'Curved Lines ’gainst Square Glass': David Marquiss interviews Sam Cave and Johan Löfving
‘Curved Lines ’gainst Square Glass’ is a new work by British composer Sam Cave which situates the solo theorbo within a decidedly contemporary sound world. The piece is a product of the composer’s collaboration with Swedish theorbist and guitarist Johan Löfving; the following interview with both musicians took place shortly after the piece’s second performance, at St. George’s Bristol in February.
You can hear a recording of Johan performing the work live below:
Sam, ‘Curved Lines ’gainst Square Glass’ is the first piece you have written for the theorbo. What about this instrument – so closely associated with baroque musical culture – attracted you, as a contemporary composer?
SC: Well, I think the main thing is its resonance, because so much of my music is obsessed with bell-like sounds and things that decay. That was the first thing. And also that it has such a feeling of melancholy, and an intensity that is intimate: it’s not a very loud instrument, but because of all the sympathetic resonances, it has quite an intense sound. It is ‘weightless’ yet it still has a lot of gravitas, and all the musical materials were designed specifically for the theorbo, to try to exploit that sort of sound world.
What about the physical characteristics of the instrument? Did aspects of the theorbo’s construction – for instance, the several unfretted bass strings – affect the musical materials you used?
SC: SC: Yes, I think that the material is almost all defined by the instrument –what I’m really interested in doing is trying to find things that the instrument does naturally, but that have not necessarily been part of idiomatic composition for the instrument, historically speaking. If you play a chord on the theorbo, it activates all sorts of other sympathetic resonances, and so I was interested in trying to find ways to exploit that – that’s a natural thing that the instrument does, but sometimes in instrumental training we are taught to subvert it, because we want to hear only the chord, rather than the resonances the chord creates around itself. So I immediately wanted to do something with that. There’s also this technique of playing scales on the bass strings – when a scale goes down, the player often mutes by using rest strokes all the time. A really early decision I made was that if the bass line were to go down a scale, I would specifically instruct that they should be free strokes, so that the resonances would always merge, rather than this successive muting that I had historically heard in theorbo playing. Also, a lot of the bass movements I wrote move upwards, or move by leap – again, to try to stop this habitual muting of resonance.
Later on, in the middle sections, which contain lots of scales, Johan showed me some fingerings for scales – tonal scales – and I wrote down what his fingerings were. The main characteristic was having notes on successive strings: everything was done campanella with the right hand, ‘across’ the strings all the time, and I really wanted to do something with that. The pitch sets for those sections of the piece…my choices were really defined by what notes I could have ringing over each other. So the whole pitch ‘colour’ of that section is really defined by the theorbo.
Johan, Sam wrote ‘Curved Lines ’gainst Square Glass’ for you, and I know that you corresponded closely during the writing process. How did the process of preparing a piece by a living composer compare to your experiences with the historical repertoire that you often perform?
JL: It’s always very exciting to work with a living composer. Sam is maybe an interesting example in the sense that we have worked together before, but we haven’t worked as intensely on a project from the beginning as we did here. The flexibility in how you view a written score of historical music is, of course, based on how you imagine and what you believe the various styles are about. And even if things in Sam’s piece can inspire references to other styles that, if I didn’t know Sam, I might have done differently, the fact that we can actually discuss what he thinks makes a difference. Also, very often I find that because Sam has such a clear idea of how things correspond in the music, if I spontaneously want to do something different and Sam says, ‘well actually, I was thinking it’s like this because of this and this’, most of the time I’m entirely convinced. And that’s what is so exciting working with a living composer – you learn something. And what you learn from a good composer like Sam is really invaluable, because you can use that in any piece you play. I find that is really something that inspires me towards playing historical repertoire as if you were having this kind of dialogue with a dead composer also. But I don’t believe that the point of playing this piece is to make Sam feel ‘everything is great – I would have done it exactly like that’, and Sam knows that I don’t think like that. The thing is that we try to create something real together.
What about notation? Since music for the theorbo and its fellow lutes has traditionally been written in tablature, was this something you considered for ‘Curved Lines ’gainst Square Glass’?
SC: [Laughs] That was the very first thing we decided in the process – we were not going to write anything in tablature.
JL: The thing is, I can say this: I’m still very bad at reading tablature. I find it very hard. Partly the reason, I guess, is because as a theorbo player you encounter different types of tablature. So, for instance, French tablature and Italian tablature are written in the opposite way, so that up is down and down is up, and one uses numbers, the other uses letters. I find that harder for my brain to process than standard notation and, knowing that this piece was going to become quite complex, harmonically speaking, compared to the Baroque music that you normally play on the theorbo…lots of the music for the theorbo – for instance, the Italian, seventeenth-century music – some pieces are quite long and quite virtuosic, but it follows certain patterns. Of course, Sam’s piece is not going to follow those patterns, so I think reading it in tablature wouldn’t have made any sense.
SC: No, and from a composition point of view, it would’ve been a nightmare. In the same way that Johan was saying about what one is conditioned to see, and you interpret the expressive side of the music from the score, it’s the same when you write it down. I think I would either have had to have composed it in standard notation and then turned it into a tablature part, or I would’ve had to have learned the tablature very carefully myself, and really thought about how to make the expressive side of the music come across in tablature. There are so many little things that you can write on a [standard notation] score, because you’ve been doing it all your life, that mean something, that all carry a sort of historical or emotional baggage for the player, and I don’t know how to do any of those things in tab. I think I’d still be writing it if I’d tried to do it that way.
JL: Also, I still play a lot of guitar, and very much of what I play on the theorbo is continuo, and then, of course, I read from notation and not from tab. So, I mean, if you gave the piece to someone who maybe mostly played from Renaissance tablature, who for many years didn’t really use anything else but tablature – that was their natural habitat – then the whole thing might be different. They might have a personal relationship with those symbols. And it is not to say that just because they are less ‘refined’, that doesn’t make them ‘worse’: it’s just that I don’t have enough of a relationship with them to pull off a piece like this.
SC: Yes. And I had zero relationship with them, so to write a piece like this would’ve been so hard. Instead, we hit upon this notation of having treble and bass staves, like a piano, but everything sounds an octave lower than it’s written. Incidentally, I was talking to Steve Goss, because he’s just written a theorbo piece, and he wrote his in bass clef with loads of ledger lines.
Do you find that audience preconceptions play a part when new music is performed on historical instruments? Have you found that audiences are generally receptive to the use of the theorbo in a contemporary setting?
JL: Very receptive. I haven’t performed this piece many times yet, so of course I haven’t played that much new music using old instruments, as it were. But yes, I think the idea is something that audiences are really receptive to, and I think it’s a trend that is very strong right now. Sam mentioned Steve Goss and the piece he wrote, but also, you know, with the harpsichord…it’s really becoming more and more popular, it seems. I think the only danger would be if you turn up in a setting where people really expect you to play historical music…you can imagine, because the contrast would be extreme. I think people love the idea of new music on old instruments, and I think, to be honest, if one is going to use this depressing thing in terms of being ‘accessible’, I think it makes contemporary music more accessible to lots of people when you use instruments that they already have a relationship with, in a setting where they feel comfortable. When you take instruments from a completely different time, the whole thing becomes almost exotic, and you suddenly, as an audience, can tolerate more outside of your comfort zone.
What is the significance of the title of the piece?
SC: It’s from a poem, but a poem that is spoken by a fictitious man. I’m a great lover of science fiction, and one of my favourite books of all time is Dune, by Frank Herbert. Basically, it’s about a family that have to go and take over running a strange planet that’s entirely a desert. It’s full of political intrigue and sort of pseudo-mysticism, and the boy of the family gets marooned in the desert and he has to get the desert people to believe in him and follow him. But there is this soldier in it who plays this instrument called the Baliset, which apparently has nine strings. This soldier is famous for being a troubadour, and he carries his Baliset when he goes fighting and plays songs and things. There are some fantastic lines, and I’ve used quotes from his poetry for titles of lots of pieces, and this is another one. One of the soldiers in his company is dying, and he requests a song to ease his passing. And the opening lines of the song that the troubadour warrior, Gurney, sings to him are: ‘my woman stands at her window, curved lines ’gainst square glass’. The rest of the song is just talking about this moment that is a sort of ‘fixed’ moment, but he can never really get to it. It’s always like a mirage – it’s always ‘over there’ somewhere. And that sort of ‘over thereness’ – a really intense feeling, but one that is really elusive and sort of fragile…as soon as you try to get it, it’s gone – is really close to what this piece of music is about.
‘Curved Lines ’gainst Square Glass’ has been performed in London and Bristol, with further performances in preparation.