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Show Notes:

Dr. Andrew Lawrence-King is a historical musician, harpist, continuo player, baroque opera director, winner of a Grammy in the category of best small ensemble performance. He is also a rapier fencer and Tai Chi practitioner. And I should mention his crowning professional achievement is, of course, providing the harp music for my George Silver Paradoxes of Defence audiobook.

In our conversation we talk about the similarities between researching historical music and historical martial arts. We discuss the search for the one, perfect instrument and the challenges of recreating historically accurate music or swordplay using instruments/swords made with modern techniques.

We also talk about the benefits of getting involved in music or martial arts for those of us who didn’t fit in at school, giving us confidence and a way to move our bodies that doesn’t involve traditional sports, whatever shape we are in.

Andrew’s blog is and he is on Twitter @Il_Corago.

GW: I’m here today with Dr. Andrew Lawrence King, historical musician, harpist, continuo player, baroque opera director, winner of a Grammy in the category of best small ensemble performance. Also a rapier fencer and Tai Chi practitioner. And I should mention his crowning professional achievement is, of course, providing the harp music for my George Silver Paradoxes of Defence audiobook. So without further ado, Andrew, welcome to the show.


ALK: Hello. It’s great to be here.


GW: So whereabouts are you?


ALK: I’m in my new home in Tallinn, Estonia. As a result of the pandemic and Brexit combined, I had to move away from my birthplace, which is Guernsey in the Channel Islands. That’s a tiny island culturally connected to the UK, but geographically much closer to France. I lived there nearly all my life, but I had to pick up everything and move just over a year ago. So I now live in Tallinn, Estonia, and I’m enjoying it here a lot.


GW: Well, I can tell you Tallinn is lovely and very close to Helsinki. It’s a quick hop across the water.


ALK: Absolutely, it’s a glorious ferry trip, I enjoy it.


GW: OK, so there’s going to be a bunch of technical musical terms in this interview, I am sure, and I know that quite a few of my listeners are unfamiliar with the specifics of historical music. So why don’t we start with what actually is continuo?


ALK: Well, it’s the name of my boat. But this was something they invented around the year 1600. So we’re right in rapier territory here and it sounds so obvious to us now that it wasn’t to them at the time. They really came up with a completely different way of making music by playing chords. Just as you would strum chords on a guitar nowadays. And that sounds so obvious to us, but it wasn’t how they thought music happened previously. They thought that the only way to make music was to get perhaps two or three people singing or three people that were playing different instruments. And they each play a melody, and those melodies fit together to make the harmony. The idea of just picking up an instrument and playing a chord on it so that one instrument can make a harmony was completely new. This changes everything about the way they saw music, because if you’re thinking about combining different melodies and you’re seeing everything horizontally in time, if you’re looking at a score of a piece of music, you’re looking horizontally through the music. How does my melody go? How does your melody go? Oh yes, OK. They align like this. They fit together like this to create harmonies. But suddenly, with this new way of thinking and this new way of making music, they’re thinking, OK, I’m going to play a whole lot of notes all together right now and call that a harmony. So this was the big new way of thinking and what it let them do, it let them do solo songs with a single instrument accompanying. It let them write that down and write it down that was very efficient. With as little paperwork as possible. But just the essential information that lets you make the song. And of course, they had to been doing songs like this before, but they’d be thinking of it in a different way and writing it down in a different way.


GW: Yeah, I was thinking like troubadours wandering around on their own with a stringed instrument, singing songs to accompany themselves on lute or what have you. That was already going on.


ALK: Yeah, but when they’re doing that, they’re thinking, OK, my voice is one thing. My voice is one voice, if you like, and the instrument is like another voice. And I could alternate those voices, or I could have to do two melodies or the same melody more or less, but a bit different. But all of that is thinking in terms of combining voices with those voices, whether those are literal human voices or instrumental voices. And this was the new thing, to think vertically, to think, OK, let’s just play a whole load of sounds at once and call that a chord. And then to come up with a way of writing this and the writing was really the great thing because they came up with a system of writing that gave a lot of information in very little space of paper. That’s great. It was very quick to read giving you what you need to know, but nothing unnecessary. And the great thing was, it was adaptable. So this same way of writing, you could use it to play these chords on a guitar or a harp, my main instrument, or a keyboard instrument or on almost anything, it was completely adaptable. Whereas previously the notation had tended to be very specific for the particular instrument you were writing for. And of course, once they had this way of thinking and this way of writing, it changed what they could do. And this continuo very quickly changed from being what we would think of as an accompaniment, something which sort of follows along something which is has a kind of subsidiary role. It changed to be something that actually leads. And this is something which a lot of musicians today are still just starting to understand, that this continuo approach to music, this was actually how they were leading the performance. So it’s very familiar to us nowadays, but in a different context. If you think of a rock band or jazz band, then it’s pretty obvious that the rock band is held together by the drummer and the bass player. The two of them work together, they’re underpinning it all. And they set the groove, they give the foundation and then the lead guitarist and the singer, they’re just having fun over the top of that. And a similar idea in a jazz band where you’ve got a rhythm section, perhaps, piano, bass and drums is the classic. You might have a guitar there and those guys are at the centre of it. They make the rhythmic structure. They play the basic harmonies and then the various soloists are jamming over the top. And especially in a jazz band, you don’t want those rhythm players, you don’t want them to follow the soloist. If the soloist does a nice syncopation, but the rhythm section goes, oh, you syncopated. Let me stop for a moment and get together with it again. Of course, they’ll completely wreck the syncopation. The job of the rhythm section is just to get a good groove going and keep that groove so that the soloists can dance and twist and slide around it in interesting ways. This was the function of this continuo playing. It could be one instrument. It could be a group of two or three. It could be a big section of like a sizeable chunk of the orchestra could be this continuo section. And they are the joint leaders. And that’s why I asked you in the introduction that you actually gave not to call a conductor, because of this music around the year 1600, there was no conductor, nobody standing in front, waving their hands and making funny faces, rather than the drive for the music and the guidance and all the rhythmic energy comes from this continuo, this rhythm section, if you like. And we’ve got lots of historical evidence showing us that. But the best historical evidence anyone can see for themselves. Just do a Google image search on musical ensembles around the year sixteen hundred and you’ll see wonderful angel pictures, theatre pictures, pictures of amateurs, pictures of professionals playing at court, all kinds of weird and wonderful early music instruments. The only thing you won’t see, is a conductor standing in front of it all because they didn’t do that.


GW: So sometime around sixteen hundred, they re-envisioned how music was. Is this connected to any other sort of cultural changes? Is it part of a wider cultural movement or is it specific to music?


ALK: It’s part of this whole thing of trying to rediscover, re-establish the ancient Greek and Latin classical cultures. So for example they wanted to re-establish ancient Greek drama, and they modelled what became the first operas on their understanding of Greek drama. If you think of your Greek amphitheatre and then see actors with their masks and the chorus doing their sort of synchronised choreography while they’re declaiming their choruses, they had pretty sketchy ideas of what was happening back then. But they really ran with those ideas and invented a whole lot of new stuff. New instruments, instruments specifically for this kind of continuo playing. This whole other way of thinking about music. So, yeah, a lot was changing there, I think.


GW: Why is it called continuo?


ALK: Oh, it’s called continuo because it goes all the way through. It just continues. So normally if you think of the way they were doing music before, you might have four, five or six singers and the bass singer. He would sing a phrase, he’d stop and take a breath. They’d be perhaps some sections where he doesn’t seem to change the sound of it. Sometimes he would be singing, but not at the bottom of the texture. He would go up if some higher notes and one of the tenors would come down. All these things are up for grabs. But with this new way of doing it, they write the music as a baseline. So going back to the idea of a of a jazz band, it’s like you write out a part for the double bass, but the piano and the drums and the guitar – they’re playing from that same bass part. So we think of a bass part, but you don’t play what it says. You just look at what it says and make up something for yourself to play. But you go all the way through. Just like the rhythm section in a jazz band, you don’t stop and start as the other voices do. So they come and go, but this continuo continues.


GW: OK. I’ve known you quite a long time now. I’ve always wondered what continuo was. Somehow, I’ve never got around to asking you. It takes a podcast to bring out the questions.


ALK: It started about 1600. It’s really the defining feature of music. So as we go right through into the 1700s, so now we’re on to the big names, Handel, Bach, Vivaldi, but it carries on right through the seventeen hundreds. So we’re talking Haydn and Mozart, and it’s really only with Beethoven that it falls out of favour. And, for example, orchestras no longer have a continuo instrument just playing along with the orchestra, which has managed to survive without continuo. And of course, that’s when conductors start.


GW: So the role of the conductor was really to replace the missing continuous, this is the pattern of the music that we’re all going to follow. So you basically had instrument players who were effectively the conductor because they were giving the rhythm. Oh, that makes a lot of sense, huh? OK, we could really geek out on the music stuff for a while, and I think we probably will. But before we do that, this is a sword show, after all. I do have to ask, how did you get into sword? And I mean, I know you because you basically contacted me a while ago having read one of my books asking for rapier lessons because you were putting on a show. That’s how we met, but how did the whole sword thing really come about for you?


ALK: I wracked my brains trying to remember the sequence of events. The specific thing was this, it’s like a miniature opera, it lasts about 15, 20 minutes. It’s from this period, around the year 1600. It’s the story of a duel to the death. And it’s got all kinds of operatic extras to it. So the duel, first of all, it’s between a Christian warrior and a Saracen warrior. It’s set around the liberation of Jerusalem. So in the Crusades and the twists come more and more. So the Saracen Warrior is actually a woman, but she’s in full armour, so she’s not recognised. Not only is she a woman, but she’s actually the lover of the Christian warrior who she ends up duelling with. So the culmination of this miniature opera, he actually deals the fatal blow, she asks to be baptised, and when he takes off her helmet to baptise her with water that he’s carried in his helmet from a nearby river, when he lifts her visor and recognises her, of course, this is the terrible moment where she realises that he’s won the battle, that he’s lost everything. So it’s a wonderful, exciting story. The story’s written by the poet Tasso, who was definitely by this time mad, but was obsessed with sword fighting.


GW: That doesn’t mean he’s mad. Quite a lot of us are obsessed by sword fighting and we’re perfectly sane. Honestly, perfectly sane.


ALK: And so there’s a lot of technical language in the poetry, which I started learning about. Studying with you. Somehow I came up with the idea that I think I was thinking about how they would have staged this, because what everybody does nowadays is with a piece like this they’ll call a fight director in and they’ll do a kind of dramatised theatre fight and nothing wrong with that. But it’s not historical. So looking at it from the viewpoint of historically, how would they have performed it? Because we know that even dramas like this they did with minimal rehearsal. So the idea of the sort of five or six weeks that would be put into a modern day opera production, they often had next to no rehearsal. So what I was thinking about was what would these guys know already? What skills did they have? What do they already have under their belt that they could they could actually use quickly to make a production?


GW: And you should probably of just tell us the name of this opera.


ALK: Oh yeah, it’s called Combattimento. The Combat. It’s the Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda. Of Tancredi and Clorinda, So Tancredi – Tancred, that’s in English is the male Christian hero, and Clorinda is his Saracen girlfriend. There’s complicated things. I can’t remember all the backstory, but I think she was brought up as a Muslim, even though she’s Christian by origins or something like this, all very complicated. So Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda. It’s a very special piece, because there’s a continuo section guiding and supporting the whole thing. There’s also a string section, four strings, but most of what they play is not really music. Most of what they play is sound effects, imitating the general activity of the battle, but also specific things. So there’s the sound of swords sliding across each other, imitated with the bow strokes. And there’s one moment where the two having the duel, it says that they’re banging their shields together and banging their helmets together. It’s really full on combat. And so that the strings imitate these sounds as well, and they had the string players out of sight. So the idea was that these were really sound effects, and the audience would be puzzled about how they were being produced. There’s another wonderful shock in the original production of these things, which is that it wasn’t in a theatre and it certainly wasn’t sort of advertised as “come to the opera”. Rather, it was during a courtly evening. So the elegant renaissance coaches are sitting around having nice, arty conversations. Sometimes there might be a poetry reading. Some people might stand up, a group of five or six and sing madrigal. Somebody might stand up and do a little dance. So it’s this kind of very elegant, courtly evening. And in the middle of all this, the singer who’s going to be the narrator, the solo singer stands up and he just starts singing his song, which is narrating the story of this battle and his very first words are to introduce the two characters, so his first word itself is Tancredi, as he says the name, the audience think, OK, here we go with the story. In fact, as soon as they hear the name, they know the backstory. They know the book of poetry it all comes from. So they go, oh, OK, yeah, now we know where we are. This is Game of Thrones. We know who all the characters are. We know the setting. But as the singer says the first name, the character appears in costume. And then the other character appears in costume, and the two actors act out everything that’s described. So wonderful shock for the audience in the middle of what you thought was kind of a poetry reading to have this live show.


GW: I’ve done that at medieval events. You know, there’s a banquet and it’s mostly like paying guests, paying punters, they are sitting there and then a fight breaks out, which is which is great fun. I remember one particular one, the guy who ends up winning the fight gets flogged afterwards because we happened to have somebody there who was a bullwhip expert. And it all went very strange very quickly. If you’re expecting, I don’t know, a couple of musicians on stage singing you were kind of appropriate song for the occasion. And that’s one thing. But when you’re in the thick of it and these people who are sitting there having dinner with you, perhaps, start hitting each other and you’re not quite sure if it’s real. That’s a brilliant moment.


ALK: Yeah. So anyway, trying to make a modern day production that is as historical as possible, so I’m thinking about how do they do this, how did they do this with minimal rehearsal? And we know that for opera itself, one of the reasons they didn’t need so much rehearsal was that the actors had most of the skills that would be needed for an opera production, they had them anyway from daily life. So for an opera production, typically, the director will do things like, OK, this person has to stand over here on the left, that person stands a bit further back on the right. You just tell people where to be on the stage. Well you don’t need to do that in Renaissance Italy, because the people are courtiers, they know where to stand. Once you’ve got the king set seated centrally and that’s where he sits, everybody else orders themselves around. They know where to stand. They know how to stand. They know how to speak elegantly and how to use their hands while they’re speaking. So none of this is acting. All of this is just the etiquette of everyday life just set in motion on the stage. And so I started thinking about, well, what would they already know from everyday life that they could use to make this combat. I mean, obviously, it’s supposed to be realistic, the instruction is that the actors do everything that’s described in the narration. But on the other hand, the narration says things like, so he sticks the sword into her chest and the blood flows and she dies a few bars later. So we can’t actually be doing that. Presumably the actors lived to do a performance the following night. So you’ve got safety concerns nowadays, but there would have been safety concerns back then as well. So the answer I came up with is that rather than staging a fight as such, they would draw on what the singers already knew, just as courtiers they would have been studying swordsmanship anyway, they would have been studying dance and all kinds of other things too. And so that got me interested in, well, how did people study sportsmanship back then? And the next thing I found myself at the salle in Helsinki.


GW: Yeah. I have in the past put on fights for public events. At roleplaying events or medieval fairs, that sort of thing. And with people you already know and you’ve fenced with before, I mean, one thing I have done many times is you choreograph the last move of the fight, so the kill. You choreograph the kill and you have a signal for the kill. That is, one person will give the signal and they are the person that is responsible for the timing, the whole thing. So it doesn’t go on too long or too short. And then you just fence with the agreement that you not going to hit each other until the person gives the signal and you move into the kill. You choreograph it in about three minutes and the fight can be as long or short as it needs to be because you can already fence each other and you’re sufficiently in control of the weapons that you know you’re not going to hit each other.


ALK: Also this way you can have a lot of fun and a lot of genuine interaction, which if it is too choreographed, you’re not going to get.


GW: I mean, you wouldn’t want to do that on a stage with regular actors who are not like serious fencers. It’s very much for people to have a pretty deeply versed in the art of arms. I’m not recommending as a thing for modern productions, that would be disastrous, and the health and safety police would skin you alive.


ALK: But they could have been thinking this way for Monteverdi’s piece, because the two actors who do the fight, they have almost nothing to sing. Tancredi has one long speech. Clorinda has a couple of things to sing. Now, the things they sing are very emotional because of the context that it’s all been put in. So, you know, when she says, I’m dying and I have heaven opening up before me, because of the whole story, this is fantastic. But in terms of notes and the demands of singing, there’s not really so much. So they probably were free to choose people who were good sword fighters rather than needing to choose their very best singers for the job.


GW: OK, so you need the narrator to be a good singer.


ALK: You’d want the narrator to be a good singer who understood sword fighting. And I think you’d want the two actors to be good sword fighters who could sing a bit.


GW: That’s a good way to put it. So you got into swords because of this little opera?


ALK: I think so. I’m not sure if the opera came first or the swords came first, because the enthusiasm for both burst out. And all I can remember now is a wonderful blaze of enthusiasm, and I can’t remember where the fire started.


GW: OK, fair enough. All right. So you not by profession, a historical sword person, but historical music is about bringing a lost physical practise back to life. So clearly, parallels with historical martial arts. We are basically engaged in the same pursuit. If you look at it from far enough away, so people used to do this thing back in the day. We have records of how they did it up to a point. We have written accounts and we have instruction manuals and we have paintings and what have you and we are trying to reproduce that activity as closely as we can to how it was done in period.


ALK: I think there are a lot of parallels because I mean, in terms of swords, we’ve got the surviving weapons. Most of those we want to take beautiful care of and conserve them nicely in museums. So we build modern day replicas and we try to understand the old ones. And then once you’ve got the weaponry, then there’s the question of how to use it. And that’s exactly the same for us. We’ve got surviving instruments. Some of those are being used. There’s an ethical question about whether we should use them or if we should rather conserve and preserve them for future generations.


GW: Does using them wear them out? I mean it does with swords, but with a lute? Does the body of a lute wear away?


ALK: To get them into playing condition in the first case, you have to repair them and any repair is invasive to a certain extent.


GW: That would change the tone of it.


ALK: Yeah. And the danger is not just the sound, but the danger is that as you do a repair, this is the ethics of you like of painting restoration, where you try to do a repair to a painting which looks great from a distance. But when it’s inspected under the microscope, you can see exactly what’s being done and when so that it can be unpicked later, because we’re now pretty scathing about the restorations that were done 50 years ago.


GW: Speaking as an antiques restorer. Yeah, I’ve restored an awful lot of antique furniture in my time, and yeah, an awful lot of my antiques restoration work has been undoing the really crappy fixing jobs of previous put them in inverted commas “restorers”. So yeah, it’s shocking what people will do to lovely old things if you let them get away with it. I’ll give you an example. I have just last week, I have a copy of Capoferro arrived. 1610 original Cappoferro. I have it in my house, It’s on the bookshelf right behind me and it’s in this really crap 17th century binding where basically they took the bound pages and they just covered the outside in vellum. And that’s it. I’ll show it to you. It’s not how we would bind a book today. It is literally just, it’s got end papers stitched into the quires. And the vellum is glued to the end paper, and that’s it. I mean, it’s basically the equivalent of a paperback. It’s got no boards or properly constructed spine or anything like that. And I have been asked whether I’m going to get it rebound, because let’s face it, you know, you can bind the book objectively better.


ALK: Yes, it’s so beautiful, it deserves it.


GW: Right.


ALK: He says with a twinkle in his eye.


GW: There is no fucking way on Earth I am letting anyone except a trained conservator, not restorer, a conservator, touch the binding on this book. I will, however, make a box for it to protect it so that it can be slid in and out of the bookcase or whatever without it coming to any harm, as the cover as it is doesn’t protect the pages very well. But to my mind, the rather dodgy early 17th century binding on it is part of its value as an artefact. So, yeah, the notion of putting out a proper binding on it. I’ve handled books from the Howard de Walden Library, which is one of the finest collections of historical fencing manuals on the planet, it’s currently in the Wallace Collection and he is a lord of some description or Earl or baron or something, I can’t remember his exact rank, but very rich bloke and all of a certain standing and have the money and the interest to collect all these fancy books. But of course, when he bought a treatise, like his copy of Capoferro, and he’s got two, he would have them bound “properly”. So all of his books have been rebound in the early 20th century to a very high standard. I mean, the bindings are absolutely beautiful. Rock solid, full leather, perfectly professionally done. But. It meant losing the old covers. Dude. Lord de Walden, sir, if he wasn’t dead, I’d slap him.


ALK: But I think that that thing goes one level further, at least in terms of musical instruments. So, yes, you know, we are very critical of restorations that we’ve done 50 years ago and we would now do them so much better. But if we’ve got any intellectual humility that we’ve got to be ready for the fact that 50 years on from now, people are going to look at what we were doing and just say, oh my God, those guys in 2020, they were just so amateur, they had no clue. And so, you know, we really owe it to the future generations to do our best to conserve, preserve. But I’m really suspicious about restoration. And also the wear and tear that an instrument gets. You know, if you take it out on the road, touring around, getting it in and out of aeroplanes, changes of temperature, humidity, even them being inspected by customs officers and whatever. There’s inevitable damage. Things get lost and whatever.


GW: My mum’s a piano teacher and when we lived in Peru, like visiting musical groups would often come to stay at the house. And she made friends with a group called the Barbican Trio. And when I was living in Edinburgh, they went to Edinburgh, so I had them over for lunch, and then I drove them to their rehearsal place where they were going to be performing later. So after lunch, I had in this tiny, little borrowed car, it was a Peugeot 205, I had a pianist, fine, her piano was at the concert hall as she couldn’t fit that into a 205. But in the back there was the violinist and the cellist, and the cello was a Stradivarius. And the violin was, ah, begins with “G”. But like these are these are the sorts of instruments that the players don’t own. Major musical trusts own them and lend them to players of sufficient standard because they’re worth millions of pounds. So I was driving through the streets of Edinburgh with these unbelievably expensive things. The people might heal if we get into a little bit of a fender bender, somebody breaks an arm. That’s unfortunate but people heal. But those things? I was so worried about being responsible for crushing a Stradivarius. How awful would that be?


ALK: I’d just like to give you a bit of context of that for your listeners. Of course, there’s this whole sort of worship of these old violins, big names like Stradivarius or whatever. All of these instruments, nearly all of them, all of them have been significantly rebuilt over the centuries to adapt them for the way that modern violins are used.


GW: Oh, that’s horrible.


ALK: The angle of the neck has been changed so that the strings are much higher, higher up, and that puts more pressure onto the sound board. So the sound, of course, is completely changed. One or two of them have been re-Baroqued and put back to their original condition, but very few. And it’s this bizarre thing where, if you could imagine, in sword terms. It’s like if you could imagine that the modern day Olympic epee fighters would use a 17th century rapier because they worshipped it so much, but they would just cut it down and rebalanced it to respond to the rules for epee.


GW: Listeners I apologise, I normally have better control over the horror quotient on this show. And those of you who are currently clutching various body parts and squealing, I do apologise for that mental image of absolute horror. Andrew, you should know better. Oh God, that’s awful.


ALK: And then the other thing that goes with that is this attitude. So this is the standard mainstream attitude in mainstream music. So you should have, you know, the best possible, most expensive violin. It will probably be a 16th century, 17th century old northern Italian. This attitude has spilt over into early music. The supposedly historical side of things, especially amongst violinists. In the work I do, my main instrument is the harp, so a bit like a historical swordsman, I’ve got lots of different weapons for the different disciplines, so I’ve got an Italian harp, I’ve got a Spanish harp, I’ve got an Irish harp, I’ve got a Welsh harp, I’ve got 18th century instruments, that is to say, modern day replicas.


GW: Modern reproductions.


ALK: Modern reproductions of 17th century, 16th century and so on. So I’ve got a whole lot of different weapons, which I use accordingly. But amongst many violinists, even in historical music, there’s still this sort of heavy overlay of this other way of thinking where you should just have one instrument, the most fantastic and expensive, the best one you can. So I’m going to add to your nightmare. Don’t only think of your epee fencer using a cut down and rebalanced 17th century rapier, but think of that same fencer using the same weapon, also in a sabre competition and in a foil competition.


GW: You are a sadist, sir, stop it. And you know, I think pretty much every sword person has at some point in their development gets this idea of there is the perfect sword out there somewhere. And obviously, it’s nonsense. It’s like there’s no perfect motor vehicle. If you are, if you need to pull a plough, you want a tractor. And if you want to go zipping around in the country lanes of Suffolk, something like a Lotus might be better. And you can’t say one is a superior vehicle to the other. And the same with swords. A longsword is vastly better than a rapier for certain purposes, but change the purposes and the ideal weapon changes. I’m astonished that that you have professional musicians who are afflicted with the same notion. I used to play the trumpet and every professional trumpet player, if they’re not specific to one discipline. Maybe a jazz trumpeter, probably has a whole load of B-flat trumpets, but that’s probably it. Maybe a cornet, maybe a flugelhorn. But a concert trumpeter, for example, will have dozens of trumpets because different music from different periods requires a different pitch or different whatever. So it’s surprising to me that these violinists are afflicted with the notion of the one true violin.


ALK: Yeah, I think it’s a special thing for violinists because it’s a very particular world, that instrument.


GW: Are you trying to say that violinists are a bit special?


ALK: No, no, no. They think they are. I have violin friends, listeners. Seriously, each instrument, even for those of us who are working in historical music, we are inevitably influenced by the modern day and the 20th century associations of the modern equivalent of that instrument. I think especially for an instrument like the violin, where so much of its baroque repertoire is still part of the mainstream modern repertoire. So if you’re a baroque violinist, then the kind of summit, probably, is to play things like the Bach unaccompanied violin partitas. Now those pieces are also still part of the repertoire for mainstream violinists. And so if you come at those pieces as a baroque player, you’re going to be compared to the mainstream players. And so that’s rather like perhaps, if you are at a Capoferro rapier tournament, but half the people in the crowd have been watching Olympic epee and maybe a couple of people in the crowd are themselves epee Olympians. And so you might feel a little intimidated.


GW: Right, you might want to put some bouncy shit in there to make you feel like you’re doing it properly. So do you think there are ideas and practises in the historical music world that we historical sword people would benefit from?


ALK: I thought about that a lot, but I think it’s mostly the other way round. There’s a lot happening in the historical swordsmanship world that I think musicians could learn from. But I guess the big difference is what are we doing it for and how we put it into practise. So for musicians, we’ve got this whole music business. There are concerts in every city, every night. Well, of course, we’ve had two years, but in normal times there’s this whole industry of performance. There’s, of course, the CDs and all the online performances. So there’s a huge amount of performance happening and there are audiences out there watching and listening. And that’s probably the most significant outcome of whatever work we do as students, as researchers, as practitioners, is all these performances. Whereas I think that’s rather different in the swordsmanship world where a lot of people are not training to go out and put on a show every night.


GW: There’s no show component at all, really.


ALK: Right. So it becomes something you do because you’re interested to improve your own understanding, your own skills, just because you enjoy the activity, you enjoy the contact with your colleagues and your training partners.


GW: There’s no there’s no deliverable. I mean, with musical training, the deliverable is concerts or recordings that people other people listen to. But in swordsmanship, there is no deliverable other than your own sense of development and satisfaction or whatever else you get out of it.


ALK: And what that means for music is that a lot of the very, very beautiful work that one might do is crowded it out by the kind of necessary work of putting on a show tonight.


GW: Is that professionals? If you’re trying to make a living at it the strictures are a bit different.


ALK: Yeah, it’s partly that and it’s partly just, the professional side of it is one part of it. But the other part of it is just the constant requirement to perform, which is the same for amateurs as well. I mean, there are plenty of amateur musicians who are very skilful and very interested and informed and active in historical music. And typically, they’ll do a few rehearsals and they’ll do a show as things are focussed on doing a performance. And the thing is, to do a performance, one of the main things is that nobody wants to make an idiot of themselves on stage in front of the audience. So there’s a big requirement to stay safe. I don’t mean in the health and safety aspect.


GW: To not embarrass yourself.


ALK: Yeah, and that means there’s a limit to what you can change. There’s a limit to how fundamental that change can be because you’ve got two or three rehearsals. In the professional world, you have two or three days. In the amateur world, you have perhaps four or five weeks with a weekly rehearsal and a couple of rehearsals just before the gig. If you’re a director, no matter how well-informed and skilful and inspiring you might be as a director, part of your job is to keep your people safe in the sense that you’re not going to make fools of them. And so you have to dose the amount of change you ask for very carefully and you have to be really careful with fundamental changes. But those fundamental changes are the most important and the most interesting things. And so if you come across some new 17th century manuscript that tells you that the harp should be held upside down and nobody ever knew this, ideally what you’d like to do is to start experimenting with that. And, you know, maybe you spend six months trying it out and eventually you might get to the stage where you could show it to a few colleagues. And eventually you might even get to the stage where you could show it to some audience members. But what you’re not going to do is walk into rehearsal and say to the professional harpist you’ve just hired, oh, by the way, would you turn your harp upside down? And now here’s some really difficult music. And oh, by the way, the whole thing is a live broadcast going all over the world. Fundamental things are very difficult to change. And so what tends to happen is that the application of a new historical information in our world of early music, tends to be peripheral things and especially things that you can write down. So if there is something that you can change by taking the musicians’ music and changing it in print and giving them different music for them to play from, and they probably don’t have to think too much, and they certainly don’t have to change their normal physical procedures so much. This is really easy to do, and you can do quite noticeable things like this. So one of the revolutions that happened, this was back in the 1980s, was that researchers discovered that some music that looked like it was written to be sung and played really high. Everybody doing really high notes. Brilliant. Very, very exciting. On the limits of what’s technically possible. Actually, there was a code in this notation and you are just meant to bring the whole thing down. And if anything, what’s happening is especially low notes, you need basses who can get right down to a low d and sing that strongly and support the whole sound with this low bass. This was a big surprise to everybody. We all had to get used to the new sounds, but the academic evidence was very, very strong and it was very easy to implement. You hire a few extra low basses and you tell the high sopranos to stay home and you just give everybody new music and they sing that. Nobody has to change the way they think. Except for the conductor.


GW: The director.


ALK: Director, exactly. Well, I was talking about the diehard groups that, in spite of all the historical evidence, do have a conductor.


GW: Still have a conductor.


ALK: Those kind of conductors, of course, they really missed their sopranos singing high notes. I think many of them were having affairs with those first sopranos. No names, I really mustn’t do names. But yes, there are still some very famous directors of this kind of music who will not do it in the low version that everybody else now accepts was intended, because they’re just so attached to the old sound, you know?


GW: But then, OK, music is all about taste and enjoyment. And the thing is, if you listen to both and decide you like the high one, then that’s the one you should have and listen to. You shouldn’t present as this is how it was probably done historically.


ALK: And there we go. And so I think, you know, if you’re a hobby fencer and you enjoy playing around a little bit with Capoferro, but you like doing it with your epee, if you’re having fun with that, well have fun, but you’ll probably find the bits of it don’t work so well, and that can be the point that makes you think, hang on a minute, maybe. Why does he ask me to do this crazy thing that doesn’t work with my epee? Let me try it with a rapier – aha.


GW: Yeah, that’s the point. OK, now I know you read maths at Cambridge and Vadi, for one, likened swordsmanship to music and geometry. OK, so how do you find your maths helps with your musical research? And how does that translate to swords?


ALK: Directly, maths is supposed to have a big connection to music. And actually, there are a lot of mathematicians who end up being professional musicians, but I don’t think it’s so much to do with numbers as such, because most musicians don’t really count beyond three, sometimes four, and historically, actually, you only count as far as two. And if the music’s going in three, you just go one… two, one… two. So you don’t need the number three so much. Now, in this continuo playing that I do, the way the notation works is they give you the bass notes and they put a number underneath that. And that number tells you how far up to count for the next note, you need to add to the chord. So if they write the number three, you play the bass note and you play three notes above. So if the bass note was C, C D E, you would an E to it. So numbers are involved in this continuo playing that I do all the time. And sometimes if there is a very complicated harmony, they’ll write a whole load of numbers underneath the bass note, and you’ve got to put all these notes into the chord. But actually, nobody at an advanced level, reads those numbers as numbers. You see notes and a number, and it instantly tells you actually not even notes to play, but it tells your fingers way to go. It’s a chord. And it is a horrible joke, It’s a kind of spinal chord reaction in the sense that when I see a note with a big set of numbers underneath it, I don’t sit there and start counting. Nothing’s going through my head but my fingers have already gone to the right place. So although you do a little bit with numbers in that way, it’s kind of trained out of you once you get along a bit. What I think is much more significant about the mathematics connection is the way of thinking. So if you do maths at a higher level, it’s teaching you a way of thinking. So one of the things, for example, a very standard way to ask a question at university level of mathematics is you write down a plausible equation. It looks really nice and you invite the candidate either to prove this equation is true or to give a counter example that disproves it. It is a lovely question because if you go off in the wrong direction, you can waste a whole lot of time trying to prove something true that isn’t, or looking for counter examples for something which is actually true so there won’t be any counter examples. So it’s a fun way to pose a question but it establishes a certain way of thinking, which is you see a plausible statement and you are immediately thinking, can I verify this or can I disprove it? And you’re looking at it in this very sort of sharp way, and the statement might be very plausible. So you might even run with that statement for a while and use it and see what begins to happen. But as a mathematician, you keep a certain intellectual distance from it. So in another way, in maths, we create what we call mathematical objects so we can define the set with some kind of complicated rules for what makes the members of that set. We can define operations in that sense. We can have a lot of fun with this, and we can imagine that this might tell us something about the real world, but actually, it’s only a mathematical object. And at a certain point, probably our set of mathematical rules stop fitting the real world more. And at that point, we don’t say that all that our maths is wrong or that the real world is wrong. We just notice aha, our hypothesis is no longer fitting our observations.


GW: That is exactly like historical martial arts.


ALK: It makes us seem like it’s very dispassionate. We can get involved with the hypothesis, but we don’t have to be totally committed to it. And I think this is just such a great training for research that you could work with a plausible idea and you can get very involved with it and you could use, but all the time in the back of your mind, you know it only takes one counterexample to destroy the whole thing. And that destruction, although it’s kind of a bit sad if the hypothesis has become a good friend, but that destruction would actually advance you at the end. And I think that’s such a good mental position to be in.


GW: That is exactly what the historical research process is like for swordsmanship. You come up with this idea of how this particular technique is done and it matches the text as best as you know it, and it matches the pictures as best as you can see the pictures and so it might be true and it kind of fits into the rest of the system. It seems to work. And then it may turn out to be correct, or it may turn out to be correct with minor changes. Or it may turn out to be, well it works, but it’s not what the person was actually telling us to do on that particular page, because the whole set of possible martial arts actions is enormous, and any given historical system is a subset of that. And any given historical master’s written treatise is an even smaller subset of that. And so even if something works, it may not necessarily be thing that that particular master was telling us to do. But when you’re testing it on the pressure at speed and with sharp swords you have to believe it, right? Or you’re not going to give it a fair shot, you’re not giving it a fair chance to succeed unless you actually believe it. But if you leave it to the point that it’s become an article of faith, then you have strayed from the path completely.


ALK: Yeah. And I think this is the really fun part about part of a discipline which is both academic, there’s a research element, and a practical, real world element to it. And they depend on each other. I think probably in our respective disciplines, we both sometimes get a little frustrated with the academics who don’t have practical experience, there are just things they don’t know about. I going to say being at the sharp end, but I think facing the sharp end is more appropriate.


GW: And you also see a complete, I mean, a wilful disregard for the scholarship done over the last quarter of a century in books written in the last twenty years. Like we’ve known for twenty five years at least that medieval martial arts were sophisticated activities which have quite a lot of written records as to how they went, and those records indicate that it is very, very far from just mindless bashing each other over the head with swords. And yet, you know, in the 21st century, people have been writing absolute shit about how medieval sword fighting is basically just illiterate thugs blattering each other with weapons that might as well just be clubs. To my mind, it’s not the, “I haven’t got a physical experience, so I don’t know”. The problem is the, “Your physical experience doesn’t matter because it’s not written down by somebody who I respect from one hundred years ago” or whatever. That’s the main issue. We have 19th century historians of martial arts. The most famous example of this is obviously Egerton Castle’s Schools and Master of Fence, where he says pretty much on the first page that “the foil is the epitome of all fencing”. And he refers to the “rough, untutored fighting of the Middle Ages”. He probably didn’t have access to the sources that we have access to, and he made an absolute outright, perfectly, I think intellectually honest, mistake. He is not always right. As a human being, you wouldn’t expect him to be always right. But later historians of fencing have just uncritically taken Castle’s word for it and just dismissed everything before about 1550 as the rough untutored fighting of the Middle Ages. And that makes me want to slap people because it’s like, how can you think that a culture that produced armour like this and weapons like that and music like this, and musical instruments like that. And buildings like this and paintings like that, would then have some sort of clumsy, thuggish foolishness as their fighting art. It doesn’t make any sense. I went off on a little rant there.


ALK: We musicians have our own version of it. It’s a very similar thing that in mainstream music, this idea of evolution of musical instruments, like evolution of weapons.


GW: Oh God. It’s the wrong word. “Change over time” is acceptable. But evolution suggests better fitted to the environment.


ALK: Exactly. And so there is the idea that the modern forms of instruments are the highest development of those instruments. And the early instruments are primitive. That idea is held even by people who then go back and want to play those Bach unaccompanied violin partitas because they see those as the summit of violin composing. But they seem to have a blind spot when it comes to the idea that nevertheless you should play this 18th century music on a modern violin because that’s the summit of the violin.


GW: Yes, we do have technical developments that make materials objectively better in some ways and ways of sticking materials together objectively better in some ways, and processes for producing these things which are more accurate and more consistent than what have you. So you can make things today that were impossible to make a hundred years ago. But if you have a look at watchmaking from the late 17th century. And think the tools of these people had to make like watches, like clocks with. It’s absolutely astonishing what they were able to do. In woodwork too, the steel that they have for making their tools out of this compared to what we have. You can go to your local, not even a proper tool shop, but a supermarket and get a set of cheap, shitty chisels, which no professional cabinet maker would look at twice, usually. But if you actually sharpen them up, in terms of steel quality, they are vastly better than anything that Grinling Gibbons or Chippendale had. But the notion that what they were using wasn’t state of the art at the time is a bit silly, but also changes to the implement changes how you use it. So for example, you see in modern longsword tournament fencing, we’re talking modern steels produced with modern methods and they can take a hell of a beating. You do that to a medieval sword, you break it in an hour or less. Because the way the sword is made is different, the steel is different, the way you have to look after it is different. It reminds me of learning to fly. Because the plane I’m learning to fly on, a Cessna 152, which was built in 1974, and it has this engine, which is basically the thing that’s keeping you alive in the air. And an awful lot of what you have to do when flying is look after your engine. Make sure it’s not running at too low revs to too long or too high revs for too long. And make sure you pull out the carb heat every now and then so if any ice is building up in the carburettor it gets melted through. All that sort of thing. It’s really critically important. And you are like a steward of the engine. And that was also true of people driving cars in the 1940s. In a modern car, practically no modern driver is a steward of the engine. They don’t have to care. It’s got fuel injection, it’s got all sorts of controls and stuff on it that mean that it’ll run for a really long time without any maintenance at all. Needs a bit of maintenance every now and then. And then at some point it becomes too expensive to fix because it’s sufficiently complicated that fixing it becomes pointless and so you just get a new engine, or probably a new car. So the way you use the tool, because the tool’s changed, the way you use it has had to change. And so you will do things with the new one that you wouldn’t do with the old one because you’d break it. And if you are trying to figure out what people were actually doing historically, you need to take that into account. Could they have done it like this? Well, we can do it with modern swords. But if you did that with a proper medieval sword made in the medieval fashion with medieval materials, you’re going to almost certainly catastrophically damage it. So no, this can’t be the way that they’re telling us to do it.


ALK: Yeah. I mean, one of the examples of my instrument, my main instrument is the harp. Once you’ve got a frame of a harp, you’ve built the thing, basically the higher tension you crank the strings up to, the better it will sound. So you try and put high tension strings on. But there’s a lot of strings on the harp. And although the harp has a nice triangular frame, the strings are just that little bit asymmetric. And so everything twists and bends. So basically a harp is a machine for breaking wood. You have this triangular frame, you crank up a lot of strings on it. Every time the tension on those strings lessens a bit as the thing deforms, you just crank the tension back up again to where it was. And so eventually, the wood breaks. So that’s why, in the long term, the harp is a machine for breaking wood. Nowadays, modern makers, even makers of replica historical instruments, basically the main structural parts they laminate because it just hugely increases the strength of them. And as far as we can tell, that doesn’t really affect the sound in any noticeable way. And so the temptation, then, is, of course, to crank up more tension than they ever could have had back then. Realistically, I think the decent use of that extra safety margin of strength is that, you know, with my harp, I have to travel, it has to go on and off planes. It goes through the kind of changes of temperature and humidity that a historical instrument wouldn’t have gone through so quickly. So it gives me a little safety margin there. But it is certainly true that there’s a big temptation just to put more tension on than would have been available back then. And then you come to, I think one of the things about all these historical disciplines, whether it’s music or swordfighting, is that they’re very holistic. Every single little bit of the whole practise fits together with the other bits. And so it’s true if you put more string tension on, you get a more brilliant, more resonant sound. But then that sound is more brilliant and resonant than they were really dealing with. And so you probably have to change something else to compensate for that.


GW: And what else do you have to change?


ALK: And now it all sort of ricochets through the system. And so when you think you’ve improved something, almost certainly a better word for that is “changed” and you’ve really got to ask yourself, you know, what is the real benefit of this change and what are the hidden consequences? And the story of musical instrument restoration and also reconstruction is full of examples where, in the early 20th century when this sort of game of doing historical music really got going and people started building reproduction instruments with the idea of playing the old music on a reproduction of old instruments and trying to understand how it worked at its own time. As that got going, there were very things where we looked at the design of an old harpsichord and said, you know, that’s so inefficient that’s such a stupid way to do things, we could do better nowadays. So we applied the modern techniques and the modern possibilities. A few decades on, there’s certainly an “aha” moment where you see where was what was an apparent limitation or defect or inefficiency actually becomes something very useful in the whole art and how it connects together to a whole lot of other things. And then you go back and change things. And I think that’s true on the level of making replica instruments. But it’s also true on a very nitty gritty level of the physicality of techniques. So I can give an example, this is from harp playing, but it also applies to keyboard playing. So if you think of a harpsichord or a historical organ, and anybody listening, if you’ve played a bit of piano, you could imagine this. When you were a kid and you let your first scales, typically, the idea is to use the fingers really efficiently, make all that motion really smooth. So as you get better, the smoothness allows you to speed it up and it goes smooth and smoothly and as fast as you like. And so the typical scale fingering on a piano, you put your hands on the table and imagine it. So I’m using my right hand. So I’ll start a low note with my thumb and I’ll go one, two, three and I put my thumb underneath. And now I can go one two three four five. That sets it up to eight notes. That’s my scale. And I practise that little underneath crossing movement of my thumb and get it all beautifully smooth. And that was the agony of my childhood was practising the scales and arpeggios. And boy, am I glad I was forced to do it. Now I’m glad about that because that gave me the finger control. And so that seems like a really great system and it really is well worked out to give you a beautiful, smooth scale that you can speed that up a lot. It’s not what they were doing back then. And a typical fingering from back then might go one two three four. And then three, four, and then three, four again with lots of little crossovers and those crossovers are happening with the big fingers, so you can’t like smoothly take your thumb under while the other fingers are still playing. It’s a really kind of lumpy movement. It’s really inefficient. So that’s obviously bad and we improved that a whole lot in the 19th century. And so those people who started off studying early music started playing their 16th and 17th century music with those 19th century fingerings. Because the fingerings are so efficient, they’re so good. But they’re really efficient at giving you a very, very smooth, even sound. And that’s not the sound they wanted back then. What they wanted back then was a deliberately uneven sound. So not to be smooth in the way we think of classical piano playing nowadays. Very smooth, very, very rapid. But rather to be a little bit bumpy like the way you speak. Because when you speak, you don’t speak in a continuous sound like this. Here’s a great example.


GW: Can I say, that sublime rather than beautiful.


ALK: Or communicative rather than beautiful. So the comparison in sound is I’m old enough to remember when they switched the national railways in the UK from short sections to continuous welded track. And if you’re on the short sections, you hear what we all know from our childhood a train sounds like, <du dum, du dum, du dum>. If you’re on continuous welded track, it sounds like <woooooosh>.


GW: Yeah. And that makes me sick. <du dum, du dum, du dum>, that’s fine. But the continuous one, Oh my god, I get so sick.


ALK: That’s basically the difference in mainstream music and early music. Early music is broken up into short, very articulate moments, and mainstream music is very, very fast. Very, very even. It’s just another world. And so, of course, those early fingerings that are so inefficient, they’re inefficient, but in a very clever way. The bits that are lumpy are deliberately put where you want there to be a little break in the smooth running of it, and the bits that go continuously are in the bits that you want to go continuously. So it’s very, very well adapted for its own purpose. And certainly, if you want to play some piece of 19th century music very continuously and fast, those early techniques will trip you up all the time. They’re not designed to do that. But if you’re trying to get that historical sound, then they’re absolutely the way to go.


GW: How do you know about how fingering was done back then?


ALK: This kind of nitty gritty, I think this is perhaps one of the areas where we musicians are in a more fortunate position than swordsmen. We have a lot of books with a lot of nitty gritty. So we’ve got the books that talk about the grand philosophy. There is beautiful stuff in the sword books of how sword fighting relates to the cosmos and all of this. And that stuff is actually very relevant to what you’re doing as a swordsman. It’s not just, you know, sort of, OK, here’s a beautiful story. Flip the pages through. Let’s get to the bit where we stab people.


GW: Well, that’s what most of us actually do in the beginning, to be honest.


ALK: But you come back to that stuff because you realise that there’s very subtle stuff hidden there. Musicians are in the same position. We’ve got some of these books that talk about this very sort of dreamy stuff. And because it’s so dreamy, the practical application of it is not so obvious and so many people don’t bother with it. I think it’s got a lot to tell us but you do have to think about it for a while. But in music, we then has the books that are talking about music in general in a practical way. So those books are good for directors. They’re good for anybody who’s wanting to understand the music in general. And then we’ve got specific books, how to play the flute, how to play the harpsichord, how to play the violin and how to play the harp. And these books go into enormous amounts of really small detail. Actually, the challenge there is that there’s so much small detail. The challenge is to see the wood for the trees. You can have hundreds of pages of these books and we’ve got several books. And so for an academic, just working on one of these books could be your lifetime career as an academic, just going deeper and deeper into this one book. But if you’re a performer, you need some kind of overview. And so you’re probably going to use several books and there just isn’t time to get into all of them so deeply. This is probably the danger for us in music is that because we’ve got so many sources, we tend to skate a bit thin over all of them. So what one of the things that really inspired me when I first got involved with historical sword fighting was that you could spend a whole year of study. In fact, some people spend the whole of their career, their life’s work, not just talking about sort of very specialised academics. I’m talking about people who do historical sword fighting, and there are people who are rapier fencers and they basically do Capoferro for all their career or they have a little bit of side reading with one of the other sources, but they’re essentially a Capoferro person.


GW: I mean, any good rapier fencer will have usually a specialisation in a specific master’s approach. But even the most intensely specialised person in that area will be familiar with the other contemporary sources a bit earlier or later, and also side by side. If you’ve only ever read Capoferro and you studied Capoferro and practise Capoferro and you come up against someone who is totally immersed in Fabris, you’re going to see stuff that you have never seen before. And if you haven’t studied it first, they’re going to stab you with it. So you need to know your enemy. Listeners, if I don’t edit this out, Andrew’s very young son is right there.


ALK: We are doing daily practise of stringering and disengages with a spoon.


GW: Yes, feeding.


ALK: I have the spoon with the food on it. He has the other spoon.


GW: You have to get past his defences to get the food in. Ah bless, actually, that was kind of hoping I’d get to meet him today. How old is he now?


ALK: He’s just one. His birthday was last week, but that was when I was down with Covid. So we were all in quarantine and we couldn’t celebrate. So the party’s this week.


GW: At that age, he doesn’t care, as long as there’s cake.


ALK: Yeah, now we have to postpone because his best friend is quarantining, so we’re going to wait until we’re all good.


GW: The pen is mightier than the spoon. Oh, I remember when mine were that age.


ALK: Yeah. Lovely age. He’s very communicative. He’s crawling, not yet walking. He’s getting better and better expressing what he wants and super at expressing what he doesn’t want.


GW: Yes. “No” is the first word.


ALK: The whole thing is just completely life changing.


GW: Absolutely. I have a have it down on my thing to ask you about how that’s happened.


ALK: What is inspiring to see the flexibility, the range of movements and the way he’s experimenting the whole time with motor and balance skills.


GW: I learnt a lot about how students learn fencing by watching my children learn to walk.


ALK: Right. And also just the quality of concentration. There’s an amazing quality of relaxed focus just about everything. I mean, his whole world, his whole activities the whole time is, is it play or is it learning? The answer is both. There is no difference. And I think there’s a great lesson because we tend to say, OK, now this is serious. I want to learn something serious and we get out of play mode and just lose a lot by doing that. Yeah, that’s not to say that when he’s playing, he isn’t serious. He’s totally focussed.


GW: Play is important. OK. So while he’s sat on your lap, let me ask you the question. Listeners can’t see, but Andrew’s one year old son has just entered the room and is currently on his lap. So this is a perfect opportunity to ask this question. So you’ve recently become a parent. What aspects of the music and or martial arts have been most useful in learning this new and very important skill of parenting?


ALK: Well, certainly at feeding time, I’m honing my swordsmanship skills with feints. Actually, I’m finding that the defence and attack in a single tempo is one of the most effective tactics. When he puts out his empty spoon, rather than stopping his spoon and then trying to get my loaded spoon with some good food into his mouth, I find that if I could do all that in one tempo, this works really well. The rapier training is coming in handy. It’s just inspiring to watch him to learn things and the way in which his play is a learning activity and his learning activity is play, there’s just absolutely no difference between them. And I find that inspiring as an attitude to have toward study that you’re just totally in it. You’re having fun, but the fun is serious. And also the amazing dedication. He basically eats, plays and sleeps. For him, that’s his mission right now. And so he just gets on with it.


GW: Yeah, I remember my kids were little, I was just blown away by how quickly they learn complex things. And I think one of the key things is they have no self-awareness or self-consciousness. So they don’t care how they look doing something, they have no sense of being externally judged, so the only feedback mechanism they care about is related directly to the thing that they are actually doing. Gravity will tell you whether you’re walking correctly or not. If you get where you want to go and you didn’t fall over, that’s by definition, correct. And if you land on your arse, half way there then obviously you’ve done something wrong on the way. It is completely consistent and it’s completely dispassionate. If the falling down hurt, then you might cry a bit. But if the falling down didn’t hurt, you just get back up and carry on. And you don’t ever see them going, “well, I fell down and so I’m not going to do any more walking because I don’t really like it anymore because it’s a bit embarrassing falling down all the time, and I pooed myself at the same time and it was just not good.” They just don’t do it. They just don’t have that judgement. I think it’s the absence of judgement that really helps.


ALK: Yeah, it is also fascinating to see the range of movements and the gradual acquiring of movement skills. One of the things I noticed in the early days, especially, was how fast he could, for example, fling out an arm. It’s this trade-off of speed and control. He would fling out an arm, and he’s not using the opposing muscles to control that movement. It just goes straight out. There’s a lot of oomph behind it. It’s not very well controlled. So his accuracy wasn’t so good, but the speed was amazing and it really brought home to me that control and speed in a way are trade-offs. And the way to optimise that is trying to minimise the amount of standing on the accelerator and the brake at the same time. So as a musician, if you’re trying to efficiently move a finger from one string to another, because you don’t want to overshoot, you might have the metaphorical brakes on already as you start moving your finger and that’s going to slow you down. Actually, the long run, it may even injure you.


GW: And how people, when people are cutting with longswords, for example, there’s this tendency to they call it pulling the blow, which is a horrible way of expressing it because you should never, ever pull a blow. If you don’t want to hit the person, the blow should naturally stop before it hits the person.


ALK: Yeah, it shouldn’t be intended to hit and then stopped at 99 percent. It should go 100 percent, but that includes not hitting them.


GW: Yeah, and you’re organising a structure that will naturally stop the sword. It will stop it passively. You’re not catching it in flight. You’re just sending it to a different end point. And so basically getting out of your own way. I think you see it all the time when people are preparing to strike. There shouldn’t be a preparation. Whatever position you are, you should be able to strike. Otherwise, why would you be in that position? So if you have to modify the positions and make the strike happen, there’s an awful lot of getting a student from clumsy beginner to graceful fencer is getting rid of all of those internal restrictions.


ALK: I guess this is very parallel with technical training in music, where one of the real secrets for keyboard or harp players, it’s just exactly this. It’s getting rid of any unnecessary movement. So when we’re doing slow practise, one of the things you’re looking for is that your finger moves just exactly from point A to point B and doesn’t go to point C or hesitates or do a little diversion or something or overshoot and come back and those things you can do quite easily if you slow it down enough. But it’s one of the things that’s very noticeable about the best players is there’s just no wasted movement and everything is just exactly what’s needed.


GW: Yeah, and that that comes from lots and lots and lots of practise. You see it in every discipline. I go indoor climbing regularly and the experienced climbers, they very rarely grab and then adjust their grip, or put their foot onto a toehold and then adjust the foot position. It just goes to the right place every time, so they’re less tired when they get to the top because they have done less work getting there. Absolutely the same is true with swordsmanship. When you’re doing it right, it doesn’t feel like exercise because it’s only the necessary motion and the necessary motion isn’t that much. And now there are a couple of questions that I need to ask you, and I am particularly fascinated by your answer to this one. What is the best idea you haven’t acted on?


ALK: You gave the warning of this question, and I realised it was a real kind of wake up call question because actually I have a lot of ideas that I don’t act on. I have a lot of ideas that I tinker around with and enjoy immensely and don’t actually put out there. And so I’m really grateful for this question, because in the whole of my professional life, I’ve mostly responded to things that have come in, so somebody invites me to a concert or to direct an opera and I’m really happy about that. And I say, yes, please. That leads to some research and some skill training or whatever, and a project in music probably leads to a show. Meanwhile there are all these things that interest me that I get started with. But many of those just stay there. And you asked this question, and I’m thinking, yeah, I have got a computer full of great ideas. And rather than polishing them more and more, I should just take two or three of the good ones and kick them out there and start having some fun with them.


GW: I would suggest take one of the good ones and kick it out there. Because if you take two or three, already your focus is split. Pick one. Get it out the door, then pick the next one. Of all the things on your hard drives that you think you ought to get out into the world, what would be the top of your list?


ALK: Well, to give a crowd pleasing answer to this interview. One of the things on my list. It’s a project you and I have been discussing, of taking Fiore’s teaching material for longsword. Actually for all the medieval weapons, taking these little verses that he writes and setting those to music and making a musical literary sword, art of weapons, evening.


GW: We have the book. We’ve written the book, haven’t we?


ALK: Yes, we have good music. We have good musical performers, we have good swordsmanship performers and the musical world, my world of concerts, is gradually reopening and trying to shake off the effects of the last couple of years. So this is a really great moment to come up with this completely different kind of multimedia show. I think it could be a lot of fun for all kinds of audiences, but it’s also a very, very high quality academic and aesthetic and cultural project. So that’s what I really do want to go with. If I’m really honest, then there’s another project which is perhaps even closer to my heart. Which is that one of the great works of the 17th century, one of the greatest masterpieces, has come down to us as a tiny fragment, a wonderful fragments, but a tiny fraction. So this is the opera Arianna by Monteverdi, probably my hero composer, said composer of this Combattimento we were talking about before, and it was his masterpiece. We’ve got another opera by him that we think is wonderful, and everybody else thought it was wonderful, but he says that this Arianna was even better. And it just eclipsed the earlier work. But the opera itself doesn’t survive. All that survives is one famous scene, and we do have a lot of information about this opera. We’ve got a detailed libretto, the text that was sung. We’ve got lots of letters about how it was written, and we know a lot about how Monteverdi would have written it.


GW: Write it!


ALK: I’ve done it already. A couple of years ago, I sat down and did it. We did a performance, it worked, and we’re doing another performance. And the existing fragment is at the heart of what we’ve done. And so I’m certainly not saying that I’m Monteverdi, but what I am saying is I’m giving audiences the chance to experience this famous fragment in a full context. So here’s the way to imagine it. Just imagine if Shakespeare’s Hamlet had come down to us with all the descriptions of what an amazing drama it was. But the only actual thing we had was “To be or not to be,” and the rest of that speech. An amazing speech. People love to perform it anyway. But wouldn’t it be great to have the whole drama, to put it in its context. And so that’s what I’ve tried to do with this Arianna.


GW: You’ve done it. So what’s missing?


ALK: What’s missing is me being actually a little bit more courageous and putting it out there and getting performances to happen.


GW: So publishing it as a piece of music?


ALK: No, actually, sending it round to the agents who place projects like this at festivals or in opera houses, writing directly to festivals. So where I’ve performed at a certain festival last year or in the current circumstances three years ago, writing back to them and saying, you know, I could come and do such and such a project of 17th century music but here is this really exciting thing that hasn’t been done. And would you like Arianna by Monteverdi and Lawrence-King? That’s the big one.


GW: You’ve written it, you just have to send it out. OK, listeners, if you think that’s a good idea, feel free to send me an email me to forward to Doctor Andrew Lawrence-King, saying, Get off your arse and send this out into the world and stop being a wuss.


ALK: Yeah, that pretty much sums it up.


GW: Brilliant. OK. That’s an excellent question answer to the question.


ALK: Listeners, I’d also say if you’re interested in seeing a dramatised show where you hear Fiore’s words being recited and sung, and then you see those actions happening. And all of that put into a nice little storyline and featuring some of your favourites swordsmen and swordspeople, send those postcards to Guy as well.


GW: My last question if you have a million quid to spend improving either historical music or historical martial arts, which discipline would get the money? Why? And how would you spend it?


ALK: How to spend it, I think it’s the same for either discipline, how to spend it is by fostering and helping grassroots activities, and I would say amongst teenagers. People old enough to have some basic skills and to take the thing seriously enough but at this impressionable age where you can give them things that could mean something for the whole of their lives. One of the statistics we know in music is that most people listen for pleasure to the music that meant the most to them when they were teenagers.


GW: That’s very true.


ALK: You might encounter other kinds of music later in life and you might enjoy it. But the stuff that really touches you is what you heard when you were a teenager.


GW: Eighties music, baby. Eighties all the way.


ALK: There we go. You always say grab them young, but I think for the sort of high level activities like serious music, like a serious investigation of historical sword fighting, I think the age is as teenagers and I remember when I was training in Helsinki being very impressed, by I think he was a 16 year old student you had there who was really a student to admire, not just his skills, but more things attitude to the study.


GW: I think you’re probably talking about Yann. He started when he was 10, but he was really unusual. He’s the youngest student who started and continued on. The youngest we ever had actually started was also 10 but a week or two and it was like, actually, this isn’t really the right environment for him. Yann, for some reason, was able to fit in with the thing and yeah, he’s in his mid-20s now. The thing is, if I told him to do this exercise, once a day for five minutes every day without fail, for months, either to fix an injury or something. He would do it, exactly as I told him to. And so he became this kind of unstoppable tank and a very, very nice young man.


ALK: I think the comparable thing in the music world is perhaps the training that it used to be just boys, but now it’s boys and girls get in the cathedral choir schools. So the training in the choir, of course, it’s a great music training. You’re performing, you go out into the cathedral and you sing nearly every day. So you get not only training, but you get to apply that training regularly. You learn all your stuff about getting past performance anxiety and optimising your performance in the moment where it really matters. You learn team discipline, you learn looking after your fellow team members, all those kind of things. And in the context of a cathedral choir, you learn the lesson that the thing that you’re doing, what you yourself do is part of some higher calling. That calling could be the team. In the cathedral situation of course, there’s a religious aspect to it. I do honestly think that’s the most important part. I think the part that there is something beyond you and your petty concerns. That’s the important part. And that in the sword context that can be the well-being of your school, the team you’ve got, of your training partners. It can be the advancement of the art itself. But I think it’s really, really healthy to have a feeling that you’re putting in a big effort not only to improve yourself, but also for something beyond that. I think that “something beyond” is just really important.


GW: I agree. So what would you actually do with the money? Programmes in schools?


ALK: Programmes in schools, community centres. The people who seem to be who seem to benefit the most to help the most or advanced most by music training and sword training, I think tend to be people who are in certain ways, in other ways, perhaps sort of square pegs in round holes.


GW: Misfits and outsiders. Yes. Absolutely true.


ALK: If you thrive in the normal atmosphere of a school…


GW: Then you’re a weirdo. Swords are not for you.


ALK: There are the people who just get on really well with football and hockey. All power to them. Enjoy. Be captain of the school. Have fun, but there’s a lot of people out there who need something else. I think also there are people for whom the combination of physical, practical skills and an academic or intellectual element with those things coming together, those things can really starts things off. I have a friend who had a tough time at school, but his thing was carpentry and carpentry to start with and boats afterwards. And this this saved him, if you like. And he wasn’t an academic high flyer, but actually both those disciplines have got a thinking element as well as a doing element. And you can’t have one without the other. So programmes in schools, programmes in community centres for the people who were just not even fitting into the school system at all who need to find something outside. That’s another good friend of mine in my previous home back in Guernsey, set up a modern fencing school. He’s actually a priest, and he set it up as a pastoral mission to look after the people who weren’t fitting into the regular social structures of the school.


GW: Oh, bless him.


ALK: And it worked a treat. There are people who, you know, some of them became great fencers. Some of them were just average fencers. But suddenly they had a group of friends. They had an activity three or four nights a week and they were fit and healthy. And if you learn to wield a sword, I think this is one of the things that people don’t understand to do martial arts. I think a lot of people out there are kind of worried that if you do martial arts it will turn you into a violent, crazed idiot. But on the whole, it gives people a kind of quiet confidence. And I remember one of the first things I learnt with swords was just the kind of don’t flinch training where you stand there with a protective helmet on and you let somebody hit you and you let that happen until you’re able to keep your eyes open and not just keep your eyes open and not flinch as such, but actually observe, OK, he’s coming from this direction. He’s coming at this speed, at this angle, it’s going to be like this and taking away all that sort of panicky, jittery stuff. And this is a great training. We hope we won’t be out there in the real world being hit by a sword, but out in the real world, you get hit by events. Things happen. And if you’ve got that flinch reaction damped down a bit and you can look at the thing a bit more dispassionately and come up with a better response, this is just great training. So to answer your specific question, I don’t think it matters what you spend your million quid on. As long as you spend it on something which people can get completely absorbed in. Something that feels like play but is also serious, something that involves, as much as possible, the whole body and the mind. And then when I look at all those requirements, and something that fosters also your sense of teamwork, connection to the other people you are with and the sense that there’s something beyond what you’re just doing yourself. You know, if it’s carpentry, it’s not just that I learned to use a chisel, now I’m better with a chisel. But it’s like I’ve made this beautiful piece and this beautiful piece has a worth of its own.


GW: And maybe that person with a chisel is helping to build sets for the next, you know, Il Combattimento.


ALK: Actually all these things interrelate. So in a way, I think it doesn’t matter. And then when I look at the different things, I think I have to say that historical martial arts has a wonderful mix of this involvement with the past, this respect for the past. If you’re going to do historical martial arts, you have to start thinking outside the box because the box says pick up a gun and shoot the person. But guns aren’t in this game. So you’ve got a new game, different set of rules. You’ve got to think differently. So it’s, you know, flexibility, a thought process. And I think it’s also very helpful that those of us who at school were in the weedy side of things find something that we can do that does involve us with the body and gives us confidence that, actually whatever shape you started out in, you can get more healthy. You can use your body more effectively. You can enjoy the body you have. I think it honestly took me until the age of 50 something, when I started historical swords just to really have fun just doing stuff, with these arms and legs. Not necessarily doing it very well, but having fun doing it. And of course, hang on a minute, when I was a teenager, I was playing the organ, and so I was using those arms and legs. I just never thought of it like that. And I think it’s very easy for people to lose this holistic… It’s very easy to put yourself into a box you’ve created for yourself. So you say, “I’m an academic, I don’t do sporty stuff” or “I’m a sportsman, I don’t think”, or whatever it might be. And actually, of course, we’ve all got strengths and weaknesses in different areas, but most of us can be more integrated that we think we can and we can have a lot of fun doing it. And so again, I think avoiding the pigeonholing thing is something very valuable to give to people when they’re young and yeah, because in a way, historical martial arts is such an extreme pigeonhole, it’s such a niche thing, allowing somebody to get involved with that just means you don’t fit in any of the other pigeonholes that society is trying to put you in, so you can just do your thing. So that’s a very long way round of saying that I think where I would like to spend my million quid is by inspiring young people in these kind of practises that are very holistic. I think historical martial arts is one of the coolest of them. Music has a lot of money in it. I wonder how much the money in music helps the art. We could have a whole programme just about that.


GW: We are out of time. I have to go for a flying lesson in just a minute. Thank you very much indeed for joining me today, Andrew, it’s been great talking to you.


ALK: Thank you, Guy. I really enjoyed it.