Interview with Kyrie Kristmanson
Kyrie Kristmanson’s latest musical project, an interpretation of musical and lyrical manuscripts dating back to 12th century southern France composed by a compelling group of female songwriters known as les troubadours, will be premiered this Sunday, 17 June, at l’Église Notre Dame d’Espérance in Paris, France.
The Canadian singer-songwriter moved to France upon signing with the Paris-based label No Format! in 2010. Kristmanson’s latest album, Origin of Stars (2010), showcases her singular appeal through eleven terrific tracks that flirt with jazz, folk and classical styles but commit to none. Devotees of Kyrie’s music (we are legion: join us) will be quick to build a bridge between her earlier albums, such as Pagan Love (2008), and her budding interest in Medievalism, with folkloric and Biblical allusions abound. Her song The Holy, for example, shares an affinity with the story of the female troubadour singers, who were central figures in a renaissance in southern France until being persecuted during the Cathar heresy in the 12th and 13th centuries for their lyrical conflations of the sacred with the profane: We sing like traitors/ We sing and I pray to you/ We sing because it feels good/ We sing now because later we may lose.
Of course, Kyrie has always has always stuck out. I was first introduced to her at the Stan Rogers Folk Festival in Canso, Nova Scotia in 2008, where her sound and stage presence was as distinguishing and pronounced as her fur pillbox hat on a beaming Summer day. Indeed, Kristmanson has described the experience of growing up in the Canadian Prairies as being like the only vertical thing in a horizontal landscape, and I’ll borrow the metaphor to describe her oeuvre. We met in a bus station coffee shop in Montréal beneath a sign that read, “N’apportez aucune nourriture ni breuvage de l’exterieur,” sharing better croissants than the ones they sold.
5 April, 2012
Café La Presse, Montréal
HER ROYAL MAJESTY: Your latest songs display an interest, in content and style, with the Medieval singers known as the Troubadours. When did you become drawn to this movement?
KYRIE KRISTMANSON: I moved to Ottawa [Canada] for university when I was seventeen and I studied the humanities, which is a four year program of philosophy, literature and religious studies. Each year moves forward in time. You start with myths and Biblical studies and you go all the way to modern philosophy and political thought.
It was during that time that I discovered the Medieval singers known as the Troubadours, and also the much lesser known female singers known as the trobairitz. And then I moved to France to tour for my Origin of Stars album, and there were lots of days when I was in Paris, so I decided to pursue this interest of mine.
I learned that during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the south of France experienced a kind of renaissance that was unparalleled in any other region. It was the development of courtly love poetry and singing. That sort of idealized woman, and specifically the aristocratic woman, was central to this movement. The troubadour would sing about this woman, and they would conflate her sometimes with Mary, but often it was on strictly profane terms.
It’s hard to know how widespread it was. We only have the names of about twenty writers. With the women, for example, it was only the aristocratic women who would write songs and poetry and it’s only the aristocratic women who are remembered as songwriters. So with the Troubadours, writing is much more representative of class. Were there more? Probably. But they couldn’t write down their lyrics. It’s hard to know why their songs weren’t transmitted.
HRM: What is it about this kind of writing that captured your interest?
KK: It’s really fascinating because this is the first source of profane music written by women, and because these songs are more controversial than even what the men were writing sometimes. It’s more personal.
As a result, the songs didn’t survive very well. Only one song has survived in its music and its text. The project that I’m working on with the French composer Vincent Ségal, who is also a cellist, is to reconstruct these melodies and to arrange them for string quartet and voice.
This is actually part of a second part of a project I’m working on in Canada, with a Canadian composer named Patrick Carrabré. He puts music to my poems for string quartet and voice.
The poems were written about this pilgrimage I made to the ruins of the castle where these women lived and wrote in the south of France. So this is going to be a continuation of that. We plan to complete that particular project by 2013.
HRM: Do you see an affinity between the profanity in the writing style of les troubadours and your own?
KK: At the time I became interested in les troubadours I was reading a lot about the tension between sacred and profane love. You see this in the work of a lot of Canadian composers. In Leonard Cohen, for instance, the tension between sacred and profane love is a reoccurring theme. And at that time, I was really interested in this question.
So I naturally saw that same tension in their repertoire because, in fact, the troubadour movement was linked to the Cathar heresy in the south of France. I don’t know much about the Cathar religion, other than that it is a dualistic religion and that it is linked to Manichaeism. The Troubadours come to an end at the time of the Albigensian Crusade, which was around 1250 AD, and which stamped out the Cathar heresy in a brutally violent way and sent all the Troubadours running to Spain and Italy. It was effectively the end of that poetic flowering.
A lot of people have proposed that the Troubadours were Cathars themselves, and that there are coded metaphors in theirs songs for this movement. I don’t think that’s true.
What is true is that they attached themselves to heretical courts. The feudal lord would often attach themselves to a court, and they would be the kind of composer-in-residence for that court who would sing about the deeds of the lord to increase his notoriety. A patron and a protector. As soon as their patrons and protectors were brought to ruin, they had to flee. And that was the end of it.
The really ironic part of it was that crusade was lead by a former troubadour himself, a troubadour turned fervent religious type.
There is so much mystery in that particular repertoire because we know so little about the composers. About the context really. Even the songs themselves were written down one hundred to one hundred and fifty years after they were composed. They were passed down through the oral tradition. As it died out scribes would write them into manuscripts so that they wouldn’t be forgotten altogether.
HRM: When you interpret these manuscripts into song, what is the level of collaboration you have with them?
KK: In that repertoire there is a lot of room for collaboration.
With a piece of classical music, for example, your options for inserting yourself into it are much more constrained. But with this repertoire, since it’s so schematic to begin with, there is a lot of room for the interpreter for collaboration.
Up until six months to a year ago, my interest has really been in the way they composed, and the context in which they composed and what they wrote about, and also their cultural role, and their improbability. I was really inspired by them. I was calling them my musical ancestors.
There was something very direct and raw about their lyrics that kind of reminded me of like an early PJ Harvey [laughs].
HRM: Care to illustrate this through an example?
KK: Sure. One song goes,
Let me hold that noble knight
in my bare arms tonight.
If only as his pillow
I know I could make him so high.
He is in me more and more
Than Flor was in Blancheflor…
She offers to be his pillow. At another point, she says something like, Let me make it clear to you, my friend, that I would rather hold you than my husband. Only if you swear to me that you will do whatever I ask you to. And then, I know you’re not a coward. When will I hold you in my power?
It’s sort of a strange mix of putting herself beneath him, but always reestablishing her power. There’s a lot of language that is reminiscent of odes of fidelity.
And there is a political angle to the lyrics as well. I’m not the first to note that. There’s a really interesting American writer called Frederic L. Cheyette who writes about the female Troubadours and shows how a lot of this language in fact comes from odes of fidelity.
That makes for quite a tense piece of music.
HRM: You’ve mentioned in live performances that you’re in the early stages of composing an opera of sorts, and even your earlier songs take the form of dialogue. Your song, The Sea Song, for example, can be described as a dialogue with the ocean.
KK: More recently that has been something that’s emerging in my songwriting. I don’t know why that is. I guess I really love the faculty of imagination. That’s always been a realm in which I’ve been very comfortable. And sometimes I think imagined experiences are just as affecting or more affecting than my real experiences.
So I think that’s just a realm that I’m more comfortable in in my writing. Because every song is autobiographical, in effect. Even if you’re writing about someone else, you’re writing about yourself.
And I like that complex I, and that complex you. When you’re referring to someone else you’re referring to yourself too. It might be a way to protect yourself, because there’s something very confessional about songwriting. I don’t consider myself a confessional songwriter per se, although I admire Joni Mitchell, the confessional songwriter par excellence.
It is kind of a mechanism of protection as well.
HRM: Having grown up in different parts of Canada, how has moving to France made you feel?
KK: Moving to France was quite lonely at first because I didn’t know anyone apart from my label, No Format. But loneliness can be quite useful. That’s when I delved into this interest of mine. When I wasn’t playing I had days I could really pursue that.
That being said, I love living in France, but I will continue to live in some way in Canada. Always, I hope.
In preparation of her next musical project —an unexpected collaboration with French composer and cellist Vincent Ségal— Kyrie Kristmanson will premiere in France two repertoires: first she will play a selection of songs from her upcoming album and then she will be joined by the Quatuor Van Kuijk to perform three song cycles prepared for her by Canadian composer Patrick Carrabré.
En pleine préparation de son prochain projet musical -une collaboration inattendue avec Vincent Ségal-, Kyrie nous présentera un concert en deux partis : en solo à la guitare, puis rejointe par le Quatuor à cordes Van Kuijk, pour un répertoire de ses compositions encore inédites.
Les Saisons de la Roquette presents Kyrie Kristmanson
June 17th, 17:00H
Église Notre Dame d’Espérance
47 rue de la Roquette, Paris 75011