The following are taken from actual newspaper interviews with Piers Adams and contain many insights into the work and philosophy of Red Priest. Inevitably there is some repetition of themes, but it is hoped that by keeping the questions and answers intact this page will become a useful resource for visiting journalists! The page will be updated regularly.
Q. What is the common value/idea with regards to renaissance and baroque music that unites these four musicians? What do you seek to pursue and achieve as Red Priest?
A. Baroque music is, and always was, supposed to entertain. Whereas many musicians in this field prefer to ‘educate’ with historically ‘correct’ performances, Red Priest takes the same basic starting point – a knowledge of historical performance technique – but then branches out into a more theatrical, flamboyant and improvisatory approach. This approach has developed from our early performances, where we experimented only with radical tempi, rubati and articulations, to our more recent work which often involves substantial arrangement and re-composition of the music, together with dramatic staging. The baroque period was one of incredible and wonderful experimentation, crazy performers competing against one another, stealing and re-writing each other's works, mixing and developing new styles, always searching for something new to titilate the ears and move the souls of the public. Music was in every sense a living art. But this does not sit comfortably with today's trends simply to reproduce past performances, and to bow down humbly to the greatness of those before us: that is an abdication of artistic responsibility. Hence we aim to reproduce the spirit of the baroque rather than the letter.
Q. Having read your interview with Andrew Mayes for “The Recorder Magazine” on the Internet, I had the impression that you are quite keen on the sales and marketing aspects as well. Is Red Priest and its unique combination of musical integrity and showmanship your answer to “marketable baroque”? Or, is it simply the fruit of your artistic pursuit and it just happened to be marketable?
A. Good question! It’s a bit of both, and as we develop, the one has fed the other. But it’s easy to forget that it has always been necessary for musicians to face the challenge of marketing what they do, and musicians in the baroque era took this aspect of their work very seriously. It’s a mistake in this respect to turn these musicians from the past into ‘high artists’ – many led extremely earthly lives, and the financial aspect of their work was extremely important for them to maintain their often extravagant lifestyles! Today’s marketing challenges may be different from those of the past, but they remain an equally important part of the equation of being a successful musician.
Q. We continue to hear about conflicts among nations and ethnic/religious groups day in and day out, and in addition there are countless environmental and social issues. In the aforementioned interview for “The Recorder Magazine,” you mentioned that the role of the artist is “to give society a different perspective . . . towards a state of holism and harmony.” You went on to say that how music can specifically contribute is a complex question. If possible, could you explain some of the things you keep in mind in the effort to realize this ideal while performing or arranging? Also, will you share with us if you have a social issue you are especially concerned with?
A. Music has the power to lift people out of the problems of their daily lives, and to help them to connect with a higher source. Much has been written by great philosophers of the past about how to achieve this condition, both for performer and audience, and whilst it is a very complex issue certain things become apparent when one works with these concepts on a daily basis. Most important is to engage the audience as fully as possible, by whatever means we have at our disposal. Working with baroque music one has a huge range of rhetorical devices, well documented by musicians and writers of the era, which can help to draw listeners in to a performance. To us it is most important that they don’t feel excluded, as so often happens in a classical concert - simple human touches like talking to or visually engaging the audience (the latter much easier when playing from memory) can have a great effect, as can more stylised theatrical gestures. It is crucial to us as performers to give 100% when we step on a stage, no matter how tired we may be feeling, or how many times we might have performed the same music.
There are many global issues which concern us all at the moment. Very pressing are the environmental concerns of global warming, peak oil and over-population, but at their route are the suicidal policies of our western governments, to whom growth economics rule everything (and may eventually destroy everything). As musicians we necessarily have to travel extensively, which sits uncomfortably with our beliefs – we are currently looking into the possibility of going ‘carbon neutral’ – essentially offsetting the greenhouse gases we produce by planting an equivalent number of trees. Religious fundamentalism (Judeo-Christian every bit as much as Muslim) is another huge concern, as the deeply-embedded – and deeply-flawed – psychology of ‘I’m right so you’re wrong’ causes most of the world’s conflicts.
Q. What kind of music do you listen to at home? What is your latest favourite CD?
A. Julia and I love listening in particular to East European gypsy music – such joyous, flamboyant, heart-on-sleeve music-making. Our most played disc is by the little-known Russian group, Trio Talisman.
Q. How did you come up with this "second wave" idea of reinvigorating Baroque performance?
A. From a variety of different influences. The initial sound of the group was inspired by the very successul work of the Italian ensemble Il Giardino Armonico , who were pushing boundaries of tempo, attack, tone and rubato to their limits, within a basically historical approach, resulting in some ear-opening interpretations of Vivaldi. We felt that this fabulous sound could be taken a stage further if we were prepared to take the leap of removing the concern of 'historical correctness' from the equation altogether - in other words, to use the researches of the early music movement as part only of a more contemporary and eclectic approach. We found that considerable drama and freedom could be achieved by memorising the scores, and also took inspiration from some of the more progressive groups on the world music circuit - especially certain eastern European gypsy bands, for whom virtuoso command, heart-on-sleeve emotion, improvisation and total musical freedom are rolled effortlessly into one. We felt that Baroque music too could benefit from such an approach!
Q. How much arranging do you do with compositions to make them fit your instrumentation?
A. Nowadays a considerable amount. In the 21st century we are in a unique (and entirely 'inauthentic') position to work exclusively in one commited ensemble for a long period of time, and thereby explore the possibilities of that medium to a much greater extent than would have been possible in the baroque era. Our starting point is therefore not how to recreate most accurately what the composer wrote - for which we would have to stick to routine programmes of trio-sonatas, or else have a large pool of occasional players - but rather, what we and our instruments can achieve, and what material we can effectively adapt to it. So, pretty much everything we do is arranged to some extent, and often considerable addition and recomposition is made to the original score.
Q. (Relating to the “Pirates of the Baroque” programme): I suspect that for this audience the notion that composers stole music from other composers back in the 18th century may come as a shock. Why was it advantageous for them to do it? And more importantly perhaps, are those "borrowings" turned into better music?
A. I don't think there's any such thing as an original idea! All composers were and are, at very least, influenced by their contemporaries - that's how music develops. So to some extent there is a piracy of styles and ideas going on the whole time. Clear examples of musical theft are relatively rare, though I suspect there was a somewhat blurred dividing line between authorised and unauthorised arrangements of other composers works. Whether such adaptations were as good as, or better than the original compositions is of course entirely subjective, but to my mind the important thing is the keeping alive of a piece of music by this very act of personalising it - it's what we do too in Red Priest, and it seems to us that it makes the act of performance more alive than a purely historical approach.
Q. Does your group's paring away of the mythic quality of music make it easier for audiences to find a connection with the music? (One of my musicology professors used call this the idea that a "composer went into a room, wrote a piece while thinking of nothing else that was going on in life, then came out an sold it.")
A. We certainly like to emphasise the human quality, with a very communicative and immediate style of performance, and to break down some of the - often ridiculous - formalities which have surrounded classical music for decades. Recognising that these composers were just people like you or I, sometimes struggling to make a living through the peddling of their compositions, is an important part of that process.
Q. Give me your view of how early music should be presented. I'm sure you've been asked dozens of times how what you do relates to the authenticity movement re Baroque music. I heard the 18th Century Concert Orchestra in a bad venue a year ago. Compared to your approach, they sounded like drab wallpaper.
There's no 'should' when it comes to something as subjective as musical performance and appreciation - in fact what I really object to is anyone saying how music should or shouldn't be played (unfortunately it's generally the 'authenticity police' who are most often guilty of such proclamations...) To me the only person who can decide is the performer him/herself - and the only true barometer of his success is the reaction of the audience. In our case we have armed ourselves with extensive knowledge of period style, but have chosen to use that as part (only) of a broader philosophy of performance, which aims to bring new audiences to this fantastic music through modern, theatrical, energetic stagecraft Those who prefer a more sober approach to their 'early music' are of course at liberty to look elsewhere!
Q. In a nutshell, what are you after in performing this repertoire?
A. In a single word, energy. This can come in many forms - physical energy on stage, mental energy which allows one to be constantly alert to the shifting moods of the music, and the creative energy to forge one's own path rather than falling in line with the establishment. These concepts actually applied to many of the leading musicians in the baroque era (such as Corelli, who was described as so wild in performance as to be completely unrecognisable!) - so in a sense we feel we are closer to the baroque spirit than many, on the surface more 'authentic', performers today.
Q.Who's your favourite early music group(s) on the scene now and of all time, and why?
A. For many years the work of Musica Antiqua Cologne was the benchmark in terms of exhillarating performance of baroque music, but more recently the fantastic Italian group, Il Giardino Armonico, raised the bar - they were the inspiration for the formation of Red Priest. They introduced a revelatory, no-holds-barred approach to sound, using their baroque instruments to produce everything from the merest whisper to amazingly percussive 'sforzandos', which opened up a whole new world of possibility.
Q. From your own press material, I'll quote "swashbuckling virtuosity" and "heart on-sleeve emotion." Are those elements necessary to make baroque music interesting to today's audiences? Or would you say that would be your style / the style of the group no matter what you were playing?
A. I think these elements are an integral part of the music from that period - if you read reports of musicians of the day performing and you get an impression of the most incredible virtuosity and excitement - Arcangelo Corelli for instance was described as becoming so involved and carried away as he played that his eyeballs turned red and his face became so contorted as to be completely unrecognisable! This to me is in stark contrast to the dry, academic performances which have become the norm in early music in modern days.
Composer/performers of the past felt that emotional projection of the music was the most important thing of all, and that this simply could not be achieved without gestures and facial expression. J.J. Quantz for instance talked of a musician needing all the attributes of a compelling orator, with a constant variation of pacing and ideas to keep the audience interested.
Musicians were also most commonly performing their own compositions, or at least their own free and personal arrangements of other people's works. The idea of adhering to the composer's original intention simply did not
exist, and is a purely modern-day concept. That is why we feel free to take whatever liberties we like with the music, which often includes substantial re-composition.
Q.How would you describe baroque music's "image" and how are you trying to redefine it?
A. In addition to the above... we want to present this fantastic music in a way which will appeal to a wide audience, not just early music afficionados - hence the image of the group, its marketing and staging are up-to-date and modern in many ways - sometimes we almost take a rock-band approach to our presentation, especially in terms of the raw energy we like to put into our performances.
Q. Your material has sometimes been described as "over the top." What's the difference between over the top and way over the top? How do you know when you've gone too far? Do you ever fear offending audiences by taking these standards and favorites too far? Is there a too far?
In the end our audiences provide that answer. The great majority seems to be very positive and enthusiastic about what we do, and only a very few are offended by it. For me 'too far' only comes where other, technical aspects of the performance (e.g tuning and ensemble) become impossible to maintain as a result - as long as we can hold those in check then musically speaking, anything's possible!
It should also be said that every liberty we take is in response to something within the music, often an expansion of an idea that's already there. This helps to make even the most 'over the top' idea seem somehow appropriate.