May 21, 2019

Defying Expectations, With an Obscure Instrument and a Hipster Look

Defying Expectations, With an Obscure Instrument and a Hipster Look


LONDON — Late on a recent midweek morning, the viol player Liam Byrne was wandering through the Charterhouse, an Elizabethan mansion in central London. The place was hushed; spring sunlight glinted on the gilded decorations and warmed the dark oak paneling.

Mr. Bryne was here to prepare for a concert, but first he wanted to find something. Eventually, in the mansion’s 16th-century chapel, he located a wall plaque commemorating the viol composer Tobias Hume, who was buried here in 1645. Mr. Byrne was pleased. “Hume’s music is amazing,” he said. “Also kind of crazy.”

Mr. Byrne, 36, is regarded by many as the leading viol player of his generation, a specialist in obscure repertoire and a leader in Europe’s early-music scene. But his appearance — hipsterish beard, close-cropped hair, all-black outfit, sneakers — suggested something a little edgier. If it weren’t for the instrument case trundling behind him, you might have mistaken him for a festival promoter or a craft brewer. A tattoo on his left arm depicted the soundhole of his favorite viol.

As a musician, too, Mr. Byrne delights in confounding what you might expect from someone whose instrument had its heyday in England when Elizabeth I was on the throne.

Although Renaissance and Baroque repertoire remains his lodestar, Mr. Byrne has taken the music — and audiences — to surprising places. In 2015, he squeezed into the belly of a plaster sculpture in the Victoria and Albert Museum and performed for one person at a time, Marina Abramovic-style. Two years later, he participated in a site-specific reworking of Schumann’s song cycle “Dichterliebe,” holing up in the kitchen of a historic house with the performer Mara Carlyle, who sang and played the musical saw.

The event Mr. Byrne was preparing for at the Charterhouse was as much performance art as concert: a rendition of Nico Muhly’s “Long Phrases for the Wilton Diptych,” which was written for Mr. Byrne in 2015. Originally a prerecorded sound installation presented at the National Gallery in London, here he was performing it alongside live-processing electronics.

This week, Mr. Byrne releases his debut album with the cult label Bedroom Community. Titled “Concrete,” it stirs together an eclectic compound of ingredients. A graceful showpiece by the high-Baroque French viol master Marin Marais is bookended by two works by Mr. Muhly. Ambient works by the contemporary Icelandic composer-producer Valgeir Sigurdsson sit cheek by jowl with five-part Renaissance counterpoint in which, through the magic of multitracking, Mr. Byrne plays every single line.

“I like finding connections,” Mr. Byrne said in an interview, describing how his three most formative musical influences were the American composer Steve Reich, the English composer Orlando Gibbons and the girl group TLC. He grinned. “New York minimalism, Renaissance polyphony and early ’90s R&B. That’s the only music you ever need.”

“Liam’s infinitely curious,” Mr. Muhly said in a telephone interview. “He has great respect for history, but he doesn’t treat it like a sacred object in a glass case.”

Mr. Byrne, who was born on Staten Island before his family briefly moved to Ireland, realized as a high school student in Raleigh, N.C., that music was his thing. (He now lives in London and Berlin.) His instrument at the time was double bass, but when he arrived at the music department at Indiana University and heard a concert there by the viol virtuoso Wendy Gillespie, he was dazzled.

Inspired by the instrument’s silvery, shadowed timbre and its ability to switch from lugubrious melancholy to Coltrane-like acrobatics, Mr. Byrne started taking lessons with Professor Gillespie. He switched to the viol a few months later.

“It just felt like my voice,” he said.

The viol is one of the oldest bowed string instruments in Western music. A distant descendant of the Arabic rebab, it is sometimes called by its Italian name: viola da gamba (“gamba” meaning “leg”), a reference to the fact that it’s played like a cello, between the thighs. Although the most common solo instrument is the bass viol, it also comes in smaller treble and tenor sizes and has six or seven strings. These are thinner sounding than the modern cello, giving the instrument its veiled tone — one reason it fell out of fashion in the 18th century and was displaced by the brighter, louder cello.

“It’s halfway between a cello and a guitar,” Mr. Byrne said. “And it has an incredible, innate melancholy.”

His first steps were conventional enough: summer camps with the Viola da Gamba Society of America, a master’s at Oxford studying with the renowned musicologist Margaret Bent, then gigs with the specialist viol groups Fretwork, Phantasm and Concordia.

But Mr. Byrne’s conviction that he had more to say grew in 2011, when he was approached by Damon Albarn, formerly of the band Blur, who was creating a pop opera on the life of the Elizabethan alchemist John Dee and scouting period-instrument specialists. Mr. Byrne performed and also ended up scoring sections of the piece. Galvanized by the experience, which also included working with the Afrobeat drummer Tony Allen, he resolved to mix up his own music-making.

In the years since, Mr. Byrne has done more than perhaps any living performer to drag the viol out of the musty early-music attic. He has played gigs with the Appalachian fiddler Cleek Schrey and spent days in the studio layering epic multitrack works by the Irish composer Donnacha Dennehy.

Recently, Mr. Byrne became fascinated by the interface between historical repertoire and electronica, performing with amplification and live-processing software or improvising to backing tracks — projects that might make period-instrument purists recoil.

“He speaks the language of early music, but he doesn’t use it all the time,” Mr. Muhly said. “Certain traditions can kill you. What’s cool about Liam is he’s joyful and playful with them.”

Mr. Byrne is by no means the only viol specialist to realize how much contemporary music can gain from exploring centuries-old sound worlds. The Fretwork group has commissioned living composers since the 1980s, including George Benjamin, Elvis Costello, Thea Musgrave and John Tavener.

In recent years, London’s early-music scene has become a melting pot for the kind of performances that combine old and new sounds, period instruments and cutting-edge technology. The Barbican Center’s upcoming Sound Unbound weekend has classical-inspired DJs and Renaissance music rescored for electric guitar, in addition to Mr. Byrne’s Charterhouse gig.

“The worlds used to be so segregated,” said Ms. Carlyle, the saw-playing singer who worked with Mr. Byrne. “But now you have all these young musicians listening to all sorts of music, working in loads of different genres.”

Mr. Byrne said his partnerships with living composers were “an opportunity to look at the instrument itself.”

“You can discover colors, textures, types of sounds. They come from a different place, but you find that they have an organic place in historical repertoire,” he said.

Mr. Byrne paused to touch his tattoo. “I’m not doing the old music because it’s old or the new music because it’s new,” he said. “It’s because it’s beautiful. That’s the only reason you need.”



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