Despite our dwelling in the age of the painfully obvious, from time to time we feel compelled to offer a few remarks on the subject of voice, our thoughts on vocal qualities and our conscious interpretive choices. As with the shining example of one of our very favorite singers, Marco Beasley, interpreting early music with a natural vocal production points the way toward more sensitive and much more communicative historically-appropriate performances.
But pursuing such a path has not made for a particularly easy journey in a field of musical performance that, oddly, remains influenced more by Victorian rules and aesthetics than by 16th-century ideals. Recordings of early music continue to feature vocalists employing conventional conservatory training that, while practical for a very wide range of music from the 17th century onward, employs techniques having very little to with the aesthetics of earlier music.
“For he, Sire, 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, and of whom one should beware as not fortunately born.”
– Pierre de Ronsard (1524-1585), from the dedication of Livre des mélanges, 1560.
Since singing with the lute requires an acute sense of balance and sensitivity to polyphonic interplay, Ronsard’s “natural voice” is the most justifiable solution for such intimate music. But we also perform sacred and secular ensemble music for a cappella voices, and are aware of the need for adapting projection to meet the demands of singing polyphony with larger forces in larger spaces.
“A particularly striking crudity is that of singing the high notes with a loud tone, indeed with full lung power…The lower notes are to be sung entirely from the chest, the middle ones with moderate strength, the high ones with a soft voice.”
– Conrad von Zabern, Modo bene cantandi, 1474
Currently focusing on the music of Josquin, we are fortunate to have come across the work of Rebecca Stewart and her timeless article, “In principio erat verbum. A Physiological and Linguistic Study of Male Vocal Types, Timbres and Techniques in the Music of Josquin des Prez”.
“Information provided by physiological, linguistic, musical and historical data shows the following: Firstly, the music of Josquin (and consequently the manner of its performance) was initially molded by his French linguistic background. Secondly, partially as a result of living in Italy for most of the years between 1459 and 1504 and of learning the language, this music and its performance underwent a major transformation. During this period the Italian language was beginning to compete with French as a language of the cultured and artistic classes. Thirdly, an understanding of the at last partially linguistic change in Josquin’s style of composition, makes it possible to discuss the various vocal types, timbres and techniques appropriate for the singing of this music, without having to rely completely on one’s own instinctive preferences.”
“Leaving aside the musical and historical evidence, the two primary arguments in support of these contentions are the following: (1) Physiologically, the human larynx has remained basically unchanged since man became a speaking and singing creature. Taking into consideration the influence upon it of racial types, this mechanism can be used as a reliable measuring device in the determination of basic vocal types and ranges. (2) The singing voice is largely determined and limited by the language spoken since early childhood. Thus, questions concerning vocal timbres and techniques may in part be answered when viewed as an aspect of linguistic bias. Although genetic characteristics do influence the size of the vocal folds and other physiological aspects, such as the construction of the mouth, it is the language which influences the habitual use of the lips, tongue, soft palate, nose and larynx. These organs, working together in very specific ways, create the timbres and techniques which we associate with equally specific vocal styles.”
– Howard M. Brown and Rebecca Stewart, “Workshop IV. Voice Types in Josquin’s Music”, Tijdschrift van de Vereniging voor Nederlandse Muziekgeschiedenis, Deel 35, No.1/2, Proceedings of the Josquin Symposium. Cologne, 11-15 July 1984 (1985), pp. 97-193.
While we are not capable of retooling our genetic material in order to reproduce historical geographic and linguistic mannerisms with complete accuracy, we can at least be guided by this information when pursuing historically sensitive performances. But what is more important is the idea of incorporating such historical information as refinements of our personal style, and voicing our interpretive choices in ways that move the listener. Successfully giving voice to any sort of music requires understanding.
“The expressions ‘voicing an idea’, ‘giving voice’, the ‘voice of the nation’,and the like are derived from this power of the voice. Voting, casting a vote, in our political system also means to give or actually temporarily ‘lend’ our voice to someone else. In German and Dutch this is even more evident; the German word Stimme means both voice and vote, exactly like the Dutch word stem. Stimme in German and stem in Dutch also connect to a completely different dimension of voice. In both languages the derived noun Stimmung/stemming and the verb stimmen/stemmen mean ‘(the) tuning (of) an instrument’ and at the same time a ‘mood’. This is particularly interesting, as it creates an intricate web of interconnected applications of the voice-complex.”
“Voice is a way to express emotions and ideas, but voice also is emotion and idea. The connection between tuning and mood is well known in musicological literature, and the fact that this is also related to voice – as the primary carrier of emotion – only underlines its relevance. Additionally, there are ‘voices’ in a musical piece; especially in polyphony it is common to consider each melodic line to represent or actually to be a voice. Again, in English this meaning is less evident, as the ‘voices’ are often called ‘parts’.”
Interpretive success in music, as in speech, can only be measured by whether the listener is convinced by the performance. “Voicing”, in an intentionally backwards hierarchy of importance, is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “Speech, talk, vocal utterance”, or “A manner of performing music for the voice; the composition or arrangement of vocal parts in a piece of music”, or finally as “The action, fact, or process of voting by voice; election, nomination, or decision by vote.”
“Every day I wake up determined to deliver for the people I have met all across this nation that have been ignored, neglected and abandoned…These are people who work hard but no longer have a voice”… I am your voice.”
– Donald Trump
The more thoughtful and critical thinkers among us would take issue with the very idea of ceding our voice to a person incapable of speaking in a gracious and dignified manner using complete intelligible sentences. There is something sinister yet vaguely familiar about the idea of a person—whose only apparent qualification for office is having been born to wealth—acting in the interest of the disenfranchised. We sincerely hope the disenfranchised are capable of learning from history.
Occasionally even the most confirmed advocate of early music tires of a serious life in the slow lane and longs for a bit of fun. And what could be more fun than a dose of accordion music?
The much-maligned accordion, often called the Stomach Steinway or the Belly Baldwin, is a staple for many kinds of music from every corner of the globe, but is probably the opposite of the lute in every respect. Listeners seldom complain that the instrument is too quiet. While tuning and temperament are matters pertinent to different styles of music, string material and the particular plane of the finger are simply not issues discussed ad nauseam by players when two or more accordionists congregate. And employed as an accompanying instrument, singers who wish to add a little wobble to their pitch are seldom subject to displays of the curled lip and the arched brow from their accompanist.
Probably the primary difference between a lutenist and a musician who plays the accordion is that one of the two actually works for serious money.
“I knew nothing of the real life of a musician, but I seemed to see myself standing in front of great crowds of people, playing my accordion.”
– Lawrence Welk
Able to negotiate a vast repertory, the instrument also occupies the concert stage with the same noble air and gravitas as the quiet lute, as can be heard in this piece by the famous composer, Frankie Milano. And one can hear a pleasing rendition of Hausmusik performed by a possible descendant of the aforementioned composer, played entirely without pickups and eschewing the usual plunk, plunk, sprong to which we have become inured by our legion of lutenists. Or we can hear more serious works borrowed from the repertory of an instrument that is probably its closest relative.
And the true character of Monteverdi’s music finally comes to life when played on the accordion. Had Monteverdi known about the existence of the accordion, there would never had been this impractical nonsense of over-stuffing the orchestra pit with giraffe-necked theorboes in multiples of five. And of course Vivaldi has never sounded better than on the instrument that most accurately realizes the composer’s ideas.
Accordions are much less difficult to locate, and instrument builders typically deliver them to clients without a song and dance and a ten-year delay. Sadly, there exists no bricks and mortar Lute-O-Rama where the prospective lutenist might visit, spend the day and compare a wide variety of instruments in various shapes and sizes. In fact, luthiers could do worse than learn from this example of a questionnaire designed to elicit important information from their clients, particularly on the essential matter of rhinestones.
We are quite fond of the triplet-rich French cafe accordion sound, and indulge without irony whenever we become entirely sick of lutes and their utter un-dependability. The accordion is the anti-lute.
Addendum: Roman Turovsky kindly shared a link to a video that features lute and accordion together.
As our regular readers will note, we frequently flog the theme of how our lives have been affected by the creeping ooze of technology, and just how important it is to cling to human values in the face of a world that is increasingly defined by apps, algorithms and the insistent demands of various database criteria. The unique needs and contributions of human beings as they make their way through the world are rapidly giving way to the sometimes ridiculously inconvenient requirements of the electronic devices they use, making us all a little less unique and a little less human day by day.
The “analog” life has become a thing of the past, and it is nearly impossible for many people to find their way without GPS, or to accomplish simple tasks without a laptop, Google, and unlimited bandwith, or to communicate on a basic level without a “smart” phone cradled in their palms; greasy plastic screens reflecting the octopus-like twirl of continually twitching thumbs. Formerly, we thumbed through books, magazines or newspapers to absorb the lessons of history, or to indulge in an entertaining short story, or just to get the news. But the black-smudged thumb that identified an intelligent and informed reader of the news is now nowhere to be seen; instead we are seeing long lines of phone addicts queuing up at the clinic seeking treatment for De Quervain’s tenosynovitis.
We have been thumbing through the Guardian, in print and on line, for the past fifteen years, and have greatly appreciated what may have been an objective and alternative view of world events and life in these United States. We discovered clear-thinking columnists including Gary Younge and Glen Greenwald, whose important work came to the fore during the publication of the Edward Snowden articles. We grew to appreciate the courageous and principled leadership of Alan Rusbridger, who boldly defied the directives of the US and UK government intelligence machine.
But we have watched with growing dismay the way the Guardian has chosen to adapt to the immediate present. After the buzz of the Snowden articles subsided, something vaguely sinister happened to the character of the Guardian. The brilliant columnists we liked so well were marginalized and Rusbridger was simply put out to pasture, replaced by a new managing editor with firm US connections. Balanced and factual news reporting took a backseat to fluff pieces detailing the lives of insipid pop personalities and advertisements for book or product releases disguised as news items. What happened to our favorite source of news?
The Guardian capitalized on its US connections to present itself as an alternative source of US news, appearing to cram a weasel’s share of purloined eggs into their smallish basket. With its questionable approach to reporting on the last presidential primary race, the Guardian cemented its fate. Choosing to pursue an ill-conceived approach based upon an unworkable model, old (and at times elitist) attitudes toward the presentation of the news emerged, combined with a very awkward attempt to maintain an up-to-date online presence.
A pervasive and sustained editorial bias stretched the bounds of belief as the Guardian did everything in their power to cast Hillary Clinton as the anointed favorite and depict all others either as clowns or ranting extremists. To be fair, in many cases they were right, and the Republican candidates were a very easy mark. But the way the Guardian’s editorial bias marginalized reporting on the campaign of Bernie Sanders is simply indefensible and inexcusable. In lockstep with many prominent US media outlets, the Guardian’s reporting on the primary alienated an unprecedented number of readers and untold numbers of commenters pointed out their observations regarding the skewed reporting, only to have their comments removed. The Guardian finally gave in and allowed perhaps four objective opinion pieces by Trevor Timm to filter into the lower quadrant of their web site, but too little too late.
Having alienated so very many readers by presuming she could shape the news in the manner of William Randolph Hearst, the current editor of the Guardian is now complaining that their readership is dwindling, and that paid subscriptions have fallen off. Might we suggest a glance in the mirror will reveal the source of the problem. We are not exactly sure what has become of the Guardian of old, but it is simply no longer a trusted source of news. We bid farewell to a once-respected institution.
“…The Art of Fugue is invariably presented in ‘complete’ performances which strike one rather as exercises in musical sado-masochism.”
– Howard Schott, in a review of Bach, edited by Charles Rosen, Early Music, Vol. V, No. 3, 1977, p. 415.
What is with our obsession to buy box-set recordings of “the complete works” of a composer? Or to attend or produce concert programs that focus on music from a single source? Or, as alluded to above, promoting the artistic indulgence of sitting through all 30 of the so-called Goldberg Variations?
This entirely anachronistic practice is among the worst of the many, many modernisms we foist upon early music when producing concerts or recordings. And, like so many, many modernisms, it is done for purely commercial reasons—to more conveniently package a product for the marketplace. Or it is done for arcane academic reasons—to satisfy the requirements of one of our artificially-contrived categories imposed upon an historical era, developed primarily for the ease of teaching a seminar course.
What today’s audiences want is what audiences have always wanted: Variety. And as it turns out, a pleasing variety in a concert program is actually an historically accurate representation of entertainment of days gone by, domestic or public. If we examine some of the circa 1600 commonplace manuscript books containing English lute music, there is a great deal of variety in the forms and styles of music for domestic use, ranging from psalm settings, to lively dances, to heady arrangements of vocal polyphony, and to downright bawdy songs.
Variety was the theme and, of the surviving published works of music from the same time and place, Robert Dowland’s two 1610 publications are the best known among today’s lute oriented populaton. The title to the collection of songs says it all: A MVSICALL BANQVET – Furnished with a varietie of delicious Ayres, Collected out of the best Authors in English, French, Spanish and Italian. And variety was so important that Dowland’s collection of lute solos was titled thus: Varietie of Lute-lessons viz. Fantasies, Pauins, Galliards, Almaines, Corantoes, and Volts: Selected out of the best approued AVTHORS, as well beyond the Seas as of our owne Country. The program notes to Nigel North’s excellent recording of music from this collection reinforce the importance of our theme:
“One of the many aspects of this collection which I love is the true ‘varietie’ of the music; the astonishing way that each lutenist-composer uses the instrument in such unique personal ways. Compare, for example,the exuberant broken-chord division style in Batchelar’s ‘Monsiuers Almaine’; the wonderfully melodic style of John Dowland; the chromatic writing with wild changes of mood and pace which we find in the fantasie of Diomedes Cato; the perfect counterpoint of Morley and the wonderful sonorities of the Prince of Hessen’s Pavan.”
– Nigel North, from the CD booklet to A Varietie of Lute Lessons, Linn Records BKD 097
Domestic entertainment of some sort was a staple of each and every household, from the wheeze of bagpipes, fiddles and mouth-music, to music sampled from a well-stocked library and employing a full chest of viols. But the notion of public concerts seriously took root in late 17th century London—a bit after the protolithic Ukip Trump troop occupation had finally run its course.
“The theatres, closed during the greater part of the Commonwealth period, flourished once again, and in 1672 John Banister established a series of public concerts at Whitefriars which became the model for many similar ventures, at York Buildings and elsewhere. At Banister’s concerts the performers were ‘mercenary teachers, chiefly forreiners’, and indeed foreign musicians, for whom the King had already shewn an open preference both in his chapel music and in the band of violins, were not slow to take advantage of the new opportunities offered by the early development of concert-giving in this country. Writing some time later, Roger North tells us that they soon found out ‘the Grand secret, that the English would follow Musick & drop their pence freely, of which some advantage hath bin since made’.”
And for concert repertory, variety was the watchword.
“Nearly all these early concerts consisted of ‘vocal and instrumental music’—the recital by a single performer was then unknown. As a rule the number of performers was probably quite small, since promoters seemed to regard thirty or more executants as a special attraction to be mentioned in the advertisement. The vocal music, particularly in the case of odes and feast-songs, is often specified exactly, but similar details of the instrumental music, for the most part chamber music, are rarely given. The programmes were often arranged very haphazardly: North, writing of York Buildings, says, ‘Here was consorts, fuges, solos, lutes, Hautbois, trumpets, kettledrums, and what Not but all disjoynted and incoherent for while ye masters were shuffling out & in of places to take their parts there was a totall cessation, and None knew what would come next; all this was utterly against the true Model of an entertainment, which [for] want of unity is allway spoiled’.” Elsewhere he suggests that the ‘thoroughbass should never cease but play continuously’ throughout the concert, which should not last more than an hour,” though even then they frequently lasted three hours or more.”
– Michael Tilmouth, “Some Early London Concerts and Music Clubs, 1670-1720”,
Proceedings of the Royal Musical Association, 84th Sess. (1957 – 1958), pp. 13-26.
Constituting one of the first large-scale early music revivals, the better-organized Concert of Antient Music was established in 1776 with the guiding rule that they would feature no music that had been composed within the previous twenty years. These public concert programs did not abrade the ears of the audience with, for instance, Monteverdi’s Madrigali guerrieri et amorosi, 1638, performed in its entirety, but rather catered to a discerning audience with a pleasing variety.
From the original A Dictionary of Music and Musicians, edited by George Grove, “Ancient Concerts”, by Charles Mackeson:
“The earlier programmes included an overture (usually one of Handel’s), two or three concertos by Handel, Martini, Corelli, Avison, or Geminiani, several choruses and solos from Handel’s oratorios, and an anthem, glee, or madrigal; but occasionally an entire work, such as the Dettingen ‘Te Deum,’ was given as the first part of the concert.”
So much for our obsession with programmatic unity based only upon silly categorical constraints. If we really care about historical performance practice, we’ll stop already with staging an entire concert of lute works by Al the Ripper, or Louie Milan, or Sly “the somnambulist” Weiss. It’s no wonder the poor unsuspecting lute has gained an undeserved reputation today as yawn-inducing; an instrument seldom seen and hardly heard on the concert platform. Our best concert artistes appear to be doing their level best to eradicate the last vestiges of an appreciative audience by boring them to death with academic essays.
It is in fact possible to arrange a satisfying concert program that represents good music in an historically-accurate manner. It does not have to be a choice between the integrity of one’s scholarship and a satisfying listening experience. We’ll save the winning formula for a later post.
Recording can be a grueling enterprise, particularly when attempting to capture complete live recordings of very transparent music for solo voice and lute. Our venue is a beautiful spacious church that compliments our quiet music very nicely, but even the most serene space and the best acoustic is subject to the crashbang assault of the sounds of modern life when it is situated in an urban setting. Interruptions are manifold, and in our attempt to capture complete performances of pieces, we are forced to begin again and again and again.
During a session last Wednesday, we found ourselves reaching the limit with a late medieval piece—an extremely wordy and endless text that barely offered space for the occasional breath coupled with an equally relentless lute part. The neighborhood was hopping that particular evening with trains, motorcycles, heavy truck traffic, lawnmowers and, ironically, unexpected church bells. Frustration was mounting and diversion was necessary.
We find that a sure cure in such cases is to play a piece we have not seen in a long while to divert our attention from the problems at hand. In this case, the piece was “Bist du bei mir” from the 1725 Anna Magdalena Bach notebook. Formerly attributed to J. S. Bach, the popular air is now firmly attributed to Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel, from his opera Diomedes, oder die triumphierende Unschuld, performed in Bayreuth on November 16, 1718. While the music of Bach is several generations outside the bounds of our usual repertory, we have been asked to perform the air on several occasions, and we keep it handy as an encore piece when appropriate.
As it turned out, the traffic died down and the fates were with us as we slipped into what is nearly the opposite mood of the piece that had been giving us grief. You can hear the result here.
Time marches on and change is inevitable. In recent memory we have seen so many cherished mileposts bulldozed and converted to splinters as we see the well-drained walkable village path of our lives widened and paved over with impermeable macadam; converted to a smooth superhighway lined with looming big box stores.
Those of us deeply involved in early music have been so because it is more than just an idle curiosity. To the cognoscenti, the study and performance of early music can be a sanctuary in which we rekindle faint memories of a time when music served a function much greater than insubstantial entertainment. Early music has more dimension and depth because life in the past was lived in real time without the interference of today’s electronic distractions that tend to insinuate themselves into every aspect of our existence, preoccupying our little grey cells with insipid, manifold and diverse rituals of use.
Historically, music had power and meaning, symbolism and significance. Attaining a level of skill in music beyond competence signified that a person was likewise skilled in literary arts, physical science, mathematics, philosophy, and had a deep faith and abiding correspondence with the divine. Playing the lute well was likened to possessing a highly developed oratorical skill, and the endeavor required a great deal of time and personal commitment. A sensitive rendering of the better sort of music composed in the 16th century demanded a depth of understanding that went far deeper than mere technical skill. For instance, John Dowland had little patience for those who believed that musical skill began and ended with a deft hand: “let them remember that their skill lyeth not in their fingers endes” (“To the Reader“, Pilgrimes Solace, 1612).
Luthier Robert Lundberg (1948 – 2001) suggested that perhaps late 20th-century revivalists were drawn to early music because art music of our time is in crisis. We can’t agree more. In contrast to the music of Jacob Obrecht, for instance, with his intellectually satisfying strict canonic treatment employing clever musical themes, sensitively wrought with an emotionally pleasing melodic result, most modern art music is the musical equivalent of tossing a tin of paint against a wall and hoping for a meaningful result. But music reflects the tenor of the times, and it’s no wonder that most art music today represents the direct opposite of serene beauty, but rather tends toward unsettling cacophony and is uniformly draped with irony. Meanwhile, pop music gets dumb and dumber—autotuned mumblecore vocals set to a synthetic beat. Does this represent evolutionary progress? We think not.
Musical style as measured along the progression of time does not necessarily demonstrate a trend of refinement and sophistication. How can it possibly be so when music education today has been marginalized? And how can those who pursue music as a profession possibly aim for an ever higher level of artistry when tech companies have made it impossible for “content creators”to earn a living from recordings? The result is, unsurprisingly, a trajectory that adjusts artistic value downward toward the lowest common denominator.
Here in the US there is no denying the fact that the early music revival is in decline. This is so for a number of reasons that have to do with market economies and little to do with the music’s appeal. But a major factor is the “greying” of both performers and audience. In its nascent days, the early music revival was a phenomenon that provided subject matter for academics in search of a theme and a focus, enabled the less conventionally-minded conservatory musician an opportunity to specialize in what seemed like a growth industry, gave audiences alternative musical entertainment with a whiff of history about it, and it also provided amateur musicians possessing an interest in historical music—and possessing an ample budget for instruments—the opportunity to delve into interesting repertory, much of which was accessible to an amateur standard of play.
The decline of the early music revival in the US was unwittingly hastened by all the participants listed above happily indulging themselves in a “summer camp” mentality; self-absorbed professionals and hobbyists alike striving to keep the buzz of discovery alive as a monument to their youth, rather than creating a lasting legacy focused on nurturing a diverse population of fresh faces and forward-thinking adaptable personalities who would carry the torch. If we step back a moment, we can view the early music “industry” from a more generic organizational perspective, and those of us who have studied organizational behavior will recognize the signs of an organization in decline:
1.) The organization exhibits a lack of understanding the environmental and economic realities confronting it, or is in denial
2.) The management of the organization is arrogant with regard to its view of the world & assessment of its internal competencies. Ex: Icarus Paradox
3.) The organization has lost perspective with respect to customers, products, suppliers, and competitors
4.) Management and employees have an insular focus or preoccupation with internal processes, internal measurements, and politics
5.) The organization has lost its sense of urgency and lacks an attitude of self-determination
6.) The organization is relying on historical and poorly conceptualized or inappropriate business strategies and traditional management methods to address new & different challenges
7.) The organization has the propensity to repeat mistakes and fails to learn from past experiences
8.) The organization has low or slow innovation practices and is late to market with new products/services
9.) The organization has a tendency to recycle marginally performing managers
10.) The organization relies exclusively on internal talent as a source of leadership
The long-term solution to a waning interest in early music is certainly not the introduction of gimmicks. For instance, the Noble Lute (the Best of Instruments) has quite enough high-quality challenging historical repertory without subjecting it to cute tricks and other indignities in an attempt to broaden its appeal. Some new music for the lute, composed and performed by dedicated individuals who are both talented composers and convincing performers, has a unique appeal that places it in a class of its own. But having heard quite a bit of new music composed for the lute, is is easy to categorize the same into the following: 1) guitaristic music that doesn’t really take advantage of the lute’s tonal or aesthetic qualities, 2) weird atonal nonsense that is just plain embarrassing when foisted upon an instrument with a dignified and noble character (imagine a rendering of Queen Elizabeth I dressed in punky garb with tattoos and an asymmetrical hairstyle), and 3) music that works. Of the third category, music of diverse styles can work on the lute if it takes advantage of the instrument’s polyphonic capabilities, cross-string resonance, has clear and supple bass lines, and has a tuneful top-string melody.
But what of the long-term fate of early music? Will the revival survive? Or will early music be catalogued as a passing fancy among the broad mix of listening “content” made available by the tech giants? Can early music stand on its own as a genre once separated from the academic world (who is there to tell us it’s better than it sounds)?
If historical music is performed with informed skill and a sense of understanding of its context—and with a bit of panache—it can be just as effective as later, supposedly more expressive music. We never fail to point out to our audiences that people who happened to live in the early 16th century experienced many of the same physical and emotional responses we do today. As it turns out, the modern human condition isn’t really much different from that of the old ones; we just have different toys and different distractions. And simply because early representational art lacked dimension, the lack of conventional expressive markings in use today does in no way indicate that singers and instrumentalists performed deadpan and ignored the passion and meaning of the texts. Or ignored the rising and falling of musical phases. Or ignored the important dance-like rhythmic pulses. We like to imagine just what Black Bart Tromboncino (c. 1470 – 1535), a man not known for his temperate behavior, would have to say if he heard his rhythmically vital musical settings of passionate texts performed in a detached and bloodless “churchy” manner.
While we are not musical prudes who completely lack an appreciation for all modern sounds, our duo is committed to continue to research and perform old music without gimmicks. And, interestingly, our audiences appear to be steadily growing. We believe it takes a lifetime of specialization to do justice to a given genre of music from a particular era, and we’re not finished exploring the historically-appropriate expressive possibilities. In order to perform old music well, it must be performed like a composition created in the present moment, just like when it was new. The music deserves just that sort of approach.
Tracing the continuum of history, we see evidence of innovations in music and adaptations to instruments and vocal technique in order to take advantage of an ever expanding musical vocabulary. Innovations have occurred and will occur as long as thinking persons interact, employ the little grey cells, and dare to experiment with received ideas. But does innovation always result in refinement? And does innovation necessarily require outright rejection of accumulated wisdom? One can say it depends upon whose innovation is under consideration, and it depends upon a careful examination of their motives. By way of illustration, we humbly self-quote from a previous post:
“History is indeed a continuum that is interrupted from time to time when those with an axe to grind wield said axe to chop away a segment, rewrite it to suit their purpose, and paste it back in place with skewed alignment.”
“Innovation” appears to be a (possibly trademarked) buzzword currently in use by the tech industry and their counterparts, an issue to which we’ll return. But first, we must dip into definition in order to identify innovation as it appears along the continuum of historical music, and to understand which segments we choose to excise and label as historically “correct”, and why.
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) gives the primary definition of innovation as “The action of innovating; the introduction of novelties; the alteration of what is established by the introduction of new elements or forms.” Interestingly, innovation was formerly seen in a less favorable light, or as a sly and underhanded mode of deception. In Shakespeare’s The First Part of King Henry the Fourth (1598), Act V: Scene i, King Henry chides the Earl of Worcester for what he sees as an unnecessary insurrection: “As now we meet. You have deceived our trust, And made us doff our easy robes of peace…”:
These things indeede you haue articulated,
Proclaim’d at Market Crosses, read in Churches,
To face the Garment of Rebellion
With some fine colour, that may please the eye
Of fickle Changelings, and poore Discontents,
Which gape, and rub the Elbow at the newes
Of hurly burly Innouation:
And neuer yet did Insurrection want
Such water‑colours, to impaint his cause:
Nor moody Beggars, staruing for a time
Of pell‑mell hauocke, and confusion.
A hurly burly innovation indeed. In the 20th century, innovation took on a less undesirable meaning in a distinctly commercial context, and the OED defines innovation in the more current 21st-century sense of the word as “The action of introducing a new product into the market; a product newly brought on to the market.” This new sense of the term lent legitimacy to the rejection of the old and the embracing of new ideas as a positive step. But here is the point at which large-scale commercialism overtakes incremental common sense. Innovation tends to reject precedent, and those who cling to the past are considered conservative.
We have seen that a person can be conservative about certain technological innovations, yet very forward-looking concerning theoretical ideas. Vincenzo Galilei (c.1520 – 1591), lutenist, music theorist and famous as the father of Galileo, is known for his role in advancing the more expressive solo song, paving the way for the likes of Caccini and Monteverdi. But Vincenzo scoffed at the idea of adding bass strings to the more conventional six-course lute; a modification which he saw as an unnecessary mechanical simplification of a perfect instrument.
Or take the case of mathematician John Wallis (1616 – 1703) who studied musical temperament and the properties of vibrating strings. In his letter, “Concerning the Strange Effects reported of Musick in Former Times, beyond what is to be found in Later Ages”, Wallis speculated that perhaps music that was tuned and tempered in just intonation might evoke the kind of moral reaction in listeners as described by Plato. That is, assuming that the ancients weren’t just simpletons with a tendency toward exaggeration in their idealistic descriptions. This is another example of a forward-looking scientist looking backward to test innovation against precedent.
Is innovation always good? It depends upon whether innovation retains its former derogatory sense, which it does when an idea is driven solely by commercial interest with no consideration for the consequence of change.
“It matters little whether or not an innovation has a great degree of advantage over the idea it is replacing. What does matter is whether the individual perceives the relative advantage of the innovation.”
– Everett M. Rogers (1931 – 2004), Diffusion of Innovations, Free Press of Glencoe, New York, 1962.
So here we are. Innovation for innovation’s sake promoted by and for commercial interests. A thinking person who values the aesthetics of historical music would take pause and consider the value of innovations on a case-by-case basis. Those of us involved in recreating the aesthetics of the past are probably more rightly engaged in renovation rather than innovation.
As mentioned above, “innovation” is a concept and a buzz-word for new ideas meant to repair age-old problems. Really? We leave you with the compelling insights of Thomas Frank from his book, Listen, Liberal, Henry Holt and Company, New York, 2016.
“…The last fifteen years have been a golden age of financial and software innovation, but they have been feeble in terms of GDP growth. In ideological terms, however, innovation definitely works: as a way of excusing soaring inequality and explaining the exalted status of the rich, it is the best we’ve got.”
“In truth, however, nothing is inevitable and very little is new. And tech is no more the root of the problem than are trade or globalization. Many of our most vaunted innovations are simply methods—electronic or otherwise—of pulling off some age-old profit-maximizing maneuver by new and unregulated means. Sometimes they are designed to accomplish things that would be regulated or even illegal under other circumstances, or else they are designed to alter relationships of economic power in some ingenious way—to strip away this or that protection from workers or copyright holders, for example.”
“Consider the many celebrated business innovations that are, in reality, nothing more than instruments to get around our society’s traditional middle-class economic arrangements. Uber is the most obvious example: much of its value comes not from the efficiencies in taxi-hailing that it has engineered but rather from the way it allows the company to circumvent state and local rules having to do with safety and sometimes insurance.”
“The circumvention strategy is everywhere in inno-land once you start looking for it. Airbnb allows consumers and providers to get around various safety and zoning rules with which conventional hotels must comply. Amazon allows customers in many places to avoid paying sales taxes. The circumvention strategy isn’t restricted to software innovations, either. One of the great attractions of credit default swaps—a big financial innovation of the last decade—is that they were completely unregulated.”