Some of the oldest music in the Western canon draws some of the youngest crowds.
That's the essential irony facing The Musicians of Swanne Alley, a six-member group of musicians who perform compositions and songs from Renaissance England and Italy.
"Our base of support comes from music fans in their 20s through their early 40s,'' said Paul O'Dette, one of the founders of the group. "It's simply because older generations never heard any of this music. They were familiar with the the standard orchestra repertory but not with this music.
"People think that everything before Bach was pre-music. It's only been in the last 20 years when people first started teaching this music at some level that people learned about it.''
THE MUSICIANS of Swanne Alley will perform at 8 p.m. Thursday in the Crafton-Preyer Theatre in Murphy Hall as the last entry in the 1991-92 Kansas University Chamber Music Series. The group also will meet Wednesday with ninth-graders at West Junior High School and hold a master class for KU students Thursday morning.
Originally from Columbus, Ohio, O'Dette started the group in 1976 with Lyle Nordstrom. He discovered Renaissance music when he was a teen-age rock fan.
"Actually I moved from rock guitar to classical guitar,'' said O'Dette in a recent telephone interview from his home in Rochester, N.Y. "I found I enjoyed playing mostly transcriptions of 16th-century lute music. I loved music for recorder and lute music and music that sounded like that, and so that's what I decided I wanted to do.''
O'DETTE WAS so serious about this music that, after a year studying at West Virginia University, he left the United States to study at an early music conservatory in Basil, Switzerland. There, he and Nordstrom decided to form Swanne Alley, which they named after an professional Elizabethan music ensemble. O'Dette ditched plans to play early music free-lance and moved to the Eastman School of Music in Rochester to teach.
Basically, the Renaissance is O'Dette's musical bag. In conversation he talks about this music passionately.
"I think it's music of entirely high quality,'' he said. "There's a very strong influence of dance music, so it's vibrant. It has a lot of energy. Then there's a more serious side with formal music that's highly expressive.
"I THINK these works speak to 20th-century people. In general, people feel rather foreign to their own music, certainly to classical music written now. They can respond to early music.''
For the Lawrence performance, Swanne Alley will perform "All in a Garden Green,'' a collection of folk songs, ballads and music for winds. The group performs on lutes, violins, flutes, recorders and less familiar instruments such as the viol, an early violin, and the cittern, a pear-shaped medieval guitar.
For their repertory, the Swanne Alley musicians can draw from 12,000 pieces that survived. They copy music from microfilm and photocopies of manuscripts kept in European libraries. The notation for this time, while not exactly the same as today, is close enough for musicians to decipher.
AND, OF course, this music was performed hundreds of years before recorded sound, and so the musicians must study texts and illustrations to figure out how instruments were held and played.
"The real keys to doing it have come from treatises written at the time,'' O'Dette said. "Unfortunately, they're not necessarily as detailed as modern method books, so you have to combine that with paintings. You find that there's lots of information put on canvas.''
In the Renaissance, the rules of music had not yet been set in stone, O'Dette said. Composers were free to bring the music of the streets into the high court or stately home.
"This music was what could be heard at street corners sung by balladeers,'' he said. "The music had a vast breadth and there aren't the neat compartments or divisions between classical music and popular music. One of the reasons this music is so varied is because it was influenced by all kinds of musicians.''
O'DETTE THINKS Renaissance music has been unjustly ignored. Shakespeare, Cervantes, Michelangelo and Dante get lots of attention, but composers do not. Shakespeare, of course, didn't make that mistake "If music be the food of love, play on'' and theatrical performances were rarely without Renaissance music.
"Shakespeare used songs in a lot of his plays,'' he said. "People don't really understand that music was a big part of theater. Plays weren't only spoken dialogue. It was unheard of to do a play in Elizabethan England up through the 17th century without some form of music, and a lot of music up through Henry Percel was originally written for the theater.''
EVEN IN his spare time, O'Dette studies Renaissance culture, almost like a person born into the wrong age. He isn't all that extreme about his feelings, but the Renaissance, its music and its lifestyle hold enormous appeal.
"I think there are things about every age and period that could be put together,'' he said. "There are certain things, like sanitation, that are preferable today. But I don't like this hectic, fast pace of North American life today. I'd like the slower pace of earlier eras when people took their time. You look at a simple door made then, and it was created with such care and art.
"Today everything is functional and slapped together. There's an awful lot in the lifestyle of the time that I would like to experience today. Progress is really a trade-off.''