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Reading between the lines

August 24, 2013

You can blame David Lee for this. He prompted me to respond to a short article written by Bonnie Blackburn in the 40th-anniversary edition of Early Music. For those of you who don’t know, Early Music is an Oxford University Press journal, the intention of which was to provide ‘a link between the finest scholarship of our day and the amateur and professional listener and performer.’ Over the past forty years it has encouraged a fruitful dialogue between modern performers and music historians.  

Bonnie Blackburn’s article (available for free download here: addresses what she calls the tramline performance of much early music, which, if I understand her correctly, means an adherence to rigid tempi, balanced voices and a general avoidance of expression. This has been written about in many other contexts, characterised as a cool ‘English’ style, in contrast to the more overtly expressive Continental style. Indeed, I’ve written an article on the subject that was printed in Early Music, which sees me in broad agreement with Blackburn. Her focus, though she doesn’t spell it out, is on vocal repertoire and I certainly recognise the tendency that she references: a style that effaces the presence of the performer and creates a sonic analogue of the score. It’s worth noting here that there is nothing in the original musical manuscripts to suggest expression; dynamic markings, tempi and other instructions are entirely absent. Which is not to say that they didn’t exist. Only that they would have been transmitted verbally or left to the performers to apply themselves.

She ventures that one of the reasons for modern clean, uninflected style is due to the ability of performers today to perform this music virtually at sight. There’s no doubt that many recordings are made on minimal rehearsal, often without the music ever having been performed in concert, and sometimes without the music having ever been seen by the performers.

There are, though, other factors at work, not least a sense of musicological correctness, which journals like Early Music have inadvertently promoted. The system of mensuration – the time signatures that were used, particularly in the C14th and C15th – indicate the relationship between the tempi of different sections. There’s precious little evidence to suggest that the original performers adhered slavishly to these proportions, but the music was certainly designed that way and in the modern day, this has tended to promote a mathematical approach to relative speeds. Filtered through the lens of musical history, such intentions tend to take on the status of instruction and, when performers are assessed by music historians in record-review sections of Early Music the performer can sometimes feel that such criteria have been used as a critical tool against them. Additionally, many of the recordings made over the past forty years were the first modern recordings of venerated repertoire, which has contributed to a sense of duty to history. Expression has been avoided because of a fear of an inappropriate modern sensibility being applied to the past.  Such self-consciousness has urged the performer to play it safe rather than to ‘add’ interpretation. And in the recording situation, the producer has felt on safer ground attending to issues of ensemble and tuning rather than more abstract notions of ‘feel’ and interpretation. There is also a certain rhythmic logic in polyphony that argues against ‘playing’ with the time. A higher voice coming off a dot slowly, or another part languishing on a suspension, can make the task of another singer singing a series of smaller note values much more difficult to negotiate.

 I find myself disagreeing with Blackburn over her suggestion that varying tempi is an index of expression for different reasons though. Consider rock or pop music. One of the highest forms of praise offered to a live band is being ‘tight’, the word used to mean strict ensemble. Yet no-one would ever suggest that rock music is unemotional. Indeed, it’s very rare indeed that one has a controlled or even uncontrolled shift in tempi (‘Come on Eileen’ by Dexy’s Midnight Runners springs to mind as the obvious exception). And, though it may not be obviously apparent, the tempi of many early-music recordings changes from bar to bar, fractionally certainly, but it’s a surprisingly fluid pulse as you’ll discover if you put a metronome on it. No-one uses a click track (pace The Kronos Quartet’s recording of Spem in Alium where, with only four of them, they had to multi-track).

I offer these caveats not in support of tramline music. I too would like to see more experimentation and expression, and I know many other performers who feel the same way. Perhaps, though, we need greater latitude on the part of critics and commentators, and even the public, who have come to enjoy and expect the clean, light style of modern performance of renaissance music.

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