The Classical Station’s interview with Ronn McFarlane and Carolyn Surrick for Preview!
Interview with Ronn McFarlane and Carolyn Surrick
by Bethany Tillerson (Photo credit: ronnmcfarlane.com)
This Sunday, The Classical Station will feature GRAMMY-nominated lutenist Ronn McFarlane, the mind behind Ayreheart and The Baltimore Consort, and Carolyn Surrick, who has released multi-disciplinary works like her poetry book Between War and Here, but always returns to her beloved viola da gamba. Caleb Gardner discusses their collaboration, As Flows the River, its inspirations, and their musical backgrounds.
GARDNER: My first question is for you, Carolyn. You wrote a book of poetry. Could you tell us a little bit more about that book and how it relates to the ongoing musical career and the collaborative experiences that you’ve had?
SURRICK: I spent eight years working at Walter Reed with wounded warriors and their families with a couple of my musician friends. It is singularly the most remarkable and transformative time that I’ve spent in music. Because we were there every week, we became part of the community. If you go in there once in a while, then it’s a whole different thing. But we were just like pieces of furniture. At a certain point, people would stop and they would sit down and they would talk and we would develop these relationships with our guys and our gals and their families. And it was an opportunity to bring music into an environment where music could really change the environment, in that in a place where everything and everyone’s experience had been informed by a terrible moment in their lives, we could bring beauty–not cheery beauty, not like, “let’s cheer people up”, but we just met people where they were with music.
When I wrote that book of poetry, Between War and Here, I was so taken by these men and women that I wanted the entire world to know them, but because of privacy reasons, I couldn’t identify anyone. So each poem was like a postcard about one of these extraordinary and very ordinary people. For years after I first published the book, people would come up to me saying, “I know that guy!” And I knew that person had left years before that, but they knew the other guy who’d had lost both of his legs and one of his arms. And so there was this continuity of knowing that was really beautiful, and it was a way of affirming all of us. When we make music together, our job is not necessarily to cheer up the world. Our job is to meet people where they are. It can be a terrible day, it can be a wonderful day, but if we’ve created a CD that addresses that place that you’re in, wherever it is, then I feel like we’ve really succeeded in our effort to make music.
GARDNER: It’s well known now that music reaches back into a further place, especially as it relates to healing and memory.
SURRICK: Modern research says that the viola da gamba and the cello are right in the pocket. If you want to reach into somebody’s solar plexus, having an instrument that has a lower vibration to it is really helpful.
GARDNER: Ronn, you started out as maybe all guitarists do, on their dad’s barbed wire fence that doesn’t work with an inch of action. You went on to a wide range of stringed instruments. What is the unifying thread in your approach to those instruments?
MCFARLANE: When I was working on a Bachelor’s degree at Shenandoah Conservatory as a classical guitarist, my weekend and summer job was playing electric guitar in a rock band. So I had a bit of a double life for years and really didn’t see where the two were likely to meet because they seem like such separate experiences. So I finished up at Shenandoah and began a Master’s degree at Peabody Conservatory.
That’s around the time that I became interested in the lute, because I loved the Renaissance and Baroque repertory that I was playing on guitar. Most of that had originally been written for the lute and then was transcribed for guitar. I had seen some concerts of Julian Bream in the 1970s where he played the first half on the Renaissance lute and then the second half on guitar. I thought maybe I could do something similar because I loved the lute music so much. I got a lute while I was studying at Peabody.
Unlike Julian Bream, I didn’t feel that I could divide my energy and attention between the two instruments and get as far on either instrument. So I went into the lute, mainly because I loved its repertory. I loved the Renaissance and Baroque repertory most of all. Not that I didn’t love the Spanish music and Villa-Lobos and so forth–I loved that too, but there was something I really resonated with in the old music. So I became a proud Peabody dropout, went to lute workshops, got private lessons, learned the lute in back alleys and so forth. There was no respectable degree in the lute, but I just read about it, studied with individuals, and began playing with a group that my first lute teacher founded. This was the group that became The Baltimore Consort. So as I was learning the lute, I was already playing with a group of musicians who were all more experienced than me. I was playing another instrument, a stringed instrument called the cittern, where I could just strum with my right hand and finger with the left hand, all while I was learning this brand new way of fingering with the right hand on the lute, which is radically different from playing the guitar.
What I found out shortly after playing with this group is that the Renaissance lute and ensemble music is comprised of a lot of popular music, a lot of folk music, music that has a lot of rhythm, with chances for very direct expression and improvisation. Those are all things that I loved about playing popular music and rock music on the guitar. It was combined with the lyricism, counterpoint, and sophistication that you find in classical music. So for me, the lute had the things that I loved about both popular music and classical music. So I felt that I was kind of complete playing the lute. It was a perfect fit for my musical personality.
GARDNER: What do you find so special and gratifying about collaborating with others?
SURRICK: One of the things that’s really great about working with Ronn is that he and I have had unusual and parallel existences in music. I founded Ensemble Galilei in 1990, and that group does a lot of traditional Irish and Scottish music as well as some early music. Ron’s the composer and does traditional music of Ireland and Scotland too, and so neither of us have had the straight-ahead early music life. So when we started working together in 2020, I couldn’t believe that I had met somebody who’s sort of been on the same life path, and has the same kind of aesthetic and the same kind of musical sensibilities, who’s writing music, but also doing Renaissance music and looking at traditional music and was willing to go anywhere. On this newest CD, As Flows the River, we’ve got Satie. There are a lot of people who wouldn’t go there if they played the lute, and there are very few people who play the gamba who agree to do Satie.
GARDNER: It’s eclectic. That leads really well into my next question. Could you talk about your intentionality in blending genres?
MCFARLANE: I think we’ve chosen music that we love. That’s been the case for all three of the recordings we’ve made so far. Regardless of genre, we go to the music that speaks to us. We’re completely free of thinking that we have to be in this box or that musical box. I think the unifying thing is the sound of the instruments and the way we tend to arrange pieces. You can listen to one of our CDs and have a piece by the Allman Brothers, a piece of music by a Renaissance composer, by traditional Swedish, Irish, Scottish composers, and yet they somehow go together and sound as if it’s one piece, in spite of the fact that they’re from such different genres, I think both the sound of the instruments and the way we approach the music gives it a cohesion.
Join us to hear the interview at 7 p.m. on Sunday, September 10th! Listen on 89.7 FM, TheClassicalStation.org, or our app!