Meet the Music Makers: Anne Azéma, The Boston Camerata

By Landon Hegedus, UChicago Presents

In conversation with Anne Azéma, artistic director of The Boston Camerata and creator of The Night’s Tale:

UChicago Presents: The source inspiration for The Night’s Tale is a poem called Le Tournoi de Chauvency, which comes to us by way of a trouvère (troubadour) named Jacques Bretel. Tell us about this poem and the world that it depicts.

Anne Azéma: Our production is called The Night's Tale – as in “night,” as opposed to day; not as in “knight” as in chivalry – though, it's a little bit of a pun. The Night's Tale is based on a long poem by a certain Jacques Bretel. It runs about four thousand verses, and is a narrative on an event that actually took place in a small town in the northeast of France called Montmédy and Chauvency. And the Tournoi de Chauvency is that big event, which brought in all these glorious youths from all over Europe to basically have a tournament, to be sure, but also have entertainment and discuss love and music – and various other things that one might have on one's mind when one is possibly looking for love.

UCP: The tournoi at Chauvency – was there anything particularly special about that tournament that made it the subject of Bretel’s documentation?

AA: We don't know if it was specifically different from other tournaments. It was probably bigger than a lot of tournaments; a lot of people came from all over Europe – Northern Europe, and even English people came in to be spectators – so it was considered quite a bit of an event, this tournoi in 1285 in Montmédy. But for me as a singer, and for you the audience, the interest is that when Jacques Bretel tells us about the tournament, he actually includes all sorts of little musical inserts, so to speak. For instance, he will describe the action of the jousting, but then he also will describe how the ladies look at this jousting competition. Afterward, when the day goes down and the night begins, they will take everybody in singing and music-making to the castle, and have the night’s entertainment – namely dances, social games, singing, and conversing about love.

UCP: What, if anything, made Bretel uniquely poised to document this event?

AA: We have no idea – you're asking me who Bretel was, but we have no idea. We know his name, and we know that he was commissioned by the people of Salm, not far from where the tournament happened. He must have been a well-known poet. He has lots of humor – he makes some jokes that are quite interesting, particularly linguistic jokes; he makes fun of people who speak with a German accent. He's a commentator, so to speak, but a poet as well. Other than that, we don't know what his role really was, except that he's part of what's happening. He's a witness, but he's also sitting with people and conversing with them; so like a real journalist – and a bit of an entertainer himself – he connects with what's happening during the nights.

UCP: You mentioned that Bretel is specific in his depictions or his descriptions of sort of the musical elements. What are the musical elements that you actually brought into this production of The Night's Tale?

AA: So here lies the challenge, and this is why I created it; it's because after many years of performing medieval music, suddenly this source was there in front of us, part of a larger manuscript, kept at the Bodleian Library in Oxford. In that manuscript, you have other narratives in the same style, so to speak, about chivalry and so forth, but you also have a collection of songs and ballattes – smaller songs, smaller forms. And suddenly, there’s this narrative in the middle of the manuscript that is talking incessantly, continuously, about music – but doesn't contain a single note of music! So the challenge was to share it with the public, to make people feel how music was constantly present: winds to announce the jousting; the evening entertainment, led by Beatrice de Luxembourg and her acolyte Périnne, the vielle player.

So we have instrumental music; dances; songs, accompanied and unaccompanied – it's absolutely a dream come true, because you have this particular milieu of aristocratic young people, led by a slightly older crowd who front the cost, and then invite the most beautiful people from all over Europe for that event. And yet, it all turns into a large musical week – the tournament lasts for a week! Our production has reduced it to its essential core: a single day of jousting, and one night of entertainment.

UCP: The archetype of the medieval tournament, with the jousting and so forth, is a depiction of conflict, so to speak – but there is also the element of love that is the undercurrent of all of these proceedings.

AA: Yes. What is incredibly interesting is that although the entire conversation is about love, really – who will connect with whom, and under what conditions; who will be desired by whom; and how will this love be accepted, refused, and so forth. But in jousting, you have a relationship with your adversary that in a way is also quite powerful, and perhaps is mired in as much interest as in romantic conversations. In the same way, you might have an energy of  conflict and combat in a conversation around love.

So to me, reading this text and listening and hearing this evocation of music basically led me to focus on what does a conversation consist of. Where is the aggressive, combative part in love, and what is the more gentle, respectful way of actually physically battling with somebody? Where do the borders happen? So when you'll come to The Night's Tale, you'll be perhaps lost, because some of the texts with a feminine eye are not necessarily applied to love, and some of the conversation and music around love may be applied instead to jousting, because the energy that emanates from these sources is quite alarming in the way that they go back and forth.

UCP: You've painted this picture of music permeating every aspect of the event. And of course, in your retelling, there is a cast of singers who will be playing the characters. Can you introduce us to who those characters are?

AA: Sure. In that evening of music – and there’s also a bit of narration in The Night's Tale – we will have four principal singers, two men and two women. We will have one instrumentalist, a vielle player, who also plays the guittern. You will see me again as your sort of Madame Loyale, so to speak, leading you from one moment to the next, perhaps, and reminding the people around what the goals might be. You will have two groups of singers who are students from the University of Chicago who will be a sort of male element and female element, and they will sustain, encourage, comment, and be a part of this conversation.

UCP: The instrumentalist in The Night’s Tale – that is, the vielle player – has their own role within the narrative. Can you explain what they do?

AA: Yes! Perin, the vielle player was with Beatrice de Luxembourg, the leader of the evening conversations around love. So she will have our own world of conversation. She plays “Le Robardel” For example. It's hard to translate, but it roughly comes to “the little thieves’ dance,” where she will dance around people and lead them in other social games. She will accompany songs and become another poetic voice in this conversation about love. So you will hear some bowed strings and some plucked strings from her, always as a bridge between numbers, or as an actual number when the lovers actually come together – she is the glue that binds the moment together even after the pair stops singing.

UCP: I understand as well that the staging of The Night's Tale is a little bit unusual – not quite like a concert, yet not quite like an opera. What might the audience expect in terms of the space, and how does it differ from a typical concert?

AA: We're very happy to be presenting this program at the University of Chicago’s International House, because ­– see, none of this music was meant for a concert hall. We have to constantly remind ourselves of that; it's a tension and a balance that is difficult to respect as a professional musician. And so for this piece, it was more important for me to create an arena where the music could be experienced in a close fashion by the public, rather than remote on a stage far away. And yet, where a space would be large enough to include some movements (it's hard to talk about jousting or dancing without having any movements!) – and also to be able to support the combination of movement, music, lights, and design, and the seating of the public – to create an arena where this conversation around love can be developed in a straightforward and human way that is easy to relate to, rather than in a remote opera fashion – or in a church, where the purpose of the music performed there and the acoustic of the spaces are completely different. So I think we've found the right place with Amy Iwano, and I'm very much looking forward to this experiment.

UCP: Going back to the poem that is the source material – how did you discover it? What was so fascinating to you about it upon your discovery, and what do you think that the audience will also find fascinating about it?

AA: I did not discover the source – the source has been edited in the early 20th century by Mr. Maurice Delbouille. What I discovered, personally, is that I was maybe up to the task to make it alive again for an audience of the 20th, and now the 21st, century. It was actually, in all honesty, one of the luminaries of the study of early romance languages, Professor Nancy Regalado at New York University, who encouraged me strongly to look at it. She came to one of my concerts and at the end, she said, “You have to look at the Tournoi de Chaunvency.” And so I did, but only a few years later – and indeed, after many years of experimenting on medieval narrative in general, with music a part thereof, it was a natural fit.

But I think what I discovered is that what we for this very extraordinary but special repertoire that medieval music is, we cannot and do not contain ourselves to the world of the spoken word and poetry, and the world of music. These two streams are intimately linked, and one cannot live without the other. If there is music to poetry, or even if there is not actual transmission of music to the poetry, a lot of these texts were so connected with the music – even declaimed in music, in some cases – that this powerful connection between the two mediums in this repertoire is not to be missed.

UCP: There is a possibility that audiences will come into this performance with their mind sort of made up about what happens in this whole act of chivalry and what happens in the tournament. So, in presenting this particular piece, The Night's Tale, what do you hope that audiences might learn for the first time, or perhaps have their minds changed about with regard to this whole historical event?

AA: Well, for people who will come to The Night’s Tale, I have to promise you first and foremost that there will be no curly shoes, and no pointy hats! It’s not so much our goal to try to picture the Middle Ages with such an evening. To me, as a woman of 2019, what is most interesting is to glance backwards and look at these texts and notice their beauty, their strength, their energy and try to define what courtly love is, and how can you access, and all the steps that create love – and rejection, and combat, and jousting, and so forth – and through my own time and place, and my own music-theater making, but through the lens of that 1310 piece from Northern France, try to focus on a few powerful ideas that still feed us today.

UCP: What have you been listening to lately?

AA: You know, when you perform practically every day, or when you make your music every day, it's very hard to have to find the time to actually sit down and listen intently to something that is not the piece you're going to have to produce in 24 or 48 hours. But I tell you, something that struck me deeply recently is – I heard some string quartets by Shostakovich, and I thought my world was changed from it. That's so far from what I do, and yet the profound despair and pain and tragedy that comes out of these pieces is eternal. Modestly, when you come back to your own work, you recognize the same themes – even as you talk of love. There is a little rondeau in The Night's Tale, saying “Toute soule passerai le vert boscage,” (All alone I will cross the green wood), which is a little ditty, seemingly, but therein you have the entire solitude of the one who never finds his or her match in love, and continues to live on in life in the vert boscage, the Green Wood.

UCP: It’s so interesting that you mention that – when I asked Rachel Podger this question, she had a very similar response! She mentioned that Shostakovich was ordinarily out of her wheelhouse – that is, not the kind of music that she performs on a daily basis, as you put it – but she had heard one of his symphonies on a concert that her daughter was performing in, and was taken by the virtue of Shostakovich’s music and the astonishing context in which he was working. She said ultimately that she really enjoyed it.

AA: The similarity is complete happenstance, but I think what's touching is that you discover the constancy of the human soul. I think that is perhaps why we do music of the past – it’s to comfort ourselves with the notion that the troubles and institutions we are in today, and the joys we experienced, are nothing new. They feed us and they drive us and they break us, just same way that people were driven and delighted and broken eight hundred years ago.