Ken Maiuri’s Clubland: Early music: the 15th-century Led Zeppelin

Last modified: Friday, November 13, 2015

The textbook definition of “early music” is all I’ve ever known, just a blip in a music appreciation class in college: “Western classical music created in the years between 500 and 1600.”

But Laura Osterlund, for whom early music has been a lifelong passion, explained how dry definitions can’t capture the real spirit of the music.

“I think it’s powerful to keep in mind that much of music prior to the 17th century wasn’t conceived to be politely listened to in a sterile concert space for a finite period of time,” she said in an interview earlier this week. “It was the sound you heard on the street daily, en route to work; the echo of your own fear or fervor in church; the songs you would have memorized in school. It’s the music of ritual — courtship, revelry, living, dying. If you’d been born circa 1450, this music would have been your Led Zeppelin.”

Osterlund lives in Chicago, but earlier this week she happily made the trek to western Massachusetts for rehearsals and preparations for a big event: the early music ensemble she cofounded in 2012, Ensemble Musica Humana, has put together the first-ever “Pioneer Valley Early Music Day,” which takes place this weekend at venues all over the Valley.

Ensemble Musica Humana — whose members include three musicians with ties to the University of Massachusetts Amherst (flautist Lidia Chang, soprano Corrine Byrne and percussionist/keyboardist Sheila Heady)— will headline the festival with two performances of Hildegard von Bingen’s “Ordo Virtutum” at First Churches in Northampton Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m.

The group will also offer a program of Irish music (“Turlough O’Carolan: A Life in Song”) at the Abandoned Building Brewery in Easthampton Saturday at 2 p.m.

Osterlund, whose main instruments are the recorder and the vielle (a violin-esque instrument from the medieval period), will play a free solo pop-up concert at the Bing Arts Center in Springfield Saturday at 11 a.m.

“Early music may not at first listen sound like it, but it’s much closer to jazz and folk music than classical, and much more like today’s popular music than you think,” she said. “Even if we do experience it with validity and enjoyment in concert halls, keeping in mind its original context can help you get to the heart of the music, in imagination, at least.”

Osterlund said she enjoyed MTV and VH-1 “like a ‘normal’ young person,” but around the age of 10, she discovered her father’s stash of plastic recorders and his LPs and CDs of early music, an interest of his during his undergraduate years at the University of Chicago (inspired by eminent musicologist Howard Mayer Brown).

“I broke into his collection of instruments and recorded music and just fell in love. I’d never heard music so beautiful before,” she said. “I remember the first early music CD I ever listened to: “Music of the Troubadours” by Ensemble Unicorn and Ensemble Oni Wytars and an especially melancholy and drawn out performance of a song by 12th-century troubadour Jaufre Rudel, ‘Lanquan li jorn.’ I was hooked from then on.”

A challenging instrument

Recorders are often thought of as simple instruments for kids in elementary school, but they actually require intense focus in order to hit the right pitches and play in tune. Osterlund approached the recorder seriously, taking lessons from a classical flautist, and she’s been dedicated to the instrument ever since.

“One of the challenges I find in the recorder is that it wouldn’t have played a lot of my favorite early repertoire: the big motets for choir — polyphonic pieces, which instruments like the organ can play. Much of the music that would have been played by the recorder during the Middle Ages and Renaissance either wasn’t written down or hasn’t survived,” she said. “One of the delights, however, is that a lack of recorded music invites extemporization: the ability to improvise and ornament pieces in early styles. What we don’t know with certainty, we have to imagine; and the process of this has kept me interested in all the years I’ve been playing.”

Osterlund is also inspired by the vielle, a stringed instrument that was highly popular in the medieval period.

“It allows me to play melodies along with accompanying drones and counter melodies — to make my own polyphony, in essence,” she said. “I also love the rustic, unpolished sound of the instrument’s gut strings. I feel much closer to folk musicians and traditional fiddlers than contemporary cellists.”

Ken Maiuri can be reached at

The “Pioneer Valley Early Music Day” will feature performances on many other unique instruments — the Welsh triple harp, the medieval bagpipe, viola da gamba — at venues in Florence, Whately, Amherst, Greenfield, Holyoke, South Hadley and others. For information about the lineup and tickets, visit


Support Local Journalism

Subscribe to the Daily Hampshire Gazette, your leading source for news in the Pioneer Valley.

Daily Hampshire Gazette Office

23 Service Center Road
Northampton, MA 01060


Copyright © 2021 by H.S. Gere & Sons, Inc.
Terms & Conditions - Privacy Policy