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Saturday morning quote #42: No gimmicks

March 10, 2012

There is something intimate and very special about music for voice and lute, our chosen genre and format for performance of historical music.  The quiet transparency of sound characteristic of the lute needs to be paired with a natural voice capable of balancing volume and dynamic subtlety; an unforced voice that communicates clearly while blending with the instrument.  Maintaining that natural balance successfully in a variety of concert venues can place enormous demands on performers who, in order to effectively communicate the aesthetic of the music, must never appear to be working quite so hard.  Admittedly, our music demands our total commitment and is not for the fainthearted performer, amateur or professional.

Perhaps seeking commiseration, we look to historical sources of many kinds for ideas and inspiration.  Obviously, written sources from the 16th century reveal the most appropriate information about our music, but there are universal truths that apply to musical performance on any instrument from any era.  Today, we quote from Johann Joachim Quantz (1697 – 1773), famous flautist, composer and pedagogue, from his treatise On Playing the Flute (1752).

…Music is nothing but an artificial language through which we seek to acquaint the listener with our musical ideas.  If we execute these ideas in an obscure and bizarre manner which is incomprehensible to the listener and arouses no feeling, of what use are our perpetual efforts to be thought learned?  If we were to demand that all our listeners be connoisseurs and musical scholars, their number would not be very great…

If, on the other hand, every amateur knew as much as the professional should know, there again would be no advantage, since there would be little or no further need of the professional artist.  Thus it is most important that the professional musician seek to play each piece distinctly, and with such expression that it becomes intelligible to both the learned and the unlearned, and hence may please them both.

We have made it our mission to perform as often as possible for a variety of audiences, targeting people most in need of a good dose of our calm yet intricate filigree of quiet polyphony.  While performing for non-specialist audiences in unsuitable locations may seem slightly masochistic, the rather surprising results have been encouraging.

Yesterday, we performed an entire day’s worth of presentations for our local elementary school, including children from preschool through sixth grade.  While we do not pass judgement on performers who indulge in fanciful costumes and sword-swallowing, we are firmly committed to demonstrating historical music to children without the use of gimmicks; presenting music as a normal activity shared by all in the home, church or any public place.  After a grueling day of seven presentations and performing for hundreds of children, we not only uniformly held their attention throughout the day, we saw exactly no behavior problems, much to the astonishment of the teachers.

We attribute this to 1) the power of the music, 2) the ability of children to see through fakery and an excess of loud, brightly-colored trappings and into the heart of the matter, and 3) our success as performers in inviting listeners into our sound world.  This experience, while very hard work on our part, leaves us feeling optimistic for the fate of humankind.

  1. Wise quote. Children are good audiences for good music.

  2. Mark Wheeler wrote in a different forum:

    Reading this I can’t help but feel that you are pressing for an aesthetic that is more a reaction to our modern world than one that reflects a possible 16th century cultural atmosphere….

    Check out this excellent article by Liz Kenny…
    “The uses of lute song: texts, contexts and pretexts for ‘historically informed’ performance” Early Music 2008/02

    Thanks for your comments, Mark. I read Liz Kenny’s article a few years ago and decided to politely reserve judgement. I have to say, so many ponderous academic articles describing possible motives and speculative modes of historical musical performance wind up making me very sleepy. I think I recall, she was deliberately focusing on non-domestic repertory. But, as you certainly know, the proof is in the pudding and an effective performance is just that, no matter what the approach.

    Thankfully, there are many vastly different approaches to performing old music. We choose an approach that suits our personalities, and our motivation is the more introspective ‘chamber’ music corner of the repertory. I’ve done more than my share of theatrical music (from different eras both real and imaginary), and that is certainly a valid and effective approach as well. But the long and short of it is, I look terrible in panty hose.

    As we took pains to point out, we don’t pass judgement on those who focus on the more extrovert repertory and use visuals to enhance performance art. But it’s just amazing what can be done without props.



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