ED: Could you give some biographical details: where you grew up,
family, that sort of thing?
RN: Born in New Westminster (near Vancouver) 1947
Only child and brought up by mother alone.
ED: Is your family musical?
RN: Nope, but they might have been if they had the chance - they
were all destitute fishermen and farmers.
ED: What was your first musical endeavor?
RN: Smashing the basement windows with my toy train.
ED: What was your first musical instrument? What age did you
RN: Took violin lessons when I was 8 (i was terrible) some
piano in my teens, and trumpet and tuba in high school band. Sang
in school choir. I wasn't very good at any of this but did learn how to
read music fairly early, and had a fairly good background in music
ED: Did you play classical guitar or did you play any popular
style before that?
I played some folk guitar but never seriously studied classical.
ED: What attracted you to the lute? How did you get into the early
RN: I was very interested in history; Julian Bream's lute
recordings were just appearing and I heard recordings of the New York
Pro Musica - I was very drawn to the idea of how unknown and new the
repertoire was. There wasn't much of an early music
scene to get into in those days - I think there were a lot of people
like me that were flailing about and trying to find ways of pursuing
their early music interests. In the the 60's there really wasn't
much early music in North America - it was very new. Around
1970 a few of us launched a small ensemble and then the Vancouver
Society for Early Music [now Early Music Vancouver], and think this was
very similar to what was happening in other places at that
ED: Who were your teachers and what did you get from them?
RN: I had some very early lessons with touring lutenists - Michel
Podolski and Stan Buetens in the 60's for example. These were
more inspirational than really helpful. I collected my pennies
and managed to order a 10 course lute from Raymond Passauro in Belgium
- this was rather heavy and had a guitar style bridge. I tried to
improve this and became interested in making a lute and went to England
in 1966 to do a year's apprenticeship with Ian Harwood and
John Isaacs in Ely, who were the only makers I knew of at that time who
were pursuing a historical type of instrument. Ian helped my playing
and I had a few lessons with Dianna Poulton in London. In spring
1972 I went to the Queekhoven Lute Seminar and met Eugen Dombois,
Michael Schäffer, Michael Lowe, Jacob van der Geest and many
others. Coming into contact with a critical mass of good players
and makers right at the time when lute activities were exploding was
very exciting for me. While in Europe I visited many of the
collections with historical lutes, and then spent the summer taking as
many lessons with Eugen Dombois as he could fit in, and also a few viol
lessons with August Wenzinger.
I never had an extended study with a single teacher, but tended to pick
up what I could and assemble the bits later on my own. Since
those days I've had a lot of inspiration and ideas from Pat O'Brien,
and have been very influenced by all the wonderful players that I've
been able to work with over the years.
ED: How many instruments have you built?
RN: About 200, including a couple of dozen viols
ED: How many instruments do you have for yourself now and what are
RN: At the moment, I have a 61 cm 8 course lute (essentially a big
Hieber model) for most Renaissance work and lute songs, a 65 cm 10
course yew wood lute for later rep and continuo work and an 80 cm
theorbo. I recently sold my 6 course lute and mean to make a new
one for myself soon. Of course, I'm making new instruments and
try to play those for a while before I have to send them out. I
don't play baroque lute.
ED: You are truly a Renaissance man: fretted instrument player and
builder, singer, scholar and teacher.
What are your main areas of interest?
What came first?
RN: It's chicken and egg - I think I just have a short attention
ED: You are a singer and a lute player. What about singing and
playing at the same time?
RN: No, I always found that very difficult
ED: What strings have you tried and what have you settled on for
this early repertoire? How often do you change them?
RN: In general I use Nylgut (occasionally carbon fiber) and
overwounds (Savarez copper wound, Pyramid) for the basses.
I have gone through periods when I was very interested in pursuing gut
stringing and unwound basses, but as most of the work I do is ensemble
based, I think that the reliability of modern stringing is very
advantageous, and overwound strings really do help project the bass
sound in an ensemble. If I was doing more solo playing, I would
be pursuing a different type of stringing.
ED: I'm surely misquoting, but to paraphrase, You mentioned that
if you had discovered theorbo before lute you might not have become a
lutenist. What is it about the theorbo that is so exciting?
RN: I love playing in ensembles, and the theorbo is a fabulous ensemble
instrument, that's probably what I meant. For solo playing I much
prefer the lute, and I think it's better able to adapt to a wide
variety of musical styles and ideas.
ED: Do you use meantone temperament? Which temperament/comma?
RN: For ensemble playing you have to adapt your tuning to what's around you
- especially when there is a keyboard in the ensemble. I
generally keep my lutes in something like 1/6 comma meantone which
seems a good compromise for most situations, and I use tastini for the
F#, C# in the first fret, and sometimes other places as well.
This definitely makes the instrument sound better than normal equal
ED: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
RN: I generally don't use a tuner, except maybe to get the basic
pitch, and sometimes to check the fret positions. I don't really
have a set tuning procedure, it will differ according to the situation
- in ensemble of course you generally tune the a's first, but when I'm
by myself I would set the G's to begin. I do quite a bit of
professional harpsichord and organ tuning, and find it very useful to
be in charge of the tuning situation, and being able to choose
temperaments that work well. Tuning the lute in an ensemble can
be very difficult and you have to get there early to tune before the
ED:How do you practice? How long? How often do you rest when
practicing? What do you do to prepare for a concert?
RN: I try to work on specific technical goals when I start to
practice, and get to playing pieces later. Most of my playing is
in ensemble, so a lot of time is spent on figuring basses or making
parts - evolving what I might play rather than practicing exactly what
I will play. This is very different than preparing solo pieces.
Once you are reasonably confident of your technical preparation,
I think a lot of practice and rehearsal is to discover the
possibilities of what you're playing - not necessarily to make a final
decisions, just locating options. As I'm getting older I feel
like I have to spend more time playing slowly and paying attention to
my basic technique and tone quality. I can't get away with what I
ED: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?
RN: It's very important to find the best fingering for the musical
result you want, for the beginning student it is certainly helpful to
have all the fingerings written in. With experience you learn to
see the possibilities and don't have to write down so much of what you
do. In learning a new piece I'm very careful to find good
solutions, and analyze each finger's movement in spots where
I'm having a particular problem.
ED: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.
RN: All lutenists should be concerned with research and
musicology, not as an end in itself but as a way to inform ourselves of
the options we have, and to become aware of our repertoire. I
find research to be a way of stimulating my interest in playing, but
less so as a way of finding absolute answers. I'm not sure what a
musicologist's personality is; musicology is a historical science and
has ends which are quite different from those of performers, however
useful that science may be to performers. Musicology is the study
of the musical artifacts of history. I think I'm more interested
in it as a tool to help me be an interesting performer.
ED:Who are your first and second favorite composers?
RN: Yikes! It changes daily according to the moment.
Probably Bach and Bach (but not so much on the lute). On the lute
probably Dowland and Francesco.
ED:How close do you think we (lute world collectively) and you
(personally) are to recreated the Renaissance music the way it was
RN: The irony is that as long as we are only concerned with
recreating something in the past, we can't be creating performances
anything like the ones when the music was new. If the underlying
assumptions and motivations of the art are different, how can the final
result be similar? Their performance situation was
different, they ate different food and smelled worse than we do, they
burned heretics and believed that the earth was the centre of the
universe. How can we recreate this? We have to accept
that we are creating a new synthesis in our own time of our
culture and old music. As performers, we act as interpreters and
ED:How do you determine tempo? How much leeway do you think there is?
RN: I often seem to be saying "There are no Early Music
Police". We can, of course, play music at any tempo we
like. If the result is musical and pleases the listeners, who are
we to say it is wrong? Historically, we can often identify tempos
that seem appropriate, but these were clearly quite changeable - for
example, if a galliard was danced to, or if it was played as a solo
instrumental piece. Musicians at the time exercised their
discretion in finding the tempo that seemed the most appropriate to
them, and as there seem to be no absolutes, we end up doing the
same. Research will give us guidance, but our goal should always
be to find the "best" tempo (for the music and us) rather than the
ED: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.
RN: We only know what the surviving historical evidence tells
us. I don't know of any evidence for slurring until the 17th
century but that doesn't mean that some players didn't slur if they
felt like it would have a good effect. Personally I don't use
slurring in 16th century music as I don't like the effect - I prefer
the more precise effect of fingered notes
ED: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?
RN: I'm not sure that the dots were always meant to indicate a
first finger (although treatises often say this), but rather that they
showed weak beats, so that they helped clarify the rhythm, the same way
we might use beaming of the rhythm signs. In some early
manuscripts there are no rhythm signs over the tablature but there are
dots under the notes which therefore are our only indication of
the rhythm. Instruments that played with a plectra
often use the dot to mean an upstroke, so again I think the convention
is that the dot indicates a weak beat, and this can manifest itself in
different technical solutions depending on the instrument in question.
ED: 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?
RN: In the sixteenth century, nearly all music for the lute (with
the exception of Fantasias and Ricercars) was arrangements of other
music rather than being conceived first and foremost as lute
solos. The lute was mainstream instrument and this was one
way it was connected to the musical culture of its time. As most
of the dances also seem to be arrangements, perhaps we should think of
these as intabulations also. Some intabulations are very
artful and work well as solos, most are rather pedestrian and
unidiomatic and maybe are better thought of as a way of writing a
working score of a piece, or perhaps as the basis of something to play
when playing in ensemble with other musicians. There is a
parallel with piano arrangements in the nineteenth century of
symphonies and operas and popular music - there was a demand for such
editions as musicians had to have such access to experience the music
at all - they couldn't just listen to a CD.
ED:Why did intabulation die out and dance music become prevalent?
RN: In the renaissance vocal music was the mainstream of educated
musical culture, and the lute participated fully in this world, as did
other instruments. The change didn't happen all at once, but most
instruments seems to become more specialized and develop more
idiomatic repertoires as we move into the seventeenth century; in the
case of the lute that meant more concentration on intimate dance
repertoire (especially in France and England), or more use as an
accompaniment in others (especially Italy). This
increasing specialization eventually caused it to
ED: Why do you think classical guitarists and pianists usually
memorize their material but most lutenists don't?
RN: In the nineteenth century it was important for performers to
make a big impression in recitals and performing from memory was an
important aspect of that - making it seem that
the performance was inspired on the spot. When Segovia
established the classical guitar as a concert instrument in the early
twentieth century he intentionally followed this traditional
model. Concertizing lutenists are a fairly recent
phenomenon and seem to have intentionally abandoned this
practice. Reading from tablature is relatively easy compared to
reading classical guitar notation, perhaps lutenists just don't get
enough practice memorizing. By the time a classical
guitarist has discovered the notes and chosen fingerings for a piece,
it is half memorized anyway.
ED: Who are your current musical collaborators? What projects are
you working on?
RN: I have an ensemble in Vancouver called La Cetra, which is does
mostly seventeenth century music; usually it consists of 4 or 5 string
players and keyboard and lute, often with singers. I've also been
rather involved in assembling larger scale performances - including
Monteverdi's L'Orfeo and L'Incoronazione di Poppea for Festival
Vancouver, and a series of Bach Cantata programmes for Early Music
Vancouver over the past few seasons. In Nov of 2008 I'm
assembling another Orfeo for the University of Alberta's Festival of
Every Summer I direct a Programme for Baroque Vocal Music at the
University in Vancouver, along with Ellen Hargis and some other fine
faculty; essentially this is a masterclass for 12 advanced singers
which is meant to be preparation for an Early Music singing
career. In conjunction with this course I've arranged numerous
programmes with Ellen Hargis (also involving my ensemble La Cetra) and
this is something I always look forward to. Last summer we did an
all-Dowland programme with Ellen, Paul O'dette, David Douglass and La
Cetra, which incorporated a lot of new ideas and
arrangements; in some ways it is an outgrowth of that event that
I'm going to LSA this year to do a Dowland lecture. This summer we're
preparing a programme inspired by Monteverdi's Friday night
concerts in the Hall of Mirrors at the Gonzaga Court of Mantua.
ED: What do you listen to for your own entertainment?
ED: What's next for you?
Ray Nurse Interview by Ed Durbrow
Transcribed by Terry Muska
February 9, 2008
ED: The file you sent me was done in Sibelius. Any
thoughts on the impact of technology, or nostalgia for the old ways? I
thought there was a kind of charm about the way people did that in the
old days. Everyone would have their own notebook with their pieces
organized however and written out by hand.
RN: I think, in a lot of ways, that the way it was
back in the 60’s or 70’s was a lot more like the original
situations, where you collected your pieces as you went, and
accumulated your own repertoire. One of the differences now is that it
seems like we’ve got access to almost everything really quickly.
At one time, you know, somebody gave you a piece, and it was like the
greatest thing in the world, because it was only the fourth piece that
you had. I’m sure that’s what it must have felt like in the
We’re aware of these great big manuscripts and such, but I
think they were probably the exception, unless you were a professional,
and in a really wealthy situation.
ED: Very cherished possessions it seems, too.
RN: The thing with computers now, the music programs
and the notation programs and all of that, it gives us quick access, it
gives us the ability to manipulate our materials in many ways, which is
completely a new thing, nothing to do with the original music. We can
spend our time just manipulating computer programs to do things with
the old materials. It’s a new possibility. It’s just
ED: There was something in a recent journal where
somebody was trying to build a lute with historical techniques.
RN: Yeah, that’s quite interesting. Somebody
like that will really discover a lot of things about the old
instruments, just by forcing himself to not cheat (laughs) all the time.
We all take advantage of modern processes and tools and things like
ED: That’s an interesting concept. The idea of
forcing yourself to do something like that, for instance, forcing
yourself to play in some of the positions we see in pictures and so on.
RN: Absolutely. It’s partly what I meant when I
said in my email that if we’re more aware of what people did, how
people played, the process of how they got their music, arranged their
music, we might have quite a different impression of what was going
on than we do when we deal with collected modern works and just
trying to discover things which are correct, or accurate or
historical. Because those are things that, of course, they never did.
That’s one of our modern processes, in a way.
For example, people might study Dowland or Francesco and their music,
but you don’t hear people discussing “What did Francesco
actually do with his day? What was his day like?” and “When
he played, what was the situation?” “What kind of concerts
did he play, or did he play concerts at all?” I think if we knew
more of those personal things, more ordinary things about what it was
that people actually did, and how they dealt with their music, that it
would answer a lot of the questions that we don’t even know that
are in front of us. Like “Why is the music the way that it
is?” “Why are the manuscripts the way that they are?”
We seem to get so stuck sometimes on little details of
what’s actually in front of us, that we often don’t ask
questions that are, maybe more hypothetical.
I think that one of the things that people forget sometimes is just
because there’s not evidence for something doesn’t mean it
didn’t happen. History is simply made up of the study of things
which survive. Historians don’t speculate wildly and do things
like that. They’re not supposed to. They’re scientists. And
yet, when you’re dealing with the creative parts, and things like
that, then I think you have to fill in a lot of those kind of gaps to
get a more personal sense of what’s going on.
ED: I’ve wondered if some of these people like
Dowland or Francesco might have had a servant, assistant, or apprentice
that they were training? And they would say: “Okay, you play the
RN: Well, I’m sure they did, and I wish we knew
more about that. It relates a lot to the music as well. For example, we
don’t have any sources in England, say attached to Dowland, that
I’m aware of, that are like tablature books, or part-books, or
anything that are actually from the court situation where the
professional music was made.
We have a lot of solo things, but these guys played in duets, trios,
quartets. And specifically at the English court, there was this group
call “The Three Lutes” that played all the time, and we
have virtually no music for three lutes from England. What were these
guys playing? We only have a very small bit of evidence about what
actually went on. We have a lot of “stuff”, but a lot of it
doesn’t tell us much, other than: ”Okay, well here’s
a little piece of music.” But it doesn’t tell us what it
was for, or how it was used, or “Is that how really good
musicians played it at court?” or “Was that an amateur
player, or what?”
I think this is something Paul O’Dette has often said about
Dowland, that one has to really be aware of what the sources are. A lot
of these pieces that are in the complete works have the “stamp of
approval” of musicology, and they’re clearly not by Dowland
at all. The music may be by him, but the setting is by somebody else.
To a large extent, there’s a lot of random material that we have
in front of us, that we tend to view as some kind of holy relic. And
yet at the time, I think part of what good players did was make their
own repertoire, like what you said was “making your own
book”. We may go to great lengths to find the Dowland piece which
is the one which is in Dowland’s autograph, and which is the
“best” copy, and all of that. At the time, they
weren’t interested in that at all. That was somebody else’s
playing version, and they wanted to make their own. That’s one of
the reasons we have so many different versions of pieces of music. They
weren’t specifically trying to copy the best or most authentic
version. They just wanted to make their own all the time.
ED: It would be like a jazz player playing a Coltrane
solo note for note.
RN: Exactly, that’s not what jazz players do.
That’s not the process of playing jazz. Sure, you study Coltrane,
but you don’t base your own performance on simply copying,
because what’s important about the performance is not the notes
specifically. It’s other things. It’s personality.
So, I think there are a lot of things to be learned there. I have a
question that when we play music from the 16th century, obviously
we’re very concerned about authenticity and doing things that are
appropriate, being careful about the music so that we represent it
well. And you know, this leads us down a way of playing that never
existed in the 16th century. Wouldn’t it be better to try to be
more aware of the art of the lute player in the 16th century, whatever
that consisted of: improvisation, composition, arrangement, as well as
playing really well, and did a lot more of that ourselves? Because that
is the art of the time, not playing pieces correctly and exactly.
It’s a paradox, isn’t it? You can’t really go both
ways, and yet both have appealing things about them.
ED: We have to attack it from many different
directions then, to maybe get to something closer to the truth.
RN: Yeah, we may have to mix up our approaches a
little more. (laughs) And it’s difficult, because I think a lot
of these ways of manipulating the materials that we have, or making our
own solos, or arranging pieces ourselves – The things that are
not immediately easy to do for somebody who has just picked up a lute,
and they don’t necessarily have a lot of music study behind them.
If one thinks of some of our best players: Paul O’Dettte, Nigel
North, Ronn McFarlane, people like that, they’re very creative in
what they play. You know Paul’s always written his own divisions
when they’re missing in the solos, and Nigel’s arranging
what to play on the lute, and Ronn McFarlane’s writing his own
I think that the best players do incorporate a lot of that kind of
originality in their work, which I think then gives them a lot of
creative inspiration when they actually just come to play music. They
felt something else about that creative process by engaging in it
themselves, so that they think a little differently, even when
they’re playing someone else’s music.
ED: So, how about singing then? It’s hard
enough when we have instruments. (laughs) At least we have an
instrument to look at. But how about getting back to the voice, trying
to figure out how they sounded and how they performed?
RN: I think in a lot of ways, we never will know how
they sounded, and I don’t think they sounded one way. Like today,
every singer has their own vocal quality and their own style, so, in a
way, I don’t think that there’s an authentic style of
singing, per se, in the same way that you can own an exact copy of a
lute. It may be not so much about tone quality anyway. For a singer, if
they really try to come to grips with the text, with the words that
they’re singing, and something about the concept of style, and
what elegance would be, what would be appropriate at the time, that in
a way a singer has a lot more material to work with than an
instrumentalist because they do have the words. In a sense, there is a
kind of meaning there in the music that’s right on the surface,
that the instrumentalist doesn’t have. So they are a step closer
in understanding how the music should go, because it has to fit the
words obviously, and somehow has a connection to the meaning of the
I have been involved in the teaching of singers a lot, and I think a
lot of the most important thing we teach in working with singers that
are doing early music is “Stop worrying about your sound. Stop
worrying about your technique. Let’s understand what we’re
singing here. Let’s understand the text. Let's project the text.
How does this music mirror the words? What do we have to notice in the
music to bring that out as well?”
So, in other words, I think that just by focusing on the music, a lot
of the things about sound and vocal techniques will fall into place in
a different way than what they would if you were singing Puccini or
Mozart, or something like that.
ED: I noticed in the baroque vocal workshop, you got
the students to try to picture what life was like back then, and to try
to come up with ideas of what would have been acceptable sounds.
RN: Yeah, I think it’s really important because
modern classically-trained musicians are basically trained with a
single mindset of doing what’s needed now professionally in order
to have a profession as an opera singer or violinist, or something like
that. You have to have a certain style which is acceptable and rather
similar to other people. So I think that modern musicians are not
encourage to really think about the context of the music, or answer a
lot of questions that you need to when you tackle early music.
Musicians should be encouraged to think a lot more about what
they’re actually dealing with. To me that’s one of the big
differences between early music and mainstream classical music.
ED: You have this “big picture” kind of
approach to putting things in context. Have you always had that, or is
it a kind of convergence of your different interests: building,
singing, playing? Did you consciously try to get a “big
picture”? Was that important to you from the beginning?
RN: I think I was always interested in trying to
figure out why things were the way they were, and trying to get to the
underlying reason. I’ve always had the idea that if: “Okay,
it says in the music that you’re supposed to do a trill, you can
just practice the trill a certain way, and you end up so that you can
do a trill, but if you understand what the effect of the trill should
be, rather than simply understanding technically about a trill, then I
think you have the reason behind the trill, then that probably answers
a lot more questions for you, because the trill, per se, is not
important, but the effect it creates is.
There are an awful lot of things like that in music, or in instrument
making. Why are pegs shaped the way they are? Why is something this way
or that way? I think that if we try to find the underlying reasons why
things are the way they are, in music, or in instruments, it gives us
more of a creative option, so that we’re not just copying
something slavishly, we’re actually kind of recreating it for
ourselves, with our own understanding: sort of an intention behind the
act, in a way. And I think, that does lead to a more “big
picture” of the stuff, so that we’re not just dealing with
details all the time, we're trying to fit it into a bigger sense.
For myself, it’s true, I’ve always been involved with the
“bigger picture”, certainly with music, because my first
inclination, or my first experiences in early music, were as much to do
with singing and certain ensemble types of playing as they were with
playing the lute, so I think I’ve been more interested in the
“bigger picture” of music rather than coming at it entirely
from the lute. When you do that, you immediately see that so much lute
music is actually just a reflection of the mainstream. It’s not
specifically lute music. It just fits into ordinary music culture.
It’s just a way of playing tunes, like everybody else.
RN: Another area that we haven’t, perhaps appreciated enough,
that players don’t play enough is the ten-course repertoire. The
generation after Dowland and especially that generation of French
composers; Ballard and people like that. And, also there is a very rich
repertoire at that time on the continent in Germany, and Italy to some
extent, but Eastern Europe as well and that, I think that repertoire is
less well known. People just don’t really know the pieces so much
that are in Besard, or Fuhrmann, or Van de Hove and let alone a lot of
these very large manuscripts that we find in Germany and Czech Republic
and places like that now. It’s very indicative of a very high
state of lute playing, of lute technique. Perhaps there aren’t
really famous composers in there but it’s a very rich field
ED: That reminds me when you are talking about difficult things. You
mention that about intabulations, how some of the intabulations may be
a kind of shorthand of the score. I have wondered about that. Some of
those intabulations are just really a handful and I wonder if
they’re maybe something like popular music arranged for piano. So
that it’s all there, and maybe not really meant to be played
exactly as written
RN: No, I think that’s very possible. At least I think it’s
not meant to be played in performance exactly as it stands. Let’s
put it that way. I mean a good player may use that as the basis for his
performance. But as we know a lot that music is so awkward to play.
It’s impossible to create the voice leading and so on that is in
the music. I mean there are treatises which use the lute, not because
they are interested in lute music but because they need to represent
music somehow. For example, the dance treatises…
RN: Yes and that’s right, Vincenzo Galilei prints his music
examples in tablature because it’s just a good way to print
music. Educated musicians will probably understand it because everybody
played the lute more.
ED: The dance treatises.
RN: Well the dance treatises where all of the dances are given in lute
tablature and they never talk about the lutenist (? they are only)
interested in the choreographies. Another good example is
like, for example the Pisador books which have all of the Josquin
masses intabulated. Twelve or thirteen of them and they’re a
complete misery to play (through many??) of them. And you can’t,
you know it’s not very successful because in Josquin’s
writing, the middle parts cross all of time and they’re right in
the same range and you just can’t play that kind of stuff very
successfully on one lute. But if you think about it, the only way you
can actually have access to Josquin’s music at the time, was to
get a set of partbooks of the vocal parts. There were no scores
ED: Right, there were no scores.
RN: There were keyboard parts written and so the lute intabulation is
really the only representation of the totality of the piece in a
compact manner that they had access to. I think there is something to
that I think people did use lute tablature as a means of printing music
examples, to put it that way. They’re not necessarily meant to be
ED: About these lectures… I think you are virtuoso lecturer in a
way. They’re so coherent and interesting. How do you prepare, how
are you going to prepare for these lectures? Do you spend a lot of time
doing it or do you have all this knowledge at the top of your head?
RN: Well, I usually prepare lectures or a class or something, not from
scratch but from some projects that I have been working on or something
so that I am already, sort of up to speed on a lot of things and I got
a lot of what to me are interesting ideas and things that are worth
talking about. I think a lot of the problem is not the material to talk
about or the facts, as much as it’s organizing it into something
that’s useful and as you say coherent. My problem often is I just
sort of can’t get through the materials so I have to decide what
is the most important thing to get across here, or whatever. And try to
leave the lecture or a class not even necessarily answering all of the
questions, but to leave people with something of a mindset where they
want to go out and solve it themselves more. You know, people often
talk about musicology as if it’s this really difficult thing and
to me it’s just kind of ideas and things about music. I think all
lutenists should be sort of like “mini-musicologists.”
It’s like if you have a car you should be able to pump up your
tires or maybe change your oil. It doesn’t mean you have to fix
ED: This has changed a lot in time don’t you think. In the old
days you practically had to be that way to delve in. Everyone was
RN: I think to me, it’s one of the fascinations of playing the
lute, is needing to do that, to inform yourself, to gain ideas through
doing some research behind the playing. It’s true that now with
the access to music and desktop publishing and stuff you can get online
you don’t really have to go hunting anymore and in some ways
that’s really good. It makes it a lot easier to play the lute for
people. On the other hand I think it takes something away from the way
we used to do it where we had to do the research. I think thirty-five,
forty years ago people didn’t play very well but they were very
well informed in a lot of ways. They were also hungrier to find the
music. There was certainly something about the sense of discovery of
coming up with music that nobody else had or that nobody had heard
before and all of that. It’s changing, you know there are good
things now and there are things that are less good. But, I certainly
like to encourage people to hunt for answers, ask questions, and
don’t be afraid to do a little reading or research and to write
your own music out.
ED: I love the interaction on the “lute-net” because people
are tossing ideas back and forth and it’s very stimulating.
RN: I think all of that is really important and good, because
it’s partly what makes the lute different from say, playing
classical guitar or playing piano or something, because, it requires a
different sort of process on the part of the player. It’s like a
lutenist has a different musical life than a piano player because of
the instrument and you know those are very important things and I think
we need to appreciate those things. Not feel like we just buy our music
and then we practice really hard all the time and practice scales and
whatever and end up being able to play the piece of music. It’s a
different character of music making for sure.
ED: Yeah, definitely. Have you made any solo recording?
RN: No. It’s funny because you had asked some things about that
in emails and I realized how much over the years I really have been an
ensemble player. I guess a kind of a “grunt” ensemble
player. I have never been the kind of player who’s sort of the
featured soloist in the ensemble.
ED: How about La Cetra? Has La Cetra made some recordings?
RN: We have, but usually in conjunctions with other groups. We have
done a lot of recordings for CBC radio up here and stuff like that. But
even in that group, you know, I mean I tend to function much more as an
accompanist or continuo player. It’s because I prefer a kind of
ensemble playing where there’s not a conductor or real leader.
It’s like chamber music. Everybody brings their ideas. One
person, me for example will setup the program, do the program, and
prepare the music and so on and that means a lot of things become set
at that point. But, we have tended to work here very much in a kind of
ensemble way where you find your position within an ensemble and you do
that. Obviously if you are a first violinist in a group you tend to get
featured but if you are a continuo player you can still be the
world’s greatest continuo player but the audience doesn’t
really notice that.
ED: What’s your lineup now in La Cetra?
RN: It’s usually four or five string instruments like two
violins, viola, cello, or viola da gamba, or a couple of viola da
gambas depending on the repertoire, and then another player who plays
keyboard, either organ or harpsichord, and then singers. Very
often we work with singers. It changes, you know, we can work with
guest people. Sometimes, I manage these Bach projects that I have been
doing for “Early Music Vancouver.” We may bring in the
principal players like two, three, or four singers and an oboist and a
bassoon player or something and then La Cetra will be the string group
for the group. In a sense, they are not La Cetra concerts anymore.
It’s a much bigger ensemble, but it becomes kind of the basis
ED: Are there a certain number of core members.
RN: Yeah, that’s right. But it’s not always the same faces
either. We have a pool of players I guess I would say and it regroups
according to the repertoire or what the budget is.
ED: Any upcoming projects?
RN: This Summer. The next one were doing is actually in the Summer
again which is a program of mostly Monteverdi music, but it’s the
Monteverdi as he was in Mantua maybe around 1607, 1608. The earlier
Monteverdi, not the Venetian one, because we know that Monteverdi gave
a series of concerts every Friday night for the Duke of Mantua and some
of his letters talks about them. But they don’t say what was
performed. They mention some of the performers. So it’s perhaps a
little bit of a recreation of what some of that music might have been,
not just by Monteverdi because there were other composers at that court.
There’s a good example too. If you wanted to
play some Monteverdi on the lute, play some Monteverdi lute solos, what
would you play? You know there is no Monteverdi solo lute music
ED: Why not make it? People must have done that.
RN: Absolutely. There are a few things that you can actually play quite
well on the lute. You know so this is like a situation where this is a
freedom that a lutenist of that time had. At that time in Mantua they
could make a lute solo out of Monteverdi. Well, we should be able to do
that. We are lutenists too, and if were interested in doing the same
kinds of things that musicians of the time did then why shouldn’t
we do that. I think things like that are really interesting and it
makes you learn about the music, makes you learn about arrangement, it
develops your own personal style, and it is very rewarding to do.
ED: One last question about building. What lute makers do you admire,
both new and ancient?
RN: One of the really difficult things about early lutes is that so few
of them are playable. I certainly admire a lot of the old lutes
esthetically and because of their craftsmanship. Magno Dieffopruchar,
Laux Maler certainly, but many others as well. The standard of building
was extraordinarily good esthetically and in terms of craftsmanship but
we can’t tell about the sound of them really. I mean there are a
few old lutes in playing condition.
ED: I heard Jakob Lindberg’s lute when he was here in Japan.
RN: Yeah and I am sure that’s a wonderful sounding instrument.
ED: It was different and wonderful.
RN: Yeah. You can look at the lutes of let’s say, Magno
Dieffopruchar and the lutes of Vendelio Venere and they look kind of
similar, but you look at the insides and the way they are barred, and
thicknessed(?) and you can tell that they sounded really different. We
don’t know what that is. So it’s a little hard for me as a
maker to say, “I really admire this maker,” because I
really don’t know what those instruments sounded like. I do, as I
say, love the way they look and the way they are constructed and
conceived. Modern lute makers, I mean, there are certainly some
wonderful lutemakers around and one of the things that pleases me a lot
is that modern lutemakers have been very diligent in doing their
research and copying old instruments to study. (?) And, at the same
time they have not been entirely hung up in that because a lot of the
better makers, you know they’ve more than done their homework and
research but they don’t necessarily make copies. They make their
own instruments based on what they have studied and you know, Paul
Thomson, Michael Lowe, Grant Tomlinson, people like that, I mean they
make wonderful instruments and they are quite different from each
other. And you know I’d actually love to own any of the three
instruments. I wonder sometimes if I should just buy somebody
else’s instrument and play on somebody else’s instruments.
I’d love to do that because you know I admire other
people’s instruments and I think they’re wonderful and then
I feel like I have to play my “own,” sometimes. I know mine
are okay too, you know, mine are good too, I have made some very nice
instruments know. But, you get into this thing about just the different
flavors of tone that different makers come up with and it would be nice
to experience a lot of that. And yet, you know, we don’t have
unlimited money, and at a certain point we have to decide on our
instrument and then that becomes sort of an extension of ourselves. But
lute making, instrument making, is very creative, like playing.
It’s not a dissimilar process. Its research, study, models in the
same way that musicians have music, and then you have to perform, in
sense, when you have to make the instrument and interpret all your
information. They’re very similar.
ED: What other interests do you have outside of music? Or, to quote
from James Lipton what profession would you choose, if you hadn’t
what you did?
RN: It’s funny. I guess in a way my interests within music are
very varied, and in part from making instruments and performing I do a
lot of teaching. Teaching with the university here and organizing
courses and producing big concerts and stuff, and it seems like I do a
lot of different kinds of things and yet of course it’s all,
almost all inside music. I mean I like gardening, I like being around
the house, reading and stuff like that. But, I am not heavily into
skydiving or ski-jumping or something like that. I probably should be.
I’d probably be better off for it. I have the feeling if I
wasn’t always up to my ears in things that needed to get done in
terms of musical deadlines I guess it feels like it would be great to
do more, and do more traveling, get out in the gardening more, all of
that kind of stuff.
ED: I don’t know how you find the time to do it all.
RN: No, neither do I. You know it’s funny, you may find this
because you are really into computers and stuff, we were talking the
other day about how it seemed like a hundred years ago or five hundred
years ago that you were trained when you were a little kid and you did
your apprenticeship and then you became a journeyman and by the time
you were twenty or twenty-five years old you kind of gathered all the
stuff that you needed to know for your life and you got your tools
together and then you spent the rest of your life just doing it. It
seems like know I am getting older and older and every year I have to
learn a new computer program, or do this, or something new comes up.
It’s like we spend so much time “re-tooling” our
brains now. It seems hard to catch up.
ED: The pace of change is just ever quickening.
RN: It certainly is.
ED: I think that gives us plenty for an interview.
last part by ED
ED: What is this piece? (M. George Whitehead his Almand)
RN: It is by Dowland. There’s no question, because he wrote a
string arrangement of it, but there’s no lute solo version of it
that survives in any manuscript, but it fits so easily on lute.
It’s clearly a Dowland lute solo that must have existed.
ED: It is kind of a plain vanilla version...
RN: I haven’t tried to make any diminutions or anything
like that but there’s a fair number of pieces like this that I
think are quite worth-while pieces. Somebody could take that and then
write variations on each section for repeats and turn it into a
quite good piece. I think that is part of what one should do when you
play Dowland because that’s what lutenists did when they played
Dowland. ... sort of more personal version
ED: The comparison with jazz just keeps coming up for me when I think
of that period.
RN: There are things that are like jazz and then things that are not so
much like jazz, but at least there’s a
creative involvement on the part of the player. It’s
not like the player has become a specialist in only reading the music.
To me that is the most important aspect of it. The player
is involved at some level with the creation
of the notes you’re playing, either in a bit of
improvisation or to writing embellishments or to
make your own setting of a piece of Dowland’s. And
it’s not rocket science, of course. It is just allowing
yourself that freedom.
ED:Dowland makes a distinction between musicians who understand theory
and mere performers.
RN: Yes. Right, and he was very proud of the fact that he had his
degrees. He was clearly .... therefor a musician.
ED: And as I understand it, in the Medieval/Renaissance mind, the
theorists were at the higher level. Of course it was the theorists who
were always saying that.
RN: Right. Well as we know both types of musicians had different
kinds of smarts, but some of both helps.