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Saturday morning quotes 5.11: Aesthetics – part II

August 1, 2015

We continue our short side trip into the subjective realm of aesthetics as applied to the interpretation of early music.  In pursuing this subject, we risk nudging the noble pursuit of aesthetic inquiry into the dreaded minefield of the pompous and subjective classical music review.  We always take great pains to mention that early music has nothing to do with the modern marketing category of classical music—or it darn well should not.  Those who cram the vast and variegated repertory of early music into the chafing tuxedo of classical music do so for matters of categorical convenience or for blatant economic reasons.  But we state plainly that a millennium of music deserves several categories and should not be judged by the criteria used to evaluate music mostly originating in the 19th century.

It is not our goal to define what is good music or bad music, nor to judge what might be a good interpretation or a bad interpretation of historical music.  Nor do we wish to handle the topic of musical aesthetics with the white gloves essential to the ensemble of 19th-century evening dress.  Instead, we ask our readers to take a step back as we gain a bit of perspective by tapping into the topic of aesthetics as applied to visual arts and adapting some pertinent elements of analysis.

A quotable source that offers a concise and well-organized description is the article by Donald W. Crawford, “Aesthetics in Discipline-based Art Education,” Journal of Aesthetic Education, Vol. 21, No.2, Summer 1987, pp. 227-239.  Crawford scribes a line that joins aesthetics and philosophy, describing aesthetics as “the philosophy of the beautiful”, as well as making the important distinction between philosophical reflection and researching facts.

“…Philosophy is a reflective or deliberative inquiry rather than a historical investigation or a series of scientific experiments aiming to acquire new facts…Philosophy, then, is not simply reflection but critical reflection.”

“Philosophical inquiry, being both reflective and critical, always begins by taking one step back from the phenomena it seeks to understand.  To take a simple example: I visit a local art gallery and look at a number of different sculptures, but I am continually drawn back to one in particular. Suppose at some point I notice what has happened; I become aware that my behavior indicates a preference. When I ask why this is the case, I am beginning to engage in philosophical reflection. In seeking to understand my own experience, to explain it to myself, to integrate it with other things I know about myself, I am engaged in critical reflection.”

“Aesthetics is that branch of philosophical activities which involves the critical reflection on our experience and evaluation of art. Critical reflection consists in part of conceptual analysis and the formulation of principles of interpretation, of critical reasoning, and of evaluation. Art-historical concepts such as style and innovation provide material for analysis, and art criticism affords examples of interpretation and evaluation.”

p. 228-229

We can easily glean useful information from this descriptive summary and adapt and apply the framework to historical music.  One experiences the same reaction to certain types, styles or pieces of music that Crawford does to sculpture, sparking a philosophical reflection and initiating a critical reflection.  That is, we experience these reactions if we care to go beyond simply registering a preference and thoughtfully examine the possible reasons for our preference.

“Socrates, the intellectual father of philosophy, maintained that the unexamined life is not worth living. Implicit in his claim is the view that our actions and attitudes are guided by our beliefs, our principles, and our values and that the rigorous, critical examination of these is an important part of what it is to be a human being. Socrates believed that self-knowledge is the highest type of knowledge, without which one can never be truly happy.”

p. 230

Crawford asks some important questions that, again, transfer directly to an interpretive musical context, and then draws a distinction between personal preference and objective standards.

“What makes one interpretation better than another? Is an understanding of the artist’s intentions either necessary or useful to interpret a work correctly? How do we decide between competing interpretations of a work?”

“A major concern of aestheticians is whether the evaluative judgments they make are legitimate claims to knowledge-as opposed to mere expressions of personal preference or reflections of contemporary opinion. Aestheticians ask whether critical judgments about art can be supported by sound reasons, whether there are objective standards or criteria for determining if a work of art is good.”

p. 233-234

And here we turn to a few interpretive examples of music composed by Bartolomeo Tromboncino (1470 – 1535), chosen because the music appears to be extremely simplistic if we only look at the notes that come down to us over the span of 500 years.  But Tromboncino set the beautifully complex and evocative poetry of Francesco Petrarca and Michaelangelo Buonarroti, and what appears simplistic comes to life if we examine the form, structure and context of the original modes of performance.

The first example is a project that self-consciously incorporates historical gestures into performance of Tromboncino’s music, presented in cooperation with Robert Toft, who proposes that gestures typical of historical oratory should be used in musical performance. The video example (link is the title of the piece) is a performance of “Come harò donque ardire“, text by Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475 – 1564) and musical setting by Tromboncino, features Kate Macoboy with Robert Meunier, lute, in a video recorded at Arab Hall in Leighton House, London, 2014.

Kate Macoboy’s performance of the song is very effective, sung from memory and performed with historical gestures, two elements that help connect the listener with the emotional power of the text and its musical setting.  The singer’s delivery is warm and engaged, sung with a conventional, if restrained, production with a beautiful quality of tone and control of dynamic contrast. The lute accompaniment is accurate and subtle, if a bit aloof. And despite the fancy camera work that zooms in on the lute, one’s attention continues to be focused on the singer, her beautiful sound and her theatrical gestures.  While the gestures serve to heighten the emotional dimension of the song, they seem a bit studied and strike the eye as an external element rather than a natural mode of expression.  A method actor would only need to spend a little time with Italians to understand and incorporate the difference.

As for the more nuanced elements of this performance, the first thing one notices is the positioning of the lutenist, a little forward and to the singer’s right.  While many performers seem to choose this arrangement, it registers in the subconscious as “Singer and her Accompanist” rather than “Duo.”  The lute’s pegbox points toward the singer’s face and acts as a barrier to an effective connection, as though it were a wordless statement of “further off”.  My theater professor (long ago) had sharp and succinct words whenever he observed behavior that interfered with effective communication to the audience—Don’t do that.

Toft and the performers provide a great deal more descriptive detail that gives some insight into their intentions and their choices. But one senses that they are attempting to add legitimacy to what seems like simple music by applying external effects, rather than tapping into the more natural elements of performance that can be discovered only by absorbing essential information and allowing the gestures to surface spontaneously.

Our second example is a performance of “Zephyro spira e il bel tempo rimena“, text adapted from Francesco Petrarca (1304 – 1374) and musical setting by Tromboncino, featuring Andrea Alejandra Nicolás with Emilio Cervini, lute, in a live performance at the Concierto Museo Isaac Fernández Blanco, Buenos Aires, July 2010.

The duo of Andrea Alejandra Nicolás and Emilio Cervini offer a contrast to the more cerebral example of similar music by the same composer mentioned above.  The first thing we hear is Emilio Cervini’s introductory recercar that prepares our ears for what is to come, and melds seamlessly into the song.  Andrea Alejandra Nicolás sings with a rather natural production that is instantly engaging.  Singing from memory, she incorporates a great deal of gesture that appears so natural that it almost negates the need for a translation of the text, which is sung with a very charming Spanish accent.

Cervini’s lute accompaniment is at once supportive, improvisatory and very creative—adding appropriate melodic movement, playing a solo interlude and segueing into a triple-time accompanying passage as though it were the most natural thing.  It seems as though he is inventing the accompaniment on the spot, surely the most effective mode of interpretation. The duo’s performance may seem a bit rushed, but the song is delivered effectively with a youthful vigor and a spirit of improvisation that leaves one with a sense of satisfaction.

Summation to follow in our next installment.

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