When Francis Drake set sail in 1577 to circumnavigate the globe, he took with him four violists and sundry other musicians. Their job was chiefly diplomatic – demonstrating power, skill, friendship and Christianity to the nations they visited, and playing the songs, dances and hymns of home to maintain the morale of their own crew along the way. The voyage was recorded (very imperfectly) by Drake’s nephew in a book, The World Encompassed, and it’s this account that forms the basis of Orlando Gough’s brilliantly uncategorisable project for the viol consort Fretwork.
Part music theatre, part Elizabethan grand tour, The World Encompassed is a through-composed work that embraces English Tudor music – In nomines, hornpipes, hymn tunes and pavanes – alongside the sounds of Drake’s many destinations. Javanese gamelan, Indian dances, a swaying samba and a hypnotic Berber ritual song are all reimagined by Gough using only six viols and the voices of their players. It’s the musical equivalent of being asked to make a raft out of plastic bottles and paperclips, a challenge Gough meets with all his customary wit and invention. It’s also tremendous fun.
This mixture of old and new, familiar and alien, really shouldn’t work; but, stitched together by Simon Callow’s characterful narration, it forms an exotic tapestry – a vivid portrait of the age of exploration. Juxtaposed with Gough’s glittering new sounds, Fretwork’s regular repertoire of Taverner and Parsons comes up gleaming fresh, solid as oak furniture and just as sturdy – craftsmanship that swells the heart. Sometimes it takes a voyage to distant lands to appreciate what you have back home.