Musical Interests

Although I have always been an amateur musician, rather than a professional, I think of myself as a musician. I started out on clarinet in the seventh grade, eventually becoming a good but not excellent player. (Practicing diligently was never my strong suit—first chair, second clarinet in the high school county honor band sums up my abilities.) Added bassoon and french horn (OK on both) at university. In the early 70s I discovered early music, and largely gave up on ‘normal’ instruments. As with so many amateur people in early music, I revelled in playing lots of different instruments reasonably well, rather than one or two really well. Primarily a wind player, for medieval music I added lute, long-necked lute and psaltery.

The Guidonian Hand

Formed in 1973 (I think) by combining members of The Festival Consort, San Diego (long associated with Shakespeare productions at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego) with people who had met at the music department of San Diego State University (thank you, Dr. Forman), the Hand managed to put together more than two dozen concerts over the eleven years of its existence. These ranged from the hodge-podge confabulations typical of the seventies (“Music from the Time of…”) to more satisfying explorations with a much more narrow focus on a particular time and place: Le Nuove Musiche, Elizabethan consort and dance music, even an exploration of the Polish renaissance and early baroque. A long-out-of-print record was released in 1977 (golly, we pushed hard in the early years!) by Klavier Records, Italia: music of the renaissance and baroque. The A-side was an exploration (though much of it was left on the cutting-room floor) of our then-radical belief that much of the sixteenth century used a proto-continuo style; we frequently used one or more lutes plus cittern and organ or harpsichord in ensemble instrumental and vocal pieces, to great effect. The characterisation of the Baroque as the ‘age of continuo’ is, quite simply, incorrect.

Alfonso X

To be read as ‘ex’ rather than ‘ten’ (for no particular reason), Alfonso X was a study group concentrating on the Cantigas of thirteenth-century Spain. It was formed and led by Curt Bouterse, who had all the requisites for such a task: in addition to being a fine folk musician (especially on fretless banjo, hammered dulcimer and voice), his vast knowledge covered anthropology, medieval history, instrument making, art and textile history, et cetera. I have no idea why I just used the past tense; he is still with us! He seems to have closed down his website, in favour of Facebook,which I cannot see.

Partch Ensemble

In contrast to the above, I was also privileged to be a member for a short time of the ensemble (based at San Diego State University) which at the time had the instruments of Harry Partch, the most interesting American composer of the twentieth century. Curiously, I became involved with the ensemble because of my interest in medieval music—our fiddle and rebec player, David Dunn, was in the Partch Ensemble on adapted viola, and suggested me for the Blue Rainbow player needed in the documentary film they were about to start, The Dreamer That Remains (available on DVD). The Blue Rainbow is a pair of psalteries, and I played psaltery in Alfonso X, so the connection was clear, if a bit startling. I went from ‘who is Harry Partch?’ to recording the Blue Rainbow and Adapted Guitar parts (the later filming was shot to pre-recorded playback) in a little over one week. I later on also played Kithara, in The Bewitched. If 43-notes-per-octave, Just Intonation or ‘corporeality’ sounds intriguing to you, you should listen to some of Partch’s music.

Medieval musical instruments

One of the most difficult aspects of medieval studies for a modern scholar to comprehend is the enormous power of ‘authority’ in the Middle Ages. Whereas the modern emphasis is on ‘original’ thinking, synthesis and the integration of a wide-ranging body of knowledge, in the Middle Ages the foremost way of demonstrating mastery of a subject is the acknowledgement and citation of previous, authoritative writers. Much as a person can quote their genealogy of biological ancestors, the conceptual ancestors of your thoughts and words must be shown, in order to reveal your learnèd manner. In the same way that composing a piece of music—bringing together previously-existing phrases, combining them in new, artful ways—was held in higher regard than simply ‘making it up’ (anyone can do that!), constructing a valid and valued collection of words from the thoughts of highly-regarded predecessors reveals the greater skill.

Several problems for the modern scholar emerge from this:

Following the lineage of an idea is as necessary as tracing the development of a standardized pictorial element—and both are made the more difficult by the fact that we rarely have an indisputable ‘original’. For elegant thoughts on the subject, see the articles and books by Christopher Page, especially Voices and Instruments of the Middle Ages (Dent, 1987). For some rather more shocking ideas, see the writings of Ephraim Segerman – NRI and FoMRHI. Should I ever finish an article about the psaltery and its use in monophonic music (underway for more years than I care to contemplate), a link to it will appear here.

Musical Iconography

Iconography is the study of images (of all sorts: drawings, paintings, sculptures, etc.), with the aim of understanding them within the context of their own time. Musical iconography looks specifically at works of art for clues about how music was used in the past (e.g. depictions of important events), how instruments were combined in ensembles, and (the tricky bit) what musical instruments looked like, and were capable of doing. Iconography is essential for examining medieval music, because almost no instruments survive from before the sixteenth century; but it continues to be important for the renaissance and baroque (and, surprisingly, even later), in spite of the far greater number of instruments surviving from those periods.

There is a fair amount of controversy concerning the validity of images as realistic depictions of performances and musical instruments – especially since what we really want to know about the instruments, their construction, is simply not going to be depicted. Even the ‘measured’ drawings of Praetorius leave many questions in their wake. But images are the only source of contemporaneous information, aside from slippery written records. That leaves modern equivalents to be examined for potential suggestions as to how the instruments could have been used, although that is easy to overstate. The most important lesson of comparative organology/performance practice is a simple one: all around the world, instruments are pushed to their limits, whether it be a simple blade of grass held between the thumbs or the most complicated stringed instrument. Some crazy virtuoso, somewhere, will do it if it can be done.

If you get interested in iconography, be careful when dealing with older published works, as much has changed over the last couple of decades, especially as regards to dating and the identification of lesser-known artists and their locations. On the other hand, you should seek out older recordings, because of the extraordinary destruction of traditional musics over the past twenty years or so by ‘pop’ or ‘fusion’ performers. Famous recording series, such as those released by UNESCO or Ocora (Radio France), include music from around the world.