mon 24/06/2024

First Person: violinist and animateur Bjarte Eike on filming the celebrated Alehouse Sessions | reviews, news & interviews

First Person: violinist and animateur Bjarte Eike on filming the celebrated Alehouse Sessions

First Person: violinist and animateur Bjarte Eike on filming the celebrated Alehouse Sessions

Barokksolistene's mover and shaker on the thinking behind his group's 'old pop music'

Bjarte Eike (below left) and Barokksolistene friends play for their aleBBC /Elisabeth Nord / Musikk i Innlandet

BBC Four is broadcasting our Alehouse Sessions which filmmaker Dominic Best filmed in Battersea Arts Centre one snowy night in December. I know it feels very unlikely that we, the Barokksolistene, a Scandi group of baroque specialists, have made a programme for British TV singing sea shanties and folk ballads alongside Purcell.

In fact, we are recreating the anarchic spirit of Oliver Cromwell’s lockdown London when the theatres and playhouses were shut down by the Puritans and the musicians surreptitiously crept into the backrooms of alehouses and inns in protest. 

Nothing about the Alehouse Sessions is what one expects from a baroque music concert. I try to explain that it’s just old pop music. In fact, how we chose our colleagues in the Barokksolistene is as much about their other interests as it is playing baroque music. I want this band to resemble the mentality of a pop group; from my little black book, an extensive collection of songs and dance music – four hours of music – I only announce to the musicians half an hour before we go on stage which ones we are about to perform. This means we really want the unexpected to happen because it brings a refreshing air of spontaneity to our performances and audiences love it. No two Alehouses are the same. We genuinely surprise the audience because we surprise ourselves.

I realise that this takes a particular kind of musician prepared to enjoy mistakes and turn them into opportunities for humour, to spark new ideas and to improvise. The mistakes make it human and keep it real. It’s the complete opposite of what every classically trained musician is taught at college or conservatoire. Alehouse sceneEveryone in the Barokksolistene is expected to sing, dance, move, play multiple instruments and generally have fun. Flexibility is key. All of us have another string to our bow. Hans Knut Sveen plays anything from harpsichord to harmonium; Frederik Bock plays any kind of continuo – guitar, lute, theorbo and any style up to blue grass; Johannes Lundberg’s roots are in jazz; Milos Valent is one of the greatest Slovak folk string players; Per Buhre is a countertenor and cider-maker extraordinaire; Helge Andreas Norbakken plays all sorts of percussion and drives steam locomotives; Tom Guthrie is a stage director and vocal entrepreneur; Steven Player is our unstoppable pony-tailed dancing Romeo; and I have found a new thrill in jumping out of aeroplanes and teaching yoga. 

Of course, all baroque music requires a degree of improvisation – whether secular or ceremonial music. Ornamentation and embellishments are an irresistible part of Handel’s and Purcell’s arias. Some years ago, I came across Playford’s book of dance tunes – most of these have just a line of melody faintly sketched out. The rest – harmony, rhythm combination of instruments – is completely for us to reimagine, and it’s so liberating. It is the opposite of the ceremonial or court music of the day. This was the popular music of the streets and taverns where artistic freedom was paramount so that musicians would be free to respond and change to whatever audience might be at hand.  

Watch the trailer for the BBC Four documentary

Discovering Playford’s collection made me want to explore further books on English drinking establishments. Above all I just knew that if we were going to play this kind of English music, we had to take it back to where it was performed. The public house is such an integral part of English culture – its neutral ground, regardless of age or sex – it’s a place to escape reality where chatting and gossiping thrives.  

Leap forward to those days in December 2022, and we find ourselves sitting around a table, drinking beer, gossiping and playing music at London’s 17th Century George Inn. The melodies are from the above mentioned collections like Playford, but it is our very own take on this music – and, it is in front of a camera. Cut scene, and we move into the “back room” of the pub (which is really a stage at the Battersea Arts Centre), we’re on stage in front of a very enthusiastic, diverse audience who’s joining in singing, laughing and dancing. I feel lucky, blessed and quite humbled that I get to present this wonderful music, together with my wonderful friends, and the crowd and crew behind the cameras really engage in the whole thing... and when I say “it’s just old pop music”, I mean it.

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