[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 [2/15] Augustine & Bowie

Towards the end of his life, around the year 427, Augustine of Hippo set out not only to catalogue all his works (in total more than five million words), but also to revise, correct, amend and even reconsider them. In addition, he described some of the circumstances in which he worked, making the Retractationes one of the earliest testimonies of – dare I say – an artistic research, in the sense of a deep and self-aware reflection on one’s own practice: „Let those, therefore, who are going to read this book not imitate me when I err, but rather when I progress toward the better. For, perhaps, one who reads my works in the order in which they were written will find out how I progressed while writing. In order that this be possible, I shall take care, insofar as I can in this work, to acquaint him with this order.“ (Augustine [ca. 427] 1968: 5)

It is this idea of the reiteration, revision and reconsideration of earlier works, thoughts or opinions that I want to explore in these contributions. Augustine’s re-thinking and even re-writing of texts reflect the typical workings of an agile mind. Likewise, every musical performance can be anything between the reiteration and the reconsideration of the composer’s original idea, of the performance itself, of the performer himself or herself. The act of reconsideration is natural and vital to the creative performer, who may constantly have second thoughts, develop new insights, change habits and rephrase opinions. Continue reading “[ENG] Recitations and Reconsiderations [2/15] Augustine & Bowie”

\\ 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. Continue reading “\\ Artistic practice as research tool”

\\ A vast array of (im)possibilities

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 (or chooses not to choose) 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

Maastricht, Gradual and Kyriale end of 15th century

\\ 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 voice and pitch; performance practice issues such as rhythm, metre, 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 new repertoire, regional differences within the repertoire itself, 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 its related polyphony.

Even in Kelly’s acknowledged Plainsong in the age of polyphony (1992), 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 tempo and rhythm. 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 is of great importance to performers, her main concern throughout being problems of rhythm. The chief sources from which she draws are primary, mainly manuscript and early printed service-books, as well as the writings of theorists. Her conclusions aid and refine our understanding of later plainchant: “The picture that has emerged is complex, and that in itself is important: there were more ways than one of performing chant.”

Exactly this can turn the many performance obstacles faced into opportunities, for “trying to find ways of answering questions not answered by hard evidence is”, to quote Daniel Leech-Wilkinson, “endlessly fascinating, a battle of wits between the lack of evidence and one’s own ingenuity.” (2002:2) The performer will have to fill in the blanks with his or her own colours and textures, and may even be tempted to draw outside the lines, countering any practical or historical constraints in a creative way.

Hendrik Vanden Abeele

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