[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 [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 [5/15] A communication that reflects a topological research approach

A communication that reflects a topological research approach

Nyrnes (2006) suggests talking about art research in spatial or topological terms, where “creativity is a matter of being aware of the topoi in order to choose new paths”. Subsequently, three topoi of artistic research are presented. First, there’s the ‘own language’ topos, where the storytelling and the use of metaphors make language precise in a sensuous way. In this topos, artistic research concerns consciousness about how we develop our personal language (in the artistic practice itself, and in the talking/writing about it). Second comes the topos in which ‘theory’ is accepted as a systematic, general language, where other people’s practices become the context to relate to. Third is the topos of the ‘artistic material’ itself, which probably forms the energy centre of the artistic research: the material itself is in command, has its own laws, makes us think, makes us do things. Continue reading “[ENG] Recitations and Reconsiderations [5/15] A communication that reflects a topological research approach”

[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”

[ENG] Recitations and Reconsiderations – Aspects of a performer’s research into late medieval plainchant [1/15]

In plainchant – that reverend and revered godparent of the Western musical tradition – words from the Bible and other religious writings are endlessly cited and recited. Simply reading a liturgical text out loud to a large audience is a difficult task when done with due respect and without microphone. The best option is to sing the text: singing as an elegant way of shouting. Down through the centuries, and starting in the earliest days of the Christian church, many musicians have made creative and innovative contributions to the development of what is now to be considered as one of the most effective text rendering formats in music history. Precisely this aspect of plainchant is considered in this series of small blog contributions (fifteen in all, issued each thursday at 3pm). Considered and reconsidered not in a historical or liturgical way, but through the artistic and creative potential it holds for the present-day performer of plainchant. Continue reading “[ENG] Recitations and Reconsiderations – Aspects of a performer’s research into late medieval plainchant [1/15]”

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