Mary Anne Ballard explores at the edge of uncertainty in the field of renaissance music, where instruments with strange sounds and exotic appearance made the music from which today’s classical fare has descended. An imaginative grasp of human nature fuels her capacity to understand the musical past and infuse it with vigor. Her approach is gutsy. Reverence and respect are the least of her musicological tools. She realizes that, despite changes in style and fashion, human beings from previous centuries have the motives and desires that drive us today. Given the opportunity, she could explain heavy metal to Shakespeare.
Ballard is researcher-in-chief for the Baltimore Consort, which was founded in 1980 by musicians in their 20s and 30s living near Baltimore. The group includes both instrumentalists and vocalists, some of whom were original members of the ensemble. The instrumentalists of the Baltimore Consort perform under the name “Gut, Wind, and Wire.” GW&W has had the same personnel since 1985.
Gut, Wind, and Wire performs on Saturday, April 4, in the Mildred and Ernest E. Mayo Concert Hall of the music building at the College of New Jersey in Ewing. The Consort holds a master class on Friday, April 3, from 2 to 3:20 p.m., also in the concert hall. The event is free and open to the public. TCNJ music department chair Gary Fienberg, says, “The master class is tied to our curriculum through the course ‘Music from 600 to 1750.’ The master class provides TCNJ music students (and others, too) with the unique opportunity to learn hands-on from performing artists.”
In a telephone interview from her home in South Bend, Indiana, Ballard accounts for the name of the ensemble. “Gut” refers to the fact that renaissance string instruments, for the most part, used strings made of animal intestines. “Wind” refers to the various renaissance instruments that are blown. “Wire” refers to the rebec and cittern, instruments whose strings are made of wire.
Typically, in renaissance music ensembles, instrumentalists play more than one instrument. At
TCNJ Ballard plays viols of three different sizes, with differing ranges of pitch; the lowest instrument of the family, the bass viol, is also known as the viola da gamba. She also plays rebec, a bowed instrument of Arab ancestry with three metal strings.
Four instrumentalists perform with Ballard: Mark Cudek, cittern, bass viol (gamba), renaissance guitar, and tenor crumhorn; Larry Lipkis, bass viol (gamba), recorders, bass crumhorn, and gemshorn; Ronn McFarlane, lute; and Mindy Rosenfeld, who plays what Ballard calls, “a plethora of wooden flutes and fifes,” soprano crumhorn, recorders, and early bagpipe.
“We talk to the audience,” Ballard says. “We tell them about the instruments, and we have our resident comedians.”
Almost all the music on the program comes from England, Scotland, France, Italy, and Spain. Almost all of it dates from the period 1500-1675. The big exception is a pair of pieces composed since 2000 by GW&W’s lutenist McFarlane: “Cathedral Cave” and “Pine Tops.”
“Cathedral Cave is in the Tasman Sea,” Ballard says. “Ronn read a National Geographic article about the place, and went to Australia to see it. His piece is a kind of sound track to the National Geographic article. `Pine Tops’ sounds Appalachian, like it came out of Nashville.”
McFarlane was born in 1953. “He started life as a rock musician,” Ballard says, “and has listened to lot of music. There are a lot of influences in his compositions, in particular a lot of guitar composers. He has a very wide variety of styles.”
The concert is the second event in the inaugural season of a new concert series funded in part by a $500,000 endowment from TCNJ’s Herbert B. Mayo, professor of economics and finance. In recognition of the gift, the music department’s recital hall was named in honor of Mayo’s parents.
I ask Ballard if switching instruments is difficult for members of the ensemble. The three viols she plays are six-string instruments where pitches are located by seven gut frets placed across the fingerboard. The three-string rebec has no frets. “It’s easy to switch,” Ballard says, “because the instruments are so different that the mind clicks easily into the various spacings. There’s no standard tuning for the rebec. Sometimes, I retune in mid-concert, but it’s not a problem. “
Mindy Rosenfeld, player of flutes, fifes, soprano crumhorn, and recorders, has greater problems than Ballard does, Ballard says. “Mindy chooses an instrument for each piece based not only on its range, but on its color. She brings out a bouquet of instruments — eight or 10 — in a given concert. The scale pattern varies from instrument to instrument. And she has to remember where the good notes and the bad notes are on a particular instrument.
“Her brain is really put to work. There are no keys and the pitch is determined by the placement of fingers on the holes or by the angle of the breath as it reaches the embouchure. Sometimes a hole has to be partially covered to play a particular pitch. Sometimes the pitch is inflected by varying the angle at which the airstream goes into the embouchure; when a flute player’s head bobbles, it has to do with affecting the pitch.”
Wind player Rosenfeld has other special problems, Ballard says. “Mindy has to keep each instrument in tune with itself, according to its own configuration. Besides that, the instruments are tuned in varying keys, while the score is in a single key. That makes it necessary to transpose [change the key that appears in the score].”
Gut, Wind ,and Wire plays copies of original instruments. “Viola da gambas are easy,” Ballard says. “Makers can measure real instruments minutely and copy exactly. But maybe it’s better to say we play instruments inspired [she stresses the word] by original instruments. In some cases, original instruments no longer exist. The rebec is no longer extant and copies are based on paintings. Copies of instruments based on paintings can be a composite of ideas. Sometimes, existing folk counterparts to renaissance instruments give us clues.
“The interesting thing about what we do is our arrangements,” continues Ballard. “We work with a lot of renaissance pop tunes. The material we use is often a single tune, so you need to do a lot of arranging. It’s a matter of providing different colors, just as they did in the Renaissance. We do the harmony, devise the rhythm, and create countermelodies. We think of the accompaniment as similar to country, or bluegrass, or rock accompaniments. It’s a matter of strumming, plucking, and adding texture to sound. In baroque music all this was done by the continuo group. In pop music today, it’s done by the rhythm section.
“Our template for arranging music comes from Thomas Morley’s ‘Consort Lessons,’ which was published in 1599,” Ballard says. “Morley used the word ‘Lessons’ in the original Latin sense, meaning ‘readings.’ His book taught us how to make arrangements. He wrote out ornaments and arranged dance tunes. We followed the patterns in his arrangements.
“The lute is the central instrument in Morley’s ‘Lessons,’” Ballard says, “and the lute is the real foundation of our group. It’s the most popular solo instrument. In addition, it handles harmonic and rhythmic underpinnings, counter melodies, and it can accompany itself.”
The discography of the Baltimore Consort consists of more than a dozen CDs. They range from “The Art of the Bawdy Song” to Sephardic Music from 15th century Spain. Portions of the program for TCNJ are contained on the disc “Gut, Wind, and Wire,” an extroverted collection of enormously varied short pieces where the mood changes with the selection. The pieces are unfamiliar but accessible; the pace is fast; the playing nimble. Particularly striking is the sound palette, which includes sections that twang or buzz, along with more conventional sounds.
Ballard was born and grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, the oldest of four siblings in a family with a doctor father and a piano major mother. “We all studied musical instruments,” she says. “It was a typical 1950s, 1960s family. I started on piano, but it didn’t really take. I fell in love with the sound of string instruments.
“I credit my interest in music to very good music in the public schools in Louisville. I played viola. We had orchestra class every day from seventh grade through high school. We played a Bach Brandenburg Concerto, and took it to the state competition. There was an all-city orchestra and an all-state orchestra.
‘My family was devoted followers of chamber music and orchestral concerts,” she continues. “The first chamber music concert I heard was the Budapest Quartet at the University of Louisville, when I was in seventh grade. The same year I heard the Bach Double Violin Concerto at the Louisville Orchestra.
At Wellesley College Ballard’s musical focus turned from viola to viols. “As a senior, I was elected president of the Chamber Music Society. My job was to drum up business and I looked into what instruments the school owned. I fell upon these strange instruments in a closet. They were six viola da gambas. No one had looked at them for probably three years. I felt that it was my mission to see that somebody played the instruments, and I realized that I had to be one of those people. The faculty member overseeing the Chamber Music Society offered to take gamba lessons and get us started. I was dating a guy from Yale, and learned that there was a gamba teacher at Yale, Grace Feldman. I arranged for lessons from her. By the time I graduated I was hooked.”
Ballard attended Boston’s New England Conservatory to pursue further studies as a gamba player, but enrolled as a violist, since no one taught gamba at the institution. “I studied with Gian Lyman, who got the gamba scene started in Boston,” she says.
Following the standard path of the time, Ballard married soon after graduating from college, and moved to Philadelphia. “By the time I was 24, I was a matron with a baby, going to summer viol workshops.” That baby, Annie Ballard, now 40, has become a filmmaker.
Ballard now lives in South Bend, Indiana, with her husband, Alexander Blachley, a faculty member at the University of Notre Dame, who directs the 14-member renaissance a capella ensemble Pomerium. The couple also maintains an apartment in New York City.
In a degree program at the University of Pennsylvania, Ballard studied medieval and renaissance music. She subsequently directed or coached early music simultaneously, on a part-time basis, at the University of Pennsylvania, Baltimore’s Peabody Conservatory, and Princeton University for about 10 years ending in the early ‘90s.
Ballard’s stint at Princeton was a two-day a week affair from 1981 to 1992. Of the people she taught more than a decade ago, she says: “The students I had at Princeton are now full professors. I see them when the Baltimore Consort goes on tour.”
Master Class, College of New Jersey, Mildred and Ernest Mayo Concert Hall. Friday, April 3, 2 p.m. “Gut, Wind, & Wire,” an instrumental program showcasing Renaissance-era instruments, presented by the Baltimore Consort, who will give a concert on Saturday, April 4. Free and open to the public. 609-771-2551. www.tcnj.edu.
Also, The Baltimore Consort, College of New Jersey, Mildred and Ernest Mayo Concert Hall, Ewing. Saturday, April 4, 8 p.m.. $25.