Any long-haul traveller knows the horrors of jetlag. Even those who fly frequently, including international artists, aren't immune.

"We're going to need a day or two to relax and get used to the new air," says Laurence Dreyfus.

The leader of viol consort group Phantasm, which tours here from 30 April to 6 May, isn't talking about his group; he's referring to their instruments. Viols — fretted string instruments played with bows and pronounced "viles" — flourished from the Renaissance to the Baroque.

They are extremely delicate instruments; you can't just throw them in an aircraft's hold (Phantasm's two larger instruments get their own airline seats). The frets are tied-on pieces of string and the instruments go out of tune the moment you look at them, unless there's a change in humidity, in which case they're out of tune before you can look at them.

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As Dreyfus notes, even the presence of an audience affects the humidity in a room, so the viol concert experience features much tuning. Viols are not the sorts of things you trip across in your school musical instrument cupboard.

Dreyfus tripped across the viol, or rather a recording of viol music, in a record shop when he was a teenager.

"I found an LP of Buxtehude trio sonatas with viola da gamba," he remembers. "It was actually not a great performance but I was dazzled by the sound."

The viol sound is mellow and woody, a timbre more hewn than crafted. Appropriately, despite two of Phantasm's instruments being genuine 17th century models, analysis of the wood means Dreyfus and bass violist Markku Luolajan-Mikkola know which part of which forest was chopped down, and when, to make them.

It's the sort of provenance early music players love.

"Historical instruments are marvellous at giving you ideas how to do things," Dreyfus says. "They bark and say, 'No, don't do that,' or, conversely, 'That's a really beautiful sound you can get on this particular note with this kind of bow stroke.' They are teachers in a way."

So was Dreyfus. He lectured at Yale and Stanford before relocating to England in the 1990s. His last appointment was to Oxford University's Magdalen College, where Phantasm was consort-in-residence.

"What was particularly exciting about Oxford was the spaces, the chapels, the common rooms, where viol consort music would have been played. You walk into that same space to play — it's an unbelievable privilege."

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Dreyfus now lives in Berlin, where he's dropped the teaching to concentrate on playing and writing.

"Berlin has always fascinated me. I remember when the wall was still up and having to cross it to see both parts of the score to Bach's St Matthew Passion because they were in different parts of the city."

Such efforts are part of the job of playing early music, where musicians must often do their own detective work. Very little of the music Phantasm plays was even printed.

"It wasn't popular enough to be printed but there was a coterie of people who copied the music and sent it to their mates," says Dreyfus. "So you can imagine all these people sharing this stuff around, perhaps as luxury items but as high-level, intellectual entertainment as well."

Even with score in hand, how the music is played is a matter of dispute. Wealthy people learnt to play from a music teacher, so performance instruction manuals tend to be generic.

"One has to develop instincts and be creative in figuring out what to do," Dreyfus says. He believes that to play at a high level, a musician must inhabit the composer, a kind of musical Method.

"You have to really get into the head of these people. There are some composers who are desperately trying to throw you off. It's like an advanced parlour game that's absolutely treacherous for live performance. They're giving some of the musicians the wrong beat or wrong entrances, and that's where the charm in the music is; you realise the composer is winking at you and smiling."

Most of the music Phantasm plays in NZ is English, by well-known composers such as Byrd, Gibbons, Locke and Purcell. A more obscure inclusion is Ferrabosco, an Italian working at Elizabeth I's court. He was also the queen's spy. Possibly.

"He was a double agent working for the Pope, too," says Dreyfus. "His son was left in hock as a token when Ferrabosco went back to Italy."

Dreyfus enjoys making these discoveries. For him, the historical details help bring the music alive in the 21st century.

"We can never be in a time machine and go back," he says. "We don't want to stop bathing and wear constrictive clothing. But we do want to work out what made these people tick, because it speaks to us as people who live in a very different world but to whom this music still has meaning."

Lowdown:
What: Phantasm plays music for viol consort
Where and When: Five concerts nationwide, April 30 to May 6; see chambermusic.co.nz for details