Singing with the lute

– In search of new tools in lute song performance

By Solmund Nystabakk
Research fellow UiT / NMH

Photo: Matt Reznek











Singing with the lute is an attempt at bringing new perspectives and work methods to the performance of lute songs. In terms of repertoire, the project has dealt with English and Italian songs with lute accompaniment in tablature from the 16th and early 17th century, with the main focus on English lute songs from the period 1597-1620. My work has also involved translations and adaptations of songs into languages other than those mentioned above, as well as other repertoires that have been relevant to the project, notably solo lute music and vocal music not notated in tablature. Work materials have included printed and manuscript songbooks and modern copies of historical lute instruments. The principal work tools for the project repertoire have been 7- and 8-course renaissance lutes.

My point of departure is Historically Informed Performance, also known as HIP. My main contribution to the field is a widening of the HIP approach to encompass aspects of the performance of music that have received little attention within HIP. More specifically, I have shown how historical sources and concepts can be applied at various levels yielding highly diverse results in terms of style, expression and experience potential. Although the project is no attempt at a comprehensive survey of performance possibilities (historical or otherwise) in lute songs, it shows a wider range of methods and approaches than what I see as the current state of lute song performance.

This reflection has two main parts: the chapters 2. METHODS and 3. RECLAIMING ARTISTIC RESPONSIBILITY. In METHODS, I give an account of the different work methods and artistic devices that I have employed, with documentation of work examples and divided into three main categories:

Some methods have been used as one-off experiments, others over time, while others still have been a part of my practice throughout the project. Therefore, the depth and scope of the discussion will vary correspondingly, as will the documentation. In cases where methods do not fit clearly into a single category, they appear in the most logical place in the overall discussion. At the end of the chapter follows a Note on Documentation. The contextualisation of the project in relation to the research field is discussed specifically in the different sections of the METHODS chapter.

The reason why I begin this reflection with the discussion with language and text, is that the symbiotic connection between text and music in English lute songs around the turn of the 17th century is the aspect that most strongly attracts me to this repertoire. Moreover, my venture into original pronunciation in English engendered a more extensive exploration of theatre techniques and contexts (see discussion in 2.3. PERFORMANCE CONTEXT), the lasting impact of which is evident in the artistic results of the project, thus bridging the entire span from its beginning to the end.

In chapter 3. RECLAIMING ARTISTIC RESPONSIBILITY, I show how I combined various methods and artistic devices in the making of the final artistic presentation […or strange to you], and how my findings thus served the purposes of artistic creation. A video recording of the complete performance is available in the beginning of the chapter, and can thus be viewed before, after and/or during the discussion of the work process.


Art and philosophy, we may say, are practices. Their value is not in their result; method and result are one. (Noë, 2015, p. 137)

The specific aims of my project Singing with the lute have been to:

In the following, I describe and reflect upon the different work methods that I have used in the project. My endeavour has been an attempt to build a practice based on concepts inherent in the lute song repertoire. Rather than each of these methods being new or radical, they at times combine in new ways, or aim to reveal something new through a change of perspective.


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Pronunciation is integral to communication, and is tailored to meet the demands of the two main forces behind language: intelligibility and identity. (Crystal, 2017, dust jacket notes)

Historical pronunciation (when dealing with English commonly referred to as OP - Original Pronunciation[2]) is one of the later additions to the reconstructivist efforts of HIP in theatre and music (Eugene Greene’s first theatre productions in France were staged in the mid-1990s and the Royal Shakespeare Company’s first production in OP at The Globe Theatre happened in 2004 under the guidance of linguist David Crystal). However, the British mezzo-soprano Glenda Simpson reportedly taught and performed English lute songs in historical pronunciation as early as the 1980s (D. Hill, personal communication, November 29, 2016). Simpson’s recordings from the late 70s are still in modern English, however. The tenor Charles Daniels with lutenist Nigel North released an album of lute songs in 2007 in what appears to be that “early” take on OP, which differs somewhat from the current norm established by David Crystal. The singer Paul Willenbrock promotes himself as a practitioner and teacher of original pronunciation in English, but like Daniels, and evidently from his readings of Dowland songs on YouTube, he represents the norm from the 1970s (Willenbrock, 2019). The Netherlands-based Duo Serenissima also perform English lute songs in historical pronunciation, and according to their website they have given lectures on the subject (Hetherington & Mackor, 2016). They do not cite any sources, but it is apparent from one of their videos (Hetherington & Mackor, 2018) that their take on historical pronunciation is more or less in line with the Crystals’s work on the subject. The American lute song duo Bedlam have recently published work on OP in lute songs (Sánchez & Schuett, 2019), citing David Crystal’s Original Pronunciation website as their source. Apparently, none of the practitioners mentioned here have worked on Original Pronunciation under the direct guidance of David or Ben Crystal.

I became interested in the phenomenon as a continuation of my explorations of early vocal repertoires. Except for a brief French air de cour project in Belgium in 2010, I began working on historical pronunciation in a programme of English lute songs with my duo partner Debi Wong in 2017 as part of my research project. We started out with little more than vague presumptions about where it would take us, and at the time my main reason for the endeavour was the historical aspect. Indeed, I saw historical pronunciation as an equally natural part of HIP as the choice of historical instruments for historical repertoires, although it is still a far less common feature of HIP practices in general.

Under the direct guidance of David and Ben Crystal, we started re-working a programme, Romeo&Juliet, that we had already performed in modern pronunciation. At first, due to geographical constraints, our work method was dependent on digital technology: I sent a text file with all the song lyrics of the programme to David Crystal, who then recorded his own readings and sent these back to me as .mp3 files. From these files Debi Wong and I started practising our early modern English pronunciation.

A video clip from White Sparrow's open rehearsal in March 2017, which marked the beginning of our work on OP.

We were already aware, of course, that original pronunciation would restore rhymes that are lost in modern pronunciation, and I thought that this would probably be the most significant advantage of this approach. Interestingly, we also found that the differences in relative emphasis and between long and short syllables already made a considerable impact on the musical phrasing. We became aware of instances where the OP was different from the pronunciation norm in classical singing, where vowels tend to be elongated, often at the expense of the proportions between syllables and between single and double consonants (A classic example is the beginning of Dowland’s Come Again, which is often rendered “calm again”.) By singing more into the consonants, we achieved clearer articulation of the text and sometimes, as in the video below, a better sense of the musical punctuation. This is not only a result of OP, however; one can certainly work towards more speech-like phrasing in modern pronunciation by prioritising articulation and syllabic proportion over vowel length. Thus, OP turned out to be a source of learning about pronunciation and phrasing in song in a more general sense.
Ben Johnson: So Beauty On The Water Stood, from White Sparrow's open rehearsal in March 2017.

In addition to restoring rhyme and revealing something about the relationship between words and music in the songs, Original pronunciation stands out by being different from modern received pronunciation (RP)[3]. Its “strangeness” can activate the listener by requiring more effort to make sense of both the words and the accent. On the other hand, since early modern English shares many features with accents and dialects still spoken today (including North-American, Irish, Scottish, Yorkshire, Welsh English, and others), it tends to sound somehow familiar to people acquainted with one or more of those accents. (A young man from Dorset who attended our public Romeo&Juliet workshop in Vancouver in 2018, remarked how the OP reminded him of his own regional dialect (see excerpts from the workshop further below in this section).

When we perform in original pronunciation there are two types of process at work: the intellectual process of understanding the words and placing the accent, and the emotional process of recognising familiar elements. Also, speech and song in OP will inevitably be influenced by each speaker’s encounter with the criteria of pronunciation. Thus, each speaker will display a different blend and weighting of the various features of pronunciation. My Norwegian background has turned out to be a benefit in OP because many sounds are the same – or at least similar – in Norwegian and early modern English but have later disappeared from the English language. Arguably, OP remains more diverse and flexible than the standardised received pronunciation of contemporary English that is the norm in classical vocal music and theatre.

In April 2018, Debi Wong and I met with Ben Crystal in Vancouver to continue the work on our Romeo&Juliet programme. In addition to historical pronunciation, Ben Crystal would work with us on stage craft, script and dramaturgy in order to turn Romeo&Juliet into a music and theatre hybrid. This had been our idea for the project since we started planning it: to create a performance that would combine Shakespeare’s storyline with lute songs and solos related – directly or by association – to the play. Rather than set a date by which the show must be ready, we decided to keep the project as a work-in-progress because we were entering a work mode that was new to us both in terms of content and methods.

The work period in Vancouver was organised as a series of daily workshops with a group of local actors, where we spent time on both speech and pronunciation, and physical stage and ensemble technique (for a more detailed account of the stage and ensemble work, see section 2.2.). Debi Wong, Ben Crystal and I also worked between ourselves on the songs, speeches and dialogues, as well as on the script and dramaturgy of the show. At the end of the period we gave a public run-through in original pronunciation of selected scenes and songs from Romeo&Juliet at The Annex theatre followed by an open discussion. Here are two excerpts from the performance:

William Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet, Act 5, Scene 1. Video: Cameron Anderson/Cascade Film&Media

Philip Rosseter: No Grave for Woe / William Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet, Act 5, Scene 3. Video: Cameron Anderson/Cascade Film&Media

For the original pronunciation work, everyone in the group – that is, Debi Wong, the Vancouver actors and I – had brought a Shakespeare sonnet each. Ben Crystal first took us through sonnet 18 Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day, pointing out the differences between modern and early modern English pronunciation. We proceeded to work on our chosen sonnets in OP. In our “private” sessions with Ben Crystal, Debi Wong and I also worked on pronunciation in our Romeo&Juliet speeches and dialogues, as well as in the songs that were to be included in the performance.

* * *

In my final artistic presentation […or strange to you], I employed OP in all the English songs that I sang alone. My duo partner Berit Norbakken Solset, on the other hand, sang all her pieces in modern pronunciation. By juxtaposing the two norms – and also several other languages – within the same performance, I wanted to point out the difference between them, but also – and perhaps more significantly – that it is not a matter of better or worse, but of differences in emphasis and nuances. I will discuss the final artistic presentation in detail in chapter 3. RECLAIMING ARTISTIC RESPONSIBILITY.

Interestingly, within original pronunciation practices there is room for considerable diversity and variation on historical grounds. For instance, when on the death of Queen Elizabeth I in 1603 King James of Scotland became king of England, the Scottish rolled “r” became fashionable. Therefore, it is a real question for performers of English lute songs who want to employ OP whether we should use the earlier “American” “r” that was common in the 16th century or the Scottish rolled “r” that was à la mode in the early 17th century. This may also equally well be a question of geographical context; it is possible, for instance, that Macbeth would speak with a Scottish “r” in a historically informed rendition of the play, as he is after all a Scottish king (unless, of course, one would refer to the period when the historical person Macbeth lived – the 11th century – and not to when Shakespeare wrote his play).

It is worth noting that scholarship has been devoted to the pronunciation of Middle English[4] much longer than to early modern English. A possible reason is that early modern English is close enough to its modern equivalent that people can read and use it without further ado; with Middle English this is certainly not the case. Original Pronunciation in early modern English is potentially controversial because one of the things it does is to challenge current practices. Whereas debates about the pronunciation of “dead” languages will tend to remain within the field of linguistics, early modern English is entangled in significant fields of contemporary cultural practice, such as theatre and music. Therefore, there is debate not only about how words should be pronounced but whether OP should be used or not in, say, Shakespeare or Dowland.

As the early modern time period saw great changes in the English language, there is ample evidence that old and new pronunciation norms co-existed for quite some time. John Dowland’s First Booke of Songs (Dowland, 1597) contains abundant examples of the old way of pronouncing the end vowel of words like “beauty” or “sympathy” as a diphthong, like “fly” (only less open than its modern English equivalent and more like the Norwegian “øy”). The most famous instance of this phenomenon is surely the song “Come Again” (Dowland, 1597, song 17), where the final words of each refrain (“sympathy”, “misery” etc.) must all rhyme with “die”. Of course, in modern pronunciation they will never rhyme, and I have yet to hear a performance by somebody else that sets this right.

John Dowland: Come Again, 1st verse in OP. Practice demo.

I might also mention that the latest known example of this type of rhyme is found in William Blake well into the 18th century. Nevertheless, already in Dowland we see that these rhymes start changing towards the modern norm, for instance with the last syllable of “beauty” rhyming with “she” in the song Say Love If Ever Thou Did’st Find (Dowland, 1603, song 7). That is a lot of detail to prove a simple point, but what I am getting at here is that historical pronunciation is not a single norm or a fixed expression. Rather, it is a method that lets us explore both the inherent qualities of a given material (such as Shakespeare plays or English lute songs in the case of early modern English) and the relationships between distinct points in historical space-time: by performing lute songs in historical pronunciation I, a North-Norwegian lute player, can experience directly aspects of English music and language from 400 years ago in relation to contemporary English and to my own language and geographical context. By so doing, I can also open up this exploration to my audiences, who will contribute their own share – collectively and individually – to the web of relationships that emerges through such an encounter.

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(…) yet for higher authoritie and power hath beene ever worthily attributed to that kind of Musicke, which to the sweetnesse of Instrument applies the lively voice of man, expressing some worthie sentence or excellent Poeme. (Dowland, 1597, p.1)

In an attempt to gain more familiarity or closeness to lute song repertoire, I have translated some songs into Norwegian, and written new lyrics to some others. In one case, I set a Norwegian song text by Ibsen to the melody of a lute piece by John Dowland, and in another, I adapted a poem by Vinje to a frottola by Tromboncino. I have also worked on translations of vocal music into Finnish in two projects with the ensemble Cornucopia and Janne Marja-Aho, the second of which included adaptations of Shakespearean lute songs. (I should mention that I have spent a total of nine years in Finland and speak the language fluently.)

The practice of translating songs is well documented in the 16th and 17th centuries, in which period my project repertoire originated. It was less common at the time to perform large amounts of vocal music in a language not understood by the listeners. In modern HIP, however, the overwhelming majority of performances seem to favour the original language of the compositions – a different kind of historical justification. Nevertheless, exceptions to this rule can be found: Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea has been performed in Danish in Denmark (Københavns Musikteater, 2011) (Dirckinck-Holmfeld, 2011) and in English in England (Monteverdi / English Touring Opera, 2013). Erkki Pullinen has translated Heinrich Schütz’s St. Matthew passion to Finnish for liturgical use (Schütz / Pullinen, 2016). The Tromsø-based choir Vokal Nord has performed Renaissance and Baroque repertoire including Dowland, Monteverdi and Handel translated into North Norwegian dialect by Åse Krystad (Nord, 2016).

I should also mention that my translations into north Norwegian dialect is – inevitably – influenced by the songwriters of the region whose songs I grew up with. These include Halvdan Sivertsen, Trygve Hoff, Ragnar Olsen/Boknakaran, who represent a tradition of dialect use continuing today through artists like Pål Moddi Knutsen, Marthe Valle, Sondre Justad and the band Kråkesølv.

When I first planned my project, I intended to commission translations of songs from people in the literary arts. However, I ended up taking on the work myself, not only because it was cheaper, but because by then, the direct engagement with the material had become important to me. In hindsight, this seems connected to my gradual shift in focus away from considerations about lute songs as material and more towards what I do with them in terms of action or activity.

Work examples:

  1. Vi vandrer med freidig mot (H. Ibsen) set to John Dowland’s Lady Laiton’s Almain and used in the musical The Epic Tale of Robin Hood in 2017 and 2019. By setting this famous wandering song to an almain by Dowland, I made the connection between an iconic piece of Norwegian national culture on the one hand and Robin Hood’s universe on the other.

  1. New lyrics to Dowland’s His Golden Locks for my father on the occasion of his retirement. The song was originally written and performed for Sir Henry Lee’s retirement from the court of Elizabeth I. Sir Henry was the Queen’s First Champion [5]. With my adaptation Hans hår har tida kjemt med silverkam, I wanted to create a piece that had a similar degree of familiarity as Dowland’s piece would have had to the inner court circle. I wrote my version of the poem in my own dialect, and it contains references that are evident only to the closest family: in the last stanza I changed the melody to quote a nursery song that our grandfather made, and that my father sang for my sisters and me at bedtime. See a more detailed discussion of this piece in chapter 3.5 RECLAIMING ARTISTIC RESPONSIBILITY.
John Dowland: His Golden Locks / Hans hår har tida kjemt Solmund Nystbakk, voice and lute; Berit Norbakken Solset, soprano; Rodrigo Sosa dal Pozzo, countertenor; Sigmund Lahn, tenor

  1. Minä olin yö – Jacques Brel and Baroque Songs, a project with the Finnish Ensemble Cornucopia and singer/dancer/actor Janne Marja-Aho. It juxtaposes chansons of Jacques Brel with baroque songs of Monteverdi, Landi and Purcell, translated to Finnish. The programme was recorded in june 2018 and released on CD in March 2020 (Marja-Aho & Cornucopia, 2020). Performers: Janne Marja-Aho, voice; Pekka Silén, recorders; Louna Hosia, viola da gamba; Marianna Henriksson, harpsichord; Solmund Nystabakk, theorbo. Here are two excerpts from the album:
Minä olin yö - Track 7: Claudio Monteverdi: Oh Love (Lamento della ninfa) English lyrics by Ane Brun, from "It All Starts With One" (2011).

The introduction Non avea Febo ancora is rendered as a theorbo solo with the lyrics spoken in Finnish. The main reason for using the English adaptation by Ane Brun was that it is understood by many more people than the Italian lyrics in the Nordic countries. The original introduction by Monteverdi is sung by an ensemble of two tenors and a bass, which sets it clearly apart from the aria. Rather than render it as a pure instrumental, we set it apart by having it in a different language than the aria: that of the local audience. Thus, we could also convey the content of the introduction which sets the scene for the nymph’s lament.

Minä olin yö - Track 10: Stefano Landi (1587-1639) Tuutilullan (Ninna nanna alla napoletana) Lyrics: anonymous Finnish lullaby from SKS/Suomen kansan vanhat runot.

The lullaby is one of the most intimate kinds of song. Having Janne Marja-Aho sing in his mother tongue made the Ninna nanna come alive in a very different way than when we rehearsed the Italian version earlier in the project. Consequently, we ended up changing the arrangement, favouring lighter textures and a hurdy-gurdy-like sound.

Download song lyrics for track 7 & 10 here

My work with translations and adaptations as described above did not only bring the songs closer, in a sense, to myself and the audiences who encountered more familiar elements in lute songs. I also experienced that this work gradually started breaking down barriers in my practice and imagination. It was as if I had opened the lute song repertoire “box” in my mind, poured in a defining part of my identity – language – and could see the contents spill out and suffuse other parts of my creative consciousness. What I am trying to describe here is the transition from a narrow conception of a repertoire (which at an earlier stage had been important for acquiring detail knowledge and stylistic sense) to a more open approach where I could bring more of myself to the encounter with the material without losing sight of its inherent properties. I find particularly interesting how this came to happen through experimenting with language, as the symbiotic relationship between language and music was one of the things that so strongly drew me towards lute songs in the first place.


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Because of the abundance of printed lute song books, and because of the relative scarcity of improvisation among modern lute players, the printed lute parts have come to define the accompaniment content and style in modern times to a great extent. Elizabeth Kenny identifies traces of a “professional”[6] practice in certain manuscript books of the time, where lute songs also published in print are written down with only melody and bass line. The reason is probably that working musicians would have realised the accompaniment on their instrument without a written-out part, thus making the tablature unnecessary (Kenny, 2008).

In the preface to his songbook of 1601, Thomas Campion writes: “For the note and tablature, if they satisfie the most, we have our desire, let expert masters please themselves with better.” (Campion & Rosseter,1601, p. 2) This is a perfectly clear indication that the lute parts of these songs are indeed no more than basic suggestions for an accompaniment. As he also mentions “the note”, meaning the vocal part, Campion obviously grants equal freedom to the singer. Leo Treitler in his article “History And The Ontology of The Musical Work” argues for understanding both scores and performances as exemplifying rather than identifying works or pieces[7] of music (Treitler, 1993, p. 490). Although Treitler supports his theory with examples from Chopin and 11th century Aquitanian tropes, the lute song repertoire abounds with the same kind of variant examples that support his claim just like the Campion quote above. The bottom line is that I think lute songs can and should be treated more freely in general, for instance by varying the written parts, or disposing of them and playing from simplified notation like melody and bass line only.

Most modern players, including famed lute players like Paul O’Dette and Nigel North, still tend to stick very much to the printed parts, at least judging from their recordings of this repertoire (see for example Mintner & O’Dette, 1990 and Daniels & North, 2007). Thomas Dunford (born 1982) represents an exception to this trend by adding at times extravagant diminutions in lute song accompaniments, but – again judging from recordings (see Davies, Dunford & Manson, 2015) – this seems to happen to a significant extent only in the most famous pieces like Dowland’s Flow My Teares or Come Again and Campion’s Never Weather-beaten Sail. The late Pat O’Brien argued for freer treatment of lute parts in songs, depending on the voice type of the singer; counterpoint might for instance be transposed up an octave to adapt a tenor piece to a soprano, or vice versa (personal communication, May 2013). The techniques of variation may also include reduction and re-arranging of voices in the polyfonic texture. Here are two examples of variations by means of diminution and reduction, respectively:

Work examples:

White Sparrow: Thomas Campion – Oft Have I sighed, live in Oslo, January 2018. Example of variation on printed lute part (in 2nd verse), see transcription below:

Berit Norbakken Solset and Solmund Nystabakk: Francis Pilkington – Rest Sweet Nimphs from […or strange to you], Tromsø, November 2019. Example of reduction of printed lute part, see transcription below:

The word-tone relationships, textual ambiguities, melodic and harmonic tension, in short, the multi-layered meanings that abound in lute songs (and in much other music), fuel the negotiation and development of the inter-personal relationship between us, the performers. This happens through learning, inventing and developing our ways to enact – individually and collectively – such meanings in performance. For instance, the identification of subject in the voice and lute parts respectively, is a flexible area where positions are continuously re-negotiated. Song lyrics may speak in first, second or third person, defining the singer’s musical persona correspondingly. Lute parts may be subordinate to the vocal line or complimentary, providing commentary to the lyrics, for instance by means of motives that correspond rhythmically with certain words or phrases (see music example below). In the former case, the performers unite, as it were, to speak with a single voice, in the latter case they embody distinct identities that are defined at least in part through the relationship between their respective musical parts.

John Dowland: Flow My Teares, B-section

While some of the meanings that emerge in lute song performance are inherent in the notated score, others emerge in and from performance itself, and yet others occur through performers’ spontaneous or planned reactions to the score and lyrics, or to events occurring during performance.

To return to Dowland’s Flow My Teares, the score specifies the relationship between the opening phrase of the poem and the falling four-note motif in a famous example of word painting:

John Dowland: Flow My Teares, A-section

For the second strophe, I often use a similar kind of word painting by rolling the first chord downwards, from the high towards the low strings on the word “Downe”. This feature is conceptually very much like the link between the first few notes and the words “Flow my teares, fall from your springs”, with the crucial difference that the latter was specified by the composer and the former by me. In a more explicit attempt at word painting, I changed the lute part for the fourth strophe when the text goes “From the highest spire of contentment my fortune is throwne…” to play a contrapuntal line descending from the highest register, the “highest spire” as it were:

Transcription of the printed lute tablature and my variation on the opening of the B-section.

The point I wish to make is that although word painting is generally taken to be a feature of musical composition, it may just as well be a choice of expressive means on the part of the performer. Here is a rendition of the entire piece from the Dowland Complete open rehearsal series:

John Dowland: Flow My Teares. Berit Norbakken Solset, soprano; Solmund Nystabakk, lute

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In 2018, I organised a workshop on Italian frottole with singer Sunniva Eliassen and my supervisor, recorder player Jostein Gundersen. We spent time exploring the style by making a new frottola from and old text. We took the lyrics from a printed frottola and gradually improvising new melody and parts, taking turns starting with the canto, tenor or bassus[8]. We also reversed the process by taking a frottola and reducing the melody to its basic elements, such as the main note(s) of each phrase. A public presentation concluded the workshop by demonstrating the methods we had explored. See an excerpt here:

A short excerpt from the frottola workshop. Performers: Solmund Nystabakk, Jostein Gundersen and Sunniva Eliassen

The frottola workshop was an important example of how creative engagement – in this case improvisation and composition – can provide an alternative to observation- and analysis-driven approaches. The sessions were an efficient first introduction to the old techniques of improvised counterpoint, chanter sur le livre (Janin, 2014). I also found singing an excellent way to study counterpoint; one can not only hear but feel the difference between right and wrong. More than anything, though, the workshop inspired me to work with greater confidence with adaptations of both music and text to specific purposes, such as the translations and adaptations mentioned above in section 2.1.2. and below in 2.3.5.

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Self-accompanied singing is an ancient practice, but it became increasingly rare in Western Art Music from the 17th century onwards, partly due to opera’s demand for greater volume and the resulting changes in the training of singers. Among composers of lute songs and their contemporary performers (both professional and non-professional) there are examples of singers who accompanied themselves (on lute or other instruments) and lute players who sang, but also of players who did not sing (Dowland), and singers who just sang.

It does seem, however, that most instrumental musicians may also have been expected to sing, so it is possible that the expected standard of these non-specialist singers was not prohibitively high. (McFeely, 1993/2000, p. 58)

For me, self-accompanied singing was initially merely a method for memorising songs for White Sparrow projects. However, after a while I felt a growing commitment to the singing, and with it also an urge to develop my ability to perform songs in this manner. This relates to a recurring point in my discussion: the experience of music through participation in performance. Not only was the lute song genre deeply embedded in a culture where performance was a primary mode of musical experience. It is also significant that the development of my own knowledge and understanding of the lute song repertoire and its practices have developed through this direct mode of engagement – singing and playing – in ways that would otherwise not have been accessible to me. This echoes the pianist Ingfrid Breie Nyhus’s statement that

For meg er det å lære en slått å oppdage kjernen av slåttens identitet.

(For me, learning a «slått» [fiddle tune] is to discover the core of its identity.) (Nyhus, 2017)

Through inhabiting and embodying these songs I have achieved what I refer to elsewhere in relation to audience experience as a heightened degree of immersion (see sections 2.2.3., 2.2.6. as well as 3.5 below). What singing and playing from memory entails in terms of immersion on my part as performer becomes accessible for the audience by means of recognition. As listeners, seeing and listening to someone who has internalised his or her music, we read it as the music coming from inside the performer, which again we mirror by absorbing the music inside ourselves. What I am trying to say is that singing and playing has not only transformed my performance practice in terms of what I do when I perform, but also expanded my expressive resources in the communication with my audiences. In a way, I see my own long-term trajectory in lute song performance practice as akin to the short-term immersion process I aimed to create for the audience in my final artistic presentation […or strange to you] (see discussion in chapter 3.

My most important references for self-accompanied singing in the HIP field are:

Other self-accompanying singers include Joel Fredriksen, bass and musical director of Ensemble Phoenix Munich (See Fredriksen (2011)); Sven Schwannberger, tenor and lute; Arianna Savall, soprano and harp. Projects from outside HIP that have influenced my practice and thinking include Eivind Buene’s Schubert Lounge project (See Buene (2015)) and the Canadian soprano Rachel Fenlon’s work with George Crumb’s music for voice and piano (See Fenlon (2019)).

For examples of my self-accompanied singing, see the video recording of my final artistic presentation […or strange to you] in chapter 3.


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My first advice to musicians is to realize that related art forms can offer the necessary paradigms for exploring processes within their own discipline. (Beyer, 2013, p.22, my translation.)

Several composers of English lute songs were closely associated with the theatre, including Philip Rosseter, Robert Jones and Robert Johnson, the last of whom wrote music for The King’s Men, with whom Skaespeare worked. As Elizabeth Kenny argues in her article from 2008, the versions of lute songs found in manuscript sources give a glimpse of a performance practice far more flexible (and sometimes more virtuosic, too) than what the many printed sources seem to indicate. (Kenny, 2008, pp. 285, 290-293).

The theatre context is intriguing to me for including music in a wider spectrum of artistic expression. Theatre also tends to aim for a communicative directness that is different from the aesthetic contemplation[9] cultivated in the classical concert hall. I have been involved in theatre activities ever since my school years, both as an actor, musician and composer. Given the lute song repertoire’s historical connections with theatre, I was interested both in how I could use lute songs in theatre and in how theatre preactices could be a resource in lute song performance.

In section 2.3.2 below, I will discuss techniques and methods that I have acquired in and through my engagement with theatre practices. Firstly, however, I will give an overview of my four ventures into theatre and, further below, my primary references for this kind of work:

The Epic Tale of Robin Hood is a musical written by Mats Holm Ernstsen in 2017, for which I provided the music. The band consisted of two singing lute players and a percussionist, and the music included lute pieces by John Dowland and contemporaries, a new setting of H. Ibsen’s Norwegian song Vi vandrer med freidig mot to the tune of Dowland’s Lady Laiton’s Almain, and original compositions including a love duet loosely based on Dowland’s Earl of Derby’s Galliard. The show was staged outdoors with players and audience moving between four different locations. During the walking intervals the band led the audience on while playing and singing wandering songs, such as Vi vandrer med freidig mot, which I mentioned in section 2.1.2.

When Debi Wong and I started working on our Romeo&Juliet show, we wanted to create a kind of hybrid that was half and half music and theatre, with text from Shakespeare’s play and lute songs from the time, performed from memory in historical pronunciation. The earliest version of the programme was a lute song recital with only little text from the play, in modern pronunciation, presented in Tromsø and Copenhagen in 2016. Shortly after, we started working on historical pronunciation under the guidance of David and Ben Crystal. Ben Crystal also worked with us on stage craft and on the script for the show in workshops in Tromsø in 2017 and in Vancouver in 2018 (see section 2.3.2. below).

In 2018, Ben Crystal invited me to join a production of Shakespeare’s [A Midsummer Night’s] Dream in Original Pronunciation at the Ucheldre Culture Centre in Holyhead, Wales. I was initially going to provide music for the show, but as one of the actors cancelled on short notice, I ended up playing the part of Lysander, thus shifting my focus in the project from music to acting and speech, and even puppetry. I adapted the song O Death, Rock Me Asleep for voices and lute for a scene near the end of the play.

In my final artistic presentation […or strange to you], I included two short speeches in Original Pronunciation from Shakespeare’s Macbeth and The Tempest, respectively. See a detailed account of the making of the final presentation in chapter 3. RECLAIMING ARTISTIC RESPONSIBILITY.

My primary references for lute songs in theatre are:

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In two projects with Ben Crystal, Romeo&Juliet (Tromsø and Vancouver) and A Midsummer Night’s Dreame (Holyhead, Wales), I have worked on stage craft techniques and ensemble practice for actors. This work involved a lot of physical exercise and movement – a significant extension not only of my rehearsal routine, but also of my work medium. The sessions with Ben Crystal and White Sparrow yielded interesting results in terms of our musical interplay (see report and video from the Vancouver workshop below).

I know only few examples of stage work with lute songs, all of which are discussed above, in section 2.3.1. There are also some similarities between our Vancouver workshop and certain methods presented in Bud Beyer’s book Sirkelen sluttes (2013). Beyer’s general aim for the book is to help musicians communicate more effectively in performance, both with each other and the audience. He also acknowledges both the performers’ and the audience’s role as co-creators of artistic experiences. Ben Crystal’s techniques aim at a goal inspired by Elizabethan theatre practices: a level of ensemble normally only found in groups that have worked together for many years. This was the case with the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, later the King’s Men, of whom Shakespeare was a member. Taking this particular historical example as an inspiration for his work processes, Ben Crystal draws on methods from modern and contemporary theatre and dance, notably the work of Vsevolod Meyerhold and David Zambrano (at least as far as my own experience with Crystal goes). Through work that focuses on physical and spatial awareness, listening (also in the physical sense) and collective sensitivity, new groups can achieve astonishing results in relatively little time, short-cutting, as it were, to a higher level of complicity.

I believe that these methods can be a useful resource also for music ensembles. If we accept Christopher Small’s claim that performing (or musicking, as he puts it) is about the affirmation and exploration of relationships (Small, 1998, p. 13), it is only natural that we should devote attention to our relationships – exploring and developing the ways we interact – in groups that perform together.

William Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet, Act 1, Scene 5 / "Sticks" performed by Debi Wong and Solmund Nystabakk

Reflections (written in 2018) on the Vancouver Workshop with White Sparrow, Ben Crystal and actors, April 2018

I initially turned to David and Ben Crystal for help on historical pronunciation in early modern English for performances of English lute songs. This connection soon developed into a more extensive collaboration with Ben which has involved a whole range of artistic explorations, including stage craft, acting and ensemble skills, and text work on Shakespeare.

In April 2018, Ben Crystal, Debi Wong and I met with a group of local actors in Vancouver for a workshop on Romeo&Juliet. In addition to historical pronunciation, we explored ensemble interaction through a series of physical exercises that were repeated over the course of several days. Our particular mission was to create a performance based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, with excerpts from the play interspersed with lute songs, and with stage action that would make the show into a music theatre “hybrid” rather than a concert. We had programmed a lute song recital based on this idea as early as 2016.

The shortness of the work period combined with the scope of our mission and the inherent pressure of making a public run-through at the end of the workshop caused some uncertainties as to what we were actually going to do with Romeo&Juliet. We soon decided to think of the project in terms of a work-in-progress rather than a show that needed to be finished. In any case, the time we spent with Ben Crystal and the actors in the stage/text workshop was extremely focused and offered an approach to ensemble work that might well be transferred to music ensembles. For Debi Wong and me, the overall experience was heavily influenced by our having to navigate in parallel the internal tasks of the workshop and the external tasks of giving a series of “normal” recitals in-between workshop days. Additionally, we were dealing with the uncertainties arising from entering a new work mode without time to debrief and evaluate the process as we went along.

In hindsight, however, the goal of finishing a version of Romeo&Juliet and our moderate satisfaction with the public show at the end of the week both seem less significant than the general learning outcomes of the workshop sessions. Not only did the processes in play seem readily transferable to musical ensemble work, but also Ben Crystal’s language about the work pointed in this direction as he referred to the activation of spatial and kinaesthetic awareness as listening.

Some of the exercises and also the type of development in physical and musical listening may be seen in the following video, which is a 14-minute edit of a three-hour session on 4 April, 2018:

Vancouver Workshop: White Sparrow, Ben Crystal and actors Katherine Alpen, Francis Dowlatabadi and Matt Reznek. Philip Rosseter: No Grave for Woe / "Passing through" / "Sticks"

After a thorough warm-up session with the whole group, Debi Wong and I performed Philip Rosseter’s No Grave For Woe, which is at the beginning of the video. Ben Crystal then led us through a sequence of “Passing Through”, an exercise originally developed by David Zambrano for contemporary dance improvisation, followed by “Sticks”, an exercise derived from Meyerhold’s Biomechanics[11], during which we started adding elements of Romero&Juliet characters and narrative to our focus, all the while remaining silent. At the end of the “Sticks” session, Debi and I performed No Grave For Woe once more.

The difference between the two renditions of the song is striking. The relationship between Debi and me is defined in the first take by the fact that we are performing a song together that we know well, and that this is something we do with some degree of confidence because of our habit and routine of working together. In the second take, our relationship as performers is defined by our having impersonated the characters Romeo and Juliet in an improvised physical enactment of their story. This makes the performing of the song (which was the primary defining factor in the first take) a continuation of that enactment, thus offering the idea that performing together is an element of Romeo and Juliet’s relationship. Moreover, it implants Rosseter’s song into Shakespeare’s play (the song originally has no connection to it), as a comment to the story by its own protagonists.

The improvement of the balance between the voice and the lute testifies to the intensification of our listening (in a broad sense of the word) through the physical work. The second performance also achieves greater expressive intensity, perhaps through its fragility, and certainly at the cost of conforming less to established norms for classical vocal music. It seems like the extensive physical and emotional build-up to the song gave us access to expressive resources that we had note been able to access before, be it in rehearsal or concert.

Now, in hindsight, I am tempted to define the two renditions of No Grave For Woe as examples of different performance styles, where the first remains in the region of our “default” performance mode and the other one goes in a more theatrical direction. This is an example of the kind of potential I was looking for when I started exploring the connection of lute songs and theatre. What particularly intrigued me in this was the difference in performance attitude between my experiences of performing lute songs in concerts and my experiences with theatre, either as performer or composer. Keeping in mind that lute songs were in fact staple repertoire in Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre (court and public), I began to think of the songs not so much as individual musical art works[12], but rather as flexible material that can fill a variety of functions, both within a theatrical context and without. This is also how many theatre makers work with music: choosing from what they know, combining bits from here and there, perhaps adding new material if working with a composer.

There is no question that lute songs can fill their own place as music for listening, as they do often enough in song recitals and recordings. Yet, it seems to me that their potential and relevance is not diminished by being regarded, at times, as functional music. Rather, by being adequate for various purposes (including court, theatre, street and home performance), these songs flourished in the border areas between different art practices and social classes.

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In the course of my project, I have held several open rehearsals in duo with singers Debi Wong and Berit Norbakken Solset, respectively. This is a format where I have shown work in progress, mostly at an early stage in the rehearsal process. Debi Wong and I have presented our work on historical pronunciation in open rehearsal in Helsinki, and work on text, pronunciation and stage craft with Ben Crystal in workshops open to actors in Vancouver, where we also ran a public show of selected scenes from Romeo&Juliet with audience feedback after the show. In the series Dowland Complete, Berit Norbakken Solset and I have presented new material, sight-reading from John Dowland’s songbooks. The open rehearsals have been interactive in so far as the audience has been invited to comment and ask questions, and in Dowland Complete we have also had audience members participating in four-part vocal performance.

A purpose of the open rehearsal is to show music that is in the stage of becoming , highlighting the conception of music as process. Even though the listening experience will typically be less coherent than in a concert performance, the rehearsal offers the opportunity to experience unique moments where the different elements of the music start making sense as a whole without necessarily being explicitly agreed upon or planned. Thus, it rather points to the sense-making as a collective endeavour of those who participate – both as performers and listeners. Also, it gives a glimpse of the work that lies behind the public performances people usually see – including how we musicians talk about our work, ideas and decisions – and shows how concerts are not the only possibly way to experience live music. And, as people are free to come and go as they please, the open rehearsal is less demanding than a concert.

An interesting experience in the Dowland Complete sessions with Berit Norbakken Solset, from our point of view as performers, was the efficiency of the rehearsal work. Because we had an audience we achieved heightened focus similar to a concert situation, which enabled us to negotiate musical issues in real-time in the act of performing it.

Kate Maxwell writes about Dowland Complete:

For me, the open rehearsals were a way of taking part in music where I would not normally be part of its actual making into sound. Although a large portion of the early modern lute and song repertoire was produced for amateurs, even accomplished musicians today find them daunting. There is tab, funny writing, and an older version of the languages: these are going to put off most amateurs from even trying them. That was why the open rehearsal was such a positive experience for me, as a musician who is neither a lutenist nor a singer. The kind of immersion in the music that Solmund has achieved these past years has given him a breadth of instinctive knowledge that he can bring to an open rehearsal, and in the open rehearsal he becomes a conduit to a musical experience that would otherwise have been entirely impossible for me to take part in. That there was no concert, no particular goal, no obligation to be present from beginning to end, no focus on learning or improvement (as in e.g. a workshop) only made it more enjoyable for me. There was no pressure. I could join in with the singing if I wanted, or hum along to another voice part, or follow the tab, or ask questions, or just sit back and listen, entirely as I pleased. It opened up both the repertoire and the experience to a whole range of informal behaviour that would not be permitted in a concert (even a private concert), and it blurred the boundaries not only between performer and listener, but also between participants. In one sense, it became almost as if there was a seamless connection between those of us present, yet at the same time no one’s personal boundaries were crossed. I can’t imagine an open rehearsal with, say, the Berlin Philharmonic working in this way. It worked because it was intimate music that came to life among colleagues and friends in a small room. And now, whenever I hear Solmund perform, I feel somehow connected to the music, because I was there at the sight reading. And when I hear Dowland performed by others, I can think to myself, admittedly somewhat smugly: I know this music. I know the whole book. I was there. I took part. (K. Maxwell, January 2020, personal communication)
Open rehearsals are common in theatre, orchestras, dance companies, and have been discussed in an artistic research context by Anja Ali-Haapala (2015) and Mine Doğantan-Dack (Dogantan-Dack & Szucs, 2005), among others. My own interest in open rehearsals was sparked in my early student years, when in 2004 I was an exchange student at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki. That school is famous for its conducting class, and I soon learned one of the reasons why: the students conduct a real orchestra (consisting of students) two days a week, whereas most other places conducting students will find themselves conducting two pianos most of the time, making time with an orchestra a real treat. In any case, I went to listen to the “Kapubändi” – the conductors’ orchestra – regularly and found it a wonderful way to get to know the orchestral repertoire. Not only would I hear several people conducting the same pieces, they would also rehearse with the orchestra and play passages many times over – I felt I was getting to know the music from the inside.

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As I have mentioned, many printed sources for lute song repertoire were aimed at domestic use, so home performances are a performance option that takes the repertoire back to its roots, so to speak. At least one of its roots, that is, since lute songs were indeed used and performed also in other contexts like the court and the theatre. For me, a more important reason to play and sing for people in their homes is to stage the encounter of the performance in a space that has different connotations and rules than ordinary concert venues.

A performance in somebody’s home can be many different things, but in the context of my project, they fall into two categories: the first – which I call a house concert – is very similar to a concert hall performance, where the audience is presented with a programme of music for the duration of which they keep quiet and then applaud at the end. Nevertheless, the setting of a private home is certainly different from the institutional character of most concert halls and official music venues. Often, the hosts of a house concert will treat their guests, the audience, to food and/or drinks before or after the performance, and the way that people socialise at such an event will also be influenced by the environment. Thus, the framing of the performance will be significantly different from that of an average concert hall event. Also, the performance space in most home concerts is much smaller than almost any hall, and often lacks the stage-hall division that tends to articulate and emphasise the distance between the performers and the audience.

The second kind of home performance that I have experimented with has a free form without a set programme order and allows for conversation between pieces. I gave such a performance in the home of David and Hilary Crystal in Holyhead, Wales in May 2019. The audience consisted of the hosts and their son Ben Crystal (who has been an important work partner in parts of my project), and four of their local friends of whom I knew only one from before. As a performance event this home concert was very informal. I find the openness of this sort of encounter intriguing because there is no set expectation as to how much playing and talk there will be, and everyone present has the opportunity to express their own reactions to the performance, be it in the form of observations, associations, questions, or other utterings. As a performer I can keep the tension (and attention) in order to play several pieces in a row, but such choices are also made ex tempore, depending on my feeling as well as my impression of the listeners’ experience. While the informality of the home concert may often exclude the sort of extended deep concentration more typical of the concert hall, it opens up possibilities for “real” (that is, not recorded) music to exist in a space where people are not playing the role of concert-goer, but rather a role closer to their private selves.

The act of musicking establishes in the place where it is happening a set of relationships, and it is in those relationships that the meaning of the act lies. They are to be found not only between those organized sounds which are conventionally thought of as being the stuff of musical meaning but also between the people who are taking part, in whatever capacity, in the performance (…) (Small, 1998, p. 13)

For Christopher Small, the meaning of musicking – a term he famously coined – is the affirmation and exploration of relationships and identities. The home performance will typically affirm and explore different relationships and identities from that of the concert hall. But also, different homes will hold different relationships and identities; although generically similar – both were home performances of similar repertoire – the performance at the Crystals’ home was radically different from my performance at my parents’ house on New Year’s Eve 2018 (see section 3.5. below), most of all in terms of the relationships and identities they enacted.

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A contrafactum is basically a piece where the text has been replaced with another. Originally, it wasn’t a pejorative term, but later took on the meaning of forgery or falsification. Deliberate fabrication of historical materials and documents – and their frivolously creative interpretation – is a strategy that comments on recent developments in global politics. More importantly for my purposes here, however, it highlights and reflects on a fundamental feature of HIP, namely the use of the imagination to complement historical evidence or facts. It is beyond dispute that imagination must take over where evidence is incomplete, scarce or lacking completely, which is the case for any number of aspects of actual performance. Thus, the “contrafactual” approach is a way to point both at the ethical implications of taking a position as mediator – and thereby maintainer – of historical legacy, and at the notion that history is created or constructed in the acts of its telling and re-telling. From this it follows that history is created by someone (for instance by performers of old music and their audiences), and that we might thus define it rather as an activity – our engagement with it – than as the description of a neutral, absolute, course of events.

The exploration of musicological fabrications and unlikely juxtapositions of historical and contemporary repertoires – with frequent use of modern contrafacta – is the purpose of the Fake News Ensemble. The group gave its debut performance at Nordnorsk Kunstmuseum in Tromsø in August 2018, under the emblematic headline CONTRAFACTA 2018.

In one of my arrangements for the Fake News Ensemble, I combined Adrian Willaert’s Vecchie letrose and Diego Ortiz’ instrumental recercada Quinta pars, furnishing the latter with lyrics in Norwegian to turn it into a song, a method inspired by the contrafacta [13] tradition. The words of the song are a protest against the enforced fusion of the counties Finnmark and Troms in Northern Norway as part of the larger regional reform resolution of the Norwegian Parliament. This political decision sparked a heated debate and was even disputed in terms of its constitutional validity. The new song, whose title I loosely translated to Det femte fylket (The Fifth County), is modelled after Willaert’s Italian villanella in terms of style, but at the same time it is a homage to the political songs of the 1960s and 70s. That period also saw great conflicts between the rural outskirts and the central political decision-making apparatus, epitomised in the uprising against the planned construction of a hydroelectric power plant on the Alta river in Finnmark (commonly referred to as the Alta conflict). In the making of the arrangement, I deliberately connected the protest song with the mockery of Willaert’s Vecchie letrose (“Old hags”), the implicit objects of which thus became the politicians behind the regional reform.

The piece is an attempt at creating a sense of familiarity both through participation and the reference to ongoing events in the regional community: the months preceding the first performance of this song were marked by a struggle of the Music conservatory and the Academy of Fine Arts to maintain their status as independent faculty. The university board decided against this despite advice to the contrary from several committees and representatives, exercising its power over the small and peripheral arts disciplines in a way that mirrored the grander political scheme of the fusion of the counties Finnmark and Troms. The “old hags” of Willaert’s song seemed all the more tempting as a denominator for both the politicians and the university rule, as the former were exemplified by the party leaders of the Norwegian government coalition, the latter by the university’s rector. However, since this song is sung in Italian, the implicit reference to prominent female political figures remains discrete although it was hinted at in the verbal introduction to the pieces.

Fake News Ensemble: Adrian Willaert/Diego Ortiz/Solmund Nystabakk: Vecchie letrose-Quinta pars/Det femte fylket. See score below:

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As shown in the video above, Vecchie letrose/Quinta pars also involved audience participation, with handouts of the four-part score of Quinta pars for people to sing along with if they so wished. Performances were preceded by a short sing-through of the tune by Berit Norbakken Solset in order to help those unable to read music fluently.

Imposing my own political point of view on an audience that had no reason to suspect such a degree of political charge at a concert could be judged ethically questionable. In this particular case, however, public opinion in both counties was clearly opposed to the regional reform[14], so I felt sure to be representing the majority. Moreover, as Western art music practices often refrain from taking a political stance, I am interested in exploring the political aspects of music making within that tradition. I refer not only to explicitly political content, but also – and more importantly – to the potential of music (and art in general) as subversive practice (Noë, 2015, p. 115). I see this as an example of how my work seeks to articulate the field between the historical and distant or abstract on the one hand, and the present and concrete on the other.

At our Christmas concert in December 2018, Berit Norbakken Solset and I had the audience join in a four-part setting of Michael Praetorius’ Es ist ein Ros entsprungen, in the Norwegian translation Det hev ei rose sprunge. This is a well-known Christmas carol in common use, and I wanted to show how 16th-century music is not merely an exotic relic of the distant past, but part of our own living tradition. The Christmas season is a time when people engage more in music making than the rest of the year, which lowers the threshold for audience participation in a concert. Singing the four-part carol together was an attempt at enriching the experience of a (to most) familiar piece, which would usually be sung in unison at church services. Knowing many of the audience, I also had reason to presume that at least part of the crowd was able to sing in multiple voices. Moreover, with a familiar tune participation did not require great music reading skills. This was important because the singing was meant to give a sense of togetherness without performance pressure on the personal level.

Anon. (M. Prætorius)/P. Hognestad: Det hev ei rose sprunge. Berit Norbakken Solset, soprano; Solmund Nystabakk, lute

During our open rehearsal series “Dowland Complete”, Berit Norbakken Solset and I had members of the audience sing together with us in one of Dowland’s four-part settings, Now O Now I Needs Must Part. My idea was, as in the other cases, that direct participation in the performance would offer a more immersive experience for the audience. However, we noticed that sight-reading the four-part song was quite a challenge for the other participants. Although we were soon enough able to sing the piece through, the audience members seemed more at ease when only listening, in which case we, the performers, could connect with them more easily than when we were all making music together. In other words, singing together in this case did not create quite the kind of immersion I was looking for. A case where the discrepancy between my intention or expectation and the work result, was my presentation at the Artistic Research Forum at Klækken Hotell in March 2019. Here is a report that I wrote shortly after the event, followed by a recent postscript that reflects on how it in fact became a turning point in my project:


In my presentation, I gathered the participants in a circle on the floor. I then verbally guided the group through a breathing exercise I adapted from an exercise by Helen Foan, which she had devised from Japanese Bunraku puppetry technique. Immediately after this sequence, Berit Norbakken Solset and I performed John Dowland’s Flow My Teares, which concluded the practical/interactive part of the presentation. I proceeded to give a brief account of some main aspects of my project. Moderator Darla Crispin then prepared the group discussion by asking what I had in fact been trying to do, and what I thought the experiment had yielded in terms of results. The discussion was opened and several participants offered their reactions in terms ranging from puzzled concern to outright dismissal, including the rightful criticism that the breathing exercise had taken too much of the total presentation time. Darla Crispin also expressed ethical misgivings of my having invited the group to take part in an experiment with next to no information about what was going to happen and to what purpose. She pointed out that I had misled the group by assuring everyone that there would be no exposure involved in participating in the exercise, when in fact a group of (mainly) strangers like this one did involve a degree of exposure even if participation required no individual effort.

Inspired by Christopher Small’s notion of musicking as a collective endeavour (Small, 1998, p. 10), I have searched for ways to emphasise this aspect in performance, or, more specifically, to diminish or even remove the barriers of performer and audience roles (removal being the intention in performances where performers and listeners are the same people, like in the “table consort” format). My idea for using the breathing exercise leading up to a song performance was to see if it could make the participants “tune in” collectively, to establish a sense of togetherness encompassing both performers and audience on equal terms. Breathing together seemed like a better option than, say, asking people to sing, simply because it requires no specific experience or skill (like singing or reading music). Thinking back to the occasion where I first participated in a similar breathing exercise with Ben Crystal’s Dreame ensemble in Holyhead, Wales, I still marvel at its effect on ensemble sensitivity and attunement. What I did not take into account was that in my presentation I would deal with a group that did not need, or necessarily even want, to function as an ensemble. And, more importantly, the group obviously would have a much more formal social structure than Ben Crystal’s ensemble. In hindsight, I admit having jumped to conclusions about the potential of the presentation group before assessing the very nature of such a group, or the kinds of relationships inherent in the forum setting. Consequently, a discrepancy occurred between my own focus in the experiment, and the expectation of the group as to what was their task and mine at the presentation. That is not to say the experiment could never have worked, but it would have needed more careful framing and a more stringent pacing.

Getting everybody in a circle was a part of the attempt at diminishing barriers in the performance, and a way of avoiding the ordinary presentation format, where we would have performed the song at the front of the room before a seated audience. However, even if avoiding the stage/auditorium divide was conceptually justified, it was also a matter of surrender. I felt unable to fulfil the implicit expectations to the Research Fellow acting as a hero protagonist presenting his tale of trial, conflict and ultimate resolution, at last having reaped the fruits of his labours for his peers to approve. The fact is that in the weeks before the presentation I could see no way of summarising my work to date in an even nearly satisfactory manner, and so I hoped to show something significant about my project through the interactive sequence at the beginning of my presentation. Unfortunately, several aspects of the breathing exercise evidently worked contrary to its purpose: The large-sized group and the less than ideal acoustic made it difficult to hear others breathe, greatly limiting the possibilities for breath synchronisation that was part of the exercise. Moreover, many of the participants were put off by the breathing exercise itself, some for its connotations to meditation, yoga, mindfulness etc., others for the mere fact of being told what to do, others still for the insecurity of not knowing what kind of situation was being set up, and probably for more reasons that were not voiced during the occasion. I should add that my own instructions might also not have been of sufficient standard, and at least not on par with the musical performance that followed. Thus, it would seem, it was indeed a weak link in the performance as a whole, which was aggravated by the length of the breathing exercise that far exceeded that of the song that followed.

But even apart from causing some annoyance with the breathing exercise, I had clearly crossed a line (or several) in tampering with both the presentation format and the roles of presenter/performer and audience in the way that I did. Or perhaps it was not so much the tampering with the format in itself, but tampering with the format in a way that was not evident nor successful, and that certainly did not bear the expected signs of an artistic research project near conclusion, nearly ready for assessment. (One of the other research fellows present even implicitly suggested that I had squandered my three-year fellowship only to show up, present some vague, New Age-inspired crap and call it research. Although the comment was somewhat exaggerated, it struck me as something like the prophecies in the Greek tragedy, which tend come true even as the greatest efforts are made to avoid it.) The criticism (explicit and implicit) I received during the discussion, although for the most part very reasonable, did boost my already growing impostorism, and left me – for the first time to such an extent – almost unable to articulate myself. It was an awkward moment where my failure to successfully devise and carry out my presentation seemed to overshadow my actual accomplishments; a useful reminder of the importance of preparation, not only for a presentation but also for subsequent discussion. Had it not been for Jostein Gundersen’s comment towards the end of the session, the musical performance might easily have been forgotten in the heat of the discussion. When we got to the point of starting the song, I was very aware that the breathing exercise had worked differently from what I intended. Nevertheless, there was a particular intensity in the room, perhaps a result of a collective effort to make sense of the situation. Berit Norbakken Solset and I seemed to react to the awkwardness (and, at least on my part, growing discomfort) with intensified focus, delivering a quite inspired rendition of Flow My Teares. Thus, our musical interplay seemed to gain something of what I had been hoping for as a collective outcome of the experiment.

The ARF presentation and my recent experiences with open rehearsals and private home performance have shown that trying to influence the experience of others in specific ways is a quite complex matter, because such attempts must necessarily enter into regions far beyond the confines of what we traditionally define as performance practice. Setting up performance try-outs or experiments, I must admit feeling reluctant to prescribe their effects, to the extent that it perhaps limits my abilities to define exactly the purpose of such experiments.


My presentation at the Artistic Research Forum in March 2019 marked the beginning of the end of a long period of confusion as to what were the actual findings of my project and what I needed to focus on in the remaining time before the final assessment. In my search for new ideas and knowledge along many different lines, there was so much that felt relevant to the project that I was losing sight of what I had already achieved. The ARF presentation was like a slap in the face that brought me back to the present, as it were, forcing me to assess my work critically and move on from the stage where “everything” was relevant.

In hindsight, I can see how my failure to anticipate the reactions to my presentation showed, among other things, that the concepts of participation and immersion were not yet clearly articulated in my mind. The kind of immersion I had hoped to achieve, did not only not occur, it was even directly counteracted by my requiring the group’s participation. Moreover, as the context was the Artistic Research Forum and not a regular performance event, the closeness that I was trying to create was evidently offensive to some; it was not what they had come for. The idea of performers and audience sharing an activity had seemed attractive to me, but I had to admit that I had partly projected my own goals and preferences onto the audience, and thereby failed to properly consider their point of view.

This experience inspired me to look for ways to achieve a heightened degree of immersion on the part of the audience without requiring their direct participation. This was an explicit goal in my final artistic presentation …or strange to you (see section 3.5. below).


What would be the meaning of music if it could not be recorded? How would we musicians go about our work if sounding music existed only as live performance?

These are questions that I grappled with for quite some time in an attempt at understanding something about the fundamental difference in the conditions for musical performance between our time and the time when the lute song repertoire originated. This was important to me not because I wanted to recreate or mimic a historical situation, but because I felt a need to assess how my own circumstances affected my conceptual thinking. It seemed natural to search within the material I work with for keys to how I could expand my artistic field of vision.

Sound recording, invented in the 1870s, became the biggest game changer in Western music production since the invention of music script in the Middle Ages. Indeed, until that point, all music was live music (not counting the barrel organ); no such distinction even existed. Within such a paradigm, the notion of identical reproduction or playback of a musical performance must lie somewhere between the unthinkable and the absurd. Ironically, while it forever obliterated the (historical) paradigm where all sounding music was being played at the moment, recorded sound was to become – and still is – the main format in which music would be used, enjoyed and consumed. I nurture no illusion of access back beyond that point of no return, but in the same way as playing from memory was a way to loosen my habitual dependence on notation, assessing the recording paradigm was a way for me to try to think differently about performance.

From notebook, 5 September 2018

I think of Singing with the lute as a project that deals primarily with questions relating to communication in live performance. Since I was trying to address aspects of performance that did not refer to, or even consider, the possibility of an afterlife as recorded sound, I thought that there must be key aspects missing from such recordings if they were to be taken as documentation of performances in an artistic sense. For there are important aspects of any performance that cannot be captured on audio or video but are nevertheless perceptible to those present at the actual performance event.

I noticed how, almost without exception, I found video recordings of my own concert performances quite unsatisfying (see further below in this section). There seemed to be little left in them of what I had experienced there and then; the recording seemed flat and bland even in cases where I had had a great feeling during the performance and people in the audience had been moved to tears. This started to seem like an ethical dilemma: I felt that submitting a video recording of a concert purporting to document a piece of artistic work would be a falsification, or at least obscuring the actual state of affairs.

On the other hand, I could not categorically dismiss the use of recordings in my project. As audio and video are indisputably the main forms of performance documentation available to us, it would have seemed like something of an extremist stance to claim that my performances could not be adequately represented in such media. Even if we do acknowledge that recordings can only partly capture the content of a performance, they certainly provide a tool for disseminating ideas about certain aspects of performance. I have found video recordings most useful when using them to examine and assess my own work from the outside, especially when comparing videos of two or more performances. Here is a case where the video documentation of the same piece in rehearsal and concert helped me realise an important aspect of my practice:

John Dowland: If My Complaints Could Passions Move Halvor Melien, baritone; Solmund Nystabakk, lute

(Reflection note from) 28.5.2019

My immediate thought upon watching the two video recordings of Halvor Melien’s and my rehearsal and concert performances of Dowland’s If My Complaints Could Passions Move, was: “The rehearsal version is actually better than the concert.” In itself, this is not shocking; after all, as performers, we can’t completely control the way in which performances unfold, and we may achieve in rehearsal moments of particular intensity that we are unable to re-create in public performance (at least judging from our own experience). However, I couldn’t quite pin down what it was about these two performances that made them stand so clearly apart to me. By comparison, the concert recording certainly shows greater fluency, more varied ornamentation, and so, in terms of standard criteria, should be better than the rehearsal.

Perhaps I would have had an easier time identifying the reasons for my judgement if I had re-phrased it to “I like the rehearsal version more”, as eventually I realised that it had to do with my subconscious conception of the lute song performance as an inherently intimate mode of communication. Consequently, the perceived difference in delivery and attitude on both our parts, I think, relates to the private and public settings of the rehearsal and concert respectively, the point being that the former corresponded more closely with what I would like that kind of performance to be like, also when playing for an audience. Perhaps it is then a matter of shedding the learned extrovert stance that we have been taught to bring with us on stage, sometimes referred to as projection. To me, projection implies the performers’ reaching out towards the audience, whereas what I would call the _listening stance_ of the performers invites the audience in. Our intensified listening invites them to intensify theirs.

So, while I still have my doubts about the extent to which recordings can convey the artistic content of performances, I embrace recording as a work and dissemination tool. To quote Walter Benjamin, "…technical reproduction can put the copy of the original into situations which would be out of reach for the original itself. Above all, it enables the original to meet the beholder halfway, be it in the form of a photograph or a phonograph record."(Benjamin, 1935, p. 4) (emphasis mine).

The mechanical reproduction of music notation by printing points to an entirely different kind of reproduction from that of sound recording, namely the reproduction of a framework for musical experience through performance. While Walter Benjamin famously focuses on the loss of aura as a result of mechanical reproduction, I would propose that this understanding of the dissemination of printed music in the 16th century is less concerned with the works themselves than with music as (social) activity. This brings to mind Nicholas Cook’s discussion of “scores as social scripts” (Cook, 2013, pp. 256-263). Or, to use Benjamin’s concept of aura, the music print in the sense I propose here does not diminish the musical aura, but rather proliferates it by providing the possibility to create sounding music at an essentially endless number of places and times.

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As Jostein Gundersen has put it, Historically Informed Performance (HIP) “designates an artistic process where parts of the decision making are based on interpretations of a selection of historical sources.” (Gundersen, 2017, p. 14) (emphasis mine). Thus, there must also be other parts of the decision making that are based on something else. Moreover, there is also an endless variety of possible selections of historical sources on which these other parts of the decision making could be based. Therefore, the selection of sources will affect the end result and must count as a part of the decision making in the first place. And as for sources, I am referring not only to the selection of particular documents, but also to which aspects of performance we let them inform us about.

If we take Gundersen on his word and regard HIP as a methodology (Gundersen, 2017, p. 5), we may use it to inform our artistic choices along with other considerations that fall outside the historical spectrum, such as, in my case, the use of anachronism as an artistic tool (see section 3.4 below). Obviously, the totality of artistic choices involved in making a performance implies that the notion of a causal relationship between historical evidence and performance is an absurdly simplified model of thought, not least since the selection of historical sources for a given situation, repertoire or piece is already a matter of choice, and potentially an artistic one at that.

In any case, this matter will be more easily assessed in the context of real work and events. Therefore, I will proceed to discuss processes of artistic (and non-artistic) choice and decision making leading up to my final artistic presentation […or strange to you], which can be seen here:

[...or strange to you] - Solmund Nystabakk's final artistic presentation in his artistic PhD project Singing with the lute. Video produced and edited by Natalie Blomstereng/Result

The following is an attempt to lay out the various materials, methods and choices that constituted the work on both the detail and overall levels. I will try to give an account of specific usage of historical concepts and show how these intertwine with other considerations, both artistic, personal and practical. In hindsight, it seems to me that these categories have played almost equal parts in my own decision making. I claim the responsibility for these decisions as acts of artistic creation by which I have entered into a multifaceted collaboration with other musicians and artists, both alive and dead. This is by no means to belittle the work of composers and poets of the past, but rather to show how artistic content is not bound to pieces or works of music but emerges through our engagement with them.

In the specific case of my final presentation, a number of people had been involved in work on parts of the material long before I set to work on that particular performance. I had trained historical pronunciation in early modern English with David and Ben Crystal and performed and even recorded several of the songs with Debi Wong as the duo White Sparrow. Debi and I had worked with Ben Crystal on historical pronunciation, stage craft and acting techniques, and on creating our Romeo&Juliet show (see sections 2.3.1. and 2.3.2.). Thus, my engagement with the work of Danyel, Dowland, Petrarch, Pilkington, Tromboncino and the other (dead) authors represented in the final presentation was conditioned by these living collaborators, whose contributions I hereby gratefully acknowledge. I am also especially grateful for the artistic contributions of Berit Norbakken Solset and Rebekka Nystabakk, as well as the feedback of my main supervisor Jostein Gundersen during the work with […or strange to you].

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The lights dim. You are fixed to your seat. And now you must make something of what there is. If you can. (Noë, 2015, p. 117)

When I started planning my final presentation, I knew that I wanted it to include music, speech and some kind of stage action. My original idea was to have two separate parts, or possibly two concerts on the same day: one with a version of the Romeo&Juliet show that Debi Wong and I had worked on over several work periods, and another recital programme with Berit Norbakken Solset (and possibly others). These two duo constellations have been my most important collaborations during my fellowship period, and I thought it would be interesting to show both of them in the frame of the final presentation.

Due to various circumstances, Debi Wong was unable to make it to Norway and so I had to revise my plan just short of two months before the performance. Although this seemed like a setback at first, I saw that it gave me free reign to start from scratch and create a new show with the people and resources at hand: soprano Berit Norbakken Solset and me as performers and my sister Rebekka Nystabakk as stage director and artistic advisor. Rebekka Nystabakk and I have worked together in various projects ever since our early youth, so turning to her for help was an obvious choice given the prospect of devising an entirely new performance that was to be my final artistic presentation.

I also wanted my final presentation to include material from my reflection, or some kind of look behind the scenes into the other work in which I have immersed myself, since the performance part would present just the tip of the iceberg, as it were. What we performers end up showing on stage is so different from a lot of the preparation work, and it makes up only a fraction of our total work time. Therefore, I felt the need to make visible some of the non-performance work that my project has entailed, thus to invite the audience into my project rather than just presenting them with a polished façade.[15]

During a conversation with my colleague Juliane Zelwies, a research fellow at UiT’s Academy of Fine Art, some months earlier, I had complained about how I found it hard to write my reflection because the written format seemed such a different mode of communication from the work about which I was trying to write. Juliane Zelwies asked if I could present my reflection as an exhibition instead of a piece of writing, which seemed very intriguing to me. Although I came to accept the discrepancies between my practice and the written format, I decided to use the exhibition idea in my final presentation. This made it possible to contextualise the final one-hour performance within the broader scope of my project and to make the point that a performer’s work is far more than what is done on stage.

My concept for the exhibition was that it would be an oversized version of my office through which the audience would pass on the way to their seats, and that would hold potential for direct engagement with the material presented there: instruments, scores, books, audio and video. It would also be a space where people could spend time: up to one hour before and after the performance. We set the space up with the performance area and audience seating on the stage of the conservatoire’s aula, and the exhibition area down on the floor where the seating would usually be. Thus, people would enter the exhibition area directly from the entrance to the room, and inevitably pass through that (meta-)work space, symbolically tracing my own passing through the same, though in a time span compressed from a good three years into two hours at most.

I organised the exhibition in several stations:




and two laptops with short video edits with sound, one of which can be seen above in section 2..1.1, one in section 2.4., and the last here below:

Photos: Daniel Lilleeng

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In terms of repertoire, by September I had compiled a loose list of pieces that I felt strongly about, and that I thought might work well in the current line-up. At this point, I had no text for the speech component, but Shakespeare seemed like an obvious choice since the majority of the programme was English music and I had worked on some of his plays with Debi Wong and Ben Crystal during the project (see METHODS, section 2.1. and 2.2.). I also knew that I was going to sing myself, preferably both alone and with Berit Norbakken Solset, and that the programme would include some of my own translations or adaptations of song lyrics. There should also preferably be a theme or overall concept to the show, although I had not yet decided what.

Drawing on my previous work with Romeo&Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I was determined to work with staging the concert in a manner that would add visual and spatial coherence to the musical one, and thus create a more integrated performance. On 15-18 October 2019, Rebekka Nystabakk, Berit Norbakken Solset and I got together to make a show out of the sketches I had. The following pictures are extracts from my notebook, written sometime in September 2019 with some later additions:

With these pages and the performance space as our starting point, the three of us began to work on how to put the programme together. Berit Norbakken Solset and I first sang and played through most of the pieces that were (more or less) certain to be included. The three of us then discussed the main themes and contrasting elements of the songs with respect to how we could make connections between them. I did not have a single theme from the start, but rather wanted us to search within the songs and in the possible transitions for ideas and theories on which we could build the larger structure as a collective process. The vast majority of all the songs on the list are love songs, and out of those the vast majority are sad songs in minor keys, so love and longing stood out as the most prominent themes. However, these were too general to give us any clear sense of direction or ideas for the grouping of pieces. We then had the motives of sleep, dream and night in songs like Dowland’s Thinkst Thou Then By Thy Feigning and Pilkington’s Rest Sweet Nimphes as well as in Dowland’s lute solo A Dreame. Finally, we saw the motives of light and darkness occuring in the lyrics of certain songs, and also corresponding by association to the general mood of others – happy and sad, respectively.

With respect to intensity levels and possible transitions we noted the mood and tempo character of each song, as well as which songs had a conclusive ending and which more of an open ending with a cadence on the dominant (typical of songs in the Phrygian mode, which is often used for sad and passionate lyrics[16]). I presented to the others the only specific transition that I had worked out beforehand, namely that of Macbeth’s soliloquy going into Dowland’s In Darknesse Let Mee Dwell, sung by me. Although nothing was fixed yet, Rebekka Nystabakk, Berit Norbakkken Solset and I all agreed that this would probably come rather late in the programme due to its emotional intensity. Out of all the pieces we had, In Darknesse already seemed like some kind of peak moment – or low point in terms of mood – so we started discussing how to build up to it and how to get on from there.

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The notion of dream as a general concept or theory for the show appealed to us, partly since the predominant theme of love and longing was too general to give us a sense of direction, or otherwise answer questions about the order and the relationship between pieces. Moreover, John Dowland’s lute solo A Dreame was on my short list of pieces for the programme. Dreams are both specific as events and flexible in terms of content and their own type of logic – or freedom from such. By choosing Pilkington’s lullaby Rest Sweet Nimphes as the opening piece, we set up a night scene (in the lyrics we even explicitly “bid good night”) through which we could collectively enter the dream. The piece’s dreamy atmosphere and the motif of the nymphs suggest a world of fairy-tale and fantasy which, together with the “dream logic”, gave us greater liberty than the other possible themes in terms of how to shape the rest of the programme.

After the first run-through of the programme with audience, I had doubts as to whether Rest Sweet Nimphs was the right opening song after all. In the run-through, it had seemed like we were in the calm and melancholy mood for too much of the time, and we wondered if we might need a different piece to start the performance (not counting, of course, the improvised prelude that I played while the audience found their seats). However, Rebekka Nystabakk, Berit Norbakken Solset and I all agreed that both the extra nervousness arising from having an audience, and the insufficient lighting had affected the performance significantly. Therefore I decided to give Rest Sweet Nimphs another chance. In the next complete run-through of the programme, the piece worked very well, and our patience was thus rewarded.

There is another reason why the choice of Rest Sweet Nimphes was significant as the opening piece. It is the final track of my duo White Sparrow’s CD Mister Dowland’s Midnight, recorded in 2014 and released in 2017. That album is representative of where I stood as a lute song performer at the time when I began my research fellowship, so by making the last song on the CD the first one of my final presentation I symbolically framed that time span and articulated my artistic starting point from a good three years earlier. Thus, I made visible – to myself more than anyone – both the “distance covered” during my project (or, rather, the difference in my own point of view in 2014 and 2019) and the continuity of my work that started in Helsinki with Debi Wong back in 2011.

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I had come across Tromboncino’s frottola Zefiro spira on a poem by Petrarch early in my project while looking into the work of the Italian medieval music ensemble Micrologus[17]. The rendition of Zefiro spira that so captivated me was a video of a solo performance by Micrologus’s singer and lute player Simone Sorini (2012). It is a virtuosic example of self-accompanied singing that displays florid diminutions on the vocal part, but also – and to me, more significantly – a comprehensive approach to the piece going far beyond Bossinensis’ printed score (1509). Sorini adds an introduction which is loosely based on Recercare VIII (Bossinensis, 1509)[18], and presents a varied arrangement including elements such as spoken lyrics and simplified, strummed accompaniment.

The piece and the performance made such an impression on me that I kept returning to it and, at some point, learned to sing and play it myself. When planning my final presentation, I was really keen to include it, but felt that I should not present a version that was too close to Sorini’s. I thought it would be nice to translate or adapt the lyrics into Norwegian, as I had done with some other songs during my projects. I tried to make the tune work with the lyrics of a couple of well-known songs from northern Norway, notably Arvid Hansen’s Kom sommarvijnn:

Evidently, these lyrics do not quite fit either the verse or the rhyme of Petrarch’s poem[19], so I kept looking. The nature imagery reminded me of the National Romantic era, and Edvard Grieg’s famous setting of Aasmund Olavsson Vinje’s Vaaren came to mind. So, I looked up the poem to see if I could somehow adapt it to fit the Petrarchan verse. By means of quite radical reduction I was able to do away with about half of the syllables while preserving the key words of each line in a way that still made sense grammatically. Here is Petrarch and my adaptation of Vinje, first draft from my notebook:

From notebook

Below are the first strophe from Vinje’s original poem, an excerpt from the third strophe that I used as the “refrain” couplet in the song, and, on the right, my adaptation for comparison:

And, finally, here are Petrarch’s lyrics and my adaptation, edited to fit the musical form of the frottola, which means that the final couplet of each strophe occurs both after the first couplet and at the end of the octave[20]:

Both poems contrast natural idyll with melancholy, a feature that is emphasised by the repetition of the final couplet of the stanza – inherent in the song form but not in the poems. I now had a song that contained the archaic elements of the frottola and Petrarch’s poem together with the also archaic, if significantly younger, nynorsk[21] of Vinje. Significantly, my adaptation of Vinje’s poem substitutes Petrarch’s references to Greek mythology with more of the natural setting, a description of the coming of Nordic spring. This is a reference that is accessible through first-hand experience to the vast majority of Norwegian audiences, and many will also recognise Vinje’s words as old-fashioned or archaic.

In other words, I had created a song that by means of an anachronism – the insertion of a 19th-century poem in a 15th century song – in some ways translates the referential function of the original into a new geographical and historical context. The conceptual basis of this method is the idea that we need not localise the meaning of a given piece – in this case Tromboncino’s Zefiro spira – within the piece itself, but rather in the experience potential in performing it. Instead of asking how I could best convey the meaning of Petrarch’s words to my audience, I tried to make a version of the song that could convey similar or related meanings through references that would be more accessible for the local audience.

The superimposition of different time layers – Petrarch’s 14th-century poem, Tromboncino’s 15th-century tune, Vinje’s 19th-century poem and, finally, my recent adaptation and the audience’s present encounter with it in a performance on a 21th-century copy of a 16th-century instrument – as an artistic method, establishes temporary connections between these layers or points in time, not as a sweeping overview of History, but in and through our direct personal engagement with them. Such use of anachronism articulates our own embeddedness in history; it is, to borrow Alva Noë’s concept, a strange tool that makes visible an aspect of our condition so familiar to us that we might otherwise fail to notice it (Noë, 2015, p. 30; pp.100-101). By making history and the ways we are entangled in it strange, we may start reflecting on what that entanglement means to us.

Art interrupts, makes strange and so subverts. - Alva Noë (2015, p. 115)

Bartolomeo Tromboncino: Zefiro spira / Vaaren, lyrics by Petrarca/Nystabakk (after Vinje). Solmund Nystabakk, lute and voice.

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I was also determined to include in the final artistic presentation my Norwegian adaptation of Dowland’s His Golden Locks, which I made for my father’s retirement and his passing on the family farm to my youngest sister, Rakel Nystabakk. I re-wrote the lyrics (and a few notes of the music of the final refrain) of the song to fit both the person and the occasion. The choice of the original piece was not arbitrary; the song and its poem were first composed for the retirement of Sir Henry Lee, champion[5:1] to Queen Elizabeth I. The reverential tone of the poem suited my purpose well and the rigour of the existing form allowed me to express with less awkwardness my feelings of affection and admiration, and awe of my father’s working life achievement – emotions otherwise rarely, if ever, voiced explicitly between us. Thus, the song about Queen Elizabeth’s knight became a song about a north Norwegian sheep farmer.

My version of the song also reflects on the inheritance of the farm by my youngest sister, and thus on the family legacy that connects people, place and work. We first performed the song with the second strophe in four parts (after Dowland’s table-consort score) at the late-night dinner table, creating a chorus that, as well as being family, mirrored the small village community of which my father is a driving force and a revered member. The final strophe refers to his grandchildren, my two sons, and I inserted into the final refrain a little quotation from a nursery song that my grandfather made, thus connecting the four generations of the family with whom my father has lived in direct contact. The quotation is such that it is immediately recognisable to every member of our family and possibly my uncles and aunts, but probably to nobody else.

My transcreation[22] of Dowland’s His Golden Locks is a conceptual translation rather than a literal one, in that it takes up the form and function of the original song, but replaces the content, the object of the text. My purpose was to make an adaptation that could create a similar kind of familiarity to that with which – I imagine – the inner circle of the Elizabethan court may have experienced at the ceremony of Sir Henry’s retirement.

No sound recording was made of the first performance on New Year’s Eve 2018. At the occasion it would, to be sure, have been oddly intrusive. Moreover, I doubt whether any recording of that performance of the song would be meaningful in the way that the performance very certainly was. This experience brought me to reflect on Dowland’s original song, and the purposes of printing it in a book. Whereas the song’s significance is largely defined by its ceremonial performance context, the printed score takes on the significance of documentation (by 17th century technological standards) of that occasion, or more precisely, of Dowland’s part in the occasion. Considering his being rather at the outset of his long quest for a court position, it is not surprising that Dowland should – some twenty years before finally succeeding – be eager to display his courtly connections. But the songbook score also did something else: it transposed the performance context of this (originally) event specific song into the private sphere. Those with the financial capacity to buy such a book might thus – in their turn – have a taste of the courtly revels.

A similar transposition of context happened with my adaptation of His Golden Locks: I first made it for a specific occasion and dedicatee, and later used it as a concert piece in my final artistic presentation. In a sense, there is a multi-level transposition at work in my treatment of this piece:

Also, significantly, my adaptation of the piece presents a scenario that is recognisable and even familiar to most Norwegian audiences, aiming for closeness through recognition. Moreover, by writing the Norwegian lyrics in my own dialect, I also achieved a high degree of closeness between myself as performer and the piece.

In my final presentation, I sang the first verse of Dowland’s English original in Original Pronunciation[23] followed by all three verses of the Norwegian adaptation. Through the juxtaposition of the two versions, I wanted to articulate the relationship between them in time and space, and to show how performance can articulate such different identities by means of association while also bridging the gap between them.

Towards the end of our first rehearsal period for the final presentation with Berit Norbakken Solset and Rebekka Nystabakk, I started wishing for two additional voices in order to be able to sing the second Norwegian verse in four parts. We had originally performed the piece like this with and for my family on the occasion of its first performance. Importantly, the additional voices would symbolically represent the “young hands” to which that verse refers. Moreover, I had the idea of making this into a surprise chorus coming from within the audience. The surprise element was one of a series of deliberate breaks with the status quo of the performance at the specific moments when the breaks occurred. In this way I aimed to keep renegotiating the contract with the audience and not let the performance become a single thing only. Rather, I wanted each break with what had just been heard and seen – each new method – to illuminate different aspects of the music and my practice. Thus, the methods used would not so much be a demonstration of the methods themselves as an invitation to look – and keep looking – at the performance (the project, the practice, the music) from a continually changing perspective. Metaphorically, I wanted to give a feeling of being let into the project to have a look around rather than observing from the outside.

The first break I am referring to was my singing Tromboncino’s Zefiro spira – until that point I had only been playing the lute. The second was the a capella beginning of Rore’s Ancor che col partire (1547) with Berit Norbakken Solset and me singing in duet[24]. The third was the surprise chorus in His Golden Locks, and the fourth was my Macbeth soliloquy. My intention with the placement of counter-tenor Rodrigo Sosa dal Pozzo and tenor Sigmund Lahn in the audience was to heighten the degree of immersion in the performance without requiring people to actively participate. With two voices (Berit Norbakken Solset and me) sounding from the stage and the other two (Rodrigo Sosa dal Pozzo and Sigmund Lahn) from within the audience, we enveloped the listeners in sound, and also crossed the boundary between stage and hall. At this point, that boundary had already been pushed by Berit Norbakken Solset’s singing from off-stage and our performing Dowland’s Would My Conceit from the outer edges of the stage area[25].

The effect of the surprise chorus by far surpassed my expectations. Several people remarked after the concert how the four voices had seemed like an entire choir, and one described the effect as to make her wonder if everybody else was actually singing and if she too was meant to know the piece. Quite fittingly, the piece I chose to render in this way brought together more aspects of my project than any other: translation and re-contextualisation, memorising, self-accompanied singing, ensemble work, and an immersive performance strategy. The experience also reminded me of how the experiential content of a music performance depends on factors usually considered to be external to the music and therefore of secondary importance. Such factors include venue, spatial organisation, staging, lighting and programming (see section 3.6 below).

For non-Norwegian speakers I have translated my Norwegian lyrics back into English. The end rhymes do not quite work out here, so a freer adaptation would be required to make a singable version:

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The choice of the conservatoire’s aula was motivated by artistic as well as practical considerations. Despite my intention to take the final presentation out of the particular institutional environment of the conservatoire, I realised that the aula would give the most flexibility in shaping both the space and the event of the available options, none of which were necessarily less “institutional” than the conservatoire anyway. In the aula I could draw benefits from the existing infrastructure (risers, power supply, projectors etc.) but also easily remove items that did not fit in at the final presentation, such as furniture and equipment. The size of the venue was also sufficient to accommodate both the exhibition and the concert, and as I started working on the spatial disposition this also became an important conceptual point: the audience would move through – and spend time in – the exhibition which essentially showed my work materials on their way to the concert space at the other end of the room. This trajectory traced my own movement, although in an extremely compressed form, among the same materials – through the project, as it were, on my way to the final presentation.

A basic criterion for the stage design was that it should be compact enough to get the audience quite close, while still having enough space to move around. My concern, however, was to make it less formal than a typical concert space while retaining audibility and visibility for the entire audience. The stage lighting of the aula soon turned out to have too limited possibilities for adjustment, and to create too much of an “institutional concert stage” look. Consequently, Berit Norbakken Solset, Rebekka Nystabakk and I decided to work with lamps for home interior use in order to create lighting that would take the visual appearance and overall atmosphere of the room towards the warmth and comfort of a private space. (For the same reasons, Berit Norbakken Solset and I chose performing clothes that were closer to our own private outfit than to formal concert dress.) The lamps we chose were single big, bare light bulbs, each in a simple socket at the end of a black power chord. We were able to use the light bridges and beams under the ceiling of the stage to mount the lights, which hung straight down from the ceiling at different heights:

Photo: Daniel Lilleeng

A challenge with using lights suitable for interior lighting purposes is that they have a much lower light effect than typical stage spotlights. After our first run-through with a test audience (a small group of students and teachers from the conservatoire), it was clear to all three of us that the light was insufficient, so we decided to add five more pendant lights to the three we had. This was not only a visibility issue; the low light also clearly pushed the general mood and expression towards the sad and dark, which suited the sad songs well but the others far less so. Moreover, we felt that also the general energy level and our ability to change character fluently and convincingly were inhibited.

At the first run-through there was also a little extra seriousness because we had an audience for the first time while the show was very fresh, not even in its final form at a couple of points. This points to an important issue in performance work: there are things crucial to the overall quality of a performance that can really only be addressed in actual performance, and never fully in rehearsal[26]. Working on […or strange to you], we spent a lot of rehearsal time on stage trying out songs, staging and transitions simulating actual performance as closely as possible. Nevertheless, this work still happened in “rehearsal mode”, which made it necessary to take the work into “performance mode” – to perform for other people to be able to access certain knowledge that we needed in order to assess whether our solutions were working out the way we wanted them to. During the preparation period we ran the performance three times with audiences ranging from one to about ten people.

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We worked deliberately on setting intentions for each song in the programme both in terms of character, mood and energy level. (I use the word intention in the sense commonly used in theatre to describe a character’s purpose in performing an action.) In a couple of instances, we faced the challenge – familiar to most performers of English lute songs – of differentiating two or more pieces of very similar character. (It is a recurring topic among performers that the best pieces of the English lute song repertoire are the slow and sad songs.) The similitude of songs is often bound to certain aspects or, if you will, levels of perception: sad lyrics about longing and/or rejected love combined with music in a minor key with extensive use of dissonance and/or suspensions – of the thirteen songs in my final presentation, seven have these as principle characteristics). Add to this the fact that all of the above are aspects of music specified in the score: the lyrics, the key and the harmony and voice leading. In performance, however, performers deal with a much wider array of expressive means, by which we may – among other things – differentiate pieces that would otherwise, especially if seen from a certain point of view, be similar enough to cause risk of monotony in a concert situation. Let us look at the specific cases from […or strange to you].

Ancor che col partire – Would My Conceit – Dear If You Change

During my first solo, Zefiro spira, Berit Norbakken Solset was seated in the audience. From her position at the stage right edge of the seats, she started the next piece, Rore’s Ancor che col partire, solo and a capella. In the second phrase, I joined in, and we sang in duet a capella until measure 14, where I added the lute intabulation of the remaining two voices (alto and bass), occasionally filling out chords with more notes. All the while, I remained standing in the place where I had also sung Zefiro spira, on the opposite side of the stage from Berit Norbakken Solset. I sang facing the audience and she faced me, looking back on the stage from her place in the audience. (This was the first time in the performance when sound emerged from the audience space, and thus a pointer towards the later surprise chorus in Dowland’s His Golden Locks (see also section 3.5 above).)

We then performed Dowland’s Would My Conceit facing each other but still on opposite sides of the stage, which was thus left empty between us. The distance was a possible reference to the lyrics and, in particular, the first-person subject’s abject loneliness due to unrequited love. But just as significantly, our positions framed the audience and thus started more explicitly to articulate their involvement in the performance.

* * *

Dowland’s In Darknesse Let Mee Dwell followed straight after the soliloquy from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, marking the emotional peak – or rather, perhaps, low point – of the whole performance. As we were putting the programme together, Berit Norbakken Solset, Rebekka Nystabakk and I discussed how we could move on from that point in a way that, if it were to provide contrast, would not be too jarring and, if it were to continue in a similar mood, would not cause over-saturation or monotony. Almost all the pieces had fallen into place and we were left only with Sorrow Stay, also by Dowland. On paper it looked like we were about to have too much misery in one go, as Sorrow Stay – although in a different key – has a similar sort of gravity to In Darknesse. However, by means of the shift of perspective that naturally occurred through the change of singer (I sang In Darknesse and Berit Norbakken Solset Sorrow Stay) – underlined by a radical key change (from a half cadence to E-major in the Phrygian mode to a g-minor chord) – we made the two songs stand apart dramaturgically in a convincing way. The first-person lyrics in both songs suggested that they were part of a single story being told, but if I was the sole subject – singing and playing – of In Darknesse, then the first-person subject of Sorrow Stay – sung by Berit Norbakken Solset – was split: she was seated at the back wall of the stage while I remained close to centre stage. Thus, given my visually more prominent position, it was as if I represented the main subject of the song through playing only, with Berit Norbakken Solset voicing, as it were, the lyrics on my behalf. The effect was that of a gradual rise out of the introvert misery of In Darknesse, through the comforting voice of another. I continued this mental trajectory through the next piece, a variation I made on Dowland’s solo A Dreame, during which the goal was to reach a lighter, brighter state of mind and a position on the opposite side of the stage. The rise in mood was mirrored by my standing up from my chair while playing the solo.

Berit Norbakken Solset / Solmund Nystabakk
Photo: Daniel Lilleeng

I have shown how in the sequence Macbeth – In Darknesse Let Mee Dwell – Sorrow Stay, we created a dramaturgically coherent “scene” through an approach that acknowledged singing and playing, lyrics, staging and spatial relationships, pacing, and dramatic intensity as equally significant elements. This is but an example of our work approach for the entire performance. In order to do this, our work process involved various modes of engagement: conceptual (and practical) planning and ordering of sequences of pieces; trying out musical material and transitions (for instance, we tried In Darknesse sung by Berit Norbakken Solset after my monologue); run-throughs of pieces and sequences of pieces with staging; discussions assessing the choice of content and solutions, as well as observations about the performances, etc. Through this multi-modal work process, I felt that I could make more out of the potential of the music – the inherent properties of songs and solos, that is – while also drawing on a much wider array of impulses and ideas for the musical renditions. The process also involved a mode of collaboration in which each participant contributes with a specific field of expertise while the group also engages on equal terms in discussion and decision making about every aspect of the work[27].

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Singing with the lute – In search of new tools in lute song performance

PhD project in Artistic Research by Solmund Nystabakk,

Research fellow at UiT The Arctic University of Norway and NMH The Norwegian Academy of Music

Main supervisor: Associate professor Jostein Gundersen, University of Bergen / Grieg Academy

Co-supervisor: Professor Kate Maxwell, UiT The Arctic University of Norway

Assessment committee:

Associate professor Eivind Buene, Norwegian Academy of Music (chair)

Professor Deniz Peters, Kunstuniversität Graz

Dr. Elisabeth Belgrano, Inter Arts Center, Malmö, Lund University


My supervisors Jostein Gundersen and Kate Maxwell for their skill, focus and unwavering trust and support.

My collaborators in the final artistic presentation: Berit Norbakken Solset and Rebekka Nystabakk

Other collaborators: Ben Crystal, Geir Davidsen, Ingrid Eliassen, Sunniva Eliassen, Marianna Henriksson, Louna Hosia, Janne Marja-Aho, Halvor Festervoll Melien, Pekka Silén and Debi Wong

Singing teacher: Wenche Maria Jentoft

UiT Staff: Hanna Horsberg Hansen, Kjell Magne Mælen, Hanne Hammer Stien and Silje Bræck Tøllefsen

NMH Staff: Birgitte Oppegaard Pollen

Research Catalogue Wizard Jonas Howden Sjøgaard

The Vancouver crew: Katherine Alpen, Francis Dowlatabadi, Matt Reznek, Joylyn Secunda, Libby Willoughby and Zach Wolfman

Other helpers: Nicolas Achten, David and Hilary Crystal, Dirk de Hertogh, David Hill, Martin Shepherd and Juliane Zelwies

SPECIAL THANKS TO my family for their patience and support: Annimari Pelli, Nikolai Nystabakk, Martti Nystabakk, Rakel and Rebekka Nystabakk, Terje Nystabakk and Ann Katrin Sætrevik

  1. Early modern English refers to the period from ca. 1500-1660. See (“English language,” 2020) ↩︎

  2. Original Pronunciation (OP) is the term used by practitioners and researchers including my main sources David and Ben Crystal, to signify historical accent in speech. I am aware that the use of the term “original” is problematic but have chosen to use it here because it is an established term. ↩︎

  3. “The abbreviation RP (Received Pronunciation) denotes what is traditionally considered the standard accent of people living in London and the southeast of England and of other people elsewhere who speak in this way.” Encyclopædia Britannica s.v. “English language” (2020). ↩︎

  4. Middle English refers to the period from ca. 1100-1500. See (“Middle English language,” 2020) ↩︎

  5. Sir Henry Lee was one of Elizabeth’s favourite courtiers and manager of the courtly jousting tournaments held each year on 17 November to commemorate the Queen’s accession to the throne. In these tournaments, Sir Henry assumed the role of personal champion to the Queen, “proudly wearing the Queen’s colours and leading out the Challengers onto the tiltyard against the Defenders.” (Simpson, 2016) ↩︎ ↩︎

  6. The divide between professional and amateur players is somewhat problematic in the musical culture of the 16th and early 17th century. Members of the nobility could achieve a high level of performance without ever being considered “professionals” because that would have defined them as working people. However, the middle-class music lovers, for whose domestic performance the printed songbooks were mainly intended, were what we would today call amateurs, and thus needed clear instructions in the form of lute parts in tablature. ↩︎

  7. I admit to having doubts about using the term “work” about lute songs or other repertoire that predates the musical work-concept as described by Lydia Goehr (Goehr, 1992). Treitler indeed uses the term work in his argument, but I prefer to talk about pieces of music instead as a less ideologically charged term. Or, to cite Goehr, “the work-concept is not a necessary category within musical production” (Goehr, 1992, p. 114). ↩︎

  8. Historical techniques for adding voices to a single melodic line are discussed, for instance, in Barnabé Janin’s book Chanter sur le livre (Janin, 2014) ↩︎

  9. For a spirited defense of the aesthetic contemplation of music, see Kivy, 1995 pp. 253-255. ↩︎

  10. I discuss anachronism as an artistic tool in RECLAIMING ARTISTIC RESPONSIBILITY, section IV. ↩︎

  11. See Widdicombe (1995) ↩︎

  12. Another reason to look for other framing concepts for lute songs is that, as Lydia Goehr has shown, the work-concept in classical music emerged only in the 19th century, two centuries later than the lute song repertoire (Goehr, 1992). ↩︎

  13. Contrafactum (from medieval Lat. contrafacere: ‘to imitate’, ‘counterfeit’, ‘forge’). In vocal music, the substitution of one text for another without substantial change to the music. (Falck & Picker, 2001) ↩︎

  14. 87% voted against in the referendum in Finnmark in May 2018, and the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation NRK reported that in Troms, 73% were against (NRK, 2018a, 2018b) ↩︎

  15. In my project I dealt with this issue also by means of open rehearsals and workshops, see METHODS, section 2.3. ↩︎

  16. See the episode on Cipriano de Rore’s madrigal Amor che mi credevo on Elam Rotem’s Early Music Sources: ↩︎

  17. ↩︎

  18. In his two volumes of frottole, Bossinensis included a number of short preludes, specifying multiple songs to which each prelude can be used. As is probably clear by now, this testifies to the exemplary nature of the preludes – a genre that was generally improvised more often than not. Their function is specific, whereas the content is generic so that any given prelude may serve as introduction to different songs regardless of, say, their textual content and character. Moreover, as the tablature leaves performance parameters like tempo, articulation and phrasing unspecified, there is considerable freedom to adapt a prelude to the actual piece and situation in which it is used, as Sorini’s example demonstrates. ↩︎

  19. Petrarch is not certainly identified as author of the poem, which is a variant of his Zefiro torna. It is possible that Petrarch is the author of both variants or that Tromboncino set a variant that he made or received from somebody else. The question of authorship doesn’t affect the central points of my discussion here, but the uncertainties are interesting in the light of the frottola’s origins as an orally transmitted genre. For more details, see Abramov-van Rijk, E. (2009). ↩︎

  20. A couplet is a double line in a poem, an octave a stanza of eight lines. Zefiro spira is an example of the form ottava rima, which is commonly found in the frottola repertoire, and is a variant of the strambotto, a type of verse that comprises several rhyme patterns. See (“Strambotto,” 2018). ↩︎

  21. Nynorsk is one of two norms for written Norwegian language, see (“Norwegian language,” 2011). ↩︎

  22. A term coined by the English poet and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) to designate an act of creating in transmission. The Indian poet, translator, and publisher Purushottama Lal (1929-2010) later used the word about the act of translating creative texts. In Norwegian, the equivalent term is gjendiktning, a word in common use. (Brady, 2016) ↩︎

  23. See METHODS, section 1.1. ↩︎

  24. Our arrangement of the beginning of Ancor che col partire was based on Berit Norbakken Solset’s idea. ↩︎

  25. The stage area was level with the floor, so performers and audience were on the same level. The seats were on risers of a different colour from the stage floor, and I made sure that the chairs of the first row were so close to the edge that the people seated there must inevitably have their feet on the stage. ↩︎

  26. Mine Dogantan-Dack has discussed the learning that happens in performance in “The Alchemy Project” (2008) ↩︎

  27. This method has been a prominent feature of two of my earlier collaborations with Rebekka Nystabakk, Happy Birthday Putin (Vo & Nystabakk, 2011) and Apokalypse da (Vo & Nystabakk, 2014).