Recorder quintet Seldom Sene, founded in Amsterdam in 2009, is a group of five musicians with a mutual passion for the interpretation and performance of both early and contemporary music. They record for Brilliant Classics and perform regularly through Europe. The members of the group are Stephanie Brandt (Germany), Ruth Dyson (UK), Eva Gemeinhardt (Germany), Hester Groenleer (Netherlands) and María Martínez Ayerza.
We were delighted that Seldom Sene agreed to give an interview for the first issue of Revoice! Magazine.
Can you tell us a little about your name and how it reflects the concept that motivates your ensemble?
When we started playing together, we went through lots of English Renaissance music. One of the first pieces we felt a strong affinity with was Seldom Sene, an ‘In Nomine’ by Christopher Tye. It starts very peacefully, with calm imitation, and ends with a short section in which all lines play in different meters, challenging one another rhythmically... It's original, skilfully composed, expressive and free – qualities we wanted for our quintet. Seldom sene also sums up our wish to achieve the highest possible level in what we do. Of course you can also see a pinch of irony in the name, acknowledging our awareness that we make music for a (hopefully large) minority, for sure when you compare us with the biggest names in the (pop) music industry.
As a group who plays a wide range of both ‘early’ and ‘contemporary’ repertories, what does the term ‘historical performance’ mean to you and do you think it is a useful label for use to use in the 21st century?
For us 'historical performance' means being inspired by past repertoires, practises and aesthetic ideas to make music that moves, entertains and compels contemporary listeners. We give ourselves the freedom to arrange compositions which may not have been played on recorders originally and to perform them on the instruments that we feel are the most suitable for that particular piece. For example, when arranging Bach's Fantasia in A minor BWV 904 we chose for a set of Renaissance recorders. We play the top line on a tenor built after Claude Rafi and the other four on instruments after the consort marked HIER/HIERS at the Kunsthistoriches Museum in Vienna, which is well known among recorder players. This very unhistorical setting produces a round and well-balanced blend with a distinctive, flexible sound on the top line. In this way we can bring out the musical architecture of the work and make it as expressive as possible.
Similar thoughts are behind our performances of Renaissance music. Although this was the “golden age” of the recorder consort, the role of our instrument was actually more modest than most recorder players like to think. However, from our point of view the recorder consort is an excellent medium to bring 16th-century music to life doing justice to its main characteristics: balance, imitation, just intonation, tension between consonance and dissonance, expressive and virtuosic ornamentation, subtle rhetorics... We can spend hours looking for the right colour and timing for each cadence, experimenting with different ways of connecting text and music, finding the right atmosphere for instrumental works and dances... In this way we hope to create a fruitful dialogue between past and present.
How do you select and arrange repertoire?
The process varies depending on the programme concept. Maria usually comes with proposals for our programmes of Renaissance music. These are the most specialised, focusing on a specific genre, place or theme. Once we have a programme draft, we try out all pieces and take the last decisions together, for example regarding the programme order, instrumentation and of course interpretation.
We have also made quite a few programmes collectively, particularly mixed programmes of early and contemporary music. We are constantly collecting interesting repertoire - Eva is particularly good at spotting wonderful music that works very well in our setting. Hers is, for example, the idea of arranging two settings of Aus tiefer Not schrei'ich zu Dir by Herman Robert Frenzel and Max Reger, originally for organ. The dynamic disadvantage of a recorder quintet against the organ is compensated by the possibility of making each line expressive individually.
Arranging in the strict sense of the word is not always necessary. Most Renaissance polyphony - be it vocal or instrumental - fits the range of the recorder very well and needs no or little adjustment. The biggest challenge is finding the optimal combination of instruments: high, middle, or low register? Softer or louder recorders? At which pitch...? We often try different transpositions as well. The same piece may feel surprisingly different in various tonalities, since the recorder is a diatonic instrument with clear "strong" and "weak" fingerings that give each mode a different colour.
The most elaborate arrangements we have made so far are of Baroque music. Eva recently arranged Handel's Concerto Grosso Op. 3, No. 2 for Seldom Sene and organist Matthias Havinga. She played with different registers to make certain lines more audible and used slightly different settings for each movement. Our latest challenge, which we hope to bring out on CD next year, is arranging the complete Goldberg Variations. The idea may sound a bit crazy since this is very idiomatic keyboard music and most variations feature 2 or 3-part writing. But the way we see it, this work presents an excellent balance between formal perfection, expressiveness, beauty and virtuosity. It also brings us an opportunity to understand one another better than ever. We will have to make music like a keyboard player... with five brains and ten hands. We can't wait!
Can you describe some of the creative processes by which you work with composers to produce new works for your historical instruments?
When we work with composers, we usually have a big introductory session in which we present all our instruments: renaissance, baroque and modern. It's very interesting to see which qualities each composer is interested in. Some are attracted to the (apparent) simplicity of the recorder, some to the many sizes and models, others to its agility, to the power of the extreme sizes... For this reason, the six compositions we have commissioned to date are very different in style and approach: from Interreaction by Wouter Snoei for five square bass recorders and live electronics, to Praying for pure soul by Olga Krashenko which creates a soundscape of words and murmuring sounds.
We also commissioned a composition from our former teacher Paul Leenhouts. Although it's written for modern recorders, it finds inspiration in early repertoires of great rhythmical complexity, like the Ars Subtilior or some of the consort music by Christopher Tye or John Baldwine.
Very recently, on the 13th of November, we premiered our latest commission: Ten Dipoles by Aspasia Nasopolou, a Greek composer based in Amsterdam. It consists of ten miniatures, each based on a pair of opposites (good/bad, limited/unlimited, one/many, etc) that have origins to the universe according to pre-Aristotelian theories. In this performance we interact with an installation designed by Horst Rickels and Ernst Dullemond, a group of ten aerophones which we also control with switches and pedals.
Aspasia's often composes instrumental music based on poetry. Her piece Lelia doura is based on a 13th-century cantiga de amigo, a song typical of Galician-Portuguese poetry. Aspasia chose for a consort of Renaissance recorders to have a powerful sound and maximum flexibility. The “extended techniques” she uses – sharp articulations, some microtonal writing – are inspired by non-Western music. The poem's refrain is formed by the Arabic words lelia doura, which inspired her to use Arabic dance rhythms and a maqam called Sikah which is related to love. The music closely follows the structure of the poem, preserving the narrative of the original text. This approach to composition is closely related to our own concept of historical performance as a dialogue between past and present, which we have discussed above.
Seldom Sene has achieved success in a number of important competitions; how crucial do you feel these successes have been to your career, and what is your view of music competitions more generally?
Competitions have certainly been important to our career. Our very first performance as Seldom Sene was at the preliminary round of a competition for recorder consorts in Le Mans, France. Competitions usually ask for short and varied programmes and you need to show your very best to convince the jury. In this sense, any competition is an excellent stimulus for musicians, a great aid to develop quickly, and they can bring you further even if you don't win.
Out of the competitions in which we did achieve success, the Van Wassenaer Competition in Utrecht in 2014 was the most crucial. The jury gave us very high marks for our playing and stage presence and it was wonderful to feel endorsed by musicians we admire. Our success brought us concert engagements in The Netherlands and around Europe and the feedback of jury and audience encouraged us to improve some extra-musical aspects of our practise - from clothing to marketing strategies and social media management. Of course, we have also been to competitions where we didn't even pass the first round... But there were always positive reasons to look back at those as well: intensive and fruitful rehearsal periods, nice travel memories, new ideas that we developed later, lessons learnt...
Which ensembles and groups have most influenced and inspired you?
Since childhood we have all admired the Amsterdam Loeki Stardust Quartet. Some of their recordings – for example, their version of the Lamentations by Palestrina still remain unsurpassed, both technically and in beauty. Our views on Renaissance polyphony are strongly influenced by vocal groups like the Huelgas Ensemble, which bring together perfection and emotion.
As professional musicians who work internationally, do you anticipate that Brexit and its accompanying ideologies will affect your career as an ensemble? Do you think it is within the remit of a musician to engage with politics in any way through their work?
We were saddened by the result of the referendum in the UK. Maria is teaching at the Royal College of Music in London and Ruth, who is from England, lives and works in Austria. We made a little statement about this on our Facebook page and illustrated it with our recording of O sacrum convivium by Thomas Tallis. There was a very interesting comment by an English follower, who saw several layers of meaning in our post. He reminded us that no political decision is ever going to stop international artists from working together. Music and culture are great ways to fight narrow-mindedness.
Can you briefly introduce all your instruments to us?
The ensemble actually started because of a set of Renaissance recorders. In 2009, Maria got the opportunity to buy a second-hand ten-piece consort made by Bob Marvin, a masterful maker from Canada. She managed to get a loan, brought the instruments to Amsterdam and took initiative to start an ensemble. A quintet seemed a natural choice, as there is a wealth of five-part Renaissance repertoire. Already during our first rehearsal we realised there was great potential in this combination of players and instruments.
Our collection of Renaissance instruments has grown a lot since then. In 2011 we got a second set of nine instruments after HIERS, this time in A=440Hz by Francesco Li Virghi and Ture Bergstrøm. These instruments used to belong to the Amsterdam Loeki Stardust Quartet. Around the same time, we got a consort of - so far - 6 instruments after Claude Rafi, a 16th century maker from Lyon, built by Francesco Li Virghi. Currently we are buying a new consort by Monika Musch, with all instruments tuned a fifth apart as it was customary in the early 16th century and before. Each model and each maker bring new possibilities - there is no such thing as too many recorders!
Besides the Renaissance instruments, we have a complete set of Paetzold recorders from sub-contrabass to basset and a growing collection of Baroque recorders.
What one piece of advice would you give to young recorder consorts at the beginning of their careers?
In two words: invest and enjoy. Invest lots of time, effort and money to play at the highest possible level on fine instruments, find your own artistic voice and always look into new challenges for the future – but never forget to enjoy the process and be proud of your achievements!
If you had to cover one non-classical song what would it be?
We love covering non-classical repertoire and we have done this a few times already. For example, Hester arranged a Dutch song from the 1950s which is still extremely popular in the Netherlands, Geef mij maar Amsterdam, to celebrate Dutch King's Day this year. Before Valentine's Day we asked our followers on Facebook to post their favourite love songs on our timeline. María then arranged one of them: Love is a many-splendoured thing – we recorded it and posted it on Facebook. We based our arrangement on Nat King Cole's version, which was María's parents favourite song when they got engaged.
We hope to keep arranging any music that is meaningful and entertaining to us in the future. We often play these arrangements as encores after a successful concert. They allow us to connect with our audience in a fun, personal way, which is priceless!
Seldom Sene (from left to right): Eva Gemeinhardt, María Martínez Ayerza, Hester Groenleer, Stephanie Brandt, Ruth Dyson