In this series of interviews, we talk to renowned Mandolin players, makers and enthusiasts.
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Ian Harris studied classical guitar at Dartington College of Arts, and after leaving there he heard a recording of the Mair Davis duo playing a mandolin and guitar duet on Radio 3. He was entranced, and ordered the music they were playing.
When he got the score he had trouble finding a mandolinist who could play the mandolin part, so that is when he started his long journey to become a classical mandolin virtuoso.
Along the way he played mandolin with the City of London Sinfonia at the Albert Hall, during The Proms, he performed with Richard Durrant, Paul Gregory, Alison Stephens, Sanae Onji, Simon Mayor, Sue Mossop, and the Sussex Symphony Orchestra.
In 1991 he founded ‘The Fretful Federation Mandolin Orchestra’, in Brighton, which has gone on to win National Cups at the Yearly Banjo, Mandolin, and guitar Society Orchestral Stand-off, and perform concerts all over the UK. It is a 20-30 piece mandolin orchestra with a full complement of mandolins, mandolas, mandocellos, mandobass and guitars. He is still the Musical Director of this orchestra and has conducted and play the solos in any concertos that they may be doing.
In 2005 he started a small scale 5 piece ensemble, NEMO (New English Mandolin Orchestra) that has been touring arts venues in the UK.
1. How did you get started in music? Was the mandolin your first instrument?
No, I started on trumpet at 8 yo. Then I graduated to classical guitar at about 15 yo. At about 17 I got my bass guitar and learnt a little bit of rock ‘n’ roll.
I then started taking private classical guitar lessons with Vincent Lindsay Clarke, which took me on to taking a Music Degree at Dartington College of Arts, where I specialised in classical guitar.
Whilst there I heard a programme on the radio of Mair-Davis Duo playing Brian Israel’s Sonatinetta and Ayton’s 3 Movements. I was transfixed and wanted to play the duos. I ordered the music and gave the mandolin part to a local folk mandolinist. When he couldn’t manage to play it I then borrowed a mandolin and learnt the mandolin part myself. Once I’d found a guitarist I then got around to a performance of the two works.
I then bought a tattered old bowl back mandolin and started on learning mandolin through the Ranieri method.
2. When did you play your first concert in front of a real audience?
Brighton festival, with my mandolin orchestra, ‘The Fretful Federation’, I think 1992 or 1994
How did it go?
Great. The orchestra had just formed and was a little rough a ready.
3. What mandolins do you own? Which one(s) is(are) your favorite(s)?
Ovation electro/acoustic mandolin and similar mandocello, 2 Dimeglio bowlbacks, Epiphone mandobird 4 string solid body electric. Quite a few more, including banjolins etc..
Right now I’m enjoying playing rock music on my ephiphone.
4. How do other professional classical musicians regard mandolinists?
No problems there. Of course there’s not so many jobs for the classical mandolinist, being a much more rare market.
5. Can you tell us how you have your mandolin set up, and about the strings and picks you use?
Sherwood strings, hard guitar plectrum.
6. Apart from yourself, of course, which players do you particularly admire and why?
Mair/Davis duo (they were the initial inspiration), Simon Mayor (makes a lovely sound). Most other people I admire don’t play mandolin, such as Robert Fripp of King Crimson, Tiger Lillies, Randy Rhoads, John Dowland (Renaissance lute player) etc…
7. Do you play any other instruments?
sousaphone, classical and rock guitar, crumhorn, Renaissance lute, bass guitar, kazoo etc….
8. How would you like to develop as a musician in the future?
I’m enjoying the rock stuff right now, but I also like the modern classical music we play in The New English Mandolin Orchestra (NEMO).
9. Do you have any advice or tips for beginning/intermediate/advanced players?
Practise, practise, practise, and try as many styles of music you can. Classical, improvisation, folk…
10. Desert Island discs: which would be the one piece of music you would have to take? (throw in a second and third if you like!) Sheet music? Or recorded?
I’d enjoy the sound of the sea crashing on the beach.
11.What plans do you have for forthcoming CDs and performances?
We plan a CD recording of NEMO, and future performances with them at an arts venue near YOU!