I pursued the idea of some bass viol improv with some work on the time-honoured Folia ground bass. Here’s one the earliest versions of La Folia and with its clunky Renaissance feel, you can see why it never caught on much and eventually morphed into something more sophisticated, the Folia we know-and-love of Corelli, Vivaldi, Marais and others. For the moment, I’ve deliberately kept my variations simple and unadventurous. What I need to do next is check out the source from Hudson’s seminal book on Folia, determine when it might have been used and consult various keyboard and other instrumental written-out improv of the period and adjust mine accordingly. It starts with the Folia, melody and bass, as given, and it needs to be taken at a fair clip; taken too slowly and grandly, it doesn’t make sense.


Others working with Julia Cameron’s creativity process. I’ve been dropping in on websites of those influenced by Cameron(1), but all I’m seeing is the bright shining tip of the iceberg, with no glimps of all the struggle beneath the waves. All I see is remarkably self-assured artists achieving greatness: musicians performing, visual artists exhibiting, poets publishing! Perhaps they’ve all adopted the Nike slogan instead of turning art into a cerebral process, as Cameron suggests they should.

Moving from past to future. Despite this, I’m keen to make direct links with Cameron talks about, especially as it relates to gamba playing. Certainly realising “drifting” is something I need no longer do, I’ve updated my About page with some words about my future. I didn’t realise till now I had just been describing myself in the past. No grandiose expectations I’ll never meet, but small steps.

Social conditioning in the gamba world. A lot of gamba music experience conditions me into longing for a place I might never reach: carefully-crafted recordings with impeccable acoustics, remarkable technique honed from decades of scales and arpeggio playing, the whole child prodigy thing. On the one hand, all this can deter and make an amateur’s efforts like mine look shabby. On the other hand, some fo the amateurs on YouTube playing viol these days make playing, memorising and performing entirely possible. It can be done. And it can be done by me.

A personal way out/way forward, or two. I can see a path for myself into this, or a path out of this. Or two. I have in the past left the Main Road of viol playing and gone down side streets, playing both classical guitar and oud to help me with left-hand extensions. Singing is helping me get a grip on playing viol with a more vocal way. This might appeal to Cameron’s sense of the non-linear nature of music creativity. And discovering Sephardic songs in Ladino and solo guitar pieces by Tarrega and Giuliani have certainly been worthwhile. One path worth pursuing perhaps is variations on a ground bass. Some say (Cameron might call them Censors) this is not advisable for amateurs. You can tell though by the way one lutenist on Youtube is so intently watching the music off-camera that he isn’t improvising on the spot(2). Which is fine. And what could be simpler than a Bergamasca ground bass in a minor key? Ones does not have to compose better than Ortiz to have a good time or create something ‘musical’. It might be a struggle – as I’ve noticed Handel struggling with an ascending ground bass (see YouTube clips with scores of arias from Rinaldo)(3).

Another path: arpeggios. The other path is the arpeggio-structured prelude. Surely all you need is a half-decent sequence of harmonies to get something going. Just pinch something from Louis Couperin or Bach or Abel and make it your own. The brutal simplifcation of the Abel in particular was a revelation!(4) The beauty of both of these paths is that they exploit scales and arpeggios, the things I find least appetising about practice sessions. Walk down either of these two parths and I have to deploy them. And the gambists playing on YouTube at top speed appear to be having fun. Throw in some Tobias Hume, some double-stops and full chords from Marais and English tablature and you’re coming close to something one of my other favourite YouTube gamba performers(5) has created in his improvised preludes and fantasias on YouTube.

Play what you like to play. I’m looking at Nicholas Hotman at the moment(6) and as Cameron correctly points out, have talked myself out of from time to time. Till now. Search “hotman” then search again “nicholas hotman” on YouTube and I get some particularly sensitive lute-playing, sensitive to the music’s structure and sensitive to the peculiar style of French music c1650. That sensitivity is worth striving for. So I’m following Cameron’s advice and have stopped pontificating and have decided to follow the Nike slogan instead. The Ballet is a simple theme followed by variations. Some are too difficult for me technically. Rather than deter me from playing the piece at all (and memorising and performing it sometime, don’t care when) I’ll either simplify them or leave them out. Noone need ever know. Yes, it would be nice to play all of them eventually, but it’s okay to leave some out. This is not an elite performance requiring blacks; this is for me. And the six or so people out of the 7billion on the planet who have heard of Hotman will be so grateful to just see and hear some Hotman, they will excuse my wrongs. Perhaps one will write in to ask where the missing variations are. If their comments on my YouTube clip are too stroppy, I’ll just delete them. Interesting in this regard – and in terms of Julia Cameron’s comments on self-criticism among artists – to note how many performers on YouTube deride their own efforts in their descriptions of the clips. I frankly ignore any wrong notes, ignore the production values half the time – I’m just so grateful to hear someone else tackle music I love!

Players just like me. Besides, anything goes in this post-modernist world. Look at what’s on YouTube these days (search ‘viola da gamba consorts’): there are people dressed in ordinary clothes playing their gambas (just like me), playing away in their living rooms (just like me), having a great time (a bit like me). The struggle of consort playing comes across in clips featuring metronomes (all the way through) and sneezing pets. I’m waiting for a cell phone to go off during a YouTube viol consort clip, just to make it really like real-life. Okay, there are some very fancy, highly technical video productions with multiple angles, mood lighting and multiple cameras, but there are lots, very reassuringly, which are not. I can take the breathtaking beauty of Ponzini playing Solliman or Savall playing, without being intimidated by their superlative playing and brilliant filmic experiences. The ViolsWest (USA) clip filmed on Mt Baldy conveys extremely well the social context surrounding viol consort playing: good music, company and food. Players of the 17thc would identify completely with what is portrayed here. Joelle coaching a consort, with metronome, is a very worthy visual document about learning consort playing. Okay the metronome annoys the hell out of me, but I feel the struggle in every player’s working with tempo and tactus.

Filmic production values. Sound values weigh heavily since this is all about music. The Lupo Fantasy #24 live performance clip(7) is in a church with so much reverb the sound gets very mushy very quickly. But hey, they’re playing Lupo! The Ponzini Sollima and Uematsu recordings obviously benefit enormously from the use of a mixing desk. Stolz achieves miracles with his overall balance when using other instruments and accompanying himself. Though the organ tends to dominate in the Ortiz and the use of clavichord in an Abel sonata is extremely interesting, things turn out well in the Coperario two-bass and organ piece he’s done. Mixing desks aside, directional mikes seem to work just fine in home videos.

French basse de viole clips and copyright issues. Particularly impressive are the relatively anonymous players specialising in French basse de viole. Though their technique is almost always daunting, the sound they make is so enchanting and their demeanour so everyday it makes the instrument accessible. One player is particularly “pure” to the extent that it obviously breaks no copyright laws: he’s performing himself, he’s playing his own compositions. This is quite at odds with the reams of YouTube performances by Savall, who fairly dominates YouTube gamba clips these days. Either Savall granted permission for all these clips to appear or his agent has decided not to bother chasing copyright infringement, presumably on the basis that any publicity is good publicity. One thing I find curious is that in the old days, one had to get permission from the music publisher to public perform their music. Concerts had to be from bought published scores and not from photocopies. Have all the YouTube consorts and soloists sought and been granted permission by the music publishers to broadcast publicly their performances on YouTube?

YouTube clips and musicality. Most clips have a deal to teach me about silence. A lot of amateur and semi-pro performances could benefit by letting us hear the start and finishes of phrases. The viol (because of its very nature) rings out through rests and we lose sense of the natural pace and breathing in the piece. Shaping of phrases is sacrificed by the unrelenting need to get to the finish line.

New music for viols. YouTube is doing funny things with new music for viols. Hille Perle and consort playing Lee Santana and Ernst Stolz featuring a contemporary composer writing in the old style.

Action plan. But back to the Ground bass thingo and Monsieur Hotman. No.1 Memorise working with a mirror (it has to look right). No.2: Sound recording and playing around with mike(s). No.3: Concealing my playing behind a wall of images. I feel somewhat strange at times looking at a screen filled up with a lone duck at a pond’s edge while digesting a piece of Early Music, but there you go! No.4. Full visual performance. I notice some walk to their seat, play, then walk off. There is of course the self-referential, conventional conceit of fading to black after manually turning off of the camera. Most benefit from opening and final credits. Plain backgrounds work well. It’s difficult imagining some like Ponzini not working an independent film-maker, with several cameras. High camera angles look good. It goes without saying that tight shots are the go. Playing without a music stand helps, definitely. As does playing in light; the impenetrable darkness of some church interiors is a worry.

Conclusion. Wrong notes and bad lighting haven’t stopped these musicians going public. Precious little these days to stop me!


(1) Julia Cameron, Walking in this World: the Practical Art of Creativity. New York: Tarcher/Penguin, 2002.

(2) YouTube lutenist, neutkensh

(3) Handel’s Rinaldo ‘Cara sposa’ on YouTube. Instead of vague unrelated images, margotlorena, HandelOperas and civileso all show the musical scores.

(4) See the Icking Music Archive online and look up Abel and you’ll see the arpeggios written out as a sequence of plain chords.

(5) YouTube gambist, joshyjoo.

(6) Nicholas Hotman (?-1663). Suite No.2 in Dmin, first movement: Ballet – theme and variations. A gamba player, Antti Linkola (see YouTube modernkorv) has done a video clip of the Ballet from the Suite No.3 in d.

(7) See YouTube, ‘viola da gamba consorts’. Live recording at the St Mary Magdalene, Gamba Salon.