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A Polemic and a Preview

April 25, 2011

SfumatoIt’s been a while since we’ve posted to this blog but we have been hard at work with an exhausting daily mix of singing, teaching, concert planning, building, writing, editing music, graphic design – the things 21st century musicians in the US have to do just to survive at a modest level.  We have also been hard at work moving two very different recording projects to completion, and we’re pleased with the results.

Sfumato, our recording of Italian music from the 16th century, is nearly done.  We are waiting for a dry day to record a few lute solos, after having noticed that lower humidity makes a difference in the quality of the recorded sound, especially with the treble strings.  Damp weather seems to result in treble strings that sound a bit like the lute is under water rather than the desired pungent bloom.

Just an aside about our experience of recording: It has been a long process for us to find a skilled engineer who has a naturally favorable recording venue and the professional judgment and flexibility to be simple.  Having at last found the perfect engineer with the perfect studio, we have arrived at a simple setup using a customized pair of Neumann KM86 microphones placed about six feet away from our usual performing position, which captures the ideal natural sound and balance. Our venue is an old converted church that has a wonderful Mignarda recording at Wilburlandnatural resonance but seems to respond to whatever is happening outdoors at the moment.  You can well imagine what recording during an upstate NY winter is like, with temperatures hovering well below zero.  A damp Spring has not necessarily been an improvement.

As we approach the final stages of our Italian recording, we find ourselves at the point where we must make a somewhat uncomfortable shift from our usual roles as introspective musicians into that of promoters of our art.  We are now attempting to articulate just what is is about our approach to the music that makes it a worthwhile addition to your library of sound recordings.

Vocal delivery

We have thought long and hard about vocal production, how it must be adapted to achieve a natural balance with the lute, and how it best serves the aesthetic of the music.  Sifting through the clues left behind by writers from the 16th century, we are convinced that conventional ‘modern’ singing technique, developed to project in a capacious hall to a large audience,  has no place when singing the more intimate lute song repertory.  A projected voice only treads upon the subtlety of the poetry and completely overbalances polyphonic interplay with the lute.

A natural singing voice has somehow been sidelined in the field of ‘art music’ for unknown reasons.  Given the historical evidence, we can be fairly sure that lute songs were sung in smaller rooms to just a few listeners, canceling the need for an artificial projection.  So why use an inauthentic technique just because it is a modern 21st century convention?

While Donna is perfectly capable of belting, and can barely resist the urge to make the rafters ring when singing in a resonant space, we always make the choice to naturally balance volume and presence of her voice with the lute.  This is a choice and not an accident.

A well-known lutenist once shared some insights about singers that went something like this: Most talented professional singers make much of their artistry and technique, leaving the listener with a sense of their virtuosity.  But then you’ve had enough and you’re done listening.  But with Donna’s singing, you want to hear more (this is her partner, writing here). Why should this be so?  Of course, a warm and pleasant voice is to be commended on its own merits but the ‘had enough’ versus ‘keep singing’ phenomenon has more to do with the simple fact that no one really wants to gorge himself on gorgonzola cheese to the point of gluttony when he can happily nibble over a stretch of time on a pleasant repast of fontina and come away sated and smiling.

We have many stellar singers in the world of early music but most will choose to sing the more virtuoso 17th century music, and very few have the natural inclination to tone down their production to successfully sing Verdelot madrigals for solo voice and lute.  While a versatile artist such as Cecilia Bartoli (whom we’ve heard in a wonderful recital of Vivaldi arias with a small band) is most likely perfectly capable of toning down her projection and delivery for an intimate recital of 16th century lute songs, she probably would not choose to do so.  And would we really want to hear her holding back that virtuosity?

Typically, trained singers with ‘small’ voices are steered toward early music but, all too often, small voices produce a restrained delivery of the text.  Except for high notes, which many singers cannot seem to resist accenting as a flashing neon light meant to draw attention to the beauty and volume of their voice.  Volume and intensity are two very different aspects of performance, and a real artist will work and work to achieve a convincing and passionate delivery of a high note with a true pianissimo.

When it comes down to it, conservatory-trained singers with a wonderful technique are inclined to sing in order to draw attention to the beauty of their sound.  Why should it be otherwise? Sometimes a nod is given to historically-informed performance including the use of large movements or gestures, possibly appropriate to later music but uniformly derided by observers writing in the 16th century.  Basic acting technique: If a particular gesture is noticed as an independent effect rather than smoothly incorporated into the character, it is ineffective.  But artists who carefully consider and refine the unified effect of the text and music will attempt to sublimate technique and personality to leave the listener with power of the message inherent in the song.

Historical hints

We have forged our own interpretations of the music we perform based on a combination of research into the contextual evidence from the given period, an understanding of conventions of functional music from the time, and a slavish dedication to observing the clues that emerge from the text and music.  The latter means making our own translations of the texts, as well as discovering and understanding typical rhythmical phrasing in the music and using the information to highlight the shape of the phrase.  For example, in sacred music, the downward interval of a fifth that returns to its first note is a very typical indication of genuflection, which one can verify through the liturgical symbolism indicated by the text.

When we attempt to speculate as to what sort of performance was typical in 1511, we are on a very slippery slope.  However, through evidence left behind by some rather outspoken 16th century critics (Aretino, Castiglione, V. Galilei, Maffei, and Zarlino), we can probably surmise what was not typical.  These writers would have had sharp words for a bloodless delivery of a passionate text.  Bartolomeo Tromboncino was a well-paid murderous extrovert, who possessed a highly developed sense of self worth.  Tromboncino probably would not have lasted long as a sought-after composer and performer in the court of Isabella D’Este if he sang in an overly introverted, remote and detached style.  Taking a clue from these indications, we attempt to imbue our performances with a sense of immediacy, as revealed by the poetry and rhythmic gestures in the music.

Reading the letters of Pietro Aretino is a worthwhile exercise, at least toward an understanding of what sorts of things were ridiculed by a prolific and opinionated commentator.  In a particularly sardonic letter dated 22 November 1537, Aretino makes a mockery of an old man strutting down the street singing ‘O mia cieca e dura sorte.’  This description gave us some valuable hints toward an effective performance of the fairly well-known frottola by Marco Cara.  First, the idea that the song was sung while walking down the street gave us the clue that the pulse of the bass line was meant to be regular and perhaps even a bit bouncy.  At the next level, the ‘strutting’ aspect of the song helped inform the delivery of the text, suggesting we steer away from the more usual mournful dirge treatment to that of a rather histrionic public protestation of ill treatment.

Sneak preview from the new CD

We’ve just posted a short sound clip of our rendering of ‘O mia cieca e dura sorte.  Stay tuned for more about our new CD Sfumato as we prepare to release it in late May 2011.

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  1. Sfumato « Unquiet Thoughts

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