The Dowland Project’s Romaria

It’s only fair to inform you that when the press information for this release hit the GMR editorial staff, it caused quite a discussion, stemming in large part from John Potter’s comments about “musicological thought police” and “negotiating with dead composers.” Although I’m not going to tell you which side I took, I will tell you that it colored my approach to this review.

I’ve remarked often enough on the relative importance of tradition and innovation in performance (which I consider variables) that I have no real need to repeat myself here, except to note that any performer who is working with material that he or she has not personally created is really negotiating with the past. This kind of tension seems built into performance as we understand it today, the need to remain true to the material and the author’s intent while also making it comprehensible to one’s audience. (It wasn’t always thus – once upon a time, the performer was king.) Depending on the age of the material, one can take greater or lesser liberties: Wagner, for example, wrote it all down, in exhaustive detail; Josquin Des Prez, on the other hand, didn’t. Consequently, when dealing with early European music, any number of approaches are possible, from the scholarly and traditionalist such as Anonymous 4’s approach to the compositions of Hildegard of Bingen to Corvus Corax’s “translations” of medieval sources to the contemporary club scene.

What the Dowland Project has done is to take songs from the thirteenth to sixteenth centuries (and added in a couple of their own), approaching them from the standpoints of their various backgrounds. John Potter has been a tenor with the Hilliard Ensemble for a number of years, with a strong background in both early and contemporary choral music. John Surman is a jazz saxophonist who also performs admirably on the recorder. Steven Stubbs is a baroque lutenist. Milos Valent is a violinist who moves easily from early music to Gypsy and the folk music of Eastern Europe. Already, the idea of negotiating with the past takes on some very interesting connotations.

Let me say right up front that I found this collection enchanting. The synthesis arrived at by these performers is somehow true to the early origins of most of the material, and at the same time embodies the kind of leanness that I find one of the most appealing aspects of the contemporary avant-garde. Don’t construe that to mean this music is dry – far from it. It is, rather, a distillation of tradition filtered through a contemporary sensibility that, in my opinion, brings us the best of both worlds. In “Dulce solum,” for example, a song from the manuscript found at the Benediktbeuren Monastery – material known to most of us through Carl Orff’s monumental Carmina Burana – becomes a work of tremendous presence, atmospheric, spare, with essays into what I can only typify as jazz-influenced new age of a very high order that fall back into an almost purely medieval vocal line. I’m casting about for something to hang this on, some prior work that gives some insight into what I mean by all this, and I keep coming up with the Dufay Collective’s Music for Alfonso the Wise and Conrad Steinman’s Melpomen Ensemble — that same sense of a seamless blending of traditions, of the familiar and the strange.

As I said, I, at least, am enchanted.

I’m sure musical purists will have their own thoughts on this, but I keep going back to the basic rule of art: if it’s to have any effect at all, art must be entertaining, it must offer some engagement besides the intellectual, challenges that cannot be easily resolved. Romaria delivers.

(ECM Records, 2008)

About Robert Tilendis

Robert M. Tilendis lives a deceptively quiet life. He has made money as a dishwasher, errand boy, legal librarian, arts administrator, shipping expert, free-lance writer and editor, and probably a few other things he’s tried very hard to forget about. He has also been a student of history, art, theater, psychology, ceramics, and dance. Through it all, he has been an artist and poet, just to provide a little stability in his life. Along about January of every year, he wonders why he still lives someplace as mundane as Chicago; it must be that he likes it there.

You may e-mail him, but include a reference to Green Man Review so you don’t get deleted with the spam.