Looking for the perfect soundtrack to the impending Dark Age that avian flu, Pat Robertson and airplane contrails are about to inflict on the human race? Look no further than Luter: Music of Western Europe, 1200-1450, the second release from Boise State music professor Joseph Baldassare. (OK, the music on Baldassarre's CD isn't technically from the period commonly referred to as the "Dark Ages." It's from a couple centuries after things lightened up. Don't start a crusade about it.)
Admittedly, I have little experience with pre-Renaissance European music, outside of the times I've noticed a few decorative lute overdubs on some of my stuffy old British folk-rock records. But Baldassarre has a preternatural knack for bringing a listener up to speed on the electrifying potential of acoustic historical instruments. Nowhere was this clearer for me than on the opening track, a 15th century Italian Saltarello dance tune that Baldassarre plays on solo lute. With a sound that mixes the tight plucks of a mandolin with the swirling drone of a sitar, it's clear at once that the lute is as complicated to play as it is rotund. The professor's masterful plectrum-work produces enough atmospheric tones, cascading notes and weird percussive noises to make my head spin like ho's 'round a maypole.
Across 18 tracks packed with far too much research to convey here, Baldassarre introduced me to all manner of instruments whose names sound like medieval football players ("Oud, look long for Riq and Crumhorn!"), and others, like the symphonia, soprano flute and doucaine, which sound slightly more reminiscent of modern instruments. The doucaine in particular was worth a closer listen--its distorted, nasal drone is about as close as an acoustic instrument can get to a Hammond B-3 organ, and the album's seamless production made it sound as crisp as if the musicians were playing for their lives at my very feet. Amazingly, Baldassarre plays every note of every track, but his solo lute playing nonetheless steals the show--which shouldn't be a surprise. Not only has Baldassare published several guides to playing the instrument, his late father, Antonio Baldassarre, hand-built medieval and Rennaissance-era instruments for over 30 years.
The only downside I could find on Luter was the eminently professorial-sounding minstrel-style song/story/jam session "Kalenda Maya," which Baldassarre ominously calls "the crux of the program" in his liner notes. I would add that "Kalenda Maya" is a crux in the same way that "When the Music's Over" is the crux of The Doors' Strange Days. Nice idea, Professor/Lizard King, but after 10-minutes of talking, singing, and singing-that-sounds-like-talking, it just becomes too ... damn ... much. My stereo headphones become stocks, and village people start throwing rotten produce at me. Baldassare's ability to stay in tune while singing in both Occitan and Middle English is impressive, but unless I'm being graded on listening to his slightly Kermit-the-Frog-esque vocal tracks, I'll probably skip to the next instrumental dance tracks next time.
However, in that criticism lies a stroke--I actually will listen to my favorite songs on Luter again, as well as recommend them heartily to open-minded music fans of all stripes.
Find out how to get Baldassarre's CD on his Web site, www.drjoeb.com.