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Saturday morning quotes 4.11: Lute or guitar?

Last week’s post that outlined a few broad points concerning new compositions of music for lute sparked a bit of discussion, mostly among guitarists.  While the repertoire for the two instruments may be readily transferred with varying degrees of success, the physical differences, acoustical properties, and methods of tone production between guitar and lute are quite significant.

“Taking a geometrically generated outline, and with the help of proportional cross and longitudinal sections, [lute makers] visualized the complete interior air cavity, mentally adding or subtracting pieces of air, as it were, until they had the desired shape… Understandably, then, the lute’s bowl shape is as subtle and complex as that of a violin’s carved belly and back arching, with many variables in the air mass volume and distribution, each variable producing substantial changes in tone color, of bias in power, projection, and/or balance.”

- Robert Lundberg, “In Tune with the Universe: The Physics and Metaphysics of Galileo’s Lute,”  from Music and Science in the Age of Galileo. Ed. V. Coelho. University of Western Ontario Series in Philosophy of Science 51. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1992: 221-222.

Nearly all of today’s better-known lutenists started out on guitar, with a few notable exceptions, including Stephen Stubbs and Lynda Sayce.  Robert Barto and Karl-Ernst Schröder recorded an album of guitar duets on the lute’s more modern cousin, and even Paul O’Dette recorded modern guitar duets with Thomas Binkley and the Studio Der Frühen Musik ‎on the LP, L’Agonie Du Languedoc (1976).

There are several thoughtful discussions written by skilled lutenists dissecting the details of their transition from guitar to lute, like that of Richard Sweeny.

The main difference between the two instruments has to do with just how much inconvenience the player is willing to endure.  The guitar is reliable, stable and solidly-built.  The lute is lightweight, unwieldy and unpredictable. The merest whiff of hot or cold air will cause the tuning to go awry.  Humidity or the lack of it can wreak absolute havoc on the thin membrane that is the top. The transparency of tone leaves the player nowhere to hide if there is the least little lapse of control in tone production.

But we still like the guitar and enjoy playing all sorts of music, old and new, that is well-conceived and sensitively written.  It so happens that composer John David Lamb, the author of the quote featured in last week’s blog post, has written such a piece for guitar, and has kindly agreed to make the score available for interested and intrepid guitarists:  Impromptu, by John David Lamb (PDF).

Saturday morning quotes 4.10: New music for lute

Now in its fourth year, Unquiet Thoughts was and is primarily an outlet for musings on music for the lute and how it does or does not fit into the aesthetics of modern life. In our ever-growing archive of essays, one of the more frequently visited posts posed a handful of questions that asked whether the lute was an appropriate medium for modern sounds.

Originally designed to convey quiet and intimate music for ears that could hear detail and nuance that would be disturbed by the sound of a mouse, the lute still likes quiet music and does not respond well to the force necessary to be audible to modern ears.  But quiet, subtle music that demands a tiny bit of concentrated listening offers our modern ears a moment of respite from the constant mechanical or electronic din that is so much a part of life that it seems normal.  We could do with less background noise and more music for lute.

There are currently several composers actively crafting new music for the lute, and a few web sites that link to individuals who have music on offer. Lynda Sayce and Susan King have a site that has a comprehensive list of composers and their works. Peter Croton hosts a more recently compiled listing of composers including the prolific Brian Wright. Gilbert Isbin is also a very active composer and, like Brian Wright, has published quite a bit of his of his music through the Lute Society (UK). Ronn McFarlane –  whose original lute solos were published by Mignarda Editions and are now available through the Lute Society (UK) –  regularly performs his own music with his ensemble Ayreheart.

Nearly every professional lutenist active today started out playing the lute’s modern relative, the guitar. So it’s no wonder that much new music for the lute bears the mark of this more universal instrument.  It is very difficult to shake off the influences of 400 years of changing musical style and instrumental techniques that have intervened since the lute was in its heyday.  But the lute has particular characteristics that don’t always transfer from the sound and playing techniques specific to the guitar.

We are involved in our own project of composing modern lute songs, and below is a short summary of personal observations that point towards effective use of the resources of the lute in this medium.

1.Resonance. The lute responds to the resonance of open strings and this resource should be used as often as possible.  Cross-string resonance that allows dissonant intervals to mingle gently is a particularly pleasant characteristic of the instrument, and the relative quiet volume of the lute does not create the jangly jarring dissonance that one expects from the more robust guitar.

2. Polyphony. The lute loves transparent lines and sounds better when there is more than one audible part.  Dense counterpoint is more difficult to manage on the lute than on keyboard instruments but it is surprising just how well it can work.  Music for the baroque lute is more akin to later music for guitar with a treble and bass texture, but music for the old tuning on a lighter instrument can handle clear polyphony in two or more parts if attention is paid to intelligent fingerings and use of open strings.

3. Range and keys. Renaissance lute tuning favors the keys of G and C and the flat keys (F, B-flat, E-flat) and their relative minors.  Music in sharp keys typical to guitar can be managed but the resonance disappears when playing in closed positions: Typically, a lutenist will simply transpose guitar music to lute-friendly keys that produce similar fingerings.  Ideally, the higher positions are used sparingly, again because the resonance disappears.  The higher frets of the lute are glued to the top of the instrument and touching the top reduces volume.

4. Style. Spiky, jangly angular music does not charm the ear. Why not compose that sort of music for other instruments that can handle those effects?  The lute invites the listener into the sound-world rather than projecting outward.  When listeners make themselves vulnerable by entering that quiet sound-world, why not give them a positive experience?

This last item leads us to today’s quote by composer, John David Lamb, who has not to our knowledge composed any music specifically for lute, but has such an intelligent and appealing approach to composing that we are compelled to share his words.

As artists we can choose to be accessible or we can choose to be prickly, or even sometimes one and sometimes the other.  I do not believe that being accessible is the same as pandering.  Nor do I believe that a prickly piece is necessarily more sophisticated, profound, or content-laden because it is obscure.  The important thing is that the content should bear some relationship to the amount of effort required to get at it.  If a work demands that a listener quarry every last ounce of meaning, then the meaning had better be worth the struggle.  I think audiences respond well to art when they are given some reason to believe that the artist actually has something to say, and it is up to the artist to give them that reason.

I try to keep in mind that at the same time that I am an artist, I am also an entertainer whose art requires that the consumer sit quietly for a while.  This is a considerable responsibility, and as I write I have in the back of my mind, is this really worth sitting still for? This is often a sobering thought, and it has caused me to throw away many a page that at first glance seemed acceptable, if not actually good.  Future audiences will be grateful! I like to think the pages I have saved can stand on their own merits and that they will give pleasure to performers and listeners alike.

- John David Lamb, from the essay, Why I Write The Way I Do (Summer, 1997)



This blog post was composed hurriedly and, while not meant to include a comprehensive list of modern composers for the lute, overlooked mentioning one of the more prolific contributors, Roman Turovsky.

Cats love Gregorian Chant

Connecting listeners with recordings of rare historical music for voice and lute is an enormously difficult task.  Valuable time that should be devoted to research and rehearsal is instead channeled to the thankless task of completing online forms with database information and uploading high quality sound files to various distributors, all of whom have their own peculiar formats and requirements.  It’s no wonder the larger record labels dedicate numerous staff and ample budgets to glitzy marketing efforts that describe world premiere recordings, virtuoso performers, new and exciting fresh-faced artists.

After nine previous CDs and still zero marketing budget, we are here to tell you that promoting a new live recording of solo Gregorian chant hymns and Marian antiphons is an even greater challenge than we ever imagined.  That is, until we received a gift in the form of a testimonial from a cat named Lady and her minion, lutenist and lover of good music, Thomas Schall, who wrote from Switzerland and posted the photo below:


“The Lady listening to Donna Stewart’s  voice on “Adoro Te” – usually she leaves when I put on music…She seems to enjoy Donna’s singing! It has been interesting to watch her as she seems to listen to the music.”

“BTW I can recommend this CD wholeheartedly – A complete recording for voice alone. The first production of that kind I really enjoyed listening in one run.”

- Thomas Schall

As anyone who is online for more than a nanosecond knows, cats rule the internet.  If you don’t have this important recording for your cat, you are surely depriving said feline of a necessary meditative tool.

Adoro Te is available directly from the artist at:

There is a promotional video with sample tracks and descriptive images of the recording and the venue here. Downloads are now available from iTunes, Amazon, Bandcamp, and  all the usual sources.  If you want to know more about the music and this particular recording, just write and ask.

Saturday morning quotes 4.9: Tempo

What if the Trois Gymnopedies of Erik Satie were lost for hundreds of years and rediscovered in a dusty old archive, but lacking the all-important tempo indications of Lent et douloureux, Lent et triste, and Lent et grave? What if virtuoso keyboardists with highly developed technical skills that demonically overpower any sense of taste and context decided that the pieces should be played with a sense of frantic destination rather than calm effect?

Robert Donington (1907 – 1990) dampened his feet as a neophyte paddling in the wake of the grandfather of the early music revival, the infamous Arnold Dolmetsch (1858 – 1940).  But he charted his own course in quest of objective information that might lead to intelligent interpretive details, and we owe a great deal to his own extensive research of historical source materials, first made available in his book The Interpretation of Early Music, Faber and Faber (London, 1963).

Donnington condensed his presentation of helpful quotes from original source material in a very important book, Baroque Music: Style and Performance, a Handbook, W. W. Norton & Co. (New York, 1982).  His chapters on Shaping the Tempo and Shaping the Line contain clear directions quoted from the writing of the old ones; directions that seem to have been forgotten by many of today’s performers.  Leaping from Donnington’s quotes from Quantz and C.P.E. Bach, we turn to his excellent summation of the information.

The most valuable working rule for baroque tempos is not take the fast movements too fast or the slow movements too slow…In allegro, steadying the tempo literally leaves time for those subtle nuances of phrasing and placing which make so much more of the music, and which sometimes may actually sound more brilliant to the audience than that tempting turn of speed which aims directly at an effect of brilliance.

In adagio, it is extraordinary how all sorts of problems over phrasing, articulation and dynamic inflection fall into place of their own accord so soon as it is decided to move the tempo on a little. It is so necessary in a baroque slow movement to feel you are going somewhere, generally with a certain sense of tension though not of haste; and in a fast movement to retain just that sense of dignity and spaciousness which Couperin…perhaps meant by being ‘more pleased with what moves me than with what astonishes me.’

Today, we still have baroque bands who choose tempi that evoke desperation rather than suggest tension.  A composer may have had in mind a sense of gentle disquiet or pensiveness, but instead we are given a frantic chase to the death pursued with demonic double reeds, hoboys honked horribly by the hounds of hell.

Racing tempi by some performers is an indulgence that affects the very small world of the lute, even the simplest historical music for which is nearly always a thing of dignity and refinement.  A performer will attack a certain technically challenging piece as though it was a contest between composer and performer, dots and digits, triumphantly leaping to his feet after the last chord in what amounts to victory dance.  Someone is missing the point, astonishing with hollow dramatic gesture instead of moving the audience with refined content.

Donnington summarizes his excellent essay with the following observation:

Tempo is indeed the most crucial of all problems of interpretation, in baroque as in most other music, and the surest test of good musicianship.

Saturday morning quotes 4.8: Name that tune

“Whats in a name? That which we call a Rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.”

- Juliet, from An Excellent conceited Tragedie of Romeo and Iuliet As it hath been often (with great applause) plaid publiquely, by the Right Honourable the L. of Hunsdon his seruants. (II, ii)

A name can make a great deal of difference.  For instance the name of our duo, Mignarda, is memorable for many reasons, including universal curiosity over its accepted pronunciation (meen – YAR – dah).  Those in the know are aware that the French term means “dainty,” which we prefer to translate as “intricate,” and is the title of a galliard for solo lute (Poulton 34) attributed to John Dowland.

There are other interesting names associated with the music of Dowland, including “La mia Barbara” (Poulton 95), an elaborately decorated pavan for solo lute found in the Ernst Schele manuscript (f. 49). The title may possibly have something to do with the Italian cult of Saint Barbara, but if one joins the words “la mia” and translates the term from Latin to English, a somewhat surprising result emerges (vampire barbarian).

In another quote from Romeo and Juliet (IV:v), we hear Peter singing a snippet of a song:

When griping grief the heart doth wound
And doleful dumps the mind oppress,
Then music with her silver sound—

Several years ago, we recorded this song on our CD My Lord of Oxenfords Maske, the text and music of which is attributed to Richard Edwards (1525-1566) and is titled “In commendation of music.” It has come to our attention that by not referencing the more common title, “When griping griefs,” we managed to thwart the search engines.  Oh well.  You can hear the recording here.


Saturday morning quotes 4.7: Impressions

Polyphony, or the sound of several independent voices in coordination, is an important characteristic of early music.  Historically, polyphonic repertoire was written into separate part books for individual singers, and musical  notation for the lute and keyboard first emerged as a means of condensing the separate parts onto a single stave, enabling one person to either direct the singing of others or else perform the many parts on a lute or keyboard instrument as a solo.

[To hear singing in parts performed by several singers is good but] to sing to the lute is much better, because all the sweetness consisteth in one alone and a man … understands the better the feat manner and the air or vein of it when the ears are not busied in hearing any more than one voice …

- Thomas Hoby, The Book of the Courtyer, 1561

We have discussed playing polyphonic music on the lute in several previous posts, and how it is essential to have an awareness of the intertwining parts of a piece that was conceived as a conversation among several voices. For a lutenist it can be like directing a complex flow of traffic, except the lutenist is also responsible for being the traffic he or she directs.

Last week, we made a short trip to sing for the Feast of Corpus Christi, an important event on the church calendar that involves quite a lot of music sung from the choir loft and in procession.  By happenstance, that same evening we were treated to a concert of solo lute music performed by Nigel North, which we attended in the company of two organists who are well versed in the solo performance of polyphonic music.

Nigel North performed a concert of lute music from the first half of the sixteenth century, mainly featuring solos by composers Francesco da Milano and Albert de Rippe.  The program was seasoned  with a few dances, including a pavan and galliard pair by Albert de Rippe that was the subject of a published article and a previous blog post by yours truly. But the main feature of the concert consisted of polyphonic intabulations of vocal music and instrumental fantasias by Albert and Francesco, all of which were performed with a masterful sense of direction and sublimely clear separation of voices.

The music was pure magic and the concert left a lasting impression on the four of us, polyphonists all.  Bravo.

Saturday morning quotes 4.6: Gatekeepers

Howard Armstrong: (After playing a tune) “How did you like that, Mr. Yank Rachell?”

Yank Rachell: “I didn’t like that very much.”

Howard Armstrong: “You don’t like me, do you?”

Yank Rachell: “No. I wouldn’t let you play in my backyard. I wouldn’t let you in my backyard…If you were hungry in the morning and I had one biscuit, I’d break it in two and eat both halves.”

This semi-playful exchange from the must-see film, Louie Bluie, is wrenched from context and quoted to accentuate the kind of relationship that can exist between musicians, some of whom dwell in the garden of opportunity while others stand outside that backyard gate, waiting for it to open a crack so they might wiggle inside with just one or two toes.

Gatekeepers are those who for mysterious reasons of fortune, money, position or privilege, have an inside connection that bestows on them the power or discretion to pass judgement upon colleagues and upstart competitors, occasionally opening the gate a little and allowing some to enter the realm of opportunity while excluding others.

There have always been gatekeepers in the arts, as illustrated in this quote from actor, F. Murray Abraham:

N: Your character is sort of the gatekeeper…Have you experienced anybody like that in your own life that you kind of could draw on?

FMA: My whole life, these people who’ve held the keys to the kingdom. I don’t have to do it anymore, but for most of my life it’s that. You come in, your heart’s on your sleeve and they just say, “No. No, you stink,” and you know you’re good. After a while you think, “Geez, am I really any good? Am I lying to myself?” It’s tough because nobody wants to buy your act. I mean, I’ve got some friends, good friends, with a lot of chops, can’t get a break; twenty, thirty, forty years’ experience.

- “F. Murray Abraham on Folk Music, Gatekeepers, and INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS,”  By Kyle Anderson on December 21, 2013

At least in the US, the realm of early music is both defined and constrained by a few organizations and associated personalities who spend as much time engaged in exclusive activities as they do in outreach for new participants and audiences.  Unfortunately, the historically interesting, aurally arresting and emotionally engaging aspects of early music are seated in the back row and left to languish unseen and unheard while the organizations try out this or that flashy modern marketing technique to decorate the curtain behind which they operate the levers of an aging, creaky and failing machinery.

“…What we call historical performance is the sound of now, not then. It derives its authenticity not from its historical verisimilitude, but from its being for better or worse a true mirror of late-20th-century taste…So forget history. What Early Music has been doing is busily remaking the music of the past in the image of the present (necessary because we unfortunately have so little use for the actual music of the present), only calling the present by some other name.”

- Richard Taruskin,“The Spin Doctors of Early Music,” New York Times, July 29, 1990.

Sadly, audience interest in early music is diminishing at an alarming rate as the gatekeepers display the same spindly shrubbery while vigilantly guarding against perceived intruders who would only add health and color to an otherwise old and tired array.  Meanwhile, some of the more dedicated early music performers are out there building new nontraditional audiences and dedicated fans while dwelling comfortably outside the garden gate—not bitter, just sad.


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