I have been hearing him for the last four years, always in surprising places. I didn't know his name, and dubbed him The Lute Player. I always asked other people who live here if they have heard him; everyone had seen him somewhere at one time or another. Often on summer warm autumn nights I would hear him at the apex of the Rialto Bridge, elegantly bent over his lute, playing renaissance dances to an obliggato of boat wake and heels on the grey stone stairs. For one season he played frequently in Campo San Aponal and I would see him there often.
Usually I was going from one place to another and suddenly there he would be, tucked in a niche around a corner behind San Salvador or in the shade of Ca' Franchetti's wall crowned with fragrant bushes in the spring.
One day last week he was playing near my apartment, and I bought his CDs. His name is Boka Bence, he is Hungarian, and in addition to playing music from the Hungarian renaissance he plays his own dances, composed in the style of the Hungarian renaissance. It is a unique and enchanting sound.
What struck me most was how deeply he had mastered the renaissance style, and yet his own dances were not slavish imitations; they were subtle variations filtered through a modern sensibility, traditional and not.
First and foremost, they are dances. They lilt and leap and glide and sway and if you have a soul, they make you want to dance.
"You have so thoroughly mastered the style and idiom of the renaissance," I commented to him, and he spontaneously burst into a big grin. He appreciated the compliment.
"I have heard a lot renaissance music," I said, "but never Hungarian."
"They are..." He struggled to find the words in English, his Italian being on a par with mine. "Not so..." He touched the air and paused. "Not so far. Is that right? Far."
Different but identifiable, sharing common genes with the rest of the renaissance, which was already mature in Italy by the time it reached Hungary, but with a flavor all their own. Far not only in distance but in time. Far, but not so far. They still speak to the modern mind.
He started to play. The music echoed nicely on the brick and stucco walls of the tiny campiello just beyond the Guggenheim. Tourists walked by clutching maps and barely heard a note. Wheeled luggage clattered across the paving stones. Strollers stopped to listen and throw money in the lute case. He wore wool gloves with the fingers cut off so that he could play in the autumn chill.
He has two CDs. One is with a small instrumental and vocal ensemble devoted entirely to songs and dances of the Hungarian Renaissance. It is a piece of vanished time and Bence's solos are exquisite. But his own music on the CD entitled Dances is individual and poetic.
These renaissance tunes were the popular music of their time. From the streets to the royal courts and back to the streets again, they were defined and refined and transformed, driven by the rhythms of complex dance steps. They can be joyous, carefree, melancholy, sensual, simple, complex, sublime.
Between two of the dances I said, "I guess my question is this: do you think you were born in the wrong century?"
He laughed and nodded enthusiastically. "Yes. Very much."
"Me too," I said, "I just haven't found my century."
I asked how long he has been playing the lute. He said he played guitar for a long time first, and about ten years ago he switched to this lute which a friend had made for him.
There is a lot of music on the streets of Venice, especially when the weather is fine. It ranges from accordion players to rockabilly to gypsy fiddle jazz to the virtuoso of the water glasses to the man who plays the violin so badly that it is hard to believe he does not do so intentionally, because it is impossible to play an instrument that much and still be so bad.
Bence is at the head of the class. He offers something fresh and historic at the same time. Relativity soup, the renaissance channeled through a twenty-first century talent. It is rare and original, something you never find often enough.