Ciaramella, the Renaissance Wind Band, is in town this week for a masterclass and concert at Case. We reached shawm player Adam Gilbert in Los Angeles to ask about his career as a specialist in early wind instruments.
Mike Telin: What I first want to know, you are a shawm player. How does one go about becoming a shawm player?
Adam Gilbert: That’s a really good question. It’s changed in the last bunch of years, I think. I came to shawm because I was a recorder player. Long story. I played recorder as a kid because I wanted a clarinet – to be like Benny Goodman. That was pretty geeky in the first place, but then after I started playing clarinet I realized I wanted to play recorder, and that’s how I got involved in early music. And that was because I actually saw a concert of my hometown college collegium.
MT: And where was that?
AG: Columbia, South Carolina. I was thirteen, and that was the moment that I discovered Renaissance dances and was really excited by it. I went to New York to go to music school in January of 1981 and when I was there I was told, it’s great, you can study recorder, but my teacher said, I’ve got a gig for you if you can play a little bagpipes and shawm. A lot of people of my generation got into it from playing a lot of Renaissance instruments but nowadays you see a lot more modern oboists or baroque oboists going back and playing the earlier instruments because they’ve already had that specialty of playing double reeds.
MT: And you went to the Mannes College of Music, correct?
AG: That’s right.
MT: And in your resume it says that you’re the first graduate of that program?
AG: I think I’m the first official graduate of the undergraduate early music program. I think that somebody started around the same time but maybe didn’t finish. But I’m pretty much it.
MT: You bring up an interesting point. Something I’m personally interested in is just how much early music has changed since the ‘80’s. It seems that more and more people – modern instrument players – are getting into playing early music.
AG: Yes, I teach at USC out here in Los Angeles, and we have a lot of modern players who are learning early instruments – on one premise, just that it’s a good business decision. There’s a business out there to be made playing early instruments. And also out of curiosity – they realize that now it’s part of the regular classical music scene to understand and play earlier instruments. It’s been interesting to see two things from my perspective. One is that over the last few decades people have become technically better at individual styles. Because early music is not one monolithic thing, it’s different styles, different decades, different countries, different centuries. People have become better at those individual styles, and at the same time, more and more modern players have become versed in playing baroque music and there’s been a kind of seeping through of old styles coming into modern players, and in that process, baroque music became more acceptable as part of the modern classical scene. What’s interesting me now is that Renaissance music was kind of shoved of to the side some times – it’s a little niche market – but the people who used to be treated funny because they were baroque musicians now still sometimes look at Renaissance music like ‘Oh, those early people’. I laugh at it because, well, you know, you used to be there too! So it’s become a pretty amazing development. Just over the course of my short time doing shawm, since 1980, I guess, our information about how people played shawm and the quality of shawm playing has gotten better, just because more people are doing it and learning it.
MT: You mean the quality of the overall technique, the approach, the making of the reeds, things like that?
AG: Absolutely. And you know, the funny thing is, you probably know Ross Duffin, one of my old teachers at Case, my alma mater, well Ross comes from a whole generation of really great musicologists from Stanford, and one of his colleagues is a guy named Herb Meyers who’s one of the first people who really understood, made measurements of historical shawms, really understood how they’re made and how they were played. And it’s not that they didn’t have that information already when Herb was doing this art in the 1970’s, it’s taken that long for some of the people to realize that original research and bring it into play.
MT: Interesting. I need to reveal a secret to you. I played shawm for a number of years and in fact I played shawm in the Case Collegium with Ross.
AG: So you’re right at the horse’s mouth – the source.
AG: Let me give you an example then. You probably played on G and D shawms.
MT: That’s correct.
AG: This is a little bit of a wonky conversation, but shawms were pitched in G and D, but for years people were building copies of shawms pitched in C and F so they could play with all the other instruments. Because shawms are forced to play a step or a fifth higher — they don’t fit into all the other instruments. So people were doing that for years. That’s how I started, because that was an expectation. Now people like Ross already knew that that wasn’t accurate, but it’s taken that long, and now, not only are we playing in G and D, but we’re playing G and D shawms at A=465, a half step higher and probably the original pitch. And that also makes a difference. You know, we’re still evolving.
MT: Well, I think it’s great to have people out there like you who keep it evolving. It’s fun to see it really coming into its own, being given the respect. I think there’s nothing greater than the sound of a Renaissance wind band, between the shawms and the sackbuts. I think people are really in store for a unique concert experience.
AG: Well, we’re excited to come back.
MT: How did the group get together in the very beginning?
AG: We really started as students at Case, largely. I was doing my graduate work at Case and my wife Rotem Gilbert was also doing her graduate work at Case. We met Debra Nagy – she came up from Oberlin where she was doing her degree in early music and she started playing shawms with us. Then one of our other players, Doug Milliken, showed up out of the blue from Youngstown. He came for a recorder lesson and just picked up my shawm and played two octaves on it right away. And that was a good sign, because there aren’t two octaves on the shawm usually! So we started playing concerts. I think the first time Doug played for me was actually on my doctoral lecture recital at Case. And then we recorded a demo at Cleveland Museum of Art for a competition for Early Music America and came in second. We got a recording out of that and started doing gigs. Our sackbut players – and sackbut is the early trombone – are people we actually know from working on the East Coast with Pifaro. That’s Greg Ingles and Erik Schmalz. Greg and Erik are two of the great sackbut and slide trumpet players.
MT: How many concerts a year does the group give?
AG: That varies. Actually this year – I think the economy has something to do with it – we’re giving a little bit less that we used to, but we’ve been giving anywhere from five to ten concerts a year. Maybe more, but they’re usually special projects. We played at the Getty Museum, a concert that was designed for the exhibit ‘Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Barry’, the beautiful book of hours. They asked us to do music from Jean Duc de Barry’s circle. When the Cleveland Museum of Art had an exhibit that was traveling, we played for that here at the Getty as well. So we go around doing early music concert series, and we also have a series we play here in Los Angeles.
MT: Is the other series your own series?
AG: I have a series here at USC called the Early Modern Studies Institute Concert Series – that’s an interdisciplinary institute sponsored by Huntington Library and by USC and funded by the NEH. And they’ve given us ongoing support for giving a series of concerts, lectures and events having to do with early music here. We usually throw in some kind of lecture or recital with that once or twice a year as well. We also bring in people from Europe or other parts of the country, and we do student concerts and audience participation events. It all gets mixed up a little bit.
MT: But that sounds exciting. It would be a fun thing to come out and hear sometime. Tell me, what are the pitfalls of a group where all of its members are not in the same city? What kind of problems does that pose?
AG: Let me first say that one of the nice things is because we know each other. If we know what we’re doing, we can put it together very quickly because we already click. So it’s very easy to pick up a piece of music even if we all haven’t played it together. We sort of know how we work and respond to each other. So that does speed up the process. Having said that, it would be really nice, and it’s one thing we’ve always looked forward to, to have a two-week retreat and read down about two hundred pieces of music and say, hey, what are the really best things we haven’t done yet? Because it does mean you don’t have that same kind of… You can read a piece of music, you can find a piece of music and be excited by it and you don’t know until you hear it with a group if that is a great fit for you. So we put it together as we go, but it slows down the process. If we all lived in the same town, we’d probably be doing twenty times as much.
MT: Exactly. What is the program for Saturday night?
AG: The title is ‘The German Orpheus and his student: Heinrich Isaac and Ludwig Senfl.’ I’ll just tell you that there is a painting on an organ panel in the Fugger hapel in Innsbruck – they were the famous banking family – and on the inside of this panel there is a picture of Jubal discovering music – sort of like the ancient Pythagoras story. And he’s depicted as an old man preserving the great wisdom of the notes, he’s carving the notes in marble and stone. Below him is a young man writing down and keeping track of what he’s writing. For years they thought that this was Isaac and his student Senfl. People have debunked that theory, but on the other hand it really depicts something basic about them, that Isaac was this very highly regarded composer and teacher and Senfl was probably one of his greatest students. Senfl was also his scribe who helped him complete his last great composition, which was the Choralis Constantinus, a series of chant based motets for every festival of the year. The two of them have this kind of wonderful musical relationship – if you look at a piece by Isaac and see what Senfl did with it, you can see what he got from his teacher. Senfl’s probably not the most common classical music name. Ludwig Senfl was a great Swiss composer who really influenced a generation of German Renaissance musicians leading up to Johann Walther and Michael Praetorius. If you get kind of New Agey about it you can say there’s something about Isaac and Senfl that you still see in Bach later. Which is the idea of little motives – if you take a chorale tune – Bach is really good at taking little motives from a chorale tune and turning them into polyphony. And that’s something I think is really a direct tradition from the school of Renaissance German polyphony of taking song melodies and weaving them into the tapestry of the music. It’s very clear with Isaac and Senfl because you can see: here’s the tune they’re using and here are the motives they use with it. It’s charming music because of that – really thick textures – and that’s why we’ve chosen a bunch of pieces that they’ve both set with the same melodies.
MT: This is going to be fascinating. I can’t wait to hear this. When does everybody arrive in Cleveland?
AG: Rotem and I arrive tomorrow (Thursday) around noon, and we practice on Thursday afternoon and evening. On Friday, we have a masterclass and an interview, but we work all day. Then on Saturday we work during the day on the recorders and the instruments that don’t blow our lips out, and then we play the concert on Saturday night. We’ve played a slightly shorter version of this concert before, we got together and we had a whole lot of music by Isaac and Senfl we loved, and we said, here’s this, this, this, just picked the best hits and played a concert here in L.A., and then went up a couple of days later and did a concert in the Bay Area. This is a program we’ve been cooking and so I predict this will be our next recording as well.
MT: Any final thoughts?
AG: I just want to add how important it is for us that we went to Case. Case is really one of the great schools in the tradition of teaching early music. Ross came from Stanford which used to have a really great early music program and doesn’t any more. I studied with Ross, and learned so much at Case that I went back and taught at Stanford for two years. So just like Isaac who taught Senfl who taught generations of composers, Ross has been teaching a whole bunch of young early music people for years.
MT: He and Bev have been around doing this for a very long time.
AG: I should say Ross and Beverly Simmons, because not only have both of them been teaching an amazing list of performers who came out of Case, it’s not just that, it’s that — where are we staying when we’re visiting? We’re staying at the Duffins’ house. Where is the party going to be on Friday night? It’s going to be at the Duffins’ house. Everybody’s going to come, and that’s the way it’s always been. And that’s the really important lesson we learned now that we’re teaching in University. And that’s actually not common, that’s something special, and that’s also something both of them have taught.
Adam Gilbert joins Ciaramella Renaissance Wind Band for a free public masterclass on Friday, October 16 at 12:30 in the Denison Band Room at Case Western Reserve University (11451 Juniper Road). The group performs in Harkness Chapel at Case on Saturday October 17 in the Chapel, Court & Countryside Series.