Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Hurdy Heads, Start Cranking!

The days are cool and the nights are frosty, the overpowering scent of tomatoes being canned is wafting from my kitchen, football has begun, and soon it will be time for another autumn tradition, Nordic Roots Fest. (OK, I know it used to be in the spring, but it's a fall thing now, yeah?)

There have, of course, been numerous NRF shows over the years that have totally blown my head off, and several of the festival appearances of the Hurdy Gurdy Project have to rank right up there. While there are many aspects of Nordic roots music that I love; the minor keys, the many distortions of the simple polska rhythm, it's really all about the drone. Whether from sympathetic strings vibrating, jawharps singing or a sakpipa(little bagpipes to you) wailing, the drones are what go straight to my brain. In my humble opinion, the hurdy gurdy is about as close as Nordic roots music gets to psychedelia. Not bad for a 1000 year old instrument!

Just to get you in the mood, look what I found in the archives. Totte and Stephan crank up some "Luder Anders / Skuren" in this little video from Nordic Roots Fest 2005.

Here' s a longer and slightly higher quality( made on my digital camera, OK?) video in which Totte joins Stephan and the rest of Garmarna in tearing up "Klevabergselden", an old instrumental from the Vittrad days. ("Kleveberg's Fire" - I don't know who or what Kleveberg is or was, but something's burning down here!) This is also from Nordic Roots 2005.

To find out about Stephan and Totte's hurdy gurdy history, the piece on their MySpace is actually pretty nice. It has probably been quoted on the Cedar website at various times,too. Here is a little video of Stephan playing an undoctored version of "Delirium" on the Pure Drop website. They have a bunch of interesting short videos of world and folk music performers. I guess I do like the amped and dubbed version.

But what is a hurdy gurdy? How do they work? Here are your factiods for the week about the "medieval synthesizer" or "ancient beatbox." (Remember that band from the '90's, some good techno-hurdy playing there.)

It's basically a fiddle that is bowed by the wheel as the player cranks. Some of the strings are stopped by the keys just as you do with fingers on the neck of a traditional stringed instrument. Several of the strings are usually just resonating sympathetically, giving that drone sound we all love so much. Often there are 4 strings but the number can vary. There are various little bits and pieces inside the player can adjust to alter the vibrations and sound as well as just cranking faster or slower. A helpful volunteer with whom I was working at the Cedar the other night used to work for a luthier and he explained some of the hurdy's inner workings to me, as they got them in for repair once in a while. Thanks, Jeffrey!

Here you can see the wheel and the keys fairly well. For more info on the inner workings and the history of the instrument, check here. I found the following description interesting, as well.
The body of the instrument can be box-shaped or with a rounded back like a lute, and many examples are beautifully decorated with inlaid wood. The handle turns a wheel covered in rosin, which vibrates the strings; the hurdy-gurdy functions like a violin with an endless bow, so that there is no pause in the sound at the end of a bow stroke. Instead of sounding notes using the fingers, the musician presses sliding, un-sprung keys which make contact with the strings and shorten them to make a sound of the required pitch. The drone comes from one or more strings which do not get pressed by the keys, and therefore sound the same notes continuously. The final part of the puzzle is the moveable bridge, or chien (French for dog), which supports one of the drone strings and can be manipulated by a skilled player so that it vibrates against the body of the hurdy-gurdy during playing, making a rhythmic buzzing noise. The whole ensemble has a driving, continuous sound, with its own percussion produced by the chien .

OK, everybody ready to start crankin?

Let's send this photo out the boys in Hoven Droven, who will lead us all on a merry chase Sunday night to close down Nordic Roots Fest 10. Turbo, yeah! And fly a big three finger folk music salute to my neighbor's Farm All H Turbo. (That's a tractor, city folks.)

Just hope I don't feel like this the following morning....

Back at you next week with info about the next generation of hurdy heads in European turbo-folk and pagan metal.

1 comment:

Angel of Rock said...

What's the story behind the three finger thing?