Duo LiveOak consists of Nancy Knowles and Frank Wallace. Knowles brings her voice and poetry while Wallace contributes his guitar and lute plus his voice. And he is a composer to boot. As contemporary classical artists, the pair look back to the Renaissance and Middle Ages for inspiration and song.
Duo LiveOak traces its roots to the mid-1970s when Knowles and Wallace were studying early music and decided to form an ensemble. Wanting to play the medieval music in medieval settings, Trio LiveOak (Knowles and Wallace with John Fleagle) embarked on a tour that could be the subject of a Werner Herzog film: the group perambulated from the Spanish-French border via the Pyrenees to Montserrat, a mountain near Barcelona. For a month, the trio played to the people of the countryside in village churches. Dedication to early music had, perhaps, become an obsession. Thus, it should come as no surprise the Duo LiveOak earned its reputation for performing early music, especially that of Spain.
Their 2002 album Piva collects 25 performances of songs from Renaissance-era Italy and Spain, the group’s bread & butter. Here Wallace plays lute and vihuela de mano, a 12-string precursor to the modern classical guitar. With 25 songs, both Knowles’s exquisite soparano and Wallace’s rich baritone get a chance to shine individually but it is when they harmonize that provides the shining moments on the album. “Teresica hermana” dates to 1554 but with its lyrics about a man attempting to seduce a woman, it goes to show how little changes in popular music, even in the course of nearly 500 years. Wallace sings the parts of the man eager to bed the woman of the song’s title, Teresica, as voiced by Knowles. His advances are rebuked when she sings of the girl’s fear of pregnancy.
Littered amongst the vocal pieces are solo performances by Wallace. They not only showcase his adroitness but also the fact that good music has existed for centuries. “Fantasia 84” is my favorite amongst these. It is a minute and nine seconds of pure bliss. While the aged instrumentation may be foreign to modern ears, its delightfully simple melody is timeless.
In the late ’90s Wallace began composing and LiveOak’s repertoire began to reflect this shift. Woman of the Water emerged in 2003 and is representative of this new approach. All of the music here was composed by Wallace and the bulk of it comes in three suites, which feature Knowles singing her own poetry as well as that of others. Of these epic pieces, “Bestiary” stands out with its musical variety representing various animals and spoken passages by Knowles. Wallace’s remarkable performances on lute and guitar once again stand out. Unlike on Piva, his two solo excursions here are lengthier with one about three and a half minutes and the other roughly six and a half minutes. Of these, “Débil del Alba” is the real treat. Being the longer of the two, it gives Wallace plenty of time to play with melodies and moods.