A MAN SITS ALONE in a hotel room in Troy, New York. Beside him is a digital audio tape deck and a stack of tapes. He is in the third day of listening, listening to each recorded segment of sessions held during the past few days. His job is to hone the result into an hour-long recording. He’s the take-picker, a newfangled word that has an old-fashioned sound about it, much as the Baltimore Consort brings a new sound to old music.
The Consort’s latest CD, “The Mad Buckgoat,” is a collection of Irish songs and dances, taped in a week’s time leading into last Memorial Day weekend at the historic, acoustically wonderful Troy Music Hall. Five of the six ensemble members have now left the city to enjoy what’s left of the holiday, but lutenist Ronn McFarlane remains behind to select the musical moments that will comprise the recording.
“I’m putting together the first edit, actually,” he says. “The choices I put together are copied onto recordable CDs so that everyone in the group can listen and give input. Then the second edit is usually the one that’s released.” The exception to this procedure is that soprano Custer LaRue will do some of the take-picking for the Gaelic songs she sings on this recording.
McFarlane, who follows the tradition of lutenist-composer with a catalogue of original works for his instrument, has been with the group since the beginning, and has seen not only changes in personnel but also in geography. “It’s been a while since we all lived in Baltimore,” he says. “I grew up there, but I live in Austin, Texas now, which is a great place to be a musician. Mary Ann Ballard is in Indiana, Larry Lipkis in Pennsylvania, and Custer is in Virginia. Only Mark Cudek and Chris Norman are still in our namesake city.”
The ensemble was founded by onetime Peabody Conservatory lute teacher Roger Harmon in 1980 as a broken consort, replicating the instrumentation that entertained the Queen of England at the end of the 16th century. “[T]he Fairy Quene and her maides daunced about the garland, singing a song of sixe partes, with the musicke of an exquisite consort, wherein was the Lute, Bandora, Base-Violl, Citterne, Treble-violl, and Flute.” (Anon., The Honourable Entertainment ... at Elvetham, 1591.)
“My first exposure to what became the Consort was in 1979,” says Ballard, who plays viols and rebec and does much of the musical research. “Roger asked me to play treble viol in a concert with a group called ‘Elizabethan Broken Consort of Pro Musica Rara.’ I walked into the church in Baltimore where we were rehearsing and it seemed like there was someone with a bandora or cittern in every corner, tuning. Ronn was at that rehearsal, and Mark joined the following year.” Ballard also plays with the Oberlin Consort of Viols and the Philadelphia Classical Symphony. She founded the Collegium Musicum at the University of Pennsylvania, and currently is on the faculty of the Oberlin Baroque Performance Institute.
When the Baltimore Consort put together a Scottish program in 1983, it began to slip away from the broken consort tradition. “That was a real watershed for us,” says Ballard, “and that also was when Custer came on board.” Material from that program formed the basis of the Consort’s 1990 debut recording, “On the Banks of the Helicon,” beginning their long relationship with Dorian Recordings.
“The Mad Buckgoat” will be their ninth CD. The versatility of the members is demonstrated by the complexity of their recording collaborations. McFarlane is represented by six solo lute recordings and four discs of lute songs – three with soprano Julianne Baird, one with tenor Frederick Urrey. Along with the medieval and Renaissance music heard on the Consort CDs, LaRue specializes in traditional ballads of Britain and America which she has recorded with Consort members on the CDs “The Dæmon Lover” and “The True Lover’s Farewell.” She also collaborated with Chris Norman on a disc of traditional lullabies. Wooden flute specialist Norman performs with the folk trio Helicon, with which he has recorded two CDs; Helicon guitarist Robin Bullock also joins him on two other discs of traditional music from the British Isles, Quebec, and Maritime Canada. He also recently collaborated with Argentina’s Camerata Bariloche in a program of music for flute and orchestra, all released by Dorian. Founder and director of the Boxwood School of the Wooden Flute in Nova Scotia, he also was heard on the soundtrack of the movie “Titanic.”
McFarlane sharpened his take-picking ability by doing so for all of his solo recordings and most of the lute song discs. “It can be mind-numbing, but I enjoy listening to the way the group jells, hearing how the energy builds up over the course of several takes.”
They could have been local musicians at a village dance, so casual and at-home did they seem on the Troy Music Hall stage. What made it different from a concert performance was the array of boxes that allowed the performers to sit or stand at the best height for the microphone. As recording began, we watched them on a black-and-white TV monitor perched to one side of the control room. (“Yeah. The camera,” Larry Lipkis says later. “Now we can’t make certain, ah, gestures as we’re agreeing to yet another request from the producer.”)
In this case, the producer was Julian Gray, half of the guitar duo Pearl and Gray and former member of the Consort. It was his job to cajole the ensemble through the seemingly interminable process of take after take of tune after tune. “That one didn’t quite have the same build as the one before it,” he said as they worked through a section of the title track. “I think we can do a couple more of them and then we’ll have it.”
“We really try to concentrate on the spirit and strength of the music,” McFarlane says later. “I can say that I’m truly happy with a take when the spirit of the music is really strong and people want to dance to it.” He’ll choose a take that’s not necessarily note perfect if the spirit is strong enough – “those notes can be fixed in the editing,” he explains, which is why producer Gray logged even the takes that might seem under-spirited: There may be good notes lurking within.
The problem for thirsty recording artists is that Troy doesn’t feature much of a late-night scene. As the Consort leaves the Music Hall, just after midnight of a brand-new Saturday, the streets look cheerful but empty. McFarlane, feeling bleary from the ravages of a bout of flu, heads for his hotel room. The other five, in search of beer and relaxation, tour the possibilities. A couple of favorite watering holes are closed already, so it’s back to a theme restaurant near the group’s hotel. Unfortunately, this place is too lively. A disco beat thrums from the parking lot; inside, bleary-eyed kids clutch plastic beer cups and grimly try to dance with one another.
“Is there a quiet area where we can have a beer and talk?” Ballard asks one of the green-shirted bouncers. He gestures and shrugs, a completely inscrutable reaction. Lipkis heads for the bar, followed by Norman and LaRue. Confronted with an on-tap list dominated by cheap, run-of-the-mill brews, they order the better stuff. Cudek finds canned Guinness among the offerings. The noise is overwhelming, so the group finds seats in a hallway where the decibel level is only slightly subdued. Lipkis returns, cup in hand, to talk about the current project. “We toured with this program in the spring,” he says, “so that gave us the familiarity with it we needed. There just never seems to be enough time when we’re in the recording studio.”
“If we just stopped tuning,” says Cudek, “we’d have plenty of time.” Cudek plays a number of early instruments, among them cittern, bass viol, and winds. He’s also in the ensembles Hesperus and Apollo’s Fire, and directs the Peabody Renaissance Ensemble at Johns Hopkins University. “And, you know, Larry has a PhD, so try to make this as academic as you can.”
Lipkis laughs. He is, in fact, a multiple-threat musician who chairs the music department at Moravian College in Bethlehem, PA, where he’s also composer-in-residence and Director of Early Music. His bass trombone concerto, “Harlequin,” premiered recently with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and his cello concerto, “Scaramouche,” is available on the Koch label. He plays bass viol and wind instruments with the Consort.
LaRue and Norman return with refreshment, and LaRue drops wearily into a wing chair. Norman laughs at the gesture as he explains how the Irish program was put together. “Our latest modus operandi is that one of us takes the lead for a given project.”
“That’s good!” says Lipkis. “He got some Latin in there.”
“He does that ad nauseam,” says Cudek.
Unperturbed, Norman continues. “The music on this program falls more into my domain than that of the others, so I pretty much selected most of the tunes. There were suggestions from the others, of course, and Custer picked a couple of the songs.”
They agree that this system works well. “It distributes the work,” says Norman, “but you also have a place where the buck stops. A six-person democracy can take forever to reach a decision – as it is, we can spend an hour just on some phrasing thing.”
Ballard adds a refinement: “Whoever puts in the work gets the right to be the final arbiter.” She observes that with six people there’s no possibility of a tie-breaking vote. “It’s been an evolution for us over the past 20 years.”
“Just as it’s been for [the] Orpheus [Chamber Orchestra],” adds Lipkis. “They started as a complete democracy, but that’s changed over the years. If you really want to see the Baltimore Consort at work, sit in on a calendar meeting.”
Everybody laughs. “That’s our most feared term,” says Ballard. The current personnel have been together since 1987, when Norman joined, and the successive recordings reflect a tireless exploration of the various musical avenues each member treasures. “A Trip to Killburn” drew from John Playford’s 1651 collection of country dance tunes; “La Rocque ‘n’ Roll” surveyed Renaissance France, and “Bright Day Star” collected carols and dance tunes for the Yuletide season from the British Isles, Germany, and Appalachia. Their 1992 release, “The Art of the Bawdy Song,” was the first classical CD to carry a parents’ advisory label, a fact in which they take some pride. The program of rude catches and ballads, Ballard explains, was a project dear to everyone’s heart.
“The Art of the Bawdy Song” and “The Dæmon Lover” were chosen as two of Billboard magazine’s top classical crossover albums of 1993, the same year the magazine named the Consort itself as one of the top classical crossover artists.
There’s an easygoing friendship about the ensemble, something McFarlane later confirmed: “We’ve ended up being old friends. It’s nice being able to be friends and not simply colleagues. When we tour or record, we stick together and enjoy ourselves. I mean, we’ll all go out together after a concert. We’ll all go out together even if there isn’t a concert.”
Living in different cities makes the calendar meetings all the more challenging, but there’s no move afoot to change the ensemble’s name. “When the group was founded,” says Ballard, “it had the rather awkward name of the ‘Renaissance Ensemble of Baltimore.’”
“Shortened,” says Cudek, “from ‘Pro Musica Antiqua Renaissance Ensemble et cetera.”
“It was once suggested to us,” Ballard adds, “that it would be a good marketing move to call the ensemble ‘Lord Baltimore’s Consort.’”
(General groan of antipathy.)
Ballard: “We decided to stick with Baltimore Consort.”
Two days later, the others have left McFarlane alone with the takes. Are there future program under discussion? “All we’re thinking about right now is this,” he says. “We’ve been touring this program, and we’ll be doing more performances of it. Right now, this is the next project. But we’re always searching for new repertory. There are tons of music from the past, tunes that haven’t been played over and over that we can bring to light. It’s like a treasure hunt.”
– 9 June 1999