Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Research Experiment #1, Performance in Practice: Guidelines

or, "Following Your Own Theoretical Advice In a Practical Example." This series, of sorts, of posts that I want to start is the informal substance of a paper I'm working on and will be using this blog as a crucible for that project. If it doesn't work, I'll reassess from there. What I am going to do is walk through the performance questions that arise when building a modern, newly-imagined version of medieval music as I have learned to conceive it, and my particular method for answering those questions. This is one method of many, and one person's opinion on how to go about it.

Now, to begin. This will be the 'accompanying a song' section. Of primary importance in this type of performance is the text, followed closely by the story, i.e. meaning of text. How that translates for an accompanying instrumentalist is what I will now (attempt) to describe using a practical example. What I hope, if successful, is that a reader will have a general understanding of what it takes and a few guiding steps to re-imagine medieval music in performance. The truncated version that I give for people asking me, "I have been assigned _____ piece and must come up with accompaniment [with or without panicked inflections]. Where/how do I start?" etc., etc. This is:

1. reduce the melody to long tones
to further clarify: there are certain modal gestures, or even simpler: just notes, that will follow and support the melody or text, or (hint, hint) often both. The reduction of the melody in this fashion will very quickly give you a foundation to then develop.

2. manipulate (or substitute) the particular 'melodic gestures' indicative of the specific mode.
This is a jumping off point for figuring, or improvising, variations on the melody, as well as providing plentiful material for extemporized interludes, preludes, etc., etc. To clarify as well: 'melodic gesture' is a term coined by a teacher of mine that speaks to the fact that modes are defined, somewhat by the placement and span of the octave, but much more so the specific collection of melodic figures distinctive to each mode.

3. reduce the text to adjectives.
The role of accompaniment is to heighten and support the text. To do this, even as instrumentalists, I feel very strongly that some knowledge of the meaning of the text is needed. We don't have to know the extent that (we hope) the singer is doing, but it can only help to inform our performance. What is the point, and what does it mean?

I would suggest as well a general knowledge of the context of the piece, in as far as we can gather, in it's original historical setting, but that is a slippery research slope, because it becomes difficult to know the line between "research for the sake of performance" and "burying the performance in research." Trust me: been there, done both. To solve this, here is my check-list of things to be aware of:
a) have a list of performance questions to answer, and just answer them. For example, 'what century/country/region are we in?' 'Who's paying/playing/listening?' 'What types of methods do have from (roughly) the period about creating music, or maybe more specifically about extemporizing music?' 'What guesses can we make about possible influences on the piece?' I have found for me, the shorter the answer, the less distracted I am liable to get.

b) knowing more about the piece can only help, but spend at least as much time practicing the thing as you do researching it. Playing this music, or really any music, is hard. It is immensely gratifying, serves unnumbered purposes, and connects people in ways nearly inconceivable to me though I've seen and done it for years, but it is hard. Aspiring to excellence requires a dedicated amount of time and effort. Both of which I am happy to give because I value what I do, but I believe it cannot be reached without those two elements.

c) have fun and experiment. As my teacher told me the day I met him, "If it's not fun, why are we here?" I'll add to that here in that if it's not an interesting performance to the person singing/playing it, I guarantee it will not be interesting to the audience listening to it. Think about, hold in your mind, feel what you want the audience to "take away" from this performance, and as crazy as it sounds, they will. even in various crazy dialects no one's heard of or completely instrumental music.