The Past is the Future – Old Instrument Finds a New Groove

It’s not often that a totally new instrument enters the local improvised music scene but band leaders Jenny Eriksson, Matt Keegan and Matt McMahon have done just this in launching Elysian Fields, Australia’s first and only electric viola da gamba band.

Eriksson is widely recognised as one of Australia’s leading acoustic viola da gambists – a 7 string, bowed instrument about the size of a cello but with frets – and one of her instruments great risk-takers.  She is an expert on the music of the great French viola da gambist, Marin Marais, whose life was celebrated in the cult film, “Tour les matins du monde”. Alongside, and as a part of, her highly regarded classical chamber music performances, Jenny has performed and recorded with jazz and world music artists for many years.  Her collaborators include Llew and Mara Kiek and Steve Elphick from the Mara! band, horn player and composer, Paul Cutlan, Matt McMahon, Joseph Tawadros, Kevin Hunt and Matt Keegan as well as Susie Bishop and Emily Rose Sarkova from Chaika.

Four years ago she bought an electric viola da gamba from Holland then worked with friends Keegan and McMahon to put together a band.

In the few short years since, Elysian Fields has created a whole new, original repertoire largely written by band members Keegan, McMahon, bassist Siebe Pogson and Eriksson herself.  In May 2017 leading jazz critic, John Shand, reviewed the band’s premiere of Matt McMahon’s setting of poems by Thomas Wyatt and wrote the following: 

“Here was a head-spinning dialogue between half a millennium ago and now, and a sound as foreign as dreaming someone else’s dreams. It emanated from Jenny Eriksson’s electric viola da gamba, the only example in Australia….The songs were exquisitely sung by Susie Bishop (who also played violin). Clearly at ease with the language, she neither over-dramatised the pieces nor made them stilted, rather enhancing Wyatt’s tone of quiet melancholy and amused resignation.”

They then followed this epic performance with an appearance on the opening night of “Vivid New Music at the Con”, a short festival curated by composer Dr Damien Ricketson.

Now this genuinely unique band are running a crowd funding campaign to help them create an Australian first CD of original music for electric viola da gamba and jazz ensemble.  This is an amazing opportunity to take one of the Western world’s oldest instruments, the viola da gamba, into the 21st century.

Supporters can make a fully tax-deductible donation through the Australian Cultural Fund (ACF). The ACF is a fundraising platform for Australian artists.  Managed by Creative Partnerships Australia, it was established by the Australian Government in 2003 to encourage donations to the arts.  https://australianculturalfund.org.au/projects/the-viola-da-gamba-is-electrifying/

The music the band covers ranges from “A remark you made” by Joe Zawinul, to charts and folk songs reflecting Eriksson’s Scandinavian heritage from the likes of jazz/fusion guitarist, Mats Norrefalk, e.s.t. and Norwegian pianist/composer, Jan Gunnar Hoff along with arrangements of charts by local artists Guy Strazz and Steve Hunter.

Elysian Field’s influences are as broad as its members and include Swedish jazz greats, e.s.t., Herbie Hancock, Jaco Pastorius, Tord Gustavson, Victor Wooten, Mats Norrefalk, Jean-Luc Ponty, Weather Report, Mara!, Jordi Savall, Marin Marais, John McLaughlin, Pat Metheny, Jan Gunnar Hoff and Joni Mitchell.

Blending youth and experience, the band is:

  • Jenny Eriksson – electric viola da gamba and composer
  • Matt Keegan – saxophones and composer
  • Matt McMahon – piano and composer
  • Susie Bishop – vocals
  • Siebe Pogson – bass guitar and composer
  • Finn Ryan – drums