Rolf Lislevand, Improvising with 'Nuove Musiche' Norwegian baroque guitarist Rolf Lislevand offers a 21st-century take on music written around 1600. He drops by NPR's Studio 4A to perform with instruments exotic to modern ears, and tell Liane Hansen about the CD Nuove Musiche.
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Rolf Lislevand, Improvising with 'Nuove Musiche'

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Rolf Lislevand, Improvising with 'Nuove Musiche'

Rolf Lislevand, Improvising with 'Nuove Musiche'

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From NPR News, this is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Liane Hansen.

Four hundred years ago, what we consider to be early music was new, new to the people who played it, and new to the people who heard it. After the dense harmonies of the 16th century, composers broke away and began to write in a simpler style, one which incorporated the musician's improvisational talents. However, many contemporary musicians play the pieces as closely as possible to the way they were played when they were written.

Here's an example from the composer Frescobaldi.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: That's a 1997 recording with singer Jennifer Lane accompanied by Timothy Burris.

Norwegian baroque guitarist Rolf Lislevand and his group present a different interpretation on a new CD aptly titled Nuove Musiche. They create a fresh, 21st century sound with percussion and a jazzy double bass to back up vocalist Arianna Savall.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: Rolf Lislevand now joins us in NPR Studio 4A.

It's a pleasure to have you and your instruments here, Rolf. Welcome.

Mr. ROLF LISLEVAND (musician): Thank you.

HANSEN: This project, Nouve Musiche, is not just music. According to the press material, it has, quote, "all the earmarks of a manifesto." Is there a manifesto? What's your manifesto here?

Mr. LISLEVAND: Well, we're talking about a very special moment in music history, in the very beginning of the 17th century in Florence, in Italy, when people, very educated people, scholars, scientists, musicians, came together and decided to revise the whole century of music which had been before them. And they wanted to make a new music, and actually one of the books of compositions recently, which came out of Julio Caccini, was called Nouve Musiche, the new music.

And they proposed pallets of new colors, of new sounds, new instruments, and new harmonies. So they left us a fantastic material which even today seems experimental and modern.

HANSEN: Is it possible to really play early music the way it was played when it was written?

Mr. LISLEVAND: I don't think it's possible, and I'm not really sure if it's really so interesting to try to do that either. We don't really want to do museums somehow in music. We want to be creative musicians as well.

I think what is possible is to try to find the elements of style which made this music so special. And once we find these elements of style, it's like we try to put it together and use that as our own language of expression.

HANSEN: We're going to hear some of that music played now in the 21st century. You brought two instruments with you. The first one you already have in your lap. It's a baroque guitar. Tell us what you're going to play on it and how it fits in to the whole project that you've taken on to have us listen to this music in a different way.

Mr. LISLEVAND: Well, as a famous composer in his own time, Robert DeVesesses(ph) says, who's a guitar composer and guitar player, the instrument wants a different type of music. And this instrument, which is not able to play a really polyphonic, more voices, not actually really able to play very complex music. But it's a color type of instrument. It doesn't have any bases, its a very light, transparent color of the sound, which is one of the aspects of the new music.

HANSEN: Now there are ten strings, two grouped in groups around...

Mr. LISLEVAND: Right. Double strings, they're all gut strings, and they're all played with the very fingertip; no nails, no plastic strings. It's a really very organic and even would say very sensual way of producing sound somehow. There is nothing between the physical body and the instrument itself.

HANSEN: And explain the music you're going to play for us.

Mr. LISLEVAND: Well, this is all music based on what we call basso spinato(ph), obstinate(ph) basses. So there is a very simple line, which isn't a bass or which is in a harmony. At this point this line is a kind of descending variation.

Something like this...

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: So it's like a repeating pattern.

Mr. LISLEVAND: It's yeah, exactly. I mean, one could say kind of a blues pattern, actually. But it's, well, it's a different aesthetic. But upon these, the composer, they wrote variations that probably would have been also played not as compositions but improvised at periods.

HANSEN: Let's hear what you're going to do.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: Rolf Lislevand playing his baroque guitar here in Studio 4A. What was the piece you just played for us?

Mr. LISLEVAND: We heard part of Hakaras, which was a Spanish dance, followed by the Passacaglia Andaluz, which is some kind of more actual improvisation on the same basis.

HANSEN: It's music that works so best in an intimate kind of setting. I mean it's perfect obviously for hearing a recording of it because you could stick your headphones on and be lost in your own world. But how do you keep that intimacy in a studio?

Mr. LISLEVAND: Well, I think all music needs intimacy and like modern music, even, I would say even like rock music, it uses intimacy. What people do today is that we use amplifiers and we come, we come very close to the music. I mean even a stadium rock concert with 40,000 people, you're very close to the instrument because it's all amplified so it's all up front, you know, with big screens and everything, you're very close to it. In the (unintelligible) instruments and in the 17th century, that was actually the same thing. People were use to sitting like around the table listening to music and the public were no, seldom more than 12 or 15 people, which allowed the same type of intimacy. If I would play as I do now just in front of you, the sound impact and the kind of closeness and everything is really present.

So somehow what the studio does, it reconstructs a missing social context for the music.

HANSEN: You have another instrument with you. Well, it looks like a bit lute is what it looks like, but it actually has a very interesting name and I want to make sure I pronounce it properly. It's theorbo.

Mr. LISLEVAND: Theorbo.

HANSEN: Theorbo. Describe it.

Mr. LISLEVAND: It's kind of the king of the lutes. It was a Renaissance lute, half pear shaped instrument with a, with a fingerboard on it. And it became kind of the king with this beautiful long extension allowing another six bass strings to run on the fingerboard. You know, what happened in the beginning of the 17th century was that in all arts became interest in the extremes like light and shadow, like obscurity and light. That's just what the theorbo does. And it is a complete bass range instrument and it is somehow the chiaroscuro part, the dark part of the lute family.

HANSEN: Let us hear that. If you could run, visit the dark side and light side of the instrument.

Mr. LISLEVAND: Yeah, we can go just from the middle of the instrument. If we go down in the range, and come down to a real deep G there.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: I have to say people in the 17th century had great names for instruments.

Theorbo. Do you know where the name came from?

Mr. LISLEVAND: Well, in Italy they say atheorbato(ph), which is something which is an extension which is prolonged.

HANSEN: You're going to play it for us. Tell us a little bit about the tune that you will play.

Mr. LISLEVAND: Well I play a toccata. Toccata means to touch in Italian, and actually you touch the strings to just try to find the sound of the instrument. And you touch the atmosphere you want to create. And toccata was probably also a improvised form which became a composition form later.

HANSEN: Who is the composer of this toccata?

Mr. LISLEVAND: It's a Balinese composer in the north of Italy who's called Alessandro Picinnini(ph).

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: Rolf Lislevand playing a toccata by Alessandro Picinnini on the theorbo here in Studio 4A.

You actually teach lute. You're a professor of lute, historical performance practice, a school in Southern, Germany. What do you tell your students about how to approach this music?

Mr. LISLEVAND: The first thing I tell is that we have to try to know as much as we can. Then after everything, which is actually not as much as one would hope for but once we have, we know the source material, and we've read the sources, then we find there is a lot of things we still don't know. As for the students, the most important thing is to make a good chemistry between a kind of scientific archeologic work on one side, and a creative musician's work on the other side. Well, this archeology side is a little bit like dig down in the earth and find pieces of pottery, and put them together and understand what the shape of this pottery was once. There will be piece lacking when you do that, missing pieces, but still you can understand this shape.

And it's the same thing we do with the music in a certain sense. We put together the elements we have. We think we understand it at a certain point, what is the basic shape of this piece of music or the style of music. But then we have to make it work. We have to use it in a way. And its ability to be used also may depend on our modern sensibility. And that is why I think it's important to talk about not so much historical performance practices, but about historically informed performance practices. Or even you could say maybe, I think you could say an English historical perceived practice, how things are received or perceived by a person.

HANSEN: We have time for one more piece. But before you play us out, I want to say thank you very much for coming in, Rolf Lislevand.

Mr. LISLEVAND: It's my pleasure. Thank you.

HANSEN: What piece of music do you want to leave us with?

Mr. LISLEVAND: Well, I'll end with a small dance of a Spanish composer Gus Persans(ph). It's called Canarios(ph), and it's a light, lively baroque guitar dance.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: Rolf Lislevand's new CD on the ECM label is called Nuove Musiche. Our feature was produced by Ned Wharton and Andrew Lyman and recorded by Chris Nelson. For more music you can go to our website, This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

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