"Mr. Bagby comes as close to holding hundreds of people in a spell as ever a man has" (The New York Times, 7/22/97).
Vocalist, harpist and scholar Benjamin Bagby has been an important figure in the field of medieval musical performance for over 20 years. He earned degrees in voice (Oberlin Conservatory) and German (Oberlin College) and was awarded a Watson Foundation Fellowship to study the performance of medieval song during his first Wanderjahr. Subsequently, he began a long-term collaboration with Barbara Thornton, and together they completed a Diplom fur Musik des Mittelalters in 1977 at the Schola Cantorum (Basel, Switzerland), formed by Thomas Brinkley, Andrea von Ramm, and the Studio der Furhen Musik. Immediately afterwards they founded Sequentia (ensemble for medieval music) and established themselves in Cologne, Germany. Before Ms. Thornton's tragic death in 1998 they created over 60 innovative concert programs of medieval music and music drama, giving performances throughout Europe, North and South America, Africa, the Near East, Japan, Korea, and Australia. For their many recordings encompassing the entire spectrum of medieval musical practice, Sequentia has won the Deutsche Schallplattenpreis, two Netherlands Edison Awards, a French Disque d'Or and Diapason d'Or. Sequentia's best-selling CD Canticles of Ecstasy has sold more than 5000,000 copies worldwide.
In addition to his activities as singer and co-director of Sequentia, Benjamin Bagby directs the Sequentia ensemble of men's voices for the performance of medieval liturgical polyphony, and devotes himself to the medieval harp. Current and future projects include a reconstruction of portions of the Old Icelandic Poetic Edda, a CD-ROM recording of the entire Beowulf (German Harmonia Mundi/MBG Classics) and a collection of essays on the performance of medieval music (IU Press) edited by Ross Duffin.
In describing his mission, Mr. Bagby writes, "I am drawn to explore the basic elements which define the singer's art, a fascination which has led to my own attempts at rediscovering the lost medieval European traditions of what Albert Lord called 'The Singer of Tales'. In today's professional musical world, the singer is most often a highly-trained specialist, a polished vehicle for the interpretation of masterpiece compositions which are performed before discerning audiences consisting mostly of paying strangers. But in the more fleshy, pre-literate world of orally transmitted sung narratives the singer was much more than an accomplished vocalist: he/she was a repository of tribal history and myth; a symbol of the leader's power and his living link with the audience; a source of news and entertainment; and even a shamanistic lifeline to an archaic, spiritual tribal identity. I ask myself: how can we singers today gain access to the ancient techniques of the Singer of Tales, to the role of the voice and the vocalist as it was known in a pre-literate culture? For the past 14 years, my laboratory for this experimental vocal and rhetorical work has been the reconstruction of a bardic performance of the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf. The resulting performance attempts to help both me and the audience to enter into the world of the voice and the lyre as instruments in the service of the story, so that we can bypass the epic's modern status as a work of literature, as a masterpiece or even as a poem and instead begin to gain direct access to the power of the word as an aural phenomenon in which the voice, the sounds and the meaning are one with the listener."