Recorded January 2006 at Propstei St.Gerold
What does an ensemble of four musicians from completely different societal backgrounds do with a 13th-century song that survives only as a skeletal vocal line? The answer is: they listen, they improvise and they give free rein to their musical associations, knowing that the result will be something entirely new. For John Potter, the longstanding tenor of the Hilliard Ensemble and a teacher at York University, music exists by definition only in the present. So far, so good, one might think. But the consequences are far-reaching, as was already evident in the Dowland Project's two earlier albums, 'In Darkness let me dwell' (1999) and 'Care-charming Sleep' (2003).
It goes without saying that a firm grasp of historical styles is essential. But otherwise nothing more is needed: 'If we take the opportunity to ignore historical detail where it doesn't serve our interests in the present, we can bypass the musicological thought police and negotiate directly with the dead composers.' Thus Potter writes in his article for the book 'Horizons Touched - The Music of ECM', published by Granta, London, in 2007.
Now the Dowland Project is expanding its repertoire and delving into songs from the 12th century to the present day. These richly atmospheric pieces exist only in the interaction of the musicians involved. John Surman, one of the great saxophonists of European jazz and a marvellous player of the tenor and bass recorders, is again part of the group. Then there is Steven Stubbs, a baroque lutenist (and conductor) who seems to have free improvisation in his blood. Another is Milos Valent, the vibrant violinist and violist from Slovakia who is equally at home in early music and in the gypsy and folk musics of eastern Europe. Fittingly, the instruments they employ come from completely different eras. Chronology has been suspended: listeners of this tightly focused music plunge deep into the past while remaining wholly in the present.
'Originally we planned to arrange the programme around the movements of a Mass Ordinary', Potter recalls, 'but it didn't work out for musical reasons, as became clear in the St Gerold recording session. Contrapuntal pieces are almost always linked with an identifiable composer, so we tend to be warier of them than with monophonic songs, which are most likely anonymous and no one can really know how they sounded. Roughly up to the age of Wagner the composer always had to subordinate his will to that of the performer. Viewed in this light, there are actually no theoretical or intellectual limits to dealing freely with the material. At most the limits are artistic and musical. We can make a structure more complex by adding lines or simplify it by leaving things out. Or we can slice a piece into sections and interpolate improvisations into it. We applied all these procedures, but only when we came to play could we see how it really functioned.'
What does 'Romaria' mean? The title was chosen for its many associations, beginning with the word 'aria'. It refers to Christian pilgrimages and processions in Portugal and Brazil and thus points to a geographical destination for our musical journey, which begins in the Alpine regions of Upper Bavaria ('Carmina burana') and South Tyrol (Oswald von Wolkenstein). In a metaphorical sense 'Romaria' also alludes to the processual character of the Dowland Project itself, for in reality this third album is already the ensemble's fourth.
After finishing recording 'Care-charming Sleep' in September 2001 and dining in St Gerold Provostry in the Vorarlberg region of Austria, Manfred Eicher suggested going back to the church at midnight and playing some more music. 'I didn't have any more material in my luggage', Potter recalls. 'All I could offer was two collections of medieval poetry, one in Latin and another in English. I read the texts or described their contents to my colleagues, then off we went.' Potter, as he informs us in 'Horizons Touched', considers the completely free and uninhibited improvisations that followed to be among the most extraordinary musical experiences of his life. The live recording of the session has now been mixed and is scheduled for release by ECM.
Thus, together with Manfred Eicher, there arose the idea of a sort of ex post facto transition from the renaissance songs and madrigals on 'Care-charming Sleep' to the group's completely free music-making set aside for the next album. As Potter explains, 'When we met again in St. Gerold last January we could draw directly on the audacity we gained on that evening six years ago.' The partial recasting of the ensemble had purely practical reasons: Maya Homburger and Barry Guy, the violinist and the bassist on the two earlier recordings, were unavailable owing to their many other commitments. Steven Stubbs and Manfred Eicher quickly settled on Milos Valent, who had already taken part in Stubbs's 'Teatro Lirico' (ECM 1893) and who adds his own distinctive colour to the group.
========= from the cover ==========
Points of Departure
Is a recording a performance? The question has been debated with some ferocity as recordings, heard in the comfort of our own homes and played by absent musicians, have become for most of us the normal way to experience music. We don't have to go out in search of it any more: it comes to us. We listen to performances that have already finished before we hear them, which can be repeated identically whether or not anyone is there to listen; we can control when they start and stop (unlike 'live' audiences, usually) but otherwise the listener has no influence over the performers, who may never know whether they are appreciated, understood or even listened to...
The Dowland Project began as collaboration between the musicians and their producer, so from the start it has existed in a world made possible by the recording process. There was also a strong element of serendipity-of decisions having unintended consequences. When Manfred Eicher first suggested a recording project I was delighted to propose Dowland, whose songs Stephen Stubbs and I had performed together for many years. My assumption was that a recording would reflect this experience, a chance to document what we'd been trying to do with the music that meant so much to us. We had performed for countless 'early music' audiences and we liked to think that what we did was informed by history, even if we sometimes chose to disregard what we knew. Manfred Eicher approached Dowland from a different angle altogether- he wasn't concerned with recovering the music from the past, but saw it simply as great music- music in the present and an opportunity for exploration.
And his 'instrument' is his record company, within which he is able to bring together musicians from a plurality of very different disciplines. Not being constrained by history it was quite logical to create an ensemble that brought together players whose common ground was a spirit of creativity and collaboration. Once you accept the argument that music exists only in the present (and that is surely fundamental to its nature, despite the permanence of recordings) then the whole landscape changes. Instead of our recording being somehow summative it became a point of departure: the audience was in the first instance ourselves, as we each brought our different perspectives to bear on the music and its history.
We've now travelled quite a way from those first exploratory steps. The mix of old and new instruments that was at the heart of our first musical encounters continues to evolve; there are still strong ties to the past but the sound world that we inhabit can't be pinned down to any historical time. Milos Valent plays eighteenth century instruments, Stephen Stubbs' guitar and vihuela are copies of renaissance models, and John Surman plays recorder as well as bass clarinet and sax, and (as far as we know) the first time this particular combination has come together for this music is for this CD. They are 'live' performances, in that there is no editorial interference with the musical process, but they are generated by the unique relationship between all the musicians involved, whichever side of the microphone they happen to be on. There is both older and more recent repertoire than our two previous recordings; as before, we have tried to keep to the spirit of the originals while at the same time freeing the music of its historical context. Musicians have always done this -done what they could with whatever material comes to hand.
The oldest pieces in this collection are"Ora pro nobis"and "O beata infantia", both of which use fragments of Gregorian chant which go back many hundreds of years. They almost certainly pre-date the two pieces from the remarkable Carmina Burana manuscript. This collection of several hundred songs and poems that survived in the German monastery of Benediktbeuren provided Carl Orff with source material for his famous oratorio; the two pieces we perform here,"Veris dulcis" and "Dulce solum" are timeless songs of love and longing, but the manuscript is a treasure-trove of songs about gambling, sex, duplicity, and a host of other secular topics that amused 13th century monks when they weren't on their knees.
Roughly contemporary with this is the opening song by a German troubadour (more properly called a Minnesinger-singer of courtly love songs) known as Der Kanzler, about whom we know almost nothing. Slightly later is the extraordinary alliterative "Der oben swebf'by Oswald von Wolkenstein, a warrior knight from the South Tyrol, and perhaps the very last Minnesinger, who made sure that history would remember his exploits: there is a surviving portrait of him looking very grand but with only one eye; he wrote many songs and poems about his life, especially famous skirmishes in which he took part. The most recent music can be heard on tracks 5 and 9, folksongs collected in the early twentieth century from the border between Spain and Portugal. Like the early music, these songs are monophonic-that is to say they exist simply as tunes and any harmony is provided by the players.
Between these two historical extremes we have ventured into fifteenth and sixteenth century Franco-Flemish sacred music. Although originally conceived as unaccompanied church music, the movements of the mass were often plundered by instrumentalists and turned into self-contained abstract pieces that had a life outside the context for which they were created. This is in a sense what we do with it too, though I have to confess to purely selfish reasons for including it here: I love this music and have sung a great deal of it over the years; but this is an instrumental band and I thought it would be interesting to see what we could make of it. Some of the pieces we performed intact, some we chopped up and re-assembled but in all of them we stuck (mostly) to the composers' own notes. Using such disparate instruments reveals the part-writing with a clarity that isn't so obvious in a purely vocal performance, and using the lute occasionally to fill out the implied harmony also shines a light on the vertical thinking of the composers, none of whom presumably envisaged performances (recorded or otherwise) quite like these, but with whom we feel a certain musicianly affinity.
- John Potter