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Interview: Tenor Michael Slattery puts charming, Celtic spin on ayres of John Dowland

By John Terauds on February 8, 2012

Michael Slattery is the first to admit that Dowland in Dublin, his new album of Renaissance songs made with Montreal period-instrument ensemble La Nef, is strange.

“It’s surprising for listeners because everything that we did is highly unnecessary,” he laughs. “Dowland’s music is so excellent on its own, the arrangements didn’t need to be adjusted.”

But Slattery was determined to sing something more free and folksy, beginning a three-year collaboration that produced the album, just released by Montreal’s ATMA Classique.

The boyish American tenor and his instrumental collaborators literally pulled apart 14 of John Dowland’s ayres (songs) for this recording project. Once separated from the composer’s elaborately contrapuntal accompaniment, the musicians re-arranged each song with a strong Celtic twist, to suit an Early Music consort.

The result is something that would work equally well in a Dublin pub and a softly-lit boudoir.

“My approach was influenced by the time I spent in Ireland studying traditional Irish music,” says the Juilliard-educated lyric tenor, who is enjoying a budding opera career, as well as a reputation as troubadour.

Slattery connected with La Nef through cittern player Seán Dagher, with whom he collaborated on an earlier album, The Irish Heart. He met lute player (and frequent guest on Toronto stages)  Sylvain Bergeron during a Montreal after-concert party in 2007.

The singer recalls how the collaborators read through all 90 or so songs Dowland had published in his lifetime (1563-1626) in order to put together the programme.

The resulting arrangements are not the only distinguishing elements here.

Slattery also decided to ignore many conventions of what we call beautiful singing. “I tried to resist singing on vowels,” he explains. He also felt more free to breathe differently, and to play with vocal ornamentation.

“While I was studying in Ireland, I kept a journal of the ornaments I heard,” says Slattery.

His favourite embellishment for the Dowland album is what he calls “dirty notes.”

“They’re much like the blue note in jazz,” he explains of a note sung sharp or flat to heighten an emotional effect in the text by adding tension to the underlying harmony.

Shruti box

There’s one more highly unconventional bit of musicmaking happening here. In the background of one of the four instrumental tracks is a Shruti box drone-like instrument plucked from India’s musical tradition, and played by Slattery.

Slattery tells how he had been looking for a harmonium to help accompany his solo gigs, but that the instrument was too big and heavy to make it practical. One day, a shopkeeper emerged from his back room with a Shruti box.

“It was love at first sound,” says Slattery.

The tenor’s instrument can play 12 drone notes in a choice of three keys, and is meant to be used with the human voice.

When he arrived in Ireland, he discovered that the Shruti box was a near-perfect match to the long pipes on a bagpipe, validating his choice.

Slattery says La Nef were perfectly happy to add it to the musical mix.

“I’m amazed these guys were as open as they were to these ideas,” the singer confesses. “It’s a testament to their imagination and openness.”

So, what is the album really like?

It gets better with each listen, as the ear and brain cast off the centuries-old tradition of singing lute songs in favour of this group’s more earthy approach. This is not just Early Music’s counterpart to today’s emo kids, this is  the music of life, rendered with a great deal of care.

Slattery’s lyric voice is a treat in and of itself, making this a must-hear album.

For all the album details, including audio samples, click here.


Here is Slattery showing off his Irish heritage in “Wild Mountain Thyme” with the Skye Consort, on The Irish Heart:


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