Just by watching his bachelor and master concerts it is clear to me that Lukas Henning is a really special musician, one of those that can inspire other people with his own passion, one of those that will bring the attention of any kind of audience: skilled lutenists, amateur musicians or just casual listeners.
What is more surprising is that Lukas is in fact a lutenist with a passion for divulgation.. and that is really something that you don’t see every day.
I do think that these two words are deeply connected: passion and divulgation. One drives the other, back and forth…
Think about Carl Sagan. He was a scientist with a passion for divulgation. He used visual effects and down-to-earth commentary to bring science into people’s homes, creating a new generation of viewers, and I am not talking about age here… although he truly inspired kids like Neil deGrasse Tyson, for example.
He was extraordinarily good at making Astronomy and Physics relevant for the average audience without either dumbing it down to the simplest explanation or talking down the audience.
Furthermore, He was able to impart a sense of wonder to the subject that made a significant impression on people of all ages, and that includes me when I was a kid. The fact that he was able to speak to me as a kid and to an audience of older or more experienced people was a special gift indeed.
I really think that Lukas is also gifted with those same virtues and it was clear to me since the very first episode of me:mo, published almost two years from now, and has been confirmed throughout the seven hours of episodes that we all can enjoy right now.
Just in case you have never heard about it, me:mo is a series of video essays on music and art history. The aim is to present music in its cultural context, offering a glimpse into the lives behind it, past and present. The videos are directed both at listeners just discovering this music as well as connoisseurs, showcasing the most recent advancements in the understanding of our shared sounding heritage.
Lukas has managed to show us how painting and music are deeply connected, how we need to think about “filling the blanks” in the lute music, how pop culture is related to early music, what is the history background of lute composers, how the lute music evolved from Middle Eastern Oud, how to see music and hear art, how improvisation should be understood in the renaissance, how important are the strings and how deep they go into our culture…
His unique way to connect the dots, to introduce deep topics in an instructive but light way, to refer to modern references, to highlight the dark side of the lute, to build powerful combinations of music and video, to interview and introduce other musicians, to make us think and question about our vision of the lute… all of that is building a singular and extremely valuable contribution to the lute world.
We must never forget all the lute teachers around the world, specially those working with kids, and how they work on a daily-basis to leave a deep impression on their students. I like to think about me:mo as a complementary source of inspiration and knowledge for all of them (all of us) that will help to build the next generation of lutenists.
Enough words, here you have the interview we made to Lukas:
It’s really nice to count on you for this interview, Lukas, can you please share with us a brief introduction about your career? your last projects and milestones?
I studied early music and lute with Hopkinson Smith at Schola Cantorum Basiliensis and graduated from there in 2016. Later that year I took up art history studies at the university of Freiburg in parallel to the typical activity as a musician.
In 2017 I started my video project me:mo and released 21 episodes under it so far. Since this year I’ve been involved with teaching several workshops on lute and theorbo playing as well as via Skype, which works surprisingly well!
The most recent big project was my first solo CD recording, featuring Marco dall’Aquila’s compositions, which is due to be released early next year!
That is impressive, for sure, and I look forward to hearing your recording… How did you come up with the idea of me:mo, what was the main motivation?
The main motivation was the realization that the listeners’ enjoyment of Early Music performances is limited by their familiarity with its context, the lives behind it.
Popular musicians of today and the past are always associated with some kind of public image, some mythology. Today there is no popular musician who isn’t also known by their appearance: Everybody knows what Bob Dylan looks like, Miles Davis, Maria Callas.
The same is true for beloved writers or artist. Everybody knows the self-portraits of Rembrandt, Caravaggio or Dürer and this enables associating their work to an image of a human character, which is very important. For most musicians pre-1700 we simply don’t have such a “public profile”.
The aim of me:mo is to use various media, images, historical texts, anecdotes and of course music to somehow reconstruct the human element behind the dusty pages. I believe this ultimately helps appreciating the music in a deeper, more authentic way.
I think of me:mo as an excellent lute divulgation project but at the same time with no fear to explain advanced topics or go into details. Do you find complex to maintain the right balance between these two aspects?
Yes, that is the true challenge. Just preaching about Early Music for fifteen minutes would be much easier. But then my videos would only really serve enthusiasts, to whom I’d ultimately recommend going to a library and reading about the topics instead of watching videos on YouTube. They’ll learn much, much more that way.
The majority of time producing an episode is spent finding this delicate balance between information, entertainment, depth and accessibilty. So it became clear to me pretty quickly that me:mo is not supposed to be about the lute specifically. It just happens to be my instrument and it’s deeply linked with all of cultural life in the Renaissance and Baroque. Thus it serves as a bridge between the listener and me, between the past and the present, the virtual and the tangible.
It is always great to hear you say thanks to all the viewers, What is the evolution of me:mo in that sense? what is the general feedback from the audience? How the influence from the patronage has changed the project, not only from the technical point of view but also from the conceptual perspective?
The introduction of a crowdfunding model (or “digital patronage”) to me:mo had a big impact on the project! On the more concrete side there is of course the financial support, which eventually enabled me to raise the production values of the show, by investing the donations in a better camera and software.
As producing the episodes has become increasingly involved and time-consuming to the point where I have to decide between making a new episode or doing jobs that will pay my rent and health insurance the slowly but steadily rising amount of monetary support from the viewers makes it increasingly more viable to decide in favour of the video – work that is also more rewarding for me!
It’s not quite there yet, but the patrons’ donations (Cuerdas Pulsadas being the top sponsor!) make it sort of feel like the many hours of work spent on me:mo are not just something I do in my “free time” but rather part of my profession. A very, very valuable feeling!
On your episodes, you usually talk about disparate topics that could be really deep sometimes or could have a long story to explain, How do you prepare the episodes? How much time do you usually spend on each one?
This differs, but typically an episode takes two or three weeks from conception to release. About 70% of that timespan are speant reading, researching, planning, thinking, structuring and writing the script. Once that is done, the music and texts are usually recorded in about one or two long days and the rest of the time is spent in front of my Mac editing the video by means of Final Cut Pro.
One the recurrent topics is “taste”, where we can find episodes totally devoted to the topic and also episodes where you talk about it indirectly. Being such a controversial topic, it seems that your idea about it differs a bit from the general current approach, where a clean and direct execution is the general rule. What is your opinion about how lute music is approached today? Do you think that there is a need for research on other angles or tastes in terms of sound and execution on the lute?
There was a time when the lute (in the broadest sense) filled both it’s modern role, that of a “delicacy”, as well as the one that today is filled by the campfire guitar you hear played on the street – simply because it used to be the one main stringed instrument back then.
The instruments that have been developed since then fill the latter role much, much more effectively than a lute ever could: a steel string guitar or even ukulele is significantly louder, cheaper, practical and accessible than a lute could ever be.
That leaves only one real justification to even bother playing the lute today instead of any other instrument: it’s very delicacy. What is a lute that’s not played with tastefulness being the principal concern, as opposed to loudness, practicality or consumability? An archaic less-than-guitar.
Me:mo will be two years old really soon, since you posted the first episode on February 2017. What is the future of me:mo?
There are several episodes planned for the end of this year, including collaborations with other musicians. When and if I can find the right moments to realize each one of them will depend on the state of my calendar as I’m being involved in more and more other projects: concerts, recordings and workshops.
I figured that there wouldn’t be much merit in sacrificing the amount of care put into each individual episode just to produce more of them on a more regular basis. These videos stay available to anyone at any time, so it’s best to make sure each one turns out as good as I can manage.
In any case, me:mo will stay with me in the future, as it isn’t just the name of a video series but much rather encompasses my entire philosophy and approach when communicating culture. Thus anything I do, be it a concert program or the upcoming CD, in some way also represents me:mo.
Thank you so much for your time, Lukas, and congrats for the project. Keep on the good work!