Period Music for Modern Times
Owain Phyfe and the New World Renaissance Band
by Mistress Isa and Cynthia Soroka
Ancient music is a way of life for musician Owain Phyfe and the New World Renaissance Band, a musical ensemble which draws inspiration from the belief that a new, modern Renaissance will soon begin, typified by a rediscovery of the Renaissance spirit. Thus, the New World Renaissance Band has made it their mission to help bring about this awakening through their music.
Vocalist, instrumentalist, and composer, Owain Phyfe grew up in a bilingual family where Welsh was a second language. Nourished by his grandparent's appreciation for song, Phyfe's study of languages in college and his travels abroad to England, France, and Spain as well as his experience later as a musician in New York City's Greenwich Village led to the kindling of his own Renaissance spirit.
In the mid-1980s, Phyfe and his wife Paula became festival performers at the Michigan Renaissance Festival. Spellbound by early music, Phyfe decided to develop a "singer of songs" persona. While researching late medieval and renaissance music, he found himself favoring faire life over the automotive engineering company he had started in 1983. "It became my dream to present the beauty of Renaissance music," Phyfe explains, "not as a documentary, but as a living expression." Thus, Phyfe began to visit other Renaissance festivals around the country in search of musicians to join him in forming a period musical group.
In the meantime, the group Cantiga made up of harpist Martha Gay, fiddle-player Malcolm Smith, woodwind player Bob Bielefeld, and cellist Max Dyer was touring the Renaissance Faire circuit. And it was at the 1987 Michigan Renaissance Festival that Phyfe first came into contact with Bielefeld. But it was not until the autumn of 1990 when a mutual friend provided him with an underground Cantiga cassette that Phyfe learned of the group's existence. On a commute to work a few months later, Phyfe finally listened to the tape and came to the realization that these were the musicians he was looking for.
Wasting no time in contacting Malcolm Smith, who had produced the cassette, Phyfe made plans to meet him at the Texas Renaissance Festival where Cantiga was performing. After a week of performances with the group as a guest vocalist, Phyfe asked Cantiga to record with him as the New World Renaissance Band.
The Band's Initial Success
P hyfe sold his engineering company in 1992 to record and promote early period music on a full-time basis. The union of Phyfe and the members of Cantiga soon proved to be alchemy, and with his new recording company, Nightwatch Recording, all the band members contributed to the recording, production, packaging, and marketing of their debut CD, Live the Legend, which was recorded at Heights Sound Studio in Houston, Texas.
The album's success placed it on the year-end bestseller list for classical releases at a number of retail chains across the midwest, including Streetside Records and Harmony House, and ranked #13 nationwide on Public Radio Music Source's classical best-seller list. A few months later they released Where Beauty Moves and Wit Delights, an album defined by musical improvisation and spontaneity. And in 1994, Once Upon a Time was released, demonstrating Cantiga's musical depth through recording projects featuring different combinations of band members.
Even after the initial successes of their first few CDs, Phyfe felt that without a lutenist, there remained a gap in their music. His search led him to Stefano Pando, whom Phyfe befriended at an American Lute Society seminar. Phyfe was impressed with Pando's historical understanding of the lute and his adventurous performances. The two agreed on ideas of the Renaissance repertoire as a living musical expression, and from that connection, produced and recorded Sweet Was The Song in 1995 as a tribute to 16th-century lute music. Nightwatch Recording went on to release Lute Works by Pando and Odyssey in the fall of 1996.
On October 27, 1996, celebration of their new releases was cut short when Malcolm Smith died suddenly in his sleep at the age of 43, after a superlative performance at the Texas Renaissance Festival. The band's grief inspired many tributes to their comrade, including a cyberspace memorial on the web, a memorial fund, and a musical performance in Ohio dedicated to Smith, that yielded a standing ovation.
Despite their injured hearts, the band knew that the only way to bear their pain was to keep making music. And it was in this spirit that Phyfe became acquainted with Sasha Raykov, a Russian dissident and master bass viola da gamba player. After playing together in a number of impromptu jam sessions, Sasha joined the band in 1997.
Also in 1997, Phyfe's son, Jamin Fite, produced their first music video, Cessés Mortels de Soupirer (Sigh no More, Mortals), all filmed at the Michigan Renaissance Festival. Within the year, the video had won best music video in the country both from Ohio's National Telly Awards, and the International Communicator Awards.
Presently, band members are scattered about the country playing at various Renaissance faires. Phyfe and Raykov, in the past year alone, have performed at 14 different festivals across the county, including the Kent State Folk Festival. The Band's aspiration for 1998 is to record a soundrack for a major motion picture.
The Inspiration Behind their Music
Phyfe believes that good renaissance music and lyrics imbues its listener with the knowledge that man should exist in freedom, that virtue is worth pursuing, happiness is not to be sacrificed, and that life is an adventure worth living. Through his music, Phyfe endeavors to contribute to humanity these ancient values he cherishes so greatly.
In contrast to modern society's anti-individual influences, such as manufactured stardom and fluffy, insubstantial music, Phyfe's choice to record on his own independent label reflects his interest in maintaining integrity in his art while focusing on individuality. In fact, Phyfe only participates in projects whose underlying value judgements are not a contradiction to his own. With music, that means concentrating on the timeless songs of the Renaissance.
Although Phyfe considers the re-creation of period music as an homage to the era, the Band does not perform their music exactly as it was historically played. Rather, they use modern performance practices because, according to Phyfe, early music played in a scholarly fashion does not "press the same buttons" with modern audiences than it would have to audiences of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Purely as an esthetic choice, the Band emphasizes bass in their recordings; and where lyrics would have been historically sung with an Italian or French flavor, Phyfe's songs have a distinctly American folk flavor.
"We will never be 16th-century musicians," Phyfe chides. "We like modern conveniences like indoor plumbing too much." But with 250 radio stations nationwide now placing their recordings in regular rotation, Owain Phyfe and the New World Renaissance Band certainly seem to be coming close.
Note from editor:
Murder Most Medieval is an anthology of medieval murder mysteries by different authors. One story features a Welsh bard named Owain Phyfe in 13th C. I have not yet read it myself yet but was highly recommended by OP himself.
For more information on how to order CDs or their music video from the New World Renaissance Band, call (248) 399-1070, write to Nightwatch Recording at P.O. Box 721010, Berkley, MI 48072, or visit their web site at www.nightwatchrecording.com .