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Saturday morning quotes 5.34: Influences

January 9, 2016

“What are your influences?”

– Jimmy Rabbitte from the The Commitments by Roddy Doyle (film, 1991)

Whether we like to accept the fact or not it is nearly impossible for a musician to avoid being influenced by examples.  In musical genres like rock, it is not only typical but essential for a band to list their sonic models so fans and prospective band mates can easily judge whether to audition, or to bother listening at all.  The quote above is from the must-see film, The Commitments, which sometimes amusingly, sometimes poignantly traces the evolution of a band from its inception through its inevitable disintegration.  When the erstwhile manager and protagonist of the story, Jimmy Rabbitte, places an advertisement and invites all and sundry to audition, they are met at the door and asked to state their influences before even allowed entry.

In early music, one tends to be influenced by the insights of scholars at least as much as by performers—moreso in the case of the present writer.  My (RA) influences can be be easily discerned simply by reading through some five year’s worth of weekly blog posts.  But the writings of Margaret Bent, Bonnie Blackburn, Howard Mayer Brown, Edward Doughtie, David Fallows, Edward Lowinsky, Reinhard Strohm, John Ward, Rob C. Wegman and Christoph Wolff have preoccupied much of my time over the last several years.  A musicologist whose writing had an enormous influence on my understanding of music for voice and lute is Daniel Heartz, whose introduction to Preludes, Chansons, and Dances for Lute Published by Pierre Attaingnant (1529 -1530), Société de Musique d’Autrefois, Neuilly-Sur-Seine, 1964, I have read time and again.  After fifty years since publication, there is no better introduction to the chansons and dance forms one encounters in the music of 16th-century France.

Happily, there are rare cases when an insightful scholar and consummate performer are one and the same person.

“…In today’s world of medieval music one can also encounter the concert experience as pretentious pseudo-liturgy; as ironic, edgy cabaret; as ponderous mystery play or cute, costumed courtly entertainment; as ecstatic ethnic percussion session; as extravagantly-orchestrated symphonic poem; as dutiful list of dry musical examples; as SCA free-for-all, etc. For some of these performance modes, technical ability (to play an instrument well or sing in tune with a consistent production) is not considered essential. Medieval song, having no living traditions except the ones we create for it, thrives even in the harshest of environments and adapts easily to the disguises performers require it to inhabit. No other ‚historical’ music is thus fated to absorb such intense projections and fantasies from its modern performers.”

– Benjamin Bagby, “What is the Sound of Medieval Song?

What we hear tends to seep into our subconscious and, while it’s easy to acknowledge one’s models in any other broad genre of recorded music, influences in early music are a bit tricky since the music itself is re-creative rather than original.  If we are influenced by recorded examples, we are merely copying the musical personalities of (mostly) living, breathing performers and colleagues.

However, if you play the lute, you like hearing the sounds of the lute.  While I mostly listen to old recordings of jazz from the 1930s and 40s and have nearly sworn off listening to recordings of early music altogether, the many recordings of Hopkinson Smith tend to keep cropping up at home.  Two other lutenists deserve praise and much more exposure: Eugène Ferré has a masterful way of combining a warm tone and sensitive phrasing with a clear rendering of polyphonic music, and his recording, Jean-Paul Paladin : Tablature De Luth, Arcana, 1994, is nothing less than wonderful.  Luciano Contini is another musician whose music deserves wider distribution.  His playing of Bach’s Prelude (fugue and allegro) pour la luth o cembalo BWV 998 is a masterpiece in calm, sensitive, insightful performance on the lute.  You can hear the fugue here and judge for yourself.


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