This is the third weekly post (of a planned 52) going through my SCA Arts & Sciences research over the last several years. It will conclude the examination of our first song under study, “Can she excuse my wrongs?” by John Dowland. We have reviewed sources and lyrics for the piece, and today we will focus on the lute arrangement, and the process I used to learn to play it.
Recording the song (2015)
These blog posts are focused on A&S, not on music recording. However, I really did like the song, and very much liked the idea of including some historically sourced music on my solo album, Hidden Gold. So the next step in creating a richer and more authentic performance of “Can she excuse” was the process of recording it, since that required capturing both the lute accompaniment and the vocal harmonies that Dowland had written for it.
Master Arden of Icombe had the brilliant idea to add the vocal harmonies to the second verse using a recorder ensemble (distinguishing our recording from Sting’s well-known track on Songs from the Labyrinth, where he sang all the parts), and so he lent his considerable music background to that part of the process. We won’t delve heavily into it here, since aside from this recording I haven’t spent much time with the polyphony for this song. I will only note that Dowland’s counterpoint for the piece is every bit as challenging as his lute composition, and it took some work to break down some of the quick counterpoint breaks, particularly the alto part.
The vocal challenges in singing the piece live, it should be said, turned out to be less troublesome than capturing a vocal recording of it, having limited experience at the time with the vocal style or the repertoire. It was a major step forward in learning to sing notes as written with as little vocal ornament or swing as possible. In addition to the voice lessons she had offered, Lady Olivia Baker’s feedback on my singing was invaluable, and unsparingly honest, which helped make the piece the best I was capable of to that point. (Considerable post-production was involved in the end.)
Ultimately, recording the lute part fell to my good friend and collaborator Dave Lambert, who provided most of the guitar work for the album, as well as the starting point for most of the technical recording knowledge. Dave is not a Scadian and had no experience with lute tablature, which meant I needed to provide him with guitar tablature and instructions. He had access to a decent classical guitar strung with nylon, which is a reasonable substitute for a gut-strung lute (which I didn’t possess and he didn’t know how to play). This was a good chance to build on my budding understanding of translating lute into guitar tablature (a useful exercise which we’ll discuss in more detail in the next few weeks). I was able to furnish Dave with a tab sheet to read, and a MIDI file to listen to. Dave painstakingly built the song in pieces and edited the track together for me, and the result of all our efforts was fairly gratifying.
Learning a partial arrangment (2016)
The prep from recording the song work would prove critical to delving deeper into a live performance of the song, which I undertook for K&Q Bardic Champs the following spring. My first exposure to playing lute music had actually been an assignment from Lucien to learn part of Dowland’s “Come again sweet love”, but we’ll look at that song in future installments. Having spent time learning both these Dowland pieces, I chose “Can she excuse” for public performance for a few reasons:
- It’s shorter: 2 verses, instead of 6 for the full version of “Come again”.
- It’s flashier, and technically a bit more difficult.
- I was more emotionally invested in “Can she excuse” after the recording project, which mattered for the months of practice it was going to require to develop any competency playing it live.
- Learning a piece I’d never played before, which was different stylistically from the one I’d worked on previously, would ultimately teach me more about this music and this sort of instrumentation.
Playing and singing together was a substantial undertaking, particularly given my extremely rudimentary guitar skills. But the opportunity to embrace the Drake persona as a performing musician was a strong motivator. Maistre Lucien’s original assignment had been to learn just the top line of notes for “Come again”, rather than the full chords. For “Can she excuse”, I opted to take it one layer further, and learn to play the top two lines. This would hopefully introduce more harmonics and richness to the performance, and deepen the authenticity of the sound, while still being achievable with six months of preparation.
The instrument was a Martin Backpacker guitar (see below) which I had possessed for a number of years. As we’ll discuss, guitar works very well as a modern substitute for a lute, but my desire to present a less jarringly modern visual meant choosing guitars that don’t have modern shoulders, at least when playing historically-sourced music. The Backpacker doesn’t really look like a lute (it was designed for sturdiness, lightness, and compactness, so that it could be stowed in overhead bins on an airplane), but it doesn’t have the big shoulders. Mine was designed for steel strings, which are really challenging for lute music. Renaissance lute compositions leaned into the strengths of the instrument. Lutes are not loud because gut strings don’t provide a lot of tension, but the strings are light and responsive, so lute repertoire, and Dowland in particular, focuses on speed, agility, and ornamentation. Steel strings require more tension, which makes speed hard, and is punishing on the fingertips when performing finger-picking or plucking. Steel/silk hybrid strings were a decent compromise, about a third lighter than light gauge steel strings, but still producing decent volume.
The process of learning the piece required 20-30 minutes a day, five or six days a week, over the six months before the competition. Experienced guitarists start with more strength than I did, and classical guitarists have focused on speed and delicacy, which I had to learn. Learning some of the basic style of lute playing, including using the pinky finger to anchor the right hand on the body of the instrument and plucking technique, was another piece. The biggest challenge for me as a new player was learning to loosen my grip with both hands as the piece got more familiar, because the risk of cramps and Carpal-tunnel syndrome were both real concerns.
The simplified arrangement made learning the piece less complicated, but as I figured out later, using only two fingers on each hand meant the hands were doing considerably more work when the lower strings needed to be played, which made the quick ornamentation parts harder than they actually needed to be.
The choice was to perform the piece in authentic lute tuning as best a guitar allows. The tuning is actually very similar, but the third highest string is dropped half a step, from G to F#. A capo on the third fret moves the tuning from E to G major, which was the tuning for tenor lutes used by Elizabethan composers. It changes the shape of all the chords relative to guitar work, but lutenists rarely play all the strings at once, and this simplified arrangement didn’t really have full chords in it anyway.
The last decision worth noting was the choice to use a guitar strap and perform standing. Renaissance lutes were not played with a strap, but to sing and play at the same time is easier to do standing, since it’s easier to support your voice singing. The final performance was fairly satisfying to me, considering the challenges and the amount of prep time involved.
Learning the full arrangement (2017-2019)
The last month or so before that debut performance, I realized that, if I managed to get selected as Royal Bard, it would be problematic if I only had that one song in my repertoire. So at that point, I started finding a few more pieces I could start learning (which will each be explored in turn). Most of these pieces were not as fast or challenging as “Can she excuse”, and since there was no deadline for learning them, I started trying to learn the full lute arrangements as much as possible. As I got familiar with how it sounded to really play full chords and harmonies on lute, I abandoned the simplified “Can she excuse” arrangement, and let the song lie for a good year or so. After a while, though, it seemed a shame to leave such a beautiful and expressive piece out of the growing repertoire, so I opted to start over with it, and learn the full arrangement.
Playing the full piece required a new set of choices. For one thing, a guitar has six strings, compared to the seven paired-string courses of an Elizabethan tenor lute. The bottom course isn’t heavily used in most of the pieces I’ve studied (it had only been added to the instrument some time during the 16th century, so it was still relatively new), but on a guitar, there are three options: drop the bottom string, transpose the notes up an octave and play them on a higher string, or tune the guitar such that you aren’t playing the tablature as written. For “Can she excuse”, I transposed the notes up wherever possible and added them to the arrangement.
The new arrangement was much harder to play on the Backpacker than the simplified one. I tried putting nylon strings on Backpacker, but with that tiny soundboard, the instrument couldn’t project effectively in any standard SCA performance space. Then, last year, I finally bought a couple of modern lute guitars (one fancy and beautiful, with a classical-guitar wide-spaced neck, for indoor events through the winter season, and one simpler, cheaper Ukranian lute guitar, durable enough to take to outdoor events and brave the heat of Pennsic). Committing to nylon strings, and selling the Backpacker, made it possible to play the repertoire much more easily with less finger pain. In particular, barre chords, laying the index finger across the strings to play chord shapes transposed up several frets, are much easier with nylon strings.
“Can she excuse” remains one of the most challenging pieces in the repertoire, and having performed it twice at K&Q Bardic Champions, the primary focus the last couple of years has been getting other pieces up to performance quality. The hope is to have this one ready to perform by next year. However, the commitment to blog about A&S work, and Elizabethan music in particular, is about sharing process and growth, rather than polished performances. The video below is not the prettiest, but it does show the differences in fingerwork and harmonics that come with the fuller arrangement.
This means, for the time being, we have finished examining our first Elizabethan song. Next week, we’ll digress a bit to talk more about the lute as an instrument, the process of learning tablature, and how and why it’s okay to play it on a guitar, before we continue with Dowland. Have a happy Fourth of July in the meantime.