[ENG] Recitations and Reconsiderations [15/15] The chant performer as ‘bricoleur’

In this series of posts, an attempt was made at portraying aspects of a chant performer’s creative explorations, against a backlight of developments in the world of artistic research. Focusing on the creative potential of recitation (of texts) and reconsideration (of histories, theories, contexts), an image has emerged, inevitably incomplete, of the chant performer as something of an engineer and of a bricoleur. Lévi-Strauss (1962) describes how both the engineer and the bricoleur cross-examine their resources, and how both make a catalogue “of a previously determined set consisting of theoretical and practical knowledge, of technical means, which restrict the possible solutions.” (19) In the context of what has been outlined in the previous pages, Lévi-Strauss’s description of the bricoleur’s practice is particularly relevant:

Consider him at work and excited by his project. His first practical step is retrospective. He has to turn back to an aleady existent set made up of tools and materials, to consider or reconsider what it contains and, finally and above all, to engage in a sort of dialogue with it and, before choosing between them, to index the possible answers which the whole set can offer to his problem. He interrogates all the heterogeneous objects of which his treasury is composed to discover what each of them could “signify” and so contribute to the definition of a set which has yet to materialize but which will ultimately differ from the instrumental set only in the internal disposition of its parts. (18)

It could be argued that musician’s creativity, and even creativity in general, exists in a limited and limitless dialogue with oneself, with theoretical concepts and the artistic material. As a scientist and an artist, as an engineer and a bricoleur, as a creator and a destroyer, the performer-researcher chooses (not) between a vast array of (im)possibilities – and that in itself is a constraint, often to the point of extending the limits of existing forms of expression.

Hendrik Vanden Abeele

[ENG] Recitations and Reconsiderations [14/15] Saintly

Music for saints holds a special place in the repertoire of chant. In the first centuries of Christianity a cult of saints developed, and long before the invention of musical notation a considerable repertoire of music for saints had already been established. However, the bulk of that kind of music had yet to come, since in quite a lot of cases the composition of a mass or an office-cycle dedicated to the memory of a certain saint was delayed by some hundreds of years.

Throughout the liturgical year many saints are honoured in different ways. Some of them are simply commemorated, others have full cycles of chants dedicated to certain facts in (or after) their saintly life – this of course changing according to traditions at specific dioceses. Chants composed for these occasions usually have a close textual connection to one or more of the vitas describing the saint’s life, virtues, death etc. Zimmern (2007) has shown how these vitas give an insight into their political, social and cultural context, how they highlight the importance of  the cult of saints at all levels of society and how they demonstrate the value and versatility of hagiography as a means of storytelling.

As an example of this we can turn to the seventh-century ‘Belgian’ saint Lambertus (c.630-c.700). It was only two hundred years after the death of Lambertus (a bishop of Maastricht, murdered in dubious circumstances) that Etienne, bishop of Liège, composed an office for Lambertus. The texts for this cycle were based on a Vita that Etienne probably wrote himself (Auda 1923), in its turn based on an older, anonymous Vita. In a project called ‘Gesta Sancti Lamberti’, I have been revisiting the hagiologyst chant repertoire in general via the story of Lambertus – as a kind of case study. This was a logical step to take, for four reasons.

Continue reading “[ENG] Recitations and Reconsiderations [14/15] Saintly”

[ENG] Recitations and Reconsiderations [13/15] Recitation becomes chant

There is hardly any better training imaginable for a plainchant performer than a detailed experience of different forms of recitation. The art of recitation is at the heart of instruction and creative development. As described earlier, various rhetorical elements (as basic as the beginning and end of a sentence) and their translation into musical formulae, provide basic guidelines for rendering texts. With effective inflections, recitation becomes chant.

However, the core of recitational technique lies not in a performance faithful to prescribed formulae, but in its close relationship with speech and speech-rhythm, albeit (or precisely because of) the heightened speech of ritual and liturgy. As witnessed in ample examples of treatises on rhetorics from antiquity to the Renaissance, a pleasing (in the sense of accurate, clear and elegant) deliverance of text was considered to be of the utmost importance. Thus, syntactic matters of structure, overall form, phrases and verbal accentuation of a given text were related to the semantic matters, i.e. the meaning of the text. In this context, the humanist’s vision on the position of music in relation to text, with music being expected to subordinate itself to grammatical quantity, was nothing but a logical continuation of the already existent, well-known and universally taught tenets of antiquity (Cf. Harrán 1989). Continue reading “[ENG] Recitations and Reconsiderations [13/15] Recitation becomes chant”

[ENG] Recitations and Reconsiderations [12/15] Belief

And so, from the recitation of Erasmus’ paraphrases on the Gospel according to John (using them as an evocation of an old tradition of commentary) to the use of more modern sources commenting on religious issues in general, or maybe even on life in general, that is a logical next step for a present-day performer.

The structure of Matins (with its multiple lessons and responsories) provides a unique opportunity to leaf through texts, quoting from books never before used in similar circumstances, using beloved fragments from texts that express feelings that are important to me. It allows me to express views on religion and the world, which would be hard to come up with in a different way (within an artistic project involving gregorian chant, that is).

In a project of a day-long office of the Holy Trinity at the Utrecht Early Music Festival in 2007, for instance, I used fragments of Gianni Vattimo’s ‚Belief’ as lessons throughout the day. These texts, critical of institutionalized religion but in which Vattimo expresses also his adherence to Christian tradition and his preference for a ‘friendly’ concept of God and of the sense of religion (1999: 98), open up our hearts and minds to the essence of religion, possibly living through it again in our imagination as

“…the re-presentation of the core contents of consciousness we had forgotten, put aside, buried in a not quite unconscious realm of our mind, that we may even at times have violently dismissed as an ensemble of childish ideas belonging to other epochs of our lives, perhaps even errors into which we had fallen, from which we should free ourselves.” (21)

The recitation of these texts even allows us to touch upon themes like female priesthood and the taboo of homosexuality.

I stopped going to church when, on the one hand, in the course of my study of philosophy I came across more and more reasons pointing to the untenability of ‘Christian metaphysics’, and when, on the other, at the personal level I tried to live the life of my sentiments free from the neurotic schema of sin and confession. Moreover, how could I belong to a Church that treated me, in its public teaching, as morally despicable, or, if I accepted this title, as a sick person in need of healing, a monstrous brother who must be loved but kept hidden? It is true that the question of homosexuality concerns a specific group of people that remains a minority in the Church. However, for me (as for others, and I am thinking of the way that Pasolini lived his homosexuality) this question has become the key for interpreting all the other superstitions within the Church, and all the forms of social exclusion outside it.” (72-73)

Hendrik Vanden Abeele

[ENG] Recitations and Reconsiderations [11/15] Recitations

The Christian practice of liturgical recitation of sacred texts (also known in other religions, and notably in the context of the Jewish synagogue, from which the Christian tradition most probably originated) has a long and interesting history, that has been described elsewhere.

A text was chanted to simple formulae based on a reciting tone with musical inflections reflecting grammatical structure, and punctuation signs becoming indicators for the performance. According to the function of the text or the solemnity of the occasion, recited texts were troped (most frequently the Epistle, see Figure 1) or more elaborate recitation styles were used, for example in Lamentations, genealogies, or Passion recitations. Singers’ creativity flourished, up to the point that the Council of Grado (1296) felt the need to restrict the use of ornate melodies.

Now that is a point in history to which a performer can relate: recitational practice was rich, and testimony of many different forms of this practice in manuscripts provides the creative potential for splendid recitations, amounting to anything between a sober and a complex plainchant performance.

Hendrik Vanden Abeele

Barcelona, Biblioteca Catalunya M. 911 f38v, Psallentes.com
Cantorale from Gerona (Barcelona, Biblioteca Catalunya M. 911 f38v-39) with a fragment of a troped Epistle (letter from St Paul to Timothy). The tropes are distinguishable as more ornate than the more or less recto tono passages from St Paul’s letter.

[ENG] Recitations and Reconsiderations [10/15] Alpha and Omega

The song that we sing has neither beginning nor end. It is the story of Alpha and Omega, of the Word incarnate, of life and death, of life after death. Our beginning of this tale comes out of nothing and our song will die away into nothing. It is insignificant and small and, what is more, its subject is our insignificance and littleness.

The cantor sings words by Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam that were never set to music and never before sung, especially when we consider that the music-hater Erasmus certainly never intended them to be sung.

Since the nature of God immeasurably surpasses the feebleness of human intelligence – however talented and acute that intelligence may otherwise be – its reality cannot be percieved by our senses, or conceived by our mind, or represented by our imagination, or set out in words. Yet even so traces of divine power, wisdom, and goodness cast a dim glow in the created universe. As a result parallels drawn from the things that we do in some fashion grasp with our senses and intelligence and guide us towards a vague and shadowy knowledge of the incomprehensibles, so that somehow we gaze on them, as through dream and mist.

These are the sentences with which Erasmus begins his paraphrases of the Gospel according to John. The cantor sings Erasmus’ words as he would chant a section of the Gospel or any other text from the New Testament, or of a Gospel commentary such as Augustine’s. He varies the chanting tone where he considers it necessary not only for comprehension and clarity, but also from his own comprehension of the text. He thus presents the text to a community in a version with his own vocal setting and reading, which he thinks balances his position as a more or less objective conveyer of a message with that of an inspired teacher or a captivating artist.

“To seek out knowledge of the nature of God through the power of human reasoning is futility. To speak about things that cannot be expressed in words is madness, and to define them is blasphemy.” The use of this Erasmus text emphasises the historical situation of the fifteenth and sixteenth century manuscript sources that we have chosen: we are in the period shortly before the Reformation. It is also a reference to that great ancient tradition, that of reciting commentaries by the Church Fathers during the offices. Most of all, however, we bring the Eternal Present into our innermost being through our recitation and our retrospective deed. As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end.

Hendrik Vanden Abeele

[ENG] Recitations and Reconsiderations [9/15] Obstacles and opportunities

Today’s chant singer researching a performance practice for late medieval chant is faced with many questions. These include questions concerning language and vocal techniques, such as the proper pronunciation of Latin, use of the voice and pitch; performance practice issues such as rhythm, meter, tempo and phrasing; contextual considerations such as the number and composition of the ensemble, the place and time of performance; and repertoire matters, such as the transmission of the old repertoire and the making of a new; regional differences within the repertoire, the use of simple polyphony and the interaction of chant and polyphony. It is a frighteningly complex field of investigation. Much work has been done already, although the vast majority of it concerns the repertoire found in the oldest manuscripts. This reflects the initial objective of chant scholars to restore plainsong to its supposed original state, after long centuries of so-called mutilation. Until just a couple of decades ago, relatively few scholars were attracted to the plainsong of later periods. Moreover, those that were usually took a special interest in it primarily because of related polyphony.

Even in Kelly’s acknowledged book Plainsong in the Age of Polyphony (1992), to be considered as a major landmark in the study of late medieval chant, little practical performance information can be found. Apart from the contributions of Richard Sherr and John Caldwell (both interested in the interaction between plainchant and polyphony and its implications for chant performance), the essays in Kelly’s book do not represent research into concrete performance practice questions such as the tempo of the singing, or what rhythm to sing in. For this, we need to turn to Mary Berry’s dissertation (1968) The Performance of Plainsong in the Later Middle Ages and the Sixteenth Century. Her research has proved to be of great importance to performers, her main concern throughout being precisely problems of rhythm. Continue reading “[ENG] Recitations and Reconsiderations [9/15] Obstacles and opportunities”

[ENG] Recitations and Reconsiderations [8/15] Musicians agonize.

Musicians agonize. Whether it be in the performance of a Bach cello suite, a Chopin nocturne, Perotinus’ Viderunt Omnes or any other piece from any other period in music history, the worries are usually big. “Is this the right bowing for the Allemande; should my left hand have a stable tempo in this nocturne, while my right hand plays rubato and adds ornaments without restraint; at what speed should the upper voices move in this organum?” These questions are often related to a certain kind of historical awareness. Or to put it more precisely: they are related to most musician’s conviction that the performance of music should relate to what the composer is generally assumed to have intended, or to what is believed to be idiomatic to the specific performance style of the historic context in which the piece was born. People go at great length to achieve this blessed state – the state of being „historically informed“ as to the performance practice of a certain kind of music.

Yes, I do believe that music is usually best served when someone with a good artistic knowledge of the historical or idiomatic context performs the music. To put it naively: I often think that Norrington’s Beethoven works better than Von Karajan’s. Rhythms are sharper, the overall feel is not so pompous, there is a wonderful transparancy, the woodwinds sound emancipated. Yet musically speaking, Von Karajan’s interpretation is quite convincing too. The slow dance-like character of the second movement of the Seventh Symphony seems to me to have a much more intense and obsessive atmosphere in Karajan’s performance from the seventies, than it has in Norrington’s from the nineties. But then I grew up with Karajan’s recordings, not with Norrington’s. So maybe it’s all a matter of taste?

A well-known Belgian forte piano player once told me that he could no longer stand the Beethoven sonatas as played on a Steinway. For him, the sonatas were “raped” when played on a modern piano. Asked for his opinion on Schnabel’s interpretation of the piano sonates, he looked at me with a mix of anger and compassion and said: “That’s even worse.” Faced with this kind of radical attitude, I usually start praising Uri Caine’s equally ‘radical’ interpretation of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. I subsequently portray Uri Caine as a risk-taker, taking more than his share of liberties with the famous variations, and how absolutely adorable I find his interpretations of Bach – or, to speak with the words of Marcel Cobussen (actually referring to Zacher’s Kunst einer Fuge): Caine’s encounters with or invitations to the work of Bach.

Uri Caine
Uri Caine (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In performing plainchant from late medieval sources, I want the listener to encounter this music in a mode or a mood to his or her liking and situation. I want to invite people to experience the power of ‘spiritual’ music through the simplicity and purity of primitive monody.

Hendrik Vanden Abeele

[ENG] Recitations and Reconsiderations [7/15] Considering the pragmatics of musicians’ creativity

In a world where the standards of living seem to rise rapidly while quality of life dwindles, “creativity” has become a buzzword used by many in a wide variety of meanings and contexts. In politics, in business, in society at large, “creativity” is linked with “innovation” to form two horses harnessed side by side and galloping towards the so-called innovation-driven economy of the twenty-first century. It is a concept following up on Bell’s (1973) description of a new economy driven by information, knowledge and service rather than an economy simply producing goods. Creativity as means and motor of a modern economy.

In the arts, including music, creativity is not just means and motor, but also the end and motive of all activity. Artists employ their mental agility and make flexible use of concepts, constructs or devices (just as any creative person would do) because they feel the need and urge to produce, to (de)construct, to create. In the act of creation, means and ends are intermingled in a very pragmatical way.

In the world of plainchant, the composer and singer – historically often one and the same person, maybe more suitably to be described as a developer or a replicator working with different levels of musical memes (to use the term coined by Richard Dawkins in 1976, as applied to music by Steven Jan in 2007) – started off with a particularly pragmatic approach to a liturgical text. The developer of plainchant had first of all an excellent knowledge of the form and content of the text to be set, and acquired an expert use of musical language in close relation to that text. Continue reading “[ENG] Recitations and Reconsiderations [7/15] Considering the pragmatics of musicians’ creativity”

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