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Romaria at St Gerold

Dowland and the ECM factor

It’s twelve years since the first Dowland Project album (the only one with music by Dowland himself). It began life as only ECM projects can –  an invitation from Manfred Eicher, an exchange of ideas completely free of musicological (or any other) constraints, and a result that no one could have predicted. For me it was as important as the Hilliards’ Officium, and for very similar reasons – one of the the key features of both albums is that everyone is pushing beyond the comfort zones of what’s on the page and whatever they might have done before.  We didn’t have a name for it to start with. As it was my band the usual thing would be to put my name on the front and the other guys on the back, but I couldn’t agree to anything quite so undemocratic (and anyway they were much more famous than I was) which is why it’s just called John Dowland, with the full title and all our names together on the back.  We’d kept referring to it as the Dowland project, so that’s eventually what it became for the subsequent releases.  Manfred Eicher & John SurmanI’m not sure that Manfred liked recording in England much but it didn’t dampen his inspiration, and every track has the Eicher signature on it. It’s not just the sound – he can alter the musical logic with a suggestion that seems to come from nowhere, and it almost always involves creating new space for the musicians to explore. There is no producer on the planet who is quite so attuned to the musicians and the moment.

The original line-up was largely Manfred’s idea. My first thoughts were to build on the Dowland work that Steve Stubbs and I had done over many years. Manfred was very happy with Dowland and Steve but he would never consider the use of conventional early music players just for its own sake. He immediately suggested Maya Homburger (baroque violin) and Barry Guy (bass) as being musicians that we could have a dialogue with. At that moment the landscape changed completely. I went way and mulled over the musical possibilities and went back to Manfred to sound him out about another melody instrument, possibly a bass flute. What you need, he said, is John Surman. How right he was. So that’s how we ended up with lute, violin, bass, and bass clarinet doubling saxophone & recorder.

original lineup

Composing , performing, improvising…

I knew from a very young age that I would be a singer when I grew up. I knew exactly what I wanted to do and was fortunate enough to have the voice and the opportunity to realise some of my ambitions early on. I’d been programmed from childhood to sing Bach and Handel, Mozart and Schubert,  and envisaged a life on what we then called the Oratorio circuit doing just that. But what do you do when you’ve sung your twentieth Bach Passion, or your fiftieth Messiah? How much more can you bring to the same notes after years of repeating them? I just couldn’t do it, and drifted into all sorts of other stuff – whatever seemed interesting and wasn’t what I’d done before. With the Hilliard Ensemble I discovered a passion for Franco-Flemish polyphony (I knew nothing of music before Tallis and Byrd till I joined the group). As the early music movement developed I began to be aware that the written notes were only the starting point, and by the time I’d written a couple of books I realised that my preconceived notions of history were entirely wrong: up until Wagner (roughly) the composer was just the the catalyst that generated the music; the music itself was actually the product of the creative relationship between composer and performer.  Recording for ECM, with its unique  chemistry between performer, composer and producer,  takes this web of  relationships into yet more sophisticated territory,  adding a third dimension of creativity where the result is always greater than the sum of the parts.

The Hilliards’ great strength was their mutual and  instinctive understanding of what it was like to be an ensemble. The group never felt it necessary to do  much in the way of ornamentation, and it was only with Officium we really learned to go beyond the written notes. Jan Garbarek didn’t need any dots at all, and I think we all felt quite  jealous. We obviously couldn’t become jazz musicians but we could try to rediscover those creative impulses that were common to both jazz and classical music until the 20th century got its hands on the process.  Revolutionary moments in a performing career are rare and beyond value, and you have to use them to propel you somewhere else. It’s happened to me at least twice – with Electric Phoenix and the Hilliard Ensemble, when the creative impetus took me out of the both groups altogether. They continued on their own very successful paths, but they both set me off in a completely different direction.

…and not crossing over…

That’s how the Dowland Project came to be what it now is, a freewheeling band of improvisers from different necks of the musical woods who respect each other’s territory and never ‘cross over’. It’s like a Venn diagram – the two overlapping circles with the shared area the place where our creative juices intermingle. And it is a band, not a group or an ensemble. It works in a very similar way to the blues bands I used to play in as a teenager.  In fact, the English R&B movement of the late sixties – that gave birth to the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton and countless other British interpreters of what was quintessentially American music – has a lot in common with aspects of the early music movement. A lot of the Hilliard/Garbarek material consists of pre-existing chord sequences plus improvisation, a lot of the Dowland Project music is 17th century bass lines and tunes, with chords in between and improv over the top. Steve Stubbs plays off bass lines for us just as he did with Chuck Berry and still does in Tragicomedia and his various opera projects.

We were quite surprised at the interest from promoters and festivals, and the band really took off when we began to do gigs. Unfortunately, with such fantastic players it was never going to be easy to get them together in the same place at the same time. Barry and Maya were incredibly busy, and lived in Ireland at the time, and it soon became obvious we’d always find it difficult to go on the road for any length of time. Milos ValentFor the third album, Romaria,  I was determined to have a group that could tour, so we slimmed down to four, with Milos Valent taking over from Barry and Maya.  As it turned out, things didn’t get any easier as Steve moved from Bremen to Seattle and John moved from Kent to Oslo. The fourth album, which includes the famous St Gerold night session (no release date yet) has all six players, so when we eventually tour that particular programme we may be able to be a bit more flexible.

Music in the moment

Another thing the Dowland Project has in common with the Hilliard/Garbarek project is that the music happens in the moment. There’s no conventional rehearsing, and certainly no attempt to reproduce something we’ve done before – the key thing is mutual exploration, a journey which begins the moment we set foot on the stage and doesn’t stop till we’ve left it. I’ve just drawn up a rough set list for our upcoming gig in Prague. It’s not set in stone, but one of the things I want to try is Tarquinio Merula‘s ‘Hor ch’e tempo di dormire’. This is Merula’s most famous piece, an extraordinarily moving lullably/lament by Mary for her infant son. It has only two chords, but an amazing series of melodic variations. I’m going to bring it to the sound check and we may try a few bars, but the piece will only be there for real in the performance and it will happen only once (you have to be there!).  I’ve edited it so that it makes sense when sung by a man as a lullaby to his daughter. Or in my case, his granddaughter…



There’s more info and  a discography (with some audio) on my Dowland Project page.  There’s a conversation between me and Manfred Eicher about the genesis of the project here, and info about Romaria (the current album) here.

Our next concert is in Prague on November 3rd at the Church of our Lady before Tyn,  part of the Strings of Autumn Festival.Church of our lady befor Tyn

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