Music in a Cold Climate: An interview with Gawain Glenton
In time to celebrate the January release of In Echo's debut disc 'Music in a Cold Climate: sounds of Hansa Europe', editor Fatima Lahham interviewed director Gawain Glenton about the recording, the ensemble's future plans, Brexit, and whether classical music audiences have always been old...
FL: Let’s start with the premise of this disc, to bring together musicians who as early as the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were thinking about Europe as a whole, reaching out beyond their own geographical borders – incredibly topical for now and what’s happening politically in the UK of course… To what extent are you actually trying to use the CD to address what’s happening, and how important is it to appeal to historical precedents to keep reinforcing that this country (a very small island!) has a culture that is based on interaction with the mainland?
GG: Well, I mean, in my line of work, I travel all over the world making music with musicians of all different nationalities, for a living… It’s just so clear to me: the connections, the mutual benefits, the debts one society has to another…and it seems to me a complete no-brainer that we all need each other, that we all benefit from the exchange. It’s no accident that this project emerged after the very weird summer of 2016, and I just found this connection with the Hanseatic League really topical and fruitful from a musical point of view too. So it was a win-win sort of topic for me to delve into, particularly as the Hanseatic league is one of those things that flies under the radar, despite the fact that it affected British trade to quite a large extent. There was a whole Hansa community in London, and Kings Lynn still has Hansa buildings in it today, but it doesn’t really form part of our consciousness in modern day Britain, so yes, I was trying to bring that to the fore…
FL: …and to some extent, music can do that, much more easily than, say, an academic study on its own that doesn’t have that aural stimulus, that doesn’t get people listening and thinking about these things…
GG: Actually there’s actually a nice online lecture by Dr Geoffrey Webber, on musical links across the Hansa league, and that got my imagination going. There is some work being done on it, and he’s certainly really interesting in terms of research into this world.
FL: Oh right, that’s really interesting, thank you.
The next…enormous question I wanted to throw at you, is…you mention historically informed performance in the CD liner notes, but what does that mean for you or for the group as a whole?
GG: Yes, well of course when you’re writing these booklet notes, you’re absolutely not writing for an academic audience… but for me, the root of it is really basing our performance and our instrumental techniques and our approaches in the musical education practices of the sixteenth century. I try to learn things as sixteenth century musicians learned, and as seventeenth century musicians learned…I try and understand clefs the way they understood clefs, I try and understand mode the way they understood mode…I try and look the right way through the telescope. If you walk in their footsteps in terms of building up a musical education for yourself then decisions that you make on the spot will be rooted in the understanding and aesthetic of the time. It’s not about defining what the answers are - I can’t say what the answers are, I’ll have to improvise my solution, but if each little step is based on roots in the sixteenth century, then it makes me feel a lot more comfortable that there’s an integrity to what we’re doing.
FL: And as someone who’s really immersed in that way of thinking, and trying to assimilate as many of these historical educational processes as possible, how does it then feel to approach contemporary music? Do you have to discard the things that you’ve learned and approach it from a different point of view, or...?
GG: Well no, I think this whole approach of music making has a lot of benefits if harnessed well by composers. Obviously our old instruments make sounds for which there are no modern equivalents – there is no modern equivalent to the cornetto. Or the gamba, you know. But it’s not just about the sounds, it’s about the techniques that we develop in pursuing historically minded performance style, which mean we can actually bring a lot to the table in terms of new music. This modern piece, by Keeling, it’s all in quarter comma meantone: G-sharps, not A-flats, C-sharps, not D-flats. It gives it a different colour, I hope. As you know, the development of our instrumental techniques become so intertwined with historical methods and approaches – you can’t really separate it out again. So with a new piece, I will use the articulations I learned from Dalla Casa, and a gamba player, equally, wouldn’t unlearn some nice shaped bowings. I’m actively pursuing composers to write music that highlights the distinct personalities of the instruments as they were perceived in the sixteenth century because I think they’re really interesting – this connection with the cornett and the human voice for example is really fruitful and is a connection that’s not really shared by many modern instruments.
FL: No, and I think the idea of trammeling the inherent qualities of each instrument really comes across in the new piece on this disc, I really enjoyed it. You can hear sounds used in the other, earlier pieces, just in a completely different way – like they’ve been put into a kaleidoscope or something…
FL: I also wanted to ask you about the crowdfunding aspect of this CD. Obviously this has become a more and more popular option these days for new releases, and in your case has worked really well and been successful. How did you come to decide on the crowdfunding option, and with hindsight would you still go down that route?
GG: I don’t see any way around it as things stand unless you can find a patron who can just support things…I’m pretty old fashioned in the sense that I was determined that all the musicians got paid for the recording – so as soon as you decide things like that, then you have to find the money. The response I’ve had from supporters has been really positive actually. But it takes a lot of thinking about, you have to put yourself in the shoes of a supporter and think, if I was sponsoring someone else’s disc, what would I want for my £25, for my £50, and make sure that you look after them. Whether it’s sustainable for discs 2,3, and 4, I’m not entirely sure, but as a first disc I don’t see any way round it. Of course as well as being necessary, it can also be beneficial and build a community of supporters you would never have had otherwise.
FL: If we move on to talk about the recording process, I wanted to ask you about your attitude towards ornamentation. Of course all groups negotiate the fixed nature of recording with the spontaneity of performance differently, but I’d be really interested to hear if you had a strategy for this. How did it work?
GG: Well I always like working with spontaneous musicians - my stellar colleagues Bojan Cicic, Emily White, Richard Boothby, Silas Wollston, and Anaïs Chen are absolutely at the core of this disc. My feeling was always to arrive at a performance not a recording. So at the risk of making it hard for our engineer, I’d rather go in search of the best performance, and let him solve the issue of how to connect things. Someone might do an ornament in one take that doesn’t match an ornament in another take of the following section but I was really prioritising a sense of energy over perfection.
FL: That’s very interesting. And in terms of future plans for the group, what do you have in the pipeline now the disc is recorded?
GG: We’re performing this programme in the Keble Early Music Festival in Oxford on 21 February, which we’re dead chuffed about, and I have a new programme, ‘Echoes of the Danube’, that we’re doing in Germany with a wonderful countertenor, Alex Potter. I’m actually wondering also about a programme that develops this theme of Northern European identity, and develops an idea of what it was to have a migrant status, as so many musicians did. So there’s an idea forming that develops this first disc and keeps me in the German Northern European repertoire which I think is just an absolute goldmine. I could have made three of these discs, looking at this sense of home, longing, travel… I’m trying to develop programmes that have a feeling at their core, an emotional centre to them. There’s certainly a place for “Music at the court of King such-and-such” or a disc of music by a single composer, but I’m actually quite interested in trying to develop programmes that transmit feelings.
FL: Absolutely, and I think programmes built around a feeling or emotion, are much more common for groups who play and sing much later music, so it’s particularly interesting that you’re transferring that into this domain.
GG: I want to do albums!
FL: Definitely, I think you should do it! So, finally a more general question – Revoice! was initially set up for a younger generation of musicians who engage with historical performance, so do you have any advice for musicians and ensembles who are just embarking on a career in this area? What challenges do you think we have to face that previous generations working in HP maybe didn’t have to deal with?
GG: Well, you have to block out the naysayers. As long as I’ve been doing this, there’s been an older generation saying ‘Oh, it’s all going to hell…the industry’s falling apart…get out while you can…there are no concerts anymore…’ There’s this incredible negativity, which in some ways is based on harsh realities, but in another sense, you just have to block that out. People always say audiences are old. But my dad, who’s a professional ‘cellist and just retired, says audiences have always been old! Even when he was a kid, they were old. People come to classical music later. It can be a great challenge to block out all the negativity. So we have to trust ourselves, trust our instincts, our integrity, trust in what it is we do.
FL: I think that’s a lovely way to finish actually. Thank you!
Formed in 2016 by cornetto player Gawain Glenton, In Echo is a diverse ensemble that aims to explore the rich musical repertoire of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe. It is made up of versatile musicians who are leaders in the field of historical performance and acknowledged soloists in their own right. As well as playing early music, the ensemble also commissions and performs new music for old instruments, finding points of connection with our shared European past. The first such commission is Andrew Keeling’s Northern Soul, with more pieces in the pipeline for 2018 and beyond. The ensemble has already given recitals at Dartington International Summer School and the York Early Music Christmas Festival. In 2018 In Echo will perform in Regensburg, as well as making several appearances in the UK. Music in a Cold Climate is In Echo’s debut recording.