The veteran lutenist Ronn McFarlane maintains an active concert schedule — he plays in Santa Fe and Corrales on Friday, Sept. 13, and Saturday, Sept. 14, respectively — and he’s also a valuable reference for others who play the pear-shaped stringed instrument. Instructional pages on his website offer advice under titles that include Tone Control, Mind Control, Painting the Music, No Plodding, and Quick Release, which, by his descriptions, sounds very important.
“It is,” he said in a recent interview. “It’s basically the art of getting out of your own way, of not holding in tension when you play. That relates to the more delicate plucking, because if you’re holding in tension, you’ll end up clawing at the strings instead of plucking them more sensitively, which is what the lute responds to.”
His technique on the instrument produces quite a soft sound. He uses Nylgut strings. “That is a composite of unnatural materials that try to emulate the sound and the feel of gut strings,” he said.
“The lute is very light and responds to a more delicate touch. Back in the Renaissance, the lute was thought to be a powerful instrument because it could move a person’s feelings, but not in the sense of making a loud sound. An instrument that made a loud sound was thought to be unrefined and coarse. They thought that a musical instrument should be about the volume of normal conversation, and louder instruments like trumpets and percussion instruments and bagpipes were not even allowed indoors.”
In the Renaissance era, the lute was the most popular instrument in the Western world. Among its champions through the ages were composers John Dowland, Francesco da Milano, Silvius Leopold Weiss, Johann Sebastian Bach, and guitarist Julian Bream.
McFarlane, a native of West Virginia, played the guitar early in his life, including in rock and blues groups. He began concentrating on the lute in 1978, studying at Shenandoah Conservatory, in Winchester, Virginia. He is a founding member of the Baltimore Consort and, in 1996, he received an honorary doctorate from Shenandoah. His most recent album, The Celtic Lute (2018), features his arrangements of Irish and Scottish tunes.
How do lutenists emulate players from a time before sound recordings? Historical lutenists “do give us a good idea of what was valued in a performance back then and what they thought about the good players. So we can get an idea of what the style was like and what was valued, and use that as our model,” he said.
McFarlane also writes new tunes. Many of his original compositions, such as “Denali” and “Cathedral Cave,” are inspired by nature. “I’m often composing and playing new material,” he said. “At solo concerts, most of the time I’m playing some original music. It makes the lute not just an historical music, not just a museum piece. It connects to modern life.”
The lute, unlike many stringed instruments, is available with a variety of stringing arrangements. McFarlane said he will bring two to New Mexico. One is a Renaissance lute that has 19 strings, with a single treble string and all the rest in either unison or octave pairs. He uses the instrument to play Renaissance dances, his original music, and his Allman Brothers cover of “Little Martha.”
The other lute, a Baroque model, has two single treble strings and 22 strings in unison or octave pairs. He employs this one to play music by Bach, Turlough O’Carolan (1670-1738), and traditional Celtic tunes from the 18th century.
With all of those strings, it sounds like the instrument could be a nightmare to tune, especially onstage. “That is true,” he said. “There are complaints from centuries ago about how hard they were to tune and how often strings would break. Fortunately, these modern composite strings stay in tune and don’t break very often.
“I will try to arrive at a venue and let the lute acclimate to the temperature and humidity of the room, and if it has been able to stabilize, I often don’t have to tune during until intermission.”
For his Santa Fe performance at Gig Performance Space, McFarlane said he intends to play Renaissance works, original tunes, “Little Martha,” and 18th-century songs from Ireland and Scotland — such as “The Kid on the Mountain,” “Banish Misfortune,” and “Fanny Power” from The Celtic Lute.
The Corrales concert will be held in a historic church. “That will be a little more classical,” he said. “I’ll be playing a Bach suite, as well as a good bit of John Dowland and historical pieces.” ◀
▼ Ronn McFarlane
7:30 p.m. Friday, Sept. 13
Gig Performance Space, 1808 Second Street
$22 at the door; gigsantafe.com
▼ 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 14
Historic Old San Ysidro Church, 966 Old Church Road, Corrales
$25; 505-899-8830, macfarlane.brownpapertickets.com