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Edinburgh Fringe 2012

Sex, Lyres and Audiotape

Genre: Musical Theatre



Low Down

Clare Goodall arrives in Edinburgh with an array of medieval stringed instruments. She regales us with tales of how instruments, such as the lyre, harp and shawm, would have been used in everyday life by troubadours and peasants. How, just as today, scholars and academics would frown upon the music appreciated by the lower classes and how we have lost valuable evidence of ancient musical practises. She plays all the instruments present and it brings a sense of ethereal musicianship to the fringe.


As we enter Goodall is playing the dulcimer. Her playing, although restricted to the limited musical scale of medieval times is at first cyclical and then improvisatory as it proceeds to a florid cadence. It’s enchanting and she is fully preoccupied. She looks up as though she’s just noticed that she is not alone and begins her tale with a questioning style. What are the origins of the harp and why did the lyre go out of fashion?  The ensuing performance is a mixture of historical fact and some inevitable supposition. She is surrounded by various beautifully carved and ornate instruments, but she begins by unveiling a hunter’s long bow. She twangs the strings and evokes a dull reverberation. She imagines the hunter waiting for his prey bored plucking away at his string and surely becoming aware that by dampening the string at various points he can achieve a pleasing pitch change. Then she attaches a common gourd used for eating and slides it up the bow. Each positioning gives alternative pitch.

She bemoans the dark ages and the lack of any tangible remaining evidence of songs and tunes played and sung. She tells of the ancient Greeks and the abundance of music that accompanied many a tale, none of which has survived. She shows us an Egyptian Shoulder Harp, it’s a small instrument and like its name suggests it sits on the shoulder and nestles into the neck. She plays a remarkable melody from this oddly positioned instrument and it can be perceived that one would have walked and played this providing musical entertainment at gatherings. We move onto the middle ages and the hardships experienced in this time. She tells of drowned cattle in fields, due to the relentless rain and plague and pestilence. Despite these elements there was a more terrifying fear than death. She presents us with a small bagpipe and preparing to play it, she intermittently blows air into the bag whilst building up the tensions as to what that dreaded fear was.  Goodall continues with tales of minstrels, troubadours, the peculiar demise of the lyre’s popularity and women’s place in music. She performs on the shawm, a reed instrument with an unusual sound that requires much energy to play. We hear that any female mastering this instrument would have been eyed with much suspicion and greatly jeopardised her chances of marriage.

I enjoyed this encounter and I’d describe it more like being at an engaging lecture than a theatre piece. It’s genuinely interesting to see and hear these instruments and Clare Goodall’s enthusiasm is contagious. As well as being informative, she does her best to transport us to medieval times by her language and she’s also shows her witty side. The instruments area times bewitching and she completes her performance by playing a harp designed sympathetically. The bass strings resound vibrating and buzzing, often dissonate, underneath melodic voicings. The higher register sounding more akin to the harps and clarsachs we know today. As she builds up momentum towards a florid cadence you could hear a pin drop in the room. If  you’re interested in these instruments from  past times you’ll not be disappointed. 


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