‘Harpffen und Lauten’, 'Der Organist', 'Drey Pfeiffer', 'Drey Geiger' illustrated by Jost Amman from Detailed description of all classes on earth by Hans Sachs, 1568. © SLUB Dresden / Lit.Germ.rec.B.2039,
Introduction to Making Early Music by Helen Herbert
What is early music? The Oxford Companion to Music defines it as “a term that came into usage in the 1960s, when much pre-Baroque music was first being publicly performed; hence the ‘early-music movement,’ which was concerned with the discovery of early repertory and with performance style” [i]. For many who work or participate within this field, however, the definition may not feel complete. This in itself is not surprising; after all, early music, like any discipline or genre, does not have clear-cut or rigid boundaries. Sometimes, as above, ‘early music’ is used to refer to performance of historical music with reference to historical sources (often called historically informed performance). At other times, it might denote a piece of music written hundreds of years ago, or a surviving historical instrument or music book. With such ambiguity, it might seem an odd choice to use ‘early music’ in the title of this special insert. Yet this ambiguity is exactly the point. As displayed by the range of perspectives of the authors in this collection, it is perhaps this same freedom that has made ‘early music’ what it is today.
The idea behind this special insert was to explore some of the intricate, inter-disciplinary umbrella of early music in collaboration with professionals who continue to forge a path within the field today. The word ‘making’ therefore refers not only to the production of sound—often prioritised in music studies—but also to the array of different creative processes and skills, without which the discipline could not exist. The collection consists of conversations, articles, images, videos and audio extracts from different areas of expertise, forming a rich tapestry of unique interests, joined by the common thread of enthusiasm for music of the past, in the broadest sense. Coming from the fields of performance, composition, music editing, instrument making, education, historical research and musicology, the contributors reflect on the complex relationships between history, objects and sound, and the changing landscape of early music since the twentieth-century revivals [ii]. They consider the future of making, performing and thinking about early music, their own attempts to breathe new life into very old practices, and the inspiration taken from such practices, allowing for experimentation and regeneration. The collection asks the question: what about early music now?
[i] Alison Latham, “Early Music,” in The Oxford Companion to Music, ed. Alison Latham (Oxford University Press, 2011).
[ii] Reference is made to the 1960s early music revival by several contributors, but there is also engagement with earlier revival movements.
Gertrude Gibbons - Peter Forrester: Between Music and Painting
A 'standard’ sized bandora and an unfinished one at the higher pitch. On the right, two citterns. Captions: Forrester.
I've been leafing through a huge folder of photographs of instruments by the renowned musical instrument maker Peter Forrester. The extraordinarily intricate designs remind me of a trip to the Alhambra palace in Granada, where the walls are carved with Arabic letters, and these letters, in their abundance, become shapes that overwhelm if observed for too long. At sight, the most intricate part of Forrester's variety of instruments is the rose. This is at the body's centre; a decoration in the soundhole which looks like the stained glass windows of Notre-Dame Cathedral. These, Forrester tells me, are mostly made from parchment, made up of several layers with the detailing achieved with a scalpel and punch. These intricacies, along with his recounted recipes for varnish, dating back centuries, are to me a mystery of alchemy and magic. There's an article by Forrester in The Lute from 1991 which includes a description quoting Robin Headlam Wells of the shell-like body of a particular cittern as referring to the shell in Botticelli's Birth of Venus: "it can be seen as the source from which Beauty was born!"[i]. Looking at these instruments, with their references to various other art-forms, including literature, painting, architecture, music, I can't help comparing the possibility of sound coming through the parchment rose, to the coloured light coming through the cathedral windows.
Forrester was one of the first students on the Basic Design course at King's College, Newcastle, studying under Victor Pasmore and Richard Hamilton who established this experimental course between 1954 and 1966. The course marked a radical change in art education thinking after World War Two. I wondered whether Forrester, now an instrument maker, felt influenced by his art school background, and the work of his tutors, Pasmore, Hamilton, Lawrence Gowing and Quentin Bell. He used to attend Hamilton's off-syllabus printing classes which was mostly (stone) lithography, with Rita Donagh (who later married Hamilton), and recounts the impression made on him going around the Jackson Pollock show at Whitechapel with Quentin Bell in 1958. He spent most of his time with L C Evetts in his spacious and magnificent stained glass studio. It is not necessary to stretch far, however, to reach a connection between these figures and the twentieth-century revival of interest in early music. Quentin Bell, for example, was the younger son of Vanessa and Clive Bell who were members of Roger Fry's Omega (design) Workshops in Fitzroy Square, London, also including other members of the Bloomsbury group. In 1918, Roger Fry commissioned Arnold Dolmetsch, pioneer of the early instrument and music revival, to make a spinet (small harpsichord) which Fry painted with abstract geometrical forms. This was acquired by the Courtauld in 1958 and can be seen in their permanent collection [ii]. Incidentally, in about 1964, Forrester started on a course at the Courtauld after a dynamic discussion with Anthony Blunt who was intrigued by Forrester's thesis at King's on Paleolithic art.
Leaving college, Forrester saw himself first and foremost as a painter, and had a number of exhibitions around the country. I ask from where his interest in music grew, and he tells me of a good friend who was a Jazz pianist. He used to listen to him and his friends play around Newcastle, and ultimately at the famous Marimba Coffee House opened by Mike Jeffery (later known as manager of Jimi Hendrix); along with a professional plasterer, Forrester decorated this bar over a weekend with low-relief sculpture. At this point, Forrester discovered he also enjoyed listening to Bach, "bought the cheapest instrument available," a recorder, and taught himself to play it. Later, teaching art at North Walsham High School, and already involved with a local group of recorder players, the headmistress decided the school needed a recorder group and asked Forrester to run it. He soon thought it needed an accompanying instrument, either a guitar or a lute, and made a lute. This first lute was made by looking at instruments in the V&A and watching a local musician play. "I did start from a simple frame, but made the outside ribs first, finishing with the central one—the opposite of the usual practice!—but it worked, after a very heavy fashion, and I showed it to a maker down in Essex who admired the varnish and set me in better shape for the next one." Forrester tells me that the V&A and Ashmolean now publish drawings of instruments but this was not until long after he had begun making, so he visited museums to photograph, measure and trace the instruments himself. But he stresses the importance of a knowledge of musical repertoire, of knowing "how an instrument works" and how to use and apply that knowledge in the making of a different instrument, especially in the case of the cittern. As he tells me, there are no extant English-made Renaissance citterns (there is possibly just one discovered in 2007 with an illegible label), yet some of the best music comes from England. A maker must experiment, making the instrument to fit the music; an instrument comes to be resurrected from the music.
Image 1, clockwise from top left: photos 1 and 3 are of a guitar by René Voboam, Paris. The original, and most guitars by the Voboam family, have banding like that around the rose of photos 2 and 4, around the complete body and fingerboard. The rose shown is copied from a guitar by Jean Voboam. Image 2 shows the process of constructing the Jean Voboam rose. Mainly parchment, oil gilded.
After that first lute, Forrester made several more instruments; crumhorns, citterns, a bandora, four-course guitars. Along with teaching his High School pupils printing (with a Columbian press), enamelling, sculpture and more, he oversaw them making instruments too. For all these processes, he would teach using a range of historical methods to experiment, explore and compare. Several pupils, mainly aged between twelve and fourteen, made lyres, harps and rebecs to play which, as he points out, is no mean feat! Meanwhile, outside of teaching, Forrester joined the Bridewell Consort, playing on multiple instruments frequently at medieval fairs, and also played for banquets in Bungay, at some times as often as every other day. In 1976, he left teaching to become a full-time maker, eventually specialising in wire-strung instruments. He describes a turning point with John Eliot Gardiner’s production of Orfeo at the London Coliseum in 1981, in which Gardiner wanted to use 'authentic' instruments, and Forrester made a ceterone (bass cittern) especially. Robin Jeffrey, who got this first ceterone by Forrester, used it all over the place in every production of Orfeo.
There is an exchange in Forrester's discussions, work and research, between painting and music. Having often seen references to Forrester's influential article on varnishes in online violin forums, the article itself, 'Sticky Solutions' published in The Strad in 1988, hosts an exciting and generous report on his personal experiments comparing Renaissance varnish recipes (which also seems scary with its flammability, high heats and unfamiliar ingredients). He begins by discussing Mary P. Merrifield's Original Treatises on the Art of Painting (1849), pointing out that, unlike painters, musical instrument makers are unique in wanting darker varnishes. He writes the best method for application is in Cennino Cenninni's Libro del'Arte in which "he writes of varnishing a painting on a wooden panel" [iii]. Forrester tells me he knew these varnish recipes from Louisa Hodgson's lectures at King's. As I sit holding one of his Renaissance guitars, I ask how he does the patterning on the side, "easy really, you put a size coat on first and then you paint on it in watercolour, and then you cover it with oil varnish."
Changes and shifts in the design and playing of instruments can be traced through painting. In a lecture from 2005, Forrester tells the tale of a particular wire drawer in Nuremberg, Jobst Meuler, whose working life was contemporaneous with that of the orpharion (the lute-tuned member of the cittern family). After foul play on the part of Friedrich Held who "had obtained a privilege, from the Town Council, to control production of certain types of wire," in 1621 Meuler's wire "seems to have become unobtainable, and the orpharion to disappear" [iv]. From this date, the disappearance of similar strings on citterns is evident in Dutch paintings. In other articles on painting and on instruments, he gives close attention to the materials of the work, and the connotations of their symbolism. In 'An Elizabethan Allegory,' he describes a painting Death and the Maiden (c. 1570) as a form of vanitas, with a skull, mirror and lute. The music book has no music; the pages are blank. If this lute is a 'treble,' Forrester says, aspects of the vanitas setting are emphasised: "to improvise (she has no music) upon a treble lute really does require a partner" which she is missing [v].
I ask if he gets any particularly quirky requests for the decoration of the instruments, for example having their head on the instrument. I'm reminded of the Shakespearean insult from Love's Labour's Lost "cittern-head." He tells me anecdotes of requests, like unicorns, punk heads and a Madonna for an American group called 'Madonna Head,' and the odd occasion of someone mistakenly recognising themselves in the head! But usually, inevitably, musicians are much more worried about sound. "That's why I got into putting meantone fretting onto the wire-strung instruments, because that's what the originals have." When he had started making them, equal temperament was being used everywhere (meantone and equal temperament are two different systems of tuning). There was a large debate questioning the ubiquity of equal temperament (which is what most modern Western instruments use now), so that "eventually I made two citterns and put equal temperament on one and meantone on the other and Peter Trent came and played them, and there was no contest [vi]! Equal temperament plays almost in tune all the way; meantone is perfectly in tune in a limited number of keys and that sufficed for the actual music of the period. “There are still people who keep with equal temperament. I've measured a lot of citterns now and they're all meantone." I ask whether his process of making has changed since he began. "Yes I suppose it has, you see what works and what doesn't, and it's a fairly friendly profession, people don't really keep secrets very much."
Years ago, I heard Forrester talking about a cittern, mostly likely Spanish from an Armada shipwreck, of which the only fragment left is the fingerboard [vii]. From a fingerboard, traces of wear can be detected marking the positions of the frets used and distinguishing those most used, uncovering the possibility of knowing something of how a particular instrument was played [viii]. Not only do frets gesture towards the fingers placed and music played on one instrument, but might also comment on accompanying instruments [ix]. I had never before thought of historical instruments at this point; I had just a vague and romanticised idea of lutes, ballads and medieval banquets from Robin Hood. But this struck me that the few fragments left behind had traces of players and music and, from these outlines, instruments and methods of playing could be reborn. Forrester appears to take it as par for the course that things are always shifting, gained and lost in this translation and process of making; one of his most intricately designed instruments was itself lost during an exhibition. Methods of painting and instrument-making converse and complement each other in Forrester's work, each historically implicating the other, in order to be remade in the present.
"Copy of an early seventeenth-century guitar by Christofolo Choco, Venice. The original is of ivory and ebony. Mine uses ebony or yokewood, but substitutes hornbeam and holly for the ivory. The original’s rose is a cruder later addition so this one is my own design. The neck decoration took several hours of hand-sawing but produced a ‘contre-partie’ later used for the instrument in following image."
"1: Bandora head. 2: Bandora fretting. Colour-coded frets probably originated in England where they can be seen, incorrectly arranged, on the marquetry cittern depicted on the Eglantine table in Hardwick Hall. The cittern seems to have originated in the iron industrial area around Nuremberg in Germany as a diatonically fretted instrument to which extra, sometimes partial, frets were added as the repertoire changed. 3: Bandora rose, pearwood and parchment. 4: Scroll for a six-course bandora."
"Copy of an early seventeenth-century guitar by Christofolo Choco, Venice. The original is of ivory and ebony. Mine uses ebony or yokewood, but substitutes hornbeam and holly for the ivory. The original’s rose is a cruder later addition so this one is my own design. The neck decoration took several hours of hand-sawing but produced a ‘contre-partie’ later used for the instrument in following image."
[i] From Robin Headlam Wells, "The Orpharion. Symbol of a Humanist Ideal," Early Music, I, October 1982. Quoted in Forrester, "Italian Citterns in the Museum of the Paris Conservatoire," The Lute, 1991, p. 18.
[ii] The Courtauld Gallery, London. <
[iii] "Sticky Solutions," The Stad, Vol. 99, No. 1176, April 1988, pp. 304-307.
[iv] Forrester, "Wood and Wire. [On-line edition: Corrected and amended.]" Renovata Cythara: The Renaissance Cittern Site. Ed. Andrew Hartig. 19 July 2017. <
[v] Forrester describes these figures in terms of their similarity to Elizabeth I and Lord Burleigh, suggesting that the painting refers to Burleigh and England's need for the Queen to produce an heir. "An Elizabethan Allegory and some hypotheses," The Lute, 1994, pp. 11-14.
[vi] Peter Trent, with his wife Janet Trent, was a lute and viol player for several early professional groups including The Extemporare Ensemble and the New London Consort. He still plays but has turned to restoring old buildings.
[vii] The cittern fingerboard came from the wreck of the La Trinidad Valencera, on the west coast of Ireland, excavated by Colin Martin. Now in the Ulster Museum, Belfast. Some traces of fingerboard wear are still visible.
[viii] Forrester has told me of a particular example of fingerboard wear on a cittern privately owned in France. Through analysis of the wear, it would appear the instrument had been used by a reasonably competent player, but not usually a soloist (the wear was not just confined to the lower notes of the fingerboard, but there was also no heavy wear at the top) probably accompanying a loud instrument(s), suggesting it was used with bagpipes or the small shawms of that area of France. See also Forrester’s description and reading of lack of wear just below the comb on the Salvatori cittern (c. 1600) in "Italian Citterns in the Museum of the Paris Conservatoire," The Lute, 1991, p. 12.
[ix] This refers back to the debate between equal temperament and meantone; since instruments playing together would need to be tuned similarly, then if the frets on one instrument are meantone, it is likely the other instruments used meantone too.
Further note to header image: "We have only one bandora extant, but we do have measured drawings in Praetorius 'Syntagma Musicum’, 1617, and measurements in the ‘James Talbot ms’ from around 1690. Almost all of the several mixed consorts playing today use Praetorius or Talbot’s measurements and pitch (around A-415 – A-440). The one extant bandora—which is of a size where some of its limited repertoire is more easily playable—and details in Anthony Holborne’s publication for cittern suggest that another consort, a fourth higher in pitch, was also in use."
This text is based on a series of emails and in-person conversations in April 2021. Photo credit and captions Peter Forrester.
Emily Baines - Mechanical Marvels
Musicologist and recorder player Emily Baines explores eighteenth-century musical machines. She asks: what information can these machines provide about 'live' performers from the past, and what influence can this have on modern historically informed performance?
When we make early music, in the modern age, whether in live performance, recording, or purely for pleasure, we draw on many sources to inform and inspire our interpretation. These include (but are not limited to) historical treatises, compositional practices, organological research, etc. However, we must not forget that modern ‘early’ musicians are also shaped by the traditions in which they have been taught, their own taste and experience, and the vast (and often conflicting) array of academic writing and recordings made over the past hundred or so years since the advent of the recording industry and the early music revival. For approximately fifteen years I have been investigating and evaluating mechanical musical instruments (mostly made in England), which provide a further source of evidence. This could become a vital component to our understanding of the music of the eighteenth century, but has so far been rather undervalued. These instruments operate with minimal human input, playing music by means of pinned barrels which release pumped air to organ pipes, powered by either clockwork, or a hand crank.
My interest in these instruments was piqued in 2006 when I visited the Museum Speelklok in Utrecht to see their Royal Music Machines exhibition. There I heard an organ-clock by Charles Clay (1695–1740) play a piece of music by Handel and, having just finished a degree in historical performance at the Conservatory in The Hague, I was intrigued to hear this instrument play in a style that was quite unfamiliar to me. I believed I had been studying the performance practice that was akin to what Handel would have had in mind when he composed, but here were many features that jarred against my understanding of eighteenth-century musical style. I wanted to find out what relevance this machine and others like it had to Handel's (or other composers') actual performance practice. Would the mechanical instruments of the eighteenth century have been considered an accurate reproduction of a real live player at the time it was made? If not, why was it produced in the way it was? If it was, why is the way that we play now so different and how might this new evidence be incorporated into a modern performance practice?
My first question, regarding the Clay clock’s relevance to Handel, led me to investigate what relationship there may have been between them. The two men lived and worked close to each other, one on the Strand, the other on Brook Street (a distance of two to three kilometres) and Clay prided himself on working with the finest artisans in London; not just on the musical arrangements, but the design and decoration of his clocks as well. Collaborators included Jacopo Amigoni, Jan Michiel Rijsbrack and Louis-François Roubilliac (who made Handel’s memorial in Westminster Abbey) and he advertised his clocks to contain music by Corelli, Handel and Geminiani. Through close analysis I have shown convincing links between ornament sketches written in Handel's own hand, and arrangements written for Clay’s clocks, providing an important connection between the composer’s personal performance practice and the organ-clock's style. This connection potentially establishes other arrangements for Clay’s clocks as further, valuable examples of Handelian musical decoration.
There are also close links between Clay and manufacturers of other surviving mechanical instruments. Barrel-organs and clocks dating from later in the century perform the music of many composers including Handel, Arne, Geminiani, Purcell, and many more, including most famously, Mozart. These were highly prized as imitating the best players and—according to William Coxe, stepson to Handel’s amanuensis J.C. Smith (the younger)—they were capable of playing ‘with so much delicacy and taste, as to convey a warm idea of the impression which the hand gives upon the instrument.’ The burst of innovation and the refinement of many machine technologies over the course of the eighteenth century, alongside an aesthetic which valued ‘good taste’ as the highest of aesthetic principles, meant that these instruments, if not quite able to reproduce the nuance of a live player, are at least capable of conveying a great deal of information regarding how educated and experienced listeners of the period expected to hear music performed. There was even an assumption that these instruments were capable of ‘preserving’ the finest players in their barrels and pins, and of delivering information regarding performance style that mere written notation, with all its ornamentation symbols and other intricacies, was not able to express.
The style itself is eminently playable on any instrument, although does take a little time to grow accustomed to. The most striking difference on a first hearing (you can listen to some examples from my new recording above), is in the use of small-scale 'ornaments of expression' as Geminiani terms them (trills, mordents, etc.). These are far more numerous and varied than our modern ears expect, and occur in some surprising places. There are a huge number of trills, around half of which begin on the main note, rather than the upper, and they are very much not restricted to cadence points; mordents occur frequently on opening and final notes of phrases and even at the beginning and end of entire movements, and this is just the start! Once one has become accustomed to them and found the way they can fit ‘under the fingers,’ they actually make a great deal of sense, often highlighting particular harmonic rhythms, or adding to the articulation of melodic phrases and they can be extremely expressive and beautiful. The results are often quite florid, which reflects the often excessive (to modern eyes) intricacy of many baroque artefacts—the Clay Clocks themselves being one example—revealing hidden virtuosity in music one thought one knew so well, and giving seemingly straightforward music much more energy and verve. It also reveals a great deal about the peculiar mix of national styles present in England during the eighteenth century and beyond, as Italianate expansive melody meets the intricacies of French decoration. The decorative style also has a huge impact on other performance decisions such as tempo choices, and whether to use fermatas and/or slow down towards the end of movements.
The act of engaging practically with a new style of playing such as this, pushes players to re-assess many of their established musical ideas, not to mention stretching their hard-earned technique. I have found this to be an invaluable experience however, enabling me to really delve into the reasons we perform historical music the way we do, and how adopting fresh approaches can invigorate both my own and others' playing as we see pieces through new eyes (and ears). Of course, it is also tremendous fun!
Audio tracks courtesy Emily Baines.
A Conversation with Annabel Knight
Annabel Knight is a recorder player and flautist. Alongside her role as Head of Recorder at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, she performs in several ensembles including Fontanella Recorder Quintet and baroque chamber ensemble Passacaglia. Following a series of questions over email she discusses her recent excursions into the world of electronic instruments, playing the EWI in Art of Moog—an ensemble that performs Bach on synthesizers—and as a soloist in an upcoming album of Telemann’s Fantasias.
I am a classically-trained recorder player and flautist by profession, with a predominantly early music background, so learning to play an electronic instrument and entering the world of synthesizers was quite a big step for me, although I always loved the sound of synth bands including Kraftwerk in my teenage years. There is a lot of adventurous repertoire for solo recorder with electronics, which I have always found exciting, and I think recorder players by nature tend to be open to new ideas and sound possibilities. When the idea came along to learn the EWI (electronic wind instrument) for a new group, Art of Moog, specialising in Bach on synthesizers, I was definitely up for the challenge.
The EWI looks and feels very much like a normal wind instrument: you blow into it and use fingerings similar to the flute, recorder or saxophone. Unlike a normal acoustic wind instrument, though, it has a massive compass of eight octaves (operated through a system of thumb rollers) and a potentially infinite range of sounds. These are generated by the EWI’s own on-board sound source, or by connecting it via midi to an external synthesizer or sound module. There are some excellent preset sounds on the EWI to get started, but I think if you are faced with an external synthesizer with all its many knobs and dials, and a seemingly infinite sonic scope, it can be overwhelming. Actually for me at the outset, the primary concern was getting to grips with playing the instrument itself and I was happy to leave the creation of the specific synthesizer sounds to the band’s director, Robin Bigwood. I had to learn to get around the instrument proficiently in the space of just a few weeks and it was pretty terrifying to debut at King’s Place in London after just two months of playing, but the sound was incredible and I was hooked! Having a specific musical idea or remit for a piece or project is very helpful in the creative process, though, and I am now getting more into the idea of programming my own sounds and exploring all the possibilities. The band has been going for just over three years now and we’re looking forward to getting going again properly, post-Covid.
Art of Moog was inspired by the work of Wendy Carlos, including her famous 1968 album Switched-On Bach and fundamentally the two are very similar. For the most part we don’t deviate far from anything that Bach wrote, we are just ‘realising’ the works on synthesizers. But whereas Carlos took weeks or months to build up the arrangements in a studio, line by line, on a synth which could only play one (or at most two) notes at a time, in AoM we play live using arrangements that preserve almost all of the original musical content but spread amongst four players. The first few of Wendy Carlos’s albums used the Moog modular synthesizer as the sound source and this had a very distinctive character, often considered to be colourful, full, rounded and pleasantly ‘squelchy.’ For reasons both practical and financial (a large format Moog modular costs tens of thousands of pounds), the group uses a mixture of modern analogue and digital synthesizers that are capable of recreating the same sound world, and a lot more besides.
Recently I had the opportunity to record one of Telemann’s twelve solo fantasias for a project organised by George Caird. The aim of the album was “to explore these works in new and striking ways,” and I was excited about the idea of using the EWI, especially given the very liberal remit. I chose Fantasia No. 11 in G major, and it was the first time I tried to create my own synth sounds. I wanted to avoid trying to copy any specific instrumental sound as such and explored different reverb possibilities. I also tried to use the large compass of the EWI to bring out Telemann’s conversational and textural ideas as much as possible and widen the ornamental possibilities. For the last movement I also used a delay pedal, experimenting with different delay times, which ended up almost by accident creating the slightly disconcerting feel of 5/4, which I liked… I was also somehow thinking of trying to evoke a sort of twenty-first-century dream-like state… psychedelic Telemann! As far as applying historical knowledge goes, I have been playing these pieces for so many years now on recorder and baroque flute that I guess a lot of that approach was ingrained; actually some aspects of performance were made easier (intonation is never an issue, for example) and I was more conscious of trying to bring something a bit different to the table.
You can achieve a huge amount of nuance on an electronic instrument—perhaps far more than you might expect. The EWI behaves much like any other wind instrument in the sense that you can phrase, articulate, breathe and make interpretational decisions in the normal way. But you can also explore your own palette and tastes with sound, vibrato, dynamics and other parameters which all make up an individual style. Michael Brecker is a great example of an amazing EWI player who is instantly recognisable; his stage performances used a lot of live improvisation and experimental sounds. They are completely electrifying to watch. His genre was predominantly jazz-based, but I think the same principles can apply to any style of performance—including music of the past or present where the scope of the EWI can definitely open up new and exciting creative avenues.
I think synthesized sounds evoke a number of different responses for different people. I love the spacey, ‘other-worldliness’ they can evoke, to me this is a very beautiful quality. But the robotic, ‘computer-perfection’ of a group like Kraftwerk can also be strangely evocative and mesmeric. From a player’s perspective though, I have been amazed at how the EWI seems to open up many new avenues of creativity and expression. For example, the dynamic (volume) scope is astonishing, but I can also create real-time variations in timbre and brightness via an expression pedal, as well as using vibrato with breath, teeth and within the programmed sound itself. The huge eight-octave compass also means both treble and bass sounds can be used seamlessly within the same phrase. And by adding effects such as different reverbs, delay and so on, the result can sound incredibly powerful.
People often say that Bach’s music can transfer to any idiom successfully, and ‘just works.’ Perhaps this accounts for why it works so well on synthesizers, but I guess where Art of Moog might differ from the majority of modern instrumentalists playing Bach, is that we automatically perform with the same stylistic principles we’d use on a baroque flute or harpsichord (the other three band members are all harpsichordists). It’s primarily just the sounds that are different. There is very much a sense of live musicians interacting on stage, and this is really important to the group. Of course there are ‘naysayers,’ perhaps especially amongst the early music community, but I think it’s valid to experiment and take the knowledge and information gathered during the pioneering years of the early music revival and apply it in new ways. For the record, I do still love the different physical and acoustic experience of my ‘normal’ instruments; in fact the enhanced understanding of resonance and the complexity of sound that has come from experimenting with synthesizers has fed into my playing and teaching in ways I couldn’t have imagined.
John Potter - Present in the Past
After the success of The Hilliard Ensemble’s collaboration with Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek ECM producer Manfred Eicher asked me to come up with a project of my own. In early music mode I tentatively suggested songs by John Dowland, a projected recording for another label having fallen through. Great, said Manfred, but you don’t want to use any of these boring early music players do you? He let me keep Stephen Stubbs, my lutenist, but Maya Homburger, Barry Guy and John Surman (a baroque violinist and two jazz musicians) were entirely his idea. We made a Dowland album that has John Surman playing soaring sax solos and Barry Guy’s radical bass tropes, and followed it with three more of earlier and later music, all informed by the spirit of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century performance practice.
It was a project that couldn’t have come from within early music: proper early musicians dealt in original manuscripts and composers’ presumed intentions, everything researched and with very little to do with the immediate present. But the early music movement didn’t actually have much to do with the past either, as I was becoming increasingly aware from my own research into historical performance practice. Take a look at this:
Put in a few sharps and flats and it could be a transcription of a John Coltrane solo such as a student might do, hoping to emulate the great man. In fact, it’s from Richardo Rogniono’s Il vero modo di diminuire of 1591, published in Venice more than 300 years before Coltrane was born, and transcribed for just the same purpose: to show musicians how to improvise a searing solo.
The parallels are remarkable. OK, they hadn’t invented the concept of key yet so there are no weird modulations but there is incredible virtuosity, weaving in and out of a well-known hit of the time, "Ancor che col partire," which began life as a madrigal by Cipriano de Rore, published in 1547. It was still popular when Rogniono published several versions of his own nearly half a century later. Musicians continued to riff on "Ancor" and similarly popular pieces well into the seventeenth century.
You can hear how the tune started out in Cipriano’s original polyphonic piece, sung here (with some cautious ornamentation) by my old group The Hilliard Ensemble. It might have been sung this way in countless wealthy Italian homes, perhaps from partbooks brought out after dinner. But the prints they sang from were only the start of a madrigal’s life as performance. For singers employed by the church or court, any piece of polyphony was fair game for extended improvisation along the lines of the Rogniono version above. Here’s my Dowland Project recording from our Care-Charming Sleep CD:
And here is the version shown in the pages pictured above, from the same album, played by violinist Maya Homburger:
We both closely follow the Rogniono iterations—this is still ‘classical music’ so we felt we had to stick to what was in the score.
The published examples are single lines with the accompaniment improvised by whoever was around to join in. My favourite version is by a couple of jazzers, which really gives you a feel of what it might have been like to hear the original, un-retouched by early music. Maria Pia de Vito also sticks to the Rogniono transcription, but she sings it as though she’s making it up (which John Taylor is indeed doing on the piano); she personalises it with little scoops and a certain waywardness—what sixteenth-century musicians knew as sprezzatura, and what a jazz musician does automatically.
They may have been transcriptions from actual performances, but Rogniono intended them primarily as examples of the kind of thing you could make up for yourself. So our Rogniono versions were the last time the Dowland Project (as we’d by then become) ever stuck to the score. In all our subsequent work we’ve done what Rogniono was telling us to do: absorb the models and then leave them behind. Both Rogniono and John Coltrane became who they were by transcending a previous model, not by reproducing it. That’s where the early music movement often comes unstuck: if you allow yourself these historical freedoms you will eventually transcend the early music movement altogether, and you’ll discover that past and present are much the same thing: it’s all just music.
The Hilliard Ensemble was a male vocal quartet founded in 1974, named after the Elizabethan miniaturist painter Nicholas Hilliard. John Potter sang tenor from 1984 to 2001 and was a moving spirit behind the million-selling Officium album. John Potter founded the Dowland Project in 1999; the group’s most recent album for ECM is Night Sessions.
Musical examples courtesy of editor Bernard Thomas (London Pro Musica). Audio tracks courtesy of John Potter and ECM Records.
Helen Herbert - Improvised Archives and the Performative Document
"And in this instance, you who are the father of letters, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to them a quality which they cannot have; for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners' souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves" [i].
(Plato recounts Socrates on the invention of writing. Phaedrus, ca. 370 BC)
In this passage, Plato expresses Socrates’s fear that, through the invention and increasing use of writing, people will forget how to remember. Upon first encounter with this statement, I was intrigued but also confused. In a sense, it contradicts what I have been taught, and the ways in which I have been trained to think about memory: I write things down to remember them. I write down times, dates, telephone numbers, email addresses and postcodes, because I know that without these external aids—things that I can see and touch—I haven’t got a chance. But perhaps this is exactly Socrates’s point. Perhaps there is a difference between remembering and not forgetting. I do not remember all of the dates and times of upcoming commitments; instead all I have to remember is the one place where this information is stored (and ideally where it is located), in this case, the external hard-drive known as my diary. In the United Kingdom, where I grew up, children are taught to read and write at a young age. Symbolic notations—alphabetical, numerical and tactile, to name a few—form the fundamental building-blocks upon which mainstream education is built. In the same way, history and cultural heritage is often centred around written documents, images, monuments and other objects that can be seen, touched and controlled. These items fill museums and archives, and they are used as the evidence or even ‘proof’ from which history can be constructed and written. Perhaps these written histories, in turn, will find a place in future museums and archives.
Other authors in this collection have mentioned authenticity, particularly in reference to the twentieth-century early music revivals. There are certainly parallels to be drawn between archival research and the approach to performing early music that focuses solely on material remains and documentary evidence. What is lost when history is constructed in this way? What is lost through writing, collecting, categorising and storing, rather than ‘remembering’? The flaws and gaps in material documentation become particularly apparent when attempting to re-create or re-enact performance. Recently, this topic has received particular consideration in the fields of cultural studies and performance art, as scholars have examined the practices of inclusion and exclusion that take place in the formation of archives, and consequently, histories. The structure that excludes performance, dance, ritual and aural traditions because they cannot, as Peggy Phelan argues, be “saved, recorded, documented, or otherwise participate in the circulation of representations of representations” [ii], has additionally been brought into question. Inspired by Rebecca Schneider’s work on historical re-enactments [iii], I would like to take the opportunity here to bring historical performance practice into the conversation. As historical performance practitioners have rejected the alure of authenticity, it has been replaced by an ontology that views performance as fleeting and unrepeatable, but desirable nonetheless.
Katarina Livljanic and Benjamin Bagby argue that “the surviving notated manuscripts, depictions, and descriptions of performances are artifacts, not living musical traditions, and every performance of medieval music today…is by definition a reconstruction” [iv]. Taking this as a starting point, I ask whether, in the world of historical performance today, an alternative to this dichotomy between artifact and performance can exist. What if the documentation itself was constructed prior to the performance? What if the documentation is a performance in its own right? Documents also perform, but they perform differently to different audiences and in different contexts. Visiting Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, for example, will prompt a variety of responses from different people. Additionally, the reaction of a sixteenth-century person would presumably have differed greatly from that of a twenty-first century viewer, particularly given the painting’s modern-day celebrity, mysterious reputation and position in a world-famous museum. While material objects and documents may appear to be preserved, fixed eternally in their original state, even by placing them in an archive or museum their contexts, meanings and associations are altered and constantly changing.
The Ganassi Project
Fascinated by his recent album with Le Concert Brisé, Silvestro Ganassi: La Fontegara (2018), I have recently been in correspondence with cornettist and historical performer William Dongois. Although the album features many of the most famous sixteenth-century compositions and composers, part of what makes it fresh and engaging to listen to is its move away from this being the focal point. Instead of the people or things, the central focus is a practice, specifically a practice of ornamentation known as diminution, as documented by Venetian musician Silvestro Ganassi (1492–1565) in his 1535 treatise, Fontegara. This book is about the art of recorder playing, but primarily focuses upon diminutions; it is full of examples of how a musician may embellish a simple melody with complex rhythms and melodic patterns. Laid out methodically, a performer may use it as a vocabulary book, or point of inspiration, to commit these (and their own) diminutions to memory. The collection acts as a guide for performing elaborate and virtuosic improvisations on pieces of music: a challenge taken up wholeheartedly by Dongois and his ensemble.
While the Ganassi Project still takes a document (Fontegara) as its point of departure, re-creating performance is not the overarching intention. After all, Ganassi’s treatise does not document a performance but, rather, a practice. Ganassi’s treatise was presumably only ever intended to give inspiration and guidance to a performer. It is not a script in any sense; instead it is a starting point that has (and has always had) the potential to be transformed in an infinitesimal number of ways.
On the front cover of Fontegara is a woodcut image (shown below). The framing of the picture gives the illusion that the viewer is looking through a window into a room. Gathered around a table and concentrating upon three music partbooks are five musicians. The man on the far left appears to be singing—he has his mouth open and his left hand on the shoulder of a colleague, perhaps tapping the tactus (or pulse) to keep the musicians in time. Between the singer and the man on the far right who holds a recorder but does not play, there are three men playing recorders. Hanging upon the walls in the picture’s background are three viols and a lute. In the foreground, two cornetts lie on the inner ledge of the window, while above the window hangs a sign which announces the title of the book. The image is almost certainly not a depiction of a real scene—it seems highly unlikely that an artist was watching through a window and capturing what they saw, with instruments all poised in view!
Frontispiece to Opera intitulata Fontegara by Sylvestro Ganassi, 1535.
The picture is what Philip Auslander, in performance art, would call a ‘theatrical,’ as opposed to a ‘documentary’ performance document [v]. It is theatrical because it does not depict a real event. A documentary performance document on the other hand documents a performance that did occur. This document exists as a by-product of a performance. Ganassi’s woodcut image does perform; however, the performance has only ever existed through the document and engagement with it. The image was made to perform a function, not to record (either purposefully or accidentally) a performance. Fontegara, as a whole, performs differently in different contexts. In sixteenth-century Italy, its subject matter, contents and physical appearance may have performed to a potential buyer. The sycophantic nature of the dedication performs to the author’s patron. As a tutor book, it performs the role of a teacher. It is a theatrical performance document with performative functions, but it does not document a performance. By focusing on the practice of diminution, it becomes the action rather than the object that is centralised.
Theory and Practice
During our email correspondence, I ask Dongois about his approach to Ganassi’s treatise. What were the challenges for a twenty-first-century performer in trying to apply a practice that is long gone? In the absence of a live sixteenth-century teacher, Dongois explains that the ensemble used technology as a guide. Using notation software, it was possible for the computer to play back the diminution patterns for the performers to emulate aurally. This gave the musicians the opportunity to hear the division of the beat into difficult mathematical proportions and rhythms that are rarely used in classical music today. After mastering the use of proportions, the musicians could try applying the diminution figures to pieces of music. I ask whether the diminutions played in performance are pre-determined or chosen in the moment, to which Dongois responds that they are written out using figures from the treatise. “We would need to spend more than a year playing only this music, this style, to integrate these kinds of figures, to be able to improvise with proportions.” Sometimes it is easy to forget the stylistic demands that are placed upon musicians. Even within a field as seemingly niche as sixteenth-century performance practice there are many genres, improvisation and ornamentation practices which change over time and differ between regions, towns, villages and courts. To work in early music, you need to be versatile. It is not as simple as specialising in only one practice, recorded in one source, from one region.
Would it have been different if the performers had been improvising from a bank of mentally stored, rather than written, information? Undoubtedly yes, both in terms of sonic outcome and experience. Dongois discusses this too: “even playing by heart is not the same as to play reading from notes. I am not the same player in each of these cases. I don’t produce the sound in the same way: difficult to explain, because it’s not voluntary and controlled. If you really improvise, you play with automatism, you only decide sometimes to take this or that direction, the circumstances even steer you in a direction, the situation lets you react. Some people say ‘I improvise’ but they plan exactly what they will play in the next seconds…it’s different. Can you imagine Charlie Parker or Dizzy Gillespie taking time, while playing, to think, to gain control? Improvisation is connected with freedom, as a feeling.” Despite the fact that the performers are not, for the most part, improvising on the spot, by engaging with Fontegara—by interpreting notes on a page and converting them into a corporeal experience—these experiences are archived in the bodies and memories of both musicians and listeners [vi], giving Fontegara relevance in the present. The diminutions documented by Ganassi do not represent, record, or give instructions for a performance, they only represent potential for use in any number of scenarios. I would argue that the performers are not re-enacting or re-constructing, because there is nothing to re-enact or re-construct. There can be no illusion of aiming to achieve the ‘composer’s intentions’ or to replicate the intricate details of a historically documented performance.
Perhaps what they have learned from this project will continue to influence their future music-making. I ask Dongois whether he changed his perspective or reconsidered anything during the course of the project. He says that his perception of proportions as complicated has shifted and, with practice, playing different divisions of time has become habitual and much easier. With all of these diminutions and proportions, it is perhaps surprising that the process enabled him to glimpse a feeling of freedom and fluidity not only in terms of articulation, phrasing and speed, but also in the performing experience as a whole: “Let us practise, we have to integrate and to abandon the idea of ‘control.’”
[i] Plato, The Collected Dialogues of Plato., trans. Benjamin Jowett (Charlottesville: InteLex, 1993),
[ii] Peggy Phelan, Unmarked: The Politics of Performance (London: Taylor & Francis Group, 1993).
[iii] Rebecca Schneider, “In the Meantime: Performance Remains,” in Performing Remains: Art and War in Times of Theatrical Reenactment, by Rebecca Schneider (Florence: Taylor & Francis Group, 2011), 87–110.
[iv] Katarina Livljanic and Benjamin Bagby, “The Silence of Medieval Singers,” in The Cambridge History of Medieval Music, ed. Mark Everist and Thomas Forrest Kelly, The Cambridge History of Music (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), 210–35,
[v] Philip Auslander, “The Performativity of Performance Documentation,” PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art 28, no. 3 (2006): 1–10.
[vi] André Lepecki, “The Body as Archive: Will to Reenact and the Afterlives of Dances,” in Singularities: Dance in the Age of Performance (London: Routledge, 2016), 115–42,
Ganassi woodcut image courtesy of Library of Congress, Music Division.
A Conversation with Susanna Pell and Jacob Heringman
In a series of email correspondence, Helen Herbert and Gertrude Gibbons interviewed viol player Susanna Pell and lutenist Jacob Heringman, who together form the Pellingmans' Saraband, about their musical background and experiences; how they came to develop this interest in early music, about their own instruments, anecdotes and memories of performances and collaborations. They describe how the early music scene has changed since they first began working in this area, and the differences they have experienced in audience response across time and place.
With the concept of 'authenticity' a much-debated area since the post-war early music revival, yet with the majority of historical performers now viewing this term as being out-dated (hence 'Historically Informed Performance'), Pell and Heringman discuss whether they feel this shift has liberated the performer. Hearing about their projects with contemporary composers, we asked how they go about preparing for a performance of early music compared to contemporary compositions, what the role of the historical performance practitioner is in the twenty-first century, and why the study and performance of historical music is important in the present day.
At a very young age I played the recorder, usually as fast as I could, and loved medieval and Renaissance dance music, the livelier the better! My recorder studies introduced me to baroque music performance which has always been a mainstay of my musical life but it was through a growing love of the viol that I began to understand and appreciate Renaissance polyphony. I played the violin but had a love-hate relationship with it which tipped into hate-hate due to my impatient approach to learning an instrument. I would put a mute on it to make it sound more like a viol until I had the opportunity when I was seventeen to actually start studying the viol. The viola da gamba is a bowed instrument which enjoyed popularity and status during the late Renaissance and baroque periods. It’s held in position by the player’s legs, hence its name ‘da gamba’ meaning ‘viola of the leg’ as distinct from violin family instruments, the ‘da braccio’ or ‘violas of the arm’. These two dominant families of European bowed instrument share no common ancestry and, in fact, the viol (as it became known in England) is closely related to the lute. This is evident in its identical tuning system of fourths and thirds across six strings and its fretted fingerboard. In England during the Elizabethan and Stuart periods most notable houses owned a ‘chest’ of viols which consisted of three distinct sizes: two each of treble, tenor and bass. These formed the standard consort, and it was as a consort instrument playing contrapuntal music that it was most commonly used into the early baroque. Later in the seventeenth century, and onwards into the eighteenth, the viol enjoyed greater popularity as a solo and chamber instrument in continental Europe while its appeal waned in England.
I’m lucky to now own quite a collection of viols, all copies, some of them commissioned by me, some of them kindly donated or bequeathed and one quirky original eighteenth-century viol on long loan from a friend and colleague. The instruments I play on a daily basis and perform on are my collection of treble, tenor and three basses by the fabulous Jane Julier. Why have three basses?! This plethora of instruments may seem bizarre and unnecessary but you really don’t want to play early seventeenth-century English consort music on a copy of a French eighteenth-century instrument whose super rich lush resonance will muddy your crystalline counterpoint!
My art teacher parents were keen early music lovers and there was a regular concert series in Leicestershire, where I grew up, which featured many of the pioneering early music groups of the ‘70s and ‘80s. David Munrow was a huge influence on me and others of my generation. His career was lamentably short but he had a massive impact with his pioneering research and vast library of recordings, many of which have stood the test of time and still sound fresh and innovative. I had his 1976 boxed set Instruments of the Middle Ages and Renaissance in my LP collection accompanied by a huge tome detailing the historical background to the featured instruments. It was fantastic!
Jake and I had been working together for a long time before we formed our duo Pellingmans' Saraband. A composer friend, Andrew Keeling, gave us the wonderful present of a piece for treble viol and lute when we got married and we took its title (‘One Flesh: Pellingmans’ Saraband’) as the name of the duo. There’s very little music which is specifically scored for one lute and one viol so we plunder whatever we feel works. I play a fair amount of lute music on the viol and quite a lot of violin repertoire, something which we know viol players did, particularly in England where not a lot of solo music was being written. Jake spends much of his time improvising on ground basses while I play the written versions from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Our other main repertoire is contrapuntal consort music, usually originally for voices. For this Jake will intabulate several lines of the original leaving me with the remaining line to play on the viol. This works beautifully if we carefully consider which voice is the most suitable for the bowed line. Many years of working with Jake has adapted my style of playing. It’s easy for the sustain of the viol to overwhelm the inherent decay in the more delicate plucked note and I’ve learnt to create a more transparent sound. The lute and the viol, being so closely related, are wonderful in partnership. As one reviewer kindly said, ‘the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.’
The early music scene has become more mainstream over the course of my career. When I became a professional performer in the late ‘80s there were many new ensembles trying to give the movement a more upbeat, contemporary image to counter the sandals, smocks, Laura Ashley aesthetic which was prevailing in the ‘70s and ‘80s. I first played with the viol consort Fretwork in 1988 and was required to wear Yohji Yamamoto! There was the fresh, almost raw excitement of rediscovery in the early days which I think has now given way to something more slick and refined which takes itself more seriously, and is also taken more seriously by the classical music establishment. The Citroen 2CV has become a Tesla and this partial assimilation into the mainstream is having some commercial benefits. Concert promoters are now more open to programming period performance ensembles. Recent generations of performers have certainly benefited from the knowledge acquired by those earlier pioneers in the field but, inevitably, everyone wants to make their own distinct mark. It gets harder as time goes on to keep the freshness and spontaneity as more imprints are made through repeated performance and, more so, recording of repertoire. Many have turned to commissioning new works to keep that feeling of innovation. Fretwork was one of the first ensembles to introduce contemporary music as a mainstay of their repertoire and it has kept them at the cutting edge for thirty-five years now. Others have experimented with crossover projects either in collaboration with other artists or by taking on board other musical styles and genres in their own playing. Arrangements of existing music (from The Beatles to Shostakovich) are another way of exploring the mixing of different eras and soundworlds.
The musical language and technical challenges of early (as opposed to contemporary) repertoire are very familiar so it’s a smoother preparation process. Composers for the viol often played the viol so the music is invariably idiomatic. Contemporary compositions often present very different techniques and composers today, understandably, don’t always have the same understanding of how the instrument works and its limitations. It’s a wonderful challenge to draw out new potential from your instrument, new sounds, new ways of doing things. I think the reception of new music depends on the context of the performance. Sometimes early music festivals courageously invite an ensemble to play a mixed programme and I’ve known the audience to be noticeably smaller in the second half. On one such occasion there were many other audience members who were wildly enthusiastic about the new stuff. I guess it’s the Marmite effect, although I think there is also a lot of prejudice involved.
My most extraordinary experience of audience response was in Yemen. I was visiting with medieval music specialists The Dufay Collective under the auspices of the British Council. We visited the south of the country to perform in the vast courtyard of a sultan’s palace where around 2000 men were gathered in the audience. I was the only woman in the band and therefore in the whole place—as far as I was aware! We were playing medieval dance music from all over Europe and, due to the influence of middle eastern culture on southern European music in the middle ages, we had various modern day Arabic instruments in our arsenal. To our amazement the audience started joining in with the most extraordinarily rhythmically complex antiphonal clapping! That was definitely the most exhilarating concert I’ve experienced.
I’ve been lucky and privileged to work with some amazing people. I live with one of them! My regular colleagues of old in Fretwork and The Dufay Collective were all incredible musicians and in my freelance performing I was also buoyed up by many wonderful performances from my colleagues. I’ve played on a number of film soundtracks chiefly memorable because they were often scary and stressful! One of my favourite musical encounters was visiting Kate Bush’s studio to record a track for her 2005 release Aerial. She was just wonderful and it was a joy to be putting down new layers over her pre-recorded vocals for the track entitled "Bertie". I was also lucky to meet little Bertie, her son, who visited the studio and enjoyed being shown our strange array of instruments. During my time with Fretwork I worked with many fantastic composers but I would highlight George Benjamin and Orlando Gough as having had the greatest impact on me. George’s piece "Upon Silence", the beginning of Fretwork’s embracing of contemporary music, knocked me sideways with its phenomenal technical and musical challenges. Every moment of suffering was rewarded by being a cog in such an incredibly beautiful, exquisitely crafted piece of music. We toured "Birds on Fire" with the Contemporary Music Network, sharing a stage with two wonderful dancers and the brilliant choreographer Ian Spink. That was also a memorable collaboration! I always love performing with actors and dancers. The addition of words or movement, or both, bring the music into a new dimension.
‘Historically informed performance’ is a much more accurate term than ‘authentic’ performance and always has been. How can we ever possibly know whether our interpretations are authentic or not? How can we ever be true to, or give an accurate reproduction of, long past performances when we will never know what they sounded like? For this reason I think ‘authentic’ is misleading and all we can ever do is to educate ourselves as much as possible from the information available, presenting our own interpretations based on that. Certainly much of the information is at our fingertips now. In the early days of the revival, of course, academics and performers were spending long hours in libraries. Now, increasingly, the music and the treatises can be accessed online, making the research element much easier and releasing us to spend more time processing that learning and translating it into performance. Any shift is therefore made possible by the information technology revolution which I think is liberating. I also believe it’s very hard to be creative without constraints and that these are welcome and necessary. When you have immersed yourself in a particular way of doing something based on what other people (long gone) did, and you keep developing that over a period of time, it ceases to be an attempt to summon their lost voice but becomes your own.
Does historical performance bring the past to life? In some ways it does and that will always have a relevance. However I’m not sure that this is uppermost in the minds of the players or even of those listening. What the early music movement has done has been to open up a library of music spanning some six or seven centuries which was either little or never performed. This is a stunning achievement. Great discoveries have been made and brought to audiences and a vast amount of incredible music is now circulating freely, teased out of libraries by researchers, brought to life by performers. We still have much to learn, there are many young players taking the baton, adding their skills and ideas. It should also be said that historical performance practice has had a huge influence on the way more mainstream orchestras and ensembles play music from different periods. I always find it a joy to hear a string quartet whose Haydn is completely different stylistically and aesthetically from their Shostakovich. Our role is to bring this music to life, to share it, to do our very best to do justice to the music and to communicate what we believe it has to say, whether that’s to convey an emotion, tell a story or to be simply a beautiful aural experience. This will be as important and relevant as any performance art long into the future.
When I was a child, my father used to play the pioneering records by New York Pro Musica, which first got early music into my ear. At some point as a young child I was taken to a recital in which a very young Paul O’Dette (now an early music superstar) played the lute. At Grinnell College in Iowa, I studied English and Philosophy, but was very active in the university early music and contemporary music ensembles, playing guitar, viol, recorder, crumhorn, etc. A very wise professor and harpsichordist by the name of Elizabeth Hays saw the potential for my switching to lute, and quietly obtained a lute for the music department. From that point on, I taught myself to play and ended up as a postgraduate at the Royal College of Music. England has since then (1987) not been able to get rid of me.
My lutes are copies of sixteenth-century originals, made by Michael Lowe (England), Andrew Rutherford (USA), Martin Haycock (England), Stephen Gottlieb (England), Grant Tomlinson (Canada), and Stephen Barber / Sandi Harris (England).
I was first drawn to any and all medieval, Renaissance, and baroque music, though I also loved contemporary music. My early music interests (and areas of work) gradually narrowed to Renaissance music only—I’ve been working on sixteenth-century lute transcriptions of Josquin des Prez for a long time now–though I also continued with the contemporary thread, working often with composers on new music for old instruments. The other thing that has changed a lot in recent years is that I’ve been drawn more and more to crossover and improvised music, and also doing a lot of arranging and transcribing. I’ve had projects with Middle-Eastern ‘ūd players, with composers of electronic music, with modern dance companies, etc. As for improvisation, there are two distinct areas that I’ve been pursuing: the first is the Renaissance practice of embellishment in what one might call a historically appropriate style; the second is improvisation outside the early music sound world, whether alone or with other (non-early) musicians. I’m part of an ensemble called the Dowland Project with singer John Potter, saxophonist John Surman, and violin/viola player Miloš Valent, which is all semi-improvised, and some of it entirely improvised. I’m also part of an ensemble called Alternative History with singers John Potter and Anna Maria Friman and lutenist Ariel Abramovich. We play a mixture of early music and my transcriptions of more recent composers, like Peter Warlock and EJ Moeran.
I don’t really prepare any differently for a performance of early music pieces or contemporary compositions. Whatever I’m playing, I try to be sensitive to what I see as the intrinsic logic of a piece of music. When it’s early music, I suppose there’s the additional element of respecting what we know about historically informed performance practices appropriate to that music. As for the response received—it depends. If a contemporary piece is added to a programme of mainly early music, and played to an audience that expects a concert of early music (for example, in some early music festivals), there will always be a substantial sector of the audience which is unhappy. These are the die hard early music fans. When I’m playing with a group like the Dowland Project or Alternative History, which does a mixture of old and new and indefinable in-between, they know what to expect, and seem to be fine with it.
It is difficult to single out a few particularly memorable collaborations, because I've had so many collaborations, and they're almost all memorable. I’ll mention a few slightly random highlights. My collaborations over three decades with my wife Susanna Pell, and singers Clare Wilkinson and John Potter mean a huge amount to me, because of the very special musical bond that time and friendship can forge. Other collaborations that meant a lot to me: intense periods of working with composers Andrew Keeling and Malcolm Bruno; lute-song collaborations with Emma Kirkby and Catherine King; lute and vihuela duetting with Ariel Abramovich; accompanying the singer Lulu in a benefit concert at the Globe Theatre (she was brilliant in "O mistress mine" by Thomas Morley), a concert in which I also improvised musical underlay while stars like Miranda Richardson, Paul Scofield, and Vanessa Redgrave recited sonnets and scenes from Shakespeare’s plays.
The early music scene has changed in that, mainly, it’s become a great deal more crowded and a great deal more mainstream. I’m glad of course to see the increased interest in early music, and the very large number of lute players out there, but in some ways I regret the new unquestioned orthodoxies and pseudo-traditions that spring up in such a situation if we’re not vigilant. As for finding a difference in attitude across different countries, I’d say I’ve perceived not so much a difference in attitude towards early music as a difference in attitude toward music in general. I feel that when I play on the continent, people are listening in a different way compared to when I’m playing here. This is hard to describe; it’s sort of a gut feeling (and I’m in danger of falling into stereotyping when I generalise in this way), but I’ve sometimes felt in France, Spain, Italy, or eastern Europe that people ‘get it’ when I perform the sort of undemonstrative but deeply expressive music that I love to play. Perhaps I could say that in France, for example, I get a sense of more perceptive listening than I get here in England. I’ve always enjoyed playing in Scotland and Ireland too. Why is it a more satisfying experience than playing here in England? I’m really not sure. And I have some very devoted and perceptive listeners and fans here in England too.
I think there has been a useful shift in terminology, and that 'Historically informed performance' is a far better description of what we’re doing than ‘authenticity.’ Authenticity in its true sense is of course as important as ever. An authentic performance is one that is real, in which the performer is communicating something of value in what I would call a sincere way. The opposite of this is what I would describe as ‘fake’ or ‘sham’—a performance that doesn’t really have those qualities. Of course it’s largely subjective. One person’s perception of a particular performance may differ greatly from another person’s. But, for us as performers, I think being true to ourselves and true to the music, whatever that means, is not a bad principle to follow.
As to the role of the historical performance practitioner now, and the importance of the study and performance of historical music, the most obvious reply I would give is that there is so much wonderful music from past centuries that deserves to be heard. But equally importantly, I believe in the value of studying this music on its own terms, i.e., in its historical context and making use of historically informed performance principles. Why? Because then the music becomes something like a bridge to the culture of another time in much the same way that ethnomusicological study is a bridge to the culture of another place. I believe strongly that bridges of this sort are an important way to help us get outside the limitations of our own time and place and preoccupations, and to see the world from a wider and perhaps a wiser perspective.
Jo Melvin discusses music and sound in art schools with Gavin Bryars
This text was compiled from extracts of a conversation between Gavin Bryars and Jo Melvin on 26th March 2019. Developing a reputation as a jazz bassist in 1960s, Bryars worked with John Cage in the United States, and later with Cornelius Cardew. From 1980s onwards he has written many works for early music performers, such as the Hilliard Ensemble and Fretwork, including six Books of Madrigals, fifty-four “Laude” based on a twelfth-century manuscript collection, and works for viol consort [i]. The Hilliard Ensemble and Fretwork performed together in a live concert for the first time in the Lockerbie Memorial Concert given at Westminster Cathedral in December 1998 with a programme devised by Bryars and with the help of John Potter and Richard Campbell. It included works by Bryars as well as fifteenth-, sixteenth- and seventeenth-century music by Busnois, Purcell, Gombert and Jenkins.
In this conversation, Melvin asked Bryars about his work in Fine Art departments and collaborations with artists, especially from 1969–78 when he was teaching in Portsmouth and Leicester. It was during this time that the Portsmouth Sinfonia was founded, and he founded the music department at Leicester Polytechnic. Bryars discusses the differences between educational departments and institutions, his friendships with artists and the influence their conversations had on him.
I had been living in American and I came back in the summer of 1968. Jasia Reichardt's Cybernetic Serendipity was in the autumn [ii]. There was this American composer, Herbert Brun, who was using computers and various other sorts of devices who did a piece in the exhibition, and I also put a band together for it. I think there was an LP made of those performances. I didn’t know Jasia well, but I remember at the time, she organised it and it was very impressive. It was a really big show, very important.
A friend of mine, Ron Geesin, was working at Portsmouth School of Art doing music with art students. He needed a replacement and people from my sort of 'post-Cage' area of music were not really employable by conservatoires or university music departments; they were too dangerous, outside the establishment. He offered it to me, and I started working there in January 1969. In the art colleges, by contrast to universities, there was this liberal openminded aspect, through what was called liberal studies or complementary studies and, in some cases, I was encouraged to get involved in studio teaching too, because there were always students that were not straightforward painters sculptors or print makers, they were doing movies, or making events. This was in the Fluxus period and in fact it was a relief for many of the regular artists to actually have someone who was sympathetic to this area of work—although they found it interesting, they had no framework to talk about it. That was one of the reasons someone like me, and others, were employed. John Tilbury, a pianist, worked at Kingston Art college. I worked with John and I would go and help him and the students on projects, showing them the different ways of making music, which didn’t involve traditional musical notations. It meant there were pieces that used verbal instructions, graphic scores which didn’t have specific music reading skills, and there was a degree of invention needed to interpret this stuff. Tom Phillips, at Wolverhampton Art College, although an academic librarian, was at that time composing and did pieces that were artworks, but at the same time were also pieces of music.
At Portsmouth there were probably about a dozen of us that met on a weekly basis and we would perform things by Cage, Morton Feldman, Christian Woolf, La Monte Young, things from Fluxus, Happenings and so on. There was a degree of suspicion from the more conservative staff who were unsure of what we were up to especially when it came to evaluation. There were others—Maurice Dennis, who lectured on philosophy, and was involved in the formation of the Portsmouth Sinfonia, a rather anarchic ensemble. I didn’t know Noel Forster until then. However, when we had the Portsmouth Sinfonia portrait photo taken by Southsea Pier, for some reason Noel managed to get in the picture. He is on the left-hand side, holding a cello, but he just held it for the picture and never played with us!
I remember the day the Portsmouth Sinfonia did its first performance. The students had organised an event in the college, which was based on the TV show, Opportunity Knocks, where people do something, the audience applauds and those who get the loudest claps (measured on a 'clapometer') would win the prize. And we had this Sinfonia, which was made up with people who really couldn’t play—mostly from my experimental music classes. In the show, four members from the Sinfonia also became a string quartet (playing Borodin), and six of us became a balancing act that we called the 'Pyrotechnical Pyramid from the Pyrenees.' Three of us knelt down, two others knelt on them and one of them climbed on top and that was our act. That was it. And we also put down our instruments and became the Pontypridd Male Voice Choir and sang, "The Lord is My Shepherd." There was also a conjurer—all kinds of things, in the open air. It was anarchic. As there was a film department at Portsmouth with a sound studio we recorded the Sinfonia and then we had our first floppy disk, like the type you used to get with magazines. Later that year it was Beethoven’s bicentenary and The Scratch Orchestra organised an all-day concert in the Purcell Room, and invited the Portsmouth Sinfonia [iii]. Little by little we were asked to play at other art colleges and after two or three years, we had enough for a full concert. We made an album with Brian Eno, who had been a painting student at Winchester and who was by then a rock musician. He joined us and enabled us to get into the music world.
Later, the Portsmouth Symphonia did a live performance at the Royal Albert Hall. Every Sunday night, an impresario called Victor Hochhauser organised events of popular classical music which became a tradition. Among these was always Tchaikovsky 1812 Overture with full orchestra, a military band, real cannons and all sorts of things. We decided we’d do that—to hire the Albert Hall—and I think the record company, who produced our first album helped us because they actually recorded the whole concert live and later released it. I think around three thousand people came. During the 1812 Overture there had to be a signal from the conductor to the guy who sets off the explosives for the cannon. He was a cannon specialist, he was fantastic, and he had tin drums, these massive barrels and cannon explosive effects were inside so they really did make this huge sound. We used one in rehearsal and the whole building shook; it was terrifying. I remember the conductor John Farley, who was the least musical of all of us—he had no clue at all about music, but had a fantastic appearance and modelled himself on photos of von Karajan, with the hair slicked back the beautiful profile and all the gestures. Anyway he realised, when he heard this incredible explosion in rehearsal that, I think, his grandmother was going to come to the performance. Just as he was about to start the cannons in the performance, he panicked a little bit: he was worried that his grandmother might have a heart attack. So he waved and gestured to the guy trying to get him not to set them off and then, of course, the guy set them off all at once, and in the wrong place! There were thousands of these sorts of moments that happened throughout the Sinfonia’s history! But we did make the album and some of it was filmed. There is a clip of it, in an arts council film about me, which was made for Channel Four in 1990 and you can see me playing. I think it might even be when the cannons go off.
Barry Flanagan played with us a few times. Barry was interested in making a film about the Sinfonia, but it never happened. Barry would appear in Portsmouth at the art college from time to time. He wasn’t on the staff, but a visiting teacher. I always found myself in that fine art world. Even when I was at university—I was a jazz, bass player and philosophy student—my best friends were in the art college. They were livelier people and better dancers, they knew the best pubs and there was real life at the art schools unlike at other universities. So then when I was teaching at the art college we would talk about art and about ideas. Musicians don’t talk about that, they would talk more often about money... Whereas with art, you talk about concepts and other things. So we fed off each other which led to us finding other ways of making art. Barry played the cello with us occasionally, and, ironically he was a better player than most of us. I mean lots of us were playing instruments that were not our normal instruments, then there were others who could play instruments, but they never practiced, until the next performance.
I used to go to Tom Phillips's house in Camberwell and sit for him and, for some reason, I would wear a very bright white suit and an orange roll neck sweater and wooden clogs handmade in Wigan. And next door to Tom, a couple of doors down, was Ian Tyson, who was running a print-making studio. Brian Eno’s first job when he left college was working for Tyson as an assistant, before he got into rock music. Tom did a lot of graphic scores, which were very beautiful as artworks, and which were vehicles for contemporary performance. I found, when I was clearing out some stuff the other day, some prints that he made, which are artworks, that I had forgotten I had. I have a lot of the scores. Things like Lesbia Waltz (1972) and an opera called Irma (1970). I did a realisation of that for Brian’s record company, on which Tom and my first wife both sang, as a chorus of artists. However, I once got in trouble with Tom. He had this thing when his kids went to bed at night (his kids were quite young—seven or eight) they would say a prayer; they would say God please make me perfect like Karlheinz Stockhausen. I was aware of this because I would tell them bedtime stories where I always cropped up as the man in the moon. I would also tell them about the Beachboys and I once changed the prayer to God please make me perfect like the Beachboys. When Tom heard this later he was horrified that I had replaced the Beachboys for Stockhausen! I was a terrible troublemaker!
That time, 1967–68 through to the mid-seventies, was a real high point of that vigour in the art colleges and loads of interesting people emerged from it. I got to know David Tremlett a bit later in the early '70s—he used to come up to Leicester. The sculptors there were very traditional, working for instance with bronze and wood, with quite traditional carving and casting and David was doing a lot of different things. He got involved in stuff that was quite hard to categorise, and in a way he springs from the nebulous sort of post-sculpture history, like Richard Long, with its emphasis on documentation rather than clear artefact. He was also interested in the sort of things that I was doing, like working with tape loops at that time, and the musical notations that I was using. He was also interested in things that I wasn’t using, but that I could happily talk about, such as other forms of graphic notation, like ways of giving information and suggestions for performers to work on.
There were all sorts of events, at the Round House and many other places in the early seventies and a whole mixture of people. I remember meeting the singer Nico at the Round House where she had been with the Velvet Underground as well as John Cage and Warhol and all kinds of people. There is a book about the 1972 ICES festival at the Round House, which is all about this atmosphere and all the American artists / musicians who came over.
It was a fantastic time. We were upbeat and optimistic. Even though we had things going on around us in the early seventies, such as the four-day week and economic austerity, it didn’t seem to bother us and there was support for the arts.
[i] Including a work for Fretwork, In Nomine (After Purcell), he noted his interest in the tuning and restraint found within the dynamic range of the consort, "a natural vehicle for understatement" (qtd. in Bryars' notes available
[ii] Cybernetic Serendipity curated by Jasia Reichardt was an exhibition of cybernetic art at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, England (2 August – 20 October 1968).
[iii] The Scratch Orchestra was an experimental musical ensemble developing from music composition classes held at Morley College, London, founded in 1969 by Cornelius Cardew, Michael Parsons and Howard Skempton.
Maja Palser - Fragmentation of the (un)finished score: Piece for Gamelan and Viol Consort
"One day amongst the rest, viz. March 21. Raia Donan coming aboard us, in requital of our musick which was made to him, presented our generall with his country musick, which though it were of a very strange kind, yet the sound was pleasant and delightfull."
(from The World Encompassed by Sir Francis Drake, published 1628)
There is a degree of insecurity in composition (it is divorced from actual experienced music: you cannot hear what you are writing). This is exacerbated when working with a very unusual combination of ensembles. In 2019, I was asked to write a piece for Gamelan Sekar Petak and The York Consort of Viols—both ensembles of the music department at the University of York—for a collaborative project inspired by the above description of a musical encounter in 1580 between Sir Francis Drake’s expedition and the ruler of Java.
Being an active member of both ensembles provided some advantages in terms of awareness of the possibilities. Writing for the viols was intrinsically shaped not only by the instruments’ own characteristics, but by the ways in which they relate to the gamelan in terms of tuning, timbre and dynamics: each gamelan is uniquely tuned, and a full gamelan orchestra can easily overpower six viols.
The process started with an in-depth investigation of the tuning of Gamelan Sekar Petak and how the viols might relate to its harmonic spectrum. In this case, the gamelan’s sléndro tuning [i] was easily compatible with the sixth-comma meantone tuning, which is commonly used in viol-playing. This allowed me to let the viols blend into, pick up, and expand on the gamelan’s rich overtone series. The piece makes extensive use of the natural harmonics on the three upper strings of the viols, which mirror the bell-like gamelan overtones particularly well.
Of particular interest to me were the similarities in the nature and function of the two ensembles, and the integration of these aspects into the piece. In both of these traditions, the focus is on the musicians, and on the listener; on the experience of making the music and listening to the music, rather than on the Romantic notion of an ‘author-composer’ whose instructions need to be followed as accurately and meticulously as possible.
The viol consort’s history is firmly linked to amateur musicianship and, in the UK today, both gamelan and viol consort are formats that appeal to amateur players; the gamelan in particular often features in community projects. Neither ensemble has a designated ‘leader’ as such—all the players tend to be able to play each of the instruments and swap between them.
Having started my own musical journey playing in punk bands, this egalitarian, music-focused dynamic is one that resonates strongly with me. For the first time in my life as a composer, I turned up to the first rehearsal in February 2020 armed with only fragments of music; over the next two weeks, we workshopped the ideas and made decisions on what worked and what did not.
As it turned out, the theme of fragmentation became a sort of thread running through the making of the piece. Only days after our initial rehearsal period, all further workshops, rehearsals, and the planned premiere were cancelled; a first draft of the piece was ‘finished’ in September 2020, but due to the size of the ensemble, no rehearsals have been able to take place. In late autumn, during an ease in the lockdown, the viol consort was able to meet and try out some parts of the piece, of which Susanna Pell, who leads the consort, sent me the following fragments:
Each fragment consists of material found in a single bar. Fragment 1 appears at the end of the ‘buka’—the introductory section commonly found in gamelan pieces. The following three fragments are all from the first ‘main’ section of the piece. The section starts off with a single note on the gamelan being repeated at a slow pace, and treble viols picking up on some of the very high overtones. Gradually, more and more instruments join in until the whole ensemble, including the viols, are playing (fragment 2). Then, over the course of the section, more and more lower pitches are added (fragment 3) until we arrive at a similar chord as we started off with at the end of the introduction (fragment 4).
Considering the original concept for the piece, the current impossibility of a meeting between the players seems somewhat symbolic—or ironic, perhaps? Who knows at which point on the COVID-19 expanse we currently find ourselves—and whether 2021 will bring about the planned ‘completion’ of the piece. In any case, the journey is tentatively progressing.
[i] One of the two tuning systems of the Javanese gamelan, with five almost equal steps to the octave. ('slendro' in Latham, A. (Ed.), The Oxford Companion to Music. Oxford University Press, 2011.
Images and audio fragments courtesy Maja Palser.
Sydney Rime - A History of musical and historical re-enactment
“Every age mentally fabricates its representation of the historical past” [i].
The quest for authenticity was at the centre of most revival movements of the nineteenth century. While folk revivalists attempted to find ‘original’ versions of ancient folksongs and poetry, early music revivalists became interested in reproducing a work as it would have sounded in the composer’s own time on period instruments. Playing written music has always been an act of reproducing the past, but the quest for authenticity brought early musicians towards a different type of re-enactment. The development of musical re-enactment in the early music revival occurred alongside the popularisation of historical re-enactment, which saw enthusiasts attempting to recreate parts of history (such as famous battles, ceremonies and cultural events).
Testimonials, recordings and photographs of the late nineteenth century are at the centre of many debates regarding authenticity, even though most people involved in those movements were searching for a sincere reproduction of the past. Nowadays, those sources showing romanticised representation of a glorious past seem naive, and don’t match our modern conception of what an authentic re-enactment should be. Is it because nineteenth-century artists and scholars had less access to historical sources to inform their re-enactments, and that some of them based their research on fake ‘ancient’ sources? A lot of so-called ancient traditions were indeed invented in the nineteenth century (e.g. Clan tartans in Scotland [ii]). Another hypothesis would be to consider the possibility that they had a different vision of the past. That’s what the historian Lucien Lefebvre (1878–1956) meant when he wrote “our fathers created their Renaissance.” Is History a fixed entity?
Re-enactment: a little bit of History
Historical re-enactment actually goes back to antiquity. In ancient Rome, people recreated sea battles in amphitheatres (naumachiae) [iii]. The first known re-enactment event of the modern era was staged in 1638 in England, and featured dozens of costumed people recreating a battle between the Christians and the Muslims. Re-enactment became more and more popular in the nineteenth century, with the growing interest in medieval times induced by the pre-Raphaelite and neo-gothic movements. In 1839, a re-enactment of a medieval tournament was held by the Earl of Eglinton in Scotland, and drew more than a hundred-thousand spectators [iv]! Theatre directors and writers became interested in a more ‘faithful’ re-creation of the past. In Paris, Alexandre Dumas founded le Theatre Historique, and staged historically-themed plays (mainly his own) in period costume.
Alexandre Dumas’s "Henri III et sa cour" staged at La Comedie Francaise.
In England, William Poel founded the Elizabethan Stage Society, and was proud to declare that he made the first historically authentic reproductions of Shakespeare plays [v]. He collaborated with Arnold Dolmetsch, who was probably one of the first people involved in both early music and historical re-enactment.
Arnold Dolmetsch, a pioneer of early music and historical re-enactment
Arnold Dolmetsch (1848 – 1940) was described by his biographer Margaret Campbell as a small man wearing Renaissance velvet breeches, looking “more pre-Raphaelite than the pre-Raphaelites themselves” [vi]. He was a scholar, performer, teacher and historical instrument maker. With a reputation for being capable of bringing the past to life, he promoted a mode of performance very different to that of the grand nineteenth-century recital: the stage was illuminated entirely with wax candles, and the musicians played in small ensembles, on period instruments made by Dolmetsch, wearing reproductions of historical garments. Collaborating since 1895 with William Poel and the Elizabethan Stage Society, Dolmetsch was in charge of making historically accurate music to accompany the plays. Though he was considered to be a marginal figure, he had many admirers, such as the Gaelic revivalist George Moore, who used him as a model for a character in his novel Evelyn Innes [vii]. Dolmetsch is recognised today as a pioneer of early music and of historical re-enactment.
Arnold Dolmetsch (lute), Elodie Dolmetsch (standing) and Hélène Dolmetsch (bass viol), 1895.
A very interesting individual when it comes to early music and historical re-enactment is Robin George Collingwood (1889–1943). He was a major figure in the philosophy of history, suggesting that historians should use their imaginations to re-enact the past. He was in contact with the early music revivalists, and especially with Dolmetsch. This influence of the early music revival and especially of Arnold Dolmetsch can be detected in his early writings about re-enactment: “The sine qua non of writing history of past music is to have this music re-enacted in the present” [viii].
We have to keep in mind that the early music revival and the taste for historical re-enactment happened at the same time as atonality and contemporary art. The revival and re-enactment movements were often dismissed as marginal and nostalgic by their detractors who supported modernity. Friedrich Nietzsche for instance, described the early music revival movement as an “impotent nostalgia,” and wrote, “the really historical performance would speak to ghosts” [ix]. On the other hand, some scholars and purists criticized those movements as inauthentic. When someone accused Alexandre Dumas of “raping history,” the famous writer answered “yes, but then we have beautiful children” [x].
There are still debates around musical and historical re-enactment in the twenty-first century, because many people consider that looking for historical accuracy is an illusion. Is re-enactment the very difference between an ‘early’ and a ‘classical’ musician? Is the search for authenticity an unreachable Romantic ideal, or a quest that leads us to add forgotten tools of the past to our modern palette? Re-enactment, whether purely historical or musical, not only offers the possibility of time travel, but it also offers a better understanding of the past.
[i] Lucien Febvre, Le problème de l’incroyance au XVIe siècle. La religion de Rabelais. Collection: L’évolution de l’humanité, synthèse collective. Paris: Albin Michel,1947.
[ii] Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, eds. The Invention of Tradition. Canto Classics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.
[iv] J. Aikman and W. Gordon, An account of the tournament at Eglinton, revised and corrected by several of the knights: with a biographical notice of the Eglinton family to which is prefixed a sketch of chivalry and of the most remarkable Scottish tournaments. Edinburgh: Hugh Paton, Carver & Gilder, 1839.
[v] Kate Bowan, "R. G. Collingwood, Historical Reenactment and the Early Music Revival," in Historical Reenactment: From Realism to the Affective Turn, eds. Paul A Pickering and Iain MaCalman. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.
[vi] Maraget Campbell, Dolmetsch: The Man and His Work. Washington: University of Washington, 1975.
[vii] Bowan, "R. G. Collingwood, Historical Reenactment and the Early Music Revival", 2010.
[viii] R.G. Collingwood, "Outlines of a Philosophy of History," in The Idea of History, ed. W. J. van der Dussen. Oxford: OUP, 1994 (revised edition).
[ix] Friedrich Nietzsche, Menschliches, allzumenschliches. Leipzig: Fritzsch, 1886.
[x] William Hughes, Annual Editions: Western Civilization. New York: McGraw-Hill Higher Education, 1996.
Images courtesy of the Bibliothèque nationale de France and the Dolmetsch Foundation.
Ben Maloney - Editing Holborne: Translation and Performance of Elizabethan Consort Music
Ever since I began to study music at school, I have been particularly fascinated with historical music, mostly that of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Many people today find the concept of enjoying music that is nearly half a millennium old a little strange (and understandably so). We can never know for sure what sounds might have been heard in the chambers and churches of bygone eras, and reproducing them with the resources we have now is another challenge altogether. Even if we could, our ears will never be able to listen afresh, without the prejudices that arise from a lifetime of conditioning to a myriad of musical genres that would not yet have existed. Much of the joy in rediscovering this music comes from the moments in which everything begins to make sense. The occasions when we strongly recognise what made this music so enjoyable to our ancestors, are when we know we’re getting close. After all, everything was pop music once.
However, it’s not all fun and games! Before we can even begin to perform any of this repertoire, there are a number of tasks that must be completed. The old printed volumes or manuscript sources must be rigorously studied and accurately transcribed (usually into a notation software nowadays), and finally converted into a form that is more approachable for modern musicians. In the past this was not always done with the greatest understanding of historical performance traditions and notational conventions. Scholarly editions with reliable editorial practices and well-researched prefaces, however, have now taken hold. Usually produced by experts in the relevant field, these editions aim to be easily readable and practical for the modern performer, whilst also maintaining as much of the original information as the editor deems reasonable. The philosophical issues around this can get complicated, as one often ends up in debate about how to approach the sources (and why they need editing in the first place) before beginning.
As part of my undergraduate degree at the University of York, I produced a new complete edition of the consort music of Antony Holborne (which is now freely available on IMSLP). Born in 1545—probably in London—Holborne appears to have attended Christ’s College, Cambridge in the early 1560s. Predominantly a player of plucked instruments, he worked under the patronage of the Countess of Pembroke and also Sir Richard Champerowne, whose band the composer seems to have been involved with in Devon. All of the consort music that has survived is contained within a single collection: Pavans, Galliards, Almains and other short æirs (1599). Although an instrumentation is not specified, given Holborne’s experience, it follows that a so-called ‘broken consort’ might be a possible solution. A uniquely Elizabethan phenomenon, this ensemble was made up of treble viol and flute on the upper parts, with bass viol at the bottom, and plucked instruments (cittern, bandora and lute) accompanying. That said, other groups of like-instruments such as strings, recorders, shawms, cornetts and sackbuts or even singers may well be used depending on the occasion.
The pieces in this collection are mostly organised into pairs; slow duple-time dances called ‘pavans’ are followed by livelier triple-time dances called ‘galliards’ (despite this template, clearly not all the music is actually intended for dancing, given its complexity). Towards the end of the collection, there are a number of bonus pieces: brisk ‘corantos’ in triple time, and some ‘almaines’ in duple time, with a quick stomping pulse. Many of the pieces possess colourful, allegorical titles that make subtle reference to contemporary events and culture. For example, Paradizo probably refers to Philip Sidney’s epic poem Arcadia, and The Honie-Suckle (a nod to the symbolic flower of fidelity) may appear under the pseudonym Heart’s Ease in William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Holborne’s contribution of verses and commendations to the publications of his colleagues show that he was a seasoned writer, as well as a talented musician.
Returning to the editing process, my vision was to present the music in a form as close to the original as would be reasonable for a modern musician to use. The pre-existing London Pro Musica edition (ed. Brian Jeffrey), important as it was, presented music organised into standard bars intersected by barlines, cutting up the long notes into tied figures. Personally, I much prefer Tudor methods of notation: the partbooks presenting clear, free-flowing lines, unrestricted by the convention of modern metre. Instead, I opted for short ‘tick’ barlines above the music showing the placement of beats, but without visually altering the length of the notes. I avoided halving the note values, which I find to be a bizarre and confusing choice that some editors make, often rendering the music even more cluttered and unreadable than it was to begin with. After setting the parts in a series of modern clef options (treble, bass and alto) rather than the less-familiar Renaissance C-clefs, my next challenge was to tidy up the use of accidentals. The rules about how accidentals function in sixteenth-century music can be complex. In the case of this manuscript, they apply only for the note to which they are attached, and any immediate repetitions of that note (and are cancelled when the note changes). To deal with this, I created a clear visible difference between original accidentals, editorial ones that are a reminder of repetition, ones that warn of cancellation, musica ficta (accidentals that are never notated, but often implied via rules of voice leading), ones that are editorial corrections, and finally accidentals that are suggestions I transferred from any existing intabulations of the pieces.
After following these procedures, correcting any mistakes in the parts (which is often the trickiest puzzle to solve), and making it look pretty … you have a finished edition! Though it can be an arduous process, the rewarding part is sampling the fruits of your labour at the end, through performance. For me, it’s the best way to make both a contribution to the past and present (and hopefully even the future) all at the same time.
Mozzafiata performs "The Choice" at Sir Jack Lyons Concert Hall, York, May 28th, 2019. Performance details available https://youtu.be/hTjY4n4trU. Recording and score images courtesy Ben Maloney.