Music for a plague: an interview with Falsobordone

Falsobordone are a Swedish early music duo consisting of Erik Ask-Upmark (harp, bagpipes, organetto, symphony, trumpet, shawm, recorders, flute, rauschpfeife, citole, bells, voice) and Anna Rynefors (rebec, bagpipes, percussion, voice). Their latest album, 1350, is a beautifully presented collection of medieval music based around the 14th century bubonic plague or Black Death or, as it was then known, the pestilence. After well over a year of the Covid-19 pandemic and restrictions, there are clear thematic links with the present.

When Erik asked me if I’d like to review their very enjoyable, superbly produced album, I wanted to do something better. A review is one just person’s opinion, and it always boils down in essence to a single point: I like it or I don’t like it. Since making an album is a creative, collaborative process, surely discussing an album merits a similar creative and collaborative process, and the musicians who did all the hard work deserve a right of reply. So I asked Erik and Anna for an interview, and was delighted when they agreed.

In June 2021 we discussed: their musical origins in early music and folk music and how that affects their playing now; the conception of 1350 as an album and a multi-media performance; how historical music knowledge is both essential and problematic; and the importance of engaging with a modern audience, giving them a whole experience not just of medieval music but of the times in which it arose.

Falsobordone: musical background

Ian: Anna and Erik, can you tell us about your respective musical backgrounds and how you got together as a duo?

Erik: I am a musicologist, originally. I started out playing piano. I started playing music quite late, in my late teens, and I always had a love for folk music before that. When I was in my teens I found the harpsichord, which was more fun than the piano. That became my point of entry to the world of early music. Then I started musicology, focusing on music history and, from then on, I started to perform. And we met around 23, 24 years ago …

Anna: More than 25 years ago. Time flies.

Erik: … and that was actually at an early music seminar, at a workshop for early music. Anna was there with her grandmother.

Anna: I was brought up with music, and my grandmother was very much into early music, so as soon as I was big enough to play [Tielman] Susato, I was doing that in the family quartet. I started with renaissance music and went back [in time] from there. My instrument from the beginning is the violin. We also play a lot of folk music. We’re both riksspelmän, that roughly translates as master musicians of the realm.

Erik: It’s an award within the confines of Swedish folk music that was started about 100 years ago, when the big national folk music interest started. There was this idea of awarding, well, fiddlers would be the term, but it’s like German Spielmann in Swedish, which means you could play not only fiddle, so we play the Swedish bagpipes, mostly, and Anna plays, of course, fiddle and other instruments as well.

Anna and Erik as the folk music duo, Dråm. (As with all pictures, click to see larger in a new window.)

Ian: Who gives that title? Who confers the award?

Erik: It’s an organisation that’s been around for almost a century now. There is a rotating jury of four or five people who are picked from a pool of very knowledgeable persons within Swedish folk music. Once every year you can perform for this jury, and they will deem what you are worthy of – a bronze badge, a silver badge, or the title of official master musician. There is a gold badge, and that is only awarded once, one every year …

Anna: A lifetime award.

Erik: … for many years of service in folk music.

Ian: It sounds very much like a Swedish equivalent of the EFDSS, the English Folk Dance and Song Society.

Erik: It’s quite parallel. This is called the Swedish Folk Dance Society.

1350 conception and repertoire  

Ian: How did the idea for 1350 come about? What was the conception?

Anna: Well, we have waited quite a long time to make another album. It’s been many years since our last album. The pandemic came, and we thought now is the time, there will be time to record. The theme sprung out of the pandemic, like a parallel.

Erik: It was pretty obvious when we started thinking about it, but also in concrete terms, it came about two years earlier. There was a big festival. The biggest one in Sweden is called the Medieval Week of Gotland, which is this island in the Baltic, which was the occasion in the year 1361 for a very famous event when the Danish king entered the city. He threatened to burn it down unless they offered him lots of gold. We wanted to do a concert program with music from exactly 1361. It’s both liberating and confining to set a specific year, the music that could have been heard in different circles in society in the year 1361. We had to include all of Europe, we couldn’t just do music of Gotland in 1361, because we don’t know that much about secular Swedish music in the 14th century. From that, we realised that was 11 years after the plague hit that region, so there must have been lots of people around who remembered the plague, and the music and culture would still have been very coloured by everyone’s experience about this horrible thing. Then we put in some music from the collection of flagellant tunes, the Hugo von Reutlingen [c. 1285–1360] collection, who wrote it down in 1348. From there on, we grew into this idea of doing a concert or a CD specifically about the plague because it’s a very enticing if rather gross subject.

Anna: It was on everyone’s mind, anyway. We thought we would lift it up and give it some perspective.

Erik: It was our only opportunity to seem relevant as a medieval music band in 2020 Sweden, basically [laughter]. Yes, this is one way of relating to normal people, to modern people, to the broader audience.

Ad mortem festinamus (To death we hurry) from Llibre Vermell de Montserrat (Red Book of Montserrat), c. 1399, sung as part of the final track on Falsobordone’s 1350.

Ian: The title is 1350 but, as you say, getting music from one year in the 14th century is a tough call. You’ve got material from Guillaume de Machaut [1300–1377], from the Red Book of Montserrat [Llibre Vermell de Montserrat, c. 1399], and from the elegantly titled British Library Additional Manuscript 29987 …

Erik: They really need to come up with a better title for that one! It’s a shame. It could have been bound in blue leather or something – it would have been known as the blue book.

Ian: … which is about 1400.

Erik: Right. I know we’re stretching it a bit there. It’s the same with the Red Book of Montserrat, which is generally considered to be the turn of the century or late 14th  century. It could be argued that the style is conservative and also that it must have been around before the source was written down a few years later. I know, it’s a bit of poetic license.

Ian: Yes, but it does fit in with the theme of the album.

Erik: It does, because it’s not typically like 15th century mannerist music, when everything changes, like [Guillaume] Du Fay [c. 1397–1474], that felt a bit too modern, for example.

Live performance

Ian: Given that there is that real connection between Covid-19 and the plague of 1350, does this mean you’ve done all the recording, but not yet had the chance to actually play it in front of living human beings?

Anna: Exactly. We are closing in on a first live appearance with this program, and then we are going to the festival in Gotland, as well. It’s going to be so much fun to actually meet a real audience and play for them in the same room.

Erik: Whenever we do concerts, we try to put it in a context. That means also spoken word. The obvious thing about this repertoire is, even without the plague, there is lots of music from the middle of the 14th century, even more so in terms of literature which, in the concert, we read a bit of, and it’s in the recording booklet as well. All these snippets of information from [Giovanni] Boccaccio [1313–1375] and [Francesco] Petrarch [1304–1374], and all these first-hand accounts which exist. Of course, it detracts a bit from the historically correct setting if you have a projector and so on, but it’s quite nice to have this extra layer of media with images. We project translations of the lyrics, which is great because we prefer to sing in the original language. The risk is always that people don’t understand what you’re talking about, or what you’re singing about, so we always try to include at least written translations, again, to keep it relatable and people understand what it’s about.

Anna: We’re going to do different levels of the concert depending on the venue. The first time we’re going to do the show live is outdoors, and the second one is in a ruin, which is technically both outdoors and indoors, depending on which regulation from the government you’re checking with. In the summer, the light from outdoors will be a problem, so we will keep it to just the spoken word, drama, and music. I do quite a bit of storytelling in different shows, so there will be a little portion of that as well.

Erik: The Covid-19 restrictions don’t mention ruins, interestingly enough, so they can be considered both inside and outside at the same time – Schrödinger’s ruin.

Historical performance, arrangements and style  

We can hear Erik and Anna’s feel for music as story-telling in their arrangement of the two Guillaume de Machaut pieces, Quant j’ay l’espart and Comment qu’à moy lonteinne (tracks 3 and 4). Anna’s singing on Comment qu’à is atmospheric, sincere, emotional, with a distinct lack of trained affectation. She tells the story and sings it like she means it.

To hear Comment qu’à moy lonteinne by Guillaume de Machaut, arranged and performed by Falsobordone, click on the picture. The video will open in YouTube.

The Italian instrumental Istanpittas from British Library Additional Manuscript 29987 are challenging to play, as it is easy to make them just a continuous stream of notes. One such is Isabella (track 8), on which Erik’s careful articulation on the organetto turns it into meaningful music.

To hear the Italian istanpitta Isabella, arranged and performed by Falsobordone, click on the picture. The video will open in YouTube.

Ian: I’d like to ask you about period arrangements and period instrumentation. With all medieval secular music, the written neumes [notes] are the beginning of what we play, not the end. There is always a process of making sense of the music, and of arranging. On La Manfredina [track 7], the extra flourishes and ornamentation you play bring it to life, and I can hear the influence of folk music in the ornamentation.

Erik: You’re right. It’s quite fun to play in a style on another instrument which is not connected to that style. For example, if you play fiddle ornaments on an organetto, which is not typically prone to that type of ornament, it sounds just hopefully a bit more refresh or unusual for that instrument.

Anna: In our band, Falsobordone, we don’t play exclusively drone music, but the drones are very central to our sound and what we are doing, so playing technique is affected by that. We both play bagpipes. With that comes all the phrasing you have to do with your fingers. You have to add ornamentation, otherwise you can’t play two notes after each other because it just becomes one note. You have to put ornamentation in there to make a melody.

Erik: I play organetto in that way as well, separating notes, even though it’s perfectly possible to just push the key twice. If you’re used to the bagpipe, as we are, it’s quite easy to put in a grace note. Also I should say that I’m very influenced by Christophe Deslignes, who is the organetto player in France, Cristina Alís Raurich, of course, and Catalina Vicens – we have the holy trinity of organetto players.

Ian: As we know, the aesthetics of playing folk music and playing early music are quite different, because in folk music you can pick up your steel string guitar, which is a late 19th century invention, and play something from the 18th century when there were no steel-string guitars, and nobody thinks twice about it because it’s folk music, you do what you want with it. Early music is different. People want to know, ‘What’s the evidence for that?’ I picked up some things on your recording, and I just wonder if you’ve any thoughts. The hurdy-gurdy: I don’t think there’s any evidence of the buzzing bridge, the dog, before 1500, and there are a couple of tracks that have it for music before 1500. In the notes you mention istanpittas and the citole. There are so many books that take it on trust that estampies and istanpittas are dances, as you state, but I’ve found absolutely no evidence for the estampie as a dance [for details, click here], and the notes mention the citole as the precursor to the guitar.

Erik: Yes, very simplistically.

Ian: I have a thing about that because lots of people say anything that’s got strings and frets must be a sort of guitar.

Erik: Yes, exactly. The citole is certainly not my or our area of expertise as we would claim with bagpipes or drone instruments. As you say, I wrote just very short notes in the booklet about it. As you said, the trompette [buzzing bridge] in the middle ages, that’s a very interesting question. I don’t know, frankly, when that was invented.

Ian: I think the first evidence is in Jheronimus Bosch’s painting, The Garden of Earthly Delights, usually dated 1495 to 1505. He doesn’t paint it correctly, but you know what it’s supposed to be.

Erik: Exactly.

Anna Rynefors and Erik Ask-Upmark as the early music duo, Falsobordone.

Anna: It’s all connected, this discussion. The discussion we have most often dealing with authenticity is still having the audience and the connection with the audience in the centre of performing. The thing is that the audience does not have quite the same way to perceive music as they did back in the 14th century. That’s why we might explain the citole as a predecessor to the guitar because it’s relatable to the audience we’re playing for, and also why we do such lavish arrangements because we need the music to be interesting to this spoiled audience of today.

Erik: We would never compromise on that to bring in modern instruments, but we do in terms of the arrangements, that’s definitely where we go our own way, and the way of playing on them as well. It’s really very fun to be able to do the recording, to do these arrangements and use the instruments. Even though we use them in period ways, the way of putting together an arrangement must be considered quite modern to keep the interest of the audience, having a tune tell its own little story.

Anna: Telling a story is important. Of course, the way this album came about, we were in isolation, so that way it was possible for us to do it was as a studio album from home, and that took away some of our limitations because it was possible for us to play more than once on each track. It was so much fun just creating this wealth of sound and storytelling.

Ian: The production on the album is just superb for that. We have all this studio technology at our fingertips, why not use it?

Erik: Exactly. It’s the old question: imagine if Machaut had a studio, imagine what he could have done, fifty part motets and so on.

Anna: We did have quite a discussion about it at the start, though, because it is a traditional world, the early music scene, but because of circumstances, we went for the studio.

Erik: It’s a very interesting question to which there is no answer, of course, the whole medieval ensemble, because there are these descriptions of massive number of players playing together. [One such is Guillaume de Machaut’s poem, Remède de Fortune, which lists 38 types of instruments played by minstrels assembled together. You can read the poem here. Go to lines 3963–3988 for the long list of instruments. – Ian] Did they take turns or did they play together? As far as I know, there is no proof for one or the other, so we are stuck with it. The most common would be probably small ensembles, but there are also these depictions of giant groups, which might also even be poetic license. It’s not possible to know.

Left: One of 76 illuminations in the Olomouc Bible, the earliest surviving Czech translation of the whole Bible, dated 1417 (Olomouc University Library MS III). The instruments in this scene are, left to right: nakers, vielle (medieval fiddle), oliphant (horn), triangle, koboz (fretless gittern) and bagpipe. Are we to understand this as showing an actual ensemble, or does this mean ‘here is the king surrounded by all his musicians’? Right: Folio 184v of The Breviary of Queen Isabella of Castile, made in Bruges, Netherlands, c. 1497. This scene shows King David and his musicians on the 15 steps of the Temple, including pipe and tabor, triangle, shawms, trumpets, harp, lutes, bagpipe, psaltery, and portative organ. This does not appear to be a realistic combination or number of instruments, and is probably a mythical scene, but certainty is impossible.

Anna: That is also another source that we use: not literature, but what do you want to do as a musician of today? If I meet a bunch of musicians and have the opportunity, we will jam. I think it’s very likely that musicians in medieval times also, if they had the opportunity, would jam together.

Erik: It’s tricky. Some things, which is actually the point of the whole CD, are totally alien to us from the 14th century, and there are certain things in how people approach the whole plague which we saw direct parallels to when the pandemic hit here. Musically, as well, you can certainly find things which absolutely have not changed, as well as many things which have, of course.

A detail from the fresco, Allegory of Good Government, by Ambrogio Lorenzetti, painted 1338-40.

Ian: There’s a particularly interesting track, Ognor mi trovo, the fifth track, where you’ve got tamborello, tamburo, and bagpipe. It’s done very effectively, that interplay between bagpipe and percussion. The reason that caught my ears is because, as far as I’m aware, there’s very little evidence of how percussion was used in the medieval period, and there you are playing percussion with bagpipe. That just raises the question: you want to play it, and how do you play it when the evidence has run out? I wonder what your approach is.

Erik: That’s again where the folk music comes in because the musician there, Daniel Åhlman, who plays percussion, has studied a lot of traditional Italian hand drum techniques, where you have a style of playing which is very specific to central Italy or southern Italy, the one place where you do find lots of iconography. In the renaissance frescoes in Tuscany, for example, they show quite often a big, what you would call a tamborello, usually for carol dancing. There is the famous fresco called The good government [above], which is a city scene. There is a circle of dancers and someone is playing the tamborello, and probably singing as well, from the 14th century. It would have been great if there was a bagpipe in there as well! As far as I know, the tamborello is shown to be used together with singing. Also in The Decameron, I think there’s a description of when they make music. Boccaccio mentions bagpipes and fiddles and drums. I’m not sure if he mentions them in the same sentence, so it might have been that they were considered separate, but on the other hand, as Anna said, if you have a drummer and a bagpiper and they meet, I’m sure back then they would play together.

A bagpiper and taborer from folio 197r of The Queen Mary Psalter (BL Royal 2 B VII), 1310–20.

Anna: The bagpipe is a fantastic instrument. It accompanies itself and it’s loud and it’s very useful, but it’s not the most clear when it comes to rhythm. For someone who is not really trained to listen to bagpipe music, it might be difficult to understand where the beats are. Percussion is a great way to help those that need help. Even if you’re not using percussion, but if you play for dancers, then you get the dancers’ feet that mark the rhythm. I think the feet are also a great way to relate to rhythm. We’ve played quite a bit for period dancers, and if you play solo you need some bells and a loud foot, but most commonly we simply need the percussion for the performance to work. You need clarity in communication to make dancers and musicians work together. That’s where the bagpipe can be a bit fuzzy. Having the folk music background is helpful as well. The majority of all folk music is dance music. To be a good fiddler, you have to have played a lot for dancing to make the music come alive.

Erik: There are so few medieval dances left. It’s like a shadow on the wall of the enormous, massive amount of music that must have been available. The oral tradition is all gone. As a musician, if you want to be popular, you play music that people can dance to. In Swedish folk customs, that’s certainly the case. I’m sure in the middle ages as well. It was an enormous, important ingredient and today there’s so little proof of it.

Ian: In terms of arrangements and mixing instruments, I’ve looked at large amounts of medieval iconography to find out what instruments were played with other instruments. The only conclusion I could come to was anything goes.

Erik: Pretty much.

Anna: Sometimes you see instruments that you think, ‘No, these will not match each other.’

Erik: You have the whole alta / bassa [high / low] music thing, and then you see a lute played with a bagpipe in a manuscript somewhere, or a gittern with a bagpipe, or shawms and gitterns. It’s really hard to say how it makes sense. Then, of course, it varies with what the individual illuminator knew about music, of course, so it’s really hard to tell.

Ian: I had a really important lesson a good many years ago when I went to see a band. I was watching a shawm player, a second shawm player and a bagpiper, all playing, and then on the right, a lute player who wasn’t playing yet. She was just getting ready and I thought, ‘There’s no way we’re going to hear her’, and she cut right through. It’s not just about volume, but also timbre: the lute takes up a different sonic space, so it cut through. We often hear and read this medieval and renaissance distinction between haut and bas instruments, loud outdoor and soft indoor instruments, but I think it’s not quite as straightforward as some writers would have us believe.

Erik: No, absolutely.

The medieval soundscape

1350 is very much a studio produced album, and all the better for being so. What we sometimes have in early music recordings is a spacious church which gives ambience, but with the effect of melding sounds together. In 1350, we have a sound that is intimate and immediate, with a superb stereo image, excellent sonic separation of instruments, and great clarity.

Ian: In terms of arrangements and presentation, there’s one track I’d really like to ask you about, which is the horribly atmospheric – and I mean that in the best possible way – final track, which is Processio Flagellantorum

Erik: I really had fun with that one.

Ian: … in which we hear flagellants whipping themselves. The track goes on for 17 minutes. The nearest I’ve ever heard to something like that is reconstructed performances of sacred plays like The Play of Daniel, or reconstructions of passion plays with music. What was the inspiration?

A procession of flagellants in Belles Heures of Jean de Berry, a French book of hours, 1409.

Erik: Anna actually did a thesis on soundscapes in early music back in her university days.

Anna: Yes, I had quite a few examples of it from different groups. I thought it was interesting to write an article about that. It was centred on soundscapes in modern recordings, different settings and so on, how the setting affects the music in specific recordings. When is the soundscape part of the music and when is it something extra? The whole theme of the album is, of course, a horrible theme, but we could not make an album that was horrible straight through [laughs] because that will be difficult to listen to. In the middle of the album, we focus more on love and dancing and avoiding the horrible facts around you, as people have done this year, and as they did during the plague. Sometimes you just have to forget, put it out of your mind, but we needed enough horrible things on the album as well [laughs], so we went out with a bang.

Erik: The album starts out with Dies Irae, an improvisation or free version of that, with a bit of soundscape, the ravens and the wind and so on, then that goes relatively quickly into proper music, but then we wanted to tie that together with the end. Of course, at the end of listening to the CD for an hour, it’s a bit of a challenge to do something which still keeps your interest. I hope there are still people who listen to an album from the start, even if there aren’t so many of them. We had this notion of tying back into the soundscape to get the listener into the whole 14th century frame of mind as much as possible, without the actual smells and everything else. The last track is one take on a flagellant procession with some of the ingredients that you would hear. As the track proceeds, the flagellants vanish in the distance, then there are some other travellers that you meet. The idea is that you’re on a road in the middle of the countryside and you meet these different figures, so there is someone calling out ‘Bring out your dead’ in Latin. I’m not sure they would have cried out in Latin, but it made more sense than modern English. You have the monk choir which was a straight rip-off from the Monty Python movie to have a bit of fun there. Then, eventually, we come close to the city where the city gates open, and we come into this different soundscape which is a medieval marketplace. I’m not sure if that comes across, but that was the idea, at least, to have a bit of a journey.

1350 album presentation

Ian: When I saw what you’d done with the presentation, I just longed for the old days when everybody bought CDs or LPs. I remember the 1970s with these gatefold sleeves that fold out. It’s such a shame that with downloads we’ve lost all of that.

Erik: When you’re in your 50s, you still remember this wonderful idea of a CD or an LP, of course, as a conceptualised presentation and not just a bunch of MP3 tunes that you download. Back in the good old days, such as Sergeant Pepper, you had a wonderful arc of the whole album, and that was an idea as well.

Anna: Shuffle this and you will be sorry. [laughs]

Erik: It’s a very thought-out order of tunes, hopefully, that comes through.

Less than one sixth of the extensive presentation pack for Falsobordone’s 1350. (As with all pictures, click to see larger in a new window.)

Ian: In the presentation you’ve included information about the music, about the bubonic plague, a map of the plague, information about medieval health care, about flagellants, wonderful pieces of art – The Triumph of Death by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, art from The Luttrell Psalter, The Romance of Alexander, and other sources. One thing I really appreciate is words in the original and English translations. And there are recipes from the time of the pestilence. How did the idea come about to present it like that?

Erik: The last time we did a CD was in the early 2000s, 18 years ago [Figs, fiddles and fine play – a musical taste of the 14th century, 2003]. We’ve done some other things as well since then, of course, but specifically a medieval CD was really a long time ago. For that, the idea was the medieval banquet. At the time, we had a collaboration with a food historian or culinary archaeologist.

Anna: We thought of making it into something more than just the music, having the recipes and having a whole concept, we thought that was a neat idea, to put it all in context.

Erik: We had many comments from the old CD over the years that people thought it was such a fun thing to have recipes together with the music because, of course, we can only have sound and we can’t have any smells or tastes. The closest we could come was to include some recipes for those who wanted to do it themselves. There’s this rather horrible account where bodies are being put in mass graves and you have layers of dead bodies with earth in between, almost exactly like when you make a lasagna, which is the description from 1350. We had to have a lasagna in there. The Pasta della Pestilenzia. It lends itself to that idea.

Anna: It also kind of softens the blow of the horrible theme.

Ian: There’s something you did in the presentation with Guillaume de Machaut and Boccaccio which I think is unusual. Often, in recordings, such people are simply names who wrote music or literature, and that’s all we’re told about them, but you tied them into the plague theme, which was excellent because it makes them come to life as people.

Erik: Right, especially with Boccaccio, you have The Decameron which is set during the plague, and it’s amazing in the foreword where he dives into the details in a very gruesome manner. With Machaut, I discovered The Judgement of the King of Navarre, which is an epic poem. As far as I know, there is no music for it. Machaut considered himself more of a poet than a musician, as far as we know. There’s this very wonderful passage we put in the CD booklet, where he explains how it was when the plague ended, that he hid away in the monastery for a long time, then he heard bagpipes and many, many instruments, and he realised that the plague had now passed. We just thought that was too good not to bring in because, as you say, it really shows that he experienced the whole plague drama himself.

1350: looking back

Ian: As the creators yourselves, looking back on the project, what are your impressions of it?

Anna: It’s such a treat to see it come together because you start out thinking, ‘Hmm, how will we do this?’, then it’s such a big process making an album.

Erik: It was fun to include, for example, the fiddle player who lives in California, Shira Kammen. It was very interesting to work together from such a distance, although we have played together when we toured in California some years ago. On some tracks there are musicians who have never met. We’ve met everyone, but not everyone on the CD has met each other, which is quite strange when you think of it, that it’s possible. In a way, it’s a very modern way of making a recording with ancient material. That dichotomy is quite interesting.

Anna: I think for me the greatest things are to have been able to delve so much into the music that we love, being able to present it in a way that’s relevant to many, and not just to the early music scene. Also, diving into the human reactions to the Black Death, you see all the parallels of the last year. People behave in the same manner – they hoard, they try to forget, and they enjoy music. It’s just fascinating to see that over all those years things haven’t changed that much.


Falsobordone website.

Falsobordone’s dedicated 1350 page.

Erik Ask-Upmark’s Bandcamp page, with music from Falsobordone, Erik’s solo harp recordings, Erik and Anna’s folk duo Dråm, and their folk quartet Svanevit.

Anna Rynefors solo page.

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