspiration from the vivid, otherworldly imagery of the riddle texts themselves, as well as marrying influences from folksong and medieval music with my contemporary style.
Hidden amongst the new compositions are songs in an imagined Anglo-Saxon musical style, based on surviving medieval music and English folksong. One of them is my reconstruction of Caedmon's Hymn, the oldest poem (or song) in English, composed in the seventh century. Of course we can never know how Caedmon's Hymn really sounded, so this track is also a kind of 'modern music'... but it's a kind of modern music that wants you to think it's medieval – a little historical musical deception!
A few years ago I made an EP, Hord Songs, which was also in Old English, with lots of riddles. You can listen to a little sample below, for a taste of what this album will sound like. I'm giving away copies of Hord Songs (out of print; unavailable anywhere else) as part of this campaign!
So what's the plan?
1. Fundraise and compose: The first job in the schedule is of course to raise the remaining funds... but there is also the the not insignificant task of finishing the music! ;-) Throughout July I will be tying up creative loose ends, probably changing around my own solo tracks right up until the very last minute! One interesting thing about doing that alongside running this campaign is that it gives YOU a chance to be involved in the creative process. Conversations with supporters I have as a result of this campaign have the potential to influence the work itself. If you have ideas about Old English riddles and how to sing them, you can share them here. I take note of everything! And your pledges and support will help to keep me motivated and sane throughout this intense period.
2. Rehearsal and recording: On Monday 29th July all the singers gather in the Phipps Concert Hall, University of Huddersfield, to rehearse. That evening, with your help we'll be able to raise a glass to celebrate a successful fundraising campaign! Some of the pledges give you unique access to share those experiences with us through our Riddle Songs blog. We then spend three days recording with Paul Baxter of Delphian Records. Expect some musical magic to happen! By Friday 2nd August, it will all be onto the next phase...
3. Mixing, editing, pressing, preparation: We'll be mixing and editing the CD into early 2020, alongside putting together the album artwork (which you can own as a poster if you like – see the rewards), writing liner notes, and preparing for the launch. I'll also be tidying up musical scores, so I can share them with other choirs or soloists who might want to sing the music. Check the rewards list and you'll see that you can purchase full performing scores with line-by-line translations and everything else you need to play this music yourself!
4. Campaign rewards: We're aiming to send out most of the rewards in November–December 2019, so you'll receive your CDs, letters, posters, specially commissioned songs before the year is out. Exciting! Other rewards like private concerts or workshops will take place on mutually convenient dates, stretching into early 2020.
4. Launch: March 2020! STOP PRESS! Riddle Songs will be officially released! :-) Even if you already have your copy by then, we'll find ways to make this something fun and exciting for you too. Especially because...
5. Performances: When we launch the CD, we'll also start performing the music live, first around the UK and then hopefully beyond. Watch this space! Nothing is set in stone yet, but there will definitely be at least one album launch show in the UK. VIP tickets for that concert (all details TBC) are up for grabs in the rewards.
The singers: I'm in the very fortunate position of writing for some of my all-time favourite singers; it's a privilege to write for such talented people. As well as Hanna Marti, the CD features the voices of Elspeth Piggott, Ana Beard-Fernandez, Peyee Chen, Lisa J Coates, Robin Bier, Chris O'Gorman, Toby Ward, Nils Greenhow, Louis Marlowe, Jamie Wright, and Graham Bier. They are all amazing artists with bucketloads of fascinating projects on the go – check them out!
Delphian Records: Collaborating with Delphian Records to make this album is an incredible artistic opportunity – so many of their other releases have been a massive inspiration. I was lucky to be part of Delphian's European Music Archaeology Project series, contributing three tracks to 'Apollo and Dionysus,' a recording of ancient Greek music alongside new compositions for ancient Greek instruments. I'm giving away copies of this CD in this campaign (see the 'Mega-archaeo-musical-bundle of joy' reward for more info).
The University of Huddersfield and Leverhulme Trust: We're recording the CD at the University of Huddersfield, where I currently hold a Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship researching the reconstruction of ancient music. In Huddersfield I collaborate with my fellow Sound Archaeology researcher Rupert Till, who also makes very cool dub remixes of ancient instruments as Professor Chill. He remixed a performance of mine for one of his records, which I'm giving away on vinyl in the rewards! Yes, VINYL! Retro... but not as retro as Anglo-Saxon music. ;-)
What do your pledges pay for?
Your pledges contribute to fees for the wonderful singers listed above, as well as the costs of recording and mixing the work; travel expenses for the production team and the performers (some of whom are coming all the way from the USA!); accommodation costs in Huddersfield (even with Air BnB, goodness this still costs a lot!) and CD manufacturing. The total budget for the project is £27K. Through my own fundraising (and savings), contributions from Delphian Records, a wonderful grant from the Leverhulme Trust, and another contribution from the University of Huddersfield, we have already raised a whopping £21K. But we still have £6K left to find, which rises to a massive £7.5K when you include the Kickstarter platform fees and campaign expenses – and that's where you come in! We need you, or we could lose everything we have worked so hard for!
Risks and challenges
The greatest risk for Riddle Songs is of course that we fail to raise the money we need in this campaign. And since Kickstarter is an "all or nothing" fundraising platform, I'm facing the very real possibility of working flat-out day and night to fundraise, only to find that it was all for nothing – I could lose everything if I don't make the target! All the singers have turned down other work to be part of the project, and plane tickets have been booked from the USA and Switzerland. I feel a colossal sense of responsibility to everyone involved to make sure it happens. Other risks... Well, of course there are always plenty of them in projects like this – illness is scary and naturally there will be last-minute scrambles and logistical challenges. But the Riddle Songs team are all professional musicians, and professional musicians are used to challenges! We're used to going on stage even when we're sick, or the audience is shouting, or the stage is outdoors in a storm. We get on with our job of making gorgeous music happen no matter what, because we love it. And we'll do the same for this project... with your support. We need you too!Learn about accountability on Kickstarter
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