In the 60s and 70s, rock and folk bands introduced early European music to the masses, with Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque strains running through the songs of Simon and Garfunkel, Peter, Paul, and Mary, Fairport Convention, and even Led Zeppelin. For the most part, however, arrangements stayed modern, save the appearance of a few, still-relevant folk instruments like mandolins, dulcimers, and nylon-string guitars.
One can draw many lines in popular culture from this development—to prog-rock balladry, goth rock’s dirges, metal’s medieval obsessions, and whatever that techno Gregorian chant thing was in the 90s. In so many of these evolutionary moves, the trend has been toward more technology and away from acoustic music. So, how can players of old European instruments interest contemporary audiences in their sound?
One popular way they’ve done so is by playing hits from bands who drew from the tradition (and from a few who very much didn’t)—hits like Procul Harum’s Chaucer-referencing “A Whiter Shade of Pale.”
At the top, Baroque lute player Daniel Estrem gives a solo instrumental performance of the soulful tune, throwing in a section of Bach’s “Air on the G String,” to which “A Whiter Shade of Pale” alludes. (I wasn’t consciously combining rock with classical,” composer Gary Brooker later said. “It’s just that Bach’s music was in me.”) The song’s contrapuntal structure translates beautifully to the lute, as does the sinister musicality of Cream’s “White Room,” above, a song with a vaguely Medieval-sounding descending melody in its classic psych-rock verses.
Of course, European folk and classical informed the increasingly complex compositions of the Beatles, including George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” (or at least its first fingerpicked acoustic guitar demo version). In his take on the classic, above, Estrem recovers the song’s folk influence and retains its shifts in mood, from mournful lament to hopeful melody. Of course, Estrem not only has to translate these songs to a different musical idiom but to a very different instrument—one with a tuning unlike the guitar on which so many pop songs are written.
Common lutes at the end of the Renaissance had 10 courses (a “course” is a set of two strings tuned to the same pitch). These instruments used "a more harmonically based ‘D minor tuning,’ instead of the more ‘guitar-like’ tuning that continued to be used for the viol in the baroque era,” notes Case Western Reserve’s Early Music Instrument Database. They were suited to a very different kind of music than, say, the blues. But whether or not we fully understand the challenge of arranging “House of the Rising Sun” (called "the first folk rock song" when the Animals recorded it) for the Baroque lute, we can certainly appreciate the results. Estrem makes a gently plucked, eloquently wordless argument for giving the instrument a starring role in popular music again.