Commissioning contemporary music...for a viol consort

Richard BoothbyFri 22nd March 2019

Fretwork, and their new album marking Michael Nyman's 75th birthday

When we founded Fretwork in 1985, the last thing on our mind was commissioning new music for viols.

The image of English consort music was at a very low ebb, and we wanted to restore the reputation of this marvellous body of music; and, in order to do that, we needed to learn how to play this complex and subtle music; we needed to investigate issues of instrumentation, stringing, pitch, temperament and find out as much as we could about how it was played.

So it was something of a surprise to get a call from George Benjamin in 1989, asking if I would demonstrate the instrument to him. George had heard our first recording and was intrigued by this new sound world that the viol consort embodied - he said that it was as if someone had invented a new family of string instruments which was now available for him to write for. The result was Upon Silence, a setting of the WBYeats poem, The Long-legged Fly for mezzo soprano - the wonderful Susan Bickley - and five viols.

To say that trying to play this music was a shock is something of an understatement; in particular, rehearsing with George was like nothing we had encountered before. His ear is extraordinarily penetrating and exact, and he expects and demanded levels of accuracy that were beyond us. It took us several years to really get the piece right, but I think George is happy with the recording we made for Nimbus in 1997.

In many ways, of course, the rhythmic flexibility that is necessary with the polyphonic consort music of the 16th and 17th centuries is inimical to the precision that is required of complex contemporary music. The rhythms are, on the whole, pretty simple in the earlier repertory; yet that is just the starting point for expressive interpretation that must come from within, between and among the players. It is an entity that is outside each individual player, yet each is a part of that entity. Much contemporary music, on the other hand demands rhythmic precision on an heroic scale.

This was something we found with our second piece, by Simon Bainbridge, which used metric modulation to overlap different tempi, and requires absolute accuracy, something, I fear, we never quite achieved.

One enormous benefit of new music is having a composer to phone up and ask - something we would dearly love to do with William Byrd or Henry Purcell. But one thing we learned early in our contemporary music career is that all composers are different, and I think that difference between George Benjamin and Michael Nyman couldn’t have been more stark. The Spitalfields Festival had suggested we ask Michael to write us a work for their 1993 festival and we had readily agreed. It would be with James Bowman, and Michael wrote The Self-Laudatory Hymn of Inanna and Her Omnipotence. As it happened, Michael was living a few doors down in the same street I was at the time, so I could go and talk to him about the piece. His attitude was the polar opposite of George’s: whereas George wanted exactly what he had written, Michael was entirely happy for us change his music if we found something awkward or could suggest a better way.

And, of course, the style of the music was utterly different: driving rhythms, pounding bass lines, bold shapes, simple, yet powerful harmonies and repetitive structures replaced the complex, intricate sound-world of Benjamin’s imagination.

The Times review of the premiere said that it was a shame that we turned on the amplification for the Nyman - which was interesting, because there had been no amplification. Nyman’s thick orchestration, using the chordal possibilities of the viols, especially the basses, produced an almost orchestral volume, which contrasted with the delicate nature of the Byrd, Gibbons and Dowland of the rest of the programme.

I was thrilled to see, a few years ago, that another group - Paulin Bündgen and Ensemble Céladon - had commissioned Michael to write another work for countertenor and viols, No Time in Eternity. I thought it was time to re-record Inanna, especially with Iestyn Davies, with whom we’d worked a few times and always greatly admired; and then we managed to commission Michael to write us a new instrumental piece to go with a few arrangements I had made. Add a few Purcell songs I had arranged for voice and viols, and we had a disc to celebrate Michael’s 75th anniversary year.

‘If: Michael Nyman & Henry Purcell’, by Iestyn Davies and Fretwork, is released today on the Signum label. You can learn more about it in the video below: 

Richard Boothby's picture

Richard Boothby

Richard Boothby is a viol player and co-founder of Fretwork (photo: Chris Dawes)

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