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Atmosphere of past revived by ancient instruments

Stary Olsa band improvises and restoresBy Alexey Voskovsky
Musicians stand in a row on stage, beginning by playing the lute, bagpipe or heavy drum on two shoulder straps. Listeners might imagine themselves in some medieval ballroom or roadside tavern. Minsk’s Stary Olsa band has been playing medieval Belarusian music for many years, reviving ancient folk ballads and court dances.

Dmitry Sosnovsky, the founder and leader of the band, tells us his ideas:

Dmitry, several times a year, your band organises ‘medieval discos’ — please explain!

We play ancient dance music in a club, so people can feel the atmosphere. Only wine and beer are offered — as there were no strong drinks in those days; invited artistes from various theatres perform medieval dances, encouraging people to learn. We try to recreate the atmosphere of a medieval tavern, since a contemporary club is a tavern in essence. Many come in ancient costume, filling the whole dance floor, while we give ancient toasts from on stage.

Who comes?

Our recent concert in Polotsk saw pensioners, students and representatives of hippie and punk cultures, as well as heavy rock. Contemporary instruments — electronic and keyed — are too precise and artificial; many are already fed up with them. We offer live sound; ancient instruments don’t harmonise completely, creating more atmosphere.

Did you start playing this music to revive that age?

There are various forms of historical memory. Some play folk music while others practice palaeography or re-enact knightly battles. I’ve tried everything and understand that music inspires the greatest emotions and most closely creates the atmosphere of the past.

Being an historian by education, you play the bagpipes in the band…

The topic of my diploma paper was ‘Reasons for the Appearance of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania’. We also have a cook in the band, as well as an automobile mechanic and a programmer. On first hearing the bagpipe — the duda — it became my favourite instrument. I studied from Latvian masters how to make dudas; when you learn the arrangement of the instrument, it becomes easier to play it. 

The band plays many unfamiliar instruments — such as the tromba marina and chalumeau…

A tromba marina is a prototype of a double-bass, being a low toned bowed instrument with thick spun strings. A chalumeau is a prototype of a zhaleika. Some of the instruments which we use or would like to use are seen only in frescoes, engravings and miniatures. We either create them themselves or give drawings to masters.

This is research rather than simply music…

I’ve already released three books; the latest is ‘The History of Belarusian Musical Culture in the 19th-20th Century’ — presented in Minsk in spring. ‘Stary Olsa’ is a research laboratory. We’ve used material from the ‘Polotskaya Tetrad’ [The Polotsk Notebook contains canzonas and dance performances of western and eastern European origin and is a unique monument of 17th century Polish-Belarusian culture] and never use modern melodies; we only arrange what has been already written by medieval authors.

That must be challenging…

Before the baroque age, music was a form of public improvisation. Musicians didn’t know what they would play on arriving at a feast — be it in a tavern or noble manor. They had to change the melody while performing. Many compositions in the ‘Polotskaya Tetrad’ have only an initial phrase. Others have no fixed key or tempo. All medieval composition envisages personal creative contribution so, in developing ancient melodies, we can lay claim to authenticity. I always underline that we are still studying. Our 13 years of existence are only a first stage of mastering instruments; true medieval improvisation lies far away...

Your concerts are also experimental, aren’t they?

We can’t move forward without performances. To play concerts is necessary for the restoration of medieval music, as is the decoding of its musical notations.

Is your task at concerts to entertain or to enlighten?

I think it’s impossible to separate the two, although entertainment is the first function of medieval music. In our situation, we also offer enlightenment. We entertain people while also giving them an opportunity to ponder.
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