By Dan Kipp, The Kenyon Collegian

Kenyon is known for its Gothic architecture, but the Music Department got downright medieval this past Friday, Sept. 9. Istanpitta, a medieval music ensemble performing music from the 10th through 14th centuries, transformed Brandi Recital Hall into an ancient land.

Istanpitta’s program for the night, Exiled, featured songs and dances of 1492 Sephardic Spain, when King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella decreed the final expulsion of the non-Christian cultures from Spain. Arranged by Al Cofrin, the ensemble’s founder and director, Exiled tells the story of four musicians’ final goodbyes to one another through the language of music.

Istanpitta played everything from ouds to bagpipes and vielles to flutes, utilizing a wide swath of tambourines and hand drums. Cofrin himself played leader on the oud, setting the tone and not missing a note. Emily Lau narrated, describing the scene before each piece, and sang a beautiful, operatic register — in Latin, Spanish, French and Hebrew, no less.

Istanpitta’s defining characteristic is that it “presents the music in a manner that medieval musicians (who were somewhat low on the social scale) might have played them when performing for their next meal as they traveled from place to place across Europe,” according to its website. This practice manifested itself in Exiled in the form of some funky improvisation.

Its program denounced “the static literary versions (the words and music, transcribed onto parchment by a monk or nun)” of the traditional songs and dances it performed. Striving to represent “the dynamic historical reality of the ‘musician in the field’ (the piece of dirt who actually played it),” the musicians intermittently broke down, licking solo riffs straight from the top of the head, through the soul, to the song.

Their songs bordered on modern jazz in their improvisational nature. “In a good string quartet, the communication between performers is often intense and tangible,” Isis Leonard ’14 said. “Istanpitta intimated that communication to the audience — I actually caught the vocalist’s eye several times throughout the concert as she cued meter changes and signaled her interpretations. The percussionist was particularly engaging, driving the whole show with energy and precision.”

Istanpitta captured the attitude of the musicians who first played these songs. Indeed, they were a happy band. “The musicians seemed to be having so much fun with it,” Aaron Lynn ’14 said.

“I couldn’t help but find myself smiling  and tapping my foot or slapping my thigh.” Leonard added, “The seats in the recital hall restrained the audience unnaturally — we should all have been dancing.”

Originally scheduled for February, Istanpitta was trapped by snow in Chicago and cancelled the performance. They made it to Gambier this time and made quite an impression.

Following a much-desired encore, Istanpitta mingled in Storer Hall, showing off their instruments. “As a violinist, I was lucky enough to be entrusted with a vielle, the direct ancestor of the fiddle,” Leonard said. “All the members of the group were friendly and encouraging. They shared details of their experience and advised students on how to start their own ensembles.”

It looks like Kenyon could get even more medieval on your classes.

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