Tom Strini

EMN’s “Fretwork” mixes new and old, with mixed results

By - Nov 7th, 2010 12:45 am
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Fretwork, Early Music Now’s guest on Saturday. Photo courtesy of EMN.

Fretwork, perhaps the leading viol consort in the world, is famous for trying new things on a family of instruments that went out of fashion in the 17th century.

The sextet dropped into Milwaukee Saturday for an Early Music Now program that blended music from England c. 1580 with new music by Orlando Gough. Gough and Fretwork wove — or attempted to weave — old and new together as a continuous, evening-length suite. They pinned the music to Sir Francis Drake’s circumnavigation of the globe, 1577-80, a journey made primarily for the opportunity to steal from the Spanish gold that the Spanish had stolen from New World natives. Drake succeeded, fabulously.

Fretwork and Gough pinned their musical voyage on the fact that a viol quartet sailed with Drake. According to a fascinating eyewitness account, quoted at length in the program book (download it here), the hymn singing and viol playing had a great effect on natives Drake encountered in the Caribbean, Latin America, California, Bali and elsewhere.

Gough structured the piece after the voyage. His dozen contributions range from a more or less straight setting of Fortune My Foe, which Liam Byrne, Richard Tunnicliffe and Richard Boothby sang in a lusty, seaman’s vernacular. Otherwise, Gough offered freely conceived, illustrative music in a range of idioms. Hints of Ives wafted through in polytonal treatments of old hymns, fractured versions of antique divisional improvisational style, and slow-moving grounds with no variations above them.

I wish all of Gough’s segments related so slyly to the music of the period. He abandons that strategy in the descriptive passages. He depicts islands viewed through mists in Ligeti-like fogs of indistinct dissonance and Miwok Indians dashing down a hillside in a crazed gallop of overlapping scales. Sinuous quasi-Arabian scales indicate an encounter with Moors. A jazzy brand of Minimalism describes the island of Mogador (I don’t know why). A lot of the music recalls assorted 20th-century sounds, from Bartók angst (to show the terror of a storm) to Piazzolla (I guess they were close to Argentina) to funk grooves (can’t explain that one).

All of these pieces, from two to five minutes each, have some striking ideas. But those ideas float in a stream-of-consciousness soup that remains all parts and no sum, both within episodes and across the whole concert. I also found the shifts of style from whatever Gough happened to be doing and the smooth-flowing Renaissance counterpoint and the seafarer’s humble Anglican hymns jarring.

The superb players — Susanna Pell, Asako Morikawa and Reiko Ichise, in addition to the gentlemen — lavished their great agility, rhythmic verve and pristine ensemble on music old and new.

The viol was really a household instrument, its voice is small — a little too small for UWM’s Zelazo Center, where the concert took place — and its frets preclude the expressive throb of vibrato. But it did develop a virtuoso tradition based on fleetness and clarity of articulation and rhythm. Saturday, we heard some of that in an outburst of astonishing contrapuntal fireworks in Robert Parson’s In Nomine III.  You weren’t supposed to clap until intermission, but applause erupted anyway after that number ignited irrepressible enthusiasm.

That bit aside, I can’t say I enjoyed this concert. Gough’s music failed to shed much light on the older music around it, and old and new did not sit well together. But Fretwork and Gough came up with an intriguing idea and followed through on it. I admire their thinking and their effort.

0 thoughts on “EMN’s “Fretwork” mixes new and old, with mixed results”

  1. Anonymous says:

    The Early Music Now audience clearly did not witness your great great … great great grandfather’s viol concert. But the program engendered additional respect for the instruments and for the skills of the Fretwork Ensemble.

    Orlando Gough seemed to write the contemporary sections with three purposes:

    Sections that brought the simple hymns of the 16th Century into a modern idiom – frequently using the doxology hymn Old 100th for inspiration – worked well for me.

    Sections that suggested musical sources inspired by lands visited served to contrast a restrained English period style with sparks of life from other traditions. These were naturally different from one another and deliberately different from the English selections. The Java section, however, demonstrated that the sounds of a gamelan can not be reproduced by viols alone despite an effort to do so.

    Sections telling some of the stories of the journey as tone poems allowed for more experimental treatment of viols to suggest seas, flying fish, crowds of Indians. geese, storms, etc. I liked these compositions, but they did break the continuity of the merged “composition” somewhat more.

    I found Gough’s light use of serial compositional style impressive and respectful of the meditative tone of the concert set. Murmuring bass viol strings laid under upper register voices are a comfortable fit for Glass-like passages.

    The energy in the contemporary sections drained some of the energy from the much simpler English hymns. The counterpunctal instrumental sections retained their inspiration. But the traditional In Nomine sections would have sounded different played separately.

    Sir Francis Drake’s flawed and exotic adventure could hardly be represented only by simple hymns and pious instrumental sets. The presentation was intended to be theater. The variety was inevitable. Whether jazz riffs are appropriate choices for specific ports of call or are only compositional short cuts is less important to me. This was a pleasant concert that kept my interest throughout.

    But it would be interesting to know what those who attend Early Music Now concerts much more frequently than Present Music concerts thought of the blend.

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