An Interview With William Lyons: Eclectic About Early Music

Lisa Petrie on October 13, 2009
Renaissance music aficionado William Lyons is known for his work with the Dufay Collective and as music director of London’s Globe Theatre. On Oct. 18, MusicSources presents his new ensemble, City Musick, in its first American tour.

Where did you grow up, and what bearing did that have on your becoming an early-music freak?

I grew up in South London and then moved away to a nearby county called Kent. I went to a wonderful primary school that had a very strict but fantastically interesting headmaster who was very keen on recorder playing and early music. I took to it and played the recorder, got my first shawm when I was 13, started my own group at 15, and have gone along the same path ever since.

What is it that draws you to medieval and Renaissance music?

I’ve often tried to answer that question. There was that early influence from my teacher. Also, I’ve always had an affinity for the traditional modal hymns we sung at school. It’s just what triggers all of the right kind of chemical reactions in my brain — and something I couldn’t live without.

And does it engage modern audiences?

Whether I’m playing music from the 11th or 17th centuries, it’s an expression of the essence of humanity rather than of any particular period. Although the language might have changed slightly, the emotional content is still there. We all respond to that.

Could you describe the instruments your group plays?

There are two cornettos, a treble instrument that’s a hybrid of a woodwind and brass instrument. It has a mouthpiece like a trumpet, going into a wooden curved instrument with finger holes. It’s said to have a sound very close to the human voice, so was very highly thought of in the 16th century. There are two sackbuts, the English name for the trombone, which really hasn’t changed much since then. I’m playing a dulcian, or the curtal, an early form of the bassoon, which has a pungent sound that fits well under the upper brassier sounds. And, of course, we have recorders and bagpipes.

City Musick will play the music of “waits.” What is that, exactly?

It’s a wind band, really — the “ensemble par excellence” that was heard in the streets, market squares, halls, and courts in major cities, particularly in London, between the late 1500s and early 1600s, a wonderful period of English music-making. London had an enormous boom in population and was growing into an absolute player on the world trading-stage. To embark on this type of research project has been immensely exciting for me. You garner as much as you can from primary sources, and then you have the most wonderful dimension of bringing it to life through performance.

What kinds of projects do you enjoy the most at the Globe Theatre?

I wear a variety of hats. What I thoroughly enjoy is the historical projects, with all male actors, correct Elizabethan costumes, and appropriate historical music. When they have a truly historically informed performance at this beautiful setting, it’s a remarkable experience. A few standouts for me have been Twelfth Night and Richard the Second.

Tell us about your work in film.

I don’t spend a lot of time doing film, but it’s great fun. I’ve played on soundtracks and have recently been an advisor on Elizabeth: The Golden Age and Pride and Prejudice. Shrek was brilliant; I brought my daughter into the recording studio and she got a sneak peek of the film, which she really enjoyed [Lyons expects another child in December]. Harry Potter 3 was one of the best experiences I’ve had, because I worked with the great composer John Williams. My role is to advise on historical context — the instruments to use, the type of music that would be played, how the musicians would stand, etcetera ...

What sort of character traits does one need, to be passionate about early music?

An eclectic outlook on the musical experience. Early music fits into numerous categories, and it’s endlessly revealing. There is an air of investigative tenacity you need [in order] to study, play, or listen to it. We know so little about how it was really performed; to do so is an exploratory exercise in guesswork and well-informed attempts to re-create something of long ago. Versatility is the key to getting more employment and also a trait of playing early music.