Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Carol Wood: To Ferne Halwes Kowthe in Sondry Londes! (1999)

(As published in the Times of Acadiana ... )

Those who missed Dr. Carol Wood's performance of medieval harp music at Barnes and Noble last Saturday can make amends in two ways.

First, they can attend her return Barnes and Noble engagement on Sunday, December 12. Second, they can buy her debut CD, The Chaucer Songbook, which she released last August on her own Epona Records in moments stolen from her busy schedule as a professor of Medieval literature at McNeese State University. Of course, true connoisseurs of the ancient arts in which Wood specializes will do both.

One of Wood's specialties is medieval Welsh literature, in which she holds a Ph.D. (Her book An Overview of Welsh Poetry Before the Norman Conquest [Edwin Mellen Press] has been called "an impressive treatment.") Another of her specialties is playing the harp, or, to be more precise, five harps. "I have a concert harp, a Dusty Strings harp--that's the main one that I play on the CD--a gothic-style harp, a little lap harp, and the first harp that I ever got," Wood says. "Sometimes I feel kind of silly to have as many as I do."

She shouldn't. Her five harps and her nineteen years of playing them have opened doors for both herself (she spent four years as the second harpist in the Lake Charles Symphony) and her students, who for nearly twenty years now have had the rare opportunity of learning from a professor with expertise in more than one art. In addition to recording The Chaucer Songbook, she's written a soon-to-be-published companion book of the same name featuring her arrangements for voice and harp.

McNeese, Wood says, is the ideal setting for cultural cross-pollination. "At a lot of other schools, it's tricky for the faculty to get, say, a Friday off to go to another school and give a lecture or some other kind of presentation.

“But McNeese,” she continues, “gives all of us as faculty members who are doing things--for example, Bob Butler, our Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, who goes on national book tours when a book is released--great flexibility to miss classes and make them up later as long as we're not denying our students their rights in terms of what they should be getting."

No one who spends time with The Chaucer Songbook CD will accuse Wood of denying the members of her new and growing extracurricular audience what they should be getting. The music, for one thing, is authentic. Wood has traced the lyrics and-or the melodies of most of the seventeen songs directly to Chaucer's works or Chaucer's time and performed them with simplicity and restraint.

And although the disc features Wood's harp, it also features the singing of several classically trained Lake Charles singers and, on six songs, the winsome singing of Wood herself. "I hadn't really done any singing in a long time," she says, "so it was a little bit scary to try to get my voice up to speed again. But since the CD has been released and I've been doing more singing as part of my gigs, I get a lot more favorable comments. So I feel much more comfortable about singing now."

The disc's twelve-page booklet provides the lyrics both in their original languages and in modern English as well as just enough history to make one want to start researching Medieval music oneself.

Take, for instance, Bishop Richard de Ledrede's "Peperit Virgo," the melody of which accompanies Wood's recording of "Maid in the Moor." "That's one of the songs that I love the most," Wood says, "It's very strange. Bishop Ledrede said that he wrote 'Peperit Virgo' so that his monks would sing religious words to this song instead of the lewd and secular words. We don't know quite what Bishop Ledrede was even objecting to, but he probably sensed in the song some kind of ancient, pagan survival of something."

Ironically, Wood wrote The Chaucer Songbook book first and only recorded the CD after Mel Bay offered her a modest recording budget as part of the book deal. The company, however, has been sitting on the book for some time now, and although it's currently slated for publication in early 2000, Wood says she's "not holding [her] breath."

What she is doing is preparing to record a follow-up CD, this time a voice-and-harp arrangement of the X.J. Kennedy poem cycle The Beasts of Bethlehem. As for whether the grants she's applied for come through, she's not holding her breath for those either.

"I'm trying to get up steam and start recording soon," she says. "I'll go on and do it regardless."

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