As the winter solstice rolls around, the pagans have decided that bows and arrows simply won't do, they'll need cannons to vanquish their foe. And so the cannons do their work, and the pagans parade the bodies of their victims through the town. And then, "The song goes into cannibalism," Cary Ratcliff explains, as the pagans hand out extra pieces of meat to the poor.
This is not a Norwegian Death Metal song. "The Cutty Wren" is choral music dating back to 1381, around the time of England's Peasants' Revolt. Wrens won't feed a lot of people -- and linguistically and biologically speaking, English peasants eating a wren doesn't qualify as cannibalism -- but the audience understands that the little birds are actually a metaphor for the baronial lords who owned the land.
"The Cutty Wren" is part of the feast of ancient sounds and contemporary grievances presented by Madrigalia, Rochester's 18-member choral group. It could have been a part of your world as well, but worldwide uncertainty about coronavirus includes Rochester. So on Thursday, Madrigalia canceled its two weekend performances of "Songs of Protest, Songs of Peace."
This column was originally filed to encourage you to perhaps see this show. But as the area's culture calendar falls victim to coronavirus, this is a particularly disappointing loss, one deserving of a wider audience than the 100 or so people who usually attend such events. But the message is still worth discussion.
Madrigalia is the beauty of the human voice, as heard over centuries in cavernous churches. But, "This is not a classical music program," concedes Ratcliff, Madrigalia's artistic director. The voices were to be accompanied at times by the folk-song appropriate twang of banjo and guitar as played by Ben Proctor of the excellent local Americana band The Crooked North.
And the protest outweighed peace. But as humans, historically that's what we do.
As Ratcliff explains, the historical context of "The Cutty Wren" may be Middle Ages England. Yet, "A number of our pieces really have to do with, who owns the land?"
"And still, to a certain extent, a few people own all the land. And everybody else has to work it for them. And so this caused various peasant revolts over time, there and in many cultures."
Madrigalia is not about centuries-old concerns, or long-dead composers. It bends with the times. The group has released an album called "For Better, For Worse: Music About Marriage." When it performs at the Clover Center for Arts and Spirituality on May 29 and May 30, the show is "Planes, Trains & Submarines," a lighter collection of songs about how we move around this planet.
"We did a program called 'Earthkeeping' a couple of seasons ago, and it was about the beauty of the Earth, the fragility of the Earth. The danger that the Earth is in," Ratcliff says.
The next time Madrigalia performs "Earthkeeping," it will record it for release as an album. The group has already secured permission from Jackson Browne to include a choral version of his song "Before the Deluge," Browne's prophecy of the planet's ecological fall. "Before the Deluge" will also be a part of this weekend's shows, "the one representative about the state of the Earth," Ratcliff says.
The only one. That's the problem. "This program was too long," Ratcliff says. When filling out the dance card for "Songs of Protest, Songs of Peace," there was too much music to choose from. Our grievances are many.
So not making the cut was the classical composer Claude Debussy. "The last art song he wrote, before he died, was a protest against World War I," Ratcliff says. "But it was in the voice of a child, complaining that it ruined his Christmas because it killed his parents, and they burned down the church and they burned down their home, and they hope that those German children didn't have a good Christmas, too."
Madrigalia tried to lend its voice to "Strange Fruit," the bleak blues song by Billie Holiday.
"That's one of the most courageous songs for someone to sing," Ratcliff says. "If she weren't sort of protected in New York City, and by being well-known, singing a song about lynching? Being a black person singing a song about lynching? To a largely white audience, you'd end up with the same fate. But she did it, and the people who went there knew that they were going to hear this thing."
But ultimately, it didn't work for Madrigalia. "Strange Fruit" is not a song for an all-white vocal group.
"So we found it was too far for us to go, and we just felt too uncomfortable trying to adopt it," Ratcliff says.
But that's not to say that exploring the far corners of a round world is completely off-limits for Madrigalia. "I mean, all of these songs are things from other cultures," Ratcliff says. "And that's sort of what we do as choral programmers, is we bring music from lots of people, times, and places."
Indeed, over the years Madrigalia has performed songs in 23 different languages. Raftcliff sees it not as cultural appropriation, but as respect for other cultures, poets and songwriters.
So a few times, "Songs of Protest, Songs of Peace" was to venture into the realm of American indigenous people’s activism, including Buffy St. Marie's "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee." Aggrieved workers would be well-represented by Woody Guthrie's "Union Maid," popularized by Pete Seeger, and Tennessee Ernie Ford's "Sixteen Tons." As Ratliff notes, "One of our members actually once had a coal miner grandfather, so we know what that’s about. And the idea that no matter how hard you work, you can never get out of debt."
From the recent film "Selma" came a song performed by John Legend and Common, "Glory." There was Kim Baryluk's "The Warrior," which Ratcliff defines as being about women's issues, "and just growing into a place where you say, 'It's not my nature to be a warrior, but it's my duty. It's my duty to be with my other sisters in that.' "
And Billie Holiday did get in, with "God Bless the Child," although Ratcliff notes that the original jazz lead sheet for the song puts an apostrophe after "Bless," implying "Blessed," past tense. "It’s really a bitter song about how some kids are born with privilege and some are born not, and the ones born with privilege get more and more as they go on, and the ones without only get crumbs in their life. This disparity between the have and the have-nots grows through life. It’s sort of a pretty-sounding song; it’s really a song of bitter complaint, that God appears to have blessed some, and not others. And there's this disparity right at the point of birth."
And Sweet Honey in the Rock, the a cappella, all-woman, African-American group, was to be a part of this as well. Its founder, Bernice Johnson Reagon, has been active in civil rights and anti-apartheid protests.
"I've heard her speak, and she talks about, if you're singing the song, you own the space," Ratcliff says. "And how that was so empowering for people who were maybe surrounded by police, that were intimidating them. But people could sing, they could hear the courage in each other's voices, and that helped them to own that space. And people trying to intimidate them from the outside couldn't break that space. So that was the power of song for them."
Tickets ($20, $18 for seniors, $5 for students) for "Songs of Protests, Songs of Peace" are available at (585) 230-2894, madrigaliaroc.org/tickets and at the door the night of the shows at Third Presbyterian Church, 4 Meigs St. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Around Our Universe
The Amy LaVere Band has been a favorite at Abilene Bar & Lounge, 153 Liberty Pole Way, for a few years now. Her husband, Will Sexton, has accompanied her in guitar. Both have recently released new solo albums. So at their 7:30 p.m. Thursday, March 12, gig at the club, you'll get both LaVere and Sexton playing a set of their music, accompanied by a backing band. Tickets are $12 advance, $15 the day of show… Incidentally, you may have noticed that Abilene is once again bringing in the JD McPherson Band for an 8 p.m. Tuesday, April 28, show at Anthology, 336 East Ave. It's a 10th anniversary tour, and the Oklahoma rocker will play his debut album, "Signs & Signifiers," in its entirety. Jason Smay, formerly of Rochester's Hi-Risers, is still playing drums for McPherson. Tickets ($20 advance, $25 the day of the show) are available at the club, Record Archive and dspshows.com.
Jeff Spevak is WXXI's Arts & Life editor and reporter. He can be reached at email@example.com.