Newsletter No. 40 January 2013
Contemporary Music on Lute
by David van Ooijen

Our Belgian LGS-member Gilbert Isbin is no ordinary lute player content with playing early Music only. He started playing guitar at the age of 18, quite late in fact. And from Leonard Cohen, The Beatles and The Stones his musical taste wandered in the direction of John Renbourn, a folk guitarist who was heavily influenced by early music. This stimulated Gilbert to make his own arrangements of Renaissance and Baroque music for his duo with a recorder player. Improvisation was already a part of his music back then. Next, music by John McLaughlin and Leo Brouwer led him to jazz and contemporary classical music.

About four years ago Gilbert decided to realise a long-fostered plan: he took up the lute with the specific aim of making modern music on the instrument. By now he has published several books with contemporary lute music, and gives concerts playing his own music (have a look on and he has made a CD together with bass player Scott Walton featuring his own compositions and comprovisations, as he calls them. I enjoy the CD for the new ideas it presents. New ideas on music and new ideas on what to do with a lute. The music on Recall is in a new idiom for lute, different from the traditional early music but also different from the jazzed-up early music that is so fashionable lately. Also, it is not guitar music played on a lute but music written for lute. The style of the music is somewhere in between contemporary classical music and free jazz, but labeling it doesn’t do it justice as for me it is outside any boundaries.

Gilbert’s 8-course Renaissance lute is used to full advantage in melodic as well as polyphonic passages; it is lute music indeed. Scott Walton’s bass has an equal share in the music and is not confined to playing bass lines but shares and exchanges melodic and rhythmic material with the lute in equal dialogue. The recording is done with fairly close micing, giving a detailed image of what is happening and drawing the listener into the music. But I wonder what will be left of all the subtle nuances in tone colour when this music is played life on a stage.

I asked Gilbert about his motivations and ideas behind his music. He told me his musical background was decisive in his choices: ‘When I was 18 my friends played folk, blues and jazz. There was a spirit of xperimenting all around. Folk was mixed with jazz and rock (Pentangle, Jethro Tull, Fairport Convention) and blues became loud and amplified (Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin). Jazz evolved into free improvisation and mixed with rock and contemporary classical music (John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, Cecil Taylor, the Mahavishnu Orchestra). John McLaughlin played Indian music on his guitar; everything was possible. Musicians were expected, especially because under the influence of The Beatles, to stand out with their own work.’ This, and the fact that he did not have any formal training as a musician, never confined Gilbert to the standard repertoire and instead he made his own music. He feels an instrument should not be linked to its past only. But he does use a lute technique, he took lessons for that, and he feels the character of the instrument influences his compositions. He respects the soft and ethereal sound of the fragile instrument and uses open strings where possible, writes more monophonic melodic lines, bass lines and polyphony passages. For him, a lute demands lyricism, impressionism and what he terms ‘sadjoy’. His atonal experiments often become less atonal after reworking them to clarify melodic lines. Also, he studies the composing techniques of early lute composers. Most of his compositions start in improvisations, another aspect that for him is part of the tradition in lute music. For Gilbert improvisation is equal to composing. Some of his improvisations are written out and are the basis of more worked out compositions. On the CD with Scott there are a number completely written-out pieces (Weaving, Recall), some compositions with partial improvisations (Along Green Ditches, Embra) and completely improvised pieces (Flutter, Pensive).

As a relative outsider in the lute world, Gilbert has mixed feelings about the strive for so-called authenticity or historically informed performance practice. ‘When I was young the lute revival was regarded as progressive. But what is authenticity? I spent months learning a thumb-in technique because it is authentic, and then I read that Dowland changed to thumbout towards the end of his life. There is no audio, only tablatures and occasionally contradictory information on how to play the lute. Then how can you say who is playing historically authentic?’
Gilbert says he  always played the music he heard in his head and was never influenced by what is fashionable, and still continues to do so now. I invite you to listen to his CD and to find out what new music can be made on such an old instrument.

If you want  to try Gilbert’s music hands-on, you can do so by ordering his new book Reflection – 20 Contemporary Lute Compositions (Lantro Music, 2012095182. The music is not easy, but all is playable and well-suited to the instrument. All can be played on a  6-course Renaissance lute.

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