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 medievalWales.
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.'"
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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.
When it came time for Miranda Sex Garden to acquaint itself with the road, it did so at the behest of Mute's fattest cash cow, Depeche Mode. But the partnership put a strain on the band, not the least Blake, who still recounts the 1993 tour as "one of the most extreme experiences in my life." The experience reached a fever pitch in Germany, where fun for Depeche Mode fanatics involved trying to force the support act from the stage.
"We played in Nuremberg, in front of 22,000 people who were holding up their tickets in the air with what looked like a Nazi salute, chanting 'De-Peche Mode!'" Blake recounts. "This guy threw a bag of shit at me, and our drummer threw it back, where it burst into the audience! It was really, really full-on. Kind of like war."
It took Blake six years to complete 2000's Carnival of Souls, the most recent MSG record. The group exists concurrently with Mediæval Bæbes, sharing members and intertwining ideas. "Miranda Sex Garden is a rock band," clarifies Blake. "Mediæval Bæbes is a choir. Neither are traditional in that genre, though; Miranda Sex Garden's a pretty fucking weird rock group, and Mediæval Bæbes is by no means a traditional choir."
Yet the first Mediæval Bæbes record, 1998's Salva Nos, was steeped in somber traditionalism. Just in time for the holidays, Salva Nos ("Save Us") collected wintry madrigals and ancient Gaelic and English hymns like "This Ay Nicht," perfect for an evening on the bearskin rug in front of the hearth with a mug of mead. With its chilling, cathedral-like emptiness, the album's multitracked vocal purity caused a sensation, reaching the top of the European classical charts.
More percussion-based was 1999's Worldes Blysse, which sold nearly as well as the debut had. But the Mediæval Bæbes took a near-fatal misstep in 2000 with Undrentide, electing John Cale to produce. "I had a misguided fantasy that it was going to be an amazing collaboration, which, quite honestly, it wasn't," Velvet Underground fan Blake complains. "We didn't see eye to eye, and he basically took control of the album out of our hands. Took it away to New York and brought his jazz mates to come in and noodle all over it... And I was outraged." She laughs again anyway.
Somewhere along the way, Blake and her clan gained a certain notoriety for enjoying festivities befitting more stereotypically hard-living rockers. "Personally, I'm a bit of a party animal," she says before another rollicking chuckle. "I just can't stop partying. I'm one of the more extreme hedonists in the band! But we don't party as much as we used to. The first two years were like a Bacchanalian orgy -- a really good excuse to hang out with your female friends, get drunk, and sing some songs. But in time, people calm down a bit and see it as more of a job rather than a sort of party on wheels."
Inasmuch as Mediæval Bæbes make music for suppertime, they shouldn't be out of place at the Renaissance Faire's re-creation of a 16th-century British village, complete with wenches, turkey legs, blacksmiths, jugs of mead, pints of ale, dungeons, and dragon slayers as well as jousters, jesters, and jugglers.
Also lending credence to the ladies' free-spirited reputation is Songs of the Flesh, a coffee-table book released in 2000 featuring soft-core photos of the Mediæval Bæbes. Flaunting equal parts reverence and ribaldry, Songs of the Flesh captured the singers in various stages of bodice-ripping bliss. In highbrow quarters, the exposure did little to lend the group artistic credibility. "We got many bitchy reactions, really," Blake recalls. "But we did it because it'd be a fun thing to do." Likewise, the fact that Blake put herself through Purcell by dancing for dollars in the evenings didn't go unnoticed by the press either.
"My policy with that is to be honest," she says. "I haven't anything to hide. I have a past, it's certainly been very colorful, and I'm not embarrassed by anything I've done. Stripping was a good experience -- it meant that I could support myself and start the Mediæval Bæbes without having to get a full-time job. Which was quite healthy, really."
Humor and sexuality mingle happily and healthily on The Rose, the new album from the Bæbes, its title in reference to the quintessential medieval symbol of love. An Irish-flavored, classically pastoral, instrumental dance piece is called (heh, heh) "Lick the Maypole." On "The Sour Grove," a gently plucked zither helps narrate a delicate ode to the ageless power of pussy; penned by Welsh poet Gwerful Mechain sometime around 1490, a portion of the extract from "Cywydd Y Cedor (The Female Genitals)" translates as "a girl's thick grove, circle of precious greeting, lovely bush. God save it."
Such liberties with convention give rise to accusations that the Bæbes are cheapening -- instead of reverently resurrecting -- historical music. Yet it's hard to point to anyone presenting classical music with more spirit.
"The fact that we're called the Mediæval Bæbes betrays the fact that we're not deadly serious," Blake confesses. "Obviously, we're very serious about being good and professional, but in ourselves, we're quite lighthearted and playful, and it's nice to keep that side of it alive. People say I'm a very serious, pretentious person. Well, whatever. Maybe I am pretentious. But I'm a complete hopeless romantic."
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