A professor I once had claimed that art could be understood as a kind of research. Something newly created is a proposition to be tested against the taste of every new audience, seeking a fair hearing and possibly a genuine connection; but it’s not science. No, the hypothesis in a novel or poem is not being proven or refuted according to the scientific method. But there is still a kind of speculation in all art, a seeking for connections and truths.
This is especially the case with a new CD I’ve been listening to (my companion in the car for about two weeks, played over and over) called Dowland in Dublin, teaming young American tenor Michael Slattery with the Canadian baroque instrumental ensemble La Nef. I wondered about the premise, whereby the songs of English composer John Dowland should be presented in a more Irish fashion.
Sylvain Bergeron of Le Nef says the following in the liner notes to Dowland in Dublin:
The idea for this project was sparked when, at the end of a La Nef Christmas party, Seán Dagher charmed all who were listening when he took out his cittern and began to sing “Come Again” as a folk song.
Working closely with Michael Slattery, we began to strip some of Dowland’s Ayres of their complex contrapuntal accompaniments, seeking to give them a simple Celtic flavour. We hope that the music on this CD, midway between folks songs and art songs, charm you as much as it does us. Cheers!
I wonder if Dagher’s fun experiment came before or after they learned that Dowland may have been Irish? I never realized this possibility until reading the notes to this recording. For example, the dedication to the song “From Silent Night” published in a 1612 collection says “to my loving countryman, Mr John Forster the younger, merchant of Dublin, in Ireland.”
The CD is less an attempt to settle the matter of Dowland’s nationality than a delightful project, exploring another way of doing some wonderful songs.
Slattery’s sweet voice is recorded with delicious clarity, always intimate rather than over-powering, but with a remarkable range of sounds, expressions, and inflections. At times the subtleties in his delivery remind us of the Shakespearean, but we’re hearing the comic voice of Twelfth Night or The Tempest, not the elevated language of histories or tragedies. These are love songs, sometimes melancholy and plaintive, sometimes exultant and erotic. Slattery’s boyish voice celebrates love and beauty with every phrase.
In my recent interview with Slattery, he mentioned Sting’s versions of Dowland as an influence, but not at all as I had expected:
I have to admit, I was surprised to hear Sting’s CD of Dowland songs. We had already begun working on this concept, so I was disappointed to think that there would be many out there who might think his CD was the reason we decided to do this. As much as I resisted it, his CD ended up influencing me, because it confirmed for me what I didn’t want to do. I found some of his settings very successful, and interestingly enough, they were the tracks where you could hear Sting’s influence most strongly. Less successful for me were the times that he approached the songs in a more traditional way. Hearing his CD gave me the courage to let go of the tradition completely and bring more of myself to our project.
I think Slattery’s words are a very good indication of what you’ll find on this CD. On my first listen-through of the CD I was genuinely confused, at the unpretentiousness of the songs, that have the accessibility of popular music. I need to unpack that phrase, because of course I don’t mean hip-hop or something amplified, and certainly nothing as commercial as Sting’s work. No, I meant music that has you humming the tune afterwards, and that can be true of anything from McCartney or from Mozart. I now have at least three songs in my head, and whenever I think of them I smile automatically.
La Nef is not to be under-rated in this project, not merely accompanying Slattery, but in fact setting the tone throughout. Some of the songs are instrumentals, making for a marvellous serenade that rises and falls in energy and mood. The more I listen, the more impressed I am at this creation, a wonderful piece of archaeology that seems to unearth another version of Dowland, if not the genuine original. I don’t know whether this will strike listeners as real or alternative, but I believe it’s a valid contribution, both as a kind of speculative musicology –via performance research—and of course as a really cool CD.
I find myself taking the CD and playing it over and over, never tiring of it. I suppose that it won’t surprise you that I believe Dowland in Dublin deserves to be heard and heard again.