When John Romey watches period history pieces on TV, his wife gets annoyed by his complaints of musical malpractice.
“I don't actually mind if they just decide they are going to do whatever they want and play like 1980s Madonna or something,” says the Purdue University Fort Wayne assistant professor of music history, “but if you're going to have someone there looking like they are playing a historic instrument, maybe hire someone who actually knows how to play the instrument so it looks somewhat like it's supposed to.”
It's sort of like sports movies where the actor obviously never pitched a baseball before or shot a basketball.
“More of these period pieces should hire experts who specialize in creating music from these times,” he says. “It's really frustrating to watch when they have actors acting as musicians in the background because as a musician it's very distracting when they are not really playing.”
Romey, 36, could be one of those experts, though he's assured enough to laugh at himself about his pet peeve. His biggest ongoing project is researching the Renaissance-era viola de gamba from France, but there's a pretty big catch. None of the instruments have survived to modern day, and obviously there's no film, photographs or blueprints showing what they looked like. This has been a 10-year process that started with a paper Romey wrote in a seminar during his first semester of graduate school at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.
“So the research part of this for me for years is how do we know these instruments existed and how can we use this evidence to actually make something?” he says. “There's going to be a little bit of conjecture because we don't have one we can look at it.”
Played primarily during the Renaissance and Baroque eras (from 1450-1750 A.D.), a viol used between five and seven strings and was played with a bow while sitting in the lap or between the knees pointing downward, Romey says. They were popular about 100 years before William Shakespeare.
Romey believes French Renaissance viols didn't last because shortly after their peak, instruments were starting to be built in a different way so no one kept the old stuff. He's been able to collect iconography of the instruments, letters, treatises and even seen some sculptures of the time. He can also compare what he's found with similar instruments of the period from Italy and England.
That gave him an idea what French viols looked like from the outside, but not how they were constructed on the inside. That's why he collaborates with North Carolina luthier John Pringle, who is building the instruments based on Romey's research.
Pringle, 74, has been building instruments from the past for more than 40 years. He says he used to get 10 to 12 finished in a year, but he's cut down to four per year as he nears retirement. This will be his last project. Many luthiers have three- or four-year waiting lists of projects.
“This is part of an ongoing process in the early music field,” Pringle says. “Musicians and makers, we still don't know all there is to know and projects like this put pieces of the puzzle in place and link up the history of what was going on in different parts of Europe at any particular time The more this kind of thing gets done, the more we understand and the closer we are to achieving the overall goal of hearing music as closely played and getting the sound as close to the original as we can get.”
Their first prototype didn't work as well as hoped, but the men discovered they were building their version too small, likely because people of 500 years ago were smaller in comparison to today's standards. The second prototype, Romey says, works beautifully.
Costing about $5,000 to build, there's a lot of experimentation involved, along with Pringle's gut instinct and experience building historic instruments. Usually, it takes about three months to finish an instrument, but they already have two prototypes completed. By this summer, they'll have two playable instruments ready for concerts and two more next year.
“It can also be a tool for research to understand the past by actually re-creating it,” Romey says. “Sometimes you are looking at a piece of music on the page and it looks like something, but when you are actually playing it with an instrument, you learn a different angle into the past. It's something that's at the core of what I do as a teacher.”
He often brings in replicas or original instruments from the past into class and can see it sparking a different level of understanding and interest from the students.
“It's just great music to listen to and could also serve background music,” Romey says. “From my perspective, one of the reasons I wanted to be at Purdue Fort Wayne is because it's a university in a smaller city that has a real capacity to contribute to the cultural life of the city and provide something. We can actually shape Fort Wayne in very dramatic ways and give a lot to the city.”
To help with that, Romey wants to form an ensemble to perform locally and across the Midwest, or even in local coffee shops. The best way to learn about the music is to experience it by listening to and playing it – sometimes by just having fun with it.
“When they learn about Renaissance music, I want them to actually have to make some of the music,” he says.
Romey can already play dozens of historical instruments, and he expects working full time with a viol will spark more scholarly writings.
It's one thing to build a modern tribute band with the ability to watch videos of performers from 30 or 40 years ago, but Romey's goal is to pay tribute to musicians from five or six centuries ago.
“I would eventually like to do recordings so that people can hear what this stuff sounds like with these instruments,” he says. “The repertoire has never been heard with these instruments because these instruments don't exist.”
Pringle says he's been so enthused by Romey's work, he's donating some of his own time to the project. He hopes he'll be rewarded by coming to Fort Wayne sometime to hear their product perform.