Wait long enough and an old-style musical instrument, much like an out-of-date piece of clothing, might eventually come back in fashion.
Or do what lutenist Ronn McFarlane is doing and take an instrument that saw its heyday in the Renaissance and – with energy and a spirit of innovation – turn it into a rock star.
An internationally acclaimed lutenist, McFarlane is also founder of Ayreheart – the progressive folk trio whose mission is to revitalize the Renaissance lute in a contemporary, genre-bending context that blends Celtic, American folk music, bluegrass and jazz idioms.
“The whole purpose of Ayreheart is to take the lute, which was the most popular instrument of the Renaissance, and to bring it more into the mainstream of music in the 21st century,” McFarlane said in a recent phone interview.
Hepped-up versions of Renaissance lute dances and newly composed works inspired by contemporary popular musical styles are Ayreheart’s musical bill of fare.
“We do play some of the old music, some traditional music,” McFarlane said. “But we’re particularly keen on writing and performing new music for the lute – along with modern instruments, such as the fretless electric bass and various percussion instruments.”
The result is a cocktail of old and new instruments and musical styles with old-time cred and a thoroughly new sound. Part of that old-time cred, McFarlane says, is a feeling of plain old fun, and part of the new sound comes from playing music old and new with a freshness that breathes life and joy into it.
“With the old music, they were playing it for fun; they were playing it to have a wonderful time, to have a good time,” McFarlane said. “And the energy that we’re used to with, say, bluegrass music or rock 'n' roll music is the same kind of energy that can be into many of the Renaissance dances.
“And I think that’s another thing that we’re particularly focused in,” McFarlane continued, “is to give those dances the right kind of lift and the right kind of energy – but just a huge amount of joy and happiness when we’re playing them.”
It was actually the rock 'n' roll music of McFarlane’s youth – and specifically the Surfaris’ now iconic surfer instrumental “Wipe Out” – that inspired him to learn to play guitar. His teen rocker years led him to pick up the classical guitar, which in turn led him to the lute.
“You have the chance for on-the-spot improvisation in both rock music and in Renaissance music,” McFarlane said. “At the same time, the Renaissance music has the subtlety and the beautiful lyrical qualities that I’ve always loved about classical music. So I found in that music it brought together the two strands that I loved both about popular rock 'n' roll, folk music on one hand, and classical music on the other.”
And with the lute in the foreground of Ayreheart’s crossover creations, it might not be long before the world starts talking less about guitar heroes and more about lute heroes.
Ayreheart performs a Brunch & Music concert at 12:30 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 13 in the German Village Meeting Haus, on the CityMusic Columbus series.