This interview took place by email because the wonderfully spontaneous interview we did in Vancouver at the LSA summer school in 2003 failed to get recorded to my DAT machine. D'oh! Stupid DAT machine.
Could you give some biographical details: where you grew up, family, that sort of thing?
I was born in Berea, Ohio, USA, on April Fool's Day, 1964. My father was a professor of English, and his parents were Russia-Jewish immigrants. My mother is also a literary person, trained in Comparative Literature and translation. She is German-born, living in the USA since 1947. I have anelder sister and a younger brother.
In 1966, we settled in Moorhead, Minnesota, where I grew up more or less continuously (except for a number of extended sojourns in Germany) until 1982, when I went to Grinnell College in Iowa, where I studied English and Philosophy.
Is your family musical?
My father was a great lover of music, and was delighted that I turned out to be a musician. My mother is musical too, and formerly played the viola. She is the most enthusiastic follower of my career.
What was your first musical instrument?
The guitar (unless you count the recorder or the shoe box that I strung with rubber bands at the age of four).
What age did you start?
I was six when my parents finally gave in to my persistent demanding and got me a guitar.
Did you go right into classical guitar or did you play any popular style before that?
Folk first, then classical. Later rock and blues alongside the classical.
What brought you to London?
I came here really because of one person: Jakob Lindberg was here, and I wanted to study with him, as it was a recording of his, heard by chance on the radio, which sparkd my interest and enthusiasm for the lute. So, in September of 1987, I moved to London to do a postgraduate year or two of study at the Royal College of Music, where Jakob teaches. Next thing I knew, I'd settled permanently in England!
What attracted you to the lute?
There are really two answers to this question. The first is that it was the repertoire that attracted me. I was familiar with some renaissance and baroque lute and guitar music (only a tiny fraction the total repertoire, of course) through guitar transcriptions. I loved this music and considered taking up the lute to play it. But, at that stage, I saw no advantage in the lute over the modern guitar, and stayed with the guitar. But this was purely because the only lute recordings I'd heard at that time were performances by guitarists, using basically guitar technique, on heavily constructed instruments bearing far more resemblance to modern guitars than to renaissance or baroque lutes. Unsurprisingly, these lutes sounded to me like tinny guitars. My conclusion, based on insufficient evidence (as it turned out), was that there was no advantage in playing the repertoire on a lute. So my first reason for being attracted to the lute, namely an enthusiasm for the repertoire, was a necessary, but not a sufficient motive force for taking it up.
Enter reason number two: the enchanting, exquisite, unique sound. One day I was driving a car (around 1985, I think), when some music came on the radio which made my stop the car to listen. I didn't know what it was -- perhaps a harp? It was my first experience of hearing a relatively accurate copy of an old lute played without nails using an historically appropriate right-hand technique. Things fell into place: if this was what the lute should sound like, I couldn't wait to take it up! It was a new and quite other sound world.
So, to sum up, an enthusiasm for the repertoire, when coupled with the knowledge of what it could physically sound like, drew me to the instrument.
Who were your teachers and what did you get from them?
As mentioned already, Jakob Lindberg was my first teacher. I had what seemed like an interminable nine-month wait between being accepted at the RCM and being able to take up my place there. I wrote to Jakob, asking what I should be working on during that time. To his great credit, he replied with an eight-page handwritten letter consisting, in effect, of a first lesson in thumb-under technique. That letter, along with lots of listening to records (mainly Lindberg and O'Dette), lots of detailed poring over the photographs of the artists playing, and lots of hacking through repertoire and acquiring fluency in French and Italian tablature, allowed me to prepare reasonably well for study with Jakob.
Chiefly, Jakob gave me dedication, commitment, demanding goals to work toward, and generous use of his instruments, which enabled otherwise impossible opportunities.
I've also had two long lessons with Paul O'Dette, one in 1989, and one in the early or mid 90s. Together, these two lessons gave me tons of food for thought and work, mainly in the area of technique and expanded tonal possibilities. Paul gave me very close attention and guided me in profitable directions for self study.
Pat O'Brien has since built on what Paul gave me, working with great dedication on further refining my technique and expanding my tonal range. I've worked with Pat as much as possible in the last 9 or 10 years, though there have been gaps of up to two years between our sessions. Pat has shown belief in and respect for what I'm doing, and for that I'm grateful. His unrivalled knowledge and technical insight, not to mention his commitment and dedication to the instrument and to its players, is a great gift to all of us.
What sparked your interest in intabulation? Did you sing in a choir at one time?
No, I never sang in a choir. Oddly enough, I've grown to love vocal polyphony much more through playing intabulations than the other way around. The main thing that sparked my interest was the love that I have for the undeservedly neglected sides of the repertoire. There are more pages in the sixteenth-century lute books and manscripts devoted to intabulations than to dances or freely-composed forms. So, in this case, we're not talking about some obscure corner of the repertoire, but of a body of music quite central to it. I wondered why intabulations were largely ignored by lute players (for more thoughts on this, see the programme notes to my CD of Josquin intabulations). It was clear that it wasn't because intabulations are either boring or unimportant. What's more, studying them gives valuable insight on the fantasia and other freely-composed forms. The idea of a whole concert or CD programme devoted to Josquin intabulations appealed on many levels. It hadn't been done. It was a new way to organize and present a programme centered around one composer but incorporating huge stylistic variety and a large temporal and geographical spread.
You gave up theorbo. Was that a consequence of your getting more and more into the very early repertoire?
Yes, partly. But chiefly I did it out of frustration with what professional theorbo playing did to my renaissance lute technique. After a two-week tour of theorbo-bashing with an opera company, playing the renaissance lute well was not readily achievable. I saw more and more that there were several lifetimes'-worth of renaissance repertoire to explore, and that doing some sort of justice to the renaissance lute and its repertoire was a full-time job, not one to pursue between continuo gigs. This is even more true if you, like me, are (a) perversely interested in the most difficult music, and (b) a perfectionist who doesn't like to spread himself too thin. I love baroque music, but, like brain surgery and sky-diving, I prefer to leave it to others. I admire those players who do both well (I mean renaissance and baroque, not brain surgery and sky-diving!).
Here in London, all the other players (literally all of them) make their living as continuo players. It's funny: people sometimes call me a "narrow specialist", as if continuo players were not! I play plectrum lute, sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century lute, renaissance guitar, cittern, bandora, vihuela, and occasionally viol. Is that more specialised than playing baroque lute, theorbo, archlute and baroque guitar music from two centuries? I don't see why.
Incidentally, Trinity College of Music has done a great thing: they've now got two lute posts, one for renaissance lute (and lute-song), and another for baroque lute (and continuo). I think it's a very good idea whose time has come. David Miller is the baroque person at Trinity, and I'm the renaissance person.
What strings have you tried and what have you settled on for this early repertoire? How often do you change them?
For solo recordings, I use gut (usually from Gamut Strings). In the area of bass strings, I use "real guts" by George Stoppani when I can get them, and Pistoys by Gamut otherwise. I sometimes use loaded gut basses for unstopped or rarely-stopped diapasons on ten-course lute, but find tham useless as stopped strings, because they are rarely true. I'm experimenting with Gamut gimped strings at the moment. I do it not because I think that people used them in the sixteenth century, but because I think their sound is a reasonable approximation of a good focussed true gut bass of the sort which they must have had. (Wound strings are not!)
For touring and performing, as opposed to recording, I use nylgut in the treble and mid-range, down to the fifth course (though I'm experimenting with Savarez KF strings for the fifth course at the moment), and the above-mentioned gut basses, with nylgut octaves.
How often do I change them? When they are broken, false, or just feeling or sounding tired or thin.
What mics and placement did you and your engineer settle on for your last solo recording?
Always B and K 4006s, one pair, placed roughly where the ears of a person standing six feet away from where I'm sitting would be. More specifically, I'm sitting on a very low little stool near the ground, and I think the height of the mics (if I remember correctly) is about the ear height of a person of average height standing before me. The diagonal line from mics to lute bridge is usally six feet or so. There are no additional ambient mics.
Do you use meantone temperament?
Most often one-sixth comma meantone.
Yes, on the first fret.
How do you tune? I mean do you have a method like tuning the outer strings then the 2nd course or something like that, or prefer to use a tuner?
More often than not, I use a multi-temperament tuner by VioLab.
You've used an A lute in the past, but you didn't use one on the concert this time. Don't you like the short string length for zipping up and down the neck?
Oh, yes -- it's a fun and zippy string-length. And the best A-lutes I've tried (by Michael Lowe, Grant Tomlinson, Stephen Gottlieb and Martin Haycock) have some variety of tonal colour. But I much prefer longer string-lengths, which have much more tonal variety and dynamic possibility, for most music.
How do you practice? How long? How often do you rest when practicing? What do you do to prepare for a concert?
This is an area that has changed beyond recognition in the last couple of years, largely because my ideas about playing have changed in tandem with my increasing involvement with the Alexander Technique. Also, because I'm much busier than usual at the moment (spending about 25 hours a week training as an Alexander Technique teacher, and fitting the music into the remaining time), I've had to learn to be more efficient.
These days, even when I'm preparing for a solo recital or recording, I rarely manage more than two and a half hours of quality practice in a day. But when I say quality practice, I mean something like this: first, a few minutes lying on the floor in "semi-supine", then about half an hour's practice, then getting up and doing something different for a little while, then repeating the whole sequence four more times. So typically it will take me four hours to do two and a half hours of good practice. But I reckon I get more done this way than I used to accomplish in four hours of continual play. Also, I'm much more likely to rethink a fingering or an approach rather than relying on repetition or "brute force". Finally, I use a method of slow practising (instead of working at performance speed from the beginning) which helps me to avoid building tension into the performance by repeating tense situations in the practising. Altogether, it's what you might call "intelligent practice". In Alexander terms, it's non-end-gaining practice, i.e., it's attending to the means rather than rushing headlong towards ends or intended results. It takes more time, but it's worth it.
How have you incorporated Alexander technique into your own playing?
Really, my answer to the previous question goes some way toward explaining how I apply "Alexander thinking" to my practising. (Although much of it, of course, is simply common sense.)
There are other obvious ways in which I apply the AT to my playing. One is the matter of holding the instrument. I sit more upright and more in balance than formerly, and it's important to me to minimize unnecessary physical tension. A great deal of what we need to do to ourselves to play (or think we need to do) is unnecessary habitual stuff. I'm interested in exploring all of that. And of course it quickly becomes evident, when you start looking into these things, that mental habits and physical ones are inseparably and indistinguishably intertwined.
In the short amount of time I was able to observe your class, I noticed that you were helping the student with posture and tension, so I guess you are already using Alexander technique in your teaching. Do you find lute players have certain things they do with their bodies that are unhealthy?
Typical contortions include slumping (thereby straining the back and squashing abdomen and thorax, not giving the vital organs their due space), or "wrapping" oneself around the instrument. Another common one is pulling the left shoulder down, and the right shoulder forward and down (sometimes clamping it onto the instrument to hold it in place). I think most of us fall into these if we're not careful.
Of course some players say: "I know that I do these things, but I want to play like that, and I don't care if the consequence is an occasional backache. I can't stand this sitting up straight stuff." I can't reply to this in any detail now, but here are a few observations: Firstly the AT is not about "sitting up straight". It's more about allowing our inbuilt postural mechanisms to do the work for us. Secondly, is it not a bit of a shame to work in a way which does not allow for full realisation of our potential? Thirdly, look at the paintings and read the treatises: "graceful bearing" is, without doubt, part of playing the lute. Of course, none of these points is meant to suggest that I'm trying to dictate anything to anybody. I'm talking about my own experience.
Could you say a bit about your playing position? Your lute is relatively horizontal and your left hand seems farther extended then many players.
See above. I like to let the weight of the lute rest in my lap, and it seems to end up in horizontal position (which seems to have been a favoured angle for much of the sixteenth century). I admit that this is not always helpful to the left hand.
You use a chamois or something too, right?
Yes, it's on my lap under the lute, and also behind it, against my front, and this prevents the lute from slipping around too much.
The left hand fingerings in these pieces you played from the Siena manuscript are particularly difficult. Any hints? You mentioned using little pressure with the LH thumb.
It's hard to give hints in the abstract. But here are a couple of principles: really think the fingerings through, and be ingenious with them. Be willing to try unconventional things. There are usually more ways to finger a given passage than we tend to think. And yes, when we're playing "fistfuls of chords", excessive squeezing with the LH thumb doesn't help.
That was a very demanding program. You don't get any pain in your hands?
None to speak of. My left wrist got a little tired because I was playing for more hours than I'm used to.
To what extent do you finger each piece? Do you write in fingering? Do you map out what each finger in each hand is doing?
I plan the fingerings fairly carefully if the piece is intricate. I write in a lot of them. I don't map everything, but quite a lot.
Have you done much research? Do you have a musicologist's personality? You must, to some extent, because you know the vocal versions of intabulations.
I wouldn't say that I have a musicologist's personality; I haven't ever accessed anything that required any significant degree of digging. The vocal originals aren't hard to find in libraries. It's more a case of my being interested in exploring and presenting music which, though available, is not often heard.
Who are your first and second favorite composers?
This is hard to answer. But I'm going to say Josquin and Bach, in no particular order. Next week I might answer it differently.
How close do you think we (lute world collectively) and you (personally) are to recreating the Renaissance music the way it was actually performed?
I don't know. In some respects, perhaps closer than we used to be. In others, perhaps further away. But when you say "the way it was actually performed", remember that there was never one way in which anything was done. How could there have been?
How do you determine tempo? How much leeway do you think there is?
Mainly by instinct -- by what seems to work. This is, I hope, based not on whim but on some degree of stylistic understanding, which comes from having immersed myself in the repertoire for some time. Leeway? Yes, lots.
I've never seen slurs written in Renaissance tab. Does that mean that they didn't do it? Was it just a case of them not writing them in. In the Baroque lute and guitar tabs, they are all over the place.
I think that the only place for slurring in renaissance lute music is within the small ornaments: trills, mordents, slides and appoggiaturas.
I find it frustrating that in Renaissance tabs they never wrote in left hand fingers, but they slavishly wrote in dots (especially single dots) for the right hand fingering. How about you?
There are instances, both in printed and manuscript sources, of left-hand fingerings. But I, too, wish there were more.
What are the ratios of intabulations to dances and fantasias? I think it is hard for many of us to really get into the head of these lutenists that did so many intabulations. Why were intabulations so common? Where these tunes really so popular that they had to have lute arrangements of them?
See above, and see also the notes to my Josquin CD.
Why did intabulation die out and dance music become prevalent?
I don't know. I think it may be closely bound up with social and political history.
Was Vincenzo Galilei's Fronimo pretty much the last big intabulation adventure?
Just off the top of my head, I know there are lots intabulations in Adriaenssen. I believe his second book is later than Fronimo. And there's Terzi, and Molinaro.
Why do you think classical guitarists and pianists usually memorize their material but most lutenists don't?
I don't know the answer to that one. Memorizing is an entrenched tradition in those repertoires, for better or for worse. I think we should be doing more improvising (we renaissance lute players). It was obviously an essential part of a player's skill. But when playing pieces composed by other people, I think it doesn't matter whether one plays from memory or not.
Who are your current muscal collaborators? What projects are you working on?
I still work with the singer Catherine King, though it's been a while. I play once in a while with Musica Antiqua of London, with Fretwork, with the Dufay Collective, the Rose Consort of Viols. . . . Lately I've been doing some concerts with Michael Chance and the Brisk Recorder Quartet of Amsterdam. On the solo front, I'm working on the Siena Lute Book, and I have been for some time.
What do you listen to for your own entertainment?
I listen to all manner of things. To name half a dozen: Franco-Flemish polyphony, jazz, Hungarian folk music, Sufi music, Robert Fripp and King Crimson, Fred Frith. . . .
What's next for you?
When I finish my Siena Lute Book CD (in December 2003), I'll take a little break from new solo projects, and consolidate a bit the repertoire which is already "under the fingers". Also, I'll be focussing on completing my AT teacher training course, and getting a teaching practice going. Future solo projects? I've got lots of ideas. We'll see. . . .