In conversation with Bjarte Eike, artistic director and violinist of Barokksolistene:
UChicago Presents: You were the first musician to graduate from the Grieg Academy with a degree in Baroque violin. During your studies, did you have any idea you'd pursue the kind of multivaried, adventuresome career you have now?
Bjarte Eike: Growing up in Norway, there’s a strong folk music tradition. I grew up in a small town with a lot of music, so I was surrounded by folk musicians as well as classical, jazz, and rock n’ roll. When I was in high school, I played in a lot of bands and pubs. I was always looking for different types of music; it was a natural thing for me.
When I first encountered the Baroque world back in the early ’90s, it became very clear that it was an environment I wanted to be in. The repertoire was open—it wasn’t as fixed as the standard repertoire, and people were very much discussing how one should play certain [pieces]. You couldn’t just rely on what your teacher or [maestro] was doing. I liked that discussion, that openness—people not agreeing—and the element of improvisation. I’ve always been true to my roots.
UCP: What’s the story behind The Alehouse Sessions?
BE: It started at a festival in Norway [the Vestfoldfestspillene] in 2007, where I made programs for about five years in a row. [That year] the festival theme was England—London in particular—so we presented a lot of John Dowland and Handel, plus some Italians that you could find in London around 1700.
I also wanted to make a pub program, because pubs are an essential part of English history. It all derives from things happening in the 16th or 17th centuries: there was civil war, then Oliver Cromwell came to power. He didn’t like music and didn’t like drinking, so he closed all the theaters down. After that, London was swarmed by unemployed musicians, who went where other people were, which was the pubs. In the pubs, there had always been singing, and maybe a fiddle player. Suddenly, there were all these well-educated musicians, dancers, singers, and actors coming in. Even after Charles II came into power and reopened theaters, these alehouse sessions had become so popular that they carried on, turning some of these pubs into music houses with subscription concerts which were popular with composers like Henry Purcell. They came there and either had their music played or joined in themselves. It was sort of a hybrid between what one would call composed music and folk music.
Meanwhile, I knew I had a collection of tunes lying at home that I hadn’t had a chance to look into, like, for instance, The English Dancing Master [17th century dance manual] by John Playford. The melodies don’t have any specifics other than a little random title and a number, but I brought them to a guitar-playing friend of mine to add some harmonies and play around with it. We discovered there was a whole other world there and started building up a little repertoire that could fit into a series beyond the festival. It’s been evolving since 2007: we keep changing it, working on it. We’re made a small opera that’s set in a pub; we’ve turned it into an educational project with young people, toning down the drinking part. We’ve played it in motorcycle clubs, gay clubs, for old people, for young people. We’ve even played it at the Globe Theatre in London and in the Vienna Musikverein and Konzerthaus! It’s a living organism, more or less; it’s become like a real band, which is like coming full circle for me.
UCP: The Alehouse Sessions are nearly as old as Barokksolistene itself, which was founded in 2005. Can you tell me about the early years of the ensemble?
BE: I was involved with that festival in Norway, and we needed to have a house orchestra—the ability to present programs with the same people. It was just a working title in the beginning; I didn’t plan on having be anything else outside this festival, but it took on a life of its own. I still use the same model: as artistic director, I get to hand-pick all the musicians I use, whether it’s for a big opera in major Scandinavian houses or for children’s productions.
UCP: You also curated the Sessions. How did you find and pick pieces?
BE: I have quite a bit of literature about what was going on in the alehouses and the pubs—books by Peter Clarke [English historian] and others. I know that they used a lot of dances from The English Dancing Master and other collections. From there, you start finding collections by Italians like [Francesco] Barsanti and [Francesco] Geminiani, who were very into Scottish tunes and set them to a Baroque basso continuo style. There’s also the Caledonian Companion of Scottish fiddle tunes from the same time, with instructions for how you should dance it. Then you have all the theatre music by Purcell, who also wrote some songs with some bawdy and daring texts. So there’s a lot of historical background that can be used.
What we also do is have workshops once or twice a year, and everyone brings something that we can try out and see if it fits into our routine. It’s more of a creative process of getting to know each other: we cook together, we stay together, gossip… Everyone’s contributing, and we’re doing a lot of improvisations.
UCP: I feel like I have to ask because it is, after all, The Alehouse Sessions: favorite brew?
BE: That’s a tough question! I think I and everyone else in this group are very into food—we’re all foodies—and we’re all sort of snobbish about the alcohol we choose to drink. IPAs are good, and I also like stouts. Of course, when we’re touring in Belgium, it’s like heaven for us. I really want to go to Portland, in Oregon; I understand it’s a sort of Mecca for microbrewing, and they have beer festivals and everything.
But, really, [I like] anything that is microbrewed by some kind of nerdy person who has a real ambition of doing something because he really loves it. I salute all microbrewers and chefs that are working with ingredients that have been short-traveled and in-season… anything that is made by someone because of the quality and love for what they do, which is very similar to what musicians are doing.