Sam Wanamaker Playhouse Story

Bill Barclay on Globe Music

  Director of Music, Bill Barclay, explains the motivations behind – and ambitions for – our newly-launched record label

4 minute read

Globe Music is the new record label from Shakespeare’s Globe. An extension of our candlelit concerts, this series seeks to capture the intimacy of music-making in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, London’s Jacobean-style jewel box theatre.

Well before construction finished on the Jacobean-designed Sam Wanamaker Playhouse in 2013, we sought to create a weekly concert series of a variety of musical genres alongside the Jacobean plays for which the room was chiefly built.

In the first year, several generous musicians took the gamble with us on what the acoustic and spirit of the place would be like, among them Trevor Pinnock, John Williams, Jordi Savall, Anoushka Shankar, Andreas Scholl, Show of Hands, the Chilingirian Quartet, and Andy Sheppard.

Each and others taught us the pleasing subtlety and profound serenity that lay between the beeswax smeared stage, the shimmering, mythologically painted ceiling, and all the oak and candles in between.

A musician stands on a stage's gallery surrounded by instruments

Shakespeare’s Globe’s Director of Music and founder of Globe Music, Bill Barclay.

The audience almost entirely surrounds the stage, 340 people no farther than seven metres from the artist. The amber light from chandeliers and sconces bathes the room in a shared flicker that causes at least your eyes to adjust.

As in the Globe, the spectators can see each other, and the artist can see everyone individually. This tends to create a porous relationship to the audience and increases one’s sense of participation in the crowd; the Globe’s familiarly jovial interjections from the pit or galleries quickly became common.

A musician's sheet sits on a stand, lit by candles in a dark theatre

Music by candlelight in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse.

A brightly-lit indoor theatre

The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse was fully-constructed by and opened in 2014.

We watched and listened while the personal nature of such an immersive space inspired its performers to draw unique journeys among their bodies of work.

They invited treasured collaborators for special investigations of coveted pieces; some styled programmes to resonate with the history of the room’s architecture; occasionally someone would plan a concert, then visit the space and subsequently throw out all their ideas and start over.

Several curated their own series over days or weeks to tell a deeper story that had long been steeping in their consciousness. In two festivals a year apart, John Williams curated 10 concerts of plucked strings from around the world, bringing together artists from every continent (and playing with them). We learned how exciting unamplified guitars (and harps, koras, lutes and ouds…) could sound in the space and that discovery is one of the many fathers of this album.

A lit candelabra hangs from a decorated ceiling.

A lit candelabra hangs from the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse ceiling.

Somehow it became clear that the Playhouse invites the audience as a social entity into the inner world of the artist that night, and their circuitous passions and whimsies become furniture for us all to sit on.

Maybe it triggers ‘Story by the Campfire’  in the oldest parts of our brains. Maybe (as Pinnock observed) the bench seating creates a leant-forward alertness and this engagement heightens the expectation, prodding the artist to respond with spontaneity and personal disclosure. We know that energy well – it comes from the 700 standing groundlings in the Globe twice a day.

A group of people are shown around the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse theatre, they look up to the ceiling

A group of visitors explore the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse theatre.

Another trend that intrigued us in a concert milieu is just how irrelevant any classifying genre had become; classical, folk, jazz, traditional, pop and period music merged together often and with an easy fluidity. This sense of possibility has inspired us to make recordings that reflect the uninhibited conditions of any live acoustic music creation today.

Globe Music, a play on Shakespeare’s Globe as aesthetic microcosm, seeks to collapse the atrophying genre silos of the 20th century music industry (particularly ‘world music’), since they fail to contain the eclectic passions of today’s most exciting artists.

While a streaming world is growing beyond corporate and stylistic allegiances, at the Globe ‘historically informed performance’ is increasingly being fused with modern instrumentation in new ensembles playing fantastic new music that enjoys few outlets outside of Shakespeare’s wooden ‘O’.

Such creative entrepreneurialism deserves a robust disseminating platform that’s up to the task while seeking to control as little as possible. In honour of music’s storytelling partnership in both our spaces, this series will highlight narrative journeys and interdisciplinary influences, capturing living stories through sound.

Some instruments sit backstage in a theatre

Instruments wait backstage in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse.

Featuring two of today’s unparalleled and most imaginative artists, Songs from Our Ancestors epitomizes our ambition, merging trajectories of history and poetic influence in a unique, thoughtful and eclectic journey that is both global and personal.

Ian Bostridge here records these most famous of John Dowland lute songs for the very first time. Xuefei Yang records her own new arrangements of some of the most storied melodies in Chinese history.

Both perform new commissions by composers Stephen Goss and Chen Yi who are great gifts to the world of new work for the classical guitar. Dominick Argento and Xu Changjun add an additional two names to a vibrant clutch of living composers – all keen teachers of history through their own attenuated global awareness of musical amalgamation.

The result is a chronological investigation of two parallel musical histories that intersect both today and in the Ming Dynasty, Shakespeare’s own generation and the age that inspired the archetype for the Jacobean indoor theatre.

An album cover shows two musicians sitting on a stage looking at each other

The album cover for Songs from Our Ancestors.

Thank you for supporting our new venture; we hope you savour this special collaboration as much as we do.


Find out more about the Globe Music project online.