Ronn McFarlane wants to bring back the good old days. The Maryland native, a GRAMMY-nominated lute player, or lutenist, and composer is referring to the Renaissance era–circa 1300 to 1700–when the lute was the Western world’s most popular instrument.
Back then, McFarlane wrote, the lute “became the symbol of the magic and power of music. … was the instrument of kings and queens, playing the sublime music of great composers. … was heard in the theatre in the incidental music of Shakespeare’s plays. And the lute was heard by common people, playing the popular tunes of the day in pubs and on street corners.”
Having lost that elevated status through the centuries, the lute was not McFarlane’s first instrument. Instead, the guitar ignited his passion for music at age 13. After hearing The Surfaris’ 1963 version of “Wipe Out,” the instrumental 12-bar blues piece, he taught himself to play a “cranky $16 steel string guitar.”
He proceeded to play blues and rock music on the electric guitar and study classical guitar, graduating from Shenandoah Conservatory, then studying guitar at Peabody Conservatory–where he would later return to teach lute and lute-related subjects.
McFarlane switched his focus to the lute in 1978, and a year later, began performing solo recitals and joined the Baltimore Consort, an ensemble that arranges and performs early music.
In the tradition of lutenist-composers of the past, McFarlane composes new music for the lute. His original compositions are on his solo CD, “Indigo Road,” which received a GRAMMY Award nomination for Best Classical Crossover Album of 2009.
In 2010, McFarlane founded Ayreheart, an ensemble that performs both new compositions and early music. Its first CD, “One Morning,” consists of all original music by McFarlane, and its second, in 2016, “Barley Moon,” is a mix of folk and art music from Renaissance and Medieval England, Scotland and Wales.
In anticipation of his Dec. 9 solo show at the Takoma Park Community Center, McFarlane, who now lives in Portland, Oregon, shared some details of who he is and what he does.
Has your family encouraged you in your musical endeavors?
I come from a family of music lovers, but not professional musicians. Yes, my family was supportive all the way through my rock and roll band phase, my classical guitar phase, my Renaissance lute phase and even my ‘Lute as a Modern Instrument’ phase!
How did your interest in the lute come about? What is it about the lute that intrigued you initially, and how has that changed over the years?
For years, I played guitar arrangements of Renaissance and Baroque lute music. I resonated to that music beyond any of the other guitar music I played. And that music has a connection with the folk and folk-rock music I had played as a teenager, so it felt familiar even though I was encountering that music for the first time.
When did you begin composing, and what kind of music do you write? Is it Celtic only in roots and modern in your interpretations?
I began writing new music for the lute in the late 1990s. My first pieces reflected the styles of the Renaissance and Baroque music I was already performing on the lute. Then gradually, all the different kinds of music I have loved came to influence my writing. Celtic music is a big love of mine, so you can hear that in many of my pieces. But you’ll also hear Americana/bluegrass, Impressionism, progressive folk, and even some music that borrows the harmonic language of Aaron Copland.
What kind of music do you listen to?
I’ve been listening to (mandolinist) Chris Thile and the Punch Brothers (Thile is a band member) a lot lately. Also, a wide range of folk music, classical music and various fingerstyle guitarists.
What are you working on now?
I’m writing several new tunes for my band, Ayreheart, and also arranging a number of Renaissance and Celtic tunes for us to perform. I plan to finish writing at least an album’s worth of music for Ayeheart which we’ll go out and perform as often as possible before recording it. Also, I’ve recently recorded a solo Scottish and Irish CD (on Sono Luminus), which will be released next year.
What in your career are you proudest of, so far?
Ayreheart, a band created to play both new and traditional music for old and modern instruments together: lute, fretless electric bass and percussion. I also feel proud to have created a new body of contemporary music for the lute. (Very little music has been written for the lute over the past 200 years.) And I feel gratified to have that work recognized by a Grammy nomination.
How did the Takoma Park gig come about? What can audience members, both enthusiasts or newcomers to this kind of music, expect?
I have good memories of playing in Takoma Park a few years ago, and I’m happy to return. I’ll play Scottish and Irish tunes on my 24-string lute, and original music on my 19-string lute. Also, I might play a Renaissance dance or a piece by Bach. The new music will lean toward Celtic, bluegrass and progressive folk styles.
Newcomers are surprised at how many different colors and tones the lute can produce to express music. A Renaissance writer described how the lute can express “hardness and softness, harshness and sweetness, and thus the cries, laments, complaints, weeping, and finally tranquility and tumult, with such grace and wonder.”
We are Takoma presents Celtic and Modern Folk Music for the Lute with Ronn McFarlane from 7 to 9 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 9, in the Takoma Park Community Center Auditorium, 7500 Maple Ave., Takoma Park, Md. Admission is free. Call 301-891-7100. Learn more about this concert on CultureSpotMC here.