By email:
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 start? Singing?

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 theory.  

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 music scene?

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 time

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 they?

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 span.

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? Tastini?

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 temperament.

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 tuner?

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 noise begins.

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 used to!

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 actually performed?

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 advocates.

 
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 "correct" tempo.


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 be marginalized.
 
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 Ideas. 
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?

RN: Silence
 
ED: What's next  for you?
(see above)


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 16th century.

 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 different.

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 that.

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 tenor here.”

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. It’s originality.

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 music.
 
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 words.

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.


part 3
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…

ED: Galilei…

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 published.

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 concert pieces

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 everything.

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 copying.

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 inside.

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 obviously

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.