\\ Artistic practice as research tool

In the research approach to the issue of the performance of late medieval chant presented here, basically two paths have been followed. On the one hand, there was a simple desire to gain substantial theoretical and practical knowledge about the historical performance practice of plainsong, and how this practice has or has not found its way into the manuscripts. On the other, the concern was to become more aware of the way in which chant in general, and particularly the chant of the fifteenth century can be approached by today’s voices, in present-day settings, and how it can find its way to the hearts and minds of today’s public.

Dealing with practice-as-research, the double status of researcher and/as performer is a major factor in the whole process, influencing the theoretical and practical knowledge as well as the development towards an ‘expert habitus’ – celebrating the embodied know-how or tacit knowledge of the artist (Coessens, drawing on Bourdieu and Polanyi). There certainly are quite a few traditional musicological aspects in what is presented here. In fact, when starting this doctoral project in 2004, I expected to do a lot of more or less traditional musicological work, gradually evolving into a reluctance to do that kind of work, and finally (almost) ending up refusing to do musicological work. The most typical and innovative part of this endeavour is that the questions start from an artistic viewpoint, and that the artistic practice is used as a research tool.

These boundary-blurring activities came together in three main ambitions. First, to determine the way in which square notation as used in fifteenth-century chant manuscripts provides a clue to performance practice (focusing on the problem of rhythm). Secondly, to see and experience more generally how the manuscripts themselves can suggest answers to our performance-related questions, how certain features of these manuscripts can lead us singers to new sounds and perspectives, how our present-day training in chant or in the performance of chant can alter our understanding of the different historical sources – in other words: what these manuscripts make us do as present-day performers. And thirdly, exploring the potential of the human voice as a research tool in the development of a performance practice of late medieval plainsong. It all comes down to the singing itself. The scrutiny of the evidence is done with today’s voices; it is with these voices that research results resound.

2 thoughts on “\\ Artistic practice as research tool

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  1. I think the best way to approach plainchant is to build up a database in which all the excerpted evidence about performance practices from notational and textual sources is collected, translated, provided with audio examples. My impression from sources is that there was a trend already from the 13th century onwards to perform plainchant in more or less equal rhythmic values – there are also hints that there were places where this trend was not followed so much and where scholae apparently wanted to return to a more flexible (older) way of approaching rhythm. A very important source for singing plainchant, especially late plainchant, is Conrad von Zaberns “De modo bene cantandi” (1474).
    Were scholae in the 15th century really so small as “Psallentes” – the size of your ensemble seems too small to me – in order to perform antiphonally with good effect for example. But you do have much clarity in your voices, which is certainly a prerequisite for good chant singing.
    I certainly do not think that singers of the past would have beaten any drums while singing chant, as “Psallentes” has done disturbingly during a concert (singing chants for Sabato Sancto!): Singers who do such things have no understanding for the liturgical circumstances for which the chants were intended (Sabato Sancto would very likely have called for lower pitch and slower tempi than usual, not for the disturbing and ridiculous beating of a drum!).

    As long as so many “historically informed” performers are unwilling to thoroughly study and FOLLOW historical “rules” for good chant performance, we will never have a revival of the beautiful chant repertories which approaches the aesthetical ideals of the great ancient masters. So many performers today see themselves as “artists” – they should rather see themselves as pupils in a long and old chain of tradition and LEARN, LEARN, LEARN!

    Best wishes
    Christoph Dohrmann

    1. Dear Christoph,
      Thanks for your remarks. Hmm, it all depends on what you want to do with historical information. If you would deny singers to act as artists (what you seem to do), the historical evidence would not really vibrate, I think. But I respect all opinions in this matter. I appreciate your harsh words on our Tenebrae-performances, I’m sorry to hear that you have found the beating of a drum “disturbing and ridiculous”. Interesting words though, especially the “disturbing”, since that was indeed the goal of what we did there. The beating of the drum was the forebode for the well-known evocative earthquake, which took place at the end of Matins in Holy Week. A 100% historical situation. Accusing us of having no understanding of the liturgical circumstances in which the chants were sung is a remark that I find brutally offensive. As for your remark on our ensemble being “too small”: well, sorry, but I find that remark “ridiculous”. We can sing antiphonally with just two people, if you want. I can do it with you!
      Anyway, thanks again, and hope to meet you on one of our next projects.
      Hendrik

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