Discourses in Music: Volume 5 Number 2 (Fall 2004)

Hughes de Courson. Lux Obscura, EMI/Virgin Classics, 2003.

The album Lux obscura is billed as an “electro-medieval project”, and although I imagine many bona fide medievalists would slam this CD outright, I am hesitant to do so. The album features a mixture of medieval vocal and instrumental genres, as well as electronic works inspired either by medieval songs or the idea of “medieval” in general. In addition to these are interpretations of actual medieval pieces, by composers such as Pérotin, Landini and Machaut. The interpretations range from the straight-and-narrow (Canon énigmatique, Biauté, Puzzle canon) to the wildly experimental (Alle, Lux obscura). Most pieces though, fall somewhere in between.

There are a few techniques used here to give medieval songs some variety. The most obvious, used in Muort’ oramai (ballata by Landini) and Fera pessima (motet by Machaut) is to have the singers in the background for the first section of the piece while the electronic elements take precedence. Gradually, the voices are brought to the foreground and are given equal footing beside the electronic sounds. I should mention here that although these added elements are often interesting, the actual performance of the medieval music is not always so striking, and often depends on the electronic sounds and a beat for vitality—the exception here is the performance of two lais by Machaut, which are musical interpretations in themselves.

While it is true that many of the electro-medieval experiments do not really contribute to a reasonable medieval reading of the pieces (pieces are often cut short, or only the second section of formes fixes is audible), I am heartened that there is at least one group who is unabashedly throwing ideas of “authenticity” and performance practice out the window. If their “actual” interpretations (minus the beat and thunder-sounds) of medieval music leave something to be desired, at least they try to liven up the music in other ways.

-Sarah Carleton