By Maia Rabenold
Seven chimes from the clock tower marked the beginning of a night of music Friday. For the next hour, the Monroe County Courthouse rotunda, with its stained-glass ceiling and frescoed walls, was filled with the echoing sounds of 16th-century instruments and vocals.
The musical group Alchymy Viols, Bloomington Early Music and IU’s Historical Performance Institute put together the free concert “Alchymy at the Courthouse,” which was the first event of Early Music Month in Bloomington.
Michael Walker, a graduate student at IU and managing director of Bloomington Early Music, said the concert showcased composers Heinrich Schutz and Michael Praetorius, who he said were like the Adele and Beyoncé of the 1500s.
“It’s good to broaden your horizons,” Walker said. “This was music that everyone would listen to and the only music they would hear. This was their popular music, and it’s like going back into the past.”
The viola da gamba was the main instrument used in the concert. Founder of the Alchymy Viols Phillip Spray said there is no modern counterpart to the viola da gamba.
Almost every other historical instrument has evolved into the modern symphony orchestra, but the viola da gamba died out in the late 1700s.
“It’s a very soft instrument, and the whole objective was to make instruments louder and faster,” Spray said. “This is very intimate music with the viola da gamba, and I want to bring that back.”
Viola da gambas were meant to be played in small settings, Spray said.
He compared the sound they create to a silken cloth that is almost transparent and moves in the wind.
When the haunting, ethereal backdrop of the viola da gambas is overlaid with resonant vocals, it creates the type of music that seems to belong in an ancient cathedral.
“What instrument rides on the heart more than the voice?” said Dana Marsh, director of the concert and associate professor at Jacobs School of Music. “It’s an instrument that goes totally by sensation. It’s not like another instrument where you can look at what your hands are doing. You can’t see what’s going on so you have to bring your passion and your expressivity to that task.”
This passion is exactly what drew Walker to early music, he said.
“I feel really connected to early music because that music was meant to move the soul,” Walker said. “That’s what I want to do when I sing — I want to move people’s souls.”
Spray said the name Alchymy Viols was based off the idea of human connection to music. Viols are just wood, glue, gut and wire, but when you add people to play them, magic is created.
Historical music was more expressive of the human condition, Spray said.
The beginnings of music were less about the production and the show but simply about putting words to human feelings of passion, despair and hope.
“Old music expresses how we’re human and what is human in us,” Spray said. “This is human-sized music, and that’s what I want to bring back again.”