Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Featured Filkers #5: Sassafrass

In general, filk is a guitar-centric genre of music. Singer-songwriters who accompany themselves on acoustic guitar have been a staple since filk became a thing. Most of my Featured Filkers so far have included guitar players, although each of them brings other instruments to the stage on a regular basis. But what about a cappella? There are many, myself included, who are still welcomed into the fold even if we don't play an instrument. Most of us vocals-only musicians are solo performers. We sing our songs, and that's that. But filk is sort of like the French language: there are more exceptions to the rules than there are norms.

Photo provided by featured artist.

Enter Sassafrass, an a cappella group that sings about Norse mythology, fantasy, and fandom using polyphonic textures. What the heck does that mean? Well, for Sassafrass, it often means they sing in counterpoint, which is two or more independent melodies, usually with distinct rhythms, that are sung together. I won't go into a historical music composition lesson, but you can check this Wikipedia page and this one to get a better feel for the subject. Suffice to say, all of their songs are beautiful pieces with haunting harmonies that linger far beyond the last note.

The mastermind behind Sassafrass is Ada Palmer, best-selling author and Renaissance history professor at the University of Chicago. Ada composes all of the music and lyrics sung by Sassafrass, which would be an amazing feat even without her other accomplishments. I don't know how she has time for all of this.

Photo of Ada plotting something nefarious provided by featured artist.

Nevertheless, she needs some help to bring her fabulous compositions to life. Ada and academic librarian Lauren Schiller are the core members, though over the years a whole cohort of people have been Sassafrass, as evidenced by songs like "Here's to Valhalla" and "Hearthfire." Ada has written polyphonic music for up to nine voices singing five(!) different melody lines.

Photo provided by featured artist.

As a duet, Ada and Lauren are Sassafrass: Trickster and King. The name references the gods Odin and Loki, who dominate the Norse pantheon. As Ada explains, both are tricksters and both are kings, so which one is referring to which performer? The world may never know. Speaking of Trickster and King, here they are at an Ohio Valley Filk Festival (OVFF) filk circle, performing "My Brother, My Enemy." There happened to be very appropriate pet snakes in the room ... like you do. Anyway, imagine them as shown in the initial image, because those intricate costumes represent Odin and Loki. This song is a fan favorite.

Ada and Lauren are always highly anticipated at filk circles, and with good reason. Regarding the Pegasus Awards at OVFF, Sassafrass has been nominated three times for Best Performer, Ada has been nominated three times for Best Writer/Composer, and their song about boundless hope for a spacefaring future entitled "Somebody Will" has been nominated for Best Filk Song four times. So that's six consecutive years of nominations in one or more categories? A win is bound to happen one of these days, folks, especially given their recent appearance at Worldcon 75 in Helsinki, Finland. (Ada's first novel also won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer at Worldcon 75.) Here they are performing during the Worldcon Masquerade, complete with a shiny new tenor.

Photo by Markku Lappalainen.

Peruse Sassafrass's website and Facebook page at your leisure, where you can find news, media, band history, detailed information about all of their songs and performances, and more. If you just want the goods, you can check out their Bandcamp page. That's where you'll find four albums and an assortment of other goodies for the adventurous, like sheet music and their Teaching Collection recordings. Sassafrass is a breath of fresh air in a world full of guitar, proving that yes, voice is a musical instrument too.

What's your preferred flavor of mythology in music? Let us know in the comments!


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