By Michael Toland, © 2002 High Bias February 23, 2002 (March 10 archive)

High Bias Stage Struck

A bookstore seems like an odd place to see a concert, but thank goodness for Borders’ willingness to become a venue. Without it, a band like Istanpitta (an Italian word that means, essentially, “stamping dance”) might find it difficult to find a place to play. The Houston-based ensemble revives the dance music of the medieval and Renaissance eras, performing song styles called Estampies, Salterellos and Chansons as if the musicians were traveling bards singing for their supper. This is not Celtic music; while certain strains of what we’ve become familiar with as Celtic folk are certainly present, most of these pieces have their origins in France, Italy and Spain. There’s also a definite Arabic flavor to the melodies, adapted from the Moorish culture permeating Europe in the 10th through 15th centuries; the quartet threw in Turkish and Bulgarian tunes as well. Even elements of what we now call klezmer made themselves heard from time to time. While it’s tempting to recommend Istanpitta to fans of groups like the Chieftains, in truth the band has more in common with more eccentric and wide-ranging collectives like Dead Can Dance and Ekova. The breadth and depth of the melodic themes on display, connecting the musical cultures of Eastern and Western Europe, would give a musicologist a warm, fuzzy feeling all over.

This Saturday night the band was in town warming up for Austin’s Mid-Winter Festival of Music, put on by the Texas Early Music Project, as well as promoting its latest CD Chevrefoil. While the new disk is a thematic work based on the tale of Tristan and Isolde, the band chose to perform only select pieces from it, mixed with a generous helping of tunes from its first album C’est La Fin and a handful of unrecorded songs. Leader Al Cofrin led the group on saz, lute (picked with a feather) and Spanish bagpipes. Jonathan Brumley on recorders and crumhorn and Thea Goldsby on vielle (an early version of the violin with a flat bridge to allow for droning, similar to the Nordic Hardanger fiddle) and cornamuse (which she called “a more civilized crumhorn”) took many of the main melodies; percussionist Michael Tucker accented the tunes with subtle but indispensable accompaniment. Goldsby also provided lovely vocals on songs like “De moi deloreus,”  which goes from a melancholy ballad to a sprightly dance piece, and “Penser ne doit vilenie.”  While the performance had its downbeat moments, such as the English adaptation of the ironic poem “Merry It Is,”  the main body was lively and upbeat-this is dance music, after all. The energy the musicians put into the tunes and their obvious delight in playing them kept this show from being a mere educational exercise in early musical forms. This music lives and breathes and stamps its feet, showing little sign of its advanced age. Istanpitta is happy to remind us that dance music comes from all eras.

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