Name: Ronn McFarlane
Occupation: Lutenist, composer
Current release: Ronn McFarlane teams up with Carolyn Surrick on their joint release A Star in the East, available via Flowerpot Productions.
[Read our Carolyn Surrick interview]
Recommendations: Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda; Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
If you enjoyed this interview with Ronn McFarlane and would like to stay up to date on his work, visit his official website. He is also on Instagram, Facebook, and twitter.
When did you start playing your instrument, and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I started playing guitar in 1967. I played rock guitar, folk guitar and eventually classical guitar. Of the classical guitar repertory, I felt the deepest connection with Renaissance and Baroque music. Most of that music was originally composed for the lute, then arranged more recently for the guitar. In 1978, I switched from the guitar to lute and never looked back.
It was the lute’s repertory rather than the lute’s sound that drew me in. But I’ve grown to deeply appreciate the lute’s kaleidoscopic variety of tone colors at my fingertips.
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
As a teenage guitar player, I began by imitating my favorite rock guitarists in the 1960’s (Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, Duane Allman). As a classical guitarist, I was strongly influenced by the playing of Andres Segovia, Julian Bream, Christopher Parkening and John Williams.
When I took up the lute, Julian Bream was my first influence, then Paul O’Dette. But my musical influences were not confined to those who played my instrument. I found inspiration and influence from musicians such as Ravi Shankar, John Coltrane, Louie Armstrong, John Bonham, Michael Hedges, Chris Thile, Bela Fleck, Vladimir Horowitz, William Kapell, Glenn Gould, and many others. Various artists, writers and thinkers such as Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, William Shakespeare, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Gabriel Garcia Marquez all made an impact on my outlook and creative voice. The lives of great saints such as Jesus, Elijah, St. Francis, Ramakrishna and Paramahansa Yogananda have inspired and influenced my life and music. I’ve also been strongly influenced by my own friends and musical colleagues in the Baltimore Consort, Ayreheart and other musical collaborators.
Like any artist, I’ve synthesized all these influences along with my own native sensibility and intuition to create my individual musical voice.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
When working creatively, I try to think of myself simply as a soul rather than an American man of a certain age (born in 1953) with Scotch - Irish ancestry. Still, I’m sure these things filter through whether I want them to or not.
What were some of your main challenges when starting out as an artist and in which way have they changed over the years?
When I started playing concerts on the guitar, then the lute, I had to overcome feelings of self-consciousness and nervousness when performing for an audience. It affected the quality of my playing. In time, by performing over and over again for many audiences, these feelings eventually subsided and I was able to relax in front of an audience and play my best.
Another challenge has been the very quiet volume of an un-amplified lute when playing in large spaces. I’ve experimented with various ways of enhancing the volume, with the goal of delivering the natural sound of the lute. I want everyone to be able to hear the subtle nuances of the lute’s tone clearly and intimately even in a large concert space. That has been a work in progress for many years.
As creative goals and technical abilities change, so does the need for different tools of expression. Can you describe this path for you, starting from your first instrument?
I started with a steel-string acoustic guitar, then electric guitar, then a classical guitar and finally the lute.
Having a background in guitar and in rock & folk music has influenced the way I approach lute music. Like rock music of the present, popular music of the 16th century had rhythmic propulsion, a directness of expression and the opportunity for improvisation. All that seems familiar and comfortable
Tell me about your instrument, please. How would you describe the relationship with it? What are its most important qualities and how do they influence the musical results, including your own performance?
The lute, the so called “Prince of Instruments” of the 16th and 17th centuries, has an amazing array of sounds and tone colors literally at one’s fingertips. I’m keenly interested to expand the repertory beyond music of the Renaissance and Baroque through transcription, arrangements and original compositions. It is a nuanced and articulate instrument for music of our own time as well as the past.
How would you describe your approach to interpretation? Where do you start and how do you develop your view on a piece, what are some of your principles and what constitutes a successful interpretation for you?
I generally begin by reading through a piece of music for the first time and sensing the intent and voice of the composer. I find what resonates with my own musical voice and draw out those qualities and tone colors that best express the essence of the composition.
I try to bring out a singing quality in the lute whenever the piece is practiced or performed. A successful interpretation is one that clearly expresses the heart of the composition.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives?
I enjoy collaborations tremendously. I’ve learned more from my musical collaborators than I ever learned in music school.
I prefer ongoing collaborations that last for decades rather than short term collaborations, but every engagement with another musician is stimulating and presents a chance to learn something new.
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
My schedule is very flexible and I don’t think there’s such a thing as a typical day, since I might be driving to a nearby rehearsal, flying to a distant city for a concert, waking up in a hotel, attending group rehearsals in another town, teaching, doing a radio interview, taking part in a workshop or performing a concert.
But if I’m at home and have no rehearsal or concert that day, I usually wake up early. I’ll make some coffee and read before launching into 15 minutes of exercises followed by a meditation. Then I usually write and have a run. Through the morning I’ll practice, take care of whatever business is at hand, talk with my booking agent and drink lots of water (and perhaps a second coffee). At noon, I’ll have my main meal of the day, do some chores around the house and get back to work. I’m often working on a new musical composition or an arrangement along with practicing and preparing for whatever concerts may be coming up in the future.
If the work load is light, I’ll go for a walk in the woods in the late afternoon, then have a light snack of fruit and nuts. In the evening, I’ll exercise again, shower, read and have another mediation before bedtime.
Can you talk about a breakthrough work, event or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?
After playing exclusively Renaissance and Baroque music on the lute for nearly twenty years, I began writing and performing my own music for the lute. This culminated in the CD “Indigo Road” which was nominated for a Grammy.
That work led me in a new musical direction where I present Renaissance and Baroque works for the lute, tunes from folk traditions, new music I’ve written for the lute and arrangements of any music I happen to love - new or old. Drawing from such a wide array of musical styles is fun and constantly stimulating.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
Relaxed and alert is the best state of mind for me. That’s when my best musical instincts and creativity come through most clearly. Meditation helps me to get there.
Music and sounds can heal, but they can also hurt. Do you personally have experiences with either or both of these? Where do you personally see the biggest need and potential for music as a tool for healing?
It has been tremendously rewarding to play for hospice patients and their caregivers. It brings joy and emotional healing to those who may be physically suffering.
I’ve also been on the receiving end of some beautiful musical performances where I felt so uplifted by the performance that by the end of the concert I walked out a better person than when I first walked in.
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work? What happens to sound at its outermost borders?
I have very limited experience in overlaps between different senses. But I have occasionally thought that a sound had a particular shape, color, texture or flavor. Some sounds are a little stinky, too.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
As a musician my goal is to uplift listeners, to awaken, refine and sharpen their perception, empathy and emotional sensibilities.
What can music express about life and death which words alone may not?
Music transmits feeling directly, bypassing words. The emotional information, encoded in sounds, can go straight to the heart of the listener without filtering through the intellect.