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    Friday
    Feb072014

    This week I'm performing in the Feast of the Pheasant at the Newberry Consort in Chicago.  (Have a listen to this little L'homme arme setting).  Some poetic accounts survive and director David Douglass has sewn together a truly fine program with images, speaking, and great music.  On board are Ellen Hargis, Shira Kammen (vielle, harp), Tom Zajac (sackbut, douçaine, recorder, kitchen sink), yours truly singing countertenor and playing lute and gittern, and the amazing Rachel Barton Pine on rebec and voice.  

    Among the best works on the program are Busnoys' Regina Coeli, Dufay's marvellous motet Ecclesie Militantis, and many fine chansons by Dufay and Binchois.  

    It's a pleasure to work on this repertoire - my third concert of 15th c. rep. this season.  The admixture of what we today think of as separate domains, i.e., counterpoint and harmony - is truly satisfying.  Rhythmically, there's a residue of the late 14th century floating here and there - especially in the contratenor parts (a middle/low or middle/high part against the primary pair of tenor and cantus).  And there's enough virtuosity to go around for

    The text of the Feast is interesting. I need to dig into its symbolism.  To me, it seems like the primary account is full of encoded memory images.  These fantastic descriptions remind me of rhetoric manuals from ancient Rome and of the Ciceronian memory system.  It would be interesting to know what relationships are being uncovered by, say, green striped cloth, or of a woman thrashing birds out of a tree for someone to eat.  I bet someone has written about this and I'll soon know more.

     

    Wednesday
    Dec252013

    Schoenberg's Opp. 19 and 20

    I'm currently musing over the two works that precede Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire.  After reading the Blaue Reiter Almanac and Sixten Ringbom's excellent study of Kandinsky (1970), I'm finding that an understanding of 1911 - 1913 is impossible without some sense of Theosophy, Anarchism, and the Freudian subconscious.  Sechs Kleine Klavierstücke Op. 19 and Herzgewächse Op. 20 appear to be two attempts to write without self-censorship; these brittle and microcosmic works succeed so well because their initial material - their innere klang, following Kandinsky and Goethe - really does govern the procession of the work itself.  The syntactical relationships between what seem like pianistic shapes in Op. 19 succeed one another in a free-associative manner, much like Freud's unconscious image making.  Op. 20 itself seems concerned with perpetuating a small number of metaphorically-chosen intervals, spinning them out centrifigually and impossibly away from the logical beginning point to a place beyond understanding.  

    These works seem to me to prepare Op. 21 quite carefully, in that the dream-like collage so carefully begun in the George Lieder now feels natural and less derivative.  The whole of Op. 21 has the feeling of a medieval summa - a retelling of the world in a compendium that relates all knowledge of the author about the subject.  Thus, the overlapping cycles of operatic scenes, baroque set pieces, and character pieces jostle against one another again in a Freudian dream world.  Only the brevity of each movement and the centripedal aspects of the piece (Sprechstimme, instrumentation, brevity, and sometimes, limited pitch material) seems to pin each movement in place. The whole is so fragile and airy that any false move by the composer would seem to threaten the work's integrity.

    What amazes me as a listener, composer, and perfromer, is how TRUE Schoenberg's choices are in these works.  To my ear, his intuition rarely makes a false move.  While the structures are dissonant and the sounds often jarring, they are the "right" sounds.  The reasons for my opinion are probably as subjective as those for those who hate these works, I wager, but Schoenberg's inner vibrations continually set mine in motion, to paraphrase Kandinsky in der blaue Reiter.  

    If only he had written these songs for a countertenor! 

    Tuesday
    Jun252013

    The Stifling Influence of Authenticity 

    David Schulenberg review of Play of Daniel in Rockport.

    Joel Cohen review of Rosa das Rosas at BEMF.

    I'm bothered and also slightly amused by the contradictory yet similar beliefs in "authenticity" that informs these reviews.  As a participant in both performances, I should probably take the ineveitible lumps and move on. On the other hand, these reviews hit a nerve because they fly in the face of the positive reaction of the audiences, not to mention my own strong belief in a HIP approach rather than the antiquated and sterile demands for "authenticity in early music".    

    ***

    From Monsieur Claude Debussy:

    "I love music passionately. And because I love it I try to free it from barren traditions that stifle it."

    "Works of art make rules; rules do not make works of art.

    from:  http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/c/claude_debussy.html#L4Q60uxyqtXRVkZg.99 - 

    ***

    Modality, metric interpretation, and choices of instrumentation and texture place a number of practical limits upon the accompanist of medieval monophony.  In my experience, however, the characteristics, limitations and possibilities of the instrument at hand (including choices of tuning, plectrum, etc.) is a vital aspect of historically-informed music making.  A citole is not a gittern; a gittern is not a lute; a medieval lute is not an oud, etc.  

    The dynamic and interactive relationship between the ensemble members is likewise more than the sum of its parts - roles within an improvising ensemble are best left to emerge organically and often occur in a "geometric fashion" as each player brings these internal parameters to the band and they are sifted and balanced through trial and error.  

    More importantly, one can choose to ignore or to follow and support the dramatic intent of the poetry in the character of the musical execution.  There is also the context of the performance.  The style of performance will always be attenuated to the situation, be it a HIP but ultimately modern dramatic presentation, a concert recital, a house concert, a church service, or a Civil War reenactment.  

    I reject the concept that ANY approach today, no matter how informed or well funded (pace, Savall), is more historically correct than any other given a certain set of clear, obvious boundaries (no drum machines, no V7b9 chords, "more cowbell..."), etc.  If I have learned anything from my time in the Historically Informed Performance movement, it's that a successful modern performance is CONTEMPORARY and not a museum piece.  As in an exciting performance of Le Sacre du Printemps what matters is the direct communication from the musician to the audience.  This is achieved by us HIPsters with as much background informing artistic decisions as possible.  But what truly matters at the moment of performance - especially the moment of spontaneous improvisation - is the residue of the effort, the end result, not the effort to get there.   

    Second, to assume that the amazing oud players of today are exactly like their medieval counterparts shown in the Cantigas illustrations is as equally positivistic as claiming that the instrumentalists of Beauvais ca. 1200 were constrained by theoretical rules of the Notre Dame school and that they would have confined their playing to simple drones without using any linear material.  Nor is it likely that jongleurs, if they were even employed in such a performance, would know modal notation or the theory of the rhythmic modes, or would have necessarily even been schooled in the church modes in the same way as the school's singers.  Accounts of music making by medieval instrumentalists are scant, and if they yield anything, it's the strong emotional effect of the playing of harpers, etc., on their listeners (e.g., Tristan's tuning and harping, and later, Pietrobono's wild lutenizing).  Many members of both audiences in were moved emotionally by the music, which can often come off as arid and boring.  

    Likewise, it's incorrect to obliquely insinuate that so-called "Arabic" musical techniques were or were not employed on non-Arabic instruments (implying that scale passages, tremolo or slurs are not part of early European lute techniques).  While Thomas Binkley and his peers pioneered this approach, and more recently Jordi Savall and Marcel Perez have taken the world-music approach to early music to the bank, it is still nothing less than a MODERN approach, influenced as much by marketing and internationalism as musicology.  And to consider scale runs in accompaniment "Stravinskian" shows a lack of imagination on the part of both modern and medieval instrumentalists.  

    What is virtually absent in the historical sources are the more immediate, internal aspects of style.  And they will remain silent until someone invents a time-machine to gather such evidence Bartok-style from the past.   

    If authenticity was applied dogmatically by the Florentines, would Caccini and his circle have developed monody?  Or would Lasso have written the Prophetiae Sibyllarum in such a wierd and wonderful style?  Would Gesualdo, Kapsperger or Frescobaldi have sided with Zarlino and eschewed the chromatic genus?  Was this music actually antique music for its time?  No, it was a NEW music BASED on antiquity.  Without the chromatic pioneers of the 16th and early 17th century, Bach wouldn't have inherited the chromatic bass and we would be bereft of the B-Minor Mass' masterful Crucifixus.  Mozart wouldn't have written the brilliant contrapuntal works of his maturity without the influence of Padre Martini's collections full of early music or Baron Van Sweiten's evenings of Handel and Bach.  And what of Stravinsky's neoclassicism?  I could go on with this thought experiment, but what I believe it proves is that NEW ideas have forever sprung from an open-minded egagement with old music.  When old music exists purely for itself, it moulders in salons and rots between the covers of a codex.  

    To my mind, the discomfort of critics over new approaches to familiar music can only be a good sign for the field of early music.  And thus, let us forever leave the foolish consistency of the authenticity movement, which I thought had been put to bed in favor of creativity and vision.  

    Saturday
    Dec082012

    What the scholars sang at Beauvais

    I'm working on memorizing and organizing my parts for the Play of Daniel - I'll be a worker drone - and am amazed at the subtletly and formal beauty of the work.  The contrasts of tone, tonality, meter, singing style and form are wonderful, and the consistently high degree of melodic invention is striking.  

    I'm looking forward to participating in this up at the Closters this January. I imagine my next composition will be somehow indebted to its phrasing...

    Saturday
    Nov172012

    A Shining Performance of "Austerity" by WCU Students.

    If I may indulge in a review of a PERFORMANCE of my own music...

    I was overjoyed to witness the dazzling premiere of my muckraking "Austerity" by WCU singers E. Peter Christian, D.J. Matsko, and Stephanie Scogna this week.  The libretto by Lawrence Rosenwald was somewhat on the dark side of Brechtian and my music was tinged with Expressionist overtones.  The students found the core of the work, one that would resonate with the late Kurt Vonnegut, and drove it home with brilliant force.  The coproration and the politician were performed dripping of didain for the "little" people beneath them, while Scogna's citizen was performed with horror and rage.    

    I'm incredibly lucky to have such great young artists to work with here at WCU.  And the direction and lighting were supurb!  Now on to write more of these scenes, perhaps as preludes to working on a chamber opera...