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Exclusive Interview with Trio Mediaeval: March 14, 2011

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On Thursday, March 10, 2011, Artistic Director Nolan Gasser spoke with Norwegian soprano Linn Andrea Fuglseth of the acclaimed vocal group Trio Mediaeval (which also includes soprano Anna Maria Friman and mezzo-soprano Torunn Østrem Ossum) – whose new ECM release, A Worcester Ladymass, presents a creative re-shaping of late medieval fragments known as the “Worcester Fragments.” In this delightful interview, Ms. Fuglseth discusses the origins of the esteemed trio’s fresh reconstruction of these musical fragments – previously used as bookbinding and stuffing for organ stops, as well as their characteristic incorporation of contemporary works, in this case two movements by English composer Gavin Bryars. In addition, Ms. Fuglseth provides fascinating detail into the group’s origins going back to Oslo in 1997, their intriguing history with contemporary music, the surprising success of their Norwegian folk songs, and much more. As a special treat, ECM Records is granting all visitors to Classical Archives a FREE STREAM from this new album by Trio Mediaeval. Don’t miss this terrific interview with the founder of this bright light of the a cappella scene!

“That year [1996], I heard so much wonderful music – especially for three voices; and I particularly liked the medieval English carols… So, when I was back in Norway, I sat there with my child, and thought, “Hmm, maybe I should form my own trio, and try out some of this music myself. And that’s how it all started.””
– Linn Andrea Fuglseth of Trio Mediaeval

Nolan Gasser: Linn Andrea Fuglseth, welcome to Classical Archives. Let's get started by talking about your new ECM release, entitled A Worcester Ladymass. This is a reconstruction or "re-imagining" of various fragments and single pages [known collectively as the "Worcester Fragments", written at the Benedictine Abbey of St. Mary's in the late 13th / early 14th centuries, fortuitously re-discovered as book bindings and organ stops] that the Trio Mediaeval has reshaped into a Votive Mass in honor of the Virgin Mary. I know that the idea for this program stems at least as far back as 2008, when you performed it in New York; but can you take us back to when the idea first came about, and what inspired it?

Linn Fuglseth: We began working on this repertoire almost immediately after recording the Norwegian Folk Songs for ECM in 2007; we wanted to return to a more "roots" repertoire for the Trio: the medieval sacred music that we love so much - and particularly the English repertoire. Anna Maria [Friman] just completed her doctorate [in performance practice of medieval music by women composers] at York University, where she got to know the musicologist Nicky Losseff; Nicky had already edited some Notre Dame conductus for us [on their 2005 Stella maris CD], and she collected and edited the works we sang for this recording as well.

So, we asked her, "Do you think you could help us find some new repertoire, perhaps an English Mass cycle?" Except for our recordings of the folk songs, all of our recordings so far have been framed by a Mass cycle, with various movements around it; it doesn't need to be liturgical, just to nicely fill out a program. Nicky went though all the "Worcester Fragments", comparing the original manuscript to several modern editions - which contained some Mass movements and various motets and other pieces. She ended up making her own edition of the pieces, creating additions when she felt they were needed. It turned into a full Mass cycle with the exception of the Credo movement; for that, and for the closing movement "Benedicamus Domino", we asked [English composer] Gavin Bryars to write something. In all, it turned out to be a quite unique program - though the Orlando Consort also recorded some of these pieces.

NG: And when you first approached Nicky Losseff in 2008, did you immediate think this would be tied to a recording project, or were you just looking for new repertoire to perform at concerts?

LF: Initially, it was just though of as a concert program. We usually don't think of what will become a recording, but we're always looking to do new programs; and we really liked the idea, and the music. We performed it on our US tour in 2008, as you said, and over this period we changed the program a bit - adding some pieces and taking others out, and making other changes, such as adding the melody chimes to some of the pieces.

NG: This is one of the unique things about performing medieval music: the essential relationship between scholars and performers - who sometimes are the same folks. As you've noted, this is music that requires considerable expertise, such as what Nicky Losseff has done: to examine medieval fragments and piece them together, and make additions as needed based on the style of the repertoire. In your liner notes, you've make the point explicitly that you're not aiming for any kind of "authenticity" with this "Ladymass" recording; rather, you're using your "intuition" and some informed "guesswork" to create something that is "attractive and functional". Of course, this is always the case with medieval music, and thus my use of the term "re-imagining" favored by performers like Benjamin Bagby of Sequentia - because nobody can know what this music sounded like, and especially when only fragments survive.

Can you talk a little more about your overall process with this recording: did you simply take Nicky's editions and perform them as is, or was there some experimentation and back-and-forth in your renditions, or even some improvisation?

LF: I wouldn't say that there was a lot of improvisation, only a bit of arranging around some of the plainchant - where we sometimes added a drone; so, yes, there was some back-and-forth to create a nice variety in the sound - not having all three of us singing the chant melody in unison all the time, for example. Also, we did some experimentation in using the melody chimes. Otherwise, it was pretty straightforward - and Nicky's notation is quite clear. Of course, it doesn't indicate tempos or dynamics, which we had to work out. But after 14 years of doing this, we're pretty good at figuring these things out; and we can tell what music works for us and what doesn't.

NG: I'm sure you can. And yes, I noticed your use of those open fifth drones to accompany the chant - for example at the end of the "Kyrie" [track 2], which are very beautiful. Again, we have no idea if it would have been sung this way originally, but it doesn't matter: it works for us; same for your use of the chime bars in "Benedicta / Virgo Dei genitrix". And was Nicky there in the recording studio, or at the rehearsals with you, to help work things out, or is her work done once she hands you the music?

LF: She only hands us the notes; and has never been to a rehearsal or in the studio with us.

NG: Right, she's the scholar, not the performer.

LF: Yes, exactly. Actually, thinking about improvisation: there is some involved in how we ornament the melody at times - which is actually quite fun in this repertoire - as it is with the folk songs.

NG: Right - in the upper two parts of the 3-part motets and conductus; so, do you pre-work out the actual ornamentation you do in the course of the rehearsals, or do you leave some of that to the spur of the moment?

LF: It's a bit different each time - it's always nice to have some surprises at the concerts.

NG: Yes, that's the nature of improvisation - that it has spontaneity.

Now, as you mentioned - and as you've done many times in the past, you have interspersed music from the medieval period with some contemporary music, in this case by Gavin Bryars, with whom you've collaborated previously. This time, though, rather than being a purely aesthetic decision to mix old and new, there was a practical applications, since the "Worcester Fragments" have no setting of the Credo, nor the "Benedicamus Domino," the salutation that closes the Mass. What was your reason for choosing Gavin for this task?

LF: Gavin has written many pieces for us through many years, and we like his music very much. He loves these old texts - for example, he's set some medieval poetry from Cortona, Italy as conductus; and he likes to mix medieval and contemporary styles. In fact, even if this Mass had a Credo, we still would have included some contemporary music - we feel it's nice to have a fresh and new sound all of the sudden with this repertoire.

NG: And did you give him any particular instructions - or just let him decide on his own how to interact with these medieval pieces.

LF: No instructions at all; we completely trust him.

NG: Great. I have two technical questions for you about this particular recording and your approach to the music: first, you mentioned that in designing this program you wanted to create something that was both attractive and functional; have you in fact ever performed the Mass in anything resembling an actual liturgical service - such as part of a Marian Votive Mass?

LF: Actually, no, we haven't.

NG: Well, it certainly would make for a rich experience, even for concert setting.

My second question concerns your use of the "Benedicamus Domino" to close the Mass; normally, this text only closes Masses that have no Gloria, such as those performed during Lent; otherwise the Mass ends with the more common "Ite missa est." But this Mass performance does have a Gloria; do you know why you chose to commission Gavin to set the "Benedicamus" text?

LF: I have no idea [laughs]. I'm actually not so familiar with the liturgical side of things.

NG: No problem, perhaps it's a question to pose to Nicky…

Okay, so my next question opens up a bit of a broader topic, thought it's one that also has some specific references to this album: and that involves a comparison - that perhaps you're a little tired of - between Trio Mediaeval and another all-female medieval group, Anonymous 4. The comparison, of course, is easily made by those facts alone, but with this release, it's even more direct - as by recording a 14th century English "Ladymass," in the words of one writer [Steve Smith from the New York Times, on the 2008 concert], you "planted a flag in Anonymous 4 territory" [the latter group's 1993 debut CD was of an English "Ladymass" from Salisbury Cathedral; they also recorded a "Ladymass", of the English Sarum Rite in 1998].

In fact, as you may know, there's one "fragment" on this disc that was also recorded by Anonymous 4, namely "De supernis sedibus" [Track 14, cf. the recording by Anonymous 4]. What's amazing is how different your two recordings are - starting with the opening melisma [the extended, highly ornamented passage on the first syllable "De": the Trio's performance is in a duple meter or "mensuration"; the Anonymous 4 performance is in triple]. But more striking is the overall sonority: theirs is softer and rather subtle and reflective; yours is more present, reverberant, and very earthy in its vibrant expression. Is this kind of comparison something you three think about in designing and then executing your "re-imaginings" - or do you leave that to the rest of us?

LF: In fact, we never discuss this amongst ourselves. I haven't really listened to Anonymous 4 in many years; many years ago I was quite preoccupied with what they were doing, and liked them very much. But we don't speak of this comparison… I mean, they're four singers, and we're only three; it's quite different, really.

NG: Certainly, you're right; it is different; of course, there are lots of early music vocal groups - and certainly many all-male groups; still, it does invite a comparison, given the small number of female medieval groups [among the few other ones is Tapestry], and how unique the sound is - and especially when you both record the same work.

LF: You know, since you mentioned this, I have to confess something: with this piece, "De superni sedibus", we actually "cheated" a bit: we didn't like the opening of the original, so we used the beginning of a different piece from the "Worcester Fragments", and just changed the text. It's actually the only time we've ever done this; but we thought it worked so well.

NG: That's very interesting! Yes, I did a quick listen in comparing the two, but I knew something was a bit "funny" - especially with the rhythm; after the opening melisma, the music is the same; the two melismas are certainly quite similar - in terms of mode and melody - so you did a great job of mixing and matching. In fact, you've done a true "contrafactum" - a common practice of the period, of taking already-written music and giving it a new text. Well, I'm glad I mentioned it!

LF: Yes, you're very observant - and I'd forgotten all about it.

NG: Now, this whole discussion, of course, leads to a more general question - namely regarding the origins of Trio Mediaeval, in Oslo, Norway in 1997. Thinking back to those early days, what was it for you - since I read that you were the real catalyst of the group - that sparked a desire to form not only an early music group, but a trio of female singers, dedicated to this rather complex language of late-medieval English and French repertoire? And did you ever imagine that 14 years later you'd still be doing it and having such terrific success?

LF: Well, I would never have dreamed that it would become this successful, and that we could actually make a living from it - though that was definitely a hope. I had just finished my studies at the Norwegian Academy of Music, and had had my first child. So I was home with her, wondering how to make a living, which seemed like a puzzle to me at the time. Some years earlier I had studied one year at Guildhall School of Music, in the Early Music Department - where, for instance, Emma Kirkby gave several Master Classes, which were brilliant!

NG: Yes, she's wonderful.

LF: That year, there were only ten singers in the class: 9 sopranos and one counter-tenor, and we spent every day together; we did a lot of ensemble singing, so we had to find music that worked for higher voices. At Guildhall, I heard so much wonderful music - especially for three voices; and I particularly liked the medieval English carols. With a few of these girls, we performed a lot of carols - they are so beautiful. So, when I was back in Norway, I sat there with my child, and thought, "Hmm, maybe I should form my own trio, and try out some of this music myself. And that's how it all started.

NG: And did you already know Anna Maria and Torunn [Østrem Ossum]?

LF: Yes, I had been singing in choirs with both of them; and I'd known Torunn for some 15 years - we sang together in several choirs in Oslo. I had just met Anna in the Norwegian Soloist Choir; we did a project of contemporary music, and I thought she had a great voice and a very nice personality. I asked both of them if they were interested in joining this little trio, to do some medieval music, and both were very happy to try. Neither of them had sung this music before, but we found out that it was really quite fun.

NG: I imagine it must have been love at first cadence…

LF: [laughs] Yes, it worked quickly. We were also very lucky to have been able to spend a lot of time rehearsing; Torunn was also home with her children, and Anna was a student - so she had a fair amount of free time. We tried to rehearse three days a week for three or fours each time. Then, one day I saw an ad in a magazine that the Hilliard Ensemble was offering a summer school at Cambridge. It was pretty expensive, but they both said, "Yes, let's do it!" - even though we'd only been singing together for a few months; we only had about 40 minutes of music when we first arrived in Cambridge. We ended up going there three years in a row, and had a lot of fun.

NG: That's a great story; and neat to hear that it was such a homespun project. You probably didn't have any real sense of where it would go, but you obviously had an intuition that you three had something special. As you know, what gets people so excited in part is the phenomenal blend you three get - and you all have such incredible intonation!

LF: Thank you.

NG: So, you went to the Hilliard Summer Festival, and worked especially with [tenor] John Potter and [mezzo-soprano] Linda Hurst. It's well known that the Hilliard Ensemble - both before and after Paul Hillier - has had a mutual interest in both medieval and contemporary music. Is this where the idea was sparked for you three - that combining these two realms would be a good thing?

LF: It's actually kind of funny; when we first attended the Hilliard summer program, we came there because we really wanted to sing medieval music. But then they asked us - as they did with all the groups - to prepare a piece of contemporary music. We were kind of annoyed that we had to do this, and so we picked the shortest piece we could find. We were there to sing medieval music, and we were very negative - even angry - about the whole idea of having to do this music. The music was all written by their composer-in-residence, Paul Robinson, and it was very difficult for us. But at the same festival, there were other composers too, including Ivan Moody - who wrote a piece for us, Word of the Angel; he sent it to us after our first summer there, and we really liked it.

NG: Yes, it's a beautiful piece.

LF: And so, after awhile, we started to get more pieces from other composers who were interested in writing for us, and we gradually became more and more interested. I must say that one reason we were hesitant toward contemporary music is that Torunn didn't have a formal music education; she was a kindergarten teacher. Of course, she read music, but it took her a long time to learn new repertoire - compared to Anna and me, who both had had years of studying. So, if the music was too complex, rhythmically or melodically, it was a problem. And especially if we didn't like the music! Now, it's no problem; Torunn has learned to read very well, and can do all kinds of music. So, at first we were forced to do contemporary music, but we learned to like it, and now we always want to include some.

NG: Well, that's often the case with teachers and students: they can give some tough medicine, where at first the student says, "Hey, this is not what I want to learn!" But eventually, it starts to make sense. It's a bit like parenting.

That's interesting that Ivan wrote Words of the Angel very early on, prior to you getting a record contract - but then you placed this piece as the title track of your first album for ECM, which launched your career. It shows what a happy combination it is to audiences, to combine medieval and contemporary music.

LF: Yes, exactly. I also must tell you that in the first year at the Hilliard Summer School, I had made some arrangements of Norwegian medieval ballads; we had rehearsed a couple of these prior, but we were a bit shy to perform them because we didn't know whether people would want to hear this Norwegian stuff. So, one afternoon, we decided to try one of these pieces; and everyone was so extremely excited by it - they applauded us all the way to dinner! After that, we thought, "Okay, maybe these Norwegian pieces are okay."

NG: Indeed, they are gorgeous songs.

LF: Yes, I really love to do folk music; but it's so funny that sometimes you don't know if people will like what you like.

NG: Well, if it's good music, it's good music. Now, staying on contemporary music a bit: as we've discussed, it's become standard that in your medieval recordings, you also include some contemporary music, of varying scope - with some, such as the Mass cycle [Missa Lumen de lumine on the CD Stella maris] by Sungji Hong, being quite ambitious. But most of these works have a very obvious and direct reference to the music of the Middle Ages, which of course makes sense. By contrast, however, I've also seen that you've done a few collaborations that are by no means neo-medieval - namely, with [the New York-based contemporary music group] Bang on a Can.

LF: Yes, that's been really fun.

NG: Most recent is a work called Steel Hammer by [Bang on a Can co-founder] Julia Wolfe. In fact, I just interviewed her colleague, David Lang,

LF: Oh, nice!

NG: I was able to hear a little snippet of a rehearsal of Steel Hammer online; it's sort of vintage Wolfe - her own inventive take on minimalism; but, it's obviously quite different from the "Worcester Fragments". So, how did you get involved with Bang on a Can, and what has been the experience of doing something so different?

LF: We first started working with Bang on a Can in 2005, when we did a project called Shelter, a piece by all three composers - David Lang, Michael Gordon, and Julia Wolfe, written for the musikFabrik ensemble in Cologne, Germany. They needed some vocal music, and it was just by accident that David Lang had been to Tower Records and found one of our CDs; he listened to it and thought we were the right group for the kind of atmosphere he wanted - and so he contacted us. We had never heard of them, and so we did a lot of research, and decided to give it a chance. And it was great fun, thought it was quite hard on the voice; there was a lot of sound - a full orchestra, and we were the main vocal part for almost the whole time. This piece was staged at the Ridge Theater in New York; there were pictures as well - it was a beautiful production. Since then, we did 10 more concerts in Europe and America.

Some time later, we got a request from Julia Wolfe, who was very interested in our folk songs; she had been to one of our concerts where we performed them, and she liked our approach. She had an idea to do a story about John Henry [the iconic American folk hero, famed for racing against a steam-powered hammer, winning, and dying with a hammer in his hand; the story was set as a folk song numerous times]; she wanted this folksy, Appalachian style and again thought our voices would suit the project - this time with the Bang on a Can All Stars. That was so much fun, and we had great shows with them in 2009, and now there are plans for a recording in November of this year.

NG: So, it's clear that your take on contemporary music has evolved quite a bit since those first Hilliard Summer Festival days - and now you're taking on works with no connection to the Middle Ages whatsoever; and obviously becoming an ensemble with a broad repertoire.

LF: Yes, we are quite interested in contemporary music - so long as it's not too complex; we're not interested in works that are very atonal or complex harmonically; there are other groups that would do that a lot better than us. We like music that is more melodic; and we also like the American minimalist style. In fact, we now have a commission with David Lang - he's writing for us with the Norwegian Radio Orchestra; in a work that is to be performed in Norway in October of this year.

NG: David is doing so many projects, in the wake of his 2008 Pulitzer, that I'm not surprised. And of course, he won that award for an a cappella work with percussion - with Paul Hillier's Theater of Voices ensemble; so we see it's all intertwined! Well, we'll look forward to the Wolfe recording when it comes out.

Coming back to the Norwegian folk songs that you recorded in 2007: this must have been a labor of love. It's a beautiful recording - and even earned you a Grammy nomination! I understand that you did a lot of the arrangements; many of them are so creative that I'm wondering if you're planning on doing a second volume? And have you considered doing a recording with your own original works?

LF: In my early days I did write some music; and have written some pieces for my daughter's girl's chorus here in town - they have 70 little girls, and they even recorded the piece I wrote last year; it was a simple, folksy tune. But I like actual folk music so much, and I love to find old tunes that fit the trio; so, I feel that I'm more comfortable and safe doing a good arrangement, instead of inventing my own half-nice tunes.

NG: Well that certainly makes sense.

LF: But maybe I should have more confidence [laughs].

NG: Absolutely, you should. But I certainly assume that you'll continue to explore the rich repertoire of the Middle Ages. One thing I was wondering: I couldn't help notice that so much of the medieval repertoire you record has texts dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Now, of course this makes sense just from the fact that so many of the sacred works in this period were written in her honor - given her perceived power as a mediator between the God and the sinner. But is there perhaps any other significance to this emphasis in your output - for example, your entire album focused on the topic of Mary as the "stella maris" [star of the sea]?

LF: No, it's just a product of the repertoire. For us, it's the music that most important; the texts have beautiful poetry, and as you say, so much of it is dedicated to the Virgin Mary. It's happened very rarely that we decided not to record something because we didn't like the text.

NG: Well, you're helping to underscore this point, that so much of the repertoire during this period - and especially in England - was written in dedication of Mary.

But of course, there's no shortage of great music to perform, and it's great that so many rich opportunities are coming your way. We'll certainly look forward to your many future projects, as we enjoy your new one dedicated to the "Worcester Fragments." Who knows, perhaps you'll return to your own earlier preoccupation: the Restoration "Mad Songs" of composers like Henry Purcell and John Blow?

LF: Yes, maybe - they're definitely some exciting texts. But that would probably not be for the trio [laughs].

NG: Indeed. Well, Linn, thank you so much for your time, and again congratulations on the new album.

LF: Thank you very much; I enjoyed it a lot.

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