Meet the Music Makers: Fretwork

Richard Boothby

By Landon Hegedus, UChicago Presents

In conversation with Richard Boothby, artistic director and founding member of Fretwork:

UChicago Presents: For the uninitiated, what is the viola da gamba?

Richard Boothby: In essence, the very short description is that it's a bowed guitar. It's an instrument normally with six strings, frets, a flat back, and it has a common ancestor with the guitar. It's tuned very similarly to a guitar – not exactly the same, but very similar – and that's how it started life, as basically a bowed guitar, and developed from there.

UCP: For you personally, was the instrument your entry point into the repertoire, or vice-versa?

RB: It’s a bit of both, really. I was handed a viola da gamba when I was in my last year at university and told to learn how to play it – so I did. Through having learned how to play it, I was then able to explore the repertoire. In the first year of my playing it, I was playing consort music, and it was the consort music that really fired my interest in in the instrument and the repertory.

UCP: What was your impetus for founding Fretwork in 1985?

RB: That was just some ten years since I started playing the instrument. At that time, the English consort music, the music from the 16th and 17th centuries in England for multiple viols, had a pretty low reputation as being music for amateurs, not music that could be presented in concerts successfully. So together with my colleagues Richard Campbell and Bill Hunt, we wanted to change that perception. We felt that the music was of great worth and intrinsic value, and that it could be presented in concert successfully, but it needed to be treated in that same way as string quartets and their repertory, with great care: bringing a lot of rehearsal, and a lot of effort into discovering the depths of the of the music. That was the reason why we wanted to set up Fretwork in 1985.

UCP: How did this collaboration with Iestyn Davies come about?

RB: It came about because we did a few concerts with Iestyn several years ago, and his voice is very much on the same artistic page as our own. Of course, we had spent a lot of time in previous years doing concerts with countertenor Michael Chance, recording with him and doing concerts with him and his wonderful voice.

There was a possibility of making a recording which would celebrate Michael Nyman’s 70th birthday, and we'd recorded the work that Michael had written for us called Self-Laudatory Hymn of Inanna and Her Omnipotence with James Bowman back in 1993. That recording took place the day after the first performance of the piece and we were never really satisfied with our efforts in the recording, so we always wanted to record that again, and better. We started building a program around that, and put it to Iestyn that he might like to join us. Fortunately, he said yes, so we went to work rehearsing to put on a few concerts, and then recorded it last year.

UCP: That recording Fretwork did with Iestyn Davies is If, which was released in March 2019. This program you’re performing at UChicago Presents is called Silent Noon – what’s the central theme of this program, and how is it similar or different than the subject of If?

RB: It’s really sort of a recycled program in the sense that we're presenting some of the best pieces of music for voice and viols, not just from England. Though it’s true we concentrate on English music from the 16th and 17th centuries: Byrd and Purcell, of course we’re also extending to include some madrigals by Gesualdo, which are astonishing pieces, as well as a very wonderful piece by Johann Christoph Bach, who is J. S. Bach’s uncle, titled Lamento, an extremely powerful and expressive piece from the middle of the 17th century. So we thought that by including music from Germany and Italy, we could broaden the reach of the program.

UCP: Are there any special considerations or aspects of performance practice that are different when you're performing with a vocalist, rather than just the viols alone?

RB: Certainly, yes. For one thing, every voice is different, and balance is very important because it's not a question of the voice being heard, but a question of the words being heard, and the presence of the words and the meaning of the words getting across. Often people might imagine that viols are quiet instruments; in fact, they make plenty of noise where necessary. Particularly in the Michael Nyman works, there’s a lot of very orchestral writing from in the viols ­– lots of chords, very powerful sounds that the Michael evokes. So we have to be a little bit careful not to overbalance Iestyn. But then there’s also this this question of phrasing and matching the beautiful legato line that Iestyn is able to create. I’d say that one thing that is very good about Iestyn and countertenors in general is that for the most part, they are not overburdened with too much vibrato. That can be difficult with other voices, and the viol just doesn't work with vibrato as a basic form of tone production. So to bring the two soundscapes into focus is difficult if you have a too heavy vibrato on the vocal line.

UCP: Consorts can be described as “choirs of instruments,” and certain qualities of the viola de gamba make the well-suited to adapt music originally written for the voice. This music is different, though, as it features a vocal soloist with an instrumental consort – what was the origin of this form?

RB: As a specific form, it really was invented by William Byrd. He never really wrote madrigals, but some of his most famous songs were conceived for one voice and four viols. But we can say that he made explicit something that was almost certainly a practice that had gone back for several decades before that, which was taking vocal music and performing it in a variety of manners, either purely instrumentally, or with one voice and many viols, or with several voices and a few viols. So Byrd made it clear what his intentions were by writing for this instrumentation, but I think performers been adapting vocal music this way long before that.

UCP: Some of this music was originally written for viol consort, and some has been adapted for this configuration, is that correct?

RB: Oh, yes, indeed. The Purcell songs, for example; Purcell never wrote for voice and viols, but he wrote for voice with a bass line, expecting it to be to be realized by either harpsichord or theorbo or something like that. We often do programs of Purcell’s fantastic viol consorts, and we wanted to include some of some of Purcell’s songs with that as well. So I made arrangements of some of the songs by realizing the continuo part with the upper viols. The voice and the bass are Purcell’s original, and then the other viols are my realization of the piece’s harmonies.

UCP: Speaking more to the point of arranging – how was that something that you came into, and what things do you keep in mind while adapting music not originally written for viols to the configuration of Fretwork?

RB: The first motive for arranging things was to broaden the repertory to reach out to music from later centuries. I seem to remember the first piece I arranged was Gershwin’s “Summertime,” actually, which we did as an encore. We found we had tremendous success after a program of 16th and 17th century music to play something terribly familiar and terribly well known, so I started doing more along that line. And then we started looking at arranging some Bach for the instruments, and some more songs from the later periods – for instance, we're playing some Vaughan Williams songs, which are more or less straight transcriptions of the of the piano part. When it comes to arranging things for this group, viols are not suitable for everything. One can’t arrange everything; you have to be quite careful about what one needs to do, but there are some there are many pieces which work very well when adapted to this setting.

UCP: You’ve already mentioned composer Michael Nyman, who has contributed new works to the viol repertoire which you’ve championed. What do you seek when you’re looking for composers to collaborate with?

RB: I think fate plays a large part, though we do have a hand in it. For instance, after we’ve had a lot lightweight pieces, we’ll need to balance it with something a bit more serious. But as often as not, it's a composer who approaches us, or a festival that would suggest that we have a piece written for us by a composer who is prominent in the festival, or something like that. So it's four-fifths chance, and one-fifth intention. Next year, we're very excited that a festival in London has commissioned a work for us by John Paul Jones, who's the bass player from Led Zeppelin. So that's something slightly unusual for us.

UCP: What have you been listening to lately?

RB: Oh, gosh – I actually don’t listen to a lot of music, I’m afraid! [laughs] I do listen to music on long journeys in the car. The last performance I heard that absolutely stuck in my mind was a piece I hadn't heard before, which was Harrison Birtwistle’s Panic. It was first performed at the Last Night of the BBC Proms several years ago, and they replayed it on the radio the other day, performed by John Harle. It is the most astonishing piece, and the most violently frightening piece I can imagine! It is full of the most demonic and violent energy.

UCP: That sounds about right. I’ve found that Birtwistle’s music demands to listened to actively ­– it’s not at all conducive to passive consumption.

RB: No, certainly not! [laughs] I can’t quite encompass it in words, because it just bursts out all over the place. And truly astonishing playing from John Harle… it must have been an impossible piece to learn – virtuosity beyond anything I can imagine.

Well, I'll just say that we're very much looking forward to coming back to Chicago. We’ve performed there a few times, last time being in 2013, and we always have great reception and the audience is lovely. We like very much like coming to the University of Chicago.

Richard Boothby performs with Fretwork and countertenor Iestyn Davies in a program titled Silent Noon as part of the Howard Mayer Brown International Early Music series on October 27, 2019.