This blog entry was originally published in January, 2015
My throngs of blog readers have been asking why my title page threatens some entries about music, yet there are none. Far be it from me to disappoint my legions of fans, so read on!
As many of you know – or have guessed — I’m a music junkie. In fact, I may be insufferably so. Honestly, I can’t shut up about the stuff. Musicians, instruments, acoustic, electric, arrangements, genres… I can’t think of a musical subtopic about which I wouldn’t want to know more.
I tend to stay pretty grounded in mainstream jazz, with regular forays into indie rock, classical, and world music. In fact, I’m just getting over a long-term salsa music habit (that stinging brass section and polyrhythmic percussion! Muy caliente!).
But today, I’m going to write about the lute. It’s my latest instrumental obsession. Actually, the lute and I have kind of had a once-a-decade love affair since the early ‘80’s, when I was sharing an apartment in Chicago with a guy who had miles of vinyl, including Julian Bream: Lute Music from the Royal Courts of Europe. I was and remain enchanted by that album. I am a passable guitarist, and have nothing but respect for the classical players. But hearing Julian Bream play a single lute was like hearing two classical guitarists at once.
Perhaps some instrumental history is in order:
The lute was likely born in 12th century Europe, and can claim the North African / Middle Eastern oud (pronounced “ood”) as its parent. The lute remains physically and sonically similar to the oud, with both sharing a resonant pear-shaped body with a rounded back, as well as a unique angled “pegbox”, which houses the tuning pegs. But the oud is generally strung more like the modern mandolin, with four “courses” of two strings, and is generally played with a plectrum (a.k.a., pick). By the 16th century, the lute makers of Europe were expanding the bowl size for resonance and adding courses of strings, and so lutes of the time might have anywhere from 6 to 10 courses. Later, as music of the Renaissance was often written with multiple melodies, more courses of strings could be added, the use of the plectrum fell away, and lutenists adopted a finger plucking technique for the music of the era.
With that history lesson out of the way, let’s move on to the lute’s ability to cure-what-ails-you.
Many of us listen to music as we work. Some people like pop hits with vocals. I personally work best with instrumental music, but it has to be something mentally engaging and challenging (no Kenny G., please). Lute music meets all of the above criteria for me. Plus, there are these bonuses: it’s like a non-pharmaceutical opiate. It has that effect on me, anyway. But lute music still helps you simultaneously relax and engage! And it’s cheaper than any medications (sorry, Pfizer). No syringes are necessary, and lute music leaves no reason to fear that random drug test! In fact, I’m thinking of designing an experiment with the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration. Imagine setting up special cell towers in high congestion areas. I’m convinced that if you piped lute music via the towers so that it would temporarily override all cell phone, Bluetooth and car stereo activity in that high-stress area, the drivers would automatically relax and engage. Imagine that! Relaxed and engaged drivers! What a novelty. The insurance industry ought to fund it. Think of the return on investment!
I know, I know — you are now so excited about this little-known instrument that you’re combing iTunes while simultaneously finishing this blog entry.
Here are some starter suggestions – available on iTunes:
Julian Bream – The Complete Album Collection (this is actually the current title for the “Courts of Europe” album I noted above)
Jakob Lindberg & Paul O’Dette – English Lute Duets
Christopher Wilson & Shirley Rumsey – Early Venetian Lute Music
Bonus! Here’s an up close video of Maestro Bream in action playing a piece by lutenist and composer John Dowland (1563 – 1626) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fiiLfzJcn6c
If you explore some lute music, let me know what you think. I’d like to know what pieces you most enjoy. Just remember that while no prescription is necessary, it can be habit forming! : )