Tempo camicia di forza*

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By , 08.01.13

I have long suspected that many musicians today think about tempo in a radically different way from our predecessors. We have clues from the scratchy monaural recordings of performers from the early 20th century, some of which seem wildly and laughably out of time, muddy, and untogether. Excessively self-indulgent Romanticism, the critics said. Perceptive writers such as Bruce Haynes in “The End of Early Music” have recently observed that the main tenet of modernism—finding musical virtue in cleanliness, regularity and following the written instructions of composers to the letter—is a relatively new phenomenon, dating from only around the 1920’s, when Stravinsky and other composers celebrated the aesthetics of mechanized performance that follows the letter of the score, and criticized expressive variations in tempo as self-indulgent.

For better or worse, this aesthetic became the norm for subsequent generations, with accuracy, regularity, and cleanliness of execution becoming the highest ideals of a conservatory education. These ideals of modernism got transferred to a whole generation of early musicians, many of whom, after all, came out of conservatories, producing what Bruce Haynes called “strait” performances, and the next generation spent a lot of energy speeding things up to try to make what they did more “exciting.” Too bad, in my view—maybe I’m just an old curmudgeon or a romantic at heart, but I find performances that are too fast and/or don’t breathe because of somebody’s idea of a fixed tempo boring at best. And when somebody pulls out a metronome in rehearsal to remind us what the tempo “should” be, it drives me nuts. NB this is not the same thing as planning rubato or “taking time” as a special device, but as a whole approach—can’t we just sing and play each gesture or phrase in its own space instead of turning into machines? Maybe there’s some hope on the horizon, though: flexibility as a normal way of playing seems to be making a comeback in some circles. Kudos to Eric Hoeprich: in a recent rehearsal he actually told me, “playing exactly together might be overrated.” Love it!

*strait jacket

RIP, Denny

By , 05.13.11

I didn’t know it at the time, but Dennis Godburn entered my life one day a little more than three decades ago when I got the mail at our house in Brookline MA. Inside a plain white envelope was a mysterious dot-matrix computer print-out on striped paper with perforated edges, and the meticulously-crafted graphic message said “You are hereby designated to represent your sector at the first annual PAN-AMERICAN CONGRESS OF SHAWMS” followed by instructions to go to the crypt of the St John the Divine cathedral at a certain time and a dark caveat: “Rauschpfeifes will NOT be admitted.” Continue reading 'RIP, Denny'»

Toward a sensible keyboard temperament for Baroque orchestras

By , 05.18.10

Over the years I have been asked many times to recommend a tuning recipe for ensemble keyboards, and occasionally (horrors) to tune them myself. Choosing a tuning system has always been problematic—the symmetrical sixth-comma temperaments that are so prevalent these days (Vallotti, Young, etc) have never been very satisfying, for several reasons. Firstly, they aren’t historical (both were published long after the Baroque era); secondly they are boring (a lot of the keys sound the same); and thirdly they create a number of ensemble problems, making it difficult for orchestra members to lock in to a resonance and pitch center.

The ubiquitous “Vallotti” temperament, published in 1779 by the Padua composer, theorist and organist Francesco Antonio Vallotti, has become the default tuning for many of today’s Baroque musicians who feel obliged to play in some kind of unequal temperament Continue reading 'Toward a sensible keyboard temperament for Baroque orchestras'»

A modest proposal

By , 04.29.10
Toward a tuning strategy for large Baroque ensembles

so we were rehearsing “Nun ist das Heil und die Kraft” (BWV 50) in Boston this week. This is a single-movement cantata which is probably not by Bach but is nonetheless spectacular, with chorus, strings, three oboes, three trumpets, and timps all blazing away in a stentorian fugue punctuated with fanfare-like outbursts. It starts out in D major but doesn’t stay there long, migrating at various times to E major, F# minor and major, B major and major, and C# major. The weather is changing every day, and as one might expect the tuning got a little suspect, especially in those remote keys. We worked on some of the most offending passages with varying degrees of success; and one point somebody asked about the temperament and somebody else said “it’s Vallotti” as though that solved everything. It might have been my imagination, but it seemed to sound even worse after that. Continue reading 'A modest proposal'»

Shostakovitch for drum and bugle corps!

By , 04.15.10

Regional opera is alive and well

By , 11.21.09

I had the pleasure last night of participating in a production of Mozart’s Così fan tutte staged by the Commonwealth Opera at the venerable Academy of Music in Northampton MA, where Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor used to go to movies while filming Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolff. The brains behind Commonwealth is the father-daughter team Joseph and Eve Summer; Joe is an opera composer, a talented impresario and, it turns out, a fellow Oberlin alum, and Eve is a free-lance stage director bringing her considerable skills in deft spoken-theater direction to the world of opera. I had a great seat in the pit, could see and hear everything (while the oboes weren’t busy), and must say that this production was AMAZING–brilliantly staged, beautifully sung and acted, touching, intimate, and hilarious.

Cosi_handout_front Continue reading 'Regional opera is alive and well'»

Olympia Snowe plays hautboy!

By , 10.22.09
have you got any violas?

Technology and Live Performance

By , 10.17.09

I recently finished a fascinating book called Capturing Sound—How Technology has Changed Music by Mark Katz, who is a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In a very thoughtful monograph, Katz traces the cultural effects of developments in sound reproducing technology from its origins in the late 19th century to the looping and sampling skills of today’s rap artists and the virtuosity of the “turntablist” DJ’s such as i.Emerge and Kentaro:

One of Katz’s ongoing themes is that technology has had a profound influence on live performance itself. He notes that recorded performances by their nature are fixed and repeatable, and that this fact led to performances, even in jazz, where performances by groups such the Ellington band often replicated “improvised” solos from their recordings note-for-note when they played live. He discusses ways that recording artists learned to compensate for the lack of a visual component of their performances, and offers the fascinating theory that the rise of continuous string vibrato around 1920 was inspired by recording technology; as electrostatic microphones began to capture and reproduce imperfections of intonation and bow technique that could be inaudible or unnoticeable in the concert hall, vibrato may have been a strategy for hiding them. He also observes that much of classical music’s development in America in the early 20th-century, including the founding of many orchestras during that time, came about as recordings of the classics were marketed as a positive cultural influence, promoting the idea that exposing people to “good music” would help them become better and more moral citizens, able to contribute more fully to their communities.

Katz doesn’t get into technology’s influence on the early-music field, but he could. In the “beginning” of the popular Baroque-instrument revival, which we can date to the late 1960’s, recording helped in a several ways: first by allowing splicing to create expert performances that never existed, free of squeaks, scratches, and poor intonation; second by amplifying a performance and making it portable allowing audiences to hear an intimate and stylish harpsichord performance anywhere they chose at at any volume they chose; third by creating early-music “celebrities” by marketing millions of recordings by artists such as Brueggen, Leonhardt, Hogwood, Pinnock, Norrington, Christie, et al.  The popularity of these celebrities caused a trickle-down effect, creating a large audience for recordings of and live performances by groups of professional early-musicians.  I was fortunate enough to profit from this phenomenon for several decades, making a reasonable living playing concerts for large audiences in halls that were really too big for the music, which was the only way to make the enterprise cost-effective, and audiences were often satisfied possibly because of positive associations from recordings.

Lately, however, it seems that things have taken a bit of a turn.  The celebrity lions of the field are reaching retirement age or beyond–quick now, name a world-famous Baroque musician under 50–and again, it seems that technology has played a part in preventing younger musicians from reaching their exalted status. With the advent of cheap analog-to-digital converters,  hard-drive recording, and digital editing and mastering, making a beautiful and perfect-sounding record has become so easy that pretty much anyone can do it.  Technology has made it easier to learn historical styles too, one can hear a large number of excellent performances of pretty much any repertoire you can name. Many of these recordings are available online at little or no cost with a few clicks of the mouse. So while the supply of product has gone up exponentially, the number of people who can discern between a competent performance and a great one remains more or less constant (Mary Deissler once told me that the demographic of early music connoisseurs in Boston was about 400 people, interestingly, our typical crowd when the NY Collegium played there) As the supply/demand equation has grown more lopsided, the predictable outcome has been the disappearance of “in demand” celebrity directors and instrumental soloists who are household names. Also predictably, most professional free-lance musicians are working a lot less than they were ten or twenty years ago.

What is taking the place of traditional professional performance? Different, “diverse” kinds of music, finding new or inter-media takes on historical instruments (for an example see http://soreagroup.com). The programs are often heavily amplified, so just a few performers can have enough profile to capture the attention of a large crowd. And, interestingly, amateur performance at a very high level. Music schools all over the country are graduating annual classes of very competent performers; there are only so many chairs in full-time symphony orchestras and competition for jobs with even part-time modern or period groups is growing ever more intense. These musicians need to play somewhere, and in increasing numbers they are forming groups and self-presenting. I’m always interested to read in Gene Murrow’s “Gotham Early Music Scene” e-mail newsletter the sheer number of concerts that are being presented in New York, most of them by artists who are organizing themselves and performing for the gate; they often spend a little money and take the time to produce their own CD’s as well.

It seems that technology largely fueled the growth of the “Early Music Scene” in the last century, and is becoming an important part of its transformation in this one. What will happen next, I wonder? Comments welcome!

September Prelude

By , 09.07.09

in North Carolina this week. What a great bunch of colleagues!

The loop

By , 08.29.09

It seems that no matter what, the oboists are always a bit out of the loop. That’s why we tend to organize things, so we know what’s going on. Or?

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