There are moments of almost primal resonance that can come upon you at elemental times: when watching moving water--surf or stream--or fire, or the wind play across fields of dense grass. In those moments you can suddenly feel connected to the thousands upon thousands of generations before you who have likewise watched the flickering light, as if all the ghosts of the past are suddenly pressing very close.
The ear can find these moments too, often in the steady wail of a primitive instrument like the bagpipe or the rhythms of ancient percussion. Ethan James has thought long and deeply about the meaning of such instances, and his contemplation has produced The Ancient Music of Christmas, undoubtedly the best Christmas album of the year and one of the most brilliant seasonal evocations ever made. Playing instruments like the hurdy-gurdy, harmonium, dulcimer, and reed organ as well as guitar, Reed--accompanied by Catherine Edward Alexander on percussion--takes the listener back to Yuletide seasons in a Europe in whose forests wolves still run and for whose inhabitants fire and harvest aren't manageable events but hooks upon which life itself hangs.
The airy, almost violin-like breath of the harmonium and reed organ; the hurdy-gurdy's mad combination of clicking keys, keening melody, and buzzing drone notes; the shake of tambour and bell--all call forth images of circle dances around fires and the dark, uncertain woods beyond with a sharpness that borders on transport. Some of the tunes like "O Come O Come Emmanuel" are instantly recognizable; others will be familiar by melody if not by name, like "Bring a Torch Jeanette Isabella" and "What Lovely Infant Can This Be?" Still others have passed beyond memory.
James isn't exactly the most obvious source for such a project; while the in-house producer for Los Angeles' Radio Tokyo studios in the '80s, he worked with acts like Mazzy Star, Black Flag, Jane's Addiction, and Green On Red and has more recently put out several albums of his own alternative-flavored rock. "I've been playing or producing music all my life," he explains. "I'm not a totally scholarly guy, but I have studied music, and when I got into medieval music--especially the early troubadour stuff--I became aware of the hurdy-gurdy, which was then a current and respected instrument."
The hurdy-gurdy is basically a box with a crank on the end. The crank rotates a wheel which contacts a number of strings, most of which produce droning tones. There are, however, one to three melody strings whose pitch can be changed by pushing down on keys, and many types have a movable bridge which can be made to buzz; the instrument comes in specific keys, like a harmonica. Americans who saw last year's Jimmy Page-Robert Plant extravaganza may have noticed the hurdy-gurdy player the band brought onstage to lend the instrument's archaic tones to a portion of the show that highlighted the Celtic roots of the duo's music. Still more may have spied the device and not known what it was: The hurdy-gurdy did not travel well and never really established itself in America.
"Unlike the dulcimer--basically a box with strings--the hurdy-gurdy was a complicated instrument that required constant maintenance," James says. "Not everybody could make or repair one. It should've shown up in Cajun music, because at the time the French immigrants who would become Acadians were settling in Canada, the instrument was popular in France. But the Acadians made the trip [to Louisiana] under adverse circumstances, basically settling in the middle of a swamp, and the hurdy-gurdy didn't make the journey...it only takes a generation to lose those kinds of things."
James saw somebody playing one once and "was hooked. Lots of people find it funny, but there are some who find it otherworldly...I think it affects those people on a really deep level, a level I see and feel in my own way. I've run across this in my studies of other musics, and it exists within a formalized philosophy in music like Indian music, which is drone-based," he says.
"It's an ancient and primal thing, hardwired into our nervous systems and the seat of our consciousness, wherever that is. It has to do with archetypical ideas, and one of the essential mystical or spiritual ideas--whatever you want to call it--is that the universe is essentially a drone--the idea of "Om" and the existence of a base of light and sound that's going on, [with] both a macrocosm and a microcosm. The macro is that Om, that big drone, and the micro is all the little manifestations of consciousness within that, like bubbles in a glass of champagne. The hurdy-gurdy mimics that in an odd way, with the general drone from within which the little bubbles of melody, the buzzes and rhythms, rise."
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That drone--the dialtone of the universe, if you will--provides the universal connector. "Most ancient music--the digideroo of Australia, circular breathing, bagpipes--is built on the drone, and to analyze it you have to get into things like what the idea of music is," James continues. "Music alters consciousness or reinforces what's happening, mimicking a process of creation and manifestation that in a way is both tangible and intangible and resonates in our minds. A lot of people respond to that, and that's the job of art..." He pauses for a moment. "Anyway, it's what art does."
When James dug that far back into history, he found European music that was still firmly rooted in the drone and modal traditions, wasn't far removed from its Indo-European roots, and had been reinforced by Middle Eastern influences both Arabic and Jewish. "My approach comes from that medieval side," he says. "And only later did I find out about it as a folk instrument, even though nine out of 10 of your modern hurdy-gurdy players are from the French folk tradition...I like the spookier stuff, like the Hungarian music, but I've learned to appreciate the folk, too." Slowly, all this contemplation and research grew into plans for an album. "I wanted this album to reflect the thousand years of history that included everything from medieval, Renaissance, baroque, and folk," James says. "I made this record with America in mind because in the U.S. people really respond to the hurdy-gurdy because it's new, something we don't have, and Americans generally like Christmas records and buy them...in Europe, it's not really a first choice."
It was time to hit the books, and James spent hours in libraries, poring over Christmas music. "I had two criteria," he recalls. "You actually had to be able to play it on a hurdy-gurdy, and it had to be pretty old, traceable at least to 1400. Some of the stuff is of that folk tradition--like 'Jeanette Isabella'--while some of the other stuff is in fact actually medieval, sequences of alleluias taken from a mass, a few English carols." Most of the music he found was originally meant to be sung, but James adapted the melodies to his instruments and discovered some interesting modern parallels. "In a weird way, the hurdy-gurdy is like a feedback band--the drone, the buzz, the sustained melody...I like to tell people that if Jimi Hendrix had been a troubadour, he would've played the hurdy-gurdy," he says with a laugh.
Not only has James discovered the past, he's very nearly brought it to us whole, vibrating with an essence that ruptures theological boundaries. Listening to the graceful cadences, the insect buzzing and melodies that at once seem Oriental and Arabic, native yet incomprehensibly foreign, you almost hear the shuffle of long-dead feet and taste snows that have since moved through the cycle of evaporation and fall a million times, snows that fell when the metaphysics of Christianity were so much more immediate and profound and not that far removed from the pagan traditions they displaced. Night's so dark, so long, that spring can't be too far away...not much food but soon we'll plant and pick our fill...Huddle together in a rancid heap and dream of being warm, of the smell of new growth... Whether you bind yourself to the cycle of the sun (in the cold of winter are the seeds of summer sown) or put your faith in another Son entirely (in the darkness of the world Jesus Christ was born), you are subscribing to a basic human optimism--a hope for renewal, rebirth, and even redemption--as old as moving water. Few albums remind us of that as deeply as The Ancient Music of Christmas.