Kirk Elliot and the Orchestra of Unmitigated Gaul - Widdershins (Pipestrelle)
"I think one of my résumés describes me as a cheery omnivore, frequently nocturnal, living on the shores of Lake Ontario, making music with whatever he can drag back to his studio lair."
For years, Kirk Elliott was a bar musician. After graduating from college, he switched from classical violin to fiddle, "And I'd always played some guitar, ever since we saw the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, which dates me I'm sure," he says. "But once you get a guitar and a bit of piano and a violin, it started to cross-pollinate. And I think I'm up to 60 or 70 instruments at home."
These days, Kirk Elliott still has his fingers in a number of pots. He performs with the Ensemble Polaris and with the Toronto Consort, and he composes music for films, theater and children's productions, just to name a few of his activities. Kirk's latest recording is titled, Widdershins, which means "counter-clockwise." And the title track reflects this nonsensical idea. "Widdershins is a medieval word, and strictly speaking, it means 'counter-clockwise,' but it is very much associated, in medieval times, with the black arts. Black magic, casting spells. If someone put a bad spell on you, then someone would go to the nearest church and walk backward around it three times 'widdershins,' to release that spell. I thought it gave that slightly out-of-control, wacky feeling of this piece, which is a collection of 17th-century gavottes arranged for bagpipes."
At the heart of Widdershins is the legend of Tristan Shoute. If you're wondering if he's related to John, Paul, George and Ringo, you'd be half right, because it is a play on words. "The idea is that he surfaces first in the 1100s but then crops up again in the 1300s and then the Renaissance and even Civil War times," Kirk explains. "So who is this guy and how is it that he rises like the phoenix? Something to do with the black arts, I believe, which was inspired by the painting I chose for the CD cover. It's a 15th-century painting of a lutenist playing in a bathhouse. And there's people in undress, eating and drinking. And I thought, 'That looks like a gig I'd play!' And I just found out that lutenists often owned the bathhouses. So that gives me the slightly raucous, lively feel that a lot of this music has."
The recording opens with music you may recognize from the original, Carmina Burana, by Carl Orff. "I like to give everything a spin," Kirk admits, "so rather than just calling it Bacco Vini, which means good wine, I call it In Vino Blabitas. I just thought, after a few glasses of wine, some people you can't stop them from talking. The words to it are amazing. It's a 14th-century song, and the tune, every verse, says, 'Wine makes you intelligent, wine makes you attractive' there's not a bad word about it. So that reminded me very much of the CD cover."
Kirk tells me that every instrument he plays has a story, including the one featured on the Basse Dance. "The lute I play was made by Ray Nurse From Vancouver," Kirk says. "And I was there studying lute with Paul O'Dette and learning some Renaissance violin with David Douglass, and I was at the reception talking with the lute maker and I said, 'I sure would like to have one of your lutes' speaking of In Vino Blabitas. A year later, I got a letter from him saying, 'Your lute is done, please send $4500.'"
There's also an interesting story behind the bouzouki featured on a troubadour song titled, "Pour Mon Couers." It's a medieval story of unrequited love. "The man says, I'd have much more success with my beloved if her husband had his arms broken," Kirk explains. "It starts with a dialog between bouzouki and viol. Originally a Greek five-string instrument, the bouzouki was modified in the Celtic revival in Britain in the '60s and '70s to become a more Celtic-sounding instrument. And I bought my bouzouki when they were playing Lord of the Rings here in Toronto and I was going to sub in and I didn't want to do it because those shows take up so much time and energy. And the next day the show was cancelled and I got a check for $7,000 for royalties for a song I did. So it pays sometimes to just get in the bathtub and drink, as our medieval protagonists will tell you."
As the clock winds down for Widdershins, there's a final curtain call for Tristan Shoute. "'Lamento di Tristano' is one of those few pieces we know is in the British Museum, the manuscript is there and it was a very popular tune, so my theory or premise or made-up stuff is that it's named for my guy, Tristan Shoute. So this is his hit tune and wherever he goes, people want to hear it. It's very long, plaintive, lugubrious almost … but I love the song of the medieval Vielle and I arrange it as kind of a blues tune. So I imagine it's the last song of the night he's saying goodbye to his fans."