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With this recording American lutenist Stephen Stubbs makes his ECM debut as leader of his own ensemble. His first ECM New Series appearance was on the album of troubadour songs “Proensa” with Paul Hillier. On the Dowland Project records “In Darkness Let Me Dwell” and “Care-Charming Sleep” he can be heard alongside John Potter, John Surman, Maya Homburger and Barry Guy.

An interview with Stephen Stubbs

How did you choose the repertoire for this recording? There is a quite homogenous group of Italian pieces whereas the Slovak manuscript, the “Pestrý zborník“, opens up a very different world.

Stubbs: I have played duos with all the members of this group and much of the repertoire developed from a duo project I had done with just Milos Valent. We were playing through lots of 17th century music looking for pieces that best suited the two of us. There we came across composers like Granata and Cazzati. Milos brought with him the music from this Slovak source. When we then got the group together and heard the sound potential brought in by the addition of the gamba and the harp, that very music benefited the most from the colouristic possibilities of the group. Maxine Eilander, the harpist, and I have an ensemble of high and low plucked strings, Milos Valent and Erin Headley on the other hand form an ensemble of high and low bowed strings. With the combination of these two pairs we can make out of quite simple material an almost symphonic sound experience. The more simple the material is as in the case of the Slovak manuscript, the more we can fill in the colours and articulations and make it come alive. When the music is very detailed in its writing as for example in the case of Bach or Stravinsky, you don’t have so much room as a performer.

How essential is improvisation in such a program based mainly on” La Folia” compositions?

Stubbs: It’s something that developed. We had prepared very much material without the strict decision to play a certain group of pieces. We had been looking for repertoire that suited the particular instruments and talents of the players. When we started recording in the fantastic acoustic of St. Gerold, we realised it would be nice to have some improvisations on the Folia bass which played a central role in most of the other pieces anyway. The written music benefits a lot from the light shed on it when you improvise on the same material. And those were the bits Manfred Eicher liked most, as they were happening in the moment. I’m very happy that the combination of composition and improvisation is in some kind of balance on this recording, and that’s very much to do with Manfred’s influence rather than just our own intentions.

But then, of course, there is an improvisational element to the written pieces as well?

Stubbs: There is a kind of built-in element of improvisation to much of baroque music, especially to what a continuo team does over the written chords. As we only have a sketch, very much like having a chord pattern in jazz. The other part is the ornamentation in the solo lines, that’s our daily bread, not in the sense of a completely free improvisation but in a certain framework.

In the freely improvised pieces, what kind of stylistic guidelines did you use? I just noted for example the quarter tone passages by the fiddle player.

Stubbs: It’s not at all an intellectual decision. The “Folia” is a chord pattern everyone knows very well like the 16-bar blues and when you play it, you play from your own feelings, your own background. Milos has this background in Slovak folk music and gypsy music that’s just part of his native musical language. I used to play blues and rock ’n ’roll and I composed new music and all of that goes into the improvisation, you just can’t filter it out.

But what exactly is the “Folia”? It’s a harmonic scheme first of all, it’s a melodic line and there is the connection with madness and empty-headedness…

Stubbs: It dates back to the 16th century but it becomes really prolific in the early 17th century being closely associated with the guitar. At this point the guitar has a certain popularity and it’s very much allied to a set of chord patterns. A chord pattern over which you dance, sing and improvise. But there is obviously no definite choreography. A lot of dances of that time were described in the sources as wild and extravagant and sexy – in fact, another one is the Sarabande which was banned by the Pope. In a way it was a kind of a dangerous new street music!

Nevertheless your renderings quite often have a rather calm atmosphere, sometimes even melancholic.

Stubbs: That’s right. The Folia begins as a wild dance and the piece epitomises that aspect on the recording is the Foscarini with its wild strumming at the end. In the later period it assumed a much more grand character, a model form for large extravagant variations. For some reason, and I can’t really say why, a spirit of melancholy took over in our interpretations due to our four temperaments. An influence might have been that we had Erin playing the lirone, an instrument which is bowed but plays chords. The lirone used to be the instrument for laments in the 17th century.

What kind of intonation are you using? My impression is that violinist Milos Valent quite deliberately brings in a different feeling sometimes.

Stubbs: Essentially we play in mean tone which means that you have pure thirds which is very important for 17th century music because it establishes a sense of tension and release just in the chord patterns. When we play a passage that is sweet we play it very in tune because we know how to use the temperament to make a sweet, harmonious sound. What Milos Valent does, because the violin is so good at meandering outside of normal tonal regions, is that he brings in that almost eastern feeling where he wanders off the direct pitch – not the central European tuning feeling but intonation as an expressive means. Milos has so much expertise in baroque music and in Slovak music; he is standing with one foot in both worlds. Every musician is looking to unify himself from a large set of different experiences. I love it when some of my experiences from jazz or blues or any other kind of music flow in into my playing of early music. Milos has played folk music all his life and his father and grandfather were also involved in that.

Could you tell me more about your jazz and blues experiences?

Stubbs: When I was studying composition at college I had my own rock band. It was the times of the Beatles. My dream was of bridging the terrible separation between serious contemporary music and the kind of creativity that was going on in rock at the time. We were dreaming of a creative world where everything fused together. My band at one point played as a backup band for Chuck Berry in a live gig, so I had some really direct experience with people who did it properly. But after college my entire career was on the lute. Only in recent years with my many theatre projects have I started going back to composition. As a composer I’m interested in music that makes the instruments come alive like in the Baroque period when musicians composed pieces for their instruments. That’s a very healthy thing and I’d like to see that come back, there is a very unfortunate chasm between the performer on the one side and the composer on the other side now.

Interview: Anselm Cybinski


Stephen Stubbs was born in Seattle and studied harpsichord and composition at the University of Washington where, at the same time, he began to play the lute. He left America after graduation to study the instrument in England and Holland giving his debut concert in London’s Wigmore Hall in 1976. Since 1981 Stubbs has been teaching at the Musikhochschule Bremen where he is currently holding a post as professor. He has performed extensively with his ensembles Tragicomedia and Teatro Lirico, and conducted baroque opera worldwide. Moving to Seattle in 2006, he has established a program there for young professional singers called Seattle Academy of Baroque Opera. He is artistic co-director of the Boston Early Music Festival.

Milos Valent grew up in central Slovakia. His grandfather was a folk musician and his father danced in a folk group. From the beginning he was trained as both a classical violinist and folk musician. After graduating from the music conservatory, he was a member and leader of several orchestras before forming his own baroque orchestra in Bratislava.

Born in Holland, Maxine Eilander grew up in South Africa where she studied classical harp in Johannesburg. Moving to Europe and specialising in the baroque harp, she has appeared as a soloist with leading orchestras and ensembles on both sides of the Atlantic. Her recordings include the Händel Harp Concerto with Tafelmusik, and a programme of Italian duets and solos with duo partner Stephen Stubbs.

Erin Headley, born in Texas, co-founded Tragicomedia with Stephen Stubbs in 1987. Besides playing the viola da gamba, she is responsible for the revival of the lirone and has written about that instrument for the New Grove. She also directs Baroque opera productions at the Malmö Academy of Music. On Paul Hilliers ECM New Series disc “Proensa” she played the gamba-like vielle.

CD-package includes 20-page booklet with English liner notes by Stephen Stubbs