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Saturday morning quotes 6.22: Alt-Early Music III

so-hipThere has been quite a bit of discussion of late about just what is historically-informed performance—or HIP—and also how the term is applied and by whom?  The issue fits squarely into our discourse of Alt-early music and, due to an impending rehearsal and urgent family matters, we’ll only touch on the topic briefly in today’s post.  To atone for the brevity, we offer a small musical example of how we research repertory but stretch the artificially imposed and sometimes uninformed constraints of conventional scholarship by reaching back to avail ourselves to the tools and techniques skilled musicians have always used.

First, a definition of historically-informed performance from an organization calling itself SoHIP:

“There are many ideas of what HIP consists of, but at its most basic level, it means performing music with special attention to the technology and performance conventions that were present when a piece of music was composed.”

“The truth is that majority of what we consider historically informed performance practices are speculative, and based on the best information available to the musicians and scholars of our era.”

The composer Pierre Guédron (c. 1570  – 1620) was a singer at the Chapelle Royale as early as 1588 and was active as a composer of airs and ballets de cour at the courts of Henri IV and Louis XIII.  In 1601, he succeeded Claude Le Jeune as the maître de la Musique de la Chambre du roi, a post which he maintained through 1613 when it was bequeathed to his son-in-law, Antoine Boësset.

The air “Bien  qu’un  cruel  martire” was published in a polyphonic version in 1608 in Airs de cour à 4 et 5 parties, and also in a version for voice and lute published the same year in the first volume of the Airs de différents auteurs mis en tablature de lute par Gabriel Bataille (Bataille, 1608, f. 27′ – 28).  For the arrangement for solo voice and lute, Bataille’s publication transposed the polyphonic air to a key that suited the format, with the stratospheric voice line in what we affectionately call “dog-whistle range” and the lute part arranged in nominal f-minor, assuming a lute tuned in our modern standard of “G”.  There also survives a version of the triple-time air in nominal c-minor fingering for the lute as found in the lute book of Edward, 1st Lord Herbert of Cherbury (c. 1582 – 1648), which is in the collection of The Fitzwilliam Museum (MU MS 689 f. 69v).  The piece, labeled “Courante” is speculatively attributed to a person named Belleville, but is clearly an arrangement of Guédron’s air—or perhaps vice-versa.

When the modern editor André Verchaly published his collection of airs, he transposed the keyboard transcription of the lute part to fit the key of the voice part in Baitaille’s original print.  This was a justifiable compromise acting upon the best information available at the time, but the transposition created a lasting misconception about the pitch and tuning of the lute from the time of Guédron.  Historically-informed musicians know better than to take a voice part from an old print or manuscript written in a particular clef at face value.  Transposition was and is implicit.

Throughout history, musicians have always placed the pitch of a sung lyric in the range that 1) best suits their voice, and 2) best communicates the text.  Following the historical examples, we transposed the air as found in Bataille to match that of the Courante as found in the Herbert manuscript.  The scores may be found here and the recording from our 2005 CD Divine Amarillis may be found here.

Bien qu’un cruel martire me rende languissant
Et que plus je soupire, plus mon mal va croissant.
La cause en est si belle, que soufrant le trespas
Cent fois pour elle, Je ne m’en plaindrois pas.

Tout les maux dont se trouve mon esprit agité
Ne servent que de preuve à ma fidélité
Dont la cause en est si belle, que soufrant le trespas
Cent fois pour elle, Je ne m’en plaindrois pas.

J’ai cela d’avantage sur les autres amants
Que jamais mon courage ne s’étonne aux tourments
Car la cause est si belle, que soufrant le trespas
Cent fois pour elle, Je ne m’en plaindrois pas.

Je ne crains leurs supplices Plustot je les chéris
Et les tiens pour délices les souffrant pour Cloris,
Cloris qu’on voit si belle, que soufrant le tres pas
Cent fois pour elle, Je ne m’en plaindrois pas.

Even though a cruel martyrdom makes me listless
And the more I breathe, the greater my ill.
The cause of it is so lovely that were I to suffer death
A hundred times for her, I should not complain.

All the ills by which my mind is perturbed
Serve only as proof of my faithfulness.
The cause of it is so lovely that suffering death
A hundred times for her, I should not complain.

I have this advantage over other lovers:
My courage is never astonished by torments.
The cause of it is so lovely that suffering death
A hundred times for her, I should not complain.

I fear not their torture; rather, I cherish it
And view it as a delight, suffering it for Cloris,
Cloris, seen so beautiful that suffering death
A hundred times for her, I should not complain.

Alternative voices

hourglassWe observe the looming presidential election cycle with a mounting sense of dread and dismay.  The primary media outlets are shaping the message to such a great extent that we feel that individuals connecting with individuals is the only route to communicating authentic information.

Donald Trump is nothing more or less than an embarrassing reminder that our political system is entirely dysfunctional.  That a person with such laughably absent oratorical skills is occupying the platform as the voice of one of our major political parties simply marginalizes that party and all it stands for.  But Hillary Clinton is most emphatically not a better choice.  As Julian Assange said, a choice between the two is like asking whether we would rather choose cholera or gonorrhea.

They are not the only choices.  But the only way we have access to information about other choices is by diligently combing through the web in search of alternatives.  Both Google and Facebook are actively suppressing news about alternative voices, leaving us with the task of seeking news from foreign sources.  But even the Guardian is in lockstep with US media in their fawning admiration for Hillary Clinton and their suppression of news about alternatives.

The Clinton campaign is so rapidly rabid in their response to any mention of alternatives that they label the least criticism of their candidate as misogyny.  We are not misogynists by any stretch of the imagination but would delight in having a woman in the White House.   Jill Stein.

Since you won’t find information about Jill Stein and what she represents without a great deal of searching, we reproduce some choice bits of her platform below, with the implicit understanding that none of these positions will be taken by the conventional candidates.  Please read and be informed of the alternatives.

  • End destructive energy extraction and associated infrastructure: fracking, tar sands, offshore drilling, oil trains, mountaintop removal, natural gas pipelines, and uranium mines. Halt any investment in fossil fuel infrastructure, including natural gas, and phase out all fossil fuel power plants. Phase out nuclear power and end nuclear subsidies.  End all subsidies for fossil fuels and impose a greenhouse gas fee / tax to charge polluters for the damage they have created.
  • Create living-wage jobs for every American who needs work, replacing unemployment offices with employment offices. Government would be the employer of last resort, and the unemployed would have an enforceable right to make government provide work. Create direct public employment, as the Works Progress Administration did,  in public services and public works for those who can’t find private employment.
  • Guarantee economic human rights, including access to food, water, housing, and utilities, with effective anti-poverty programs to ensure every American a life of dignity.
  • Establish an improved “Medicare for All” single-payer public health program to provide everyone with quality health care, at huge savings by eliminating the $400 billion annually spent on  the paperwork and bureaucracy of health insurance. No co-pays, premiums or deductibles. Access to all health care services, including mental health, dental, and vision. Include everyone, period. No restrictions based on pre-existing illness, employment, immigration status, age, or any other category.
  • Guarantee tuition-free, world-class public education from pre-school through university.
  • Restore arts, music and recreation to school curriculums.
  • Guarantee a living wage job for all. Break up “too-big-to-fail” banks and democratize the Federal Reserve.
  • Improve economic and social conditions abroad to reduce the flow of immigrant refugees, in part by repealing NAFTA, ending the failed drug wars, and halting CIA and military interventions against democratically elected governments.
  • Demilitarize the police: End training from Israeli Defense Forces on occupation-style policing; End 1033-style programs that transfer military equipment to civilian law enforcement and incentivize police departments to return military-grade weapons to federal government. End use of SWAT teams and no-knock raids for drug offenses and serving papers.
  • Terminate unconstitutional surveillance and unwarranted spying, close Guantanamo, and repeal indefinite detention without charge or trial. Repeal the unconstitutional provisions of the National Defense Authorization Act that give the president the power to indefinitely imprison and even assassinate American citizens without due process.
  • End the destructive US economic and military intervention into the affairs of sovereign nations. Such intervention serve the interests of multinational corporations and  global capitalism over the interests of the vast majority of the citizens of those nations.
  • Eliminate the doctrine of corporate personhood that among other things has been used to justify unlimited corporate spending in elections with a constitutional amendment to clarify that only human beings have constitutional rights.

Saturday morning quotes 6.21: Alt-Early Music II

stilllifewithsockmonkeyrosesEntia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem (“Entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity”)

– “Ockham’s Razor”,  William of Ockham (c. 1287 – 1347)

Following up on last week’s post, we clarify our theme, building upon our earlier overview that included mention of Christopher Hogwood (1941 – 2014), touching upon a few compelling reasons for individuals to shoulder the responsibility to lead the way, and ultimately provide a summation of sorts describing our lute-centric philosophical approach and performance style and how both fit the term we have coined – Alt-early music.

But first we justify the quote from William of Ockham.  In terms of multiplying entities, our last post discussed the current state of early music: What began as an alternative to the rather formalized and stultifying strictures of the symphony hall—and modern interpretations of ancient music—has finally become a formalized and exclusive world unto itself.  We feel the need to draw attention to the fact that there is another way that is ultimately more direct and attempts to honor what we see as the original aesthetic of the music we perform by consciously identifying and circumventing the modern aesthetics that interfere with the music’s message.

What is Alt-Early Music? In a nutshell, Alt-early music promotes all of the academic rigor and all of the seriousness of purpose of conventional early music, but adds a musician’s perspective that transcends the exclusionary barriers and increases accessibility to the music with none of the attitude.

Over the past dozen years that we’ve been performing early music as Duo Mignarda, we have consciously worked to create and refine our own unique sound.  Essentially, we began performing what we heard in our individual mind’s ears; cultivating our interpretive approach based upon our own thorough and diligent research into the historical sources of music melded with our own collaborative artistic vision.  The most significant and compelling thread we followed in our research led us to discover the important details that emerge when examining the context in which historical music was performed.  A contextual understanding reveals the subtle hints of humanity just beneath the surface of the texts; the heartbeat-like pulse that established tempo, the breath-like contours of phrasing, and the rhythmic elegance. Likewise, a contextual understanding reveals that a natural vocal production for our repertory allows what was always considered domestic music to be heard, felt and understood by an audience.

Beyond these more conceptual layers that define our approach, the nuts and bolts aspects of our rehearsal process results in performances that are secure and improvisatory.  We have collectively absorbed the mechanical details of historical interpretation and allow ourselves, as one colleague put it, to “become the music” in performance.  Our goal is to internalize each piece so that we can perform it with a sense that it is being composed on the spot.  This is a significant departure from the detached re-creative ethic one expects in performances of early music, and an approach we feel is vital if we are to demonstrate the communicative power.  We recognize that in the sixteenth century, music books were very costly and that those fortunate enough to own them played the contents again and again.  It is through this repetitive process that the important details hidden in the cracks and crevices of the music reveal themselves.

We initiated our performing career with kind encouragement from stalwart fans and with an earnest desire to share our approach with a broad listening audience, perhaps in the naive hope that the music that so moved our hearts would touch others as well.  We appear to have successfully gained a following without organizational or academic affiliations, without artist representation, and with a promotional budget of absolute zero.

Throughout our performing career, we have deliberately attempted to present an alternative approach to what we saw as an increasingly standardized and homegenous early music rather aggressively promoted by academic institutions, formal advocacy organizations and record companies.  Artists-academia-organizational-commerical links largely control the public face of early music in the US, effectively shutting out those who are not connected much the same way that corporate-banking interests collude with the mainstream press— and even with social media like Facebook and Google—to exclude the alternative voice and steer the public to the information that serves their own interests.  We have seen ample evidence of this in action over our current presidential election cycle.  From the beginning, information about Bernie Sanders was excluded from major news outlets or slanted to marginalize his message: The same dynamic continues with the mainstream news outlets completely ignoring and sidelining Jill Stein’s campaign.

Monopolies are as unhealthy in the music world just as they are in the brutal and unforgiving ugliness that is the economy, and that an exclusive and tightly-controlled organizational message that permeates festivals, workshops, the concert stage and radio airplay is eventually revealed as contrived to a broad audience of individual listeners and practitioners who see and understand.  That is why we offer an alternative voice.

Our next post will offer examples of our alternative approach with scores and audio.


Saturday morning quotes 6.20: Alt-Early Music I


“I’m all for democracy, to the point of anarchy…”

– Attributed to Christopher Hogwood (1941–2014), from Catherine Bott, “Reminiscences of Christopher Hogwood”, Early Music, Vol. xliv, No. 1, p. 5.

Choosing a different path from the more conventionally traveled road is a matter of pride for many musicians and listeners who are deeply involved in early music.  Particularly during the early days of the revival, those who were attracted to the more transparent sound of gut-strung fiddles were dismissed by the mainstream as non-serious musicians, and modern masters even claimed that the artistic potential of J.S. Bach’s works for solo violin could not possibly have been correctly realized until said masters arrived on the scene with their more highly evolved instruments, reliable strings, and 19th-century technique.  Some audaciously claimed that Bach himself could not possibly have played his own works for violin.

But any successful  movement demands leaders with a sense of direction and, in the arts, a very thick skin.  Braving the slings and arrows of conventional attitudes may possibly have been a bit easier before the age of the internet and the new yet familiar brand of “viral” mob behavior prevalent in social media platforms.  Nevertheless, stakes were high even in the rarefied world of the arts at a time when important social issues were coming to the fore.

On June 6, 1966 Robert F. Kennedy delivered a speech at the University of Capetown in South Africa, in which he outlined the dangers faced by those who lead, an historically appropriate message that may be applied to our topic.

“There is,” said an Italian philosopher, “nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.” Yet this is the measure of the task of your generation and the road is strewn with many dangers.”

[The first danger was that of] “futility; the belief there is nothing one man or one woman can do against the enormous array of the world’s ills…The second danger is that of expediency; of those who say that hopes and beliefs must bend before immediate necessities…A third danger is timidity. Few men are willing to brave the disapproval of their fellows, the censure of their colleagues, the wrath of their society. Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery…”

“For the fortunate amongst us, the fourth danger is comfort; the temptation to follow the easy and familiar path of personal ambition and financial success so grandly spread before those who have the privilege of an education. But that is not the road history has marked out for us. There is a Chinese curse which says “May he live in interesting times.” Like it or not, we live in interesting times. They are times of danger and uncertainty; but they are also the most creative of any time in the history of mankind. And everyone here will ultimately be judged – will ultimately judge himself – on the effort he has contributed to building a new world society and the extent to which his ideals and goals have shaped that effort.”

As time passed, the early music movement managed to secure a foothold as a subgenre of classical music through the efforts of leaders with a clear vision and the intelligence to have gotten into the game early on.  Christopher Hogwood was just such a person.

“No dogmatic zealot, he was instead driven by a performer’s pragmatism, by a mischievous desire to shake listeners out of complacency, and above all by intellectual curiosity.”

Editorial [Reminiscenses of Christopher Hogwood (1941–2014).], Early Music Vol. XLIV, No. 1. p. 1

But the early music movement did not necessarily gain momentum and a wide audience due to charismatic leadership alone.  The early music movement became a phenomenon largely through the effective efforts of marketing professionals who saw early music as a commodity that would likely sell among the “granola-types” who were less likely to frequent high-brow concerts by the symphony orchestra.  In the age of an increasingly ubiquitous mass media selling the message (for pay, of course), the arts took on a distinctly commercial tone, and those who were successful in early music had the backing of corporate record labels that knew the ins and outs of marketing psychology and just how to target and hook an audience.

Our quotations below are from  Nick Wilson, The Art of Re-enchantment: Making Early Music in the Modern Age, Oxford University Press, New York, 2014.

“Was interest in historically informed performance just another facet of the burgeoning heritage industry? Was the exploitation of early music little more than a commercial ruse, a means of making money by profit-driven record companies? And, more broadly, what does this specific case of cultural production reveal about the integral relationship between high culture and the market?”

– p. x

“Firstly, there is recognition that Early Music has become more than just a parochial approach to performing classical music; indeed, it represents a sizeable commercial phenomenon (a “huge industry”). Secondly, those involved in the early days of the revival were performing in a HIP manner without any formal didactic channels for training in just how to do this. Thirdly, the domination of the early music movement by a “handful of scholar-performers” begs further examination.”

– p. 22

This latter point marks where what began as alternative to conventional classical music became a convention unto itself through slick commercialization, well-managed marketing schemes, and the promotion of “stars”.  Early music became just another flavor of classical music, and the performers who managed to gain success early on retained their position through advocates who formed associations with boards populated mainly by people who could support their efforts with influence and money.

“Already by 1992, for example, Neil Zaslaw was warning of “the dangers of increased professionalism and commercialism that have accompanied the parallel successes of ‘early music’ and Early Music, ” referring here not just to the practices involved in bringing early music to the market, but also to the (academic) discourse that surrounded it.”

– p. 182

“…There has always been a lack of “churn” in the early musician labor market. A very small group of professionals came to dominate the scene, and then remained in place for many years.”

– p. 188

“Artistic decisions are invariably influenced by commercial concerns. Concert goers and many performers, to say nothing of the nonmusicians (appointed for their business skills or their bank balance) who sit on orchestral boards, readily buy into the celebrity status of big-name conductors and soloists. There is a natural inclination, after all, to want to be seen working with “the best.””

– p. 192

“Writing about the pop arts in Britain (1970), George Melly talked evocatively about “the decay of revolt into style,” referring to those exciting years in music, fashion, film, and art, in which “everything changed.” The question we return to…is whether the revolutionary spirit of Early Music has “decayed” into little more than an appropriated style that now belongs to the classical music field, or whether in fact it has managed to retain any of its revolutionary zeal, albeit in a grown up professionalized form?”

– p. 194

This sums up the situation as it stands today.  Our next post will outline alternatives to the 21st-century mainstream conventional industry that is early music.



Saturday morning quotes 6.19 In pace

commefemme-clipWe make a slight departure from our usual format for today’s post.  As so much invisible effort goes into a thoughtfully researched concert program—and there is such limited space for printed program notes—we take this opportunity to outline an appealing program of music in the hope that it will offer some small insight into the way we research, assemble, and refine our concert repertory.

Our program is in honor of the Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows, and is built upon the little-understood intersection of sacred and secular music of the late 15th century, a theme inspired in part by ideas that are distilled in The Flower of Paradise: Marian Devotion and Secular Song in Medieval and Renaissance Music, by David J. Rothenberg.


The concert program begins with a rare two-part setting of the Stabat Mater dolorosa text set to an otherwise unknown melody as found in Amiens, Bibliothèque Centrale Louis Aragon, MS 162 D (circa 1500), a collection of two- and three-part polyphony composed and collected specifically for use by the confraternity of St. Barbara at the Corbie Abbey, modern edition by Danish musicologist Peter Woetmann Christoffersen.  Christoffersen, Emeritus associate professor Musicology, University of Copenhagen, has produced a very impressive body of work focused mainly on the contents of several 15th-century chansonniers, work that is available on line.  The complete Stabat Mater text is set with a counter voice in parallel motion that frequently crosses the tenor line, creating a mesmerizing textural effect. As far as we know, our performance is the first rendering of this setting in 500 years.

Guillaume DuFay’s (1397 – 1474) “Vergene bella, che di sol vestita”, among the earliest surviving musical settings of the poetry of Francesco Petrarch (1304 – 1374), is one the most moving devotional tributes to the Virgin Mary.  While Johannes Ockeghem’s (c. 1425 – 1497) “Quant de vous seul” has not been categorized as a disguised devotional text, the rondeau’s poetry could be interpreted as such.  “D’ung aultre amer” by Ockeghem has been more clearly identified as a devotional text through Josquin’s literal quotation of the text and tune in the secunda pars of his moving four-voice motet, “Tu solus qui facis mirabilia”.

“Comme femme desconfortée”, musical setting attributed to Giles Binchois (c.1400 – 1460), is an evocatively mournful rondeau text that is linked allegorically and musically to the setting of Stabat Mater dolorosa by Josquin des Prez (c. 1450 – 1521). Josquin quoted the tenor of Binchois’ chanson verbatim throughout the motet, quadrupling the length of the notes—a line with endless longae that can only be sung by tenors capable of breathing through their ears.

“In this motet we see Josquin at his best.  He combines extensive imitation with moments of rhetorically sensitive text declamation.  Given the late emergence of the liturgical melody of the “Stabat Mater,” it is unsurprising that Josquin makes no reference to any chant melody.  His sole musical building block is the tenor of Comme femme desconfortée, which he takes as his cantus firmus.”

– Rothenberg, p. 202

Josquin’s sublime setting of the Stabat Mater was quite popular well into the 16th century, with printed versions arranged for solo lute by the likes of Simon Gintzler and Francesco da Milano.  Our performance for solo voice and lute is edited from an historical version published by Pierre Phalese in 1552, with the addition of the sustaining voice of a bowed viol on the important tenor line.

While our concert program is in part inspired by the work of two living musicologists, we also acknowledge Francesco Spinacino (fl. 1507), whose published work anthologized some of the best compositions of the late 15th century.  We dip into his large repertory of recercars and also his ample selection of arrangements of late 15th-century chansons and motets. Historians usually consider Spinacino a 16th-century lutenist-arranger, forgetting that he was a contemporary of Agricola, Josquin and Ockeghem.  This fact adds strength to our choice to draw upon Spinacino’s accidentals and ornamental divisions when performing the original setting, which adds historical spice to our performances.

Saturday morning quotes 6.18: Implied polyphony

ropeTotal immersion in polyphonic music of the sixteenth century may tend to skew one’s perceptions in terms of fitting into modern life.  For instance, polyphony in the context of most modern music usually means digitally multi-tracked cacophony rather than the elegant intertwining of several strands to make a many faceted whole.  Organists typically love to burst eardrums with later music that requires an elaborate chart and 30 minutes of adjusting stops before playing a 5-minute piece, but they always return to the densely polyphonic music of J.S. Bach when they want to impress one another.  Even so, they have ten fingers, two feet, and multiple stops available to highlight the character of different voices in a fugue.

Lutenists have four fingers of the left hand and four fingers of the right hand and tactile contact with strings to achieve the same effect.  How about a little respect?

Nevertheless, as players of stringed instruments possessing a more compact range, we find it necessary to understand and manage polyphonic music, even when it’s not entirely clear from the notation that polyphony is intended.  This case applies to the better sort of music from the late 15th century through the 18th century: Nearly every instance of what appears to be a long monophonic string of notes has a latent or implied polyphonic character, and it is up to the performer to identify and realize it as such.  Total immersion in 16th-century polyphony helps if one’s mind is open and one’s ears are alert to implied polyphonic passages, but it is baffling when recordings of even some of the most facile players demonstrate that a quite a bit more attention to detail is required.

Early and thorough grounding in polyphonic music, such as learning the duos from Mass movements intabulated by Fuenllana and Valderrabano, is a valuable aid to lutenists.  But perhaps a good middle ground for guitarists discovering lute repertory is found in the music for solo stringed instruments by J.S. Bach. Our quotes are from an excellent paper by Stacey Davis, “Implied Polyphony in the Unaccompanied String Works of J.S. Bach: A Rule System for Discerning Melodic Strata“,from the Sixth International Conference on Music Perception and Cognition, Keele, UK, August 2000, Proceedings edited by C. Woods, G.B. Luck, R. Brochard, F. Seddon, & J.A. Sloboda.

“One of the most striking and oft discussed characteristics of these pieces is their polyphonic structure. Although there are certainly movements within these sonatas that reflect the predilection of 18th century German composers for multiple stops in solo string music, the majority of these pieces are almost completely monophonic. Still, countless performers, pedagogues, and theorists maintain that there is a sense of polyphony in these movements, and that Bach created counterpoint by outlining multiple voices within a single instrumental line.”

“In a 1968 dissertation entitled Heinrich Biber and the Seventeenth Century Violin, Elias Dann made the following reference to Bach’s unaccompanied violin pieces.”

“Any superficial examination of these solos, the most polyphonic pieces ever written for the violin, will reveal so many single notes rather than double-stops or chords that the musician unacquainted with these works (a hypothetical one, if necessary), may well wonder where the polyphony is to be found . . . If these movements, in which only one tone at a time is sounded, are to be considered polyphonic, it becomes obvious immediately that no usual definition of polyphony, predicated upon the combination of several sustained parts, will suffice. Any attempt at a coherent analysis from the standpoint of melody alone soon raises more questions than it can possibly answer. Careful study would seem to suggest that either these movements are polyphonic or they cannot be explained at all (196-97).”

“From this and many other similar comments, it is apparent that a general consensus about the existence of this implied polyphony has been reached. There is, however, very little explanation of how this monophonic music is actually parsed into these different voices.”

“General principles of auditory stream segregation may help to explain some cases of this type of linear polyphony. In many ways, these principles coincide with the fundamental claim of Gestalt psychology. As Lerdahl and Jackendoff describe, this claim is that “perception, like other mental activity, is a dynamic process of organization, in which all elements of the perceptual field may be implicated in the organization of any particular part.”

“In creating melodies, composers have long realized the influence that these grouping principles have on perceptual coherence, especially the repetition rate and the frequency separation of tones. For instance, various studies have shown that much Western music is dominated by small melodic intervals, thereby reflecting the idea that notes closer together in frequency tend to produce stronger perceptual groupings.”

“In an interesting reference to the very style of music that Bach’s unaccompanied string pieces represent, Bregman states,

“Rapid alternations of high and low tones are sometimes found in music, but composers are aware that such alternations segregate the low notes from the high. Transitions between high and low registers were used by the composers of the Baroque period to create compound melodic lines – the impression that a single instruments, such as a violin or flute, was playing more than one line of melody at the same time. These alternations were not fast enough to cause compulsory segregation of the pitch ranges, so the experience was ambiguous between one and two streams. Perhaps this was why it was interesting.”

Playing a long string of notes with a “destination” point of view simply will not do, and in order to find the polyphony in a single line, it’s necessary to seek it out.  By way of example, we offer a live recording (on a lute tuned in F) of a well-known prelude in D by Henry Purcell, originally for keyboard but arranged for lute in viel ton.  Most keyboard players zip through this music as though they can’t wait to be done because it is considered to be a rudimentary didactic piece.  Upon closer examination, Purcell’s genius for weaving many strands into a single line becomes apparent.


Saturday morning quotes 6.17: Perfection

shiny-cdAs we prepare to release our long-awaited CD Magnum Mysterium, the concept of perfection frequently pops up in conversations about the the project.  Producing a recording of live performances of solo voice and lute in today’s environment of digital perfection is nothing less than an act of courage, and as the leading voices of the alt-early music movement, it is a process we embrace with pleasure.   First, a bit of context.

The early music revival is a phenomenon that gained currency and an ample audience in the last two decades of the 20th century.  Listeners were treated to the results of scholarly research and performances by truly stellar performers, mostly through recordings that were financed by larger specialist record labels.  With an ample budget and an expanding market, performers were encouraged to explore and record lesser known repertory, even to the point of financing reproductions of old instruments.

The lute was an essential but awkward contributor to the re-created sound of early music; essential because of the enormous surviving repertory and the many other historical graphic and literary references to the instrument, awkward because at best it was far too quiet and nearly impossible to play well.  But the solo repertory for the lute received quite a bit of attention in the 70s and 80s from classical guitarists whose standard of technique and latent perfectionist tendencies suited them to the task.  Those who were sufficiently drawn in by the instrument and its music soon discovered that modern guitar technique was not appropriate to the lute, so a special study of historical technique was required.  This aesthetic still defines the sound and style of lute recitals and recordings today.

Recordings featuring the lute are much more widely available now, thanks to evolving technology.  But the recordings, particularly those of solo lute recitals, are uniformly pieced together from many parts in order to achieve a manufactured perfection, simply because it is possible.  The result is that the listening public now demands that level of perfection, even in live performances.  News Flash: Without exception, every live performance includes imperfections which, at best, reveal less than optimal interpretive choices and, at worst, involve distracting mistakes and misfingerings.

In the essential article, “Recording the lute”, by John Taylor, published in the (UK) Lute News No. 62 (June 2002), prominent early music recording engineer Taylor reveals that iconic recordings by some of the more frequently recorded lutenists are pieced together from a multitude of takes, sometimes punching in individual notes.  Sadly, on repeated listening these recordings simply sound sterile and lack emotion and the essential breath of life.  Furthermore, we are plunged into a fantasy world of an acoustic that doesn’t exist in real life; a sound world that a Gramophone reviewer once described as “a psycho-acoustic nightmare” where the sound is close and far away at the same time.

While we understand that listeners in faraway places desire access to our music, we fully realize that the (now obsolete) CD and its digital offspring the mp3 constitute a poor replacement for a live performance.  But is the level of perfection one expects from recordings at all reasonable?

“The CD will be seen within a history of industrial design as the quintessential product of the 1980s-clean, shiny, a beautiful object in itself which creates a perfect, pure sound. It is the ultimate fetish object which allows the listener the ideal state of disavowal of the body of the performer. The particular ideology of sound of the 80s was one of purity and cleanliness, of static-free, interference-reduced, pristine brilliance.”

Donald Greig, “Sight-Readings: Notes on “A cappella” Performance Practice”,  Early Music, Vol. 23, No. 1 (Feb., 1995), pp. 124-148

Why have we come to expect perfection?  Because it sells.  And marketing psychologists are keenly aware of the human foible of perfectionism, as is evident in this article brimming with statistical jibber-jabber that provides fodder for developers of the multitude of algorithms that now rule our daily life:

“Compulsive shoppers routinely buy goods—like clothing, shoes, compact  discs, household items—that they hardly use afterwards…, in  many instances, purchased items are not even removed from packages, as if  they “cease to matter” once they are purchased. There is anecdotal evidence  for various similar behaviors: some people like to buy advanced electronic devices, but use only basic features afterwards; or acquire high-brow books with  out reading them; or pay marathon fees and skip the race, etc.”

Igor Kopylov, “Perfectionism and Choice”, Econometrica, Vol. 80, No. 5 (September 2012), pp. 1819-1843

The upshot is that perhaps there is cause to be concerned about your public behavior as a perfectionist when every online move you make is anticipated and constantly evaluated by commercial entities.  Under a democracy, the demos consists of citizens who play various vital and interdependent roles.  Under our current corporate rule, you are no longer a citizen—you are now a consumer.

We will be adding more context about our upcoming release in future posts.  And of course we want listeners to buy our CD or download mp3s.  But our recording will present a distinct alternative in a more human listening experience because our primary intent is to offer a live sound in order to convey the spirit of the music.   More to come in future posts.