I THINK I HAVE ONLY SEEN SOMEONE PLAYING a Hurdy-Gurdy once before, years and years ago I think it was at a Christmas festival in Durham: it was such a wonderful thing to see and hear, this mediaeval instrument being brought out from its special wooden case.
On Wednesday we saw another one: an electric Hurdy-Gurdy being used in the line-up of Montreal singers and multi-instrumentalists, Le Vent du Nord. They were on their way to Celtic Connections in Glasgow and dropped off at Hexham for a one-night only gig. Pretty good, we thought their four-part harmonies more interesting than their instrumental music though. The audience were very enthusiastic, however. There are quite a number of groups and bands travelling up the A1 to Glasgow just now and several have stopped to do a one off gig.
If you don’t know, the Hurdy-Gurdy is combination of both a stringed box and a keyboard. It has a winding handle which must be constantly rotated to produce the characteristic drone. It began life as an accompaniment to Monastic choral music but audiences and performers seemed to realise simultaneously that with the addition of a few more keys, it would become easier to play fast and therefore ideal for dance music. The Internet disagrees about where it originated. There is a Hurdy-Gurdy festival held in France every summer and the French have always claimed that it originated there in the 12thC but Spain has better claims because it would seem to have been derived from a Middle-eastern instrument called an organistrum, possibly as long ago as the 10thC.
Meself, I think players and groups should limit its use; it completely dominates all the other instruments in the band. I felt Le Vent du Nord should have had maybe one or two solo performances and used it sparingly but instead they handled it like a backing noise to everything and the drone tended to be the only thing you could hear in the end. Something to do perhaps with the fact that the Hurdy-Gurdy guy was the group’s leader? It’s supposed to be fiendishly difficult to keep in tune, another good reason to limit its use.
There are quite a few YouTube links if anyone is interested in hearing what it sounds like.