The Lute Legends Ensemble is a new collaboration between three of Toronto’s most noted performers and teachers of plucked-string instruments. Although the lute, the oud, and the pipa are cousins with a common ancestor, each instrument evolved very different playing techniques and styles along different parts of the Silk Road centuries ago. This ensemble now puts them on the same stage in order to search out ways in which the three traditions can come together to create a new musical heritage. We were lucky enough to have the Lute Legends Ensemble answer a few questions for us below:
How did the lute legends ensemble assemble?
It started with Wen and Lucas meeting one another through Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra’s A Cycle of the Sun program, designed by Alison Mackay. The series of Toronto concerts led to several tours (including a tour to China) as well as the Four Seasons Mosiac video documentary. Wen also accompanied Tafelmusik on a second tour to China, where they did a version of Tafelmusik’s Galileo Project that featured a section about Chinese astronomy.
Lucas was so blown away by Wen’s mastery of her instrument that he invited her to share a recital with him. The original idea was that they would each take one half of the recital and play solos, but then they wanted to work up one simple duet to play together at the end. Then it seemed only fair that they should learn one Chinese piece and one Western piece. Suddenly they had a growing duo repertoire and got an OAC grant to do a CD together.
Lucas met Bassam similarly through another of Alison Mackay’s Tafelmusik programs, this one called In the Garden of Delights: Music from the Song of Songs. Bassam and Lucas played an improvisatory duet based on a Turkish melody which was described in one newspaper review as being the best thing in the concert.
Wen and Bassam worked together with Lucas’s friend and lutenist colleague Terry McKenna in a Toronto Consort program called Lute Fest, which was featured on the cover of Wholenote magazine. Following this, the three of us were invited to do a trio concert at the Four Seasons Centre. The success of this concert led us to form a permanent group with a name. Our official “launch” concert will be on September 8 at Trinity St. Paul’s Centre, so this performance at the Harbourfront Centre will be a sort of ‘pre-launch’ performance, and the first one that we do under our new name, Lute Legends Ensemble.
Each of you have lived and played music all around the world. What made you settle in Toronto?
For Wen, it was because Toronto is one of the largest multicultural cities in the world, and has a very strong Chinese community. She wanted to taste some of the differences with other large cities in the world, and to pass on her musical tradition to the next generation of Chinese outside of China. She managed to convince her husband to move here. The move also made sense because Toronto and Beijing have a very similar climate!
For Lucas, it was Toronto’s strong early music scene that attracted him here. He was in New York City before, and realized that he had twice as much work in Toronto as at home. Falling in love with Tafelmusik violinist Geneviève Gilardeau sealed his fate.
Bassam’s story also involves romance. He lived in California for several years, during which he came to Toronto and met his future wife Kamilia, who was extremely impressed with his musical talents and worked at getting him to return to Toronto to play more concerts. She apparently succeeded!
The oud, pipa and lute have each evolved very differently from their common ancestor. Is it difficult finding compositions that accentuate each instrument?
The short answer is “Yes!” Or to put it slightly differently, it’s difficult to find pieces to arrange which sound good on all the instruments at the same time. Each instrument is set up to play with different musical techniques. To give one example for each instrument: the oud is fretless, which allows it to play in middle-eastern scales which include quarter-tones. The pipa has high frets which allow bending strings, a major expressive device in Chinese classical music. And the European lute is set up to play complex combinations of notes, polyphony and carefully-voiced chords, etc. So it’s hard to find music which can suit all three instruments at once. We’re all game to experiment with music and techniques which lies outside of our comfort zone, but there are limits to what we can ask the instruments to do. After all, these three instruments were never really meant to play together! However, when we find a ‘bridge’ between our traditions that works, it’s incredibly fun and liberating.
Wen has been called the Jimmy Hendrix of the Pipa. What rock star are you Lucas? And you Bassam?
This isn’t for us to say. We’d invite any readers to come to the concert and decide this for themselves!
The underlying theme of our Classical festival is exploring “what is classical?”. What do you think classical music is?
We’re not sure that we are quite the right people to tackle such a complex question. Perhaps we could just say that what is ‘Classical’ about each of our traditions has to do with some or all of these qualities:
- The music that we play is old, and was written down a long time ago. It was usually composed a couple of centuries ago and entered the ‘repertoire’ which ‘belongs’ to our instruments.
- The instruments we play are old. They are constructed by specialized luthiers based on conventions that were in place at the time of the music described above. This is not to say that no modern materials or construction techniques have been used. (An obvious exception is the use of modern string material: the oud and lute were once strung with gut strings, and now usually with nylon. The pipa was strung with silk and now uses metal. However, Lucas occasionally plays with gut strings, especially for recordings, and Wen is probably one of the only pipa players now who has experimented with silk strings, and for a while had set up a sort of ‘Baroque pipa!’)
- The instruments are played with specific playing techniques which evolved during the same ancient period.
These factors combine to create a musical heritage from a particular time and place. This heritage struck each of us as being important and beautiful, and something we wanted to dedicate our lives to promoting.
What we’re doing with this group is to invite one other to step outside of our usual tradition and to become a temporary guest within another one. We do that by finding a piece of music from our own tradition that we think will permit the participation of a ‘foreigner’ or two, and where the results will end up being interesting enough to put on stage. The ‘host’ musician (i.e., Bassam if we are playing a middle-Eastern piece) experiences the fun of inviting these foreigners into his ‘classical’ territory, and the ‘guest’ musician(s) experience the fun of stepping outside their ‘classical’ tradition and getting a taste of somebody else’s.