:: Performance as Research

Ecology of Trust

Thursday, April 23rd, 2015


A huge thankyou to Elisabeth Belgrano and Fredric Gunve for the Ecology of Trust meeting. I won’t call it a conference as it was unlike any conference I’ve ever attended – walking seminars on the rocks by the sea, provocative and compelling presentations by musicians, the complete uncertainty of what was going to happen next, but most of all the wonderfully generous and open minded spirit in which everything was conducted. I’ve never really enjoyed conference discussions on critical theory – in the UK they’re generally characterised by aggressive academic point-scoring and a delight in obfuscation. Here we had the complete opposite – searching discussions (largely focusing on the work of Karen Barad) between scholars – many from non-music arts disciplines – clever enough not to need to prove the point. It was a real treat. And on the final evening we had a Moroccan-inspired arena of simultaneous performances, complete with delicious food and mint tea. The event ended with the legendary David Medalla energetically lip-synching with Nikola Matisic


Since officially parting company with academia five years ago I’ve kept a (mostly) friendly eye on my old discipline, but I’ve now decided to give it a complete rest at least until my current performance projects have run their course over the next few years. Being here in Gothenburg was a great way to stop. There are some very exciting young minds in the field, and it’s their turn. With a pretty full performing calendar I just can’t keep up with the reading, apart from anything else. I’m flattered that people still invite me to conferences and so on, but for the foreseeable future I’m going to say no. I’m also touched that so many people seem to have read Vocal Authority, but guys it’s over fifteen years old now. Maybe in a few years’ time I’ll write a sequel.

Cantum Pucriorum Invenire: CD1

Saturday, October 29th, 2011


…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

Cantum pic


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

Cantum pic2

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).

The Limits of Musicology

Monday, September 26th, 2011


Having just proof-read my two Cambridge Music History chapters (both should be published next year) and being in the middle of proof-reading the History of Singing I’m more than usually conscious of whether or not I practice what I preach. All of my historical writing is generated as far as possible by the actuality of performance – in a nutshell what singers might actually have sung rather than what composers or theorists may have written (or expected, or hoped for…),  a historical perspective rather than a musicological one. It’s not always easy to incorporate elements of historical practice: the early music movement is very selective in what it chooses to recover from the past, and there are entire institutions dedicated to perpetuating a new and improved version of history.

Much of the time modern singers are at the mercy of conductors, directors of one sort or another, or simply the ideology of modern performance. The latter has its roots way back in the 20th century, when the composer’s word finally became law. Within the early music movement, despite welcome moves to the contrary in some quarters, there’s still a view that even the 15th or 16th century composer was the fount of all inspiration and that a musicologist who works on the surviving manuscripts is his representative here on earth. Unfortunately, many musicologists tend to privilege musical theory rather than performance practice, the rules rather than their application, and in their wish to preserve the integrity of the composer too often resort to what the text books of the time prescribe  rather than the less tidy but more creative flights of fancy that the singers might have enjoyed. You wouldn’t try  to reconstruct Impressionism from art teaching manuals of the period – you’d end up with view of what the teachers might have wanted rather than what their wayward pupils came up with, and a completely distorted view of the past.

There is a major conflict of interest here between musicologists and historians – the former are likely to want something faithful to what they see as the surviving remnants and reputation of the composer, while the latter are more interested in the performances he may have heard. The modern idea of a composer able to demand that performers do his bidding, or indeed that the score might represent a performance at all, is far too often imposed on historical periods when such concepts simply didn’t exist. There are few things more depressing for a singer than having a musicological policeman imposing his or her will ‘because the composer wanted it that way.’ Composition as we now understand it, the creative act of a single inspired mind, perfectly formed in order to be worshipped and interpreted by others, didn’t really exist until Wagner and only found its fully reductive form with Schoenberg and Stravinsky. By treating renaissance composers like their modern equivalents we do the music a huge disservice; we also misrepresent the past and make things much less fun for singers.

From a singer’s point of view, the task of the musicologist is simply to produce a readable score. The edition can have any amount of performance suggestions, but the decisions on what and how to sing should be left to the singers. That’s how it worked at the time.  In the case of renaissance music, there is now a living tradition – generations of singers have grown up knowing the rules of ficta and how to interpret proportion signs. We’ve also grown up with the performance practice sources (such as they are) and we know full well that if a source keeps insisting that singers do things in a certain way, it’s because the singers of the time were reluctant to stick to the rules. The single thread that runs through all my research into performance practice is that singers were (until the 20th century) a law unto themselves. If everybody had sung according to the rules there would have been no need for the frequent complaints about the tritone and other colourful indiscretions.

So…bring on the creative and spontaneous use of theoretical apparatus – let’s have a plurality of performance practice driven by what feels right to those who practice the performing. We rarely discussed ficta in the Hilliard Ensemble, and we had an understanding that the first voice to encounter a problem would set the mode for the rest of the piece. Next time it could be different – there are usually many possibilities (often no right answers) and we wouldn’t want to be stuck with the same solution for ever. On one early trip to the USA we sang at a conference and afterwards an eager PhD student came round to ask if we raised cadential leading notes in late medieval polyphony. ‘Sometimes,’ was our reply. The distaste and incomprehension on the face of the student, whose entire academic career was devoted to getting a definitive answer to this question one way or the other, was a wonder to behold.