Farnsicht

Photo of developing ferns by the German nature photographer Karl Blossfeldt (1866-1932)
(open in new window for full image)


Post-Performative Post-Scriptum

“Farnsicht” is a pun on German Farn, meaning “fern”, and Fernsicht, meaning “view” or “visibility” (literally fern, “far”, + Sicht, “visibility”).

Voc and Rôle

Medieval music by Vox Vulgaris and Trouvère

At one time, people could never hear their own voices the way others heard them, because our own voices come to us partly through the flesh and bone of our skulls. Then phonographs and tape-recorders were invented and nowadays we all know what we really sound like. But what does the medieval music of groups like Vox Vulgaris and Trouvere really sound like? It comes to us through the flesh and bone of history and we listen to it with uninnocent ears, soaked in a hundred different genres. Medieval music doesn’t stand alone any more, it stands in contrast: acoustic, not amplified; simple, not complex; authentic, not artificial.

Or is it authentic? No, because it’s not the music that comes most readily to hand or to ear any more. Playing it and listening to it are roles you choose, not roles you’re born into, because it’s part of a cultic fringe nowadays. Ferns once ruled the forests; now they’re pushed to the damp or rocky margins by more advanced plants. So this is ferny music: fresh, green and simple, with a glamour of exile and overthrow. You can hear that glamour more strongly in Trouvere, who play slow, sad and sometimes stately music that seems both to celebrate and to lament the Middle Ages. Vox Vulgaris, which literally means “Popular Voice”, celebrate and don’t lament: they’re raucous and almost rocking and sound like a group for inns and peasants’ weddings, not for courts and cathedrals. They’re fun, not bittersweet like Trouvere, who remind me of the Early Music Consort of London. But, like Vox Vulgaris, Trouvere play instrumentals and don’t add lost languages to their lost music.

The music is enough, but they’re surely playing it with a modern accent that would raise smiles or laughter in a real medieval audience. We can’t go back and that is part of why their music is so attractive. It lilts, it longs and it laments, searching for something it will never find. And that is another way Trouvere evoke the Middle Ages:

La royne Blanche comme ung lys,
Qui chantoit à voix de sereine;
Berthe au grand pied, Bietris, Allys;
Harembourges, qui tint le Mayne,
Et Jehanne, la bonne Lorraine,
Qu’Anglois bruslèrent à Rouen;
Où sont-ilz, Vierge souveraine?…
Mais où sont les neiges d’antan!

“Ballade des dames du temps jadis”, François Villon (1431-c.1485)

White Queen Blanche, like a queen of lilies,
With a voice like any mermaiden,—
Bertha Broadfoot, Beatrice, Alice,
And Ermengarde the lady of Maine,—
And that good Joan whom Englishmen
At Rouen doomed and burned her there,—
Mother of God, where are they then?…
But where are the snows of yester−year.

Translation by Rossetti.

Cultic Fringe

Grasses, Ferns, Mosses & Lichens by Roger PhillipsGrasses, Ferns, Mosses and Lichens of Great Britain and Ireland, Roger Phillips (1980)

Language doesn’t create the world, but it can manipulate the way we see it or can focus our attention on things we were overlooking. When I read a book on architecture and learnt about the three classic forms of column – Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian – I started to see them everywhere in towns and cities. Something similar happened to me because of this book. After leafing through its colour photos, I suddenly started noticing moss much more. And it’s worth noticing, both scientifically and aesthetically. It’s a humble but fascinating plant and has a surprising beauty and variety: Thuidium tamariscinum, common tamarisk-moss, for example, looks as though it should be with the ferns, because it has a similar branching structure. Lichens aren’t beautiful in their own right like mosses, but they can create beautiful patterns and colours on rock and stonework. And like mosses, they’re something humble that should make us humble: they’ve been around for much longer than we have and may be around long after we’re gone.

The same is true of ferns and grasses, though I have to admit that I still find it hard to see much interest in grasses. I know that interest is there, but they still seem dull. Ferns don’t, despite being a simpler plant. But they have a romance that grasses lack. You could call them the Celts of the vegetable kingdom: pushed to the fringes by later invaders. Where once they ruled the world, now they’re confined to specialized habitats. Damp ones. Meeting ferns at home can be refreshing in all sorts of ways: the air is cool and moist and their green is easy on the eye. I like their fractal structure too and there’s even a fern that refreshes the nose: mountain fern, Oreopteris limbosperma, which has a “strong almost citron scent released by brushing past or rubbing the leaves”. The scientific names are fascinating too and books like this are spiritually refreshing in our increasingly soulless, mechanized and electronic world. Leafing through Grasses, Ferns, Mosses and Lichens is like taking a walk through woods and mountains without leaving your chair. Lots of people like flowers and trees, and lots of places host them. These botanical groups are much more specialized and easy to overlook, confined to the fringes of our world, and have a cult-appeal that reminds me of obscure forms of music or art.

Pre-previously posted (please peruse):

Mushrooms, Roger Phillips