Another brilliant composition and video clip from Guido Ponzini (YouTube, Ghigo85, 6 mins11 secs). The subtle layering of sound, now plucked now bowed, adds considerably to the creation of a chilling yet bracing feeling, evoking the winter wind of the title. Ponzini clearly understands the historical legacy of a soaring melodic line over a dark, plucked bass, drawn from viol and theorbo, as well as the ‘modal’ scale motifs well-suited to the instrument. He doesn’t try for the jagged harmonic changes in Sollima’s Terra Aria, relying instead on texture, though obviously in terms of length and breadth it evokes Sollima. He speaks directly though to our generation through hints of Japanese koto and innocent Japanese melody. He too matches the plucked viol to the instrument’s strong links with the lute.

The multi-tracked layering is the twenty-first century’s answer to the viol orchestra. The viol orchestra is one of those near-mythical things recorded down through the ages. In medieval times, vast numbers of musicians were recorded as having got together for royal command performances. The thing virtually defies imagination, so commentators often conclude that when writing of such things, they were in fact exaggerating the numbers of musicians in an attempt to inflate the status of the ruler. It’s difficult to imagine their repertoire. The same seems to go with early sixteenth-century France where massed ‘orchestras’ of lutes and viols seemed to have entertained at court. We seem only to arrive at terra firm once we get to the French violin bands of the mid- to late-C17. 

The viol ‘orchestra’ remains enigmatic as part of the Early Music authenticity movement during last century and has yet to be taken seriously in this. But if it can’t be achieved in fact – the idea of eight viols in one room together is all but imposible – , and remains as since medieval times, something of a fantasy, then at least in the twentieth-century, with the ‘invention’ of ‘cello orchestras and here, as in Ponzini’s and Sollima’s case, we can reify the concept through multi-tracking and the ‘virtual world’ of video clips.

I’m imagining the Christmas Day Mass at Notre-Dame-de-Paris in 1189 or 1190 when Perotin’s works were being served up to the French public for the first time, or at least only on high feast days. The cold winter wind, perhaps necessitating the closing of the giant front doors of the cathedral; the guilds and their sodalities gathered with banners and tapestries in the west nave, surrounded by the populace – with no other church to go to, since this Notre-Dame was the only one, this giant ten-storey edifice in the town of 20,000 people – perhaps including the king and court in the front row before the giant rood screen. And beyond the screen, in the light-filled sanctuary of the east choir, a hundred or so priests and a dozen crack soloists, booming out their tumbling multi-layered discant, projected out by the curved roof of the glassed-in nave, out over the high rood screen. The words indistinguishable, the text lost and the momentum of the text in suspension, the audience wondering where the music starts and finishes, a heavenly sound pouring forth without end. Only available on high holidays and feast days like Christmas and Easter, this would have been special-occasion music.

Similarly Ponzini is creating music peculiar to his time and ours. The YouTube ‘performance space’ is special to our time, the string sound deeply embedded in our consciousness as characterful and important, from the medieval to the present. The ‘moving picture’ medium is as important to us as was Perotin’s reliance on the architecture of Notre-Dame.

It goes without saying that I look forward to more of Ponzini working with this instrument, in this medium.


Electric bass and Chapman stick virtuoso, Guido Ponzini ( has ventured into the area of the gamba and has recorded on his 6-string viol a version of Terra Aria by the cellist/composer, Giovanni Sollima, originally conceived for 6 or 12 celli, Editore Casa Musicale Sonzogno di Piero Ostali, Milano, as posted on YouTube, 8 Jan 2010.

Compare this with the YouTube video of Sollima playing Sollima. Ponzini’s version has a nervous, earnest gutsiness which contrasts with the composer’s own interpretation where the lyricism of the melodies shines out a bit more over the arpeggiated bass. The sound in Ponzini’s video is heavily geared toward the bowed and pizzicato bass lines. Other videos by others of the same piece point up the soaring melody lines in the upper registers a bit more. The gamba gives the composition a new dimension and having just read Siblin’s book on the Bach ‘cello suites, the piece itself is obviously in that long tradition of virtuosic arpeggio-structured pieces for gamba/cello which we’ve known from Hotman and Marais and Bach and Abel and through to Paolo Pandolfo’s piece, Albanese on his album, Travel Notes. What marks Terra Aria off from earlier pieces is the throw-away, raffish ‘ornament’ of the last, very fast, three notes of the arpeggio. The arpeggio figure is played quite high on the instrument and obviously requires the use of a barre.

Ponzini takes the piece at a very fast tempo which makes it all the more compelling, in contrast to other so-called minimalist music which has a much more searching, enigmatic character – Arvo Part’s Spiegel im Spiegel for violin and piano couldn’t be more different. And I just can’t imagine that piece played on a gamba, notwithstanding versions being available for ‘cello and viola.

I suppose its unrelenting repetitive character and relatively slow-moving harmonies allows it to be categorised as minimalist, but we would apply the same to the very similar preludes by Bach and Abel. While the musical formula is the same, its cultural context differs: in the Baroque, it would have been seen as the idea of ongoing life, bubbling and evanescent. Some Baroque and Romantic composers used a similar technique in describing the whirling of the spinning wheel (la roue); today, it’s viewed as reflecting the mechanistic dynamism of our industrial environment. In Albanese, Paolo Pandolfo uses a similar contrast to Sollima between a serene, poignant melody and a nervous arpeggio bass. The muted trumped seems to represent disdainful Fate while the bass line, straight out of a Bach Passion, seems to represent the relentless human spirit. The whole is set off with the cruelty and despair of the song’s lyrics, about an Albanese refugee, the Albanese, reaching the shores of Italy.

For more of Sollima, see also his Aria #8 on YouTube.

By extension, see also Ghigo85, “BassLab”, a YouTube video posted on 7 Jan 10.

And further, Ponzini’s video posted 1 Oct 09 on YouTube, where he plays “Promised Land” composed by Nobuo Uematsu, taken from his Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children, with its vivid 16th-century viol consort sonorities: it sounds like a piece for three viols by John Taverner (c1490-1545, not the modern day John Taverner). There is a link on Uematsu’s website to a piano score of Final Fantasy.

This Uematsu piece is simultaneously Oriental and European. The melody is strongly modal and Japanese in flavour, as well as being straight out of late 16th century English music. The strong cadences make it hymn-like in a European way, reinforced by the homophony. I understand it underpins visuals of a destroyed Christian church in the Final Fantasy film. The original piece shows some interesting touches of harmonic shift (the domain of the inner of the three parts of the transcription surely) but in many other respects it displays all the sobriety and almost sentimental character of key episodes in Japanese anime film music. It obviously underpions strongly emotional scenes in the anime film. No matter where they are in the world, anyone under 30 will identify keenly with Japanese anime culture and the music that goes with it, so I imagine these gamba transcriptions will resonate particularly with that age group.

As with other anime music, Final Fantasy has already ‘escaped’ its original medium, been published as piano music and entered the concert hall as a choral piece. The YouTube commentary mentions lyrics in Latin; I’m not sure where these fit in exactly – they may have been added later. At the risk of reading too much into the cultural context, there may be an unstated link to Portuguese evangelism in Japan during the 16th century (when Japanese playing gambas were taken on a World Tour to Spain and Italy).

Ponzini’s transcription is for three gambas – we glimpse his score in the opening seconds – and he has certainly tweaked his recording equipment to give the gamba unusual resonance and depth of character. This music may not particularly excite gamba players already knee-deep in English 16/17th century music, but borrowings from anime films might be an interesting source of new material for gamba. Anime might be beyond the ken of older players, but anime and anime music are absolutely endemic and integral to the lives of anyone under 30. I will listen to the soundtracks of Miyazaki movies with renewed interest from now on!

Ponzini recorded a CD in 2009, Plugin Contemporary Music (which features the gamba), following on from a CD in 2007,  Twilight Town (which doesn’t feature gamba, but features bass and stick), available as an import from Amazom.

Finally, see Ponzini’s Koans for Koalas: notebook for bassplayers.

Martha Bishop, Weeping Viols. June 2006, for three viols: T/B, T/B and B. Available on the Pacific NorthWest Viols website.

Unlikely to ever either hear this live or play it, I copied it out in NoteWorthy Composer today to hear out it would sound and to get a firmer understanding of the compositional structure.

It’s a relatively short lyric for three low viols. It resembles a traditional English viol fantasy, with its strong cadence and fermata over the rest in bar 23 marking off a first section ending in complex counterpoint, and a strong finale from bar 38 to the end, worked over a descending chromatic scale over two octaves, starting in bar 35.

The first section establishes a strong sense of the key of Gminor with a duet in the two lower viols. The third viol has  a rest for four bars. This structure is similar to that opening the second section, the four bars from bar 24, except there the ‘duet’ is in the two two viols. The three viols enter in a 5/4 time signature passage in bar 5 and this time signature features again in bars 28-30.

There is a strong melody line from bar 9 in the top viol which becomes chromatic from bar14. The writing becomes more complex from a 5/4 section starting 14 with a long descending chromatic scale passage ending in bar17 for the middle part. This strong chromatic descent is very similar to that of the lowest viol from bar 35 to the end also. 

There is a lot of melodic invention amid the harmonic complexity; I noticed only one melodic fragment repeated – middle part, bar 4 and again top part bar. 27. There is some rhythmic play with triplets in bars 17-22 and triplets are echoed though more briefly later in bar 37.

There is something dark and inexorable about the descending chromatic passages throughout, magnified by the Largo tempo indication, all amplifying the Weeping Viols of the title.

Today, some random thoughts in and around gamba playing.

On blogging among amateur musicians

I’m still quite surprised not to find other amateur viol players talking about their music online. The net is of course first and foremost about selling products and services and not about discussing music.  I’ve noticed a lot of discussion lately about bows on the Yahoo! viola da gamba group site and the faltering nature of the epigrammatic email as a way of adding to confusion in communication rather than clarifying it. At the end of the discussion, everyone goes away discontented and with battered egos because of differing interpretations of key words like “weight” and “Baroque”. I guess we’re all in a hurry, as in viol consort sessions and in life in general, so messages get muffled and personal observations get more or less trampled on in the stampede. Writing about music is for me an important means of lighting up the way along the journey, like using a torch in the darkness. I guess my fellow amateurs are playing more than I am. I notice many of us are happy with our instruments and don’t feel the need to be constantly trading up in terms of gambas and bows, though I can understand why professionals are on this treadmill because a status instrument brings in more sponsorship dollars.

On the gamba and aristocracy

A lot is made of the connections between aristocracy and the baryton: the king of instruments and the instrument for kings. Eric Siblin’s book, The Cello Suites, about a rock music journalist’s discovery of the Bach ‘cello suites, makes several references too to the gamba and courtly life down the ages in the context of why the ‘cello wasn’t taken up by royalty and aristocrats. I’m still only in the first Suite, that is to say, still only around page 60 or 70 (Bach’s first wife has just died unexpectedly) but it’s already obvious to me that the German courts were simply following the trend set by Louis XIV: royalty and aristocracy supported the gamba because they imitated the fashion of the French court. The ‘cello was too “street-wise”, too “Italian”, too “republican” and too “democratic”. The ‘cello was all about the large hall and not about the small salon – we see that in Siblin’s description of Bach coming up some of the larger and grander court orchestras as compared to the smaller ones. These court orchestras might have been modelled on Louis’ 24 Violons du Roy but were already growing in size, to fill larger acoustic spaces, something that was already happening before Paris’ first public subscription concerts in 1725. I think this conservatism among royalty and aristocracy continued past Bach and his sons to Haydn’s day. I think we need a list of royalty who played gamba, which gamba players and composers they sponsored and cultivated and which compositions came out of that experience. Not to put royalty on a pedestal, but to shed light on the gamba as much as anything. For several different reasons at the moment, I’m looking at the Brandenburg Concerto VI and the very deliberate soundscape setting of the lower strings explored by Bach. As a group of concertos, I’m happy with the concept of the Brandenburg Concertos being a job application – put in a drawer and forgotten about like most unsuccessful CVs and resumes – essentially showing off his skill in writing for different groups of instruments and tessitura. Certainly in the sixth, the gamba parts seem to “support” the violas (is it not a concerto for two violas?) in the same way that Vivaldi used gambas in his concertos to support other instruments. Siblin mentions Abel Senior and there has been a lot of focus in recent years on resuscitating both Abel Junior (b.1723, Cothen) and Finger. The problem with years (and decades) of absorbing the biographical view of musical history is that one tends to see individual composers at great distances from each other. In fact of course, the net of relationships involving teachers, instrument makers and patrons, shortens these gaps considerably and ends up squeezing things together: hence the delicious synchronicity of J S Bach, his son in London meeting Mozart on tour; the idea of Scotland and Scottish music being the Other among Continental composers, Beethoven studying the Bach ’48 and Mozart hearing a Bach motet while on tour, as mentioned by Siblin, all of the tooing-and-froing between England and the Continent associated with the bayrton so absorbingly described by Gartrell in her monumental book on the baryton, filling out my ‘gamba’ knowledge of Brade and Dowland on the Continent. Davidson in her review of an Abel CD, mentions JC Bach working with Abel Jnr in London starting up a concert series in 1765 in London together and Gainsborough and Laurence Sterne being among their immediate circle. Wasn’t it Gainsborough who wanted to forsake batty London and retire with his bass viol to live in the countryside?

Siblin hasn’t given an explanation for why Bach didn’t write gamba music for his colleague Abel (not that he should), but I guess musical composition was all about churning the stuff out for masters and not for buddies. One assumes the Bach gamba sonatas were written with Abel Snr in mind. I think it’s only after Mozart that composers stop composing exclusively for their masters and write for themselves or for posterity or for each other. But the lack of technical difficulty associated with gamba music written for royalty and aristocrats is a common thread through gamba history, with Haydn’s Prince being probably the most technically proficient on the instrument compared to any others before him. If members of royalty or aristocracy after The Magnificent played gamba, I’m not sure I’m aware of any. It’s a curious thing that Louis XIV didn’t play gamba, or other instrument (?) but was of course first and foremost a dancer. Marais wrote music for the king to listen to rather than play himself, so there was no temptation to write simply parts for him in chamber music – besides, it simply wouldn’t have done for a King to sit alongside his servants as an ‘equal’. Do we know who played the bass viol continuo for Marais during performances of his viol music at Versailles? Given his long career at court, one imagines he must have been joined to the hip with one or more bass viol continuo players, so strong is the relationship between solo viol and bass continuo.

The Siblin book is a rediscovery in words that recalls the Yo-Yo Ma films, a rediscovery in film, and is topical given the Pandolfo recording of them on gamba and the publication of Claas Harders’ transposition of Suite No.1 from G to C major. Perhaps Siblin will enlighten me on the nature of the Kellner manuscript.

On the In Nomine

Last weekend’s brief playing of the Byrd In Nomines a4 was certainly topical too, given the focus on the In Nomine in the latest Traynor competition for contemporary viol music and a fellow Australian being among the winners. Obviously I’m hoping to get to know these latest ones all a lot better, adding them to the crop of other recently composed In Nomines. Even for the treble destined to play the King’s Part, there is usefulness in consciously working on full-length bow strokes on each of the long notes. From a marketing perspective, I can see why the In Nomine is an important tool of differentiation: it belongs to the gamba canon like no other instrument.

On Paolo Pandolfo

It is of course wonderful to know that Mr Pandolfo is coming to Australia next year. ABC Radio is already playing his Bach ‘cello suites in anticipation. I shan’t be able to hear him play in person, though I hope to soon add his interpretation of the Bach ‘cello suites to my recordings of his (very fast) Tobias Hume. I think his own composition Albanese is just the most exquisite piece, as much for its gamba writing as for its hard-hitting lyrics. I was reading in the Dec 09 edition of VdGSA News from America about protest songs in Elizabethan England the other day – in particular, Byrd’s setting of a poem about the purpose of pen-and-ink in an era when publishing your thoughts could cost you your life (as with Chinese dissidents and others today) – and thought of music arising from the phenomenon and plight of refugees seeking asylum in other country. For Australians, it is the latest incarnation of the Yellow Peril and the White Australia Policy, which I understand was instrumental in helping unite the colonies to form the Federation. As one who works every day with Vietnamese refugees of the ’70s (and their curious take on modern China), I live and breathe this stuff. Ironically they vote Liberal though they are Catholic and are themselves boat people. The Tampa incident came up in a tv game show last night (such is its drift from current affairs to popular culture, the popular imagination and Australian history), not long after the latest news from Christmas Island. Curiously, for politics on the right, refugees represents the ‘local’ while the government tackles the ‘global’ in Copenhagen. And regardless of the approchement of the Anglian Church in England and Rome, sectarianism is alive and well here in Australia. Perhaps I’m becoming overwrought with the hegemony of Church, State and Family at yuletide, the seasonal gripping around my throat and a rising gorge when everyone around me becomes completely self-absorbed, clinging and needy. My customers at work are never more demanding and lacking compassion than at Christmas time. But Christmas is deeply rooted in the maelstrom of the subconscious, our deepest most savage urges, based as it is on the reversal of social status (Saturnalia), punishment of children (use of fear to condition and control the next generation), blackamoors invading Amsterdam and Barcelona (Europe and Orientalism), La Befana and boosting sales of Coca-Cola in mid-Winter.

But I digress. I would love to join my gamba colleagues on the idyllic South Coast of NSW at Easter, to hear Pandolfo with sand between my toes (not that I’m likely to hear a live performance of Albanese), but I have the very convenient excuse of a univ residential school which I must attend a week later: too much travel criss-crossing the State. I have always associated the national gamba gathering as competitive and anxiety-inducing. Outwardly democratic and ground for reconciling professionals and amateurs, but inwardly a fight to the death. Playing with other Serious Insects in such a pressure-cooker environment fills me with dread. Unfortunately, there is nothing relaxed about these kill-0r-be-killed events. A wrong note or a string slightly out of tune results in banishment and exile. But certainly the saving grace of viol school is the performance of gamba music by top-quality international tutors; these memories win out over the anguish.

Leaning towards my upcoming uni study of Medieval & Renaissance music, I note a (new?) recording devoted to the music of the Albergensian Crusade from Jordi Savall.


Eric Siblin, The Cello Suites: J S Bach, Pablo Casals and the search for a baroque masterpiece. Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2009.

William Byrd, Three Consort Songs (incl. Why do I use my paper, ink and pen?) Ed. by David Skinner. A Waynflete Music publication, distributed by Fretwork Editions WM7, c2007. ISBN 978-1-898131-96-0.

Markku Luolajan-Mikkola, Gamba Nova. Alba. Contemporary gamba music.

Mr. Abel’s Fine Airs: Music of Carl Friedrich Abel for solo viola da gamba. Susanne Heinrich. CD, CDA67628. London: Hyperion, 2007. 

Christophe Coin and others, published proceedings of a conference devoted to the Italian gamba.

Roy Whelden and American Baroque, Galax. CD. Contemporary gamba music.

Jenny Ericksson and the Marais Project, most recent CD of Marais suites and a contemporary gamba piece. 

Daniel Yeadon, Bach Gamba Sonatas. CD.

Loeb, Asian madrigaletti for two bass viols. PDF and Midi files online of Japanese folk songs used by Puccini as the basis for Madama Butterfly.

Marc-Antoine Charpentier, Midnight Mass based on eleven carols. At least one of which is very close to La Jeune Fillette of Tous les matins du monde fame!

New music for viols

October 5, 2009

Those who can’t play music, end up writing about it instead. For want of playing time lately, I’ve been applying myself to learn how to write about music as part of my undergraduate study at University of New England (Armidale, NSW), Course MUSI109. Once the semester ends in November and coursework writing is finished, I’m hoping to do more playing.

Music on one CD of new music for viols keeps cropping up in my student efforts: Illicita cosa: Adventuresome Music from the 16th to the 20th Centuries, The New York Consort of Viols (Musical Heritage Society 513235M, 1993). My Top 3 from this album, which I often enjoy with the scores, are:

William Presser (b.1916), Song for Three Viols (1991), a very accessible three minutes of sonority for trTB; sheet music from PRB Productions (Contemporary Consort Series no.20)

Frank Russo, In Nomine (trtrTBB), awarded First Prize, 1989 Leo M Traynor Competition for New Viol Music; VdGSA New Music for Viola da Gamba, no.5. A delightful combination of lyricism and driving rhythms.

Will Ayton, Fantasia a4 (trtrTB), Audience Prize and Honorable Mention, 1989 Leo M Traynor Competition for New Viol Music; VdGSA New Music for Viola da Gamba, no.4.

Also on the album is a spiky and brooding Tison Street (b.1943) In Nomine for five viols. The interest in the In nomine gains further momentum in reviews in the VdGSA News March 2009 of Ballinger’s In Nomine (trTTB) and Harold Owen’s (SATB records and TTB viols). These editions may well join my VGSA New Music series no.1, Martha Bishop, In Nomine.

I look forward to adding the 2009 Traynor Competition publications to the collection: fellow Australian, Patrice Connelly (In Nomine “Five“), Jean Henderson (Serenade), John Anthony Lennon (As She Sings) and Donald Reid Womack (O magnum mysterium). From photos published of the 2009  Conclave, it looks happily as if a small contingent of Australians was present.

I have Carol Herman’s bass duets and I note Will Ayton has published TB/trT Duets for Bea (Allyon Wit Publications no.2, 2002), the latter reviewed in the VdGSA News Sep 2009. Peter Seibert’s use of two “choirs” in his Psalm, the first more technically demanding than the second, sounds intriguing (PRB Productions) – trtrTTBB.

Contemporary music for viols features also on Markku Lulajan-Mikkola’s latest CD on the Alba label, Gamba Nova, for which he has won the Finnish version of a Grammy award.

Now that I’m back on the membership list of the VdGSA, I look forward to reading back issues of the VdGSA News online for more new music.

23 tracks from the five-person Yukimi Kambe Viol Consort, by Tsutomu Mizuno (b.1949).

Short works, composed between 1984 and 1994/95, mostly of around 3 mins duration. Kappa (Water Imp) features recitation and Iruka (A Dolphin) a soprano. Strong sense of flowing melodic line throughout. Predictably, a very strong connection with the natural world, with references to birds, animals, flowers. Western musical models are at work in the two final brackets – three of Five Spanish Dances and a three-movement Little Suite, winner of the Viola da Gamba Society of Japan’s 1985 competition for new works. “Lively gambists – win or lose” is a cheery, very busy piece as its title implies. Glissandi in the pieces devoted to cats.

Sheet music not published to my knowledge.

The Kambe Consort has a phenomenally high level of technique.  I wasn’t aware of any consort previously that plays with tuners attached in order to maintain optimal intonation at all times.

Concert 2 (2009) – Two Part invention ~~~ 4pm Saturday 2 May, The Independent Theatre, 269 Miller St North Sydney

Marais’ amazing music for two viola da gambas; “Love Reconciled” by Stephen Yates, guest artists, The Early Dance Consort.