Paul O’Dette Interview: The Lost Art and Artifacts of Lute Playing

An exhibition of lutes in a range of shapes and sizes.(Photo: mitko_denev)
An exhibition of lutes in a range of shapes and sizes.(Photo: mitko_denev)

Paul O’Dette has lots of lutes … Lots and LOTS of lutes. They range in size from small ones, easily carried from performance to performance, to instruments over seven feet tall, which makes air travel (they must go into the hold … horror!) and cab rides difficult, if not impossible.

O’Dette is the go-to guy when it comes to the lute and in a conversation with Bruce Duffie of WNIB radio in Chicago, he talks about reviving the lost art of lute making and the challenges of finding accessible repertoire.

Reviving a Lost Art

According to O’Dette the nature of playing an ancient instrument (or one that hasn’t really been passed down, at least not in the same way that instruments like the violin or cello have, for instance) is that sometimes you’re required to do some improvisation.

Depending on the repertoire and the style, O’Dette explains “some of the music is very carefully notated, and everything is indicated, including the ornamentation and the right- and left-hand fingerings.”

Learning to play the lute is also no easy task, with a limited number of people making instruments, few teachers and little representation at the institutional level.

“Most people learn by starting out on their own, reading a few articles or books, going to some summer workshops, and practicing a lot, and a lot of trial by error,” O’Dette says, but if you were studying the lute in the 16th century you might have had the opportunity to study with John Dowland or Francesco Canova da Milano.

Practicing Lutenist (or Lute Evangelist?)

According to O’Dette lute playing has survived due to the work of a few dedicated artists, performers and teachers who are largely self-taught.

One of the curious aspects of the revival of early music over the past 20 years is that it has only been possible because of a handful of truly brilliant people who have worked very hard and taught themselves how to play their instruments, and have brought it to a level which is good enough that they can pass it on to the [next] generation.

Read more: Lutenist Paul O’Dette: A Conversation with Bruce Duffie (Complete Interview) and watch O’Dette perform works by Santiago de Murcia (1685-1732) on baroque guitar at the New York Guitar Festival:

And here’s another video of O’Dette at the Lute Society of America’s summer festival, performing Alessandro Piccinini’s ciaccona.

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