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Sfumato, senza fumo e specchi

May 1, 2011

it's a brave new worldPrior to the internet information age, creating and promoting a recording was a process that required playing one’s cards very close to the chest.  At least in the ‘early music’ business, repertory was chosen to focus on a particular composer or genre, and frequently to celebrate a composer’s birth or death, or to present the results of a scholarly research project.  Sometimes, an air of marketing mystique was created to sell music that was ‘better than it sounds.’  These projects were typically funded by grants or by record labels with deep pockets and an optimistic outlook, and repertory was dictated by the label or some other voice of authority.  But like 12-inch LPs, our youth, spare time, and affordable travel, those days are behind us.

As independent recording artists, we enjoy the freedom to create our own programs and to be more responsive to our audiences.  However, navigating the brave new world of today’s music business is a tricky proposition.  The old rules no longer apply and the assumption is that music is a freely downloaded commodity and, likewise, many people think that money comes out of a machine attached to the wall of a bank.  As independent artists marketing our own music, we are compelled to temper our marketing choices with a dose of reality.

Notice that we say marketing choices, because we firmly adhere to our choice of repertory.  Nevertheless, in order to continue doing what we do in today’s rapidly changing market, we are open to trying new ideas.  Participation in social media is a given, and our music is available from dozens of online sources.  We’ve also experimented with releasing MP3 singles of unusual songs.  Today’s music fans have the opportunity to interact with their favorite musicians and we are frequently asked where we find our source material and how we arrange it: In this blog post, we thought we might share some of the process we go through in creating our recorded programs, as well as offer another preview of our new recording, Sfumato.

We are constantly creating thematic programs of music for lecture-recitals or for concert performances, a process that gives us the opportunity to explore material that may be new to us, as well as the pleasure of revisiting old favorites reframed into fresh formats.  These programs are likely to have sprung from our own musical interests of the moment, or to fulfill the request of a host or sponsor to fit with the curriculum of a particular event.  Similarly, our recorded programs may have been inspired (for instance) by a sudden passion for late 15th century French rondeaux, or, more practically, as a response to consistent requests from our audiences who ask for recordings of the program they’ve just heard performed live.

After establishing a general sense of direction, our process involves several sequential steps building on a theme, a composer, a period and/or a language.  We then go about reading through stacks of music, examples that fit with our organizing theme in some manner.  If the music does not survive in a format for solo voice and lute, we follow 16th century practice and create what are known as intabulations.  When we created the program for our 2009 CD, Au pres de vous, we decided to trace the development of the 16th century French chanson for voice and lute, but mainly did so by making our own intabulations from the original vocal part music.   In the case of our current project, Sfumato, we chose to feature music that was originally set for the combination of solo voice and lute, and which was published or written into manuscript sources in that form during the 16th century.  Notable exceptions include our unique settings of madrigals by Luca Marenzio, but more on that in a future post.

Arranging the order of the recorded program involves several considerations taken into account by any sensitive performer including chronological order, dynamic level, key relationships, pacing, and poetical themes.  We find that mixing up the chronological order creates a slight ‘whiplash effect’ for the listener in terms of style, harmonic language and use of dissonance.  For that reason, we nearly always perform more rhythmically active and less harmonically complex pieces at the beginning of the program.  But we like to arrange the recorded program like a live concert with a progressive theme and with stylistic contrast so as to retain the interest of the listener.

Key relationship is a subtle touch but an important consideration that affects the listener on a subliminal level.  Moving smoothly from one piece to another involves careful planning that sometimes includes finding the perfect instrumental interlude that serves a tonal function but also will create or maintain the proper mood.  Fortunately, our 16th century antecedents thought of this and left behind a wealth of recercars, fantasias, preludes and dances that were designed for the purpose.  Of course, finding the right connective piece involves playing through hundreds of examples.

Our current project highlights the music of Bartolomeo Tromboncino (c1470 – 1535) and contrasts his music with that of Hippolito Tromboncino (flourished 1545 – 1550 ), a possible relation and a lesser-known representative of the next generation, both chronologically and stylistically.  Sandwiched in between the two Tromboncini, we decided upon several madrigals by Philippe Verdelot (c1480 – 1550), the first serious composer of the Italian madrigal.  Verdelot’s music for voice and lute is found the Intavolatura de li madrigali di Verdelotto da cantare et sonare nel lauto, intavolati per Messer Adriano, published by Scotto in 1536.  A second edition published in 1540 identifies the mysterious Messer Adriano as Adrian Willaert.

Verdelot published his Il Primo Libro di Madrigali, a book of four-part madrigals, in 1533. The subsequent 1536 publication presents intabulations from Verdelot’s book arranged for solo voice and lute in fairly pedestrian settings.  We found it necessary to refer to the original vocal parts for a clear picture of the music but encountered a challenge in the application of accidentals in the music, what many call musica ficta but is really musica recta, or fixing the score with the information everyone knows to be true.  Frequently, the problem was resolved by trusting the decisions that were made in the 1536 publication for lute, since there is no ambiguity in the description of the desired note in lute tablatures.  But 16th century publications of music are rife with errors and misprints and, in the end, we applied accidentals to our own taste based on our research into the conventions of the period.

Continuing our selection of previews from our new CD, we offer our full recording of Con lagrime e sospir’ by Verdelot.  A rather short song with only one verse, while recording it we decided spontaneously to extend the length of the song with improvised embellishments.  You can hear the results here.

  1. Bill Thomas permalink

    Awesome blog with abundant and exceptionally useful content.

    I’ll be a regular visitor

  2. Thanks for your kind words, Bill. While the content of this blog is mainly directed toward Early Music types, we try to provide a broad view of music in general, its importance to a well-balanced emotional state, and the different ways it affects different people. It’s encouraging to see that we’re reaching a diverse audience.

    R & D

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