[RESEARCH] Passionate about Performance

[ENG] “New research suggests that musicians may be at their most creative when they are not playing their instrument or singing. By studying musicians and asking them when inspiration struck them, researchers found that breakthrough moments often happened when players were humming to themselves or tapping out rhythms on the table or imagining dance moves inspired by the music.” (The Guardian, 1 October 2013, full article here)

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[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 [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”

[ENG] Recitations and Reconsiderations [6/15] On creativity

In his acclaimed book Out of Our Minds (2001) creativity prophet Ken Robinson describes some essential characteristics of the creative process:

We begin with an initial idea of some sort … The idea takes shape in the process of working on it – through a series of successive approximations [emphasis mine].  … Creativity is often a dialogue between concept and material. The process of artistic creation in particular is not just a question of thinking of an idea and then finding a way to express it. Often it’s only in developing the dance, image or music that the idea emerges at all. (134-135)

In the act of creation, means and ends are intermingled in a very pragmatic way. It is by handling the material that an idea emerges. The idea materializes through and in the, well… material. What I shape, shapes me.

But is what we create more creative, the more ideas it holds? Creativity is about exploring new horizons and using imagination, about breaching boundaries and connecting things that do not seem to belong together. But how effective can an idea turn out to be in the light of the material concreteness? Does an artefact need to be rich in ideas in order to excite us? The short answer is: no.

Piet Mondriaan's "Apple tree in flower", The Hague, Gemeentemuseum

The Gemeentemuseum in The Hague houses the biggest Mondriaan-collection in the world. The work of Piet Mondriaan, to my mind, is a brilliant testimony of two essential aspects of creativity: the dialogue with the material and the focus on one particular idea – taking that idea as far as possible. While De rode boom ‘The red tree’ (1908) is still very recognizable as a tree, a series of successive approximations shows Mondriaan’s evolution towards a radical cubism. While in his De bloeiende appelboom ‘The blossoming apple tree’ (1912) Mondriaan had reached a typical cubist’s abstraction, with figurative elements still present, he was not satisfied with this, and went on to take the abstraction into the extreme – resulting in what he is now most famous for: compositions with rectangles in red, yellow and blue (Warncke 1990). Continue reading “[ENG] Recitations and Reconsiderations [6/15] On creativity”

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