String Town 

Shira Kammen can play instruments you can't even pronounce.

Compared with violinist Shira Kammen's other projects, Monday's duo concert at the Freight & Salvage will be a breeze. She's singing and playing Celtic folk duets with pianist Pamela Swan. More often, Kammen can be found resurrecting music from antiquity and playing it on instruments not found in any music stores.

As music director for the annual Christmas Revels, Kammen loves playing for English country and contra dances. She also juggles odd meters in the all-woman "world gypsy" band Panacea. And her most recent CD was recorded in the Grand Canyon. But Kammen is best known to fellow musicians as one of the world's master vielle players (an ancestor of the violin) and as an expert on music from the Middle Ages. The acclaimed recent CD, Cantigas de Amigo, by her Early Music group, Ensemble Alcatraz, is a collaboration with women's chorus Kitka on 13th-century Portuguese songs.

Kammen took to music early while growing up in El Cerrito, aided by a father who sang in a madrigal group and a violinist mother. As a teenager, she gravitated toward the wilder side of Early Music. "My friend Louise and I would dress up and go to the Renaissance Pleasure Faire and hold up the direction signs." And while she played in symphony orchestras (she remembers the first time she played Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring" as "dangerous sport -- anything could happen!"), Kammen "was never into trying to make my bow go the same way as everyone else."

She was first recruited to play the vielle during college at the Shakespeare Festivals in Ashland, Oregon. She was smitten. "On some level I came home musically. I've always loved music that is solid and simple on one level, but has all this dissonance and poignant divergences. And in medieval music there's a combination of certain formalities with folk styles. Because there's so little written down, it's a real treasure hunt tracking it down and trying to decipher what the music was."

Her first vielle was a four-string model, tuned like a violin. But today she has two five-string vielles. Early Music singer and storyteller John Fleagle built one of them -- "he was very Luddite about it, and didn't use any power tools" -- and they formed a musical partnership that lasted for fifteen years until he died of cancer in 1999.

Since then Kammen has been busy, researching ancient music in her Albany cottage and performing in numerous groupings, including Ensemble Alcatraz and Panacea, at various festivals, and tackling an in-progress CD that is a musical medieval almanac, going through the seasons of the year. "And I'm trying to develop a program about lady pirates," she adds.

Kammen met Pamela Swan when both played in last year's Christmas Revels at Oakland's Scottish Rite Temple. "The Revels had an Irish theme, and we got along like a house on fire. We shared a lot of love for many styles of music, but Celtic was what we wanted to explore together."

Monday's Freight concert (8 p.m., 1111 Addison St., Berkeley, 510-548-1761) not only allows them to devote an evening to Celtic duets, but also marks the release of their CD Wild Wood (Evil Twin Records). After that concert, Kammen will tackle this year's Revels (December 13-20), which features music and dance of Celtic Galicia and Renaissance Spain.


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