In conversation with Jacob Heringman

Loch Lomond Moonlicht, the image Jacob selected for the cover of his new album

Hello everyone, it’s Tom here. Today, I’d like to tell you about my collaboration with talented lutenist Jacob Heringman and how one of my “waterscape” images came to be on the cover of his new album Inviolata. An interesting development in contemporary photography has been the use of abstraction to distill a scene down to its essential form. It’s an approach I’ve particularly enjoyed exploring in relation to Scotland’s lochs and coastal waters in projects such as “Latitude” and “Light by the Sea”. Jacob came across this work here on the KDD blog and approached me about using one of my moonlight images for the cover of his upcoming album. He sent me some samples of his music, which I enjoyed thoroughly. I felt the contemplative nature of his music – direct, and pure – spoke very immediately to the calmness of my work and I agreed immediately. I’m very excited to announce, that Jacob’s album has now been released – it’s a wonderful recording of beautiful music, which I recommend wholeheartedly.

I thought you might be as interested as I was to learn more about Jacob and his work, and enjoyed catching up with him for a chat.

photography by Dominika Maria Alkhodari

Welcome, Jacob, and many congratulations on the release of your new album! Could you tell the KDD readers a little more about yourself and your musical background?

I was born in the United States in 1964, to a first-generation German immigrant mother and a second-generation Russian Jewish immigrant father. My career as a lute player began in 1968, when I strung a shoe box with rubber bands and strummed it to accompany myself in a song of my own devising. At six, I took up the guitar, and, at 22, I found my way back to the lute, this time a rather more sophisticated model. My parents were both music lovers, and I have quite distant ancestors who were professional musicians and composers. My interest in the lute brought me to England in 1987, where I have lived ever since. I spent two years at the Royal College of Music as a postgraduate student, and ended up staying because the work began to come in by the end of that time. Since 1989, I have made my living performing on and teaching the lute.

photography by Guy Carpenter

You first recorded the work of Josquin des Prez two decades ago, with your album Josquin des Prez: sixteenth-century lute settings. Clearly the work of this great renaissance composer is important to you and your creative practice. Could you tell us a bit more about Josquin’s music and what you wanted to explore in your new recording?

Josquin des Prez (born in the middle of the fifteenth century, died in 1521) is and was in his lifetime probably the most revered composer of his time. He wrote many masses, motets, and secular songs. I am a big fan of sixteenth-century vocal music anyway, but Josquin’s music speaks to me in a way that is particularly profound. It’s as though he taps into some part of myself. I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels this way. As Josquin’s famous contemporary Martin Luther famously wrote, Josquin is “master of the notes; they must do as he wills; as for the other composers, they must do as the notes will”.

In my first Josquin recording, which you mention, I presented a selection of sixteenth-century intabulations of his music, including mass movements, motets, and secular songs. These intabulations (meaning simply solo lute arrangements) were by lutenist-composers from sixteenth-century Germany, Spain, France, and Italy. I should explain that in the lute books of the time, there are three categories of solo music: fantasias and other freely composed musical forms, dances, and intabulations. The latter take up a very large chunk of the lute books, often most of the pages in fact, yet in general they remain neglected, most players preferring fantasias and dances, with a few exceptions. Perhaps a modern attitude is that intabulations are somehow derivative and inferior in comparison to the vocal originals. I would argue that they are nothing of the sort; they are simply different.

For the second Josquin album, which is just now being released, I took a slightly different approach. There were two main differences: the first is that I chose a particular aspect of Josquin’s work: music for the virgin Mary. I chose this subset of his work mainly because it’s among his most affecting. The second difference is that this time I ventured to do some intabulations of my own, which are interspersed on the album with original sixteenth-century ones. Having been immersed in vocal polyphony and intabulations of vocal polyphony for decades now, I felt in a position to have a go myself at doing what sixteenth-century lutenists did—making their own lute arrangements of their favourite vocal pieces. This was a marvellous learning experience.

photography by Dominika Maria Alkhodari

You say you’ve created some of your own intabulations of Josquin’s motets on your latest recording. I’m fascinated by the process of adapting polyphonic vocal works for a string instrument. I wonder if you could elaborate on the considerations, challenges and rewards you find in this kind of compositional work?

The sacred and secular vocal music of this period consists of any number of separate and independent voice parts (ranging typically from 2 to 6 in number), each of which has its own melodic shape and its own musical trajectory. Of course it’s possible to analyse the music harmonically (that is, to work out what chord is sounding at any given time), but that approach doesn’t really get to the heart of what the music is about. Yes, the interweaving voices incidentally form harmonies, both consonant and dissonant, but this phenomenon is incidental to the horizontal movement of the voices. It’s all about the interweaving of the voices and their linear interrelation, rather like a complex woven cloth. This is of course a great challenge to render on the lute. I think most people probably think of the lute as an instrument that plays chords. In the sixteenth century, however, it would be more accurate to say that the the subtle art of playing the lute is about the ability to render the contrapuntal relationship between the voices with clarity. To do this, we must first have a fairly intimate understanding of the vocal original. It helps me a great deal to listen to it sung as many times as possible, over a period of time, before I attempt to play the intabulation. In order to convey that linear clarity, it is necessary to have a clear understanding of the voices and their movement, so that we can get it across convincingly. Otherwise it can sound aimless and muddled. So the first challenge I would highlight is the need for a precise and clear idea of where each voice is coming from and where it’s going. Then, in our playing, we can create the illusion of several distinct melodies sounding at once. That is precisely what fascinates me about the art of making and playing intabulations and contrapuntal fantasias.

photography by Guy Carpenter

… As for specific technical issues to consider when choosing a piece to intabulate for myself, there are several: the first is to examine the pitch range of the original, to see if it will fit on the instrument. If it goes both very high and very low, the range may be too wide to fit the lute. The second thing is to work out in which key to set the piece so that it can fall relatively easily under the fingers. This often involves making test versions in numerous keys to try to find the most idiomatic place for it. The third is to work out how far to deviate from the original. There are two main ways in which an intabulation might deviate: one is that I may have to leave out the odd note from the original in order to make it fit the lute, but ideally without damaging the integrity of the counterpoint; the other is that it’s necessary to repeat notes frequently, and to add embellishment (i.e., extra notes) to melodies in an idiomatic and lutenistic way, in order to compensate for the fact that human voices can sing very long notes, whereas a plucked note decays quickly and therefore needs augmenting by one of these means.

photography by Dominika Maria Alkhodari

Given the global challenges of 2020, I feel you should be heartily congratulated for releasing this album in time for the 500th anniversary of Josquin’s death.

Thank you! This project has been in progress for so many years, and it’s actually a relief to have it out in the world at last. Lockdown (and the disappearance of all concert work) gave us the time to finish all the necessary post-production.

There is no doubt 2020 has been a very strange year for all of us, and I imagine particularly so, for musicians. How have you adapted your musical practice, performance and recording to address these challenges?

Well, it’s changed beyond recognition really. I haven’t done a concert since late winter or early spring, and there’s almost nothing concrete in the diary. So in practical terms, my only chance of making a living at the moment is by teaching online lute lessons and teaching on the odd face-to-face (but socially distanced) course. I miss travelling and performing, especially the dear friends and colleagues I haven’t seen in ages. But I’m very lucky to live in a beautiful part of the world (the outdoors helps to keep me sane); my wife (and colleague), viol player Susanna Pell, and I are lucky to be able to play together, which at least satisfies the need that musicians have to make music. I’ve also created a certain amount of video content (both playing and speaking about lutes and lute music), and Susanna and I hope soon to put together a recorded duo recital from our music room.

Jacob and Susanna. Photography by Guy Carpenter

I was excited when you approached me earlier this year about using one of my photographs as the artwork for your album cover and feel very honoured that the image you chose has found a new context in association with your music. I wonder if you might elaborate on how you felt my images of moonlight on water spoke to your work?

I feel that there’s a lot to say on this topic, and I’m going to try very hard not to go overboard! First of all, a very obvious thing: I mentioned earlier that all the music is Marian on this album. Both the moon and the sea are traditional symbols of the virgin Mary, so in that sense the image is perfectly suited to the music. I wanted something modern on the cover, not one of the countless renaissance paintings (many of them very beautiful of course) of the virgin or of a lute player or something. Your image is both timeless and modern, like the album (which consists of old music in brand new settings), so there’s another good reason to use it. But for me there’s another connection, a deeper one. The music of Josquin, and I think especially the Marian music, is inexpressibly beautiful. That clarity and purity is mirrored in your sea pictures, I think, and both the music and the images speak to the idea of something that is inviolate (Inviolata)–untouched, pure, and innocent in all of us, which only art can reach. At this time of pandemic and political turmoil throughout the world, artists are having an even more difficult time than usual; yet never was art so important—images, music, and stories all provide much needed comfort to us all, whether we’re creators or consumers of art. I like to think that your image and my music both come from that place of innocence and purity that is buried (and sometimes entirely forgotten about) in all of us. In this way, art can heal.

Jacob’s music, my image

I couldn’t agree more about the capacity of art to mend and heal, Jacob. That contemplative purity is something I’m always seeking in the images I make and I found listening to your work a profound experience for precisely that reason. Are you able to share with us what musical projects you are currently working on or developing? What’s next creatively for you?

I’m talking to the record label about future recording ideas, and working with Susanna (and other colleagues who are further afield) on ideas for future projects. But to me the current limbo feels like a time to wait and see. It seems important to be planning future creative projects, but at the same time it seems like a time to slow down and take stock.

photography by Dominika Maria Alkhodari

I think all of us might benefit, creatively, from slowing down and taking stock right now. If you would like to enjoy your own slow moment with Jacob’s wonderful music, here’s a wee taster for you:

Jacob playing the title track from Inviolata

I feel very proud that my artwork now features on the cover of Jacob’s new album. Inviolata has just been released by Inventa Records, and is now available in Jacob’s shop

Thanks so much, Jacob, for sharing your thoughts and music with us, and spending some time with us today