“Potter is never less than impressive in these wonderfully unforced performances, and all five performers show great sensitivity both to the original settings and to each other’s contri-butions. The remarkable results show just what can be achieved when performance of the highest order and creative freedom meet.”
BBC Music Magazine, reviewing “In Darkness Let Me Dwell”
The Dowland Project was brought together five years ago by ex-Hilliard Ensemble singer John Potter and producer Manfred Eicher to record music of John Dowland. In the interim, the group has toured widely, building its repertoire as its mission has become clearer. John Potter and friends are approaching early music in a contemporary spirit that celebrates the music’s original intentions and contexts, and along the way they are restoring the improvisational impulse to the ‘classical’ tradition.
John Potter: “Dowland lived on the cusp of a revolutionary change in compositional style. In some of his later songs he acknowledged the new Italian freer style, where composers were expected to provide only the bass line and the tune. This gave many more creative opportunities to the performers, who could improvise their own harmony and who didn’t have to be lute players (anyone could read a bass line). Possibly even before Dowland’s death, musicians were taking his famous earlier songs and reworking them in the new style.”
A similar process transpired with the madrigal, one of the programmatic subjects addressed on “Care-Charming Sleep”. “We tend to think of Renaissance madrigals as songs for several unaccompanied voices, because that was the format in which they were usually published. More recently, scholars have realised that the printed madrigal books were more often used as source material for a much less prescriptive kind of music-making: anyone who could sing or play could use the partbooks to put together their own unique version of any piece. Parallel with this was the 16th /17thcentury tradition of solo performers improvising on earlier polyphonic madrigals.” This is the case with the Rognoni 1620 version of the four-voice ‘Ancor che col partire’ by Cipriano da Rore, which “takes the original tune and weaves a new, highly elaborate version round it, in much the same way as a jazz musician would treat a standard. This ‘division’ repertoire has many elements common to jazz, especially the creative use by the performer of someone else’s music, taking the basic elements of a popular tune and reworking them into something more personalised. Wilbye’s ‘Weep weep mine eyes’ was originally published in 1609 in his Second Set of Madrigals. It appears in a manuscript of a generation or so later, sketched as a tune and bass line, perhaps copied from the original but reduced to a performing version in the current style.” The Dowland Project drew from both sources for their rendition. Potter based his vocal line on the later solo version, while the players used Wilbye’s original as a basis for their improvised accompaniment. “This is the kind of performance that might have occurred in the middle of the 17th century, and which still happens today in jazz and popular music: a group of like-minded musicians getting together to do what they can with what they’ve got.”
The like-minded musicians of the Dowland Project have between them a vast wealth of knowledge and experience.
For 17 years a singer with the Hilliard Ensemble and one of its prime conceptual thinkers (his interest in jazz giving impetus to the Officium and Mnemosyne collaborations with Jan Garbarek), John Potter has always been fascinated by vocal activity of all kinds. He was a founder member of the avant-garde ensemble Electric Phoenix and the still-extant Red Byrd – whose repertoire has embraced all options from Monteverdi to the music of Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones. Potter has written extensively on singing and his book Vocal Authority (Cambridge University Press) was widely acclaimed.
Born in Seattle, Stephen Stubbs 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 first 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. 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.” Potter has called Stubbs “the keeper of the original harmony” in the Dowland Project, the provider of a string centre against which the others can improvise.
Londoner Barry Guy, best known as an improviser and as a composer of 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 met Maya Homburger, Swiss-born specialist of the baroque violin. In addition to her work with Guy, Homburger has performed frequently with John Eliot Gardiner’s English Baroque Soloists, and is the leader of the Chandos baroque players and the Trio Virtuoso. In 1997 ECM recorded 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 disc that explores the field of tension between old and new music. Guy is also a founder member of Evan Parker’s Electro-Acoustic Ensemble, whose third ECM recording, “Memory/Vision” is released concurrently with Care-charming Sleep” in Europe.
One of the most influential figures of European jazz, John Surman has been a contributor to music on ECM since 1975, appearing on more than 30 albums for the label. His most recent discs, collaborations with American drummer Jack DeJohnnette, have been “Free and Equal” (also with the ensemble London Brass) and the live recording “Invisible Nature”. An intensely lyrical player, Surman has been influenced by choral music and world folk traditions as well as the entire history of jazz. In recent seasons Surman has been receiving increased recognition for his writing abilities. The ECM recording of his oratorio “Proverbs and Songs” was shortlisted for Britain’s Mercury Prize. Potter’s ensemble Red Byrd has commissioned new music from Surman. Amongst the many pleasures of the Dowland Project is the interaction between John Surman and Barry Guy: these improvisational innovators are finding new ways to play together inside music of the 16th and 17th centuries…