21st Century Theorbo Music

Matthew Wadsworth is a pretty amazing guy. Although blind, he’s nevertheless become a first-class lutenist and even studied under Nigel North. There’s clearly a stubbornly ambitious streak in him. In addition to his lute playing, he’s trying to break the record for blind motorcycle jumping. An excellent little documentary was made of the whole process.

I saw him perform a couple of weeks ago — lute, that is. He is without a doubt a fine player with a profound understanding of the music he plays. I will say that there were a few wrongs notes and instances of string buzzes — enough to make one slightly uncomfortable. I found myself comparing him to the lutenist Thomas Dunford, who I also saw recently. Dunford can whizz through the fastest passages in a fairly carefree way. Wadsworth doesn’t even try to play that fast; he’s a more contemplative player, whether by choice or not. This actually made him very convincing on something like Robert Johnson’s Pavan in C Minor, which is a less florid and more intense piece. I wish he would do a whole album of Johnson because that and the two Almaynes were just superb — dare I say, they were even better than the versions Nigel North has recorded.

But surely the most interesting thing he played was a newly-written piece for the theorbo. It’s based on The Miller’s Tale from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and written for Wadsworth by Welsh guitarist and composer Stephen Goss. The piece is structured sort of like a Baroque suite but with a prologue and epilogue. Each movement is supposed to represent a character from the tale. Here’s Wadsworth performing the estampie; the character represented is John:

Wadsworth has since released an album, Late Night Lute, so I’ve had the chance to listen to give The Miller’s Tale another few listens today. I’ve never read Chaucer, and I have to admit that my attempt to do so today ended in impatience with the Middle English language. But the music nonetheless appeals to me. It makes great use of those signature bass strings of the theorbo, and also quite interesting use of harmonics. The theorbo is a weirdly tuned instrument, giving the player an unusual palette to paint with — and paint Goss does. The arpeggiated harmonics in the toccata are a good example of this, creating a truly unique effect, especially with those powerful bass strings. It does sound kind of otherwordly. In fact, much of the piece does, like something old but alien. The estampie above is perhaps a bit different, being more of a lively, rhythmic movement. But the rest are quite meditative, very much playing to Wadsworth’s apparent strengths. I wish we had more composers writing for this rich instrument. As far as I know, the only other example is James MacMillan, whose Since it was the day of preparation… begins with a beautiful theorbo solo.

Anyway. Very much recommend checking out Wadsworth’s new release, available on Spotify, Amazon, and all that. To sign off, here’s Wadsworth performing Robert Johnson’s Care Charming Sleep. It’s a nice performance, but I’m starting to suspect that he might actually be more comfortable on the theorbo.


The Orpharion

I was listening to the lutenist Paul O’Dette play John Dowland’s Mrs Winter’s Jump and thought, Well chop off my legs and call me shorty, that sounds like a virginal! Listen for yourself:

Turns out it’s an orpharion. Typical of the Renaissance, the name ‘orpharion’ is derived from Orpheus and Arion. It was invented in England at the beginning of Elizabeth’s reign, and became a fairly common alternative to the lute. It’s tuned the same way as a lute, and various contemporary books list it as an alternative to the lute, but there seems to have been very few books written specifically for the instrument.

While the lute was clearly the more esteemed instrument, the orpharion may well have been equally popular in the home: in 32 examples between 1565 and 1648 of household inventories which mention musical instruments of any kind, the bandora (its larger sibling) and orpharion occur as frequently as the lute.

An orpharion built by Francis Palmer in 1617 (see more photos here)

The orpharion differs with the lute quite significantly in terms of its shape, most notably the flat back. But the more important difference is its use of wire strings instead of gut. The subsequent brighter, metallic sound, and the more limited timbre and dynamic range it presents, are no doubt why I nearly mistook it for a virginal. Harpsichords, unlike the piano which uses hammer-action, are plucked instruments just like the lute and orpharion, so the method of attack is also similar.

Right-hand technique, however, differed between the orpharion and the lute because of the wire strings. William Barley published the first collection of music specifically for orpharion in 1596, and in it he wrote that

whereas the Lute is strong with gut stringes, the Orpharion is strong with wire stringes, by reason of which manner of stringing, the Orpharion doth necessarilie require a more gentle and drawing stroke than the Lute, I mean the fingers of the right hand must be easilie drawen over the stringes, and not suddenly griped, or sharpelie stroken as the Lute is: for if yee should doo so, then the wire stringer would clash or jarre together the one against the other

Here’s an orpharion being played. There seems to be very few videos on YouTube of the instrument — and half of them are by this guy:

Music Streaming and Classical Music

Classical music is really lagging behind when it comes to music streaming. Which is historically odd, considering that the length of classical music, for instance, was a crucial reason for the CD. Some readers might recall Norio Ohga, the president of Sony, who specified that the compact disc should be able to hold 75 minutes of music. Why this length? So he could listen to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony without flipping the record over. As far as I can tell, it wasn’t a desire to hear Bruckner’s symphonies in their uninterrupted totality that launched the idea of music streaming.

Naxos Music Library (NML) was launched in 2003, a few years after Napster, but it hasn’t moved on much since. It’s the most extensive classical music streaming service, but at £261.60 annually, it’s no match for other streaming services, whose classical music selection is abundant enough to satisfy almost everyone. Spotify, in comparison, works out at £119.88 annually at the very most.

While mainstream streaming services demonstrate all the slick ease-of-use that has come to characterise this technology, the interface for NML can only boast Soviet-like clunkiness with a Windows 2000-era aesthetic. Even to just play an album you have to select the tracks, then open a pop-up player. Its only advantage is the inclusion of PDF booklets, which are themselves a less-than-perfect format for online use. A GIF of me browsing on the site:NML.gif

Plus, NML offers inferior audio quality in every way. Mainstream streaming services once preferenced pop, whose music is little harmed by compression and lower bitrates compared to classical music. But now Spotify etc. all stream in excellent quality for really low prices (NML does not). Spotify even has gapless tracks (NML does not), essential for a lot of classical music. In 2017, music streaming can be technologically indistinguishable to CDs.

Music streaming isn’t a complete blessing, I admit. Easy access to music recordings can inspire a kind of apathy. Why do I need to play musical instruments and think about music creation when my smartphone does it all for me? And it can inspire superficiality, such that no recording is listened to in any particular depth.

But there’s also a problem with recordings in general. I was very much intrigued by tenor Mark Padmore’s argument in a fairy recent Guardian article that recordings corrupt the way we listen to music:

… we are led to believe that because we know how a piece goes, we actually know the piece. I would argue that there is always more to learn, more to discover and because music unfolds over time we can only ever hold an impression of a piece in our mind. The second danger is that we start to hear live performance passively, as if it were an aide-memoire to the unfolding of the familiar. We probably notice if something goes wrong but otherwise we can essentially allow a performance to remind us of what we think we know already. We hear, but we don’t listen.

The third danger is that our reliance on recordings encourages a strange connoisseurship whereby they are judged against one another. There is a misguided search for the definitive performance – as if there could be one single ideal interpretation. People pull out obscure vintage recordings in the way that someone might show with a vintage wine. This is where the record collection resembles the stamp collection – music becomes a possession rather than a process. The point is, we are in danger of losing touch with the greatest strength of classical music – its liveness. The unrepeatable, unpredictable nature of great music performed in the moment for that moment only.

I certainly know I’ve been guilty of all three of those. I sometimes wonder if it would be better if I knew just a few dozen great pieces in exceptional detail than knowing, as I do, several hundred recordings, most of which in very little detail. It’s telling that the only times in which I have studied pieces in any great depth was when learning them on guitar. And when playing a piece, you quickly realise how many interpretations — all quite valid — that are available to you. You’re not trying to perfect your performance necessarily, but to understand what the score makes possible. It’s quite a depressing thought that any one of those possibilities could become permanent and unchanging.

How did I get through this post without mentioning the top-dog of streaming services, YouTube? And why not use it to play the recordings of Glenn Gould, who by the end of his career had retreated entirely into the recording studio: