…The Dignity of Art…?
We’ve just finished our first CD of 12th century song. It was a real revelation: after the very long gestation period everything finally came into focus and we think we have a ground-breaking album.
Recording as Research
Christopher O’Gorman and I, aided and abetted by Rogers Covey-Crump, took our first tentative steps back in the spring, sight-reading from facsimiles of the Florence MS in front of a battery of Southampton musicologists led by Mark Everist. These exploratory sessions were often hilarious, and left Chris and me with plenty to think about in the ensuing months. Like most of our fellow performers we three tenors are very much of the get-there-by-the-shortest-possible-route school of practical vocalism, and reading from facsimile would not normally be our first choice (after all, what are musicologists for if not to furnish you with the notes?). We had to decipher ambiguous pitches, four-line staves and strange clefs (not to mention the dreaded ficta issue) – before we could even begin to have a dialogue with the musicologists about the real issues of the project, which are to do with rhythm.
The old Anderson editions (and most other modern editors) shoehorn the neumes into one or more of the rhythmic modes. This masks the fact that there are two sorts of notation in most conducti (nb pedants: the plural is usually treated as 2nd declension, though at the time it was considered 4th), and no one’s really been able to figure out how to make the non-rhythmic bits work (if indeed they are supposed to be without metrical rhythm).
After our first week of experiments, Chris O’Gorman and I took away the facsimiles (plus copies of Anderson to cheat with if necessary) and met from time to time to try to make some progress, helped by the odd extra edited version from Southampton. After much frustration and seeming to get not very far, the pieces gradually began to come together, especially reading the non measured material from facsimile (or an edited equivalent) – these are the bits that carry the text and are intended to have poetic, rhetorical rhythm rather than measured bars. Eventually it became perfectly natural to merge into and out of modal rhythm for the long melismatic passages that are interspersed with the text-bearing sections. In the recording sessions I think we proved that the whole thing worked, greatly assisted by Jeremy Summerly as producer, and with Mark Everist keeping a keen eye on the practical musicology. It was a joy to do – a knowledgeable and enthusiastic producer and an undogmatic and creative musicologist made the sessions very satisfying. We also knew that we were doing the music in a way that no one’s done it since the 12th century (and possibly not then either, of course…): it made a terrific start to the project.
Research as Performance
The first live performance will be a late night event in next year’s York Early Music Festival at All Saints Church on the Harewood House Estate. The music will be the two-voice pieces from the first album (provisionally called The Dignity of Art after the conductus Artium Dignitas). It will be accompanied by a video, commissioned from Michael Lynch (who did the films for Being Dufay and took the shots on this page).
The project will have a three year recording life span (2nd the 3rd albums in 2013 and 2014) and a performance life beyond that for as long as people want to hear it. The next recordings should be a lot easier than this first one as we now know more or less what we’re doing, and our default way of working will be from facsimile for the rhetorical sections (which produced much more convincing results than using edited versions, apparently). There are plans to launch the 2nd album at the PMMS conference in July 2013 with a concert in the Chapter House of York Minster, also during the Early Music Festival. The culmination of the research will eventually result in a monograph for Cambridge University Press: Discovering Song: Thirteenth-Century Latin Poetry and Music.
One of the reasons for commissioning the video which will accompany live performances was that I wasn’t sure that audiences would be able to take a whole hour of two medieval tenors without falling asleep. In fact our experience so far has been the opposite – the music is exciting, dynamic, virtuosic and even sometimes moving, often with dramatic contrasts between measured and unmeasured sections. The video will certainly be more colourful to look at than me and Chris (though audiences will have the option to do that too, of course), and the whole multi-media experience should create a very special atmosphere that puts audiences in touch not just with creative musicology, but also a magical musical aesthetic of 800 years ago.
Performances are very straightforward to organise – the venue just needs to provide a projector and (large) screen (or whitewashed medieval wall…); Mick Lynch controls the films from his laptop while Chris O’Gorman and I sing music from the albums in real time. Further details can be had from Robert White Artist Management (RWhiteAM@aol.com).