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Saturday morning quote 2.40: A plea for slowness

February 23, 2013

hamsterWheelRapid change is a defining characteristic of the age in which we live.  Each day seemingly heralds some new innovation specifically designed to do more in less time.  At some point long ago, we were told that such technological innovations would enable us to have more leisure time to spend engaged in more meaningful pursuits.

We were deceived: If there is one precious commodity that should and must be defended, it is our time.

In the context of music, commercial interests always shine a spotlight on those who can play the greatest number of notes in the shortest span of time.  But are we getting our money’s worth?  Somehow Aesop’s fable of the Hare and the Tortoise has been forgotten as we’re treated to numerous displays of vapid virtuosity.  Quantity rather than quality is a particularly inappropriate approach to the interpretation of early music when there are so many surviving descriptions emphasizing the importance of sensitivity and understanding of rhetorical devices inherent in the music, necessary for effective communication of the heart and soul of the matter.

In his remarks “Other Necessary Observations belonging to the lute, by John Dowland, Batcheler of Musicke”, included in the Varietie of Lute-Lessons (1610), Dowland took the trouble to insert several contextual aesthetic asides that reinforce his reputation for having a depth of understanding and judgement in music.  He describes the process by which Boethius measured the intervals and proportions of music,

Whereby the ignorant may perceiue by this vndiuided Trinitie, that the finger of God framed Musicke, when his Word made the World.

He goes on to tell us that all practitioners of the lute should understand the elements and principles of composition, and it was the duty of every teacher to impart this knowledge to his student.  Historically, emphasis was always placed on a deeper understanding of music than mere technical facility.

Dowland’s introductory remarks to his last book of songs, A Pilgrimes Solace (1612), provide a clear indication of his feeling on the matter:

Moreouer that here are and daily come into our most famous kingdome, diuers strangers from beyond the seas, which auerre before our owne faces, that we haue no true methode of application of fingering of the Lute.  Now if these gallant yong Lutenists be such as they would haue the worlde beleeue, and of which I make no doubt, let them remember that their skill lyeth not in their fingers endes: Cucullus non facit Monachum. ”  [The cowl by no means makes the monk.]

Dowland’s contemporary, Thomas Robinson, in The Schoole of Musicke (1603), reinforces the importance of gaining a depth of understanding of music rather than playing fast notes.  In his words ” To the Reader”, he says,

But bee it as it bee may, you shall haue rules of reason, to ouer-rule vnreasonable odd Cratchets, giueing you to vnderstand, that what is beyond the true course of Nature, must needes bee without all compasse of Art; and withall, nothing out-runneth Nature but Follie : so much for that.

Robinson further admonishes empty virtuosity, describing those who

…stroue (onelie) to haue a quick hand vpon the Lute to runne hurrie hurrie, keeping a Catt in the gutter vpon the ground, now true then false, now vp now downe, with such painfull play, mocking, mowing, gripeing, grinning, sighing, supping, heauing, shouldring, labouring, and sweating, like cart Iades, without any skill in the world, or rule, or reason to play a lesson, or finger the Lute, or guide the bodie, or know any thing, that belongeth, either to skill or reason.

If musicians of today take the trouble to resurrect the art of ancient music, they should not defile it by wresting it out of its original setting and forcing it to spin upon the hamster wheel that is modern life.  A Fantasia should never be just a vehicle for displaying notes played one after the other as quickly as possible.  A Fantasia is an inspired and orderly display of compositional devices that unfold with intelligence and understanding.  Slow down, people.

  1. Dan permalink

    How apropos that you touch on this just now- i have been aurally assaulted lately (in music stores & once in an up-scale pharmacy) with some incredibly vulgar, amphetamine-like perversions of Bach’s d-minor suite for the violin. Worst by far were from our cousins in guitar land, including some in the later generation who should know better. Second worst by some of the violinists themselves.

    A guitarist blasting through the Chaconne like a formula-1 race car driver needing to take a leak, or an assembly line worker nearing the end of his shift who can’t wait to punch out, took the cake.

    My temper & sanity have since been restored by Hoppy Smith’s old recording, heard on CD.

    What is ironic is that there have been true virtuosi who COULD play fast, faster even than these clowns, but still make real music when such spirited delivery is both appropriate & truly exciting- Django, Joe Pass, Oscar Moore, (Yeah, those guys) POD at times, and for that matter I have heard Hoppy himself burn up the race track, but ONLY when appropriate & effective. Historically, Pietro Bono’s apparently incandescent 5-course speed playing was described in breathtakingly contemporary prose by an actual eye/ear-witness account in the 15th century.

    My own now private journey has involved a great slowing down generally; teaching helps a lot. Baroque lute has helped me control my Renaissance lute tempi for some reason also.

    • You mentioned some of my guitar heroes. I am especially fond of the Oscar Moore / King Cole unison duets, fast or slow. Red Norvo and Tal Farlow did some amazing work together too, with a rather youngish Mingus on bass.

      There seems to have been an evolution of technique that brought into focus the differences in approach between modern classical guitar and lute, circa 1980s, I’m grateful to have missed that era but I think the lute revival has matured to the point where we can stop lionizing people who emerged from that scene, people who can play the lute with great facility but who possess no musical soul. From the point of view of a composer who cares about nuance, I’m frankly tired of hearing people run roughshod over an artistically-conceived and truly wonderful piece of historical music just so they can show off how fast they can play the sparkly bits.

      The notes may fly fast as fast can
      From mugs with no attention span;
      The harder task, as we all know:
      To move the passions playing slow.


      • Dan permalink

        Indeed, it was my archlute student who is himself a composer who had me keep slowing down my playing of Francesco’s Fantasia (or Recercar?) #40 more and more at his last lesson; so that he could hear the counterpoint more clearly- such counterpoint being a miraculous thing to him (new student) to hear on a lute- his prior instruments being harp & keyboards.

        Another well-known bit from the Varietie-

        “Wherefore take no other care but onely to to strike all the Griffes and Notes that are in the middle betwixt them well and plainely, though slowly: for within a while, whether you will or no, you will get a habit of swiftnesse. Neither can you get that cleere expressing of Notes, unless you doe use yourselfe to that in the beginning: which cleane delivery every man that favours Musicke, doth farr preferre before all the swiftnesse and unreasonable noyse that can be.”

        J.B. Besard, of course!

        Jim Hall is one Jazz guitarist who comes to mind who almost never seems to be outrunning the law. But he can, as I finally heard on an early recording of his.

  2. Thomas Walker, Jr. permalink

    A worthy reminder; on the other hand, that various masters took the trouble to admonish the speed-demons of the day suggest that there is nothing a-historical about playing with more speed than taste. The past is indeed a different country, but inhabited by the same human strengths and foibles.

    • Thanks for your comment, Thomas. I recall that same sentiment expressed one time by your fellow Minnesotan, Peter Ostroushko, during a duo concert with Dakota Dave Hull. In the middle of trading some particularly inspired guitar solos, he leaned into the microphone and said, “Bad taste is timeless.”


  3. Francesco no.40 is an interesting case in which the solo version seems to want to be played at a different speed from the duet version published by Matelart – not that one can read too much into this particular example, but it gives one pause for thought. No.28 is another piece which benefits from a less hectic tempo than one typically hears. In general, I feel we should focus on communication with the listener – if we have prepared a piece for performance, we might (should) know every detail of it, but an audience which has never heard it before needs time to “get it”. We must communicate, not just play the notes! Thank you, Ron, for reminding us.


  4. Thank you, Martin. Francesco’s lute music presents an excellent example in that so much is either directly or indirectly in imitation of vocal polyphony. When I imagine how I want this music to come across to a listener, I think of how the voice would shape and sustain a phrase or a final.

    Perhaps I carry this to an extreme, but I have the great good fortune to live with someone who never misses an opportunity to remind me that we, as a duo, are nearly always engaged in performing four- or five-part vocal polyphony. I just have to elegantly manage to juggle three or four of those parts as my end of the bargain.

    I like to handle the decorative bits one plays in Francesco’s music more as vocal ornaments than as solely defined and constrained by technique idiomatic to the lute. Breathing (inaudibly) helps.


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