UChicago Presents: I noticed that both you and Paul O’Dette share an interesting commonality in your musical background, which is that you both started off as rock guitarists! Is that right?
Ronn McFarlane: Yes! We’re just a few months apart in age, so we grew up at a time when what’s now called classic rock was edgy, rebellious music. I suppose guitarists like Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix might have been our rock guitar heroes as teenagers. So we both started on rock guitar and went along to classical guitar.
For myself—and I think Paul, as well—I found that the lute music which had been arranged for guitar was really my favorite music to play. Those transcriptions of Renaissance and Baroque music really resonated with me, and the Renaissance music in particular actually had a lot in common with some of the rock music that I played. The dance music, especially, has a kind of rhythmic propulsion and groove; there’s chances for on-the-spot improvisation. Even the scales are based less on major and minor tonality, which you find in a lot of classical music, but on Mixolydian, Dorian, and pentatonic scales—exactly the scales I was using to improvise in my rock covers.
UCP: When you first started playing those lute transcriptions, did you know anything about early music or the lute?
RM: No, that was really my first introduction. The first time I heard the lute was Julian Bream playing in Washington D.C. at the Kennedy Center, sometime in the ’70s. I was still an undergrad guitar major at the time, so Julian Bream would divide his concerts playing a Renaissance lute in the first half of the program, and then after intermission he would play classical guitar. Then, of course, I got his recordings, which I found very entrancing. Not only was it entrancing, it was really exciting: he had a kind of rhythmic verve about it that appealed to the teenager in me.
UCP: Since the early music revival is still relatively young, it must’ve been pretty groundbreaking for Bream to be doing something like a lute recital at Kennedy Center, right?
RM: It really was! I think before that, there had been a few lute pioneers, primarily in Europe, but I had never heard of them before, and they didn’t play the lute on a truly virtuosic level. I think there were some beautiful players before him, but Julian Bream was the first to really get me excited, and I think a lot of other players, as well. So yes, it was groundbreaking, even though he wasn’t the first, by any means. There wasn’t much in the way of a historical music movement—it existed, but nothing on the scale that we have today.
UCP: Given that, I’m really intrigued by Ayreheart [McFarlane’s quartet, which performs both early music and a fusion of bluegrass, folk, and Celtic music on Renaissance instruments]. How did that get started?
RM: I have a solo CD called Indigo Road, which is all original music that I wrote for the lute, and while I was working on it, I found that my ideas for writing new music for the lute expanded beyond what I could play on just a single solo lute. So I gathered together some other musicians: Brian Kay, our vocalist, who also plays lute, komuz [fretless Central Asian string instrument], and guitar; Willard Morris, who plays bass, violin, and colascione, which is a kind of bass lute; and Mattias Rucht, who plays more percussion instruments than I can count.
The idea was to play new music for the lute, with other instruments and voice. But before long, we were playing old music as well, both because of our love of old music and also because I think it’s easier for a modern listener to understand where our music is coming from if they hear some of the old music played side-by-side. So we do have a brand-new CD, which will be out on June 24th, called Barley Moon. That’s all old music: the music of John Dowland, of William Byrd, and anonymous ballad tunes from England, Scotland, and Wales. The whole idea of that is the connection between art music and folk music, or popular music, of the time.
Once again, this connects to the original idea of composing new music for the lute, because the new music I’m writing isn’t contemporary, avant-garde music; rather, it dwells more on folk traditions, and might connect more with popular music than with the kind of classical music that is being composed nowadays. It’s all about this dividing line—or rather, the absence of a dividing line—between popular and [composed] music. That’s kind of the point of both Ayreheart and Barley Moon.
There’s also a fair amount of that in the concert I’m playing with Paul O’Dette as well, although that’s more oriented towards art music. But some of the English music we’re playing is based on dances like galliards and pavanes and connects more organically to popular music.
UCP: Speaking of Byrd and Dowland, in previous interviews, you’ve talked about how composers for the lute were often accomplished professional lutenists themselves, and would perform their own works, singer-songwriter-style. Can you speak to that a little bit?
RM: Well, when a composer performs music that he’s written himself, he’s automatically going to be composing music that is pretty idiomatic for the instrument that he’s writing for. When you have a big gulf between the composer on one hand and the performer on the other hand, you sometimes find composers who don’t even play the instrument they’re writing for. You’ve got to hope that one is familiar with the technical possibilities. But there’s nothing like writing something and knowing, very physically, how it feels under your hands, how it falls under the fingers. For instance, I don’t think I could write truly idiomatic music for a french horn or a piano, but I could do that for a guitar or a lute.
As for the style of music, I grew up playing rock n’ roll and loving classical music, and I’ve always loved Irish and Scottish folk music. I think those elements come together in my original compositions.
UCP: Let’s talk about your relationship with Paul O’Dette—when you first met, any previous collaborations, etc.
RM: We met in 1979 at a Lute Society workshop. Paul was already a teacher; I was a student at that time, having played the lute for only six months. I think we first collaborated in 1991—that may not be exactly right, but we played a number of duet concerts around that time, in the early ’90s. We also played in a concert of 20 lutes together, called “Three, Four, and Twenty Lutes” that was at the Boston Early Music Festival in 1989.
We haven’t really collaborated otherwise. We did a pair of concerts in New York and Boston just this past January, in 2016, which were very well-received. We really enjoyed doing this concert together, of Italian and English music from the Renaissance, so we put together a few more of them for next season. Paul is a very stimulating duet partner to work with: he has a lot of ideas, and I really enjoy playing with him.
UCP: Let’s hear a little about that program—what went into assembling it, and any other background you’d like to give.
RM: The first half is all Italian music, spanning from the beginning of the 16th century into the early 17th century. It begins with a Saltarello and Piva by Gio Ambrogio Dalza, and even in 1508, it was kind of an old-fashioned piece, looking back to fifteenth-century traditions. It has a very ornate treble line, accompanied by a drone. It has only one chord—an open C—throughout the entire piece. That’s followed by a set by Francesco da Milano, the lutenist to three consecutive popes in the early 16th century. He was kind of a star lutenist of the Renaissance. Then, that’ll be followed by three pieces by Vincenzo Galilei, a very fine lutenist, composer, musical theorist, and the father of the famous astronomer, Galileo Galilei. Then we have a pair of pieces by Giovanni Terzi, a rather virtuosic Canzione, and two pieces by Alessandro Piccinini.
After intermission, we have some anonymous English pieces for two lutes, some pieces by John Dowland, John Daniel, and John Johnson … (All Johns! Hmm.) John Johnson was the lutenist to Queen Elizabeth I and the most prolific composer of lute duets. Of course, John Dowland is the most famous of the lute composers of that time.
I think one thing about the English duets that you find is that they tend to be very conversational and companionable, in that you end up treating phrases like comments on the other’s phrase. You don’t have one person accompanying, and one person leading throughout, but rather you trade back and forth. That’s not a characteristic of every single English piece, but you find it more than you would in the Italian music. That makes it a lot of fun and each performance a little bit different, because you can really improvise on the spot and respond to your partner’s improvisations, making it like a bit of one-upmanship, if you want. That’s really what makes it fun.