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Saturday morning quotes 7.29: Dowland looms large


“How hard an enterprise it is, in this skillfull and curious age, to commit our priuate labours to the publike viewe…”

– John Dowland, “To the courteous Reader”, The First Booke of Songs or Ayres, 1597.

We are back for a brief post after having had an unexpectedly full schedule over the summer.  The locale of our particular corner of the US having been dealt a miserly measure of a much diminished autumn, we are now plunged headlong into an even busier and already brutally cold winter season.  But we take the time to share with our readers a few significant news items related to Dowland, old and new.

Mignarda’s 2013 release of Dowland’s A Pilgrimes Solace continues to garner a bit of attention, despite our complete and utter neglect in promoting the album.  The CD features a selection of Mignarda’s personal favorites from Dowland’s last book of songs with the participation of bowed strings by Alex Korolov and Alexander Rakov and an introductory essay by the late Edward Doughtie.  We are very pleased to announce that the CD was selected as a reference recording in the new book by K. Dawn Grapes, John Dowland: A Research and Information Guide, Routledge Music Bibliographies, New York, 2019.  The book is a much needed guide to currently available music editions and literature focused on the most influential historical lutenist composer, John Dowland, and includes a numbered catalog of works, a discography, an annotated bibliography of secondary sources, all thoroughly indexed.

Having just completed the first in a new series of music editions titled The Mignarda Songbook, we are now hard at work producing a new performing edition of Dowland’s complete corpus of lute songs.  More on this in the near future. We are also returning to the recording studio and are now in the process of recording more songs by Dowland and his English contemporaries.

As we refocus our attention on the music of Dowland, and on this blog, we offer the rather easy challenge of guessing the title of the first Dowland song we recorded during our Monday session?


Saturday morning quotes 7.28: Naturaliter

Tintin singer

“History is a conceptual artifact that attempts to bestow continuity and coherence upon the intractable shapes and scattered debris of the past.  It selects and molds, it documents and extrapolates, it judges and evaluates.  It is never the equivalent of reality.”

Gilbert Chase, in his review of Charles Hamm, Yesterdays: Popular Song in America, from the Journal of the American Musicological Society, Volume XXXIV, number 1, Spring, 1981, Reviews, p. 156.

Bertolt Brecht is alleged to have said that Art was “not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it.”  But when the description of that artfully hammered shape is deliberately modified by those who would rewrite History to their own ends, and when such modifications are foisted upon us by opportunists who would redefine History to suit their own purpose, then we then dwell in a world that lacks a true and trusted point of reference.  In other words, we dwell in the world of today.

History is what someonethe proverbial unnamed we—selects, records and codifies for posterity and for purpose.  History is myth that becomes accepted as common knowledge over time, regardless of whether it is accurate or even remotely true.  Diverse authors, including the venerable George Orwell, have stated that history is written by the winners.  This may be so, but it is also true that history is written by opportunists who understand the power of propaganda.

Since the latter half of the 20th century, those involved in shaping the Early Music revival and riding the wave of its relative popularity have had unchecked free rein to decide exactly which aspects of history should be deemed important and worthy of presenting to the public as historical entertainment that is “good for you.”  And they have also positioned themselves to teach their interpretations of selected samples of historical music to a malleable set of students eager to pursue a meaningful career path.   But the unsuspecting students have been taught by practitioners who are unwilling to unlearn their own trademark modern technique, a product of their 20th-century education.  And the concert programs that offer the public a glimpse of antique courtly entertainment merely open the door wide enough to reveal a selectively redefined and rose-tinted past.

This week we follow up on our earlier post focused on singing early music beginning with a brief description of the mechanics of singing, and drawing attention to the strangely anachronistic technique commonly used today by singers who are hopefully otherwise informed about their chosen repertory.  We touch upon some of the mechanical differences of singing with a projected voice, a phenomenon that was institutionalized mainly in the 19th century, and we discuss the timely restoration of singing early music in an appropriate natural voice.

Apart from the less common occurrence of noisy outdoor entertainments, when early music was new music it was essential functional music either sung daily in a chapel or in small rooms for a participatory audience.  Music was necessary, functional, and it was played by live musicians.  By “functional” we mean to say that it was either for liturgical purposes, private devotions, for social dance, for ceremony, or as a domestic participatory means of getting outside of oneself.  This is a difficult concept for modern audiences who are accustomed to on-demand musical entertainment, largely for free or for very little investment.  It is also difficult for modern audiences to understand that most music was participatory and not performance-based music.  Of course there were musicians who were better than average, and they were invariably pressed into service in some capacity as entertainers, but music was an everyday activity that was participatory.  And from every indication found in early sources, the music was sung with a natural voice.

Earliest sources stress that singing was meant to be a decoration of speech, and these early sources of course have to do with singing liturgical music, as documented thoroughly in Christopher Page, The Christian West and Its Singers: The First Thousand Years, Yale University Press, New Haven, CT, 2010.  Page’s tome is instructive but reading 600-plus pages of documentary evidence, no matter how fascinating, is not for the faint of heart.  The thumbnail summary is that singers were necessary to communicate the liturgy to the ecclesia, or to the gathering of worshipers. Over time, the liturgy became increasingly complex and codified, and it eventually became necessary to create the schola cantorum, originally a Roman institution, in order to train and maintain singers for the Mass.  There are also surviving descriptions of various forms of accompanied lyric poetry or ballad singing (troubadour, trouvere repertory) and even singing for social dance (carole), which obviously would have been rendered in an appealing, communicative natural voice.

As singing morphed into a modern performance-based phenomenon, vocal pedagogy became standardized. Employing the modern method to produce the vocal sound necessary to fill an opera house without amplification, the singer uses all the available resonance of the upper chest, in addition to the sinus cavities and the space where brains ought to be. When used with willful intent, these bodily spaces can be utilized to amplify the voice. The breath is strictly controlled in order to focus the sound that is disgorged from the mouth, employing the the full capacity of the lungs. As the singer fills her lungs, the diaphragm is displaced, and by exerting control over the diaphragm as the wind is expelled, the singer activates the vocal chords in a modulated manner.

This abbreviated description may of course be applied to the mechanics of singing generally, but modern vocal pedagogy has codified singing technique to suit an ideal and a volume of sound that was established, more or less, in the nineteenth century—the age of the large auditorium and of the Grand Opera.  The Early Music revival that gained momentum in the 1970s was meant to reject the excesses of the Romantic Era and and embrace the elusive aesthetic of ancient times.  The movement was very successful in terms of rediscovering instrumental technique, but what happened to research and rediscovery of appropriate vocal styles?  While some singers pay “lip service” to select bits of advice found in historical treatises, most modern singers are convinced that there is only one legitimate way to sing, and that old music is improved by their modern technique.  We beg to differ.

To support the use of a natural voice, we need look no further than the singing treatise by Conrad von Zabern, De modo bene cantandi, published in Mainz, 1474.  This clear evidence describing the dos and don’ts of 15th-century singing leaves absolutely no question as to the inappropriateness of adding modern vocal techniques to early repertory.  Translations of Conrad’s work may be found in Joseph Dyer, “Singing with Proper Refinement from “De Modo Bene Cantandi” (1474)”, Early Music, Vol. 6, No. 2 (Apr., 1978), p. 207; Carol MacClintock, Readings in the History of Music in Performance, Indiana University Press, Bloomington and London, 1979, p. 12; and a recent work, Conrad von Zabern De modo bene cantandi (1473 [published 1474], translated by Sion M. Honea [pdf]

Conrad had very specific things to say on the subject of vibrato, with which we agree wholeheartedly.

A very common sign of poor training is the horrid wavering up or down of the pitch.  The one as well as the other is detestable, the more so because it attracts attention and is disturbing in the highest degree.  It spoils the correct singing of the others, just like an out-of-tune string disturbs the tuning of the clavichord.  Whoever has this shocking habit should desist entirely from singing until he has procured relief; and it should not be neglected as long as there is hope of correction.

A constant vibrato is largely a 19th-century phenomenon, the use of which seems to have evolved jointly with the prominence of the widely-tuned pianoforte, which is never really quite in tune to those of us accustomed to early music.  Sadly, there appears to be no hope of correction for singers who have this “shocking habit” today.

As for the projected voice, Conrad addressed the matter with characteristic directness.

Another common habit is the violent squeezing out or pushing of the voice, which injures the beauty and sweetness of the singing in the highest degree.  I know some persons who, though better trained than others in singing, nevertheless destroy their singing because of this error, for they are convinced that they sing well; however they have never been shown how blameworthy that manner is.

On rendering those high notes:

A particularly striking crudity is that of singing the high notes with a loud tone, indeed with full lung power.  And truly, if there is a person who, by nature, has a heavy, trumpetlike voice, it makes a great disturbance in the whole choral song and appears as though the voices of several oxen were mixed in with the choir.  And I have also heard in a Collegium that singers with full, heavy voices scream on the high notes from pleasure in strength, so that one thinks that they want to burst the windows or knock them out of their frames.

Conrad did not merely pass judgement but also offered constructive advice, and he used a very apt analogy to describe the proper approach to producing and moderating the voice:

In order to comprehend this error, one must know that whoever sings well must use his voice in three degrees.  The low notes are to be sung entirely from the chest, the middle ones with moderate strength, the high ones with a soft voice.  And the change from one to the other must not be sudden, but gradual, according to the movement of the melody.

The monochord has only one string of one strength, yet it produces very different characters—notes of full, moderate and soft sounds, according to each pitch of the scale.  Why should a man not imitate this string and be able to modulate his voice in many ways?  Each bad habit disfigures the song, first of all, then tires the singer, and third makes him hoarse and incapable of singing.

For the windpipe is a delicate organ and easily injured by violent use, often through singing high notes loudly.  On the contrary, by singing softly, avoiding abuses, one benefits by being able to sing considerably higher than by unnatural straining of the voice.

In our previous post on this subject, we quoted from the description attributed to Nicholas Lanier found in An Introduction to the Skill of Musick, by John Playford, London, 1674.   Lanier stated plainly that good singing was heavily reliant upon the control of one’s breath (wind), but the singer was advised to always pitch the song where one could employ the natural voice to its best advantage.  And the singer was advised to use a natural voice and not to use a projected (feigned) voice, for it does “offend the Ear” and furthermore “from a feigned Voice can come no noble manner of singing.”  It is noteworthy that Lanier’s words were published a full 200 years after Conrad von Zabern’s treatise, and we put this cumulative historical advice to work in an air composed by Lanier, which has the distinction of being Mignarda’s very first recording.

One could easily draw the conclusion that during that 200-year span between Conrad and Lanier, vocal practice observed and followed generally similar precepts.  But some may call attention to the more extravagant style of singing that developed later in the 16th century, and use this phenomenon as a means to justify adherence to 20th-century vocal pedagogy.  We quote from a description of the concerto della donne known for singing in the Italian style circa 1575, as described by Vincenzo Guistiniani from his essay, Discorso sopra la musica.

The ladies of Mantua and Ferrara were highly competent, and vied with each other not only in regard to the timbre and training of their voices but also in the design of exquisite passages delivered at opportune points, but not in excess [emphasis added].  Furthermore they moderated or increased their voices, loud or soft, heavy or light, according to the demands of the piece they were singing…They made the words clear in such a way that one could hear even the last syllable of every word, which was never interrupted or suppressed by passages and other embellishments.

This shows that even ornamented singing was performed using moderate voices and with subtlety and taste.  Not using modern projected voices that invariably render the words unintelligible, particularly in the soprano register.  Sadly, modern renditions of the music attributed to the concerto della donne ignore this evidence and perform with all too typical modern voice types, which may be beautiful on their own merits, but the interpretation is decidedly something other than that described by Guistiniani.

Singing ladies

We pause to examine a speculative visual representation of the concerto della donne. Do they look as though they are engaged in an ear-splitting contest while projecting their voices to the rear balcony of the opera house?  No, they do not.  They appear to be singing for (and with, rather than near) one another and an intimate audience.  Surely loud projected voices would shatter the perceived sense of dignified calm, not to mention rendering the lute in the illustration inaudible and thus a meaningless prop.

It’s high time we pull the plug on the conservatory convention of applying modern voices to old music, and restore singing in an appropriate natural voice that suits the aesthetic of early music, in particular the vast repertory of airs for voice and lute.  It is really not a difficult proposition to teach students to sing with sensitivity using a natural voice, and the happy result is sure to attract a wider audience who would otherwise be put off by the off-putting projected voice one associates with the Grand Dame of the Grand Opera.

Bianca Castafiore


Saturday morning quotes 7.27: Natural voice


“Myth consists in overturning culture into nature or, at least, the social, the cultural, the ideological, the historical into the “natural.” What is nothing but a product of class division and its moral, cultural and aesthetic consequences is presented as being a “matter of course”; under the effect of mythical inversion, the quite contingent foundations of the utterance become Common Sense, Right Reason, the Norm, General Opinion, in short the doxa.”

– Roland Barthes, “Change the Object Itself: Mythology Today,” Image—Music—Text, translated by Stephen Heath, The Noonday Press, New York, 1977,  p. 165.

OK.  It is high time we had a serious talk about singing early music, at least early music that dates from before 1600.  The unfortunate myth that has led to unconvincing and, yes, off-putting modern performance modalities has very little to do with choices made by scholars, whose job it is to remove the layers of dust from old scores and make the music understandable to modern musicians.  Rather the myth has everything to do with the training of modern musicians and the interpretive choices they make when early music is put into play.

When a modern classically-trained voice is applied to a repertory that is essentially retro-pop, the result pretty much alienates and excludes an enormous segment of the potential listening audience.  Plain and simple.  Many listeners who would otherwise be interested in the music and the lyrics simply switch off, or in modern parlance, swipe left when they hear a projected voice from a singer who seems to be much more interested in showing off her technique than in communicating the text.

Conversely, applying a modern classically-trained voice to early music ultimately targets an audience who is comfortable with the concept of early music packaged as “classical-lite”, performed by “legitimate” singers who, because of their proper training and pedigree surely must be improving upon the original.  This audience is rapidly ageing and they are becoming increasingly less interested in the questionable cachet of Early Music.  And they are diverting their diminishing stash of dollars to other pursuits.

Some classically-trained performers who have adopted early music attempt to cling to dwindling audiences by indulging in samplings of cross-over folk music that, in its unadulterated form, surely offers insights into performing historical popular music.  But these insights are not realized by imposing modern classically-trained technique upon simple melodies and straightforward texts.  This not only robs the music of its directness and disarming appeal, but it is also not nice to hear.  In such cases attention is drawn away from the substance and message of the music and toward the performer, who invariably adds personality and what they think are period gestures as a further distraction.

How do we know our supposition to be true?

Of course singing solo songs composed post-1600 requires a different approach than singing chamber music with the lute, but prior to the age of Monteverdi, the bulk of what we have come to define as early music repertory was either intended for the chapel or the chamber.  In the case of the chapel, an audible projection was encouraged but singers were advised to moderate their voice.  In the chamber, a projected voice was never appropriateand that includes music that involved the lute in an accompanying role.

“The singer should know too that in church and in public chapels he should sing with full voice, moderated of course as I have just said, while in private chambers he should use a subdued and sweet voice and avoid clamor.”

– Gioseffo Zarlino ( 1517 – 1590), Le istitutioni harmoniche (1558)

In the face of clear evidence to the contrary, why do early music singers persist in using a projected voice based upon Victorian ideals of training, technique and diction?

As Mignarda we limit our involvement in music of the later 17th century and yield the concert stage to those with large voices and personalities to match.  But the more we delve into the source materials, the more we realize that musicians of today have defined the character of the music according to an anachronistic standard. The volume of the voice in solo song and other domestic music during the 17th century was not universally loud simply because we know that a few large-scale operas were being staged at the time. Transferring our repertory to the modern concert hall does not allow for an accurate representation of the music.  People had much more acute hearing than we do today, and they sang for one another in close quarters where shouting and shrieking was very likely discouraged with a sharp pointy object.

What is a projected voice anyway?  How do we know it was not in common use?  Read the sources:  A description of singing tasteful ornaments in the Italian style attributed to Nicholas Lanier from 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.”

“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 mulitude of Divisions made upon short and long Syllables, though by the Vulgar such Singers are cryed up for famous.”

– p. 38

“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.”

– ppg. 54-55.

The first notable statement is that the voice needs to be pitched where it is most attractive.  And by “feigned” voice, Lanier means projected voice.  This is from the 17th century by the person credited with introducing the Stile Recititavo to England.  Get it? No projected voice, and certainly no countertenor voice. How did modern audiences come to accept the premise that early music must be sung in an inappropriate modern voice?

“The truth is we invented the early music vocal sound based on what we wanted it to be like, and on the voices of a small number of singers with particular talents. The small-scale, refined, straight, disciplined early music singing that we were used to came out of nowhere..Even when singers began to look at pedagogical sources and so on, they (we) chose to ignore those bits that didn’t fit the model we had in our heads. An entire pedagogy was developed by people who claimed to know how 17th- or 18th-century singing was supposed to go, but whose knowledge was based mostly on their own experience of the late 20th-century early music movement, rather than an understanding of the sources.”

“You can teach the basics of singing (it doesn’t take long), but after that, historical singing is a matter of research. Research is learning—you can’t teach it. Universities don’t help either as they seem to think that teaching and research are umbilically linked to each other: they aren’t.”

– Richard Wistreich and John Potter, “Singing early music: a conversation,” Early Music, Vol. XLI, No. 1, February 2013

Ideas or approaches that aggressive personalities promote seem to become conventional wisdom over time, despite a lack of justification or, in the case of the interpretation of historical practices, despite their lack of supporting evidence.  When this newly minted conventional wisdom is accepted without challenge, as tends to occur in personality-based performance modalities, a rich multifaceted element of our cultural past is diminished.  To achieve an authentic interpretation according to the evidence and an effective interpretation that both serves the music and convinces the listener, a modern conservatory-trained voice is the very last thing one should impose upon early music.

For he…that hearing the sweet accord of instruments or the sweetness of the natural voice feels no joy and no agitation and is not thrilled from head to foot, as being delightfully rapt and somehow carried out of himself – ’tis the sign of one whose soul is tortuous, vicious, and depraved…

– Pierre de Ronsard

Now, for an apt alternative, let us return to our preferred time and style to examine a characteristic depiction of vocal practice circa 1500.  Since there is a lute present, we can make assumptions as to what sort of sound one may have expected from this trio of singers.


Lorenzo Costa – Un concerto circa 1485-95

No extended jaw, no gaping maw.  What we observe is a calm intimacy and an inward focus with a more than obvious concentration on vocal blend.  These singers did not project their voices because they were singing chamber music that demanded coordination with a very quiet instrument that was participating in the polyphony.

Mignarda’s chosen repertory is polyphonic vocal music of the 16th century and earlier that was adapted for solo voice and lute, 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. A projected voice must be deliberately restrained in order to achieve such balance, and one nearly always hears the effort in the resulting sound. Merely following the recommendations of the original composers and reading the words of 16th century connoisseurs tells us exactly what to do—sing with a natural voice.

If you believe there is only one correct way to sing and you don’t know how to sing in a natural voice, you should know that singing without projection should be part of every singer’s technique.  If you don’t know how, just ask us.

Saturday morning quotes 7.26: Rhetorical question


“Well, Art is Art, isn’t it? Still, on the other hand, water is water. And east is east and west is west and if you take cranberries and stew them like applesauce they taste much more like prunes than rhubarb does. Now you tell me what you know.”

– Groucho Marx

Our leading quotation is from a Rhetorical master who deftly used a host of rhetorical devices during a long career in the professional pursuit of bathos.  Among a long list of devices one may discern couched in the quote above, Marx employed antithesis (juxtaposition of contrasting ideas), enumeratio (listing detailed causes or effects), amplificatio (expansion and enhancement), auxesis (words or phrases ordered for climactic effect), circumlocution (more words than necessary), simile (comparison of unlike things with implication of a resemblance between them), dissoi logoi (contradictory argument), and of course he closes with an ignoratio elenchi (irrelevant conclusion) just prior to a rhetorical challenge to the reader.  Marx was a master of paronomasia (pun) and kairos (timing), and he employed noema (deliberately obscure language) with the ultimate goal of delectare (delight).

It’s no accident that Groucho Marx was a master of the use of rhetorical figures since he and his famous brothers were musicians, and music has always been fertile ground for the cultivation of rhetorical devices employed to “move the passions” of the listener.

We have dipped a toe into these symbolic waters in the past, but this week our quotes are drawn from the well of Warren Kirkendale from his article, “Ciceronians versus Aristotelians on the Ricercar as Exordium, from Bembo to Bach”, Journal of the American Musicological Society, Vol. 32, No. 1 (Spring, 1979), pp. 1-44.

“Most instrumental music of the sixteenth century falls into one of three categories: “abstract” pieces, dances, and instrumental adaptations of vocal music (intabulations). The so-called “abstract” pieces largely fulfilled a preludial function, and went by a variety of originally more or less interchangeable names, such as ricercar and fantasia.  As secular music, especially for lute, they were followed by songs, madrigals, instrumental intabulations, or dances; as liturgical organ music they served as preludes to mass sections, motets, or psalms.”

– Kirkendale, p. 2

Exordium, as mentioned in Kirkendale’s title, is defined as the introductory part of an oration, and is the Rhetorical equivalent of a musical prelude.

“Evidence that musicians followed Cicero, directly or indirectly, is provided by northern music theorists who derive their precepts from the practice of Franco-Flemish and Italian composers.  Most of them, as cantors, taught Cicero to schoolboys.”

– Kirkendale, p. 28

“The style of the earliest notated ricercars, those in Spinacino, Dalza, and Bossinensis published by Petrucci between 1507 and 1511, might be described as that of written improvisation…Their very modest length speaks against their use for anything but a preludial function.”

– Kirkendale, p. 5

We offer an example of a Recercar by Francesco Spinacino from the very first published music for the lute (1507), which we recorded as a prelude to “O passi sparsi“, a musical setting of the poetry of Francesco Petrarca by composer Sebastiano Festa (c. 1490 – 1524).  Our arrangement is an historical reconstruction, creating a solo song by melding a rather dull strophic setting for voices with a rather active intabulation for lute set by Alberto da Ripa (c.1500 – 1551). “Recercar XV” by Spinacino has an improvisatory character but is more refined than many of the abstract pieces in the first published lute book as it actually introduces thematic material and use of imitation, and the piece generally looks ahead to the more developed contrapuntal forms of music for the lute.

As an individual track, “Recercar XV” ends a bit abruptly because we intentionally used it as a prelude to “O passi sparsi”, with a rather shortened pause between the pieces.  But programmatic intent is a casualty of the current times, and if you want the intended effect, you’ll have to buy the CD—or better yet invite us to perform live.

Now for the sake of brevitas we leave you with another short quotation from Groucho that explains how we have managed to gain a bit of knowledge about our music and its context, and why we are here to tell you what we know.

“I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book.”

– Groucho Marx

Saturday morning quotes 7.25: Noisier


High summer is nearly upon us, and one wishes to take advantage of moderate temperatures and prise open long-shuttered windows and doors for a breath of fresh air before the onslaught of mid-American heat and humidity.  But instead of cool, calm gentle breeze, we are assailed with the constant yip of the neighbor’s yap dog, the macho revving of the other neighbor’s prize Harley, and the sadly omnipresent whine of lawn care machinery. Hay mucho ruido.

One is of a certain age when one recalls learning to use human-powered lawn care equipment like hand pruners, push mowers, foot-powered edgers, leaf rakes, and friendly but demanding straw brooms.  And having been reared as a child slave-laborer, I (RA) had the dubious privilege of learning to mow acres of grass with a sharp scythe, cultivate acres of garden with rake and hoe, spread manure with a dangerously sharp pitchfork from a wobbly tractor-pulled trailer, and pitch bales manually during high hay-fever season.  But, except for the tractor, it was all relatively quiet work.

As one who learned of practical necessity to conserve resources, I feel a sense of moral outrage when I see a neighbor (who could really use the exercise) standing still for endless hours waving his 160 decibel lawn blower in the laconic pursuit of three leaves that had the utter audacity to land on his lawn.  At least he has a minor jot of intelligence and uses hearing protection, but I have to close every window and door in order to minimize the horrible noise to where we still have to shout to one anther to be heard over the racket outdoors.

Why do we care about noise?  Because we are specialists in 16th-century music for voice and lute, and we have worked very hard to create an optimal balance of sound with a natural voice and a quiet instrument.  We value quiet.  And we value our hearing.

“According to a 2017 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one-quarter of Americans ages 20 to 69 who reported good to excellent hearing actually had diminished hearing. This is largely caused by rising levels of ambient urban noise—sirens, traffic, construction, leaf blowers—which can lead to a range of disorders, from high blood pressure to depression to heart disease. “When I started out, I’d see people in their 60s with hearing problems,” says Robert Meyers, an ENT specialist at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “Now I’m seeing them in their 40s.””

– James Fallows, “Get off my lawn”, The Atlantic, April 2019

To catch up on the issue, we are re-visiting part of an earlier blog post that was not part of our Saturday morning quotes series.

As specialists in 16th century music, the narrow compass of our medium—voice and lute—offers us a bit more latitude for interpretive decisions but also a much less forgiving frame of reference for generalized comparisons.  Categorized as “classical” musicians, we are held to the same performance standard as a string quartet or, more aptly, a performer of art song with piano accompaniment.  Many of our non-early musical colleagues have difficulty getting past the relatively low volume of sound that is characteristic of our music, and blithely offer up suggestions for amplification.  We’ve learned that musician-colleagues fall into two general categories: 1) those who get past the initial quietness and are happily drawn into the aesthetic of our performance, and 2) those with irreversible hearing loss.

Regular readers of this blog are aware that our interpretations are entirely based on hints that we faithfully glean from historical sources.  But it is fairly obvious that public performance of music for solo voice and lute in large reverberant churches and concert halls constitutes an historically inappropriate performance practice.  Historical sources indicate that the tastefully balanced natural voice and lute are meant to be heard in small chambers with a select number of connoisseurs listening.  To that end, we gravitate toward performing house concerts or in very small venues whenever possible.

Returning to the rhetorical question: Given that it is impractical to follow historical modes of performing early music for 21st century audiences, what is the point of trying?  When it is difficult to hear the nuance of music sung in what Ronsard preferred as the natural voice accompanied by the ravishing sound of the lute, why not compromise and use a pushed but audible bel canto production and accompany with the full sound of the modern guitar?  The answer is because we care about the historical context, about the poetry and the music, about the personal and intimate aesthetic, and we care about our audiences.  We think our music offers listeners who are willing to put away their electronic gadgets for a moment just a glimpse of a rare and precious historical artifact that is increasingly difficult to find today—quiet subtlety.

Visit the original post.

And below are links to a few other posts on the topic of too much noise and not enough quiet.



Saturday morning quotes: Retro post

Time Stands Still[We are re-visiting this pertinent post from February 2011 that was not originally part of our Saturday morning quotes series.]

One of our earliest posts on this blog had to do with the modern listener’s receptiveness to old music in general and lute music in particular.  We mentioned the question of balancing voice and lute, and the relative quiet volume that results in reaching an optimum blend.  Of course, the combination of a solo voice with a single lute was never meant to be heard in a capacious cathedral, nor in a modern concert hall designed for orchestral forces.

Performing old music for modern audiences involves another important adaptive approach to address a pervasive issue – the question of attention span.  How do we effectively engage a listener for the duration of a quiet and subtle song or lute solo that lasts 7 – 10 minutes?  We have to give this question serious consideration especially in view of the cold fact that our lives today seem to be driven by electronic devices that operate at speeds much faster than a caring, contemplative human cares to process a thought.

Advantages of living in our electronic age are abundant. We can multitask to our heart’s delight, embracing a universe of ideas and cascades of random information without having to encumber ourselves with the tiresome steps of considering whether the data are relevant, or even true.  Since Google is always at our fingertips, we no longer need to be bothered with the anachronistic process of committing information to memory, let alone converting knowledge into wisdom.

Irony aside, the electronic age has happily opened amazing lines of communication, allowing us to instantaneously correspond with friends across the globe at any hour of day or night.  If the press is to be believed, the recent liberating events in Egypt were possible mainly due to lines of communication made available through internet social networking sites.  But have electronic devices truly made our lives richer?  As a species, are we happier, healthier, kinder and more considerate?  I think not.

In an editorial in the Sunday New York Times (published February 19, 2011), Maureen Dowd quotes Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.  The following quote caught my eye:

“Researchers say that we need to be quiet and attentive if we want to tap into our deeper emotions,” he said. “If we’re constantly interrupted and distracted, we kind of short-circuit our empathy. If you dampen empathy and you encourage the immediate expression of whatever is in your mind, you get a lot of nastiness that wouldn’t have occurred before.”

I return to our question, “how do we engage listeners today?”  By way of a possible answer, an anecdote.  Last week, we performed a house concert to an audience of around 40 people, most of whom were not previously dedicated fans of early music.  In planning the program, we struggled with the idea of making the music accessible to a general audience and thought we might stick to songs of a short duration (3-4 minutes), and mostly with English texts.  But in the end, we decided to take a chance and perform what we felt like playing.  This included the Dowland lute pavan ‘La mia Barbara’ (over 6 minutes) and Robert Jones’ setting of Sir Philip Sidney’s ‘Over these brooks’ (over 9 minutes).  We detected no signs of unrest in the audience during the concert and we were encouraged by the level of quiet attentiveness.  After the performance, we mentioned to some audience members the length of some of the pieces.  The reaction was surprise – they had no idea that ‘Over these brooks’ lasted over nine minutes.

Performers of old music, we, as empathetic musicians, attempt to engage an audience by first allowing ourselves to be convinced of the inherent quality of the music, and then transparently allowing that music to unfold with a sense of calm or of urgency, depending on what is appropriate to the piece.  These are not new ideas, and are employed consciously or unconsciously by any effective performer.  That is, any effective performer who does not create and depend upon a cult of personality, which places the performer foremost and uses music (or whatever medium) as a mere vehicle in order to draw attention to the personality.

We presume that a member of our audience wishes be drawn into the sound world we create and, by extension, that he or she trusts us to act as guides through that sound world as we describe the lost aesthetic of a different age.  It is our responsibility to foster empathy by gently reminding our audiences of the rewards of invested concentration, and the value of a rare glimpse through the window of time for a fleeting moment (or ten) of quiet contemplation.

Saturday morning quotes 7.24 What we see

baki-medici-102019 is well along its way and circumstances have prevented us from our typical 2018 year-end summation. We usually find the start of a new year energizing and we like to take stock and plot out a theme and direction for the coming calendar year.  This year offers so many challenges on so many fronts that we are still in the process of collecting our thoughts from last year, and we are generally stunned by the many significant events of 2018, personal and global, that have rewritten the rule-book describing how the world works, and that have forced us to recalibrate the direction of our music and our lives.

Specializing in deeply considered interpretations of early music, and dedicating our time and energy to offering the fruits of our labor to audiences who are sorely in need of the quiet elegance of historical music for voice and lute, is not exactly a remunerative endeavor.  Particularly when we do not operate with the sponsorship of an organization, an academic institution, a well-endowed board, nor a mom who sets up all our gigs.  Mignarda is quite unique in that we are the genuine article; a duo of like-minded musicians who have truly made significant inroads presenting early music to a large and diverse audience based entirely upon hard work and the strength of our music.  We do not buy publicity, we do not pay for concert or recording reviews, and we do not frantically solicit “likes” on social media.  This may seem a boastful statement but, in the environment of today’s music industry, one only need examine standard operating procedure for independent musicians to see that we are unique in our approach and in our measure of success.

Gloves off. As the years roll by, it has become abundantly clear that, at least in the US, independent musicians who specialize in early music are simply not recognized by the established organizational hierarchy unless they have a direct connection of some sort within the established organizations that maintain a stranglehold on access to the more prominent early music venues, festivals, the specialized radio airplay and well-financed record labels.  How did this come to be the norm?  The answer is that, like every other aspect of modern business practice, and indeed modern life, there are among us gatekeepers who carve out a market for their product and set to work advancing their careers by concentrating on successful commercial techniques of public relations.  To put it simply, propaganda.

The gatekeeper phenomenon is an enormous factor that affects all who dwell in or on the fringes of the academic world.  Many of us have had ample opportunity to observe the gatekeeper dynamic; the toxic hierarchy of tenured full professors with butts firmly planted in endowed chairs lording over associate and assistant professors who hope their masters will someday die or (less likely) retire so that the opportunity to compete for those positions might possibly open up.  Lurking meekly in the hallways are the adjunct lecturers who hope that by cheerfully accepting the worst teaching assignments meted out with anxiety-inducing uncertainty of scheduling, and with compensation ranking well below ultra-subpar wages, there might perhaps be a glimmer of hope that, like Pinocchio, someday they will become real people.

The sad truth is that full professors will never sacrifice their positions unless they possess a keen desire to spend their “golden years” experiencing a sanitized life outside the ivory tower.  Many cling to their hard-won positions as their only source of identity and relevance.  Associate and assistant professors face playing the sometimes interminably long game, waiting for the door to open a crack and secretly hoping to peer through that crack to see their career obstacles slumped over an heirloom desk, victim of a heart attack (if they ever possessed a heart).  Spending half their academic lives treading water in muted circumspection, they have ample opportunity to absorb the many nuances of the gatekeeper’s role, and then embrace that role with a set of learned survival skills and as a matter of normalcy.  Lecturers and adjuncts must simply face the fact that they will never advance in their careers without the help of a viable connection or with an enormous stroke of good luck.  Merely by participating in the exploitation game, they are typecast by their superiors, and no matter how effective or qualified they may be, breaking out of their assumed role is nearly impossible in the face of very stiff competition by the naively optimistic crowd of hopefuls who, like Penelope’s suitors, likely await an unhappy result.

The world of early music is conjointly linked to academe.  Unfortunately.  The hard fact is the early music industry (for that is what it has become) needed scholars to lay the groundwork and provide context for recreating ancient sounds, and we applaud the good work of so many capable researchers who have sacrificed hours, opportunity, and spinal posture combing through libraries and poring over manuscript sources, ultimately providing peers, performers and the public with a host of reasons why old music is worth the bother.  But in the process, academics transferred their hierarchical “business model” to what is for all intents and purposes a niche market of the classical music entertainment industry.

Make no mistake.  Classical music as available through recordings or in public performance does not exist solely for the cultural enrichment of the world.  Classical music is a segment of the entertainment industry, and performers, no matter how rigorously trained and how innocent their personal objectives may be, are cogs in that segment of the entertainment industry.  In order for music to reach listeners, promoters advance certain performers that appear in live performances at particular venues, and promoters advance recordings through a variety of means; recording contracts, explicit agreements for radio and internet airplay (21st-century payola), and solicited (and paid-for) reviews in industry publications and on digital download formats.

This is standard operating procedure in the entertainment industry, and the field of early music is no exception.

An ethical dilemma exists when one steps back and considers that academe and the for-profit music industry collaborate to promote an idealized—and at times deliberately inaccurate—representation of historical music.  Altering history is a very dangerous, if sadly all too common, method of controlling a given message, and this is the point at which the early music industry collides with the seedy back alleys of the propaganda machine.

“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of.”

– Edward Bernays, Propaganda, 1928

Since you have read this far, you should pause for a moment and check out the book by Edward Bernays, Propaganda (1928).  This short book is available in modern edition (complete with the many original typos) with a brilliant foreword by Mark Crispin Miller that sets the context.  In a nutshell, Bernays, the nephew of Sigmund Freud, was truly the architect of the modern science of propaganda through manipulating public perception, and he understood very well that the public could be sold any idea if packaged effectively.

Leaving aside the larger implications of Bernays’ definition of propaganda and its ramifications, as it pertains to the early music industry, propaganda is consciously employed to color the perception of how listeners have access to and how they embrace early music as a product.  Those who fail to understand this reality are subject to manipulation, which may be just fine for many listeners.  But those who care to peer behind the curtain will better understand how the market forces are manipulated by promoters, and they may clearly see how their choices are not in fact guided by serendipitous discovery.

Today more than ever before, “our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested”, in fact all information that enters our consciousness through electronic means has been specifically tailored either to pique our interest or fulfill a need or desire we have blithely expressed in an email or over the phone—or even at home muttering to oneself near one’s television.  This is not conjecture.  This is fact.  Early music promoters are embracing the same techniques as Amazon and Google and other organizations who know more about your tastes and habits than you can imagine.  You have been profiled and your interest in historical music has been duly noted, down to whether you prefer the soothing English cathedral choral sounds or the more cerebral (if jangly) sound of Bach’s music on the harpsichord.

The business end of early music affects all of us, whether listener or performer, and we can say without reservation that is why the story of Mignarda is so very unusual.  We created our own approach to historical music based upon our own diligent research that is equal to but separate from the academic/music industry publicity machine.  We consciously made our music available to a broad audience, secure in the premise that music performed in a direct manner and sung in a more period-appropriate natural voice would attract listeners who have not drunk the Kool-Aid of the academic/music industry publicity machine.

“Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”

– Ralph Waldo Emerson