From its inception, John Potter’s Dowland Project has drawn upon different musical traditions, including those of ‘early music’ and improvisation. The Night Sessions album emphasizes the Project’s improvisational flexibility, as the players create new music, sometimes with poetry as inspirational reference and guide. There are also a number of ‘daytime’ pieces worked up, Potter says, from small amounts of notation: ‘Menino Jesus à Lappa’ is based on Portuguese pilgrim song fragments and ‘Theoleptus 22’ built around a Byzantine chant. Lute fantasias are taken from Dalza’s Intabolatura de Lauto (Venice, 1508) and Attaignant’s Tres breve et familiere introduction…a jouer toutes chansons (Paris, 1529). The oldest compositions are ‘Can vei la lauzeta mover’ – a love song by the 12th century troubadour Bernart de Ventadorn, and Fumeux fume by the 14th century avant-gardist Solage. Two incarnations of the Dowland Project are heard here, the original band with Potter, Stephen Stubbs and John Surman joined by Barry Guy and Maya Homburger, and the revised line-up with Miloš Valent on violin and viola. Yet the music, recorded at St. Gerold sessions in 2001 and 2008, reflects a unified sense of purpose.
“The day music is how the Dowland Project usually works” John Potter explains in a liner note. “The night music came about through rather special circumstances. We’d finished recording and were celebrating a very creative couple of days working on the album that became Care-charming sleep. Sometime after midnight, after a very convivial evening, Manfred Eicher suddenly said, ‘let’s go back into the church and record some more...’. Manfred has been the group’s moving spirit since first getting us all together and has been an inspirational participant in all our musical dialogues, so we could hardly say no... but we had run out of music, having already recorded more than would fit onto one album. The moment provided the music: as it happened, I had some medieval poems with me, so we decided to see what we could do with those.”
Potter told some more of the story in his essay in Horizons Touched (Granta, 2007): “What followed was, for me, the most remarkable hour’s music-making I have every experienced. With all inhibitions gone, and the sense that we were creating something absolutely in the moment, we set about realizing some of the poems. I read them out first, to give the players something to go on, then we set off... We did each poem once only, and they ranged from a lullaby improvised over a lilting bass clarinet riff to a loud and violent number with the full band summoning up a fourteenth-century blacksmith at his forge.” Throughout, the resourcefulness of the musicians is extraordinary.
Each of the musicians of the Dowland Project has recorded in other contexts for ECM. John Potter was for 17 years a member of the Hilliard Ensemble and appeared on many of its discs, including the Officium and Mnemosyne collaborations with Jan Garbarek, Morimur with Christoph Poppen, albums with Arvo Pärt and much more. He was heard with composer/electronic musician Ambrose Field on Being Dufay, and produced the first albums of Trio Mediaeval. Potter initiated the Dowland Project in 1998, and its debut album In Darkness Let Me Dwell was recorded in January 1999. Further recordings with John Potter are in preparation.
Stephen Stubbs first appeared on ECM with Paul Hillier on the album of troubadour songs Proensa in 1988. His own Teatro Lirico included violinist Miloš Valent, the latter also featured alongside singer Iva Bittova on Vladimír Godár’s cantata Mater.
Barry Guy and Maya Homburger share a New Series album of their own, Ceremony, and Homburger is a principal soloist on Guy’s Folio. Furthermore Guy contributed music to A Hilliard Songbook, and is heard on a series of albums with Evan Parker’s Electro-Acoustic Ensemble and the Transatlantic Art Ensemble co-led by Parker and Roscoe Mitchell.
John Surman has been an ECM recording artist since the 1970s, heard in contexts from solo performance to large ensembles (including The Brass Project, Free and Equal with London Brass, Proverbs and Songs with the Salisbury Festival Chorus). His newest solo release Saltash Bells was recently voted Album of the Year by both Jazz FM and the jury of the Parliamentary Jazz Awards in Britain.
Press reactions to the Dowland Project:
This is a disc of whispered conversations: among musicians, cultures and periods – past, present and future. Anonymous composers from the Franus Codex and the Carmina Burana manuscript break bread with Josquin and Lassus, while ancient instruments freely consort with modern. […] Forget crass labels like “crossover” – Romaria is as pure a musical experience as you’re likely to have.
William Yeoman, Gramophone
With this, its third mesmeric and magical album, the Dowland Project applies its modus operandi – developing new realisations of early music through improvisation and experimental interaction – to a selection of pieces from the early-13th to late-16th centuries. Purists may quibble, but the results are convincing and, more importantly, utterly compelling and ravishingly beautiful.
Barry Witherden, BBC Music Magazine
Under the intriguing name The Dowland Project, John Potter has gathered together a heterogeneous group – double bass, baroque violin, soprano saxophone, bass clarinet, large lute and a baroque guitar. Their mission: to breathe new life into mid-seventeenth century songs and madrigals with the aim of reinventing the sense of improvisational freedom and excitement which attended the performance of these pieces 400 years ago. […] I welcome every one of the fresh colours and textures here – it’s all done so intelligently, so sympathetically and so revealingly.
Simon Heighes, International Record Review
In Darkness Let Me Dwell
The Dowland Project requires a certain aesthetic readjustment in the listener weaned on “authenticke” treatments of this 16th-century master. The result is not only beautiful, however, but oddly enough remains more faithful to the melancholic and intimate character of Dowland’s songs than one would have thought possible. This is exactly the kind of innocently audacious venture, flying in the face of artistically correct attitudes to early music performance that ECM is able to pull off with such aplomb.
Paul Richardson, The Independent