Skip to content

Saturday morning quotes 4.42: Economizing

In the old days before music was free, the idea of musicians generally tightening the belt and finding ways to economize brings to mind historical examples, such as this response by the late Christopher Hogwood.

Good instruments becoming more expensive and difficult to obtain, the following photo demonstrates how we used to economize in bygone days.  Of course, one has to be very good friends to get this close in the summertime, even out of doors.

Since the repertory is not extremely demanding, such duet playing allows ample opportunity for discussing the latest fashion in clothing styles, metaphysical conversation, storytelling, balancing one’s checkbook, and chord substitution.
Then there is the more challenging sort of economizing.



Rehearsing with another favorite musician “A Galliard for two to play vpon one Lute at the end of the Booke,” for a concert of music from John Dowland, A Pilgrimes Solace that also included all the lute duets attributed to Dowland – and then some.  This particular piece is not recommended for those who may be experiencing back problems.


Skipping the left-hand technique, we quote from Thomas Robinson, The Schoole of Musicke (London, 1603), found in his “Generall Rules.”

“…Now for your right hand, called the striking hand leane upon the bellie of the Lute with your little finger onelie, & that, neither to far from the Treble strings, neither too neere, and although you ought to lean lightlie, yet carie your hand steddilie, not sliding out of his place, also remembering, to leane lightlie upon your arme upon your Lute, for otherwise it will paine the sinewes and hinder your play.”

That’s all.


Saturday morning quotes 4.41: The common touch

As we observe so frequently, history as we know it is written by the victors, those who have the best archival tools, and those with the most effective means of conveying it to others in the short term. We read recent stories of certain states in the US wanting to erase from the history books any events or facts that may raise embarrassing questions for those among us still capable of critical thinking.

In the field of music history, we tend to create a collection of “the best of” whatever, whether it be style, genre, or composer.  I’ll personally never forget the experience of visiting a local CD shop and when I asked whether there was a category of music listed under the composer “John Dowland,” being told that there was not, since he was not considered an “important” composer.

Generally speaking, in the world of art, we tend to think that what has been preserved is the best representations of the past.  But this is faulty logic.  For instance, lutes that survive intact from the 16th century may not be the best examples to copy and play today – maybe they survived because they sounded terrible and weren’t considered worth playing.

We may be missing the point entirely until we dig deeper and attempt to discover works that were less popular.  A good example of this line of thinking can be read in this interesting article by Jonathan Jones from the Guardian, Tuesday 17 February 2015, where he states:

Putting faces on people from the past is a dangerous delusion. It makes us think we can understand past centuries more easily than is the case. But worse, it casts a spotlight on a tiny number of individuals and throws the vast majority of humankind into their shadow. Inevitably, the best-preserved, most-portrayed faces are those of the few – kings and queens, ladies and lords.

What are the chances of a medieval peasant being remembered as an individual? Bertolt Brecht defined the dream of a “history from below” when he asked:

Who built Thebes of the 7 gates?
In the books you will read the names of kings.
Did the kings haul up the lumps of rock?

We tend to go out of our way to find lesser-known music by less famous composers, and then discover the significance of the text and the magic of the music hidden in the scrawled notes.  This is the most satisfying work, and we encourage students of art and music history to ask for more opportunities to dig deeper than the received “important” works.

Saturday morning quotes 4.40: Balance

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?


Saturday morning quotes 4.39: Innovation

We frequently despair why it should be so that we live in an age when the major focus of artistic energy is devoted to re-creation of ideals of beauty in music and art from the past rather than creating new forms of representational beauty. This leads us to wonder what has become of 1) the concept of inspired innovation, and 2) thoughtful emulation of standards of beauty. It turns out that we are not alone. As early as 1932, clear minded individuals were expressing informed opinions:

Now I believe that the manifestations of modern music are not the normal signs of health but the pathological stigmata of disease. Its pains are not the pains of growth but the pangs of dissolution. It is for the most part, restless, fretful, where it is not grim and unfriendly. It makes but scant concession to those canons of beauty to which the ear has been accustomed by the older masters. Its purgation of the emotions is cruelly drastic and leaves us not so much cleansed as exhausted. Its tragedy is a mere expression of despair or degenerates into an obscene goat song. Its comedy is cynical, heartless and unforgiving. Its thought is in a prison from which it can in no wise come out because its wealth is insufficient for the provision of the uttermost farthing. Thin worm-like phrases, neither alive nor dead, wriggle their way through its symphonies and sonatas. For inspiration, we have exhalation, for invention innovation, for originality a routine unexpectedness so expected that it fails either to surprise or charm.

– E. W. Adams,”Modern Music: An Indictment,” Music & Letters, Vol. 13, No. 1 (Jan., 1932), pp. 59-63.

So what defines worthwhile innovation in music and art, and exactly what presents itself as worthy of emulation?

“Innovation,” from the Latin innovare, innovatio, should signify renewal, rejuvenation from inside, rather than novelty, which is its modern meaning in both English and French…the word came into widespread use only in the 16th century and, until the 18th century, its connotations are almost uniformly unfavorable. In the vulgar tongues, as well as in medieval Latin, the word is used primarily in theology, and it means a departure from what by definition should not change-religious dogma. In many instances, innovation is practically synonymous with heresy.”

“During the 19th and much of the 20th centuries, as the passion for innovation intensified, the definition of it became more and more radical, less and less tolerant of tradition, i. e. of imitation. As it spread from painting to music and to literature the radical view of innovation triggered the successive upheavals that we call “modem art.” A complete break with the past is viewed as the sole achievement worthy of a “creator.”

“As early as the beginning of the 19th century, innovation became the god that we are still worshiping today…The new cult meant that a new scourge had descended upon the world-“stagnation.” Before the 18th century, “stagnation” was unknown; suddenly it spread its gloom far and wide. The more innovative the capitals of the modern spirit became, the more “stagnant” and “boring” the surrounding countryside appeared.”

“Real change can only take root when it springs from the type of coherence that tradition alone provides. Tradition can only be successfully challenged from the inside. The main prerequisite for real innovation is a minimal respect for the past, and a mastery of its achievements, i. e. mimesis. To expect novelty to cleanse itself of imitation is to expect a plant to grow with its roots up in the air. In the long run, the obligation always to rebel may be more destructive of novelty than the obligation never to rebel.”

– René Girard, “Innovation and Repetition,” SubStance, Vol. 19, No. 2/3, Issue 62/63: Special Issue: Thought and Novation (1990), University of Wisconsin Press, pp. 7-20.

And finally, we direct your attention to a worthwhile effort to draw attention to historical standards of beauty and describe why they should be studied and emulated. The first is a website hosted by an author whose life’s work is to “advocate a Renaissance humanist approach to art and architecture for the modern world. I believe this is not only possible, but essential to building a better, more beautiful world.”

The second is a weekly blog dedicated to the work of a sole artist of the 20th century who sensitively painted in a modern representational style and described in eloquent terms why he was moved to express his work as “the permanent symbols of eternity.”

Read, share and enjoy.

Saturday morning quotes 4.38: Truth or adverts?

MariaZartAfter last week’s frank revelations, which were either inspired by maximum physical discomfort or by a justifiable utter disgust over our culture’s epidemic of narcissism, we offer an antidote in the form of true and honest music to hear and appreciate.

Of course, the primary solution is to pack up all narcissists, politicos, franchise-oriented hype-merchants and PR types, and make them a generous offer to colonize the moon.  We are simply sick and tired of being deceived at every step by people we should be able to trust selling things that are not as described,

We are tired of concerts being characterized with a professionally compiled litany of buzz words that cannot possibly in all honesty deliver the goods.

“Each has his appointed day; short and irretrievable is the span of life for all; but to prolong fame by deeds—that is the task of virtue.”

Virgil, The Aeneid, Book X (Translation by Rob C. Wegman)

As our deed, we choose to offer an honest alternative in the form of a live recording for solo voice and lute of a simple devotional song published by Arnolt Schlick (c.1455–1521) in Tabulatur etlicher Lobgesang und lidlein (Mainz, 1512).  This book is mainly known as an early published source of organ music, with ten instrumental pieces devoted to keyboard with pedal.  But our interest lies in the devotional songs in vernacular German, specifically “Maria zart von edler art”. A keyboard variant of the piece also appears in the 1512 book, with elaborate right-hand melodic lines supported by organ tablature for one left hand and two left feet.  Though published later, this keyboard version and material from the Tyrolian devotional song were apparently concordant with the source for Jacob Obrecht’s (1458 – 1505) lavishly long setting, Missa Maria Zart.

Just to add a little spice to the discussion, controversy over competence mattered 500 years ago as well.  When Schlick published his book in 1512, it was in response to a hackneyed version of tablatures published in 1511 by Sebastian Virdung (c. 1435  1530), Virdung’s Musica getutscht und ausgezogen (Basel, 1511). While Virdung’s book was meant to have a slightly more comprehensive focus, Schlick did not hesitate to level bitter criticisms at the number of misprints and outright errors in the earlier book. Virdung, apparently less a musician than a wordy anthologist, advised how to intabulate music for lute while completely missing the concept that certain simultaneous combinations of notes on the same string were simply unplayable.  We’ll skip the 500-year old spilling of bile but add this quote on the subject from Hans H. Lenneberg, “The Critic Criticized: Sebastian Virdung and His Controversy with Arnold Schlick,” Journal of the American Musicological Society, Vol. 10, No. 1 (Spring, 1957), pp. 1-6.

We have seen that Virdung was undoubtedly not a lutenist and probably not much of a keyboard performer. He may not even have had too much theoretical knowledge. It is an obvious conclusion that one should not read Musica getutscht without having a saltcellar handy.

Nevertheless, please enjoy our performance of “Maria zart”, and remember to support real early music as performed by dedicated artists who do not have a public relations consultant tossing about the latest buzz words. Just honest scholarship and dedicated artistry.


Saturday morning quotes 4.37: Narcissicm

“An all-pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration or adulation and lack of empathy, usually beginning by early adulthood and present in various contexts.”

– Diagnostic and Statistical Manual IV-TR, describing the malignant narcissist

Writhing in pain and doggedly adhering to my regime of one-twelfth the prescribed dose of pain killers, our readers are treated to the unvarnished sentiments of the musician who just doesn’t get this “revenge of the nerds” scene that describes the (American) world of the lute.

Ever since I became involved in the (American) world of the the lute, I have been asking myself, “What’s with these people?”  Don’t get me wrong.  I have met a number of truly wonderful lutenists who show every sign of being actual normal professional musicians, willing to share instruments, tips and even gigs, and more than happy to actually play ensemble music.

But I soon discovered a number of Americans lutenists seemed to view other lutenists as a primary threat, and I have even been told in no uncertain terms, that “lutenists don’t share information about gigs with other lutenists.”  I discovered that, with a few notable exceptions, the organization of American lutenists was dominated by an aggregation of costumed role-playing narcissists whose behavior was astoundingly juvenile when they were gathered together in one place.  Seminars were little more than a fan club experience, rather than an educational opportunity, and ensemble playing was simply not in the picture.  I began to compare my previous musical experience in other musical styles with people who actually loved music and enjoyed playing together, with this new class of individual, leading me to a cursory understanding of the modern phenomenon of narcissism.

“Narcissism is compulsive self-infatuation, so a narcissist is someone who is, metaphorically, always looking at their own image in the mirror of their own mind.  And narcissism is a psychological disease which has become a cultural epidemic, especially with the emergence of postmodernism.”

“…I was never told that you’re part of a bigger context, a bigger process, that might need something from you…I was never told that maybe you have an obligation to help those who are less fortunate than you.”

“So narcissism is a culturally conditioned epidemic of literally pathological self-
concern…And so our own egos and the fears and desires of our own egos become the narrative of our relationship to life.  It makes us unknowingly inherently selfish because we’re always thinking about me and we’re always thinking about what’s going to be good for me and what am I going to get out of any particular situation…

“It’s important to understand this is not a personal problem of any particular individual.  It’s a cultural epidemic…So unless we’re very committed to transcending a compulsively narcissistic and self-centered relationship to experience itself, we probably won’t do it.”

Andrew Cohen

Since my initial experiences with American lutenists, I have over time seen a sincere and genuine growth in a sense of purpose, and an authentic maturity in leadership emerge, characteristics I applaud heartily. I would like to publicly thank this new order of leadership and wish them all the best in advancing the mission of the organization and the quality of its output.

But still, I wonder, how does one begin to steer these self-referential lute-playing fuddy-duddies toward actually making music together and dipping into the joy and musical freedom of mutual music-making?

This question brings to mind another major public figure who shares the name of the author, Andrew Cohen, quoted above.  This other Andrew Cohen (YJ), is a real musician who is not only the absolute opposite of the classic narcissist, but rather a heart-on-the-sleeve performer who has made it his life’s work to give his audience everything he has, and then some.  This other Andy Cohen, is a fabulous folk musician with whom I’ve had the great pleasure to play with on a number of occasions, most of them involving my coming away with brand new imprints of the grill of a SM58 decorating the top of my guitar.

An anecdote worth repeating involved a very near-death experience when Andy was driving on a winding lakeside road, enjoying a smoldering cigarette-like thing, when an rudely aggressive yellow-jacket decided to fly in the driver’s window and perch on the tip of his nose.  This was not the ideal time to be informed of Andy’s allergies and absolute horror of being stung.  His hands flew off the wheel, the smoldering ash fell into his lap, as did his hands, and my calmly grabbing the steering wheel and punting was the only reason we are all alive today to tell the story.

Please check out this video of Andy Cohen and mark in your mind how very different are the two worlds – that oh so precious and self-referential world of the lute, and the emotionally unambiguous world of real music that inspires one to shout “Amen, Brother.”  Let’s have a little more of this going on.


Saturday morning quotes 4.36: A rift in the lute

“It is the little rift within the lute,
That by and by will make the music mute,
And ever widening slowly silence all.

The little rift within the lover’s lute
Or little pitted speck in garnered fruit,
That rotting inward slowly moulders all.”

Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809 – 1892): Merlin and Vivien

We write today in unaccustomed silence–or at least lack of music–as one of us attempts to heal from ‘a little rift’ in his person, in the way of a surgical incision inflicted on his spine a few days ago.  Neurosurgery – and its recovery – is a delicate and painful business, not entirely unlike the business of peeling away the layers of nuance and meaning in some of our favorite music.  We ignore or gloss over the ‘pitted speck’ at our peril:  it will continue to fester or at least annoy, drawing our attention away from the business at hand, and eventually becoming impossible to conceal and even destroying our pleasure in the music.

We believe that part of the reason our music affects listeners as it does – aside from the undeniable fact that it is wonderful music, of course – is that our approach to interpretation involves a slow, patient, investigation into the unique characteristics of each piece, each composer, each era.  When asked, as we often are after a concert or lecture-recital, how we know how to apply appropriate ornamentation or ficta or pronunciation, we reply that our musical instincts are informed by our research.  We are, first and foremost, musicians who, like most music-lovers, respond to the music and the poetry on an emotional level.  The years of research into the theory, or the rhetorical style, or the poetical form; or the immersion into 16th century social and political contexts enhance our own appreciation and delight in the layers of meaning behind the beautiful sounds.

We are continually rewarded with little “aha!” moments:  recognizing an obscure allusion to some historical event or bit of poetry that would have been instantly felt by listeners when the music was new.   Likewise cutting out the ‘little pitted speck’ is always worth the trouble:  investigating an awkward line of poetry that just doesn’t seem to make sense can pay off when we are rewarded for taking the time to look something up in Cotgrave’s 1611 Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues rather than in Larousse’s latest and we uncover an unsuspected bit of wordplay lost on the most fluent 21st century linguists.

…And we are itching to get back to it!

Donna Stewart


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 57 other followers