For love of a lute
Palo Alto musician is taken with the tunes and expressive vocals of the Renaissance
Doris Williams was raised in the birthplace of General Motors, but the culture she experienced at home in and around Flint, Mich., was centered on music. Her father, who taught at General Motors Institute (now Kettering University), played piano daily, her mother sang and wrote poetry, and Williams began playing piano at age 5. Family sing-alongs included Broadway tunes, songs of the '60s and sacred music.
Sometime in her teens, after years of studying classical music, Williams tuned into a local radio station on a Sunday morning, listening to a show called "Brunch With Bach." In addition to hearing the works of Bach, with which she was familiar, she discovered the music of an earlier era, including the songs of the medieval and Renaissance troubadours, and she taught herself the recorder.
"I loved (this music). It spoke to me," Williams, 48, says during an interview in her herb- and vegetable-filled patio in the Midtown neighborhood of Palo Alto. That passion took her to Oakland University in Michigan, where she fell in love again — with the lute.
In cahoots with her professor — who asked her to sample and tune the instrument during a workshop — her parents gave her a lute for her birthday. The hardest part, Williams recalled, was having to act surprised.
That love affair took her to Stanford University, where she completed a master's degree in early music. Eight years ago, while raising her son, William Robertson, who is now 12, and teaching and singing in semiprofessional choirs, Williams brought out her lute while conducting a choral concert. Since then, she's been performing folk, Celtic and Renaissance music around the Bay Area.
"Lady" or "Ladye" Doris, as she sometimes calls herself, will present a concert called "Love Songs of the Renaissance" at 4 p.m. Sunday, April 11, at All Saints' Episcopal Church in Palo Alto. The program, in English, French, Italian and German, includes instrumental music and songs by such composers as John Dowland, Robert Johnson and Pierre Guedron. With titles like "Wilt Thou Unkind Thus Reave Me," "See Mine Own Sweet Jewel" and "A Shepherd in the Shade," songs express the longing, the joy and the grief of love, unrequited and otherwise.
She will also perform with Pat Ryan's Celtic Junket from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, April 10, during the Tartan Day Scottish Fair at Ardenwood Historic Farms in Fremont.
Williams, whose light, clear soprano turns gutsy in such Celtic ballads as "Star of the County Down," and ethereal in the sacred "The Lord is My Shepherd," waxes wistful as she takes on the persona of a Renaissance damsel in Johnson's "Have You Seen but a White Lily Grow" and subtly flirtatious in "Now Is the Month of May," a madrigal. As she performs during the interview, her body, her voice and her lute become a single instrument, as her dark hair cascades across her tropical print dress.
She recognizes that her character changes with the music. "Whatever I need, it comes up," she said. Her philosophy, expressed in her brochures: "Singing is sacred, singing heals, singing is life."
At the time of the interview earlier this spring, she was preparing to sing at the Good Friday service at St. Mark's Episcopal Church, near her home. "I've been going to church since I was a teenager; since then I haven't left. My voice suits the sacred style and suits the church." Good Friday is a particularly favorite service, she said. "It encompasses all of life's turmoils and joys. There are stories about death, but there's also hope. I love the meditative aspect. I love the quiet."
While participating in the collegium musicum, the early music program in college, she learned to play myriad old instruments, including the crumhorn, which she said "sounds like a dead frog," as well as tenor and treble viols. But since she's a singer, the lute "made the most sense," as she can accompany herself.
But there are challenges, she said, notably "the concentration," not only on expressing the music through voice and instrument, but on posture and body language. "I can't really let go."
In addition, she said, there's "making sure I've got the right string. ... The plusses are that for a simple song ... you can be as musical as you want. I can just be my own boss without throwing off an accompanist."
Tuning her lute, modeled after a 16th-century Italian instrument, requires patience. "This is why the Renaissance lasted so long," she joked.
Her lute has 15 strings, arranged in eight courses or pairs, according to pitch, which are usually plucked together — although the highest pitch is a single string. Three of her strings are made of animal gut; during the Renaissance, before synthetics, they were all of gut or metal. Although the lute is often associated with the madrigals and love ballads of the Renaissance, it has roots in far older tradition. Williams said it is derived from the oud, played in North Africa and the Middle East.
In her upcoming Renaissance concert, she will accompany herself on a couple of songs but will be also be accompanied by Howard Kadis on the lute and Jonathan Harris on the recorder. Both specialize in early music, European music before 1750.
"Doris is a really good singer and she's especially a really good singer for this kind of style," Kadis said during a phone interview from his Richmond home. "Most (trained) singers are trained in an operatic way. This music expresses itself very differently. You don't want a lot of power; you don't want a lot of vibrato; what you want is expressiveness. She has that flexibility." Moreover, the lute, he added, is "about the softest musical instrument there is," requiring a different quality of singing.
"I'm not a diva," Williams said. Although Renaissance music has elements that are closer to folk and jazz than to opera, "it's all the same technique," she said. "The color is different. The amount of emotion and drama is different. ... It's all a matter of degree."
Because the songs of the Renaissance are relatively short, putting together a program of some two dozen pieces takes "more brain power" than presenting the longer Celtic and folk ballads, which she has recorded in a CD titled "Celtic and Beyond." What makes Renaissance music particularly interesting to her is its harmonic variety. When sung in a chorus, "every line (for soprano, alto, tenor or bass) is a melody, and every singer is having loads of fun singing melody."
For instrumentalists as well as singers, Renaissance music affords an opportunity to ornament, adding variations to the musical line. Williams said, "You wouldn't be considered a musician if you didn't know to read notes (and) the most respected musicians were the ones who could ornament," just as jazz musicians do today.
In addition to the music, Renaissance poetry has a strong appeal, Kadis said. He cites Dowland's sorrowful "In Darkness Let Me Dwell," which will conclude the program. It ends with the words: "Pale ghosts and frightful shades shall my acquaintance be: O thus, my hapless joy, I haste to thee, I haste to thee."
Williams said: "It's a masterpiece. It's like an expressionist painting. It's just so descriptive."
Kadis said he's is optimistic about the revival of interest in early music, which he says began in the 1960s. Williams also sees renewed interest.
However, it doesn't necessarily translate into concerts in large halls — at least not yet. For now, she performs mainly at fairs, coffeehouses, farmers markets and churches. Said Williams: "I'm resurging it for myself."
What: "Renaissance Songs of Love," presented by Doris Williams, with Howard Kadis, lute, and Jonathan Harris, recorder.
Where: All Saints' Episcopal Church, 555 Waverley St., Palo Alto.
When: Sunday, April 11, 4 p.m.
Cost: $20 general, $15 for seniors, $30 for families.
Info: Go to www.doriswilliams.com. Williams will also perform at Pat Ryan's Celtic Junket from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, April 10, during the Tartan Day Scottish Fair at Ardenwood Historic Farms, 34600 Ardenwood Blvd., Fremont. Go to www.eastbayscots.org.