Written by: Julian Maynard-Smith
Julian Maynard-Smith talks to John Potter and John Surman about The Dowland Project’s latest CD and the group’s upcoming concert at the Cheltenham Music Festival…
The Dowland Project is performing on 6 July at the Cheltenham Music Festival as part of the ECM weekend. The current line-up comprises John Potter (tenor), John Surman (sax, bass clarinet and recorder), Miloš Valent (violin and viola) and Stephen Stubbs (vihuela and lute).
The group began as a collaboration between renowned tenor and music academic John Potter (Hilliard Ensemble, Red Byrd, Gavin Bryars Ensemble) and Manfred Eicher, founder of the ECM record label. The aim was to reinterpret renaissance music by combining early-music players with improvising jazz musicians. On the group’s third recording Romaria (released January 2008), the group’s selection of material is its most ambitious yet, ranging from Gregorian chants to Portuguese folksongs collected in the 1930s.
John Potter explains that the latter are the inspiration for the album’s title. “Romaria is a Portuguese pilgrim song, and some of the Portuguese songs we used were that. It’s the idea of a sort of journey – it sounds a bit of a cliché – this particular band of people have made a journey together and taken the music somewhere else. There are other linguistic things, associations with ‘arias’ and ‘roaming’.”
How did the group choose the material? “We sort of developed out of Dowland into music of the post-Dowland generation, and I wanted to do new things – go further back and come further forward. With the first two albums, we’d got the way of working sorted out, and I wanted to escape from the 17th-century reference-points. Also, for me, interacting with jazz musicians is still a bit of an unknown quantity – but it’s a bit like a Venn diagram, and the bit in the middle is where we have something to say.
“With the folksongs I didn’t give them any music or the mode. I just come in and go out, and John [Surman] plays in a very vocal way. The sax is a fantastic instrument; it can do everything the voice can do except words. The earlier monophonic material – particularly if it has drones – seemed particularly suitable. It’s a kind of opportunity for these things to happen. So things like Carmina Burana [the same 13th century manuscript that inspired Carl Orff] seemed like a fruitful area to explore. The folksongs were collected in the 1930s, but musically, because they’re monophonic, they tie-in with the 13th-century.
“The 15th-century polyphonic stuff needs a very different approach. It’s not an obvious thing for an improvising group, because it’s contrapuntal and hard to imagine a way that John Surman can find his way through. So we started by taking bits of mass and polyphony and rearranging them so that they had a structure that invited improvisation. So you have the mixture of them playing from the score – such as the Kyrie [Jesus autem transiens, by Firminus Caron] – which illuminates the contrapuntal writing. Something you instantly hear because of the different instruments – you hear the lines very clearly. But the Josquin [Desprez] pieces have very clear chordal structures, so you go from playing the score to busking over the chords.
“A lot that survives is fragments and can’t be performed. From an improviser’s perspective, it means you’re not vandalising something, but completing something that would otherwise be unheard. We found that this was such a satisfactory way of working that the Orlande de Lassus [Credo Laudate dominum], which is complete, we fragmented. We wouldn’t want to do a complete credo – in 15th-century masses it’s the least interesting part and the text is very formulaic. So you simply plunder it as source material. For Lassus, we took two bits and made them into an ABA shape. Although Lassus freely arranged other people’s material, I don’t think that anyone else would have done that post-19th-century. It all sounds terribly intellectual and thought out, but the process evolved from what we were doing.”
I ask John how the group balanced historical authenticity with the demands of producing a contemporary work. “In a sense, it wouldn’t surprise me if in a hundred years time the 20th-century is seen as something of an historical aberration. The idea that the composer owns the music and its performances begins with Wagner, although there are traces in Rossini. You then get conductors – Toscanini for example – who represent the composer and only do what’s written in the score.
“Before that there was this very creative relationship between the composer and performer. Mozart tailored everything to the individual performer and often had to rewrite several times. You can see the line – through Webern, Schoenberg [and] Stockhausen – who scored everything, including the fingering. You can see it in musicology in early music. It’s better now, but ten or twenty years ago, performers thought that musicologists were like the police. Performers have always done their thing and in jazz they always did it. We think of jazz as being revolutionary but improvising was always there. Handel was almost more famous as an improviser than as a composer. Mozart would not have expected it to be done as it was written. Take Verdi, for example, one of the first composers who said ‘I only want to hear what I wrote in the score’ but that’s not what he meant. There are thousands of cadenzas that we know he heard and liked but which don’t appear in his scores.
“If you bypass the 20th-century, I feel much more comfortable using the past as a source. That’s how I can relate to jazzers, because they still have that mindset. And that’s why Manfred Eicher is so extraordinarily successful in the way he puts together musicians who appear to be different from each other. They may not have the same background and experience, but they share the same values.”
Perhaps, I suggest to John, we generally show too much reverence towards the written score. After all, before the sound-recording era the manuscript may often have been intended as little more than a sketch. That there is a parallel with the pre-camera era, when most people created competent sketches that were intended as little more than snapshots.
“We take photography for granted. If you can’t do that, the manuscript becomes much less important. For us it’s the only evidence, but then it was probably only an aide memoire. We know now that if you see a single line of music from the 12th-century, it might have been for one person, several people, voices or instruments. Endless permutations, none of which you can derive from the manuscript itself.
“One of the encouraging things about the Internet is that someone will appreciate what you say. This fragmentation [into endlessly different musical styles] is something that couldn’t have happened halfway through the 20th-century when you could only buy LPs. I was teaching a project at the University of York about music consumption from pre-recording up to the iPod. One day we decided to demonstrate the power of the ‘net to see if we could invent a genre and see if anyone was already doing it. We Googled it and people were doing it!”
I ask John how the new line-up has affected the dynamics and the approach of the group. “The new line-up came about largely for practical reasons. Barry Guy [double bassist on the first two Dowland Project albums] is so busy. I wanted a touring band and it was very difficult to get on the road. I knew Miloš’s playing in a certain context and he and Steve have played a lot together. We were worried that the lack of a bass would be a problem, but it just opened up another avenue. Then Steve moved to the US and John moved to Oslo…
“We’ve got a gig in Milan, but the number of gigs we’ve had to turn down is hugely greater than the number we do. The tracks are usually one take, two at the maximum, and that’s what we do best. I’ve been trying to get together a set list, but it’s very hard to do and I’m sure that no-one can remember what they did originally. We’re just going to meet the night before and come up with it that way. We also have the possibility of doing stuff from scratch.”
It won’t be the first time that The Dowland Project has performed completely free improvisation. The group’s second album, Care-charming Sleep (2001), was recorded in St Gerold Provostry in the Vorarlberg region of Austria. Once the recording had been completed, Manfred Eicher suggested that the group return to the church to record more. “It was late at night and we were celebrating having done the album, and had eaten and drunk considerably.” And the group was completely out of material to perform – all John had was a collection of mediaeval poetry. John simply read or described the texts to the group, and they improvised from that alone. “It was so very different from the other stuff we did that we couldn’t put it out straight afterwards, which is why we went back to do Romaria. It was completely uncharted territory and we listened to it with some trepidation. But you give someone like John that sort of opportunity and he grabs it.”
The Cheltenham performance is likely to have a lot of spontaneity as well. “One of determining factors is that it’s in the morning, which was not our choice. You can’t really do a smoky late-night set, so we will do stuff from the first two albums as well. Miloš won’t have done the earlier stuff anyway. I recently did a gig in Bristol with Gavin Bryars. I had to teach in York in the morning so there wasn’t much time for rehearsal. I figured out that I could get there in time if I drove – but I’d forgotten that it was a Bank Holiday and I arrived twenty minutes before the performance. His band are such fantastic players and everyone was alight with energy and adrenaline – so I hope that Miloš’s lack of knowledge of the material will produce that spark.”
John Potter’s comments about the difficulty of creating a touring group – and the group’s complete spontaneity during performance – came back to me when I phoned John Surman at his home in Oslo (John Potter lives in York) to discuss Romaria and the Cheltenham concert.
“I emailed John a couple of weeks ago”, says John Surman, “because in my box of music there’s quite a lot of music that’s been sifted through by The Dowland Project, so I wondered what John wants to do. He said, ‘so you want to cheat, do you?!’, and he said we should wing it, do a little bit of what we fancy. We’re all up for the spontaneity of the project. This isn’t about detailed approaches to the music, but doing things on the hoof. The majority of the stuff is very loose. Then you have a chance to adjust to the acoustic and adjust to the audience and the moment, and enjoy the creation of something, rather than repetition.”
How did John feel about The Dowland Project when John Potter first approached him? “I came with an open mind to it, but as a music student at the London College of Music, I’d spend time in the madrigal choir and I had a grounding in madrigals. I’m basically a jazz musician. Although I didn’t have any idea what material John would choose, he sent a selection of Dowland pieces and I realised I knew a few. It wasn’t a total shock to me, and I’m sure that Manfred [Eicher] knew that.”
Being an improvising musician certainly helped with the fragment pieces on Romaria. “John is very good at explaining where the fragment comes from, so he sets an atmosphere, gives the piece a context. For the rest, I think you rely in intuition. John’s the driving force. Even if they are fragments composed by someone unknown from the past, he’s the messenger. He’s very strong and knows exactly what he feels about it. It’s not just a fragment, but John Potter and the fragment.”
When I mention historical authenticity to John, I can almost hear a chuckle in his reply. “I slept through too much music history to be any use in that direction! As a musician, you have to trust your gut instinct. And since I’ve been playing – if you include singing – music for about 50 years, you get a gut feeling for what will work and what will feel in place. In certain areas of music you might deliberately want to cross those borderlines. But in this, it’s fun to stay within the feeling, the atmosphere, of these pieces and see what comes out.”
The atmosphere of the album often has a wonderful temporal and geographical ambiguity, particularly with the East-European and gypsy influences of the Slovakian violinist and viola player Miloš Valent. “I totally react to that”, says John, “partly because of my fascination with music from the Middle East. Since I was in a madrigal choir in 1964 and we went to Istanbul and I got my first taste of Eastern music, and I came away with my head in turmoil, I have been fascinated with it. I think that so much of the melodic side of music is international. These melodies have gone by sea, by horse, by carriage, these simple melodies. You find that they crop up in Turkish music, Scottish music, hillbilly music – they vary because of the context. Somehow or other, these connections come about. With Miloš, particularly with the Portuguese pieces, you could feel these Moorish influences.”
The acoustics of the church in which the album was recorded were highly influential as well. “There have been many jokes about ECM music and reverb, but it’s something that Manfred and I got on along well with. It does influence the music. I try to explain to students that Bach’s music works so well because of his careful modulation; it lends itself to a long acoustic. Undoubtedly, some things work better in those contexts – some things such as percussion don’t – and I enjoy working in that kind of acoustic. As with so many things, it’s common sense. In some places, I play a note and it falls down and breaks my toe, and busy music is almost essential.”
Another recent release featuring John Surman was also recorded in a church: Rain on the Window, with organist Howard Moody. Except for two traditional tunes arranged by Surman & Moody, all the tunes on Rain on the Window are Surman and/or Moody originals. John wrote A Spring Wedding to celebrate the marriage of his son Ben to Minya, the daughter of the legendary jazz drummer and pianist Jack DeJohnette, with whom John has often performed. “It was a joyous piece to write, one of the happier tunes I write; a lot tend to be introspective and dark. There was no organ where they were married. It was only [recently] that I presented them with the album and they heard the finished product.”
John and Howard Moody met during the recording of Proverbs and Songs (1997), which John composed based on Old Testament texts. It was recorded in Salisbury Cathedral with John playing saxophones and bass clarinet, John Taylor on organ, and the Salisbury Festival Chorus, which Howard conducted. “In subsequent performances, occasionally John Taylor wasn’t free and Howard ended up being the organist. We struck up a little rapport and felt it would be quite interesting doing something together. He has the Sarum Orchestra in Salisbury and asked me to write some music, and eventually we managed to make this album.
“His approach to the organ is singular and irreverent. He wants to blow some cobwebs from the pipes. I remember a particular performance of Proverbs and Songs in Austria – he loves to use solo stops in registers where they are rarely used. Those who were in Coventry recently [for the Coventry Jazz Festival] were in for a rare treat. We didn’t know the organ could sound like that!”