"Dowland Reimagined": A Chat With Composer, Mason Bynes
This weekend I sat down with Mason Bynes to ask a few questions about her new set of songs "Dowland Impressions". The works are commissioned by Lumedia Musicworks and set to debut online on Friday, March 26th, 2021 as part of their Spotlight Series. The program is all Dowland songs and will feature me on vocals, guitarist and lutenist Hector Torres, and percussionist Jaime Esposito. Watch the full interview above or read the abridged transcript below to learn more about the creative process of bringing renaissance music into the 21st century! Skip to the end to find a playlist of the program and musical inspirations from Mason.
E: Hello Mason! Why don't you introduce yourself a little bit and I'll introduce myself.
M: Yes! Hello, my name is Mason Bynes and I am a composer and vocalist from Sugarland Texas and I am really emphatic about figuring out ways to bring different genres, different sounds, and different aesthetics together with my music, so very grateful for the opportunity to collaborate with you on that.
E: Awesome! Well if you are watching and you are watching this and you don't know this I am Eliza Smith and I am a Soprano, I am in Dallas Texas but I am from Marshalltown, Iowa (Represent the Midwest!) and I have had this great opportunity through Lumedia Musicworks which is an Ealy Music non-profit in Dallas, to put together this recital. Part of that was having this idea reaching out to Mason about composing some works out of old works!
The recital coming up on March 26th and it's of John Dowland music who was a composer in the 1500s. He composed mainly voice and lute. I've always really liked his music and I heard really contemporary themes running through it especially during the quarantine times of last summer. I thought “what if someone re-wrote some of his songs to be more modern?” So there will be some new songs by Mason on this recital!
So I just had a few questions for you, Mason about the process.
M: Sure, yeah!
E: What were your first thoughts when I reached out to you and I said "Hey would you be interested in re-composing a few renaissance lute songs?"
M: Yeah! Well, I immediately wanted to say yes because we have collaborated before and I love working with you. You have such an amazing imagination when it comes to creative directing and how the listener experiences it. So I was like "Yes, I totally want to do that!" I was also thinking of all of the arrangements of early music from popular artists. Sting did a setting of some Dowland texts in collaboration with an Indian Carnatic musician and brought those types of styling together. Also, Jeff Buckley and his covers of Henry Purcell and Dido’s Lament. I was excited to have the opportunity to do my own version!
E: Were you familiar with Renaissance vocal music before I reached out to you?
M: Yes, I did! While I was back at UNT I sang in Collegium with Dr. Richard Sparks. We came to Boston, we did the Boston Early Music Festival!
E: Awesome! Okay! So did some choral singing so you were familiar.
In the process, I had made this big long playlist of songs that I like and I sent it to you and said "pick whatever you feel inspired by". What drew you to the pieces that you ended up choosing from that playlist?
M: I think...like...when you had just messaged about it I started thinking of the singer-songwriter aspects of some of the early music figures. At the time, I was also finishing up my grad history review of pre-1750 so I was in that. I really liked "Come away", I knew that one. I also know "Now oh now I needs must part" and I had listened to "Can she excuse my wrongs". Sting actually has a cover of that one too.
E: He does!
M: Yeah! so like those three, I knew kind-of and I knew arrangements of them. I also like what you were saying earlier about hearing some of the kinda modern contemporary vocal stylings of some of them. So, those spoke the most.
E: I was really pleased when you told me the three you had picked. I really wanted to put on the recital anyway, they were on my shortlist. It also helped that "Now oh now" that one I was really familiar with. It was really interesting to sing it because I had sung it so many times in madrigal in college so it was really fun to sing something I knew so well with a totally new feel underneath.
M: That's good to hear that you like them! Haha!
E: I do, I do, I definitely like them!
In the process that we were having the conversation about the pieces, you said you were inspired by some specific artists and they were Joyce and Maria Rita. What drew you to that musical styling and basically hijacking some of Dowland's texts and melody to that style of music and putting it together in your own unique hybrid?
M: Thanks for that question! At the time I happened to be really digging them. I really dug Joyce's vocal stylings and she had also worked with Maria Rita who both happen to be Brazilian artists. I was also listening to Luiz Bonfa who is also a Brazilian guitarist, and so I was trying to practice some of their vocal stylings at the time and then also really listening to some of Luiz Bonfa's guitar techniques and stylings and chords. Some of their chords are soooo "out" as they say. Very jazzy, lots of blue notes, lots of chromaticism but it works. I wanted to find a way to bring that kind of aesthetic to these pieces. Especially voiced by electric guitar too. That marrying of those two.
E: Yeah, I really liked the electric guitar setting. Initially, I was thinking "Oh, I wonder if you could do jazz chords on a lute?" I hadn't even thought about electronic instruments at all until you said "Oh yeah, I am going to do this with an electric guitar!". I thought that makes so much sense!" That was really cool to be able to do that. I also grew up listening to a lot of Brazilian jazz so I was excited when you shared your inspirations. It was really fun to mesh that up.
So, what is your approach to composing something, especially something specific like a commission?
M: Sure! Well, it changes every time. The overall goal is fitted to who I am working with. I want them to feel like it's theirs to perform, it's theirs to sing, it's theirs to play. With this one, it started with a lot of listening to Luiz Bonfa and Joyce and Maria Rita. Sometimes it depends on like the commission is. If someone has a specific idea and they have manifested what it is sometimes it's a little easier to support the music that way and just get on it. But then when things are very wide open I'm like "okay, what do I want to say in this open space?" and "How do I want to start the process of saying what I want to say in this open space?" Sometimes that starts with improvising on the piano or improvising some on the guitar or an instrument I am not even writing for to start the process of figuring out how to get these sounds out.
E: So you play guitar then? Do you play electric guitar?
M: I do...it's scary to like "claim" that...
E: Well, in your free time in your home do you enjoy playing this instrument and have some skill?
M: Yes, I do. I play acoustic and at the time I had just gotten a new electric guitar from one of my friends and so yes, I do play.
E: That's awesome! Okay, a little outside of this line of questions. What music are you listening to right now? That you find really inspiring and exciting?
M: Right now I have returned to listening to Sarah Vaughan and Anita O'Day. While I was at school I did a jazz ensemble for the last year. It was so fun and I made really good friends. My director and I became really good friends and she shared all of this music and that’s what I have just returned to. They are my faaaaavorites.
E: Sarah Vaughan is great! I love Sarah Vaughan.
M: What are you listening to?
E: Oh my gosh, what I am listening to right now? Honestly, right now I am listening to a lot of renaissance motets. I recently started a job as a teacher and I am trying this little experiment with one of my grades where we are learning the history of singing. So I've been listening to lots of motets and madrigals to find ones that are not too long that are very beautiful.
E: Yeah! Well, that's all I have! I just wanted to share some time with you, and ask you some questions. I was really curious about these things as I was learning the music. So thank you Mason for joining me here today, and I can't wait to talk to you in the future!
M: Me too, so excited! Thank you!
Check out this Spotify playlist of pieces on the upcoming recital as well as selections from other musicians featured in the interview!
I am unbelievably excited to get to share this collaboration with the world!! Go to www.lumediamusicworks.com/dowland to purchase your tickets. The performance is hosted by Lumedia Musicworks and will run online from March 26th to April 9th.