Monday, June 20, 2011

BEMF Thursday: VdGSA and Jordi Savall's peerie ceilidh

Thursday a.m., Gamba Gamut, a showcase for performers from the Viola da Gamba Society of America at St Paul's Cathedral.  Arriving at the civilized hour of 11am (it started at 9), we caught the second half.  Among the (many) highlights was Arcadia Viols and their performance of a fantasia on Dowland's Flowe My Tears written by Will Ayton, who was in attendance.  It was a cool, kind of Barber-esque take scored for four viols. He and they got a big woot from the Thirdfloorian delegation.

Thursday p.m., The Celtic Viol at Jordan Hall.  When Jordi Savall released his first Celtic Viol CD a few years ago, it generated some, ahem, discussion in traditional music circles. Much of that discussion was fairly ill-informed in terms of baroque music in general and gamba in particular, and much of it demonstrated the parochialism that one can find in traditional music circles.  It's clear from Savall's program notes for the performance that he was aware of the criticisms likely to be leveled at him from that quarter, criticisms we can give him credit for trying humbly to address.

On the other hand...

Some years back I was at a concert where three fiddlers from different "Celtic" traditions -- Brian McNeill (Scotland), Martin Hayes (Ireland), and Natalie MacMaster (Cape Breton) -- got together to present music from each of their traditions. When it came time for the encore, Brian McNeill announced that they had put their heads together to see what common tunes they might have that they could play together, and all they could come up with (and brilliantly demonstrated) was Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.  The point being that only in the tradition of five year old violin students is the tune repertoire universal, and this was their way of poking fun at the "Celtic" label they, too, had been saddled with. 

So where does that leave our man with the viol?  Since I hadn't heard the recordings -- I knew they existed but not what was on them -- but was generally familiar with Savall's work in other areas, I knew a) he likes research projects, and b) he likes to mess around and experiment.  I had sort of expected with this project something along the lines of a thesis on the possible use of viol in Irish and Scottish traditional music, since we know that, historically, the musical barriers between great house and farm house were often fairly thin.  For instance, one of the composers he cites (and plays) is Turlough O'Carolan, the blind Irish harper who wrote so many great tunes in tribute to the wealthy patrons who supported him, but which tunes are now considered almost solely the domain of trad musicians.  So, again, I assumed a thesis.

In fact, The Celtic Viol project has a much simpler genesis:  really he just wants to play some tunes he likes, and see what happens when they're played on the instruments of his expertise.  Not all of them are old (a few composed within the last 50 years), and, indeed, not all of them would count as "Celtic", however loosely you might define that term. (I think it's safe to say that anything out of the Manchester Gamba Book, regardless of being notated in "bagpipe tuning", is squarely English -- the sassenach has bagpipes too, you know.)

How does it all fare, then?  Not so bad. Tonight Savall brought lyra and treble viols, and his sideman, Paul O'Dette, brought lute and cittern (not the kind of cittern folkies would recognize, which is more like a bouzouki, but a smaller instrument of the same name).  Shane Shanahan provided percussion on bodhrán (a type of frame drum originally from Ireland but also used elsewhere these days).  Savall and O'Dette both tended to be dependent on paper, but Savall does not, as one armchair critic put it, just "play the dots".  In fact he brings to many of the tunes the ornamentation practices common to the music of Renaissance Spain (his home ground).  This has the unexpected effect of making Scottish tunes sound a lot more Norwegian.  The other interesting thing was his habit of leaning heavily at times on grace notes. It turns out this technique makes a strathspey like Abergeldie Castle come out rather more like a doina. Which is funny.

However this performance might have put some folks in a twist over authenticity blah blah blah, it was an interesting set of tunes and interesting to see how the voices of viol and lute transformed them. If I had any suggestion to make -- not that anyone's asking -- I'd say ditch the bodhrán. Viols are rhythmically imprecise animals, and bodhráns (hopefully) are not. In any case all it does is measure a beat the viol can't keep, so it's way more of a liability than an asset.

On the plus side, the Charlie Hunter tune they did for an encore sounded excellent on lute.  I'd be game for more of that, Mr. O'Dette. 

Fair play (and no dots on paper here).


  1. His second Celtic Viol recording is also much better than the first one. I don't own the first one, but my suite-mate at Conclave a couple years back had a copy, and I gave it a listen and found the tunes lacking in interest either from the trad side or the viol side. It's all on treble viol, and most of the tunes are dance tunes, played without any lilt and with little ornamentation. The recent album is better varied, with a number of Scots tunes that admit, and invite, more of a classical playing style. The lyra-style playing on several tracks shows invention and a more playful approach. The phrasing is still odd, but it's like a foreign accent.

    It's possible to play credible Irish music on viol. I have snuck my treble to a session a couple times. Rolls and cuts are very easy to perform, easier for me than on fiddle. The only real trouble I've had are big string-crossing leaps and high As and Bs (it's a 40cm string-length, and playing all the time in diatonic fingering is tiring). I bet a pardessus would be great.

  2. Yeah I was wondering about that, b/c he went out of his way in the program notes to catalog the tunebooks he had used rather than the players he'd listened to. Which, y'know...

    And you're right, in concert the Scottish tunes fared much better than the Irish ones. Probably for the same reason my Irish muso friends refuse to play them :-) Did your session friends like the viol?