Other Interests

My other interests include the history of ideas and technology and the psychology of belief, deception and persuasion.

Until recently I regularly played the lute and other plucked continuo instruments (chitarrone, theorbo, bandora, etc) in various early music ensembles in London, Cambridge and elsewhere. The image shows a close copy of the Dieffopruchar 1608 chitarrone by David Van Edwards, and is shown next to a normal G lute to indicate the huge size of this instrument. Using such instruments I played in historically informed groups performing 17th century opera and consort music, and also accompanying songs on the lute, for almost 20 years. I was co-founder of the Cambridge Early Music Summer School, now known as Cambridge Early Music.

Within the past few years my interest in musical performance has moved to bluegrass, the traditional music from the Appalachian region of the USA that began emerging into public notice from the beginning of the 20th century. Appalachian ‘mountain music’ was formed within a profoundly isolated social context, and what makes this music touching and appealing at a basic human level is its preoccupation with hardship, loss, grief, vulnerability, atonement, and redemption. Curiously, the instrumentation and vocal harmony of bluegrass gospel has some remarkable similarities with the English broken-consort songs from the late 16th/early 17th century, though it is probably not possible to establish a continuous historical link, as the modern bluegrass band took shape during the middle of the 20th century under the influence of popular performers such as Bill Monroe, but it is possible to infer a succession of influences stretching back to the pre-17th century British Isles. The main points of comparison are not widely documented, but include:
  • vocal melody in the tenor part, with close harmony both above and below the tenor;
  • corresponding instrumentation (two violin family instruments: violin=violin, bass=bass viol, three plucked instruments acting together to provide a mesh of sound: banjo,guitar,mandolin = lute,bandora,cittern); and
  • repeats embellished by divisions taken by one instrument (or solo 'breaks').
There are some points of difference:
  • the modern bluegrass band does not have a flute (though this is a feature of Irish folk bands);
  • a novel instrument, the Dobro® (a lap held resonator guitar with strings stopped by a hand held steel bar) was introduced from the 1920s though did not become established as a member of the bluegrass band until the 1950s. There is no broken-consort analogue to the Dobro®.
  • The ostinato banjo 'roll' technique has no known counterpart in plucked continuo, however the 17th century chitarrone solo music uses the roll technique (for example see J.H. Kapsberger's Toccata Arpeggiata from the Libro Primo D'Intavolatura di Chitarone, Venice, 1604).
In bluegrass sessions I sing, and play guitar, double bass, Dobro®, and mandolin.