Medieval Rock (Not!)
A Talk with Estampie and Qntal.
By Stephen D. Winick
Multi-instrumentalist Michael Popp and singer Sigrid Hausen (whose stage name is Syrah) are the driving forces behind two of Germany’s foremost medieval bands, Estampie and Qntal. Both bands performed during FaerieCon in Philadelphia in October 2007; as their concerts revealed, Estampie is essentially an acoustic group, while Qntal is electric. But don’t call them “medieval rock,” or you might get in trouble with Popp. “The difference is obvious on the surface,” he explained, in an interview at FaerieCon. “We don’t use guitar. Our repertoire is much wider than the medieval rock groups. We do religious and spiritual music, and we’ve found sounds adapted to that. We have love songs and courtly songs too. We have Syrah and her pure heavenly voice!”
It's no wonder that Syrah and Popp were attracted to medieval music at a young age: they come from Regensburg, a city whose medieval town center sports buildings dating from the tenth to the fourteenth centuries, and whose twelfth-century stone bridge across the Danube was used by the soldiers of the second and third crusades. In such an environment, Syrah pointed out, “there is always the influence of that atmosphere.” At school, she gave recorder recitals, and formed her own madrigal group. Popp, too, became serious about music, and soon both left for the Mozarteum, the famous conservatory in Salzburg. Their studies with Nikolaus Harnoncourt, among others, convinced them to stick with medieval music. They found another multi-instrumentalist, Ernst Schwindl, and formed the group Estampie.
Creating a repertoire was a challenge, as Popp revealed in the notes to Best of Estampie, just released on Philadelphia’s Noir Records label: “Even in the context of Early Music,” he wrote, “Medieval Music was of minor importance at that time. Publications were scarce and it was hard to find an adequate artistic approach to musical sources. Music groups …held very strict views about interpretation. […] They sometimes quarreled tooth and nail about their contradictory views of performing practice. Estampie never participated in this kind of trench war and preferred to find their own, individual way from the beginning.” Estampie managed the challenge, and soon, in Syrah’s words, “we decided to do more concerts than studying!”
Estampie has now existed for twenty-two years, has released eight albums and a DVD, and has ranged in size from a trio to a ten-piece. The Philadelphia lineup included the three founders plus percussionist Sascha Gotowtschikow and bagpiper Christoph Pelgen; they played energetic acoustic medieval music with middle-eastern and world music influences, on instruments ranging from European hurdy-gurdy, bagpipe and recorder to Arabic oud and Turkish saz. “In our time we have seen many different ideas of medieval music,” Popp said. “In the 80s, it was more a courtly thing, with big renaissance or baroque costumes, playing Duke and Duchess. And then we had the Hidlegard von Bingen movement, which was a spiritual and esoteric movement, and all the women in medieval music were walking around dressed in white. And then, we had this medieval rock scene, which is completely the opposite. So there are completely different ideas of what medieval music is!”
“You find the essence of medieval music in different music styles,” he continued. That’s why we play Turkish and Arabian instruments. There’s a lot of affinity between these two styles, and there’s a lot of affinity to modern styles also, like dance music.” In fact, after founding Estampie, exploring the affinity of medieval and modern dance styles was Popp’s next project. Initially, he was collaborating with electronic musician Ernst Horn, but the two quickly realized they would need an open-minded vocalist who could handle singing in five medieval languages. Needless to say, there were not hundreds of candidates, and Popp was quick to ask Syrah aboard. It was Syrah who named the new trio; in a dream, she said, she saw the word “Qntal” written on a wall. When she awoke, she realized that, as a word that didn’t exist in any language, Qntal was a perfect name for a type of music that didn’t exist yet either.
Qntal built their repertoire in a new way, starting with medieval texts and composing most of the music themselves. “Mostly with Estampie we use old melodies, and with Qntal we only use older lyrics,” Syrah explained. There was no precedent they knew of for a band combining medieval music and electronica, but, Popp said, “it’s not very hard to get the electronics into medieval music. If you see the essence of medieval music, there’s dancing and drinking and partying, and pop music is quite close!” Qntal soon created their first recording, a troubadour song in an arrangement they say was influenced by the sublime Irish noise-rock band My Bloody Valentine. Within a year, they had made their first album, Qntal (1992). One song was a hit on the dance scene, while the more contemplative tracks earned them comparisons to Dead Can Dance. However, Qntal was still a studio project rather than a band, and nothing more happened for a few years. When Qntal II was released in 1995, however, Horn’s other group, the avant-garde electronic duo Deine Lakaien, was about to tour. They needed some musicians to fill out the onstage lineup, and Horn asked Popp to join. The idea soon hit them to have Qntal as the opening act, and Qntal made its first live appearances.
Between 1996 and 2002, Qntal lay dormant. Popp and Syrah were busy with Estampie, while Horn continued with Deine Lakaien. In 2001, Horn left Qntal, and was replaced by Phillip “Fil” Groth, a guitar and keyboard player who had already played in punk, reggae, jazz and metal bands. At the time, Groth was doing programming and production for the medieval rock band In Extremo, who shared management with Qntal; the management company introduced him to Popp. “I made a song for a sampler,” Popp recalled. “I gave Fil what I’d produced, and he was giving me every day a new version!” Impressed with Groth’s versatility, Popp asked him to join Qntal, and soon, the new trio had completed Qntal III: Tristan und Isolde. This was the first of their albums to feature Middle English material, a language Syrah sings in particularly well. “When I read these [Middle English] lyrics,” she explained, “it seemed to me to be an old mixture of German and English, so it’s very near to us!” Their fourth album, Qntal IV: Ozymandias, contained more Middle English songs, and expanded the concept of Qntal beyond the medieval, with tracks based on a Shelley poem and a Purcell aria, among others.
This all set the stage for Qntal V: Silver Swan. On this 2006 release, they arranged medieval German, Latin, Spanish, Provençal, and English lyrics. They ventured into the Renaissance with songs by Elizabeth I of England and John Donne. Obscure romances like the 12th-Century “Belle Erembor,” and well-known pieces like Heinrich von Morungen’s elf-themed song “Von den Elben” became the basis of Qntal songs, and the Middle English lyric “The Whyle” was dressed up with an appropriate, driving dance rhythm and an appealing naivete. The CD exists as a regular release, and a limited edition with a special booklet of art by Brian Froud, plus a second disc with song remixes, a Froud art gallery, and videoclips.
Both Estampie and Qntal will release CDs in 2008. Estampie’s Al-Andaluz will feature medieval Spanish, Portuguese, Moorish and Sephardic music. Qntal VI remains a mystery (they’re not telling what the concept is), but it has been recorded and awaits release. Qntal also hopes to tour more in the U.S., incorporating multi-media elements into their shows. “Pure concerts are not enough anymore,” Popp said. “I think there’s an atmosphere here, and we can really develop our strengths.”