Thursday 17 December 2020

A sense of sharing material with each other: lutenist Ronn McFarlane and gambist Carolyn Surrick in Fermi's Paradox:

Fermi's Paradox; Ronn McFarlane, Carolyn Surrick; Sono Luminus

Fermi's Paradox
; Ronn McFarlane, Carolyn Surrick; Sono Luminus

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 17 December 2020 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
A viola da gamba, a lute and a repertoire which ranges from Telemann and Marais to traditional music to contemporary; a delightful disc which arose directly out the lockdown experiences of two distinguished musicians

This delightful new disc, Fermi's Paradox from lutenist Ronn McFarlane and viola da gamba player Carolyn Surrick on Sono Luminus is sui generis. Both instrumentalists come at the music from an Early Music background, and both play in a variety of distinguished period instrument ensembles in North America, but both have a folk-influence in their make-up too, and both write music. The album arose directly out of this year's lockdown; with emptied diaries and living within 20 miles of each other, weekly get togethers developed into an idea for an album.

The music is wide-ranging and eclectic. There are traditional tunes, there is John Dowland's only piece for two instruments, there is music by Telemann, Gounod, Marin Marais, and more. There is Little Martha, originally recorded by the Allman Brothers. I think that one thing all the music does is sing. At the back of the more classical pieces you can hear the influence of the folk musics of Europe, and this permeates the whole disc. The duo are not constrained by their instruments, Surrick can make her viola gamba really sing whilst McFarlane's lutes can evoke anything from blue grass to a rhythm section.

The title track, by Ronn McFarlane is an engaging introduction into this seductive sound-world, where neither instrument quite sounds like itself and where a wind seems to be constantly blowing from the Appalachians.

Fermi's Paradox is inspired by a story about the brilliant Italian physicist Enrico Fermi (1901-1954) who was walking with friends at work one morning and said something like this, “It is mathematically impossible to imagine that there is not intelligent life out there in the universe.” When they were sitting in the cafeteria later that day, out of the blue, he said, “So, where are they?” All of his friends knew exactly what he was talking about. 

The programme was put together by trial and error, what they liked, what fitted, what worked. This means that there are engaging and intriguing juxtapositions. One set mixes a traditional Swedish song, a new piece by Surrick and Marin Marais, whilst the traditional Irish tune She moves through the fair is paired with the traditional English John Barleycorn

Rather often, these discs of classical musicians moving through other repertoire can seem somewhat contrived. A record producer's idea of what a relaxed evening mixing and matching might be. But here there is a genuine feeling of engagement and enjoyment here, a sense of sharing material with each other, the idea that after each tune someone says 'if that then this', or 'do listen to this'.

Whilst the pair are joined by percussionist Jackie Moran, the majority of the tracks are surprisingly just lute and viola da gamba. When they started off, they didn't have a lot of repertoire in common so this is music they have discovered, have wanted to play. The new pieces on the disc arise out of personal links, McFarlane’s Daniel’s Chaconne and Trinity Grove are both tributes to friends, whilst Surrick’s The Last Day reflects the weight of deep loss.

On the disc McFarlane plays a 10-course lute by Travis Carey, Vancouver, BC, Canada (2016) and an 11-course lute by Andrew Rutherford, New York (1991), converted to a 13-course lute by David Brown, Baltimore, MD in 2012. Sturrick's viola da gamba was built by Marc Soubeyran in 1995, her strings were made by Damian Dlugolecki in 2020, and her bow is by Harry Grabenstein. She credits the instrument, strings, and bow with the extraordinary resonance heard on this recording.

1. Fermi’s Paradox (2018) – Ronn McFarlane (5:13)
2. She Moved Through the Fair – Traditional Irish (6:04)
    John Barleycorn – Traditional English
3. Gånglåt efter Hamare – Traditional Swedish (7:11)
    The Last Day (2020) – Carolyn Surrick
    Gigue la petite (1714) – Marin Marais (1656-1728)
4. Blackwater Side – Traditional Irish arr. Ronn McFarlane (2:47)
5. The Rose of Raby – Dave Shepherd (3:59)
6. Amazing Grace – John Newton (1725-1807), Tune of “New Britain” (2:59)
7. Daniel’s Chaconne (2013) – Ronn McFarlane (4:52)
8. Trinity Grove (2019) – Ronn McFarlane (4:21)
9. Cantabile (TWV 41:e5) – G.F. Telemann (1681-1767) (2:57)
10. Dowland’s Adew for Master Oliver Cromwell – John Dowland (1563-1626) (4:39)
11. O Sacred Head (1601) – Hans Leo Hassler (1564-1612), Harmonized by J.S. Bach (1685-1750) (2:48)
12. Come Thou Fount (1758) – Robert Robinson (1735-1790) (4:21)
    Sjungar-Lars Visa – Traditional Swedish
13. Little Martha (1971) – Duane Allman (1946-1971) (2:26)
14. Planxty O’Rourke, Second Air – Turlough O’Carolan (1670-1738) (2:52)
15. Ave Maria (1853) – Melody by Gounod (1818-1893), Based on the Prelude from BWV 846 by J.S. Bach (3:04)
Carolyn Surrick (viola da gamba)
Ronn McFarlane (lutes)
Jackie Moran (percussion)
Recorded at Sono Luminus Studios, Boyce, Virginia — June 15-19, 2020

Available from Amazon.

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