It is in the period that we call by the refreshingly positive name of Renaissance that we first find composers who behave like composers, writing and publishing appreciable amounts of music, obviously learning from identifiable teachers, and influencing students whose names we know. Our ingrained Darwinism is gratified when history arrives at this—the beginning, significantly, of what historians call the Modern Era. Missing Links in stylistic lineages have been tracked down with a thoroughness that would edify paleontology. The composers of the Renaissance tend obligingly to group themselves into Schools (or at least not to resist over-much when we so group them ourselves) and generally give us what we want in the way of compositions in the various genres of the time.

But to look at Renaissance composers thus is to view them in a way that would have surprised them—and especially startled their employers—very much. Josquin Desprez, arguably the greatest composer of the Renaissance, is usually called in the old documents such things as “biscantor” (as a singer at Milan Cathedral), “cantor di capella” (when a ducal singer in the Sforza family’s service), “Josquin chantre” (as he ventured into France during his leaves from the papal chapel), and “maestro di cappella” (or teacher of the singers attached to the court of Ferrara). That he became renowned as a composer was a sort of bonus (though, in his case, an unprecedentedly large one) attached to, and greatly ornamenting, his occupation as a performer and trainer of musicians. Even his teaching of composition was described solely as an adjunct to day-by-day performance in the choir:

My teacher Josquin … never gave a lecture on music or wrote a theoretical work, and yet he was able in a short time to form complete musicians, because he did not keep back his pupils with long and useless instructions but taught them the rules in a few words, through practical application in the course of singing. And as soon as he saw that his pupils were well grounded in singing, had a good enunciation and knew how to embellish melodies [i.e., improvise around the written notes] and fit the text to the music [since much of this was left to the discretion of the performer, too], then he taught them the perfect and imperfect intervals and the different methods of inventing counterpoints against plainsong. If he discovered, however, pupils with an ingenious mind and promising disposition, then he would teach these in a few words the rules of three-part and later of four-, five-, and six-part, etc. writing, always providing them with examples to imitate.

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socialI think Scott Rosenberg gets it about right:

So, while there is no question that the energy that has poured into Facebook and its ilk in the latter part of the 2000s has drawn some of the excitement and media attention that bloggers formerly took for granted, it is also true that the rise of the social networks clarifies exactly what characteristics made blogging last. They are the same traits that once excited its earliest pioneers. A blog lets you raise your voice without asking anyone’s permission, and no one is in a position to tell you to shut up. It is, as the journalism scholar Jay Rosen puts it, “a little First Amendment machine,” an engine of free speech operating powerfully at a fulcrum-point between individual autonomy and the pressures of the group. Blogging uniquely straddles the acts of writing and reading; it can be private and public, solitary and gregarious, in ratios that each practitioner sets for himself. It is hardly the only way to project yourself onto the Web, and today it is no longer the easiest way. But it remains the most interesting way. Nothing else so richly combines the invitation to speak your mind with the opportunity to mix it up with other minds.

Seen today in Trader Joe’s Fourteenth Street:


What next? I think I’ll make one that says:


Then on the back of the shirt:


singing style

An individual singing style often involves a singer’s imitation—for better or worse—of a popular artist’s tone quality. It sometimes calls for a sudden break in the voice, plaintive bleating, or wild screeching: all these effects, however, are purely ephemeral and continually change with their originators.

These devices by which some singers develop a vivid, individual, and compelling style are quite familiar to us from the music all around us. They may bring to mind specific artists who have used them successfully. These will doubtless be performers of great (and perhaps somewhat uninhibited) expressivity. Some readers will think of certain now-venerable jazz singers, others of soul, folk, or rock singers whose vigorous expressive devices fit such norms of what we might call mal canto. What the quoted remark of course will not describe at all well is the goals and achievements of our best “classical” or operatic singers. Their more or less bel canto interpretation of the standard repertory of the past has become a sort of international standard. It is widely considered to have the only valid claim on the serious attention of people of elevated musical culture.

The quotation, which deserves to be read with great attention, is from Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s musical dictionary of 1768. (The philosopher’s untranslatable expression here rendered as “particular style of singing” is gout de chant.) The passage refers to the best usage of Rousseau’s day. The musical events that involved such singing were naturally rather different from the specific decorum of modern “classical” occasions both in aesthetic posture and in the whole atmosphere that surrounded them. (If they weren’t considerably more highly-charged before the singing began, they certainly must have become so in the course of the breaks, bleats and screeches.) Rousseau’s description was originally applied to repertory that is now generally referred to as “early music,” which a curious chronological reflex in us will, if we are not careful, associate with the prim and the restrained—even despite the most feverish exertions of such as Peter Schaffer’s Amadeus to disillusion us.

But, in the early twenty-first century, we here and there find people willing—or perhaps driven is not too strong a word—to try to go back to earlier musical repertories with an openness to experimentation involving even the most extreme of the old expressive ways. (Joseph Kerman has described the singing of one of the best of them as “inspired screeching.”) Insofar as they do so, they bring together crucial aesthetic ideals of the “pop” culture and of the early-music nook of the “classical” culture, which manages to be rarified and frisky at the same time—not unlike some esoteric jazz circles. (Both the jazz and early-music movements, significantly, have tended to be viewed with suspicion by the same people.)

The Rousseau excerpt provides a simple and useful first example of the sort of radical anomalies in our musical life that can be considerably and usefully cleared up by a serious view of music-as-event. Somewhat different musical bedfellows are found together through an event-directed, performance-oriented approach than through the more customary chronological or social-class segregations. These latter groupings may scrupulously play by their own historiographical rules without sufficiently taking into account the nature of the musical art itself.

The works of Rousseau are of course not unknown. But the certain testimonies that his, and vast numbers of comparably illuminating sources contain, have not been as useful as they might have been: the greater cultural world has not found them sufficiently striking without adequate reference to the larger event that music indissolubly belongs to.

And that greater world is right. We will here endeavor to look at some things, both familiar and novel, with the freshest eyes that we can possibly assume. Doing so can be an exhilarating imaginative experience. Doing so will teach us much about our musical culture. It is a prerequisite to finding what that culture itself can tell us about what we are accustomed to thinking of as wider issues.
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July 17, 2009

spy-vs-spy-without-bombs-775529 Good things can come out of bad. After a stunningly dishonest article in the Wall Street Journal in which a non-pianist who had not even attended the Van Cliburn International Competition (though leading the reader to believe he had) dogmatically and viciously contradicted the eminent judges and slandered the talents of the winners (and a fine orchestra and string quartet into the bargain), the commentary thus provoked has been extremely fruitful. Examples of it, from one highly-qualified and well-situated commentator, are here, here, and here.

Some of my own reaction to one of the Gold Medalists is already registered. While the old established print media continue to complain and hang crepe about their declining status and exchequer, one feels impelled to ask one more time: which of the sources here conduces to accurate musico-journalistic reporting and the flourishing of art, the formerly eminent old establishment newspaper or the frisky online blogger? Which could we better do without if we had to choose?

Leonhardt in Autumn

July 15, 2009

Leonhardt-Gustav-46 Many today spend their careers trying to figure out, with the help of what documents survive, how music of the past was performed. When this is done for musical reasons and produces artistic results, it is an unmixed blessing. I’ve just come upon an interesting interview with Gustav Leonhardt in which he sounds a striking warning:

And we have to remember that so many of the treatises of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were evidently written because the author was angry with what he saw going on around him; he saw people doing things he thought were incorrect and wanted to correct them. With Bach we have a tendency to accept that whatever we know of the circumstances of the acoustics or the number of his performers was his ideal. So therefore the acoustics of St. Thomas’ represented what Bach wanted. We don’t know anything about such matters. He might have hated the acoustics of St. Thomas’, or the fact that the gallery was too high, and so on, just accepting what he had and getting on with the job. We give far to much credibility to the idea that everything a composer met with in his working conditions was what he wanted.

The interview goes on to make provocative points about the rehearsal of chamber music (your ensemble is no good if it requires a lot of talk and rehearsal) and conducting (it’s the easiest thing in music performance, if the highest-paid).

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