There is almost always music in the air at the Maryland Renaissance Festival. More than 30 groups provide a variety of period music — from sacred hymns to bawdy drinking songs — throughout the entirety of the event. While the tunes may be simply background music to some attendees, to the musicians playing it’s a true passion. Here, three groups talk about why they do what they do and why you should take some time to stop and hear the music.
1821 Crownsville Road, Annapolis; Sat.-Mon., then weekends through Oct. 21, 10 a.m.-7 p.m., $19-$26 ($8-$11 for kids 7-15, $40-$150 for passes).
Piper Jones Band
Bagpiper E.J. Jones has seen many things change in his time as a musician.
“Back when I got into it, the bagpipe was not in any way a cool instrument,” he says. “I hid it from my friends.”
Now he doesn’t. As the leader of Piper Jones Band, he’s got plenty of eyes on him. The group — which also features bouzouki player Frances Cunningham and rotating percussionists — will play five shows every day of the Renaissance Festival: three at the Lyric Stage, one at the White Hart Tavern and one at the Boar’s Head Tavern.
When performing at the taverns, “we try to play our fastest, most danceable stuff,” Jones says. “We’re really all about people being moved to move their bodies. It doesn’t count if you tell them to clap along. I think that’s cheating.”
The clapping and stomping and impromptu post-beers jigging are important parts of Ren Fest, Jones says, but he gets something more out of the band’s performances. “What we want is a place to do our thing as beautifully as we can,” he says. “At Maryland Ren Fest, we can do that.”
The recorder is more than the bane of parents with elementary school children.
“It’s not just a toy,” says Helen-Jean Talbott, director of the five-member Consort Anon, which will perform at Ren Fest on the weekends of Sept. 15 and 22. “This is a musical instrument for which there is a tremendous amount of repertoire written.”
Part of that repertoire comes from King Henry VIII, the featured monarch of the festival and a talented composer. “We especially try to include some of the music that he wrote,” Talbott says.
Consort Anon features recorders of various sizes (the smallest, the sopranino, is a bit smaller than the one you tortured your parents with), percussion instruments like tambourines and finger cymbals, and a stringed instrument called a hurdy-gurdy. Like most of Ren Fest’s musical groups, Consort Anon plays both onstage and among the people. While Talbott says performing onstage is nice because festivalgoers tend to be more attentive, “the interaction between us and the people attending is even greater when we’re on the pathways” on the festival grounds, she says. “We figure we are providing the atmosphere for their enjoyment.”
Andrea DeSanti and the rest of Larksong travel light. The seven-person group — of which DeSanti is a founding member — doesn’t have microphones or amplifiers or even instruments. All that’s needed are voices.
The a cappella group will sing four or five times each day during its 20th year at Ren Fest, both onstage and on the pathways that wind through Revel Grove. “The pathways are great [because] you can be up close and personal,” DeSanti says. But “there’s always the challenge not only of the audience hearing, but you hearing yourself.” The group copes by relying on its louder, more upbeat songs while on the paths, but “if we’re in a quiet nook, we’ll do some of our slower pieces.” With a repertoire of around 300 songs, they have plenty to choose from.
The group, which will perform on Monday as well as the weekends of Sept. 22 and Oct. 20, specializes in madrigals, which can be a tricky interweaving of melody and harmony, point and counterpoint. “It’s complicated to listen to,” DeSanti says. “A lot of times we’re not all singing the same words or the same melody; you have to pay attention. If you’ve had seven beers, it might not interest you as much.”
Even those who are interested can ask some interesting questions. “We had somebody once come up and say, ‘Gee, how can you sing all of this without music?’ ” she says. “We do have music. We just don’t play instruments.”