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In the cultural Gobi desert that is the American public school system, choir practice might lead somewhere later in life. Forced to practice patriotic dreck like "In the Spirit of Hope" in Mrs. Fazoli's class, our youth have only screeching some abominable Whitney Houston song on American Idol to aspire to. Growing up in the Olde Country amid the remnants of a rich medieval history -- with blarney stones, Stonehenge, castles, Chaucer, and Gregorian chants -- evidently instills one with more passion for the past.
That's basically the experience of Katharine Blake, leader of the all-female vocal collective Mediæval Bæbes. Blake and her eight singing sisters celebrate old music -- as in really, really old music. Older than dirt, in fact: Fifteenth-century English madrigals, Russian folk from the fields, French chansons from the 1300s, ancient Italian love songs, saucy erotic poetry from medieval Wales.
And because they are ba(e)bes, the group's four records have been met with varying degrees of condescension, scorn, and fascination, as if beautiful women singing 700-year-old songs had to be a gimmick. Plus, the band's label, Virgin, struck commercial gold with the Spice Girls a year before the Mediæval Bæbes' debut. Nowadays, with bodacious ta-tas bouncing everywhere from string quartets (Bond) to arias (Opera Babes), no wonder Blake sounds defensive. In fact, with regard to the latter outfit, she sounds positively pissed.
"This is the irony, right?" she begins with a keen edge to her London lilt. "When we first got signed to Virgin, they were like, 'Great concept, but dunno about the name -- maybe you should change it to Mediæval Sirens.' And we said, 'No way -- that'd be pompous. Mediæval Bæbes is lighthearted, tongue-in-cheek.'"
The Mediæval Bæbes began in 1997 as a 12-member choir with more fraternity than talent; today, it's a more sophisticated outfit, including Blake, Audrey Evans, Carmen Schneider, Ruth Galloway, Rachel Van Asch, Claire Ravel, Marie Findley, Teresa Casella, and the bizarre-looking Cylindra Sapphire, who, Blake says, "describes herself as a space pixie." By all accounts, the Mediæval Bæbes is a tempestuous assortment of conflicting personalities.
"Oh, tell me about it!" Blake says with a mock-exasperated sigh. "But having said that, we do enjoy playing in the Bæbes, and we do get on very well even after all these years, despite all the jealousies. They're a really amazing, smart, imaginative bunch of women, and they're great fun to hang out with."
And -- possibly a prerequisite for membership -- they're all hot.
"Yeah, it's an advantage and a disadvantage," Blake admits. "It's proved a disadvantage in that people think, 'They're good-looking, so they must be shit.' Obviously that's a load of old bollocks. If you look good, why not capitalize on that? The image of the Mediæval Bæbes is a very big part of what we are. Because why just sound good when you can look good as well?"
When she isn't paraphrasing Fernando Lamas, Blake is in charge of constructing the Bæbes' increasingly fancy music. As musical director, she selects and arranges every piece, carefully notating each part for each member of the brood. "I kind of lead the rehearsals, and the majority of the material I've written," she says, "so I teach it to people."
Among the period instruments certain to lend authenticity to the Mediæval Bæbes' four-day stay at the South Florida Renaissance Faire next week are the hurdy-gurdy, hammered dulcimer, recorder, and zither. They'll be played by 66-year-old Dorothy Carter, who came to the Bæbes via Berlin and an unlikely friendship with Einstürzende Neubauten guitarist Alex Hacke. When Blake met her in 1996, she remembers, "I was captivated by these cranky old instruments she was playing." Thus began the Mediæval Bæbes, looking -- with their plainsong and bustiers -- like a burlesque version of Bulgarian Voices.
The result is the sound of classical training paying off, Blake says with a shrug. Her childhood and teenage years were spent learning piano and violin, spending the remainder of her time in one choir or another. She ended up at London's Purcell School of Music.
During her formal education, Blake met Kelly McCusker and Jocelyn West, who formed a vocal group around Blake's recorder. Soon, the trio could be found singing madrigals on Portobello Road, which led directly to a contract with Mute Records, which signed the three under the name Miranda Sex Garden. "Really," Blake marvels, "my destiny changed from busking in the street."
An a capella album (1991's Madra) began the Garden's path, but the addition of a drummer and bassist for Suspiria, two years later, brought forth an aggressive change in temperament. Instead of old English works like "While Joyful Springtime Lasteth," the group now tackled dynamic originals as well as the theme to David Lynch's Eraserhead. The goth/fetish-tinged Fairytales of Slavery(1994) again transformed the group, this time with layers of swirling strings buttressed by grueling percussion. Every bit as intense as its predecessor, Slavery was a collaboration with labelmates Neubauten, the German industrial juggernaut.
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