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Saturday morning quotes 4.5: Accompaniment

For those of us who still care about living an authentic, mindful existence, nearly every aspect of modern life requires cooperative collaboration with other human beings.  This may be a challenge in a age that promotes a fearful, solitary lifestyle where one can surround oneself with an impenetrable moat of protective electronic devices.  Still, human interaction is necessary and the quality of every interaction depends upon the degree to which we choose to acknowledge and abide by the Social Contract:

“The problem is to find a form of association which will defend and protect with the whole common force the person and goods of each associate, and in which each, while uniting himself with all, may still obey himself alone, and remain as free as before.”

- Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778)

Rousseau, a musician and a composer, understood and was informed by the collaborative aspects of ensemble music, an apt and instructive metaphor for the Social Contract.  Though some would say that ensemble music is not a democratic enterprise, truly successful ensemble music of any sort demands a mutual willingness to cooperate and the quality of the result depends upon how well the collaborators interact, respond to non-verbal cues, and improvise around the rules.

For more specific guidelines on how to adapt the rules in order to achieve a better result, we turn to Monsieur de Saint-Lambert (fl. 1700):

“…You can sometimes change the chords marked on the notes, when you judge that others will suit better…”

“…On a bass note of substantial duration, you can put in two or three different chords, although the text only asks for one…”

“…If the bass has too few notes , and drags too much for the liking of the accompanist, he may add other notes by way of pleasing figuration, provided hes is sure that this will not interfere with the melody.”

- Monsieur de Saint-Lambert Nouveau traité de l’accompagnement (Paris, 1707)

Effective accompaniment requires a sense of empathetic collaboration; a willingness to listen, respond, adapt, improvise and give of oneself in order to create the best possible result for all concerned. True in music, true in life.





Saturday morning quotes 4.4: Fact and fiction

The realm of early music in general—and early music for voice and lute in particular—appeals to a very select audience.  If the music is presented in a public venue and performed on its own merits with an informed sensitivity to original historical function and context, there is very little a performer or ensemble can do to enhance the appeal of an archaic repertory so that it may suit modern tastes and attention spans.  Very little except costumes, dancing, multimedia displays, clever musical mashup arrangements and orchestrations.  These elements have been used successfully by early-music performers since the 1960s, and still pop up routinely in the concert hall today.

Does fictionalizing historical music by presenting Disney World-type performances do nothing more than obscure the fact that music had—and has—an authentic emotional content that serves a necessary function?

Of course there is the more subdued approach that includes appropriately-themed poetry readings or lecture-presentations that provide historical detail and context for the music. But such presentations only appeal to the susceptible, and today’s general audiences have been trained to react to a flash and dash performance approach that compares favorably with the media-generated artificial reality they experience in every other walk of life.

In a somewhat elderly article that offers a generous heap of food for indigestion, Christopher Page suggested the following:

“…The modern concert situation and the CD recital can draw performers of medieval and Renaissance music into realms of fantasy and gimmickry.”

“…Conspicuous and varied orchestrations of medieval and Renaissance music reflect performers’ failure of confidence in the variety and quality of the music they are performing.”

- Christopher Page, “The English a cappella renaissance,” Early Music, vol. XXI, no.3, August, 1993, p. 460.

Performers who resort to gimmickry perhaps feel insecure as to the depth of content inherent in their chosen material, as well as their ability to convey the emotional depth of the repertory on its own merits.  In performing music for the transparent medium of voice and lute, we are perhaps a bit optimistic in thinking that the music will speak to the audience without gimmickry.  The facts of historical music are revealed by tapping into its emotional content and not the fiction of modern performing conventions.

In concert, we measure our success by whether we manage to move at least one person in the audience to tears.  So far, so good.


Saturday morning quotes 4.3: Going dark

We live in disquieting times with the muses gone mute and new reasons for general alarm sounding daily. As the economy continues to tank and times grow tougher for everyone – at least in our clammy, cluttered corner of the world – it seems the result is that the population becomes more fractious and peevish, greedy and grasping, dyspeptic and disappointed. Everyone wants to know why his or her standard of living is slipping, and just who is responsible?

Interest in the early music scene fades as the music biz tanks along with the rest of the economy, and we find there are more performers dreaming up gimmicks for shows bearing the labels “New” and “Improved,” and expanding way beyond convincing competence as they calculate new angles that will corner new audiences. Our friends and colleagues tell us that where once there flowed a corporate fount of funds for the arts, there now only oozes muck from the malarial mire of vacant board rooms.

Meanwhile, it seems that fewer specialist performers are willing to make the significant but necessary sacrifices to learn about the depth and substance of early music, and fewer still offer up performances of the real thing without the added dog and pony show.

“In an ideal world one would take a work and ask, ‘What does this music require?’ Instead – and this is true of so much performance of pre-Baroque music – we start with a ready-made ensemble or choir and ask, ‘What will we sing or record next?’ When there is little room for flexibility, there is always the possibility for compromise. This cannot be the way forward.”

- John Milsom, “Byrd on record: an anniversary survey,” Early Music, vol. XXI, no.3, August, 1993, p. 448.

Our reaction as committed performers is to further divest ourselves from the trappings of our modern age by metaphorically “going dark.” Our gimmick is living with the literature and languishing with the lute, but from this moment forward even further off the grid. You can expect to see and hear the fruits of our labors this year as we continue our series of recordings. You can also expect to see our forthcoming book on the many joys and sorrows of performing historical music in this modern age.


Saturday morning quotes 4.2: Inference

We’re very busy. Read and draw your own conclusions.

“Your imagination, your initiative, and your indignation will determine whether we build a society where progress is the servant of our needs, or a society where old values and new visions are buried under unbridled growth…Worst of all expansion is eroding the precious and time-honored values of community with neighbors and communion with nature. The loss of these values breeds loneliness and boredom and indifference.”

- Lyndon B. Johnson, May 22, 1964

“What we are witnessing today is the direct commodification of our experiences themselves: what we are buying on the market is fewer and fewer products (material objects) that we want to own, and more and more life experiences – experiences of sex, eating, communicating, cultural consumption, participating in a lifestyle. Michel Foucault’s notion of turning one’s self itself into a work of art thus gets an unexpected confirmation: I buy my bodily fitness by way of visiting fitness clubs; I buy my spiritual enlightenment by way of enrolling in the courses on transcendental meditation; I buy my public persona by way of going to the restaurants visited by people I want to be associated with.”

- Slavoj Žižek, May 21, 2014

“Now it is true that I believe this country is following a dangerous trend when it permits too great a degree of centralization of governmental functions. I oppose this–in some instances the fight is a rather desperate one. But to attain any success it is quite clear that the Federal government cannot avoid or escape responsibilities which the mass of the people firmly believe should be undertaken by it. The political processes of our country are such that if a rule of reason is not applied in this effort, we will lose everything–even to a possible and drastic change in the Constitution. This is what I mean by my constant insistence upon “moderation” in government. Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history. There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes you can do these things. Among them are H. L. Hunt (you possibly know his background), a few other Texas oil millionaires, and an occasional politician or business man from other areas. Their number is negligible and they are stupid.”

- Dwight D. Eisenhower, November 8, 1954

“We have a choice, either to change the way we live, which is unacceptable, or to change the way that they [hundreds of millions of Muslims living in the Middle East] live, and we chose the latter.”

 – Donald H. Rumsfeld Sept. 18, 2001

“Get down to Disney World in Florida…Take your families and enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed.”

- George W. Bush, September 25, 2001

“If the highest officials in government can break the law without fearing punishment or even any repercussions at all, secret powers become tremendously dangerous…Did we get to where we are today via a slippery slope that was entirely within our control to stop, or was it a relatively instantaneous sea change that sneaked in undetected because of pervasive government secrecy?”

- Edward Snowden, December 4, 2013

Saturday morning quotes 4.1: Substance

This post begins our fourth year of Saturday morning quotes, a weekly chore we perform both with a sense of responsibility and in a spirit of sharing.  We are constantly reminded that our perspective is quite unique in that we are committed to maintaining a simpler brand of existence in the face of an increasing dependence on technology. We remain convinced that the music we perform is necessary in an age when tech companies have marginalized the value of real art, and that people today have a desperate need to experience honest representations of deep emotional content whether they accept the fact or not.  We excavate that deep emotional content from the archives of historical poetry and music, and we make an effort to share the substance of historical emotional content with our audiences.

We quote Edward Doughtie (1935 – 2014), in whose memory we perform a concert this evening.

In his curmudgeonly epistle “To The Reader,” John Dowland defends himself from “simple Cantors, or vocall singers,” who show their ignorance in their “blinde Division  making” or melismatic ornamentation, and who say “what I doe is after the old manner.”   Dowland’s last collection of songs, A Pilgrimes Solace, is not entirely “after the old manner. ” It looks both backward and forward…and an Italianate sophistication may be heard in several other songs in the 1612 volume.  We may “feel the wind of another planet”—or at least a gentle breeze.

- Edward Doughtie, from the notes to Mignarda’s CD,  A Pilgrimes Solace

In the spirit of sharing our research and insights into our music, we include the longer form of an essay written to describe the substance of our concert program.

Our program begins with three selections from A Pilgrimes Solace (1612), John Dowland’s last and finest collection of songs. “Disdaine me still” is given pride of place as the first song in the 1612 publication and we follow suit with this rather modern-sounding piece that, were it given a slightly different treatment, might pass for a good pop song.  “Shall I striue with wordes to moue” exemplifies Dowland’s penchant for combining short but appealing melodic phrases with dramatic rhythmic devices, such as the breathtaking syncopations in the final section.  The galliard-song is very important to us in that the instrumental version for solo lute is titled, “Mignarda.”   The text to “Sweete stay awhile,” justifiably one of Dowland’s more familiar songs, bears some resemblance to John Donne’s poem, “Breake of Day,” a relationship perhaps enhanced by the poem’s proximity in a manuscript source to another text, “Stay, O Sweet, and do not Rise,” a poem that is less securely attributed to Donne.

Contrasting the intricacy of Dowland’s musical settings, we perform works by Dowland’s contemporaries, with settings of texts that may be more firmly attributed to known poets.  “Ouer these brookes” is a text by Sir Philip Sidney and “Tyme cruell tyme” is by Samuel Danyel, brother of the less famous but masterful composer, John Danyel.

Thomas Campion is best remembered for his Observations in the Art of English Poesie (1602), but he also published masque music, a treatise on counterpoint, and four books of ayres for voice and lute.  “The Sypres curten of the night” is from Campion’s A Booke of Ayres (1601), a collaborative publication that also includes twenty-one songs by Philip Rosseter.  In a typical display of Elizabethan wit, Campion weaves a direct quotation of the cantus to Dowland’s song, “My thoughts are winged with hopes” (First Booke of Songs, 1597) into the lute accompaniment of the distinctly unhopeful and downright gloomy “Sypres curten of the night,” an amusing gesture that would not have passed unnoticed by Dowland himself.

“Sleepe slumbringe eyes” marks the mid-point of our program; an anonymous text set by Thomas Morley but missing from the only surviving copy of his First Booke of Ayres (1600).  The piece is reconstructed by Mignarda from a  manuscript source that includes only the melody and bass.

Continuing with music by Dowland, we perform his setting of a poem by the unfortunate Earl of Essex, “Can shee excuse my wrongs,” followed by the lovely and elemental “Dear if you change”, both from his First Book of Songs (1597). The wistful and melancholy “Me, me, and none but me” is from his Third Book of Songs (1603), and Dowland’s masterpiece of melancholy, “In darkness let mee dwell” is from A Musicall Banquet (1610), a collection published by Dowland’s son, Robert.

The lute solos interspersed throughout the program are mainly attributed to John Dowland, the most esteemed and prolific lutenist-composer of the Elizabethan age. Although Dowland composed a wealth of intricate ensemble music and masterful solo fantasias for the lute, his bread and butter consisted of functional dance music during an age when dance was an important aspect of social life and courtly entertainment. The first instrumental is an untitled jig that appears in manuscript form as a trifling two lines of music and missing the usual ornamented repeats, provided here by the present performer in Dowland’s characteristic style. The piece that follows is Dowland’s more famous “Frogge Galliarde,” better known in its part-song version, as “Now, o now I needs must part”. The galliard by Edward Collard is in a slightly later style, with its running divisions hinting at the 17th century French style brisé. Collard is notable for having edged Dowland out of a job as the Queen’s lutenist, a professional snub that Dowland took badly, instigating his barely authorized tour of the Continent where he stumbled into all manner of mischief. Later in the program we feature Dowland’s only surviving prelude for lute, written into a late manuscript source and attributed to “Dr Dowland”. The sparkling Fantasia that follows is not securely attributed to Dowland but is very likely so based on the strong presence of several of his stylistic traits. The Fantasia in its manuscript form is rather corrupt and missing important cadential resolutions, again reconstructed by the performer.

Our program lurches forward in time and we offer a sampling of more recent compositions for voice and lute beginning with “Night Song,” a modern lute song with text and music composed by Edward Doughtie. We follow and conclude our regularly scheduled program with three modern settings of sonnets by 20th-century poet, Edna St. Vincent Millay, with music composed by 20th-century relic, Ron Andrico.

Saturday morning quotes 3.52: Art is for all

This post marks the conclusion of three full years of weekly Saturday morning quotes.  While our subject matter frequently draws upon the wisdom of the ancients, from time to time we are compelled to comment on current events and attitudes that affect the way we impose the aesthetics of old music upon modern ears.

As we conclude this eventful year and look hopefully to a less troublesome future, we note with disappointment that today’s economic issues are seriously affecting the status of the arts, rendering them inaccessible to the 99-percent.

“The dehumanisation of a class is about more than grinding away at their jobs, education and health. It’s also about the erosion of their spirit, voice and hinterland. In this way, it’s horrifying that the working classes appear to be being “bred out” of key branches of the arts; at the very least priced out.”

- Barbara Ellen, “After Bob Hoskins, it’s curtains for working-class actors these days”

While the financial burden of surviving as an artist is in fact limiting the very nature of art that is available, we remain committed to presenting our music as an example of how low-technology art fulfills our human need for communication of honest emotional content.

The first of our three recording projects for 2014 is now available, and it represents the purest form of honest and direct music – a solo voice recorded live with no electronic enhancements.

Experience this recording of music in its purest form, and help preserve working-class artistry by buying the recording directly from the artist.

Saturday morning quotes 3.51: Naturally

For this the penultimate post for this our third full year of Saturday Morning Quotes, we revisit one of our prevailing themes, singing to the lute with a natural voice. We pose the following question:

With availability of the results of so much valuable historical research, and in the face of more than ample evidence, why do Early Music singers persist in using a projected voice based upon Victorian ideals of training, technique and diction?

Our chosen repertory is polyphonic music of the 16th century and earlier – vocal music that was adapted and sensitively arranged for solo voice and lute by clever musicians both then and now.  Reading descriptions of the music and its reception when it was new points us towards interpretations that consciously strive for a tasteful balance of volume that allows for clarity of text and intimate interplay of parts.  In order to achieve such balance, a projected voice must be constantly and deliberately restrained, and one nearly always hears the tension and effort in the resulting sound.  But merely following the recommendations of the original composers and reading the words of 16th-century connoiseurs tells us exactly what to do to achieve a tasteful balance – sing with a natural voice.

With a few notable exceptions, we have thus far limited our involvement with music of the later 17th century, thinking it the realm of those with large ornate voices and personalities to match.  But the more we read the source materials, the more we realize that musicians of today have yet again misguidedly defined the character of historical music according to an anachronistic standard.  The volume of sound in solo song and other domestic music during the 17th century was most certainly not uniformly tweaked towards the threshold of pain simply because a few large-scale operas were being staged.  People still sang for one another in close quarters where shouting and shrieking was very likely discouraged.

How do we know?  There is a surviving description of singing tasteful ornaments in the Italian style attributed to Nicholas Lanier (1588 – 1666), found in An Introduction to the Skill of Musick, by John Playford, London, 1674.  The section on singing graces begins on page 37 with the title, “A Brief Discourse of the Italian manner of Singing; wherein is set down, the Use of those Graces in Singing, as the Trill and Gruppo, used in Italy, and now in England: Written some years since by an English Gentleman who had lived long in Italy, and being returned, Taught the same here.”

Lanier, if he was indeed our English Gentleman, described his motives for publishing his discourse:

“I do intend in this my Discourse to leave some foot-prints, that others may attain to this excellent manner of Singing: To which manner I have framed my last Ayres for one Voice to the Theorbo, not following that old way of Composition, whose Musick not suffering the Words to be understood by the Hearers, for the multitude of Divisions made upon short and long Syllables, though by the Vulgar such Singers are cryed up for famous.”

- p. 38

Lanier’s description of the ideal singing voice is a natural, unfeigned voice.  His reference to a  “feigned” voice, surely pertains to what we call a projected voice.

“Since there are so many effects to be used for the excellency of the Art, there is required (for the performing of them) necessarily a good voice, as also a good wind to give liberty, and serve upon all occasions where is most need.  It shall therefore be a profitable advertisement, that the Professor of this Art, being to sing to a Theorbo or other stringed instrument, and not being compelled to fit himself to others, that he so pitch his Tune, as to sing in his full and natural Voice, avoiding feigned Tunes of Notes.”

“In which, to feign them, or at the least to inforce Notes, if his Wind serve him well, so as he do not discover them much; (because for the most part they offend the Ear;) yet a man must have a command of Breath to give the greater Spirit to the Increasing and Diminishing of the Voice, to Exclamations and other Passions by us related; and therefore let him take heed, that spending much Breath upon such Notes, it do not afterward fail him in such places as it is most needful.”

“For from a feigned Voice can come no noble manner of singing; which only proceeds from a natural Voice, serving aptly for all the Notes which a man can manage according to his ability employing his wind in such a fashion as he command all the best passionate Graces used in this most worthy manner of Singing.”

- pages 54-55.

Our readers can and will draw their own conclusions.  But in future you can expect to hear more 17th-century music from Mignarda .


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