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Saturday morning quotes 4.40: Balance

February 14, 2015

After performing a concert last week that mingled Gregorian chant with 16th-century sacred polyphony – perhaps a little too soon after experiencing major spinal surgery – we had a very interesting Q&A session with a sizable and inquisitive throng of students, most of them organists and many of them vocal majors. The prevailing question (paraphrased) was:

“How is it that the voice and lute are so evenly balanced in volume and in terms of polyphonic interplay, and how was it so easy to understand the texts?”

While neither of us is particularly given over to soapbox oratory, especially after having just performed an exhausting program of highly intricate music, we always rise to the opportunity to explain to inquiring minds that our music is not the result of happenstance.  We always approach our chosen repertory with a sense of deliberate purpose, and our mode of performance is the result of years of research into surviving historical evidence of performance practice, exceptionally hard work in rehearsal, and is presented with a keen sensitivity to programming and to style.

We deliberately choose to perform nearly all our repertory at a pitch that is lower than what appears in the modern off-the-shelf edited versions, mainly because it is abundantly clear to everyone who has done his or her research that 1) historical pitch standards are now and always have been flexible and, 2) despite the additional effort required on the part of the lutenist, a lower-pitched vocal delivery nearly always communicates text with more warmth and clarity than a higher-pitched performance.  Besides, higher-pitched vocal performances are typically more successful at drawing attention to the beauty of sound produced by the voice, but always at the expense of clarity of diction.

Perhaps most importantly, we deliberately use a natural vocal production in order to achieve balance of volume and clarity of diction. We are a duo – not a singer posing somewhere proximate to her accompanist.  We perform polyphonic music that must be tightly controlled with a spontaneous sense of interplay and effortlessly balanced with a strong sense of direction.  The only way to successfully achieve this sense of balance is to sing polyphonic music in a small ensemble, where all participants are obliged to hear, heed and blend sensitively.

It makes absolutely no sense to perform 16th-century domestic music in the modern concert hall format with a singer standing a polite distance from her accompanist.  Generic vocal production techniques that may be appropriate to music from the 17th-century virtuoso arias of Monteverdi to the 20th-century art songs of Mahler, are simply not appropriate to the intimate music of the 16th century – and we’re not talking about scaling back the vibrato.  The sheer volume of sound emanating from a (modern) conventionally-produced voice would not only overbalance the naturally delicate volume of the lute, but would also drive attentive listeners with nice ears out of the room to escape the frightful din.

It is truly reprehensible and shameful for certain oafs in choirs and public chapels as well as in private chambers to corrupt the words when they should be rendering them clearly, easily, and accurately.  For example, if we hear singers shrieking certain songs – I cannot call it singing – with such crude tones and grotesque gestures that they appear to be apes, are we not compelled to laugh?  Or more truthfully, who would not become enraged upon hearing such horrible, ugly counterfeits?

The singer should know too that in church and in public chapels he should sing with full voice, moderated of course as I have just said, while in private chambers he should use a subdued and sweet voice and avoid clamor.

– Gioseffo Zarlino ( 1517 – 1590), Le istitutioni harmoniche (1558)

Furthermore, it is nearly impossible to unlearn modern operatic vocal production, and the only effective way to achieve a proper sense of balance and intimacy between voice and lute is to approach the music and mode of performance from the past looking forward, rather than the other way round.  While the statement quoted below is a bit dated, it reflects an approach to singing that is still all too current in modern academic institutions:

Members of the Academy are troubled by the increasing complaints of colleagues. Their students are being asked to apply purportedly historical vocal techniques in the performance of Renaissance and Baroque music before they are able to perform the much simpler vocal tasks relevant to the basic development of their voices. The problem is compounded when the aesthetic choices of vocally ill-informed or unaware directors extend to questions of vocal vibrato and timbre. Certainly, the uses of wide vibrato, rapid-fire flutter, or wavering tremolo have no place in any singing repertory. The natural vibrato that every healthy voice develops is something else entirely. Vocal authorities of today and in years past are generally in agreement that demands for so-called “straight tone” singing for extended periods, or the deliberate alteration of a natural characteristic and healthy vibrato (one that does not call attention to itself as too fast or too slow) can be injurious to the vocal health and natural progress of young voice students.

Part of our responsibility as teachers–in large part from the ethical point of view–is the protection of gifted individuals who show great promise and, if properly nurtured, may contribute to the promulgation of the vocal art of the future. Surely it is time to bring to bear our interdisciplinary influence–pedagogical, therapeutic, scientific. and medical–upon those instances of Early Music study and performance that are observed to contain unacceptable levels of risk or manifestations of vocal abuse.

– “Healthy Vocal Technique and the Performance of Early Music,” National Academy of Teachers of Singing Journal, 1994.

Approaching from the opposite end of the spectrum, we can read the frank words of two early music singers who have had long careers in the field (if you’ll pardon the agrarian metaphor) busily making hay before the sun retreated for an interminable hiatus behind the ominously dark digital cloud, now having retired to the comfort of their padded rocking chairs on the cool, shady porch where they can reminisce about the good old days while offering newbies wryly worded advice on how to avoid falling into the baler.

The truth is we invented the early music vocal sound based on what we wanted it to be like, and on the voices of a small number of singers with particular talents. The small-scale, refined, straight, disciplined early music singing that we were used to came out of nowhere..Even when singers began to look at pedagogical sources and so on, they (we) chose to ignore those bits that didn’t fit the model we had in our heads. An entire pedagogy was developed by people who claimed to know how 17th- or 18th-century singing was supposed to go, but whose knowledge was based mostly on their own experience of the late 20th-century early music movement, rather than an understanding of the sources.

The huge success of early music recordings then made it impossible to go back and start again. There’s nothing wrong with the results, incidentally, it’s just that it’s misleading to use a term like ‘historically informed’. The earliest ‘early musicians’ (like us) were self taught, and both you and I were among those who once called for early music singing to be taught in music colleges on a par with the opera singing which increasingly came to dominate conservatory thinking in the late 20th century. With hindsight, I think this was a mistake, as the industrial approach to opera singing is now applied to early music.

For singers, conservatoires essentially remain opera factories, but many now have another production line which claims to produce early music singers as well. They can produce very competent performers who all nevertheless sound rather similar (and in such quantity that many of them won’t find work).

Music educational institutions are programmed to deliver teaching. This is something of a paradox for those of our generation who weren’t taught, and it highlights the fundamental difference between teaching and learning. You can teach the basics of singing (it doesn’t take long), but after that, historical singing is a matter of research. Research is learning—you can’t teach it. Universities don’t help either as they seem to think that teaching and research are umbilically linked to each other: they aren’t.

– Richard Wistreich and John Potter, “Singing early music: a conversation,” Early Music, Vol. XLI, No. 1, February 2013

The fact is, no one really knows how to teach singing early music except those who are successful practicing proponents, proficient artists, and attentive and dedicated teachers. To learn to sing early music, one should begin singing plainchant and then progress to transparent polyphony in small ensembles.  One should read and fully understand the texts being sung.  One should be fully aware and understand that, like so many other excesses of the late-20th century, the easy times are over, and those of us currently involved in performing early music are doing so with a stronger sense of commitment because, even for the successful artist, remuneration is simply no longer a part of the formula.

As performers, recording artists, researchers of the arcane repertory, and music publishers, we continue to carry out our work with a sense of responsibility to share the rapidly vanishing aesthetic of quiet, refined and emotionally significant historical music with our listeners. Sharing our experiences through this blog format is only one dimension of our work, and one we perform on a weekly basis.  But like the rest of our musical endeavors, we do so without organizational support and for very little compensation, mostly from downloads and Spotify streams, for which we receive $0.00012 per.

But we are pleased to know that the sum total of our work is making a difference to many people. Now that we have finally managed to encourage lutenists to approach the once rabidly divisive discussion of right-hand technique with a sensitivity toward era, instrument and style, isn’t it about time more of our prominent early music vocal specialists in the US broach the subject of singing 16th-century repertory in same spirit of honesty as we read from Potter & Wistreich, and perhaps even begin to teach singers how to sing effectively with a natural vocal production?


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