Classical on Cuba and DecoDance

DecoDance

Before we present our new Semi-Opera later this year, we have a couple of somewhat different shows as part of the Classical on Cuba festival! One of these, in true QC style, presents contrasting seventeenth century music by Steffani and Bononcini for voice, and trumpets.

The other performance we’re involved with is DecoDance, a work by Internationally renowned and multi-award winning DANCE artist Chrissie Parrott AO.

Working with Chrissie and her dancers is an exciting new way for us to emphasise how period performance is both authentic and contemporary.

Chrissie explains: “The work is a pastiche with the underlying message that we are ultimately just simple human beings often hiding behind a public mask. It also triggers thoughts of colonialism…. but what attracts people to the work is its underlying dark humour.”

Dr Jo Pollitt says: “DecoDance is a work that reveals Chrissie’s unapologetic risk-taking in terms of staging and subject matter that results in visceral visual poetry that sparks rigorous conversation and keenly embodied experiences for audiences. Re staging DecoDance in New Zealand will enable a new audience to be impacted by a lineage of Dance Theatre that pitches audacious vaudeville scoring with satire, and humanness with the more-than-human.”

DecoDance will be performed in the grand foyer of the St James Theatre on both Saturday 23 July and Sunday 24 July, featuring four NZ based dancers and Soprano Barbara Paterson; with live accompaniment by The Queen’s Closet Baroque Orchestra led by Gordon Lehany.


Images of DecoDance: by Bohdan Warchomij

Media Contact: Tracy Routledge 0412 223 221 or tracy@trpr.com.au

DecoDance

Why we love to Music

Many people write interesting and inspiring things about music, but I often come back to the writings of Christopher Small:

‘Of course music is a process rather than a product, a process in which all those present are taking part. That is why I coined the verb “to music,” defining it as “to take part, in any capacity, in a musical performance.” Everyone present is musicking, and bears some responsibility for the event, for its success or failure. It is not a matter of performers (or composer-plus-performers) doing something for, or to, the rest of us. Whatever it is that is being done, we are all doing it together, whether the line separating performers from the rest is clear, as in a symphony concert, or whether it is blurred or nonexistent, as during that wonderful Sunday polka afternoon Keil took me to in Buffalo some years ago.’

Christopher Small, 1995.

When the QC play music we are always conscious that we are making music with our audience, and if we succeed it is because of those we are fortunate to be musicking with.

Reeds are like snowflakes

Sharon Lehany

If you ask most modern oboists how they go about making their reeds, they will usually tell you that they try to make every reed the same, following a very particular pattern that, at some point in their career, they found worked well for them.  To make reeds this way is to strive endlessly for the single, perfect product; anything else is practically unusable.  Wastage and frustration are high, and reedmaking often becomes a burden.

This approach to reedmaking unfortunately seems to be the norm amongst hoboy players as well, who can often tell you the design and dimensions of their reeds to the millimetre.  When I started playing the hoboy, I bought an excellent book for modern players on how to make hoboy reeds, which taught a very specific method and gave me the foundations for helping my hoboy find its voice.  It also happened that the book was written by my first mentor on hoboy, who also provided me with a selection of reeds to get started.  I duly learned to make copies of her reeds, and the result—my first reed case—looked like this:

A lineup of tidy clones…and yet part of the reason I had so many was that it was rare that I found one that seemed happy and played consistently well.

In time I became aware of just how many modern innovations most hoboy players rely on in their reed design, and also how modernised most modern replica hoboys are themselves.  Here in The Queen’s Closet we share an interest in historical equipment and techniques, rather than modernised adaptations, so I acquired my beautiful faithful replica of a c.1690 hoboy by Richard Haka, and then set about researching how to make more historically plausible hoboy reeds.

What I quickly learned is that there is no one ‘authentic,’ and certainly not one ‘best,’ reed design.  This should be obvious: even today, there are geographical, regional and personal differences in oboe reed design, often quite dramatic.  And yet, the dogma still seems to exist that each combination of person and instrument works best with one single design.  There are definitely some elements of personalisation to reed design, but overall what I’ve found is that different historically plausible designs simply have different characteristics and personalities and that it’s down to me to learn how to use each one.  I’m learning that I need to understand every piece of cane that I work with, in order to determine how to design the reed that it will become.

This is what my current reed case looks like:  

Every reed in the case is better or worse for different kinds of musicking, including when and where the music was composed, and of course the music’s affect.  Different reeds also vary in their resilience to Wellington’s endless changes in temperature and humidity.

The triangular, or ‘fishtail,’ shape of most of these reeds is, I believe, more consistent with seventeenth century and early eighteenth century reeds, and it leads to a much freer and more flexible sound.  The parallel shape of the last reed is probably a little bit later, with the earliest iconography I’m aware of for this kind of shape dating to the 1720s.  Parallel shaped reeds typically feel more contained to play and can often sound more refined, but less characterful.  The width of each reed is also different, with wider reeds (which evidence suggests may have been used more in seventeenth century England) giving a particularly full tone, and narrower reeds (perhaps more standard in Europe) favouring the upper register.

What surprised me most, though, was finding the length and shape of the scrape to be the most necessarily variable elements of reedmaking.  Most modern oboists belong in one of two camps: either ‘short scrape’ or ‘long scrape’ reeds.  Virtually nobody’s reed case, I suspect, would have a mix of the two.  However, what I’ve learned through my research is that the colour and playability of a reed not only can, but often should, be shaped and adapted through use of different lengths and shapes of scrape.  (I should say, though, that I only use simple, historically plausible scrapes; I don’t use elements of modern scrapes, such as the ‘spine’ or ‘heart’ of modern American-scrape oboe reeds, or the stepped-down tip that is characteristic of many modern oboe reed scrapes.)

So as I scrape each reed, I’ve learned to listen to what it’s telling me about how to get the best out of it and decide how to adapt my scrape as I go.  I no longer start making a reed assuming that I know what it will look like when it’s finished, and as a result, more often than not I can make a piece cane into a happily playable, and wildly individual, reed.  I think this is one of the most important things I’ve learned from my studies of historical hoboy reeds: that a box of hoboy reeds shouldn’t be like a string of paper dolls, but a collection of snowflakes.

Sharon is ensemble manager and hoboy player, and is also studying for a PhD at the New Zealand School of Music, focussing on seventeenth century hoboy reed design.

Crossing Fingers …

As we prepare for The Judgment of Paris next weekend, aware that the expanding numbers of Omicron cases may yet thwart our plans, I’m drawn back to what makes music special. For us it has always been, and remains, the experience of sharing our musicking with our audience. I’ve always liked the work of Christopher Small, who coined the term “musicking” – music not as a thing but an activity, and for us an activity shared with our audience. In 1995 Small wrote an anecdote:

I am preparing a performance, an encounter with my fellow-citizens of this little Catalan town, using material provided by Josef Haydn under the name of piano sonata. As I prepare the performance I find myself imagining my listeners, my fellow-musickers rather, most of whom I know and who know me, and drawing them in imagination into the encounter. On the night I hope to be empowered to do this in reality, since the performance will be meaningless without their critical but hopefully kindly collaboration.

Small, 1995

We’re enjoying rehearsing, drawing our audience in imagination into the encounter, as Small describes above. We’re excited with how things are going and think this show will be something very special, and we can’t wait to share this with our fellow-musickers in reality. We’re still hopeful we’ll be musicking with everyone in our Judgment of Paris on Sunday, but if Omicron determines it’s not this weekend … it will be soon!

Christopher Small. 1995. [The Theory of Participatory Discrepancies: A Progress Report; Searching for Swing: Participatory Discrepancies in the Jazz Rhythm Section; Rhythm as Duration of Sounds in “Tumba Francesa”]: Responses. Ethnomusicology [Online], 39. Available: http://www.jstor.org.libezproxy.open.ac.uk/stable/852201 [Accessed 13/02/2022].

Challenges and constraints, a cellist’s musings (Jane Young)

As I have dipped my toes into the world of ‘Historically Informed Performance’ I find myself wondering about what it really would have been like to be a professional musician of the 17th century.  There must have existed many of the same issues as there are in freelance musicians’ lives today such as uncertainty of income, anxiety before important performances and a constant quest for the best possible equipment.

However, there are also many areas where things would have been very different, such as the instruments themselves. As there was much less standardisation of instruments every player, and therefore every ensemble, would have had a unique sound as opposed to the somewhat bland, homogenised sound-world of modern instruments. Early instruments were more volatile and reactive to atmospheric and temperature changes, demanding adaptability from the players in a much more extreme way than today. Also, the instruments, without modern refinements, were far more comfortable to play in some keys than in others. Composers of the day knew that ‘exotic’ keys would create tension for the players and therefore ramp up the drama in the music, bringing in due course great relief to players and audience alike when the safer home key was finally reached. In the QC by playing on copies of baroque instruments we give ourselves some of these extra challenges, but hopefully as a reward bring our listeners something closer to what they might have heard at the time the music was written.

The often hastily hand written sheet music of the Baroque era must have provided a further challenge to players. At times illegible it can only have been a rough guide as to the actual performance of the music. Today’s musicians are trained to scrupulously observe every tiny dot, line or marking as this is what has come to be expected since printed music became commonplace, and even more so since composers have been able to proofread or even publish their own music. In the QC our wonderful manager Sharon transcribes and arranges much of the music to suit our configuration and so we have been spoiled by having beautifully clear and easy to read parts. However, it has been a learning curve for me to feel free to add ornaments, change dynamics, the odd note and even occasionally entire passages in contradiction to my strict classical training in which one would rarely if ever dare to change anything on the page (though this is probably less the case for musicians who have a background in jazz).

And then there were the audiences! By all accounts 17th century audiences were not prone to sitting still and listening quietly. Music could be the backdrop to a chess game, a drinking party, or a fierce debate, not to mention much coming and going, so the musicians had to make every effort to get their message across as well as keep the attention of their public. I guess our lives today are somewhat easier in that regard, in that we don’t usually have to fight to be heard, but we sometimes are left guessing as to the genuine opinions of our audience as they sit politely and automatically applaud at the end of each item.

It is quite liberating that there are no recordings from the period. No-one can say definitively that we are right (or wrong) in our interpretation. There do exist many treatises from the era with quite clear instructions on how things should be done, but advice often varies wildly between authors, and there is the expectation that one should always defer to ‘good taste’ (also subjective!). St Lambert (1702) said that taste provides ‘the freedom that musicians give themselves to transgress their own rules’. By listening to many performances and recordings, and by experimenting with one’s own playing one does start to develop this ‘taste’, but then aligning it with that of one’s colleagues is yet another challenge – one no doubt also faced by early musicians.

Ultimately, I feel very grateful to live at a time in which we have freedom to pursue our voyage of discovery into the world of Baroque music uninhibited, and also very happy that it is considered acceptable in the 21st century for a me, a woman, to play the cello in public!          -Jane

What is the Music in Musicking?

Christopher Small gave us the term “Musicking.” To do music, which we do when we listen, play, discuss or anything else that is … well … musicking. What do we mean by music though? Is the music we do when we music a form of reproduction of some pre-determined great Art? Or is it a live and social activity of creation in the moment? This is how Charles Keil described it, and like it! I think he nicely describes how at The QC we aim to perform Music … everyone creating socially from the bottom up. We also do this live, together with our audience …

“Music is about process, not product; it’s not seriousness and practice in deferring gratification but play and pleasure […] that we humans need from it; “groove” or “vital drive” is not some essence of all music that we can simply take for granted, but must be figured out each time between players; music is not so much about abstract emotions and meanings, reason, cause and effect, logic, but rather about motions, dance, global and contradictory feelings; it’s not about composers bringing forms from on high for mere mortals to realize or approximate, it’s about getting down and into the groove, everyone creating socially from the bottom up.”

Charles Keil

Keil, Charles. “The Theory of Participatory Discrepancies: A Progress Report.” Ethnomusicology 39, no. 1 (1995): 1–19. https://doi.org/10.2307/852198.

Small, Christopher. Musicking : The Meanings of Performing and Listening.  (Hanover : University Press of New England, 1998).

French, Marilyn. Beyond Power. On Women, Men and Morals. (New York: Summit, 1985 )

Ensemble and Professional Development

Over the next few months we are undertaking a range of activities with the aim of developing our practice in one or two key areas of how we perform.  I’ll come to what shortly, but first is the why?

Over the year and a half we’ve been together The Queen’s Closet has established ourselves as innovators in New Zealand performance of 17th century English and continental European music.  Our aim is always to take music of 300-350 years ago and make it fresh and modern for contemporary audiences, by making our starting point to be as faithful as possible to performance practice the composers would have known.

The period music revolution has been around for over 50 years now, and began as a reaction against what was then poorly researched and understood performance of baroque music.  It was unpopular with many in the musical world, at least initially, and it took time and determination to build audiences and persuade listeners that this was a better way of approaching the music of Handel, Bach and all the other baroque composers.  Since those early beginnings an enormous amount has been discovered and many attempts made to recreate the playing styles and instruments lost for many generations.  Even over the last 10-15 our understanding of instruments and playing style has changed markedly.  Ideas from the beginnings of the early music revolution have been built upon and developed by subsequent generations of performers and academics, with new or altered understandings of how to play the music.  We believe that continuing to research and keep up to date with new ideas – working to realise those ideas in performance – is one way we will help keep the music of the baroque continuing to sound fresh and modern.  Our players work with specialists across the world, learning and discovering the ways performers around the world are finding to perform early music.  We never want to reach the point where we think we’ve learnt all we need to know and can always do things the same way from there on – that, we think, would be the road to the sterile and the mediocre.

So first … What is A?  Pitch in baroque music.

Our first focus is the pitch we play at … a pitch of 415 for A, which is a semitone lower than modern standard pitch in western music, has been adopted as a kind of one size fits all for much baroque performance on period instruments.  The narrative goes something like this: pitch was low in baroque and gradually went up in the classical era until by Beethoven we reached A at 440.  Some period instrument baroque ensembles even incorporate 415 into their name to illustrate the point.  Of course, it won’t surprise anyone that the story is not quite that simple!  

Music between 1600 and 1750 was played at pitches ranging from something like 392 (a tone below modern A) and 466 or higher (a semitone above modern pitch).  Much of Vivaldi’s music for example was written to be played close to 440.  Biber would most likely have been close to 466 for much of his music, while some Purcell would have been played at around 400 and other Purcell was written to be played at around 473 (so-called Quire pitch).

Why does this matter?  The issue is that raising or lowering instruments by as much as 3 semitones dramatically changes the way instruments sound and respond.  Performing at pitches away from the original intention leads to very different music and for voice in particular can even make a piece impossible to perform.  Strings, brass and woodwind all sound very different at 392 than they do at 466.  So far so good … but playing music composed for different pitch standards, and for instruments with different “home” pitches, at around its original pitch is not always practical today.  By exploring issues around performance pitch we aim to better understand how this impacts on the music … and we hope this will lead to new insights into the music we play.   

Performing under Covid …

We were fortunate to have our Fringe performance Quanto Dolce just before Covid-19 stopped all of us from being able to perform for the time being.  But as with other performing companies, all our performances for the rest of the year are now postponed, cancelled or in doubt.

The response of many musical performers and groups to this enforced hiatus has been to try and keep performing, by temporarily moving online with digital performances, collaborations, or streaming recordings.  Music is an art form that can work well across a range of media, and these performances have been something to light up the sometimes long and dreary days.  This has also allowed many performers to keep active and performing, even if not in ways they prefer.

But you may have noticed that The Queen’s Closet hasn’t joined in with this digital musicking.  While making recordings and performing across the internet is one way to keep making music, it’s not something that is compatible for the vision we have for The Queen’s Closet.  We make our music meaningful by performing live with an audience who we engage directly with, just as it would have been at the time this music was written.  Live performance with an audience is not possible at present, so as a group we are silent for the time being, which is difficult.  We enjoyed our last performance so much, as we do all our performances, and were humbled and delighted to have wonderful audience feedback and be nominated for two Fringe awards.  Following on from this we were looking forward to musicking with concert-goers throughout 2020 with a range of programmes, from the more conventional programme of Bach and Vivaldi with Nota Bene, to some more experimental and exploratory programmes.  We’re still hopeful that the programme with the Bach Choir of Purcell’s Hail Bright Cecilia and the Biber Requiem in A will go ahead later this year. 

Our enforced hiatus has had the unexpected benefit of giving us all the opportunity to spend some quality time with our charismatic and characterful instruments.  So we have been musicking in different ways, talking, arranging and planning music and performances, and experimenting with mouthpieces, reeds, staples, strings and bows!

But, we need to perform live to exist.  It is the only way for us.  So, as we look forward to a future easing of restrictions on gatherings, we are contemplating and planning ways of performing live as soon as possible.  Big audiences and large venues are unlikely to be possible in the near future.  But here is our opportunity.  Our performances work best in intimate and informal settings, with smaller audiences.  While the internet is not fruitful ground for us, the next stages we anticipate post-lockdown of small venues with small audiences will be perfect for us.  As soon as small groups of people can share a space together we can perform again.  

So how to aim for the same lively and engaging events, within whatever government restrictions we all need to follow in the current climate?  We have some exciting ideas, and we look forward to seeing, and more importantly to musicking with you again soon.

The QC

Questions of Rhetoric – or rhetorical questions?

What is Rhetoric and why is it relevant to music?  Why does it matter?

The relevance of Rhetoric to music of the baroque era is a large field of study and many people more knowledgeable than I have written about this.  I personally always enjoy reading Bruce Haynes’ many thoughts about this and if it’s not an area you already know about, Haynes’ somewhat polemical book The End of Early Music: A Period Performer’s History of Music for the Twenty-First Century is an excellent place to start.  (and a great read – among other things he argues conductors meet the biological definition of a parasite … you don’t have to agree with everything Haynes says, but what he does say he expresses with great panache). 

My view, not always shared by everyone, is that our playing in the Queen’s Closet should be Rhetorical, and that approaching baroque music in this way is an important aspect of understanding and interpreting this music.  

But what does Rhetorical performance of music mean?

Throughout the baroque era the discipline of Rhetoric was widely studied and discussed and as an art form has been discussed by writers from Plato to the modern day.  The discipline of Rhetoric was widely applied to musical performance from Renaissance up to the move to Romanticism in music.  It was an approach widely considered to be integral to musical performance in the baroque era and few writers on musical performance at that time wrote without some reference to Rhetoric.

Quantz is a good example of this, and he gives a particularly useful description of Rhetoric in music.  In his widely read manual of musical performance in the 1720s and 30s On Playing the Flute he says: 

Musical execution may be compared with the delivery of the orator” 

and goes on to explain that orators and musicians 

have, at bottom, the same aim … to make themselves masters of the hearts of their listeners” and crucially, “to arouse or still their passions, and transport them now to this sentiment, now to that.”

Quantz was a widely travelled and respected musician of his time, and although only one voice from the time is a particularly strong and relevant one.  He talks about musical delivery, 

“ … we demand that an orator have an audible, clear and true voice; that he aim at a pleasing variety in voice and language; that he avoid monotony in the discourse, rather allowing the tone of the syllables and words to be heard now loudly, now softly, now quickly, now slowly; and that he raise his voice in words requiring emphasis, subdue it in others.”  

He then goes on to 

“… show that all of these things are also required in good musical execution … “ 

In a further paragraph, Quantz identifies what he considers to be poor musical execution, which includes: 

“ if everything is sung without warmth or played on the same level with no alternation of Piano and Forte;”

and for me crucially, 

if you … execute everything without feeling, without sentiment, and without being moved yourself … “

For me, many of the important aspects of rhetorical playing are captured here by Quantz, (and by other writers of course) … the speech like execution with diction, variability and an oratorical manner of playing, combined with a central aim of emotional response, and an aim to move your audience, and yourself, in performance.  Rhetorical music succeeds if a performance evokes emotions in the performer and the audience.

Come to think of it, I suspect the parallels Haynes draws of a conductor to a parasite is a particularly bold rhetorical device, rather than necessarily something to take literally.  He seems a bit angry perhaps, and if I were a conductor I may be moved to certain emotions reading his views …

Why is this important?  For me, music of the baroque era seems to be written in the main, with rhetorical execution in mind.  Not intended necessarily to be beautiful, or timeless, as was the case in Art music from the Romantic era and beyond, but to be a vehicle for performers to move audiences.  Approaching the music in this way, I feel, brings our audiences and ourselves closer to the heart of music of the baroque.

Gordon.

gapeseed@thequeenscloset.net

What is a period instrument anyway? The why of “period instruments.”

Attempts at authenticity in performance of baroque music go back a long way, but current approaches can arguably be traced back to the pioneers of the 1960s, such as Gustav Leonhardt and Frans Bruggen.

In those heady days, the early music pioneers attempted to use or recreate instruments not played seriously in their baroque form for centuries.  Crucially, they used their experiments to challenge the ways music of the 17th and 18thcentury was being played in their time.  Their work led to the period instrument revolution of the 1970s and 80s.  After this, period performance became a little standardised and even taught in music collages.  The “right way” to play early music was born and things stabilised.

Within that standardisation lay a plethora of modernisms … A at 415 as a standard pitch, “natural” trumpets with the questionable and entirely modern (1950s-1970s) inventions that are nodal vent-holes, played using modern mouthpieces and lead-pipes, modern scrapes of hoboy reed developed in the 19th and 20th centuries and a range of variably authentic strings and bows.  

It’s easy to rail against the faux authentic (did you notice me reference to ventholes), but that misses the point I think.  How authentic is authentic anyway?  My natural trumpet is a copy of an instrument made in 1746, and our hoboy player uses one based on a hoboy of similar vintage.  These are not instruments of the Restoration, but a generation later.  Our hoboy player was asked recently about work to use reeds scraped to baroque patterns rather than modern long scrapes, and the question was “why?”  

To answer this I would point to this performance of Bach’s Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen.

On 19 mins 55 seconds the trumpet plays, without ventholes, an almost unplayable part.  Notes have to be bent and cajoled out of the places they naturally sit in the instrument, and the player suffers as he plays his line.  The words … translated as:

Be faithful, all pain will yet be only a little thing

After the rain blessing blossoms, all storms pass away

Be faithful, be faithful

It is possible, and most common, in period performance to play this aria on a baroque trumpet with ventholes.  But to do so sanitises the music.  Bach wrote with the instrument in mind, and understood the stress and tension playing such a line would cause.  And in true rhetorical style, in feeling the pain the musician evokes pain in the audience.  Suddenly the music makes sense, and when the final movement follows in a far easier key you can feel the relief in the words “god will, just like a father, hold me in his arms”

For me it comes down to why we make any attempt at all to use period instruments, and why we attempt to find instruments made to be as authentic copies as possible, as far as possible using techniques of the time.  The music.  Yes our authenticity is relative not absolute, as is the case with all early music groups, and we have to make compromises. But we keep pushing to use instruments and techniques which are increasingly as authentic as we can, in order to be inspired by them, and in turn by the music. When we use unfamiliar and at times very difficult period instruments, they show us some of the ways the music may have been intended to be played.  From the altered tonality forced by real natural brass, to the fickle sounds of short scrape reeds and short fingerings, and markedly different sound and articulation of the more historically made strings, the soundworld changes.  By engaging as much as we can in the struggles of period performers of the 17th century we gain insights into how the music works.  The result we feel, is a fresher and more genuinely authentic performance … music not as a museum piece or played as a learnt “early music formula”, but as a fresh and lively experience. And it remains an exciting and infinite journey of discovery, not merely a destination to reach.

Gordon

gapeseed@thequeenscloset.net