Really Old-Time music!

Speaking with John Hillenbrand is a bit like entering another world.

That’s because the musician, who plays the vielle (a fiddle from the Renaissance period), seems to feel most comfortable dwelling in the far distant past.

This is not a condemnation by any means. In fact, it’s a testament to the devotion he has for so-called Early Music: European classical compositions written and debuted hundreds of years ago — some even dating back to before the year 1400.

The Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque periods of Western music all fall under this general heading, but for those deeply into such things (such as Hillenbrand), the farther back one goes, the more enchanting the genre becomes. And the more mysterious.

That’s primarily because, without the advent of standardized methods of record keeping or musical notation, it is essentially impossible for anyone who wishes to perform ancient works of this sort to know exactly what their composers meant for the pieces to sound like.

“Those of us who study this music tend to be a bit eccentric,” admits Hillenbrand with a chuckle. “That’s because it does require serious effort. You can’t just go to a music store and ask for some Medieval sheet music. You have to reinterpret everything and in many cases write it yourself. By hand! That’s the fun and the challenge.

“Because so little remains and so few notations exist, it becomes more like playing jazz instead of most classical music where all the instructions are right there on the page and you just do what you’re told.”

For the debut Savannah appearance of Hillenbrand’s early music group The Goliards, Hillenbrand and company will use his own personally-penned scores, which he wrote out methodically in longhand.

“In Medieval music you start with a facsimile of the notations as they exist today, but usually all you have to go on is a single line with no rhythmic indications,” he explains. “All the notes are of seemingly equal value, and it requires a lot of tweaking.”

Still, no one will ever be able to measure how close he —or any scholarly musicologist for that matter— have come to authentically reproducing this music, despite the fact that his group insists on using such period-accurate instruments as the lute in order to stay true to the spirit of the work.

“People around the world get into fairly ferocious arguments over such things,” Hillenbrand confides in a tone that makes it easy to imagine he’s taken part in a few such long-distance brouhahas himself. “The fact that they’re over fairly minor issues just makes the arguments all the more intense. (Laughs) You know how it is: the stakes can seem much higher in penny-ante poker games than when people are playing for really large sums of money.”

A fine art painter who first formed The Goliards in 1998 while living in the Atlanta area, Hillenbrand now resides in Savannah, and decided to get back into playing music professionally after putting that part of his life on hold to care for his ailing parents. He has studied Early Music in the U.S. and abroad, and says it took him around a year to find the right combination of locals. The sole remaining member of the original Goliards lineup, he says finding the right vocalist was a real turning point.

“A good musician is a precious thing, but a good singer is even more precious. When someone is singing, that’s usually who the audience is focusing on.”

Soprano and private voice instructor Tina Zenker Williams —who among other notable engagements has performed Handel’s Messiah with the Savannah Symphony and Rutter’s Requiem with the Savannah Choral Society— lends her talent to this upcoming program’s hour of melancholy love songs (the show will also include instrumental dance tunes).

While Hillenbrand says he’s certain no one else in the area is focusing on this particular style of classical music with as much “monomania” as himself, he is still optimistic that folks will be curious enough to come and see what it’s all about.

“The problem with this style of music isn’t getting people to like it. That’s easy. It’s getting them out to hear it. It’s infectious, and in many cases, if you’re of European ancestry, it somehow speaks to you on a primal level. It’s oddly familiar.” ƒç


The Goliards perform at 7:30 pm Saturday at Trinity United Methodist Church on Telfair Square. Admission $10 at the door.


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