Research profile: Kirsten Yri

For years, Wilfrid Laurier University music professor Kirsten Yri has been fascinated by the presence of medievalism in popular music. Her research entitled “Medievalism in the Popular Musical Imagination” focuses on how the Middle Ages are interpreted by and represented in popular music.

“There are actually a fair number of bands from the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s who flirt with medieval styles,” explained Yri, including artists such as Black Sabbath and Enya.

Yri said that medieval-inspired musicians rely on unfamiliar musical techniques in order to convey a particular feel. “[The musicians] are rejecting tonal schemes and relying on old modes to make the music seem as if it dates from the past,” she said.

The final part of Yri’s research studies medieval-inspired music in film with a focus on composer Howard Shore’s work in Lord of the Rings.

“Film composers structure sound in careful and plotted ways…if you really listen, you’ll hear that Howard Shore carefully composed different music for the different races [of elves] in Lord of the Rings.”

Yri is also interested in deciphering the ideologies that lie behind such medieval reconstructions. She explained, for example, that heavy metal bands such as Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin may use medievalism as a negative commentary on society.

“They use archaic modes to communicate the idea that something is missing in contemporary life [whereas] some techno bands include monk chanting, which is maybe meant to symbolize spirituality,” she said adding that the musician’s comment may be earnest or ironic.

Ultimately, Yri hopes that her research will impact both academic and non-academic audiences as both have interacted with medievalism differently. Academia is responsible for the faithful reconstruction of medieval music, whereas members of popular music culture have reinterpreted medieval music and its themes.

“I want to show that uses of medieval music in popular culture and performances of medieval music often share overlapping ideologies…[and consider] the messages behind these particular reconstructions in terms of ideology.”