Scarlatti, Purcell, Monteverdi, Dowland, Vivaldi, and Caldara, were popular in early music, but without traditionally played instruments and vocals, could music from the 17th century resonate in the same way today? “HUSH,” an album that is pushing boundaries in the classical music world, was just released by Deutsche Grammophon and is sparking new ideas surrounding innovation and creativity in early music. By deconstructing 17th century chansons and arranging them for electric guitar and vocals, Nora Fischer and Marnix Dorrestein cut to the core of early music.
“We didn’t want to create ‘covers’ of the songs, but instead we wanted to let the original material shine through as much as possible, and in order to do that it seemed our task to play as little as possible. ‘Less is more’ became our main goal,” explained Fischer in an interview with OperaWire regarding the new album.
Although Dorrestein came from a different background of music than Fischer, once they started working together they learned a great amount from each other’s artistic approach and perspective. “As for me, I learned a lot about a pop musician’s way of working and thinking about musical material, song forms, text expression,” Fischer said. “We had interesting discussions about the latter: where classical music tends to aim for a maximum expression of every word, in the pop world that can be experienced as ‘in your face,’ not leaving space for the listener’s own interpretation.”
Composition Lessons From Monteverdi & Purcell
“O Cessate Di Piagarmi,” a well-known aria for beginning singers, was chosen by Dorrestein to open the album because of its melancholic and heartfelt lyrics. This song spoke to Dorrestein and inspired him to continue working on early music. Until almost five years ago, Dorrestein had never paid attention to 17th-century music. Heavily influenced by outside artists, it was Dorrestein who took on the challenge of transforming this piece by creating his interpretation with his electric guitar.
Another challenge that Dorrestein faced while working on “HUSH” was his inability to read or write sheet music. “The first pieces took me days to figure out because I had to do it all by ear,” he said. In doing so, he listened, memorized and re-interpreted the music, which added authenticity to his ideas: “I was often amazed by what I’d find. This way of dissecting the music before being able to play it almost felt like private composition lessons by Monteverdi or Purcell.”
Working Together To Delve Deeper
Together, they further examined the simplicity of structure, and honesty in story-telling for each work and brought new energy to the second song on the album, Purcell’s “Come All Ye Songsters.” This lively arrangement reflects the “magical creatures that are constantly singing and dancing around in the enchanted forest,” said Fischer. “Since we felt that Purcell wrote it as a groovy song for the fairies to dance around to, we interpreted it with that in mind.”
“Augellin” was arranged by Fischer and Dorrestein for voice and electric guitar, which exposed the core structure of this piece and created a folk-like interpretation. “Stefano Landi is not as widely known as most other composers featured on this album, but his music is no less beautiful,” noted Fischer. “The score for ‘Augellin’ is a simple bass line and melody, so we tried to find a sound that evoked the bird described in the song.” In this piece, the listener is asked to reflect on both the guitar and voice as they floated together while mirroring each other.
The arrangement for Monteverdi’s “Oblivion Soave” starts in a relaxed tempo that was dense with Fischer’s vocal lines. Dorrestein uses a more minimal approach in his style and the piece lulls the listener into bliss. One can hear Fischer’s breath-like voice melt into the guitar’s notes – a tender moment in the album. One could also imagine that they are listening to the two while lounging in the comfort of the honesty in the music.
When speaking about herself as a singer, Fischer said, “I am trying to look for the maximum amount of freedom and creativity. There’s much fear of doing it ‘wrong,’ and many opinions from the audience about a ‘good’ and ‘bad’ interpretation. I’ve been heavily influenced by many types of folk music, because to me it feels like that’s the place where music doesn’t come from a hierarchy or craft with strict opinions, but from the feast of being together and creating a meaningful moment. I strongly believe that is what music can mean and why it has come into existence, and I try to come back to that feeling as much as I can.”
Delving Deeper Into HUSH
“Vi Ricorda” is a fresh arrangement – a more upbeat tempo that captures Dorrestein’s talent as a guitarist. His dynamics illuminate the different sections in this piece and one can hear his enjoyment while playing.
Caldara’s “Sebben, Crudele” is also featured. In “HUSH,” it is a poignant piece that remains true to its nature: delicate and ethereal. Fischer also uses her voice to draw the listener in further as she sings “Although, cruel love, you make me languish, I will always love you true. With the patience of my serving, your pride I will be able to tire out.”
Purcell’s “Hush, No More,” is the last song on the album and tells the most intimate story. Fischer and Dorrestein’s natural intuition as artists plays the greatest role in this piece and their creative approach resonates and inspires.
“This was the first song we ever played together,” said Fischer. “It became the title track as the word ‘hush’ incorporates so much of what we wanted to address: quietness, intimacy and the gentle whispering of songs. ‘Hush, No More’ is a lullaby from ‘The Fairy Queen,’ and though it seems simple, the harmonies that emerge are so unexpectedly beautiful that it made Dorrestein jump through the roof. When playing live, we always try to create complete silence in the room. We know we’ve succeeded when the air conditioning in the hall becomes disturbing.”