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Trial by fire

Trial By Fire - Keegan Article image
| December 2, 2014

Trial By Fire - Keegan Article imageIt takes courage to step outside the boundaries of a successful career in a musical genre and perform in a very different setting, on stage, in front to an audience. Gambist Jenny Eriksson has decided to do just that.

When Jenny expressed an interest to play with musicians from a jazz persuasion I jumped at the possibility of writing for this ancient instrument and exploring new blends of sounds and textures. A one-off performance for SIMA (Sydney Improvised Music Association) would be the perfect opportunity to compose and present some new work and explore some cross genre blending.

I’ve always been attracted to the sound of the gamba. Like the saxophone it has an inherent lyrical quality that lends itself well to expression through melodic content in a singing style. The timbre of the instrument is very evocative, sad and sweet with a lyrical soul. Again, similar to certain types of saxophone playing.

I was exposed to early music from a young age, as many of my first music teachers in my formative years were specialists in this genre – in fact Miss Eriksson was one of them. Although my personal musical path took a different route, I still enjoy the melody, harmony, lilt and feeling of the baroque period.

I am led to believe that Jenny’s interest in performing outside the boundaries of acoustic period music led her to acquire a new instrument, the electric gamba. This would allow her to compete in otherwise unfriendly (perhaps more dynamically challenging) musical environments. It seems to me an instrument full of potential, maintaining the sweetness of the original but with an edge. There are also all the obvious options that come with amplification; think of all the sounds capable with an electric guitar. The dynamic range of an electric instrument provides different challenges compared to acoustic ones. This means a new understanding of how to blend must be established – one’s role in the music is often drastically changed. In fact, playing in a band with drums and electric guitar presents a totally new concept of ‘blending in’ altogether. At the moment, however, Jenny’s style is still refined, staying true to the more subtle nature of the acoustic instrument. It will be interesting to listen as her confidence with being plugged in develops.

New style, new Instrument – a true trial by fire

The music I composed was initially inspired by the harmonic possibilities inherent to the open strings of the gamba combined with the compatible keys and sounds of my instrument of choice for the performance, the baritone saxophone. An initial rehearsal based on some musical sketches yielded enough positive results to merit further exploration of my ideas. The lyrical nature and timbre of the instruments matched nicely.

There were of course plenty of challenges to overcome. Most glaring were our different rhythmic feels. Each musical genre has a very different relationship to rhythm and pulse. It is this rhythmic sense that provides the foundation for the whole feeling of that particular style of music. Classical music has a very different sense of pulse to jazz. It is much more fluid and tied to the phrasing of the melody of the main instrument. Jazz is a beat-based music. The beat is paramount, and all other musical devices are hung off it and supported by it. Tension is created by phrasing against the beat as opposed to the group following the soloist.

Another challenge was the concept of form and structure. As improvisers, jazz musicians have a strong understanding of form, how to manipulate it, and their relationship to it. Some of the structures I chose to use were not immediately compatible with the sixteenth century. Jenny also expressed some concerns of her own. Getting used to playing repetitive riffs was one and feeling the sense of jazz syncopation was another. Challenges aside, the music flowed. My sensitive and accommodating band mates helped provide cohesion between the instruments and styles.

I am grateful for the opportunity Jenny has afforded me to try something new, and I am also inspired by her leap of faith into the unknown, embracing a challenge like this in a new way. I am looking forward to our 2014 performance on 10 October at the Sound Lounge. This concert is being recorded and will be potentially broadcast on 2MBS FM pending a successful musical outcome. So for those interested please stay tuned.

Here’s to embracing the new and standing up to the little voice in our heads that can sometimes hold us back from exploration, letting go and simply having fun. Nothing ventured nothing gained I say.

Editor’s note: This article is related to recent article by Philip Pogson, In Praise of Small

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