Baroque violinist Bjarte Eike pushes boundaries in classical music, constantly looking for new projects in the borderland of genres and is reaching out to new audiences with his infectious playing and style. As the artistic director of Barokksolistene, he has created new and innovative concepts such as The Alehouse Sessions; exploring 17th century music from the pubs and alehouses in England. These sessions are now adapted into the album The Playhouse Sessions. And later this month Eike and Barokksolistene come to Hasselt where they’ll play an adaption of the program titled The Nordic Sessions.
The combination of conveying historically informed performance with storytelling and theatrical elements is quite a unique concept. How did you come up with this concept?
Thank you first of all. The Playhouse Sessions is a project which is rooted in the earlier project The Alehouse SessionS which I first created in 2007 for a festival in Norway where we had an English theme. We were doing all sorts of concerts on the theme of London around the year 1700 and I wanted to do something with the British ankerpoint in society, namely the pub. Pubs have a long history and even played an important role for the music development in the 17th century. And while I was doing my research I found this book The Complete Country Dance Tunes from Playford’s Dancing Master (1651). It’s a catalogue with just melodies derived from dances. No arrangements or harmony written down, just a book full of popular melodies. And because I have a background in folk music — I played in Irish session band when I was a student, for example — I thought it was interesting to revive this tradition.
To construct a program around this concept, I started reading more. Not only musical research, but also historical and social-economic such as The English Alehouse: A Social History, 1200-1830 by Peter Clark and contemporary testimonies on how the public theaters closed under the rule of Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658). Incredible stories emerged because when these theaters closed, musicians were forced into these pubs to perform in order to earn money to survive. Pubs became a meeting place for high and low society to listen to music. In that setting, everybody became equal.
I wanted this complex but interesting history of the pub as my backstory. It’s a setting that doesn’t put any limits on the type of music that you can perform. If you’re in a church, you have to perform music that has something to do with religion or the church itself. Or when you perform in a castle, you may have to do something that is proper. But here, in the pubs, everybody is sort of on equal terms and there is a free space to discuss, talk, drink, gossip and play music together. Everything is mixed together, which creates a beautiful backdrop for our informal experimentation.
Having worked as a freelance musician in Europe for many years, I meet all sorts of interesting people in various musical settings. What is a common thread linking all the musicians I work with in the Alehouse, Playhouse and Nordic sessions, is that they have interests and fields of expertise that goes beyond «just» being an instrumentalist or singer. Steven Player, for instance, plays the guitar and dances with us – but he is also an amazing actor and storyteller, with a background in street theatre. Tom Guthrie, who is one of our lead singers, is also a stage director. Per Buhre plays the viola, sings lead vocals, makes apple cider and is a fantastic photographer. Helge A. Norbakken, percussion, is a fully qualified steam locomotive operator… there are fun facts and wonderful stories connected to everyone in the band, so my main challenge is how to give all of them the time to shine on stage as they deserve.
Together, we create workshops where we for example go into the mountains or woods. We spend our time bonding on a personal and musical level. We cook together, drink together, dance together, have singing lessons, and a lot of creative workshops mainly with improvisation.
It’s a safe space where there is a lot of creative input from everybody and we just try out new things. You start to know each other really well, get to know them privately, our families get to know each other and we became like a family. My role in the band is that of the initiative taker and overall artistic creator, who’s allowed to say what’s in and what’s out in each concert. When we are touring, we bring our family-like safe space to the stages, and keep our musical bonding alive and kicking – something that goes down really well with most audiences.
When came the idea to record this program?
I was first very reluctant to record The Alehouse Session. It’s very much a live experience. We thought of two different concepts. Either we make a live recording but then it becomes the version of The Alehouse Session. This idea was cast aside because I wanted to keep it alive and every concert unique. After all, before each concert we meet half an hour before the show, and I give the players the setlist (what pieces were playing and and in what order), then I have all the different setlists we have done around the world noted in small black books, so when we are reinvited to a venue, I can create different setlists. That’s how we keep the performance alive and fresh. But we had to make some sort of recording, and I decided to pick the tunes and arrangements I thought would function best and went into the studio. The Alehouse Sessions recording has been very successful with awards (opus prize in Germany 2018) and various nominations and stellar reviews.
The big request from audiences, our record company, agents and promoters the last couple of years, have been: when is your next album? That’s how I started pondering on what now has become The Playhouse Sessions. I see the Alehouse as a room that I can keep on refurbishing – or a tree with branches that keep on growing. The playhouse is one of these branches. This tree already had a few branches, of course. For example we’ve done a stage production of the Alehouse, that we called «the opera pub» (for a company in Denmark) and together with a theatre company in Norway we did A midsummer night’s dream where we adapted Shakespeare’s script and music from the Alehouse, Purcell, and own compositions were integrated. Similarly we have created other branches with various productions of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. We’ve performed Dido with puppets, as a ballet production studio (Norwegian National Ballet) etc. All these different projects have in common that we musicians are on stage and in roles, contributing actively to the action of each story, not sitting in the traditional orchestra pit.
So with this recording we created another branch. Instead of making it the perhaps obvious, The Alehouse Session 2, we wanted to include something from all the other projects we have done the last couple of years as well. Plus we wanted to highlight our love for Purcell. He is like the Shakespeare of music where he combines music from high and low society. In my opinion, Purcell is often taken too seriously, some people trying to make him sound more like Handel or Bach, so we wanted to dig into his playful and folky side. These three elements — extra Alehouse material, own compositions from our stage drama’s and the music of Purcell — all came together on this album.
With all these different elements, how did you construct the order for this program?
That was my next challenge: finding an order to play them in. Instead of alternating the different musical sources, I decided to create one musical journey. It’s sort of a more abstract version of A midsummer night’s dream / Fairy Queen where you meet the Queen of the Fairies, Titania, you meet her fairy servants, when they sing her to sleep, her dream, and the album ends with Puck’s closing monologue. Without being too obvious, I tried to create this storyline – at least as an inner narrative.
You also included some of your own compositions. Were these pieces you specifically wrote to continue a line in the narration or were these pieces you composed earlier and thought they fit the theme?
They were specifically written for this album. I did use ideas from earlier productions. Like from the stage production of A midsummer night’s dream. For example, You Spotted Snakes; Hush No More [track 08] is a combination of “You spotted snakes” where the fairies sing for Titania and when she falls asleep it goes into “Hush no more” which we all sing.
That’s another thing that we did for this album. I didn’t want to hire a professional choir to sing these parts. I wanted us to sing it, because that’s what we do live. And we’re getting better at that. (laughs)
You mentioned live versus studio. How did the change of setting influence you playing? Or did you adjust some of the music?
The live version and the recorded version both represent the same thing — what we are, what we say and how we want to be listened to — but you cannot approach the music in the same way. When we’re playing live, anything can happen. Depending on the setting and the mood, we can make long improvisations. Or when someone makes a mistake, we laugh about it on stage. Plus we have a choreography on how we move and so on. These are elements that make a lot of sense for an audience to look at but they hold no place on a recording.
At the same time, for a recording, we try to find the essence and the most genuine aspect of the tune. The aim is to present recorded tracks that are so interesting that people will listen to them on repeat, then we might have to zoom in on one or two key features. How is the percussion section in this?; how about we focus on the rhythms that are peculiar?; let’s skip this repetition and make it more condensed.. These sort of adjustments were thought of during the recording process.
The album is now out on cd and will soon also be available on vinyl. But I’m looking into turning it into a Dolby Atmos to recreate the sense of the auditive space a live performance offers. The arrangements of our music can be quite dense, with lots of various instruments fiddling around relative simple tunes so with this technology you can create more space in the music by digitally spreading the instruments around the room for instance, creating an immersive sound experience at home or in peoples headphones.
At Klassiek Centraal we have a playlist called Selectie van de redactie where we assemble tracks for our readers of cd’s we discussed. Each time we only pick one track. So my final question to you: if you had to pick one track to add to this playlist, what song would you choose and why?
Oh, that’s very hard. Especially when you have been working with a program for such a long time. I’m already starting to get tired of it. Nah, just kidding. (laughs) No, that’s difficult since I believe it should be representative for the project. It could be The Three Ravens [track 06] because it’s an old, traditional, English tune that has one of our very distinct signature arrangements. Plus it has Per Buhre as lead singer who will also be the lead singer for the The Nordic Sessions in Hasselt. Either that one or You Spotted Snakes; Hush No More [track 08] because it has the theatrical flair and has to do with Shakespeare that goes into the Purcell chorus. It has this beautiful flow from A more abstract intro, “You Spotted Snakes”, and then transitions to the alluring chorus of “Hush No More”.
On the 26th of October you play The Nordic Sessions in cultuurcentrum Hasselt. I couldn’t find any information on this program yet. Am I correct to presume that it’s a version of Alehouse but with Nordic tunes? What can people expect during the performance?
The Nordic Sessions is another branch on the Alehouse tree. A fairly new one, actually. That’s why there is not much information written down yet. Officially we only played it once or twice.
It has the Alehouse elements in it. Meaning, it has some of the same players but the focus is on the Nordic scene and tunes from the 17th and 18th century. If you’re doing a Nordic folk program in a historical context, it needs to include the conflict between rural and city music. In the cities, you have this bourgeois that listens to proper, German influenced music. It’s very posh. While on the other hand, you have music from the countryside where they play instruments like the Hardanger fiddle. So, in addition to my normal violin, I’ll be using this eight stringed instrument in The Nordic Sessions. The tunes will be a mix between old, rural tunes and these city melodies. Some of the texts and stories we use are by the Swedish poet Carl Michael Bellman (1740-1795) who wrote incredibly funny texts about being drunk. His texts are combined with stories from Norway, Denmark and Sweden. So, there will be lots of singing and dancing – probably a bit of drinking – and all with a focus on the Nordic scene.
video of the Nordic sessions, with Bellmann