A Revelation In Bruges

Gramophone - Encounters, June 2009

Red Priest's Piers Adams on how a chance encounter with a gypsy band led him to change his approach to music making.

I was in my 20s and had been studying physics for three years, though all of my spare time was spent playing recorder and giving concerts – that was where my absolute love was, so I was really ready to break out.

I entered the Musica Antiqua competition in Bruges, which that year was about 80 per cent recorder-players with a smattering of Baroque violinists and singers. It was very exciting to find myself immersed in that situation, so I sat and listened to pretty much every player. And after a while you started to feel a bit depressed. It was the same sort of thing coming up over and over again, which began to feel a bit flat and dull. there is an international school of recorder-playing which originated with Frans Bruggen in Holland and filtered down through his pupils and by the time I got there it was third-generation platers. I was wondering if this was really what I wanted to do with my life.

I was wandering around the squares of Bruges one evening and saw they’d set up some raked seating in one of the squares, and this amazing east European gypsy band started to play. I’ve no idea who they were, but it just completely opened my eyes and ears. I was particularly impressed, first of all, the level of playing. It’s taken as read in a group like that that the players are the most phenomenal virtuosi. And then the fact that they had such joy on their faces, in direct contrast to what I’d been witnessing in this competition, which was a rather studious attitude. Here was just complete freedom of expression. A lot of the top gypsy players now have had some kind of formal classical training as well but the music is part of their culture.

The tunes are passed down from generation to generation, and each new generation has the privilege of being able to do what on earth they like with them, so there’s a real feeling of creativity.

I can actually see quite a clear path from that to Red Priest. There were two direction I could have taken. One was following the authentic early music field, which I did in many ways for many years. But always at the back of my mind was the feeling that there was another dimension to it all, that it’s not right just to try to do things as they might have been done in the past, to try and follow rules: because when you hear something like a really good gypsy band playing, all of that stuff goes out of the window, and you’re just left with fantastic music-making. It was very hard to find a way to marry those two ideas together, and I think it finally has happened with my group.