Viola da gamba player Laura Vaughan introduces her ensemble’s debut album of Italianate jewels.
Exclusive track: Latitude 37 – Caccini’s Amarilli Mia Bella
Where does the name Latitude 37 come from?
It describes the make-up of our group, being from Australia and New Zealand. If you go east of Melbourne on the 37th latitude, you reach New Zealand, which is where our harpsichordist is from. We didn’t want to go down the road of choosing a foreign or Italian name like many early music groups do; we wanted something that reflected our identity. Plus, we wanted a name with attitude!
How did you, Julia Fredersdorff (Baroque violin) and Donald Nicolson (harpsichord and organ) meet and come to form the trio?
All of us were students at The Hague Royal Conservatory at one time or another, so how we all know each other is through this common connection of The Hague, which is where many Baroque musicians study. We never actually got to play all together when we were in Holland, but as we returned to this part of the world one by one, we decided that we wanted to get together and form a trio in 2009. What we’ve found is that we love playing together and we’ve also become really good friends, which we find gives things a whole extra level to what we do as an ensemble.
Is there a certain approach to Baroque music at The Hague that helped you forge this musical bond?
There aren’t that many places where you can go to specialise in early music. The Hague offers quite a practical approach that balances scholarship and the realisation of the things that you learn in an academic way. There’s just a lot of playing, a lot of informal playing, so the students all play together all the time. You get this very hands-on immersion in Baroque music. So all three of us have been through that approach of just trying things, so one of us will find a book with some piece in it rather than sit down and look at it and think, “Okay, well, how are we going to approach this?” We just throw it on the music stands and play and work things out on the hop.
Is this how the three of you went about constructing the program for the album?
We spent at least a year just thinking over the type of program that we wanted to put together. All of us really love 17th-century Italian music, and one of the things we love about it is the amount of personality that you can pour into the music, because it’s just often just a frame, and there was such a culture during the 17th century of ornamentation; it means that there was also the expectation during that period that the performance would just add a whole heap of stuff themselves.
The composer provides you with this framework through ground basses, and we all enjoy the individuality that you can get when playing that sort of music. So we knew that’s what we wanted to record, and it’s music that really touches us as well, that we find quite powerful and extraordinarily beautiful.
Previously you’ve compared the improvisation technique in Baroque repertoire to jazz; what do the artforms share?
Well, a typical jazz piece that might give you the tune, just a lick which just suggests the harmony, and the way you realise the harmony in jazz is up to you. And this 17th-century Baroque music is exactly the same. As a jazz musician, you learn licks and all the ways to get from A to B, and it’s exactly that same as 17th-century music.
Are you referring to ornamentation?
Yes, it’s ornamentation, but the ornamentation is more substantial than you might. It’s often the addition of many notes, not just a single trill. Say your original tune might have given you three notes; to ornament those notes you could end up with twenty, twenty-four notes or more. It’s a huge amount of material and you could do that in an infinite number of ways. So the kind of process is quite similar to jazz.
On the album there are a lot of dance forms for which percussion is obviously an important part of creating the mood and the flow of those works.
Percussion makes an enormous difference to the effect of the piece of music, because rhythmic drive is such a fundamental part of this music. And so by adding percussion, it really enhances that so the effect can be much more electrifying. For instance, we open with an improvisation based on a Passamezzo antico by Diego Ortiz. It’s a very stately, processional bass line, and it’s always got a grand, dignified character. And so our guest percussionist Guy du Blêt used a bass drum to create the atmosphere of a noble procession of people entering some big banquet hall; it really helps evoke the different characters of dance styles. For a little saltarello, an Italianate dance, we use a tambourine and suddenly it’s very active and fun and energetic and it sounds like there are people leaping all over the room.
So I guess performing this music is a mix of academic detective work and musical experimentation?
Absolutely. It’s really fun to comb through all those collections of tunes and spot pieces by different composers based on popular tunes. We find that one of the things that make the ensemble work well is that we have complementary strengths as musicians. Donald, particularly, does a huge amount of reading. He’s our go-to early music geek, and goes through early music magazines and articles and books. But even so, we wanted to make an album that people who didn’t really have necessarily any particular interest in Baroque music per se, could listen to and be affected by; something that didn’t rely on you already having listened to Baroque CDs before or really being particularly immersed in that music. We believe that music should be able to speak to listeners no matter whether it’s familiar to them or not.
So what would you say to someone who’s never really given Baroque music a chance?
Sometimes people can have the perception that Baroque music can be dry, very cerebral and refined, when in fact there’s so much fireworks and energy and earthiness in it; it’s music really designed to pull at the emotions. A beautiful tune is a beautiful tune, and Baroque music is absolutely full of them.
There are only two vocal tracks on the album, by Italian composers Caccini and Palestrina. And in these the soprano line is just floated above the instrumentations as more of a texture. You obviously want the instrumental ensembles front and centre.
This is our first disc as a trio, and with our first disc we wanted to establish and communicate our identity as a trio, and to come together with music that showed how much the three of us love working together. We were really lucky to have Guy du Blêt do the percussion for us, and Simon Martyn-Ellis on theorbo player and Baroque guitar. He’s an Australian player that is now living in Cologne, and we’re hoping that he can come back and keep collaborating with us because that added such a great extra dimension. One of the reasons that we added the vocal tracks—we love Siobhan Stagg’s voice—is that the model for everything during the Baroque era was the human voice; it’s the absolute standard for what you should try to be like as an instrumentalist. The disc was not complete without a few bits of the human voice in there. So we have instruments trying to be like voices and a voice trying to be like an instrument; a nice synergy, we enjoyed that.
In addition to your role on viola da gamba, you play lirone on the album. It’s an incredibly rare instrument; what does it bring to the ensemble that can’t be achieved on a gamba?
The lirone is an specialty Italian instrument. It was pretty rare to find it anywhere outside of Italy, and if you did find it outside of Italy, it was often in a court that employed Italian musicians. So it’s a quintessentially Italian continuo instrument; all the lirone does is play chords. It has fourteen strings and the bridge is almost totally flat. It only plays chords, but it does that really beautifully, so the effect is almost like a cross between an organ and a piano accordion.
It almost sounds like a viol consort in itself.
Exactly! It’s like a mobile viol consort. Unlike an organ though, the lirone can play with dynamics, so you can really shape all the chords that you play like the voice. It’s an instrument that’s designed to accompany other instruments and it’s particularly good at accompanying the voice; that’s what the Italians mainly used it for. And interestingly, it has some spiritual associations with death and the afterlife. There’s this great anecdote about the 17th-century composer Giulio Caccini, a great singer, who apparently would go down into the family crypt and play the lirone and sing, accompanying himself, to remind himself that life is short. It’s quite a picture. So it’s an instrument with a very special sound.
Does it still stand at only five musicians in the world playing this instrument? Why don’t more gamba players attempt it?
There are very few of us! It’s a bit complicated to work out, and there are just not many instruments around.
How did you encounter this and first decide to give it a crack?
I was very fortunate that Paul Dyer of the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra bought one, and nobody could play it. He bought it from my viola da gamba teacher from The Hague actually, Philippe Pierlot, who came out to Melbourne in 2004 with his ensemble and brought a lirone with him for a Monteverdi opera. Paul bumped into Philippe backstage at the Melbourne in the Arts Centre and said, “what is that fabulous instrument? I must have it!” A couple of years later it was still sitting there and no one had had the opportunity to really work it out. I gave it a try and just loved it.
Speaking of unusual instruments, you also have a rackett on the album. Could you explain what that is?
The rackett is a fabulous instrument. You would be forgiven for thinking that’s where the word “racket” comes from… As in “making that infernal racket”! But actually the name derives from the same root word as “rocket”. It’s a whopping great bass sound, related to the modern-day bassoon family. Simon Rickard played it for us, and he describes it as looking like a giant wooden shampoo bottle, with a reed stuck in it.