© Marc Gascoigne
SOLO is a new concert series in London dedicated to exploring unusual works for solo musicians, featuring performances by musicians including viola da gamba player Liam Byrne. SOLO is run by composer Alex Groves and I caught up with Liam to chat about how he came to play the viola da gamba, his genre-bending approach to performance and the tracks he’s got on repeat this summer.
First up, tell me a little bit about the viola da gamba – what’s the history behind it and what drew you to it as an instrument?
The instrument is kind of like a cross between a guitar and a cello. It has 6 strings, frets, and is tuned similarly to a guitar, but you hold it like a cello and play it with a bow. The sound is very resonant, warm, and open. It’s definitely a relatable instrument. It flourished in Europe between 1500-1800 and enjoyed different periods of popularity in different countries, although it tended to be used in slightly more complex or refined musical genres, owing in part to its delicate and inherently melancholic nature.
The viola da gamba is in fact not an ancestor of the cello, as is often said; the two came into being around the same time. The viol just didn’t really find a place in the classical concert hall of the late 18th century, so it bit the dust.
I found the viola da gamba at the age of 18 and fell instantly in love with it. I was a frustrated double bass player at the time, and I was seduced by the malleability of its sound, the ease with which it sang, and the wide range of colours it produced.
You’ve played with a number of viol consorts in recent years and, for SOLO, you’re going to be reimagining some of those works with live electronics. Could you explain how you’re putting these together and what drew you to re-interpreting these works in particular?
One of my favourite sub-genres of medieval and renaissance music is that category of pieces whose compositional conceits are so genius or extreme that they transcend their historical age. Even though they are very much products of their time, these pieces appear to us as sounding “almost modern” because something about their structure is bonkers with great intent.
What I’m doing with the laptop is taking a few of my favourite pieces for multiple viols or voices, and by using techniques including delays and looping, will sort of disassemble and reassemble these pieces in front of the audience. I guess it’s using a technological process to highlight the bizarre and beautiful structural aspects of the piece, while still also allowing you to listen to the pretty piece of music more or less as it’s meant to sound.
Your work regularly crosses over from very early music to very new music. What is it about this juxtaposition that excites you and do you have different approaches when working with different types of music?
This is like, three books’ worth of question! The short answer is that living in this juxtaposition keeps things fresh and exciting and always different. But one of the greatest benefits of my slightly schizophrenic career trajectory is that it helps me to see parallels between musical practices that we normally consider disparate. Especially on the classical music side of things, we’re–very wrongly–brought up to believe that no one will be able to understand or appreciate our art unless they are educated and initiated in the Classical Music Tradition.
By working in so many different musical contexts, I often end up playing pieces that don’t “fit” the concert situation, like the time I opened for a Coldplay-esque band in a sticky-floored rock and roll venue in front of a loud, drunken audience and played them the solo viol music of 18th-century composer Karl Friedrich Abel, or the time I played a piece of electronic dance music in a church in an otherwise heavily 19th-century classical chamber music concert (the piece was part of Benjamin Tassie’s Body, which is on the setlist for SOLO).
These experiences have taught me that all music is music, or that classical music is music, too, or something… I haven’t quite worked out what the catchphrase is, yet. I suppose what I’m saying is that lately I find myself in a certain way taking an increasingly similar approach to working with different types of music.
I see you’ve just finished a new sound installation – In Harmony with Dou – at the Dulwich Picture Gallery. Has your work with many contemporary composers led you towards making your own music and are there any more Liam Byrne originals on their way?
I have never really considered myself capable of creating new music, and definitely would never go near using the word composer. I’ve always classed myself as an interpretative artist, being at my most creative within boundaries set by another person, or by the stylistic rules of an historical practice. But through collaboration, especially the work I’ve done with Martin Parker and Valgeir Sigurðsson, I’ve gained a lot of confidence in using my instrument as an original voice.
It has a lot to do with learning to listen texturally and gesturally, instead of just focussing primarily on pitch and rhythm. It’s an exciting new development for me and yes, I think I’ll be making some more new sounds soon. Although it’s by far the most original thing I’ve made, even the Dulwich piece doesn’t feel like something I actually wrote, but something that–pretentious bullshit warning–evolved out of a conversation with the space itself.
Finally, what are your top five tracks right now and what is it about them that’s got you hooked?
Colin Stetson‘s To See More Light from New History Warfare Vol. 3 will never not be in my top five tracks. His music takes the vividly intense physicality of playing his instrument and makes with it the most delicious sounds and colours and textures and it is just kinaesthetically mesmerising on every level. He’s kind of my hero.
I am also obsessed right now with this video of Cleek Schrey playing a traditional fiddle tune. Cleek is an expert Appalachian fiddler, steeped in an ancient tradition, but in this performance he dissolves the piece right in front of our eyes, transforming it into abstract sound but without losing its structure or identity. It’s friggin alchemical what he does, and obvs the old/new thing resonates deeply with me.
Vancouver-based musician Cyril Hahn released a dance EP last summer and the final track Grace is by far the most-played song in my iTunes library. It has the most beautiful melancholy air about it, and makes me want to move. It’s wistful af.
There’s this album of lute duets from around 1500 played by Karl-Ernst Schröder and Crawford Young called Amours Amours Amours and I share it with people almost evangelically. It’s polyphony from my hands-down favourite era of polyphonic writing, but rendered exquisitely on non-sustaining instruments. This seeming contradiction is part of what makes it so great. Let’s say my favourite track is Alexander Agricola’s Tandernaken, just for the sake of it.
I don’t listen to a lot of vocal music, even though I love playing with singers. But recently one of my favourite singer-collaborators Mara Carlyle turned me on to this track If You Love Me by Brownstone and I can’t stop hitting repeat on it. It’s technically virtuosic in a wonderfully fluid way to which I aspire in my playing.