As we wind down from the release of our new CD John Dowland: A Pilgrimes Solace, its time to reflect a bit on the viability of CDs as a format for experiencing recorded music.
While we fully embrace the convenience of digital downloads, and have no qualms about making our recordings available in this format, we have a slight problem with the deceptive sleight of hand with which the music industry has played the consumer – yet again.
On a daily basis, we see the erosion of real content and quality on so many fronts, and it all has to do with the unpleasant imposition of a cynical business model upon every facet of our lives. In the case of the music industry, consumers have been duped into thinking that ‘possessing’ millions of MP3s is is better than sensibly building a library of carefully considered recordings. They want you to think that all those digital ones and zeros that comprise an MP3 can be tucked away and retrieved in a way that streamlines one’s life.
And now it turns out that the consumer doesn’t even own MP3s. They are merely licensed for limited use.
Here’s a radical idea: We propose that the CD – or what is abstractly labeled ‘Physical Product’ in the industry – is not dead. MP3s are yet another indication confirming the ugly truth that we have all been had – yet again – by an aggressive music industry campaign aimed at giving the consumer less quality for more money while paying recording artists less for their work. And now we learn that the consumer really doesn’t even own the digital product.
Managing information stored on your ipod, computer hard drive, or dwelling in the mythical ‘cloud‘not only dupes the unwitting consumer, but it also dehumanizes the act of mindfully experiencing music. And messing about with MP3s actually takes more time from your life than simply picking up a CD, playing it, and returning it to its place when done. These are physical and organizational acts that do not require learning and recalling a specialized sequence of menus and commands; punching a series of tiny buttons or smearing a miniscule display screen with greasy thumbprints. Despite what we are told by digital purveyors, taking a CD off the shelf, handling it, using it, enjoying it, and putting it away does not represent a series of hurdles and onerous indignities to be avoided or delegated; these are normal acts of a modern human being.
Besides, at least someone in the music industry is actually still making a bit of money on the CD format.
“It’s arguable that the CD will ever go away completely — at least within the next decade or two. Even if CD revenue drops 20% a year, the format will still have $217 million of revenues in 2023.” – Glenn Peoples, Billboard
It’s true that CDs are more cumbersome to store than MP3s, and much less attractive than the LPs they replaced so many years ago. Sure, plastic jewel cases are a nuisance at best, if not a downright environmental catastrophe at worst. But playing a CD allows the listener to have a physical interaction with they way he or she chooses to hear music. A CD will reveal the coherence of a recorded program that may represent a theme or may have grown from a concert production that features an unfolding progression of music. A CD will provide notes and background information for the listener to read, react to, and perhaps be informed by perusing.
John Dowland: A Pilgrimes Solace
We are delighted to announce that our new recording of music from John Dowland’s last book of songs, A Pilgrimes Solace, is now available as a CD or in your choice of a wide variety of digital formats. The recording will be available through all the usual sites in due course and can be accessed now through our Bandcamp site, which also offers the CD booklet and liner notes with full-album digital downloads.
The recording was produced with the help of funding from Kickstarter, which covered a percentage of the project. We have shipped CDs to our kind Kickstarter supporters in the US and abroad early last week, and those of you who have pre-ordered digital downloads may download them immediately.
ABOUT THE ALBUM
Dowland’s last book of songs includes some of the finest, most sensitively wrought music for lute and voice in any language, and certainly represents the pinnacle of the English lute song. Dowland’s familiar ‘Lachrimae’ falling tear motif is found hidden somewhere in the texture of nearly every song on this recording. The notable feature of intricate writing for obbligato treble viol on three songs makes A Pilgrimes Solace a groundbreaking publication – the earliest published example of English song scored for voice, lute and independent obbligato instrumental parts, and we are delighted to have been joined on this project by guest artists Alex Korolov and Alexander Rakov on treble & bass viols.
When we first began our concentration on performing music for voice and lute, some of the very first pieces we performed were part-songs from A Pilgrimes Solace. Published in 1612, music from this book is a capstone of Dowland’s output; a mature artistic summation of one of the greatest composers of English song. Now entering our tenth year as a duo, we return to this music with a mature appreciation for the texts Dowland selected and a deeper understanding of his compositional skill.
Worthy of mention is an important aspect of our unique approach to the music of Dowland: When we prepared our interpretations, we sang through each and every note of the part-song settings of his ayres, a revealing process that provided elegant solutions to questions of phrasing and dynamic contrast. Upon returning to the versions for solo voice and lute, we were able to ‘vocalize’ Dowland’s lute figuration in a way that mingles meaningfully with the cantus, with a result that translates as ensemble polyphony.
We hope you’ll enjoy the results.
Now that our work on Dowland’s A Pilgrimes Solace has been completed, we intend to pursue several other projects of interest. We already have programs outlined for recordings based on our concert repertory, including the following:
- English lute songs by Dowland’s contemporaries Thomas Campion, John Danyel, Robert Jones, and Thomas Morley
- the music of Philippe Verdelot, including several new intabulations for solo voice and lute
- a new recording of music from the 15th century by Busnoys, DuFay, Hayne van Ghizeghem, and Robert Morton
- a second recording of music for Advent, Christmas and Epiphany
- revisiting early 17th century French airs de cour in celebration of our 10th anniversary as Mignarda
We are prepared to release some or all of this music packaged along with our unique performing scores, if there is sufficient interest.
Other projects we have in mind include new music in the form of our own modern settings of the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay, as well as dipping into the 19th century heart song repertory. We have performed this music in concert to very enthusiastic response and you can hear our rendition of When You and I Were Young, Maggie that was featured in a previous blog post.
INTERESTED IN HELPING?
As you can see from the results, present projects and ideas outlined above, we are hard-working dedicated professionals. Soon to begin our third year of posting regular Saturday quotes, we produce this blog for the sole objective of sharing our research, our ideas, and our music with friends from all over the world. We do not receive money from advertising that WordPress may place on or near our blog. Since we are independent musicians and scholars, we work on our own with no research grants, no support from academic institutions, and at our own expense. You can well imagine that, in these times, this involves significant personal sacrifice.
If you appreciate our work, and if you would like to see us continue, we invite you to contact us to discuss how you might be able to help support one or more of the projects we outline here.
At the end of the 13th century, Johannes de Grocheo wrote that the motet was “not intended for the vulgar who do not understand its finer points and derive no pleasure from hearing it: it is meant for educated people and those who look for refinement in art.” Is this statement justification for the ‘snob appeal’ that early music (as a sub-category of classical music) enjoys even today? Is it true that early music can only appeal to the ‘literati’ of today, who have cultivated an appreciation for the value of historical arts based on a disdain for modern pop culture?
We say NO, and we have gone far out of our way to reach non-traditional audiences. But early music probably has substantially more dimension than the commercial interests would have us believe. Mainstream record companies and concert-promoting organizations have consciously cultivated a distinctly unauthentic concept of early music that probably has nothing to do with its original function, reception and its actual sound. While this argument may seem like stale news, it is worth revisiting in today’s aggressively competitive and commercial world of music.
From the article, “The Spin Doctors of Early Music“ published in the Arts section of the New York Times, July 29, 1990, Richard Taruskin writes that our perception of early music “says more about the values of the late 20th century than about those of any earlier era.”
“With the growing success of Early Music, we are increasingly surrounded by unhistorical sounds masquerading as historical – or ”authentic,” to use a word that more sophisticated performers now shun but that musical salesmen and spin doctors still spout to seduce the unwary consumer.”
“…What we call historical performance is the sound of now, not then. It derives its authenticity not from its historical verisimilitude, but from its being for better or worse a true mirror of late-20th-century taste.”
“If we truly wanted to perform historically, we would begin by imitating early-20th-century recordings of late-19th-century music and extrapolate back from there. Instead, as already implied, Early Music has been moving in the opposite direction. The pioneers extrapolated – from very soft evidence bolstered by very firm desiderata – a style of performing Renaissance and Baroque music, and from then on it has been a matter of speculative forward encroachment.”
“So forget history. What Early Music has been doing is busily remaking the music of the past in the image of the present (necessary because we unfortunately have so little use for the actual music of the present), only calling the present by some other name.”
“…Up to Mozart’s time, at least, musical values were generally closer to those of what we now call pop than to those of our classical culture. But to ask that of Early Music may be asking the impossible.”
But if we insist on detached performances, off-putting displays of vocal and instrumental technique, and stuffy concert halls as the standard for early music venues, we’ll never gain audiences who ‘get’ the idea that much early music was at one time pop music. One reason for an apparent decline in audiences for early music is because, as performers, commercial interests tell us to cater to an audience who possesses the level of income that can support high-brow arts. Unfortunately, that audience is rapidly growing older.
Blogger Ramiro Albino from Buenos Aires, Argentina expressed his concerns in a post from June 30, 2011
“Hace tiempo que me preocupa la inserción de los jóvenes en el mundo de la música clásica…Y como intérprete de Música Antigua, me asusta avizorar que en poco tiempo parte de mi público se va a morir (sic), porque siempre hay muchísimos ancianos en mis presentaciones.”
[I have long been preoccupied about the integration of young people into the world of classical music...And as a performer of early music, it scares me to envision that soon part of my audience is going to die (sic), because there are always so many elders in my presentations.]
Our answer to the question of ‘who is the audience and how do we cultivate them?’ is rather simple. Early music performers and aficionados have to set an example by going beyond lip-service and actively reaching out to younger people, giving time, attention and opportunities to see, hear and participate. And not just the students we wish to mentor in order to justify and continue our academic careers, which is really plain selfishness masquerading as benevolence. In the US, performers and academics tend to engage in childish antics on stage rather than engage young people. Or expect students to be involved in productions of carelessly under-rehearsed pieces by Monteverdi to which the composer himself is known to have dedicated five months of intense rehearsal.
Is a little knowledge a dangerous thing? Is ignorance bliss? Did Donald Rumsfeld really think he was making a scrap of sense when he spoke of known unknowns?
It is something of a bad joke that Spring, which should be a season of joyous optimism for the fresh and new, is the time of year when we are forced to examine and confront just how little money was made over the year past.
As a distraction, today’s quotes are focused on the value of knowledge.
“…The question is: what do we strive for in developing a social order that is conducive to fundamental human needs? Are human beings born to be servants to masters, or are they born to be free, creative individuals who work with others to inquire, create, develop their own lives? I mean, if humans were totally unstructured creatures, they would be … a tool which can properly be shaped by outside forces. That’s why if you look at the history of what’s called radical behaviourism, [where] you can be completely shaped by outside forces – when [the advocates of this] spell out what they think society ought to be, it’s totalitarian.”
”Soule of the world, knowledge, without thee,
What hath the earth that truly glorious is?
Why should our pride make such a stir to be,
To be forgot? what good is like to this,
To do worthy the writing, and to write
Worthy the reading, and the worlds delight?”
- Samuel Daniel, Musophilus: Containing a generall defence of learning. (1599)
“Knowledge cannot save us, but we cannot be saved without Knowledge; Faith is not on this side but beyond it; we must necessarily come to Knowledge first…Divers men may walke by the Sea side, and the same beames of the Sunne giving light to them all, one gathereth by the benefit of that light pebles, or speckled shells, for curious vanitie, and another gathers precious Pearle, or medicinall Ambar, by the same light. So the common light of reason illumins us all; but one imployes this light upon the searching of impertinent vanities, another by a better use of the same light finds out the Mysteries of Religion; and when he hath found them, loves them, not for the lights sake, but for the naturall and true worth of the thing it self.”
- John Donne, [Sermon No. 6] Preached at Saint Pauls upon Christmasse day, 1621.
“There is no desire more natural than that of knowledge. We try all ways that can lead us to it; where reason is wanting, we therein employ experience, “
Per varios usus artem experientia fecit,
Exemplo monstrante viam,”
["By various trials experience created art, example shewing the
way."--Manilius, i. 59.].”
- Michel de Montaigne, Essays, XIII. Of Experience.
Performing music that was published 400 years ago in a manner that makes sense to listeners today requires a deep understanding of the historical context, but also an empathetic connection with the ears and hearts of a modern audience. Research and preparation for our recorded survey of songs from John Dowland’s last book, A Pilgrimes Solace, has led us on a merry chase of information and inspiration from sources old and new, and we share some of those sources in today’s quotes.
We start with a quote from luthier Robert Lundberg (1948 – 2001), from an interview found in American Lutherie: The Quarterly Journal of the Guild of American Luthiers, “Robert Lundberg: an Interview by Tim Olsen”, AL#12, Winter 1987, p.30.
When asked why the lute is relevant to our times, Lundberg replied:
I think our music is in crisis. ‘Popular’ music, which was previously not so differentiated from ‘serious’ music, is free and easy enough that it has periods of development rather than getting into crisis. But our art music, or ‘serious’ music is currently finding weak public support, and people have a lot of problems with the way modern music has developed. This has led to new interest in early music, and consequently in early instruments.
We have long felt that Dowland’s music requires the directness of communication found in the best of the ‘singer-songwriter’ style of performance and, while both texts and music are deep and intricate, the ‘art-song’ approach delivered with a ‘classical’ singing voice forces the music into a starched shirt and tuxedo when it was meant to be wearing something much less formal. In our quest to rectify our approach, we checked in with other modern performers to gain some insights.
John Potter, formerly with the Hilliard Ensemble, provided ample reinforcement in his article “Reconstructing lost voices”, from the collection of essays, Companion to Medieval and Renaissance Music, Edited by Tess Knighton & David Fallows, (J.M. Dent & Sons, London, 1992). We quote accurately and liberally:
“We can now begin to see that the voices of earlier generations were probably lighter and more agile, smaller and less able to project but with a more speech-like clarity of vowels. This gives us quite a lot to go on when looking at earlier written sources.” (p. 312)
“The accent of today’s singers, in other words, differs from those used in earlier times on grounds of class rather than geography. For specifically musical reasons a great deal is lost by ignoring the plurality of accent and the rich variety of tone colour that this implies. Elizabethan singers presumably sang with a relatively high larynx position and a relatively forward jaw position, which would have made it fairly easy for them to enunciate the texts and still retain an accent similar to that used in their speech, which would have been the dialect appropriate to them as individuals. Whether or not singers take the decision to re-create an old pronunciation (and there are many arguments on both sides), it is important to realize the effect of speech-related singing on the music.” (p. 313)
“Using the deconstructed ‘technique’ that the sources suggest and the phonetic detective work implies, we can gain access to a means of performing the music that is not only historically appropriate but makes the music live in the present. The development of modern technique has restricted singing to a small number of highly trained specialists, and this exclusivity has tended to perpetuate itself in ‘early music’. This is not what sixteenth-century singing is about; if you can speak you can sing. There is no reason why text-oriented early music singing should not find a much wider relevance in the plurality of contemporary musics. Unfortunately we are too often taught that a good technique is an end in itself: to make a beautiful sound based on a well-supported breathing technique. This separation of technique from text is a key factor in inhibiting any comprehensive re-evaluation of singing technique and has prevented singers from acquiring an organic relationship with their music. The integrity of the poetic text, the sound-world of the poet, is too often ignored because of technical demands.” (p. 316)
Last but certainly not least, we look to Dowland’s own commentary on singing, found in his English translation of Andreas Ornithoparcus His Micrologus (1609). We have quoted from this text previously but such an important source should be revisited frequently.
Every man lives after his owne humour; neither are all men governed by the same lawes, and divers Nations have divers fashions, and differ in habits, diet, studies, speech and song. Hence it is that the English doe carroll; the French sing; the Spaniards weepe; the Italians, which dwell about the coasts of Ianua, caper with their voyces; the others barke; but the Germanes (which I am ashamed to utter) doe howle like wolves.
Ornithoparcus, who is also known as Andreas Vogelsang (1485 -1536) was of course German, indicating that Dowland was likely acting in the capacity of a faithful translator of the original text and not simply indulging in his own opinion.
Describing the Art of Singing:
For very few, excepting those which are or have been in the Chappels of Princes, doe truely know the Art of Singing. For those Magistrates to whom this charge is given, doe appoint for the government of the Service young Cantors, whom they choose by the shrillnesse of their Voyce, not for their cunning in the Art; thinking that God is pleased with bellowing and braying, of whom we read in the Scripture that he rejoyceth more in sweetness than in noyse, more in the affection, than in the Voice.
Ornithoparcus (via Dowland) was not immune from indulging in the tactic of listing ten things you should know about whatever (Of the Ten precepts necessary for every Singer), from which we draw:
[3.] Let every Singer conform his voice to the words, that as much as he can he make the Concent sad when the words are sad; and merry, when they are merry.
[7.] Let a singer take heed, lest he begin too loud, braying like an Ass, or when he hath begun with an uneven height, disgrace the song. For God is not pleased with loud cryes, but with lovely sounds; it is not (saith our Erasmus) the noise of the lips, but the ardent desire of the Heart, which like the loudest voice doth pierce Gods ears.
The good news is that our recording is due for release as soon as April 1st (no fooling).
As we prepare for the release of our CD of music from John Dowland’s last book of songs, A Pilgrimes Solace, we can’t help but reflect a bit on how we approach the music and why. The short answer is because we enjoy performing music that was composed for and intended to be communicated in an intimate setting.
The longer answer: Because we have done our interpretive homework.
Since there are no audio recordings of music from 400 years ago, we have to rely on the surviving clues and use our intelligence and musical sensitivity to zero in on an approach that balances the aesthetic of the music with an effective communication that makes sense to modern listeners. Any other approach is either insensitive to the style or else treats the music as an archaic curiosity presented, viewed and heard as a quaint museum display.
We submit that the paradigm of generic ‘classical’ singing, an approach that treats pre-Baroque domestic music as a simpler subset of art-song, is missing the point. Early music singers typically have smaller voices, a trait that is inappropriately seen as a defect that relegates the poor singer to a less demanding repertory. We think a consciously smaller voice can enable the singer to underplay the mechanics involved in projection, allowing volume of sound to take a backseat to the more important task of communicating both text and musical nuance.
If we look at the basis of training for the ‘classical’ singing voice, it is all about projection of a sound that smooths over the natural faults of the human voice. This is analogous to using only closed fingerings and avoiding the overly resonant open strings of the violin. The vocal result is an artificial sound (in the modern sense) that denies the natural characteristics of the human voice – characteristics like warmth and intimacy. Since we know the techniques involved in a loud projection affect interpretive qualities, we look back to a time when development of a new technology actually enabled the singing voice to become more natural.
The electric microphone actually eliminated the need for singers to be heard over an orchestra in a large hall, and the first ‘star’ to take advantage of this technology was Bing Crosby.
“[The microphone] was his ultimate ally, perfectly suited to his way with dynamics and nuance and timbre…Overnight, megaphones became a joke, as the tradition of vocal shouting receded into an instant prehistory. Two years earlier Al Jolson had been at the peak of his popularity; now he would be recast as the beloved reminder of old-fashioned show business. With the microphone elaborating the subtleties of his delivery, Bing was reinventing popular music as a personal and consequently erotic medium.”
- A Pocketful Of Dreams: The Early Years, 1903-1940 (Gary Giddins’s biography of Bing Crosby, p. 228)
A very good example of Bing’s integration of intimacy, rhythmic freedom and a rather natural projection is in the song, “Temptation” from the film, Going Hollywood (1933), which can be heard here:
And his incredible command of rhythmic nuance in a favorite song, “I’m an Old Cowhand” from the film Rhythm on the Range (1936), which can be heard here:
To point out some differences in a stylish delivery, here is an example of the charming actress and classically-trained singer, Irene Dunne, significantly adorned with sparkling tiara and singing a rather precious and projected version of “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” from the 1935 musical film, Roberta (with Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers).
Or a very special performance of the same song by one of the most communicative singers of all time, Judy Garland, singing with expressive directness that outshines her impressive vocal technique.
Our task is to effectively communicate very intimate vocal music that was meant to be performed in small spaces with accompaniments conceived and composed for “perhaps the most perfect, and certainly the most personal instrument of all.“ If one takes a strictly authentic position, conveying the true sense of the music is very difficult to accomplish in live performance, and simply cannot be done in a large auditorium while adhering to a true sense of dimensional proportion of both text and sound. Of course, there was music conceived for public performance for special occasions or for the theater, but the default setting for a lute song is domestic, personal and intimate.
It’s an odd aspect of modern life that recording technology allows listeners to indulge in a more authentically intimate listening experience, as we heard recently from a colleague:
“What a pleasant surprise to be awoken this Sunday morning with you both at my bedside!…6:33am – my clock radio set to WCLV, I lay there mesmerized by a ballad from the Italian Renaissance, thinking how beautiful the voice and how clear the lute. I kept thinking it all sounded hauntingly familiar. Not until Robert Aubrey Davis announced your names on Millennium of Music as part of a Valentine’s weekend program did I come to realize why it sounded so familiar…I’ve heard you guys in concert many times, but the intimacy of a recorded performance through a Bose wave radio was unparalleled…I was transfixed by the clarity and musicality of the lute…And of course Donna’s voice was absolutely beautiful. I can see why your CDs are being met with critical acclaim. I was enraptured. What a wonderful way to start the day.”
- A colleague who will remain anonymous
“When the mass media triumph, the human being dies”
- Umberto Eco, “Towards a Semiological Guerrilla Warfare”, 1967
As we live our lives deliberately in the slow lane, in spite of the daily bombardment of unnecessary technology and useless information, we find that active resistance is necessary to survival. Communication is vital to existence but where do we draw the line? At what point does receiving and sorting through a surfeit of information take over our lives and prevent us from living, breathing and experiencing the more important bits?
We live in an age of Mass Media, where talk is cheap, misleading information is everywhere and at every turn someone is trying desperately to sell us something we don’t need. No matter whether the topic of discussion is 19th century guitar technique, coffee grinders, distribution of CDs, chain saws, lute strings, shoes, or concert promotion, we are daily bombarded with adverts from people who are here to tell us the best way to achieve a goal we haven’t even bothered to consider. Mass Media 1) encourages a ‘definitive method’ to almost every aspect of life, 2) enables those who are ambitious and unscrupulous self-promoters to apply such methods no matter what the arena, and 3) allows the result to be presented and advanced as plausible and accepted fact via misleading advertising.
Umberto Eco, a specialist in the field of Semiotics, has given us plenty of wry analysis that at the very least informs us of the nature of the problem.
As a rule, politicians, educators, communications scientists believe that to control the power of the media, you must control two communicating moments of the chain: the Source and the Channel. In this way they believe they can control the message.
The battle for the survival of man as a responsible being in the Communications Era is not to be won where the communication originates, but where it arrives.
As specialists in old music, it’s a strange existence living with one foot exploring the music, culture and sensibility of the Renaissance, while the other foot is attempting to gain a foothold and resist the slide down the slippery slope of presenting that music to modern audiences. Communicating the value of old ideas via modern advertising methods targeting people with a reduced attention span may seem a fool’s errand. But we continue to receive encouraging feedback from around the world and will therefore continue to channel our ideas of the aesthetics of the past to the open minds of the present. Just don’t expect us to get all fancy and up to date.