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Saturday morning quotes 5.18: Matters of Invention

September 19, 2015

Therefore I would give this Caviat, of Cautioon to any who attempt to Exercise Their Fancies, in such Matters of Invention; That They observe Times, and Seasons, and never Force Themselves to any Thing, when they perceive an Indisposition; but wait for a Fitter, and more Hopeful Season; for what comes most Compleatly, come most Familiarly, Naturally, and Easily, without Pumping for (as we use to say).

– Thomas Mace, Musick’s Monument, 1676

Sometimes one’s invention is indisposed or lies fallow and simply can’t be forced.  Between living a fairly subnormal modern life and delving deeply into sixteenth-century polyphony, generating overly long strings of words that collide, congeal, describe and reinforce an intelligent theme week after week can take its toll on the old steel trap thinking machine.  Occasionally one’s fount of ideas runs slightly thin, if not pumped dry.  So today’s post briefly touches on a few random matters of invention.

Invention in historical music is what happens when a musician elaborates on the outline of notes that appear on the page.  Famous historical lutenists like Francesco Canova da Milano were esteemed for their ability to improvise a fantasia with points of imitation that were developed and elaborated upon according to the rules one learned during the course of a conventional musical education. While Francesco’s improvisations must remain legendary, his music that survives in written form demonstrates a groundbreaking approach to writing for the lute in a style that emulates vocal polyphony while expressively and idiomatically maximizing the resources of the instrument.  According to Victor Coelho,

“During Francesco’s service under Clement VII, the lute fantasia developed from a functional, preludial (and postludial) work written to be played in conjunction with other pieces, to an autonomous work, an artistic creation, that is formally conceived along the lines of rhetoric.”

Victor Coelho, “Papal Tastes and Musical Genres: Francesco da Milano ‘Il Divino’ (1497-1543), and the Clementine Aesthetic,” in The Pontificate of Clement VII: History, Politics, Culture. Ed. K. Gouwens & S. Reiss. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005, p. 286.

It is certain that improvisation remained an integral part of music making throughout history, as it remains today among musicians who thrive outside the realm of the conventional classical conservatory.  While it’s important to study historical sources and strive to sensitively reproduce the notes on the page, if we probe just a bit deeper into the context of historical music we find allusions to the longstanding tradition of improvisation.  The notes on the page are frequently no more than an outline of ideas that require elaboration in order to realize the intended musical result.

The long-winded title to Thomas Mace’s Musick’s Monument (1676), states that the bulk of the book

“Treats of the noble lute, (the best of instruments) now made easie; and all its occult-locked-up-secrets plainly laid open, never before discovered; … directing the most ample way, for the use of the Theorboe, from off the note, in confort, &c.”

Mace’s mention of using the theorbo “off the note” clearly indicates that his instructions will enable the musician to improvise musical solos and accompaniments, as well he should.  Those of us who come from a background of musical improvisation are amused no end by the mystique and the amount of intense study given over to realizing harmonies over a written bass line. Most good jazz guitarists will not only improvise harmonies but also create the missing bass line from scribbled chord symbols. Like the 16th-century lutenists, guitarist George Van Eps was skilled in improvising three- and four-part polyphony, all the while maintaining interesting and proper voice-leading.

How do we learn to improvise?  The phenomenon has, of course, been studied.

“A summary of brain structure and function reveals the importance of the prefrontal cortex (PFC) to creative thinking.”

“The frontal lobe is the seat of executive function and is essential to our ability to plan, to make decisions, to form judgments, to assess risk, and to formulate insight. The PFC, which occupies half the frontal lobe, integrates already highly processed information to enable even higher cognitive functions…”

“In regards to cognitive processes, improvisation can thus be defined as the spontaneous generation, selection, and execution of novel auditory-motor sequences. Since musicians must generate a potentially infinite number of contextually meaningful musical phrases by combining a finite set of notes and rhythms, researchers consider musical improvisation an optimal way to study the neural underpinnings of spontaneous creative artistic invention.”

– Mónica López-González, “Musical Creativity and the Brain

Matters of invention are really part of our daily life and musical improvisation is merely mindful use of our normally functioning faculties.  Whenever we find shortcuts to avoid traffic, or substitute ingredients in a recipe, or crack a joke, or lie to our guitar teacher about why we could not practice, we are indulging in invention.  Musically speaking, there was a very creative band called the Mothers of Invention fronted by Frank Zappa, surely the musical heir of the demented Carlo Gesualdo in their mutual use of dissonance and themed cacophony.

Another organization that calls itself the Mothers of Invention, sponsored by a car manufacturer that will remain unnamed, in 2014 rewarded a creative person from Texas who invented a way to bridge the ubiquitous language gap that is a barrier to effective communication commonly encountered in one of the largest states of our nation of immigrants.  But in 2015, hyperactive police types in the same state rewarded a creative high school student with arrest, handcuffs, illegal interrogation and suspension from school for taking his creative project to school just to show his teacher. Matters of invention have taken an ugly turn.

One is overcome both with extreme irritation and utter dismay at the complete absence of intellectual capacity and the arrogant misuse of authority by those in positions of responsibility.  But at least you have to give them credit for inventing an alternate reality where the inarticulate and mean-spirited trumps human logic and historically accepted Christian values.

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