When 17th Century England went into lockdown and the Puritans closed playhouses and theatres, musicians and performers took to the backrooms of taverns and alehouses to vent their anarchy.
Roughly 400 years later, the Barokksolistene created the Alehouse Sessions, a project in which they perform folk melodies, sea-shanties, bawdy ballads and cheeky ditties alongside ayres and dances by Purcell and Playford in tribute to the sonic world of 17th century English tavern music.
On 23 April, BBC4 brings The Ale House Sessions to screens in a new film directed by Dominic Best, capturing the sound world of rebellious London under Oliver Cromwell’s draconian laws.
In this blog, Bjarte Eike, director of the Barokksolistene, explains the genesis of the Alehouse Sessions.
So how did a bunch of Scandinavian baroque musicians get a pub gig in one of London’s oldest taverns in Southwark singing sea-shanties and bawdy ballads alongside exquisite Purcell? Well, we can thank the Puritans of 17th-Century England for inspiring a spirit of rebellion which has been passed down in popular culture through the centuries. No doubt the anti-establishment punk scene of the Sex Pistols has its roots 300 years before that. So this is how my group the Barokksolistene’s course was set – to search out the era’s subversive spirit and show that this is just pop music, albeit a bit older.
More often than not, we associate baroque music with Handel’s Water Music or the Messiah, i.e. music of the court and church. When a couple of decades earlier Oliver Cromwell’s draconian laws prohibited excess and closed down the playhouses and theatres, musicians and performers sought refuge in backrooms of alehouses and taverns. These sowed the seeds of rebellion. This anarchic spirit is certainly present in Purcell and this is what we wanted to explore – before music became formalised into “art-music” with the expectation of conforming to the composer’s wishes and sticking to the notes written on the page.
Before classical music became real art music and the composer had all the power, artistic freedom was a lot higher for performers. Musicians were expected to demonstrate improvisational and ornamental skills throughout the medieval, renaissance and baroque periods, but the amount of improvisation and the way in which they responded to the audience would depend on the occasion. For example, there would be a certain amount of ornamentation within the Gloria sung at church, but not any adaptation based on the audience’s response. In a tavern or on the streets, the artistic freedom would naturally be a lot higher as the musicians would be free to respond and change to whatever audience might be at hand.
It was this idea which acted as the catalyst for creating the Alehouse Sessions, which has now caught the keen eye of filmmaker Dominic Best, who will be bringing us to your screens on BBC4 on Sunday 23 April.
So how did it all start? The initial impetus came from creating a series of informal concerts for a festival in Norway. Prior to that, I had already dabbled in folk and pop bands as a teenager and student. When I studied in Bergen, my band and I also briefly worked for Guinness when they ceremoniously opened new taps in Norwegian pubs in the early 90s.
It was also during my time at the Grieg Academy in Bergen that I came across the early music. I had dynamic teachers who were curious, combining research with performance and always trying to connect history with the present. This was a perfect direction for my musical studies to follow as it meant I could combine my musical taste and interest in the folk world with an understanding and interpretation of the written music. It was also a rebellion against the mainstream classical and romantic world which was so predominant in music studies back then.
Then I came across a book of Playford dance tunes. The music was only faintly sketched out – just a melody with no tempo indications or harmony – which meant that musicians were expected to flesh out the harmony and adapt to whatever instruments were available.
This was a different kind of baroque music – the popular ballads, not ceremonial masses, coronations and weddings. It made me explore further books on English drinking establishments and what happened when Cromwell introduced prohibition. I realised that we couldn’t just play English music and not consider where it was performed. The public house is such an integral part of the English culture – it’s neutral ground, regardless of age or sex – it’s a place to escape reality where chatting and gossiping thrive. And so in 2008, when I was engaged as the artist in residence at the Bergen international Festival, one of the programmes I presented was the Alehouse Sessions.
Over the years, The Alehouse Sessions has evolved but the most defining principle is to adapt to each audience, big, small, young or old. I have a little black book of all the tunes and melodies – more than 4 hours of music by now – we play and it’s only an hour before each concert that I tell the players what music we will play that evening. This has meant we have to be a bunch of highly flexible musicians – completely different from the training we acquired in conservatoires. We improvise everything – no two performances are the same, mistakes are part of it and that risk is part of the fun. Audiences feed off this as much as the musicians, not just in terms of humour but spontaneity.
Of course, we all know when we have broken the established rules but all of our choices are historically-informed. How we are different from most traditional baroque players is that most of us don’t just play baroque, everyone is expected to sing, dance, move, play multiple instruments and generally muck around. All of us have another string to our bow – Hans Knut Sveen plays anything from harpsichord to harmonium; Frederik Bock plays any kind of continuo – guitar, lute, theorbo and any style up to blue grass; Johannes Lundberg’s roots are in jazz, Milos Valent is one of the greatest Slovak folk string players. Steven Player might be in his 60s but he is the most agile of us all, an unstoppable pony-tailed dancing Romeo and I for one have found a new thrill in jumping out of aeroplanes and teaching yoga.
Anyway, in case you were wondering if we were just a bunch of males with a mid-life crisis, we also have a gorgeous cameo appearance from soprano Mary Bevan singing irresistible Purcell.
See below for a trailer to the film on April 23