I have always loved the acapella quartet. Four voices blending, chasing each other, coming together for a special moment of unity only to quickly depart to go their separate ways, and then to find their way back together to a special chord modulation that you just know has the singers silently smiling inside.
So, it stands to reason that New England’s Windborne is one of my new favorite groups. Comprised of singers Lauren Breunig, Jeremy Carter-Gordon, Lynn Rowan, and Will Rowan from Vermont and Massachusetts, the ensemble has been described as a “group of vocal chameleons.” Each grew up in musical families, “going to Shape Note singing parties, taking classical voice and instrumental lessons, and seeking out folk music in their communities and schools.” They clearly found their passion.
While a folk instrument makes an occasional entrance into their music, the acapella arrangements are where they really shine. La Vièlha, recorded earlier this year at Ear Trumpet Labs, gives the group a chance to showcase those vocal chops.
The group is coming to the Washington area on Friday, December 2nd, as part of the Institute of Musical Traditions fall showcase.
Windborne’s captivating show draws on the singers’ deep roots in traditions of vocal harmony, while the absolute uniqueness of their artistic approach brings old songs into the present. Known for the innovation of their arrangements, their harmonies are bold and anything but predictable.
Some oldtimers know the Ewan MacColl tune The Terror Time from the Tannahill Weavers. Windborne’s arrangement is both traditional and refreshingly new, filmed in the refectory of Mont-Saint-Michel in France. As the video notes relay,
The political seeps in around the edges in this Ewan MacColl song about the coming of winter, or the “Terror Time,” as it was known by the Scottish Travelers he worked with while writing his 1964 album, The Traveling People. For us, it brings to mind for us all those who go without a permanent home.”
The lyrics are so evocative.
The heather will fade and the bracken will die | Streams will run cold and clear. | And the small birds will be going, | And it’s then that you will be knowing | That the Terror Time is near.
As one commentator noted, check out the gorgeous vocal slides by Lynn at 2:47 and 2:51.
The political is overt in much of their music. In The Chartist Anthem, they write about an early voting rights group in the U.K. and the group is joined mid-song in this live version from 2018 by other musicians to give it that true political-anthem feel.
In the 1830-40s in England, the Chartists rose up as a working class, grassroots movement calling for voting rights. The demands in The People’s Charter include tenets we now consider to be the foundation of modern democracy, such as the right to a secret ballot, and in a time before cars, telephones, and the internet, the Chartists delivered over a million signatures in support of their demands to Parliament in giant wagons. Their movement, however, was unsuccessful in its own time and most of the leaders died never having seen the things they fought for come to pass. Almost two centuries later, however, we take for granted that these rights are part of democracy.
The Song of the Lower Classes is “a timeless anthem for the lower classes: a living breathing resistance to injustice. Its messages today are as impactful and revolutionary as they were when Ernest Jones spent two years in solitary confinement for publicly expressing them in the 1840s.”
In January of 2017, Windborne took a video of the last verse in front of Trump Tower, and over a million people saw it on Facebook and YouTube. Windborne noted that it was the response to this video that took the group from touring a few weeks out of every year to a full-time occupation.
Here Windborne sings a powerful traditional setting of the Stabat Mater from the village of Nebbiu in southern Corsica. Listen to the bells ringing at the 3:00 mark at the end, as if building is adding an appropriate coda.
Two more tunes from Windborne, the first the beautiful Songs Stay Sung about how love stays loved and songs stay sung until the end of time. They are joined here by the U.K. folk singer Zoe Mulford. Listen for one of those gorgeous chords at the 1:45 mark. The second is the Quebecois folk song Les Tisserands.
With a 20-year background studying polyphonic music around the world, (the group) shares a vibrant energy onstage with a blending of voices that can only come from decades of friendship alongside dedicated practice. The ensemble shifts effortlessly between drastically different styles of music, drawing their audience along on a journey that spans continents and centuries, illuminating and expanding on the profound power and variation of the human voice. The singers educate as they entertain, sharing stories about their songs and explaining the context and characteristics of the styles in which they sing.
Because we are nearing the winter solstice, we’ll end with Windborne’s arrangement of John Renbourn’s Traveller’s Prayer.
Praise to the moon, bright queen of the skies, | Jewel of the black night, the light of our eyes, | Brighter than starlight, whiter than snow, | Look down on us in the darkness below.
The group performs Friday, December 2nd at IMT presents Windborne. The concert will be held at Saint Mark Presbyterian Church, 10701 Old Georgetown Rd, Rockville, MD 20852. It begins at 7.30pm and tickets are $20 in advance (+$2 service fee), $25 at the door (children and students w ID $15 / 20).
More to come…
Photo of Windborne credit Windbornesingers.com