In 2000, lutenist Christina Pluhar founded her ensemble L'Arpeggiata. Initially dedicated to recreating the freshness of the improvised music of the 17th century, they have since combined early music with a plethora of traditional styles from across Europe and beyond, surprising and delighting audiences with a series of exceptional guest singers and the thrill levels of improvised music that are rarely found in the classical world.

Christina Pluhar © Marco Borggreve
Christina Pluhar
© Marco Borggreve
DK: Since it’s Monteverdi’s anniversary, tell us about your CD Teatro d'Amore.

CP: We had so much fun recording this project! It was actually recorded in 2006 although it wasn’t released until 2009 because of record label complications. We were residents at the Utrecht Early Music Festival and they had asked us to perform this Monteverdi programme. They also lent us the Vredenburg concert hall to record in, which is one of the most beautiful concert halls in the world, with the most amazing acoustic: usually it's absolutely impossible to make a CD there because it's so fully booked. Just before the Festival started we were with these amazing musicians and wonderful singers, amongst them a quite young Philippe Jaroussky. We had this wonderful concert hall to ourselves and with Monteverdi, full of ideas and full of enthusiasm and with all these possibilities of great singers and this wonderful acoustic.

Many otherwise amazing musicians are terrified of improvisation. How do you think improvisation fits into playing baroque and early music today?

We know for sure that the musicians of the 17th century were fantastic improvisers – there are all those books that teach you about improvisation and ornamentation. A professional musician who couldn't improvise didn't exist at that time: it would be like saying of a jazz musician “he's a great player but cannot improvise”, it's totally contradictory, unthinkable. The musicians and singers in the 17th century had a very profound education in what they called counterpoint, spending hours of training per day just improvising ornaments over a Gregorian chant or an ostinato bass.

When I started L’Arpeggiata in 2000, we were at a moment in historical performance practice where improvisation was not yet a big issue. At the Scola Cantorum in Basel, we had an improvisation class where we learned a little bit, but we didn't really put it into practice much and it was not really something that you would see on a concert stage. Improvisation was a big thing I wanted to work on with Arpeggiata – of course, in the style of the 17th century music at first. It was always part of a musician's life – including classical – until Schoenberg, when the whole tonal system fell apart. Until then, all the great composers were great improvisers who could play piano cadenzas, improvise and feel free about their music making without the score: just think about all the 19th century virtuosi like Paganini or Chopin.

We wanted not only to be interpreters of music written 400 years ago, playing the notes that somebody has written on paper, but also to create performances where we actually speak this language and invent it at the moment, on stage, and communicate with the audience.

At an early stage of our work, I wanted to open the improvisation to guests from non-classical musical traditions. One of the first projects was La tarantella, where we invited musicians from the traditional music of the South of Italy, then there was All'improviso when we worked with jazz for the first time. I initiated that because I wanted us to learn what it is to be next on stage with somebody who has done nothing other than improvising for the last 40 years of his career, like Gianluigi Trovesi, who started music-making before The Beatles and has known all the different styles since the 50s.

One level is learning the musical language and the rules about improvisation, a totally different level is to be able to construct a whole piece in front of an audience, to have the construction in your mind and to have the communication with both the audience and your fellow musicians on stage.

L'Arpeggiata at Ruhr Trienniale in 2010 © Michael Uneffer
L'Arpeggiata at Ruhr Trienniale in 2010
© Michael Uneffer

So I'm guessing that every concert is different?

Totally different. That's what keeps us young and that's what makes it so much fun to perform. Every concert is a unique experience and people really feel that when they come to see us: they feel the fun and the freshness, picking up the ideas of your fellow musicians, making jokes together and being just joyful and playful with the music.

As well as classical music, you play many other styles: jazz and traditional music of many types. Is your audience the same as for your classical early music?

I believe that we have created our own audience: there are a lot of people who follow us, come to our concerts and buy our CDs. We alternate between doing early music projects and open ones: I don't want to be put into the little box that I only do projects that include jazz musicians or that we're a jazz ensemble: we're an early music ensemble. Our strong point is that we can do both really well; we can of course interpret 17th Century Italian music, because that's the music I and most of the musicians come from and truly love, but at the same time, we are open to different musical styles and musicians and guests, and we can travel between these two worlds. People like both ways, and I don't think there's a difference in age or attitude between the people who buy a jazz CD and the ones who go to a Cavalli concert.

Most audiences will be far more familiar with Monteverdi than with Cavalli: can you tell us about the differences?

I can very much feel the connection between them: Cavalli was Monteverdi's pupil at St Mark's and a lot of his pieces remind you so much about Monteverdi's style, structures and composition techniques. There's one big difference, though: you can feel that it's a later generation by his amazing melodic inventiveness, and you can feel he was a singer, although surprisingly, he did not write much for tenor (which he was). The recitatives are much more melodic: for example, compare Monteverdi’s Poppea, which is a quite secco recitar cantando style to Cavalli’s La Calisto, where all the recitatives are more melodic and have a rich melodic structure. There are many more arias in Cavalli’s operas than Monteverdi would have used: what you feel about Cavalli is the kind of bel canto that emerges from his arias. Other elements are very close to Monteverdi.

L'Arpeggiata © Marco Borggreve
L'Arpeggiata
© Marco Borggreve

Speaking of voice types: a lot of your music seems focused on high voices.

I like low female voices and high male voices! When I use traditional female voices, they often sing in a chest voice that's the same range or a lower range than the high tenors or countertenors that I like to use. But it's true, I have a big passion for voices, I love special voices, I'm fascinated by the use of human voice in the whole world, because one cannot limit oneself to the technique of classical or baroque singing.

It's still one of the big questions in historic performance practice: how did they sound back then? What kind of voices did they have, what kind of technique did they have? Is it anything like what we hear today with the so-called baroque singers? There are many questions about the ranges, that are absolutely not the same today as they were in the 17th century. A Cavalli or Jommelli tenor would sit between today’s baritone and tenor. The alto is a big mystery; I'm sure it was not a countertenor, male voices probably didn't go into falsetto. The so-called sopranos were mezzo-sopranos, and the basses had outrageous ranges, usually from the very low C to the baritone high G. Usually, in the 17th century, the most virtuosic pieces were written for basses, who were very agile and could sing very fast diminutions which not many basses today can. It's very fascinating, so I like to experiment sometimes with non-classical voices.

Moving on to jazz: it's difficult mixing jazz and classical. Many have tried, few have succeeded...

You know, if it was so easy to give a cooking recipe... I must underline what you're saying: it is always very difficult to mix two musical styles. When you get a good result, it seems really easy, but it never is. You can say “OK, it's all music and we're all great musicians and it should all just work together”, but it can fail terribly if it's not well done.

Maybe the recipe I could recommend is first of all the choice of musicians and singers. You need musicians that are very open and very flexible, and if you don't have musicians at the highest possible level of each musical style that you want to combine, you have much less chance that it will work. The second thing you need is a musical element that makes the encounter possible. For example, it's very difficult to take Chinese music and want to play together with 17th century instruments, because there are very few possibilities to find a musical point which is in common.

If I take jazz and early music, there is one point in common: the basso ostinato, which you find in all these pieces which came from traditional Italian music – the ciaconna, the follia, the bergamesca, which people improvised. The Purcell bass lines that were used in Music for a while are something that a jazz musician can recognise immediately. In an Italian basso ostinato there is simple harmonisation, with Purcell quite complex or quite ambiguous harmonisation, but it's these patterns that allow us to improvise. Then of course, you have to be very careful in how you put these things together, how you make arrangements, when does a person speak or play, in which language and in which harmonic language, which melodic language. 

So it's a big challenge, but it can be so much fun!