"In the greatest of his songs, 'In Darkness Let Me Dwell', Dowland freed himself from almost all of the conventions of his time. The strange and beautiful melody rises from the words with a sense of inevitability, while the demands of verbal rhythms override conventional bar-lines. Biting discords from the lute enhance the tragedy in the words, and chords with augmented and diminished intervals are used to express emotional intensity to an extent unsurpassed in any other song at that time."-Lutenist and Dowland authority Diana Poulton in The New Grove.
John Dowland (1563-1626) was a masterful lute player, one of the great composers of his age, and a songwriter of genius. He belongs, as Robert White writes in the booklet that accompanies In Darkness Let Me Dwell to "the group of artistic giants born in the 16th century - among them Monteverdi, Gesualdo, Schütz, Shakespeare, Cervantes and Velasquez - who fashioned the genres and set the standards for our creative world, with implications that we are still working through four centuries later." We have, however, perhaps lost sight of the fact that Dowland was also an improviser, a musician who, by all accounts, permitted himself great freedom in the presentation of his material: "His compositions and the setting of ballad tunes...vary so greatly from source to source in divisions and variations as to suggest that his performance may have been largely improvisatory".
English singer John Potter - well-known for his adventurous approach to early music with the Hilliard Ensemble, and with other groups including Electric Phoenix and Red Byrd - restores improvisational flexibility to some of Dowland's songs in this inspired recording project, produced by Manfred Eicher in the Cistercian Monastery of Forde Abbey in the Dorset countryside.
Potter and lutenist Stephen Stubbs have a long history of performing Dowland, both separately and together. Born in Seattle, Stubbs sang the madrigals of Dowland while still at high school in the 1960s. At university he studied composition and harpsichord but left America in 1974 to study lute with Diana Poulton and Robert Spencer in London. He soon became an important contributor to the emergent early music movement. Based in Germany since 1980 he has frequently commuted to England for collaborations with Hilliard Ensemble personnel past and present. His previous New Series appearance was on the album of troubadour songs "Proensa", with Paul Hillier. Stubbs also directs the ensemble Tragicomedia and the baroque orchestra Teatro Lirico. Recent large-scale projects have included a reconstruction of Antonio Sartorio's "Orfeo" of 1672. Quote: "I see the main differences between performers of this music as a difference of priority systems. My personal priority system puts the dramatic or poetic combination of words and music at the top of the list, together with a physical feeling for rhythm." Dowland's words are well served on "In Darkness Let Me Dwell" where the intertwining of instruments and voice underlines the sense of alienation at the heart of the work.
Londoner Barry Guy, best known as an improviser in and out of jazz and as a composer of demanding new music (such as the Mallarmé-inspired "Un coup de dés" on "A Hilliard Songbook") also has impeccable credentials in early music, having toured and recorded extensively with Christopher
Hogwood's Academy of Ancient Music. It was while working with this ensemble that Guy came to know Maya Homburger, Swiss-born specialist of the baroque violin. In addition to her work with Guy, Homburger continues to perform with John Eliot Gardiner's English Baroque Soloists. ECM New Series recently issued the Homburger/Guy album "Ceremony" in which Biber's first Mystery Sonata leads the listener towards Guy's compositions influenced by early music and towards improvisation - another instance of a recording that explores the field of tension between old and new music.
A jazz musician par excellence, with a vast practical knowledge of aspects of that tradition from the blues to the so-called avant-garde, John Surman (born in Devon) is also a player deeply affected by the melodic qualities of choral music and English folk music. His numerous ECM recordings - he appears on 23 albums to date, including 12 as a leader - reveal an improviser who has made sense of his own background in a jazz context. His experiences and his unique sensitivity make him a very apt interpreter of Dowland's music on "In Darkness Let Me Dwell."
Renegotiating Dowland's HarmonyJohn Potter and Manfred Eicher discuss"In Darkness Let Me Dwell"
John, you and Stephen Stubbs have a long history of performing the music of Dowland. How did the others come to join you in the current project'
John Potter: Yes, Steve and I have done a lot of Dowland. In fact 5 or 6 years ago, we recorded the whole of Book One of the songs for another label, but this wasn't released. When Manfred asked me about a project I'd like to do for ECM I immediately suggested Dowland, and the chance to have another go at this music was very welcome indeed. And then, of course, Manfred suggested Barry Guy and Maya Homburger which was the key really which set the direction.
Manfred Eicher: We'd just worked together on the "Ceremony" album, and I realised the capacity of these players, playing in both these fields - early and new music - with great authority and providing also improvisational dialogue and interaction.
John Potter: Their contribution pointed the music in a new direction, and this could only have happened with ECM. It's a very special thing, starting with the germ of an idea and then letting it go somewhere else. So I went to Ireland for a little session with Barry and Maya and it was immediately obvious how it could work. In the past, Barry has tended to keep his different interests very separate, so he's either improvising or he's working from a score. He hadn't done something like this before, where he's renegotiating Dowland's harmony. He has this dialogue going on all the time. And through the whole thing, we were all negotiating with each other, with Manfred refereeing.
Manfred Eicher: And with John Surman and Stephen Stubbs in the picture.
John Potter: Steve Stubbs is very solid and cool and has this great knowledge of Dowland in the way that people normally expect to hear it. So he was the keeper of Dowland's original harmony, if you like, which meant that we had something to work against. John Surman and Barry Guy hadn't worked together for about 30 years, and it was great to see them really getting off on each other. And what a marvellous continuo instrument the bass clarinet is!
Manfred Eicher: Yes, if John Surman is playing it: responding to the voice, the colour of your voice, and becoming a singer in "In Darkness Let Me Dwell". We have to listen very closely to establish who is who and we realize that it becomes one sound. It's alchemy, as you once said after the recording of "Officium", and it has arrived here again. Identification of voice with instrument becomes complete.
Barry Guy made the point recently that not only were Dowland's songs able to support improvisation, they seemed to be asking for it.
John Potter: Well, when Dowland died it was a period when music was evolving towards a more improvised style anyway, in the 17th century. And the people who played and sang his songs one or two generations later - well, they wouldn't have done what Barry Guy does, of course, but they would have done something improvised. Some of Dowland's songs exist only as a tune and a bass line and somebody else would have filled in the harmony. So in a way it's a kind of 17th century practise that we're maintaining here, in a very contemporary way.
One of the interesting aspects of the work with Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble and now with the Dowland project is certainly the way in which improvisation and this earlier music seem to belong together. Is this also because the historical area that's missed out in this cross-referencing is one in which mannerism became very stressed' The era of the virtuoso composer-performer is left out of the equation. We're dealing with a more direct expression, both in the component drawn from jazz or free improvisation and in the early music.
John Potter: I think in "classical" music history there's a kind of gap, where improvisation just didn't happen anymore, and that dates I suppose from around the beginning of this century. Then you get the standardization of repertoire through records and radio. But even in the mid-19th century, if you look at a singing treatise, for instance, it will say: This is what the music specifies. This is what you can do with it, or what the composer might expect you to do with it, and this is an example of what people actually sang. And it's often very different from the original. So clearly there's a very long improvising tradition that we lost and we haven't been able to get it back. Why the collaboration with Jan Garbarek is so exciting for the Hilliards is that we're four people from the English choral tradition who know the strength of the choral tradition - but we also recognise that one of its weaknesses is that it has no spontaneity, and we have to read the notes all the time. To be set free from that is wonderful. It gives us a glimpse of what music must have been like before the 20th century. So there's a link.
An emotional link as well. If you read Dowland's verses, for instance, you don't doubt the sincerity of the text. Somehow you feel the spiritual impulse even in the secular songs. And in the work of our best contemporary improvisers there's also a comparable urge to get at the truth, as it were, to burrow down to essences, a yearning to do this. This is also a connection.
Manfred Eicher: And you have the feeling here that the given text is the catalyst of new musical ideas. And the melody, the way it's played by Stephen Stubbs, never seems to be extremely metric. Neither does it seem to be extremely free. It's free only in the way the pulse allows it to be.
Yes, it's in context but stretching the context at the same time. There's so much movement within the song forms, the way the individual voices swirl and sway around each other.
Manfred Eicher: It's like you're in a satellite, spiralling, and you go further and further, and then you land again as the record tells the story. And the characteristic of the songs - through the texts and through the tempi and through the differing approaches - becomes extraordinary, I think, especially with the variations of "Flow My Tears".
John Potter: Yes, you can see how we arrive at the second one as a result of having done the first. I think it's very nice to have them both there.
Could you sum up some characteristic differences between the work on this project and the work with the Hilliard Ensemble' Is there a sense in the Officium/Mnemosyne project that there is safety in numbers, four singers versus one improviser' Is it harder to hold the centre in the Dowland Project with lots of improvising activity happening around you'
John Potter: The Hilliard project is still evolving, and recently it's been really exciting because we're beginning to learn more about improvisational freedom, but you can't force it ... But with this project it's completely different. Really, I only know about Dowland. I don't know about improvising in the sense that Barry Guy or John Surman know about it. So I was just learning from them all the time, being completely blown away by what they were doing. For me it was a question of latching on to something I could see that was happening there, whereas with the Hilliards I find it's a question of taking small steps together to make something happen. It was great to be in a situation where anything can happen. That is really exciting. I didn't feel there was any constraint at all. We had the music there, which is the common thing, and we just did what felt right.
Do you think that the Hilliards' involvement with newer music has helped increase improvisational flexibility' If you're performing a piece by Cage or Stockhausen or anything involving a graphic score isn't there an implied 'improvisational' quotient in there as well'
John Potter: There certainly is, and I've done a lot of that, but as a group we haven't. Almost all of the stuff we've done has been written out. And when Barry Guy's piece, "Un coup de dés" first came into our repertoire the other guys at first were unsure of how to deal with it because it had this improvisational element. But we've grown now in our own way. Standing next to Jan Garbarek night after night, you learn a lot in five years.
Manfred Eicher: Yes, however next to John Surman, your voice sounds quite different. Here the purity of the sound of your voice is amazing to me.
John Potter: Well, it's actually the texts that do that because what you want to do is cut out everything except what carries the text. That's something that Steve and I have tried to do whenever we've played Dowland.
Manfred Eicher: It reminded me at times of your approach when you sang Arvo Pärt's Pilatus in "Passio", some of the most moving singing I've heard on record.
John Potter: I'm touched that you think that because I've certainly felt very differently about those two. With Dowland you feel instinctively that you can tap into various layers of meaning. Pilatus I found - and still do - very difficult. Partly because it moves very slowly and partly because I'm not really sure what the role of Pilatus is.
What was the group feeling as the music was evolving in these performances of Dowland songs' Was it apparent to everyone that you were on to something here'
John Potter: We all knew we had something special. Nobody knew where it was going to go. John hadn't played any Dowland before. Nor had Barry. Nor had Maya because you wouldn't normally play Dowland on a baroque violin. That again is something strange - because the baroque violin is neither modern, nor is it of Dowland's period. Another difference between ours and other Dowland projects is that they're all to do with early music. I think this is the first time that anyone's every approached Dowland not from an early musical angle but just as music. It's not about trying to do things as Dowland might have done them or making sounds Dowland might have heard. It's just us working with Dowland as though he were still with us. An awful lot of early music - there's a lot of stuff you don't want to sing about. But there's nothing like that in here. It's all directly relevant now, so you feel you're singing something that could almost have been written yesterday.
Manfred Eicher: When you proposed Dowland as a composer, I was very open to it because I discovered him in a deeper meaning through the work with Kim Kashkashian, more than 15 years ago, when we recorded Britten's "Lachrymae", based on Dowland. It was the original version for viola and piano. Later we made a recording of the version for chamber orchestra.
Was the Englishness of Dowland a consideration when making a choice of these particular musicians - the fact that one thinks of Surman being as English as Robin Hood, for instance: was that a thought'
John Potter: Well, since Manfred chose the musicians I think you'd better ask him that!
Manfred Eicher: I didn't think about English musicians in particular, I thought about characters. And these people involved seemed to build a group where there would be an openness for risks. Barry and Maya brought in some elements I hadn't anticipated. And John and Stephen Stubbs seemed also to be very close, from the melodic approach, in phrasings and so on. Not in your wildest imagination could you expect a group to come together like that and perform such music, and with such authority.
Interview: Steve LakeCopyright © ECM Records. Reproduction only with permission.
John Potter's Dowland project, with Stephen Stubbs, John Surman, Barry Guy and Maya Homburger gives its first concerts at the Unser Lieben Frauen Kirche in Bremen on September 17 and in the Jameos del Agua Caves of Lanzarote on October 6.
CD package includes three-language booklet with liner notes by John Potter and Robert White, and John Dowland's song texts.