Jacob Heringman, lutenist - Diary
Streatham, London, Friday, 3 September 1999, 22.59
This is the first entry in my new web diary, describing a day in the life of a lute-player (or lutenist, as they call us). In some ways it was a typical day.
But first I feel I must provide a little bit of background. What sort of animal is a lutenist, and what is a lute, anyway? The lute is an instrument thatís been around in various shapes and forms for thousands of years. The one I spend my time playing is the European renaissance lute. It is a direct descendant of the Middle Eastern lute which came to Europe in the Middle Ages during the Moorish occupation of spain which lasted from the 8th century until 1492. The lute stayed behind when the moors were defeated and expelled from Spain. By then it had not only been adapted for Spanish use, it had also spread to the rest of Europe. As a matter of fact, the lute eventually took off more successfully in the rest of Europe than in Spain, where they eventually chose to use their own equivalent, the vihuela, which is shaped more like a guitar, rather than to be seen playing the politically loaded middle Eastern shape of instrument.
What is the shape of the lute? Itís a bit like an oversized mandolin. The back is round, the strings (made of gut) are in pairs, and the pegbox has the characteristic bent-back shape. (In the "Artist" section of the DGM website, youíll see a picture of me playing a lute.) Imagine a medieval or renaissance painting of an angel playing an instrument: itís probably a lute.
By the sixteenth century, which is my main period of interest, the lute was the chief instrument for solo music and for accompanying the voice. Far from being some sort of obscure weird instrument as it must appear to most people today, it was totally central to music-making of the time. A huge repertoire of very high-quality sixteenth-century music for solo lute survives, a good chunk of which has not been performed or recorded in modern times. This is where I come in. I believe strongly that the quality of this music is on a par with the quality of the best music of any age, and that it deserves to be performed, recorded and heard. I spend a lot of my time studying, practicing, performing and recording this repertoire. My first DGM release, Black Cow, consisted of music which has been grossly neglected. And what a joy it was to discover this music for myself and to immerse myself in it and to try to understand the brilliant and extraordinary composer who wrote it (the Transylvanian lutenist and composer, Valentine Bakfark). Now Iím working on preparing the next DGM release: sixteenth-century lute settings of music by perhaps the greatest renaissance composer of all: Josquin Desprez.
Today, I spent several hours practicing for next weekís concert of this music which Iíll be doing in Norwich, England, and for the following weekís three days of recording, after which I hope to emerge with the material for my second DGM release, Josquin Desprez. Itís a repertoire that really stretches my abilities to the limit--very demanding but very beautiful music. No wonder itís been mostly avoided by players. This Josquin project has been forming itself for three or four years now, and itís very exciting to be reaching the point finally of committing it to tape. This follows a long period of research (much of which I had help with from experts), practice, and live performance.
You have to love this work to do it! Like a great many musicians, probably most musicians, in fact, I donít get much sympathy or recompense from the outside world. Whatís the point or the relevance of playing a now-obscure instrument and reviving now-obscure repertoire? In a nutshell, I think the answer is that this music and this beautiful instrument still have the power to speak to us today. Thatís what matters ultimately about it. Itís wonderful music! I think that to glimpse our past is to see ourselves in a new way, and that to try to understand the culture of a distant time benefits us as humans in the same way that trying to understand the culture of a distant place benefits our common humanity.
London, Saturday, 4 September 1999, 00.30
A very brief entry today from an exhausted lutenist. Today consisted of an Alexander Technique lesson (something I do as often as possible, which works wonders for body and mind), a three-hour rehearsal, and a performance at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. (Not to mention a computer crash in my study followed by anxious diagnosis to try to find out whether itís got a virus. ) The music was English early seventeenth-century, and the ensemble was a group I frequently play with on a free-lance basis. But how strange it is, when Iím immersed in a solo project where all the responsibility (musical and otherwise) rests with me, to go along to a free-lance gig, and suddenly be a part of an ensemble unit directed from the outside by a conductor. I have to leave my solo garb at home and be a cog in a wheel. Itís good discipline to put aside my idiosyncracies and adapt completely to someone elseís directives. It serves to make me aware of those idiosyncracies, which isnít a bad thing. But I prefer democratic music-making--it suits my character better and itís equally good discipline (probably better, in fact) to play with a small group where musical responsibility is divided fairly among the musicians.
But thatís the life of a free-lance lute player. To be able to make a living, we have to be lots of people: soloists, democratic ensemble players, and sometimes cogs in other peoplesí wheels. The latter takes me sometimes to places I wouldnít otherwise go, like brief appearances on the soundtracks of films, for instance.
London, Sunday, 5 September 1999, 17.57
So far, today has been a flurry of changing lute strings (I have more than half a dozen renaissance lutes of different shapes and sizes), practicing, and preparing for a brief 24-hour trip to Hexham to give a concert tomorrow. For readers not familiar with English geography, Hexham is the other end of the country, and four hours on a fast train from Kingís Cross station in London. This evening's delights will include a late rehearsal for Hexham with my two colleagues.
Last night, Susanna (my wife) returned home at 3 am from a difficult gig, exhausted and wondering why sheíd said yes to it. Weíre in a similar boat; Susanna is a free-lance musician too, a viol player and member of Fretwork and the Dufay Collective (for links to both of those groupsí web pages, see the bottom of my biographical page on the DGM site). She too, as a gigging early music specialist, encounters all sorts of bizarre engagements alongside the more normal concert work and recordings. Like me, sheís on some film soundtracks, she has appeared in strange crossover projects (recently, for example, I accompanied Lulu, Sting and James Taylor on my lute. They were singing Shakespeare songs!), and, even more so than me, she plays contemporary "classical" music with her viol-playing colleagues.
London, Wednesday, 8 September 1999, 19.32
I can see why people own laptops! When Iím on the road, I canít write diary entries! When I get home Iím tired and can only manage short diary entries. With a laptop, Iíd write on flights, on trains, in airports, in hotels, etc., producing acres of detailed information and thoughts. But until finances permit the purchase of a laptop, diary entries will continue to be brief....
A friendly and appreciative audience greeted us in the art gallery in Hexham, where we presented them with a programme of music based around a painting: the wonderful "Ambassadors" painting by Hans Holbein. Upon returning, time has been taken up mainly by preparations for the next DGM recording, to take place next week, and for the concert of the same repertoire which Iíll be doing in Norwich in three daysí time. This means three or four hours a day of attentive practice, both of technical exercises and of the music at hand. The rest of the time, itís been administrative work--in other words, being my own agent and arranging the details of upcoming concerts in various corners of the world, liaising by email and telephone with concert promoters in Ukraine and the USA.
In the evening, one of Susannaís colleagues from Fretwork (with partner) came to dinner and we talked about music and the difficulties of finding funding for projects. Susanna cooked a wonderful meal. We talked also about my web diary and what sorts of things one should write in it. Should it be solely about work-related things? Should one talk honestly about all the difficulties and frustrations that one encounters in trying to make a living in this business? Or should it be a purely impersonal and factual account of day-to-day working activities? I think it will take me some time to find the right way to pitch this diary.
Now, off to bed. Early start tomorrow morning: Iím off to the Ukrainian Embassy first thing to try to get visas for Catherine King and myself; weíre planning to give some concerts in Kharkiv and Kyiv in October.
London, Sunday, 12 September 1999, 22.28
Just back from Norwich, where I gave a solo recital to a very small audience. (Perhaps everyone else stayed at home to listen to the Last Night of the Proms.) But the size of the audience doesnít matter. It was an interested and attentive group of people, and I was given the valuable opportunity of running through my new programme of Josquin intabulations in the final order in which I intend it to appear on the DGM disc which Iím about to record. Iíve now given live performances of this repertoire in London, Turin, Vancouver and Norwich, and only in Norwich did I include absolutely everything thatís going on the disc.
Itís a very demanding body of music; no one, as far as I can tell, has ever done a whole disc of intabulations of Josquin before, so itís quite daunting; Iím playing on a wonderful new lute made for me by the king of lute makers, Michael Lowe; so itís altogether an exciting event for me.
Josquin Desprez, for readers unfamiliar with his music, was the most important composer of his time, and one of the most important composers of all time. He was born around 1450, and wrote mostly church music; unusually for the time, some of his vocal music is for six voices, most of it containing canons (two voices singing the same tune, but staggered rather than at the same time) hidden in the texture. In other words, like Bach, he was a highly intellectual composer. But like Bach, the clever musical games are never at the expense of profound expression. In fact, the cleverer the music, the more emotionally powerful it seems to be in Josquin and Bach. Just how they managed this I donít understand. But itís very deep and very affecting music. Josquinís vocal music was arranged for solo lute again and again by the sixteenth-century lutenist-composers. Over the last three or four years, Iíve made a study of the surviving lute arrangements (or "intabulations") of Josquin. There are literally hundreds. For this project, Iíve narrowed it down to just a few of the best ones from Germany, Italy, France and Spain, dating from 1507 to 1565. Sounds rather specialised? The amount of variety is amazing. The quality is superb. My argument is that the best of these pieces, though completely unknown to the public until now, are on a par with the best music of any period, and that they deserve a hearing. Hooray for DGM for letting me record it! Hooray for the 12 people who came to hear it in Norwich (and the 300 in Turin, and the couple of hundred in Vancouver, etc.)!
London, Friday, 17 September 1999, 22.39
Iíve just returned from three very intense days of recording Josquin, and itís all finished. I recorded with ace producer/engineer Adrian Hunter in my favourite venue for lute recording, St. Andrewís Church in Toddington, Gloucestershire. We filled just over eight hours of tape with material which Ade will distill into a sixty-minute CD before the end of the year. If all goes as I hope it will, the CD, entitled "JOSQUIN DESPREZ: sixteenth-century lute settings", will be released in the spring.
Itís hard to describe what itís like making a lute record. The lute has a beautiful depth and subtlety of sound, but basically, itís a very quiet instrument. We record it in churches quite often because they have the best acoustic. You just canít recreate that artificially in a soundproof recording studio, although it would be a great deal easier, I can tell you! In these recording sessions I spend about half my time sitting around waiting for planes to pass overhead and other outside noises to dissipate so that we can record in silence. All outside noise interferes with the recording of the lute, because itís so quiet, and to really do justice to the beautiful sound you need absolute silence. Itís just you and a pair of brutally honest B and K 4006 microphones (the best ones around) and a DAT machine and a very fine engineer/producer telling you what to do. And you sit and play your heart out (when itís quiet). We did some of it at night because the ambience was absolutely still and there were no planes at night. There is no replacement on an acoustic CD such as this one for real live ambience. It has a living breathing quality which sets the sound of the lute into relief and gives it depth.
Iím very excited about this CD, and feel that it includes some of my best playing to date.
London, Wednesday, 29 September 1999, 11.16
Back from Chicago, and severely jet-lagged, after a pretty long period of non-stop work. For information about the Chicago concerts, see David Durianís review of 24 September. An ensemble event, in which everyone makes a non-soloistic contribution, and in which the end result is (one hopes) greater than the sum of the parts, was the perfect antidote to my prior engagement (or obsession), which was the Josquin CD which I wrote about the recording of in my last diary entry. Instead of being the sole source of the music, I was in the (in some ways equally demanding) situation of being co-responsible for a team effort. Itís interesting to arrive in a place and delve into intense and intimate ensemble rehearsals with people I havenít seen in a year, culminating in performances together. It makes me realise yet again how every grouping of people has a distinct character. Fitting comfortably and usefully into that grouping while maintaining oneís own integrity requires an imaginative leap--an ability to be sympathetic and sensitive to the subtle non-verbal interaction which is continually bouncing around the group. I think that "chamber music" is akin to ensemble acting and dancing in that it gets about as subtle and intimate as human beings are capable of being.
Iíve enjoyed reading the Diaries--itís getting to be a full-time job! The different perspectives are fascinating.
The thing that sticks with me most about the trip to Chicago was a concert I went to on my last evening there, by the Hungarian folk-group Muzikás. They were promoting their new release of Hungarian and Romanian folk-music which inspired Bartok directly in his compositions. Their concert (and the CD which I bought) consisted of three elements: 1) played, sung and danced traditional music; 2) Bartokís arrangements for two violins of these traditional tunes; 3) brief passages from Bartokís own phonographic field recordings made in deepest Transylvania and elsewhere in the early years of this century. (Transylvania was Bakfarkís homeland.) Having these elements juxtaposed was utterly fascinating. What comes across is the astonishing vitality and emotional power of the folk music, and the admirable work that Bartok did by presenting this music to the world. His pioneering field recordings are priceless documents and his transcriptions of the music are amazingly accurate, retaining the subtelties of rhythm and ornamentation. The other amazing thing about the performance was the fact that, despite having just stepped off the plane from Hungary (their plane having arrived late and the whole audience having been kept waiting in the hall), and despite the obvious weariness of the performers, they were utterly gripped from the moment they began singing, playing and dancing, and they were obviously thrilled to be doing what they were doing. There was no question of giving less than 100 percent. One moment they were shuffling onto the stage looking tired, and the next moment they were transported to that place where the music and the audience give you the energy, and you give yourself to the music and the audience. Inspiring! The CD, which I recommend enthusiastically, is called "Muzikás: The Bartók Album" (Hannibal HNCD 1439) (email: email@example.com or visit www.rykodisc.com).
And now for preparations for the next trip: Ukraine. Readers may find our travel schedule interesting:
Fri, 1 Oct
07:30 - dep. London/Heathrow, Br. Midland flight BD831 to Frankfurt
10:05 - arr. Frankfurt
11:10 - dep. Frankfurt, Ukraine International Airlines flight PS404 to
the plane makes a landing in Lviv (no transfer)
16:00 - arr. Kyiv/Boryspil Airport
met in Arrivals Hall by Valentine Boinitsky (I'll be holding a sign with
your names and the British Council logo);
then - dinner in the city
21:05 - dep. Kyiv/Boryspil, AeroSweet flight VV101 to Kharkiv
22:30 - arr. Kharkiv
met at the airport and taken to the hotel
Sat, 2 Oct
14:30 - 17:00 - rehearsal, Kharkiv Philharmonia
18:00 - performance
after the performance - a reception (with British Ambassador present)
Sun, 3 Oct.
morning/afternoon - sightseeing?
18:00 - attend a concert at Kharkiv Philharmonia by
'Glinka' Chamber Music quartet (Moscow, Russia)
Mon, 4 Oct.
06:00 - leave the hotel for the airport
07:50 - dep. Kharkiv, Ikar airlines
09:10 - arr. Kyiv/Zhuliany Airport
met at the airport, taken to the hotel
15:30-18:00 - rehearsal, Kyiv Philharmonia
19:00 - performance
Tue, 5 Oct
05:30 - leave the hotel for the airport
07:20 - dep. Kyiv/Borispil, Ukraine International Airlines flight PS901
09:30 - arr. Brussels
11:20 - dep. Brussels, Br. Midland flight BD146 to London/Heathrow
11:35 - arr. London/Heathrow
more travel than anything else, in terms of hours spent (thatís fairly normal), and a pretty tiring timetable. Squeezed in between the various events will be press interviews of various sorts. It seems still fairly uncommon for western musicians (especially early music specialists like me) to go to Ukraine, and they make quite a big deal out of it. It will be fascinating to see the place. Luckily there will be a little bit of free time.