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Rhetorical question…and a new video

July 27, 2011

huh?When asking a rhetorical question, the peril of misapprehension looms large – more so now than ever in our present age of instantaneous retort, where Google serves up a chaotic conglomeration of data masquerading as supporting fact.  Ready access to information has resulted in the usurpation of tried and true methods of discourse and learning, as the continuum of information to knowledge to wisdom is completely neglected in favor of a quick search of Google or other online resources.  The traditional form of elucidation through dialogue only works if we agree that (proving I’m not immune to readily available resources) the point of the exercise is the process of discovery.

Early in July 2011, there was a lively online discussion about a new hybrid lute that was specially created, offering much-needed flexibility to a working musician performing in baroque orchestras.  Using a non-historical instrument to perform baroque music was seen by some lutenists as a bit disingenuous, more so when adding up the many modern modifications to other instruments, performing techniques and interpretation.

In today’s ‘baroque’ orchestras, violins are strung with hybrid combinations of gut and modern strings because tuning is really a problem; baroque bows are much too short to be used practically in performance and are replaced by non-historical transitional bows; lute continuo players are frequently placed up front – where they are completely ineffective as accompanists to the orchestra – just so the audience can see the cool instruments; collapsible non-historical instruments are invented solely to facilitate airline travel for early musicians who travel constantly hither and yon to perform in supposedly ‘regional’ baroque orchestras.

This is only the tip of the iceberg as we splash about in the icy sea of ambiguity, discussing the practical aspects of instruments for performing baroque music in the 21st century.  As made abundantly clear by Bruce Haynes in his book, The End of Early Music, practical but non-historical modern adaptations in vocal and instrumental technique, as well as interpretive choices, are ubiquitous in today’s performances of baroque music.  At some point, we have to admit that we are not really re-creating an historical sound, but rather an idealized sound that we have come to accept today as an effectively marketed aural image, delivered up by smart and hip players – but it is a sound that is only loosely associated with old music.

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

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

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

As a post script, we draw your attention to a new video featuring a song from our new CD, Sfumato.  Of particular interest to lutenists and early music singers, we have incorporated a facsimile of the score, enabling the viewer to see and hear our interpretive choices.

  1. Dan Winheld permalink

    Gorgeous! Donna, your voice is more open & relaxed than I’ve heard before; Ron- fine accompanying/playing. All very balanced and well recorded. The emotional impact of “Quando Amor” is very strong; heartbreakingly beautiful. it reminds me of the Petrarca Madrigals from Willaert’s “Musica Nova” – no surprise, as the lute song is Willaert’s intab of Verdelot’s madrigal. One day my wife and I must do these- we’ve had the book for years, but so little time to explore music together. Thank you both so much for doing this.

    Weird world we live in, re-creating old music in these strange new times and venues. Very frustrating; I’ve about given up. Kudos to those who keep trying. I no longer find concert settings tolerable, the living room is now as far as I go.

  2. Thanks for your kind words and observations, Dan. We spend a great deal of time getting inside the music and poetry but we have also worked hard to achieve a natural balance of voice and instrument, and it happens that we record and perform live in the same quite close configuration. Fortunately, we like each other.

    Verdelot’s music is indeed satisfying to perform, since his style seems to represent the continuity of earlier Italian forms like the frottola with its melodic interest in the top line, but with more interesting imitation and linear movement in the inner parts. There are also a hints of Parisian chanson in his music, belying his French roots.

    We would like to try getting you out of your living room sometime for a small concert – or maybe in it.


    • Dan Winheld permalink

      Your living room or ours. We will have to improve on the near miss we had last time our planets crossed orbits.
      “Fortunately, we like each other”
      Ha ha! Keeps our marriage together as well; and allows us to get along doing music together, an undertaking as fraught with risk as any other.

  3. Right now there is an exponential increase in Early Music performance that has widened the range approaches. In addition to the modernizing, or acculturation, there is also a significant return to historical approaches. This has been going on for the last forty years, it is just more noticeable owing to the expansion in media and performance.

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