DON'T LOOK for the lute duo of Linn Barnes and Allison Hampton on MTV any time soon, even though one of their pieces would make a wonderful video clip.
"My Lord Chamberlain, His Galliard," by John Dowland, is described as "an invention for two to play upon one lute," which is exactly what Barnes and Hampton do. It's always a show stopper.
Performing the galliard, Hampton stands behind the seated Barnes, puts her arms around him and handles the treble part while he plays the bass strings.
"It's a matter of choreography for the left and right hand," he says, "to make sure they don't intersect when you try to execute the fingering positions. The piece itself is very complex and beautiful, a typical renaissance galliard. As well as being interesting to look at, I think it's primarily interesting to listen to.
"The hard part was trying to put the choreography together for the hands. We fooled with it for a month before we were finally comfortable. Then we played it for one person, who flipped and said we should put it right into our concert. Which we did."
According to Barnes, there are two theories as to how Dowland came to write the piece.
"He had a son named Robert Dowland who became a great lutanist and there's a chance this piece was written for Robert. The other theory is that he wrote it for a mistress, because he was on the road a lot. No one knows for sure, but it is definitely a piece written for two players to play on one lute. Musicians have always needed a gimmick, they've always needed something to catch the audience's eye: this is the 16th-century version of that phenomenon."
It's also the only piece of its kind Barnes and Hampton have uncovered in their extensive study of the literature of the period. The tradition, however, lives on, particularly in the bluegrass variation "where a guy will be picking one instrument and fretting another," Barnes points out.
The Dowland piece is included on the duo's new album, "Forms and Fancies: Renaissance and Baroque Music for Two Lutes"; it also marks the debut of their own Oak Leaf Records label.
Their first effort, "A Merry Mood," was strictly renaissance, but the lutanists have long been conscious of the dangers of being tied to a single period. "There was an enormous amount of music written in the Renaissance for two lutes, which we draw on quite a bit," says Hampton. "On this record we decided to expand the repertoire by doing transcriptions of things that weren't necessarily written for lute . . . or for two lutes. I think we're the only ones creating repertoire, and we're doing that because we want to make the lute more accessible to people who maybe don't want to just hear renaissance music."
On "Forms and Fancies," they've transcribed Vivaldi's "Concerto in D" and Pachelbel's enchanting "Canon in D." The latter, says Hampton, is "a pretty nontraditional kind of thing to do, but it's caught on, in a very pop sense, in the classical world."
In their concerts, they've recently incorporated some Ravel and even a few pieces by the great blind Irish harpist, Turlogh O'Carolan. "He was a contemporary of Vivaldi," says Hampton. "We've arranged a number of pieces that he did for two lutes and it goes over real well."
Barnes and Hampton have been together for six years now. They met when she was studying at the Guitar Shop, where Barnes was teaching blues and ragtime guitar, as well as classical. "He had begun playing the lute and when we started hanging out together, he talked me into getting a lute and we discovered this whole possibility as a career thing," says Hampton. They are the only professional lute duo on the East Coast, and one of the few in the world. Guitar duos are much more common, in part because there are a lot more guitar players around.
Barnes and Hampton, unlike many classical string players, do not teach. "For one thing, there aren't too many lute students," she laughs. "And we really decided to push our careers so that we can perform as much as possible and dedicate ourselves to that angle. Our career has been helped by the fact that, as a lute duo, we are unique. It's still tough--to get an agent, to follow every contact and lead that you get. Since we have these two records, things have really opened up. That's why we really wanted to record: it separates you from a lot of people who don't have recordings."
Their first record actually led to tours over the last two summers in Germany and Switzerland. "Siegfried Behrend, a classical guitarist, runs a festival in Bavaria. He ordered a copy of our record and wrote us back and invited us to be in his festival," says Hampton. "And from that we've managed to arrange other concerts. It's wonderful because they're held in small places--churches, medieval and Renaissance castles--perfect settings for the lute."
Barnes and Hampton also tour extensively on the East Coast, doing quite a few college dates. Their next local engagement is Dec. 9 and 10 as part of the Dumbarton Concert Series at Dumbarton Methodist Church in Georgetown.