Mastering a single instrument is a feat to be proud of. How about 25 different ones?
Lauren Pelon is a musical polymath. She is the epitome of versatility — her skills transfer seamlessly between stringed, wind and electronic instruments, and a couple of oddball ones that defy conventional categories. Her instruments transcend genre, but also time periods and national borders.
With Pelon, you never know what you’re going to get.
One minute she’ll serenely pluck an archlute, a large, stringed instrument popular in 17th century Europe. The next she’ll trill a delicate melody on the gemshorn, a Renaissance-era flute made of ox or chamois horns. After that, she might brandish another wind instrument, but then plug it into an electric synthesizer with thousands of sounds to choose from.
Pelon will appear at the Cortez Public Library this Sunday at 2 p.m. to talk about her instruments, play them and sing along when the instrument allows. Her show is called “The Living Roots of Music.”
She’s been on the road, hauling myriad instruments, playing these mini-concerts, for 40 years, ever since she finished college at Western Michigan University. She majored in music and literature.
“I started performing and accumulating instruments right out of college. Some I’ve collected during travel, some were given to me, some I’ve purchased from stores or (craftsmen),” Pelon said.
She rarely stops in a new place without browsing the locally-made instruments. And often, she drives away with a new one.
In Oklahoma, for example, a Kiowa man brought her a cording flute, made of cedar wood and inlaid with silver. While touring in Oregon, someone gave her a handmade Eldeberry flute.
Pelon’s husband, Gary Holthaus, is a writer — and former University of Colorado professor. Occasionally, they perform together, mixing her musical arrangements with his spoken words.
It’s a lifestyle not unlike that of the troubadours and trobairitz — as the women were called — of medieval Europe.
“It’s a wonderful way to make a living,” Pelon said. “Almost everywhere I go, I’ll play an instrument nobody’s seen before. They get to see and hear something new to their senses, and it’s moving. I appreciate getting to share the healing power of music.”
Pelon admits she must sacrifice some degree of mastery for sheer quantity.
“Learning (successive instruments) gets easier as you go. But you can never become a virtuoso on that many different ones,” she said.
When playing an instrument, Pelon tries to reflect origins — when and where the piece came from. But she delights in “taking some liberties” and putting her own spin on it. Most of her songs are original compositions.
Pelon’s favorite part of her work is the variety and diversity.
She’s visited remote Inuit tribes in Alaska, performed at the Qurmanghazy National Conservatory in Almaty, Kazakhstan, and lived on a sailboat off the coast of British Columbia, floating among the islands and playing music for passengers who ventured aboard.
“In my line of work, I can pretty much live anywhere,” she said.
Spoken like a true trobairitz.