And now, in the category Strangest Recording of the Year, who will take home the crown? Will it be the new record by the Butthole Surfers, those neopsychedelic Texan acid freaks? Or the latest from the Boredoms, favorite Japanese hard-core postmodern zaniacs? Or how about the close encounter between Bono Vox and Old Blue Eyes? Envelope please. And the winner is . . . Johannes Hieronymus (aka Giovanni Girolamo) Kapsberger, 17th-century Venetian composer of music for lute.

What? How can our most prestigious musical oddball award go to a person more than 300 years old? Of course this question just points out a historical prejudice: supposing that the only artistic nuts crazy enough to know about are contemporary. But think back a century earlier than Kapsberger to visual artists like Matthias Grunewald or Hieronymus (maybe there’s something in the name) Bosch. Bosch’s work included images of upside-down masturbating men with cracked orbs coming out of their anuses, depicted next to a guy putting the make on a giant owl. Don’t try to tell me these guys weren’t disturbingly, brilliantly, genuinely strange.

When we say something is old-fashioned or out of date, we tend to mean it has succumbed too fully to conventions of yore; it’s been wholly accounted for in an established genre or style or form and fails to spark our interest with a little pinch of surprise. Old-fashioned music is no longer strange. What makes Kapsberger such an enjoyable stumble down a forgotten lane of Western cultural memory is how startlingly fresh and contemporary it sounds. We’re not talking just a little bit unusual, we’re talking any-way-you-slice-it weird. For proof positive, a short amble through Rolf Lislevand’s arrangements of Libro quarto d’intavolantura di chitarone, Kapsberger’s fourth book of lute music, composed in 1640, should suffice.

Kapsberger occupied a strategic place in music history. His music did not fit the fearful symmetry and search for perfect forms of the receding Renaissance movement, which produced the bulk of early lute music, nor did it quite fit the ornate ornamentalism of emerging Baroque music, like that of Antonio Vivaldi or J.S. Bach. In fact, Kapsberger was a 17th-century avant-gardist, not unlike the better-known composer Don Carlo Gesualdo, whose harmonic sensibility was unusual enough to influence Igor Stravinsky three centuries later. Kapsberger’s music is choppy, asymmetrical, inelegant, coarse, and uneven; it leaves musical ideas unresolved, mixes major and minor (and other) modes in dramatic ways not common until Romanticism, and plays with poppy and deliberately eccentric melodic fragments.

To contemporary ears, Kapsberger sounds uncannily like folk rock. Put on the wonderfully bizarre “Colasione” and it’s as if an unknown Nick Drake record has surfaced–the dark, haunting melodies of Drake’s guitar reaching out past the finality of his self-inflicted death. Introspective and bittersweet, “Capona-Sferraina” sounds like one of Drake’s slightly less maudlin numbers. “Canario” is a livelier tune that could be from the batch of new acoustic recordings by Gastr del Sol on Crookt, Crackt, or Fly (Drag City) or an improvisation for reinvented guitar from Hans Reichel’s Bonobo Beach (Free Music Production). Coupled with a juicy beat, the melody line on “Kapsberger” would make a kicking bass sample for a really hip hip-hop mix. And turn to the disc’s closer, “Toccata seconda arpeggiata,” to hear Kapsberger forging a completely new kind of folk music out of the ashes of John Fahey.

Lislevand, who primarily plays theorbo (a short-necked lute), is joined by a merry band, which includes Eduardo Eguez on chitarra battente and baroque guitar, Brian Feehan on chitarrone and colascione (both long-necked lutes), Guido Morini on organ and harpsichord, Lorentz Duftschmid on violone (double bass viol), and Pedro Estevan on percussion. Indeed, it’s clear that Lislevand’s arrangements play up some of the more unusual components of Kapsberger’s music, using Middle Eastern hand drums, little bells, and tambourines (appropriate, as they’re mentioned in period descriptions of the music’s performance, though apparently not written into the score) and playing the lute pieces with real vivacity. Unlike Paul O’Dette, who gave these pieces a rather flat and conservative performance (though they still sound unusual) on his recording for the Harmonia Mundi label, Lislevand pumps up the way-outness and makes the fourth book of Kapsberger one that’s fun to read over and over.

A flurry of revived ancient music is hitting the market these days, from chart-topping monks to the NPR-approved medieval polyphonic chantresses Anonymous 4. Of course some of the fuss is akin to the exoticism currently driving “world music”–that sort of “hey, wow, that’s different!” energy that can lead to a throwaway attitude toward music of different cultures. But at its best, historical exoticism brings into focus the wide range of music made at any point in time–which debunks the conservatism of the canon and the attendant defense of “the classics.” Kapsberger’s music is not of that stock, to his credit.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Toni Catany.