We continue our review of kingdom-level competition prep (from yesterday’s Round 1 analysis). On to Round 2, and how I arrived at “Ode to Birka” as my performance piece. (Note: I am categorizing this as an A&S Journey entry, because the focus of this round ended up being contrafacts of Thomas Campion pieces examined in this series. Before I found the right one, “My love hath vowed”, I made attempts with “Now winter nights enlarge” and “I care not for these ladies”, which will be detailed below.)
Plotting the arc (and playing to the judges)
When entering a three-round elimination competition, your goal is not unlike the competitors in a TV “reality” game show: each round, you need to do well enough to avoid elimination, in order to keep playing. But that isn’t actually enough to win. For that, you have to be memorable in each round, and if you make it to the end, you want the judges to look back over your entire competition and consider you to be a standout. When I looked back at my last 3 attempts:
- For Brennan and Caoilfhionn (2016), my final round sonnet was too low-key. I learned that I needed to end big.
- For Ivan and Mathilde (now Natavia, 2018), I did well in the second and final rounds, but the truth was my first round lute piece had been pretty painful to watch because I hadn’t put in the effort to overcome anxiety and stage fright in front of the judges. I learned that I needed my lute work to be much stronger, and that weak rounds would be remembered.
- For Wilhelm and Vienna (2019), my first round lute piece was lovely, but my second round story just wasn’t quite memorable enough. I didn’t make the finals, because I wasn’t bringing enough of myself to the table.
For this year’s competition, I wanted a compelling arc, and to be as dynamic, memorable, and as close to flawless as I could be. And I needed to create new performances. The first round would showcase greater mastery of period music than I’d ever demonstrated, which would satisfy the outgoing champions and the performance Laurels they would invite to help the judging, and should get me to the next round.
To make it to the finals, I needed to focus on the other judges: the Royals. I didn’t know anything about what their Highnesses, Sovereign Heir Magnus Tindal and Consort Heir Alberic, preferred in terms of Bardic. But I certainly knew her Majesty Margarita well enough to know that she loved original writing and was fond of my work. In December, I started work on two new original SCA songs, with modern (many would say “Broadway”) melodies, and themes that I considered relevant and meaningful. One of them ended up being “Hold the Door Open”, and I knew I was going to save that for the final (which is why we’ll save that discussion for the Final Round post). The other I quite liked, but I realized quickly that two Drake originals with no period forms or composition elements was not going to create the three-round arc I wanted. I put the second song away (it will be completed and performed when the time is right), and in January I went back to the drawing board, looking for a new approach to the second round.
At this point, a couple of crucial pieces of advice from good friends and mentors came to my mind. Mistress Ekaterine, then newly of the Order of the Pelican, was one of the people I consulted with on the song I had decided to put back in my pocket for another day. During our conversation, she pointed out that I might be overlooking a tool in my toolkit that she judged I should utilize more: comedy. In truth, I had tried to develop comic pieces a few times for previous kingdom championships (I regularly did funny material at Winter Nights), but somehow, issues of length or inspiration had always led me to choose something serious instead. I realized that Ekaterine was probably right. (Indeed, her Majesty’s Royal Whim page ended with “Margarita enjoys Music in all forms especially when it inspires or brings laughter [italics mine].”)
As I pondered this, I considered a suggestion my teacher Peregrine had made back in the fall, when he pointed out how much the royals and most of the populace had been enjoying my filking antics in court. But, he cautioned, there are serious period music types who roll their eyes when they hear ABBA or Disney music in official event contexts. What could I do, he had asked me sagaciously, that might please both these groups?
The answer, of course, was a funny contrafact of a period tune. And if I could accompany myself on lute guitar when I performed it, so much the better. That would be something genuinely new from me.
Finding the right contrafact
Still…it was now nearly mid-January, giving me at most 6 or 7 weeks to put together a piece and polish it to the point it could secure me a spot in the Final Four (or, as it turned out, Five). That meant I was going to have to use a song that was already in my lute repertoire. Happily, I had been polishing up all the songs in my repertoire at least a little while I was learning “Clear or cloudy”, as part of my “be the best conditioned” mantra. I didn’t want to use any piece I had already performed in kingdom championships before, which eliminated my remaining Dowland pieces as well as “What if a day”.
My first thought was to just use a contrafact that was ready at hand which contained humor: “Mug Your Gate”. It was a piece about camping events, but I could find a way to make it work with the right introduction. Toki and Peregrine agreed that adding lute to it would show growth, so it could work as the round two piece. I started polishing it up hard (I’ve never performed it publicly with lute, because the lute has ornamentation that is kind of tricky, and it’s never been at the top of the list).
My wife Jessa wasn’t really impressed with the idea, however, and after a week of polishing it, I realized she was right. This song has done the rounds, and I can make all the excuses I want, but it’s on the Hidden Gold album, so people are already familiar with it. Even though I can perform it and punch up the funny lines, the song itself isn’t really laugh-out-loud funny for the most part. And it wouldn’t have the killer element of surprise that I wanted. I needed to at least try writing a brand-new contrafact, and keep “Mug Your Gate” as a fallback.
What did that leave for me to try from my repertoire of songs I had already learned to play? My three Thomas Campion pieces. As it played out, over the next few weeks I tried all of them, Goldilocks-style.
I first considered “I care not for these ladies”, as “I care not for this lute piece”, but never got anywhere with it. But it made me think about what I could try as a topic. How about the bardic competition itself? It was on my mind pretty constantly.
For my first full attempt, then, I tried the one piece I had learned most recently and performed the least in public, “Now winter nights enlarge”, and came up with this:
Now kingdom champs engage
The number of our hours;
Prepare for royal stage,
As each our bard book scours.
Let now our muses strive,
And palms o’erflow with sweat.
Shall well-turned words arrive,
Or we this day regret?
Once more on counterpoints
Each fretting finger twists,
How will we play with swollen knuckle joints
And carpal-tunnel wrists?
‘Twill be a slaughterhouse;
Avoid all long discourse.
(Must make time for our spouse
Or they’ll request divorce!)
All do not all things well;
Some sing, some play, some chant,
Some ancient stories tell,
All pray they won’t face-plant.
The archer target hath,
The fencer her en garde;
Though martial champions win by death or math,
O how to weigh the bard?
It’s…clever. Too clever by half, perhaps. I ran it by Peregrine and Jess, and they raised the concerns I knew were valid: A navel-gazing piece about how hard it is to be a bard, and how tricky the judging process is for this competition, is entirely too on the nose and could make people uncomfortable. More to the point, Peregrine pointed out that he just didn’t find this particular tune all that exciting, that’s a fair cop. (I mostly learned it because “Winter Nights” is in the title. It’s not bad, but “not bad” isn’t what you want to bet a competition on.)
So…needed to get away from bardic entirely. It’s now late January, and the week of Birka, and we are just over one month from the competition…and…Birka. A shopping event. The one my wife always tells me I shouldn’t go to, because as a bard with ADHD she’s convinced it would drive me crazy. (I did go once, when our son Spencer was a baby, and I had written one song, and no one had any idea who I was and I’ll admit it wasn’t the most exciting experience for me.) Surely I can mine this for comedy.
Two songs left to consider. I went back to the better-known one, “I care not for these ladies”, and tried to really filk it. As a piece many people would be familiar with, would it be funnier if I kept the words and rhymes really close to the original? The result was “Birka Regrets”:
I can’t resist this lacing:
It just is too well-made.
Let me find any solace
For wanton price I paid!
What my cart containeth,
Its beauty is my doom.
When cruising Pennsic’s squares,
I cry, “This booth, forego!”
But when I come to Birka’s wares
I never can say no.
Our hunger will not kill us
(We’ve had no coin for hours.)
But since we planned brocade sleeves,
We just dropped gold in showers.
When my spouse I tell, love,
We’ll need a tall, full glass.
When Pennsic bottle clinks,
I sigh, “Uncouth, let’s go.”
But when I spy those Birka drinks
I never can say no.
At home, it’s time for pillows,
And bed’s our only thought.
Our fabric mountain billows
(What did we leave unbought?)
Gad, this room doth chill us,
My nose is runny red.
Though Pennsic makes me bake,
Each year, in truth, I go.
But when I hack from Birka Plague
I wish I had said no.
I spent a week sharpening up the lute part, and played and sang it for Jess. It’s now the start of February, and there are three weeks until the competition, and this had better work. And my wife did what she does, what I always count on her for, and told me the truth. “It doesn’t work, Honey,” she said, knowing how it would sting. “It’s…flat. Stilted. It’s just not that funny.”
She was right. The attempts to parallel the structure of the original song, which contrasts the favored Amaryllis to the less-favored noble ladies, stifle the piece. Comparing Birka to Pennsic isn’t helpful or relevant. It’s Birka. And I’m not capturing what makes the event fun (part of the challenge of writing about an event I don’t attend).
Peregrine concurred that my wife, as I knew, had excellent instincts and was a good stand-in for the audience. “Try again, my student,” he counseled me. I needed to write it over from scratch, this time worrying less about fidelity to the original, and more about humor and the experience of Market Day at Birka itself.
Now, when I had first undertaken the Birka piece, I had made a couple of posts on Facebook asking regular attendees what aspects of the event would be worth including in a humorous song. This made sense, given the event was coming up at the time I had posted. But very little of the feedback I’d received had made it into “Birka Regrets”, because I had been in a hurry to write it, and focused on paralleling the original lyrics so much there wasn’t much room for the details offered.
I looked back over the threads, and noted elements that the people who went to Birka suggested:
- The scramble to book a room at the hotel. (Hmmmm…what if your reservation fell through?)
- How packed full of activities the event is, and the resultant tendency to not have time for a meal.
- Add to these the elements that I had included in my first pass: The expense, the drinking, and the Birka Plague from being in close contact to hundreds of people at the height of cold and flu season.
I could tell this wasn’t working with “I care not for these ladies”. Which meant taking a look at the last song on my list: Campion’s “My love hath vowed he will forsake me”. The primary reason I had avoided using this song was that I’d already contrafacted it once, for “The Binding of Isaac”, which I had performed several times with lute guitar, including my Pennsic concert, and as an exhibition piece at Bardic Champs in 2017, a year I wasn’t competing. People had heard me play this piece, though not all that recently, and while I was planning on recording “Binding of Isaac”, it wasn’t a song in release, so it wasn’t really that big a deal to take another crack at the same tune.
And the plus side of using a piece that I’d already performed with lute was: I’d already performed it with lute. Of the pieces I had never actually competed with in kingdom Bardic Champs, it was the one I was most comfortable playing, and would take less effort at this late date (less than three weeks to go) than any of the other songs I had tried. Also, just as “Clear or cloudy” is unusually bouncy and cheerful for Dowland, “My love hath vowed” was unusually dark and heartbreaking for Campion. Not difficult to play, but the fingerwork was intriguing and impressive. And the sincere bitterness of the tone would make a wonderful contrast both to the first round piece, and to the humor the song would mine from a weekend shopping event.
I didn’t want to get mired down in parallelism again, but it was smart with a contrafact to open with some nice parallels to the source, so that people who were familiar with the original song would pick up on it and the comic twist might ring. The key was to mirror the opening line of the first verse, “My love hath vowed he will forsake me”, and the closing line of the first refrain, “I will go no more a-Maying” (which is repeated as the last line of the song).
Very quickly, I had “My hotel vowed that they would take me”, and “I will go no more to Birka.” I realized the corner I had painted myself into…I have to rhyme with Birka?!? And then I thought about it. I have to rhyme with Birka!!! For a serious song that would be awful…but for a comic song, it could be brilliant.
About halfway through the first draft I felt it humming. I ran upstairs to Jessa, and sang her what I had so far. And that gleam in her eyes, that delighted wicked grin, told me immediately that I had it. “Yes!” she said. “That is going to work.” And when I sang the completed draft to Peregrine on a video call that evening and he started breaking up with chuckles, I knew we were going to be okay. All I needed to do was keep quiet and not share it with too many people, as Jessa said, and “keep my powder dry.”
The day of the competition, I was still nervous, and wondering if the effort to play the lute part while I sang was really that good an idea, but Jessa said “Don’t even think about dropping the lute. It makes the song.” She was, of course, right. It broke the judges, it broke the room. When I heard the enthusiastic pounding mixed in with the cheers and applause, I knew we had made it through to the finals.
It’s easy for me to dismiss this piece as a little light fluff that I threw together at the last minute, in contrast with the sweat and effort that went into the Round 1 piece and the final performance. But that undersells it. Comedy is hard. If it wasn’t, I’d have done it before this year. And the difference between a successful comic performance and one that falls flat is often how many failed attempts make it into the trash where they belong, before the right spark strikes.