Saturday, October 29, 2016

A Conversation with Daniel Swenberg, Lute Player

Daniel Swenberg is one of the foremost players of early plucked instruments in this country, and we are so fortunate to have him come to Cincinnati to invest in our music and community. He is playing in Catacoustic's November 13 concert of Italian song. I recently asked him some questions to give us a sense of his life as a professional lute player.

Tell me about your musical background? What instrument did you start on? How long have you been playing early plucked instruments?

When I was very young, I started Suzuki violin (a very brief stint). I didn’t take to it. I took lessons, but it wasn’t my thing. Eventually, I asked my parents to quit-- during a delusional phase of thinking I'd be a basketball star! As a teenager who wanted to play guitar, I had to petition my parents to prove my seriousness, taking classical, as well as rock lessons.

I have been playing lute for around 22 years. I played guitar before that. As a guitarist with a jazz background, I was interested in chamber music and improvisation. When I went to North Carolina School for the Arts, it was lute music that enthralled me. Before I graduated, I was playing lute music and reading lute tablature on a seven stringed guitar.

What is a typical week in your life like? You travel so much. How do you manage?

I spend roughly half of the year on the road: typically 150-180 days of the year. The week varies, depending on if I am on the road and where I am. If I am out of town for a concert, I do fewer things but am able to be more engaged in a single project. At home in NYC, I do more musical projects at once and teach students. And my cats are very demanding of their lost time and attention!

Travel can be tiring at times, but in general, I like it. I get to meet great people and go to good cities and get to have wonderful experiences. I end up in interesting places that I want to get to know better. It is seldom that I am filled with regret.

How many types of early plucked strings do you play? How do you keep them straight?

Within the lute world, I play Renaissance and Baroque solo lutes and continuo instruments (guitar, theorbo, and archlute). I also play 19th century guitar and mandolin. I own approximately 20 instruments in slightly different variations. I play around 7 different types on a regular basis and keep them at the ready for a recital at a month’s notice. Consistently, I play all the types of lutes. This is common of other lute players, but I play a few more than is typical. (Dave Walker, Lucas Harris, and I keep a similar routine.) Most early plucked instrumentalists focus on one type of lute, theorbo, and guitar. My interest in 19th-cent guitar, Renaissance, Baroque, and French instruments may be a bit excessive… I think I can credit and blame my mentor and friend Pat O’Brien for that – his interest in the variety of plucked instruments and their colorful history is a fascination that he encouraged.

What is your favorite type instrument to play?

My favorite instrument is theorbo and the variety you can play as a continuo instrument. It is a strange instrument, with a wacky tuning, but I think I understand it pretty well. If I were going to a desert island, I would bring a 17/18th-century (Baroque) lute. I love the repertoire, and the instrument is ingenious.

What do you think of early music in the US now? Audience perception? Playing level of musicians?

The performance level keeps getting better. I am encouraged, teaching at Juilliard and University of North Texas, by how many students continue to be interested in the field and can play at such a high level – amateurs, as well. With the Internet and groups like the NY Continuo Collective, it is easier to find teachers and people to play with. It keeps getting better.

Audiences remain what they are.  There was a time when early music seemed new and exciting and a reaction against classical music - and had that energy. As we age, that has disappeared a bit. I hope that more young people get exposed to classical music… This exposure is so much less than what it was when I was a child. More people need to come to concerts and appreciate some of the subtleties. Early music is like a sports game: if you watch it for the first time, you won’t be hooked. You need to know the how the plays work and appreciate the subtleties to be hooked.

Where do you see the future of early music in the US?

I teach in NY at Juilliard where many people come from all over the world, and many end up staying there after graduation. They start groups there, and it is great. However, I hope that ultimately people will go back to more of the mid-sized cities (like Cincinnati) and start wonderful series and groups there. Early music should not be just a San Francisco, Toronto, Boston, and NYC world. They need to spread the gospel.

What should someone do, if they are interested in beginning or playing the lute or theorbo more seriously?

That depends on where they live. Find out if there is a good teacher nearby by going to the Internet and visit the Lute Society of America’s webpage to find out about possible resources. There are plenty of rental instruments, and the Lute Society  holds summer and winter meetings/workshops where you could get experience. Large cities are certainly easier. In Cincinnati or northern Kentucky, you could go to the Lute Society meetings and rent an instrument. With Catacoustic there is always a bevvy of good lute players coming through. Chris Wilke, Dieter Hennings (Lexington), Tina Gutierrez, and Larry Brown are all local players who could help keep their enthusiasm going.

All photos taken by Tina Gutierrez

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