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A thesis with a new musical view of suggestive love songs

News: Nov 28, 2011

The love songs of the English renaissance composer Thomas Campion have long fascinated singer and composer Katarina A Karlsson. Especially the ones using a woman's perspective and narrative persona, a somewhat unusual feature for that period.

While working on her thesis, Katarina A Karlsson has translated, arranged, studied and performed Campion’s songs as well as conducting thoroughgoing scientific explorations into his era with the aid of gender and queer theory. The aim has not been to find a way of interpreting and performing the music that is authentic for that period, but rather to test the songs in the context of our own day.

The title of the thesis is: Think’st thou to seduce me then? Impersonating female personas in songs by Thomas Campion (1567-1617), which directly states the main issues. Apart from the main text, this thesis also includes an edition of the songs and a CD recorded by Katarina A Karlsson and accompanying musicians.

On Friday 9 December 2011, Katarina A Karlsson will publicly defend her thesis in Musical Performance and Interpretation at the Academy of Music and Drama (HSM), University of Gothenburg. The public defence will commence with a performance of some of Campion’s songs to the accompaniment of an instrument previously untried in this genre: piano accordion. The accordionist is Harald Svensson.

During a brief period of almost thirty years during the English Renaissance, it became popular to compose songs to the accompaniment of a lute, so-called ayres. Over 600 ayres were published, the most well-known being John Dowland’s Flow my teares. Thomas Campion wrote 119 ayres, the majority of which are about love. Fourteen of these numerous songs by Campion are from the perspective of a female narrator, quite outnumbering such songs by other contemporary English composers. Katarina A Karlsson poses the question of whether they were ever sung by women, or whether they were only performed by men for men in contexts to which women were not given access.

Katarina A Karlsson has explored these fourteen songs by singing them to the accompaniment of several different instruments, such as hurdy-gurdy, guitar and clavichord. She has also arranged them for four female voices and critically examined the transcriptions into modern notation made by previous researchers into Campion’s lute tablature. Although the songs were composed for the lute, this particular instrument has not been included among the accompaniments tested by Katarina A Karlsson, since the aim of her thesis is to find new and different relationships to the literary and musical content of the songs, and present them to a contemporary audience.

Using gender and queer theory as her inspiration, she has investigated the position of the songs in the social milieu and the contexts for which they were created. She poses questions such as which functions the songs served for Campion, for the people to whom he dedicated them and for the homosocial network to which he belonged. One of the possibilities Katarina A Karlsson opens to, is that the songs could have served as an excuse to express same-sex desire.
An important question is also how people living in the twenty-first century can assimilate these songs. After centuries of homophobia, may it not be true that people today are for the first time ready to experience and accept Thomas Campion’s game of hide-and-seek with his audience?

Katarina A Karlsson is a singer, composer and journalist. She has produced two CDs on which she performs her own music. As a journalist, she has worked for the Swedish radio, first and foremost the music channel P2. Katarina A Karlsson is also a member of RilkeEnsemblen, a vocal ensemble led by Gunnar Eriksson.

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