A thoughtful article by Seconda Pratica on The Limits of Literalism, here, identified the need for
making our practice — what we do — coherent with our discourse — what we say we are doing and why we are doing it
In plain language, we historically informed performers (whether we are singers, musicians, dancers, actors or sword-fighters) should practise what we preach.
Going further, our ideal should be to “join the dots” all the way from historical research through private study, training and rehearsal to performance, contact with the audience and post-performance reflective analysis.
Academic musicologists, and even some critics (see Brian Robins’ article Whatever happened to HIP? here) frequently point out what Christopher Brown, writing about Performing 19th-century chamber music, calls
The yawning chasm between contemporary practice and historical evidence
(Early Music, 2010 here)
Perhaps an even more insidious gap is the all-too-frequently encountered disconnect between the beautifully artistic words of a director’s program note, and the harsher reality of what is said and done in rehearsal. All too often, the beautiful ideas are simply not discussed in the rehearsal room. When rehearsal time is limited – as it nearly always is – then directors have to make tough choices about how to prioritise between different concerns, all of which may well be valid.
Then there are the inevitable differences between what we would like to “say” in our performance, what we think we manage to say, and what the audience hears us say. Closing those gaps is a life-long search for the crock of artistic gold at the end of the rehearsal rainbow.
Of course, even when we can follow a consistent thread from research through artistic preparations to performance, we need to share the story in different ways, with different vocabularies (for academics, with colleagues in the rehearsal room, for audiences) and in different modes: rigorous articles and thought-provoking blog-posts; efficient and inspiring leadership in rehearsal; diligent persistence in private study; clarity and passion in the act of performance itself; as well as in the many ways we “address” the audience. As theatre-directors and actors know, everything we do is part of how we address the audience: posters and flyers, media interviews and the program-booklet of course; but also how we dress, how we walk onto the stage, the group dynamic that is presented to spectators; as well as speaking directly to the audience between musical items, and informally after the show.
There is no one correct way to go about all this, even within the narrowest parameters of Historically Informed Performance. But I would argue that an effective and principled approach is one that unites the grand artistic vision with the careful realisation of nitty-gritty details, as far as is possible. Historically speaking, this is the principle of rhetorical Decorum, that every element of the work should correspond to its place in the overall design.
Since time and resources are usually limited, directors are rarely able to do everything they might want to, in a particular project. Difficult choices have to be made. But this principle of Decorum also provides a basis for such choices – the way you select priorities should be consistent with the overall aims, as revealed by your research and as proclaimed to your audience. Historical texts (taking the concept of text in the wide sense, as explained well in Seconda Pratica’s article) inform about detail, but can also guide a choice of period priorities from amongst all that historical detail.
This is the approach I took with the five-year Text, Rhythm, Action! program of research, training and performance that I directed for the Australian Centre for the History of Emotions, reported here. Early 17th-century texts determined those priorities of Text, Rhythm and Action; priorities which then guided our research, structured our rehearsals, and characterised our performances.
This might not be the only set of priorities that could be argued for, even within this specific repertoire. But I do commend the methodology, of interrogating historical texts to find the questions to be asked, before going back to those (and other) texts, to look for answers.
In the kind of debate that Robins and Seconda Pratica have opened up, perhaps one of the major stumbling blocks is the attempt to reduce the rich texture of historical information and artistic choice to binaries: EITHER this, OR that. This tendency shaped our thinking in the 1960s, when Donnington’s influential book on The Interpretation of Early Music implied that there were two ways to play, main-stream and ‘early’. That binary persists within many conservatoires, and perhaps in the thinking of some ‘mainstream’ performers. Most HIPsters realise that there are many different historical approaches, and indeed significant differences amongst ‘modern’ schools of thought. And the interchange of influences has been much discussed.
It might be more appropriate to think of a spectrum, from an approach that considers and applies great amounts of historical detail, to one that approaches a work without any historical context whatsoever. But is such a context-less approach even possible? If one decides to ‘ignore the whole early music thing’ and play resolutely in a ‘mainstream’ manner, that ‘mainstream’ style is itself a historically-influenced construct, and that bold decision is also something rooted in the artistic debates of the last few decades. Also, even for very historically-minded performers, there are different views about which elements of historicity are relevant: must we perform in costume? What about gesture? What message do we send the audience if we choose to perform by candlelight?
So even the notion of a spectrum does not sufficiently describe the complexity of choices facing us. I like the analogy of a jigsaw puzzle, in which we hope to assemble enough pieces to produce a coherent picture. Each director is free to choose their own way to assemble the puzzle (start with the edges, start from the middle, try to solve the boring bits of sky, leap straight for easily recognised parts etc), and (since completing the puzzle to create a fully ‘Authentic’ performance is impossible) each set of choices will produce a different view-point.
Of course, you can also force pieces into the ‘wrong’ place, and create a new picture of your own. And this is not bad, it’s just a different way to play the puzzle-game. Daniel Leech-Wilkinson argues strongly for abandoning all ‘rules’ of performance – any rule is just an artistic construct, and another rule, or even total anarchy, will produce a new performance, to be evaluated on its own merits.
But I particularly like the way that the puzzle-analogy fits with the rhetorical idea of Decorum and the scientific concept of empiricism. A well-solved puzzle will present a picture that, whilst inevitably ‘imperfect’, is satisfyingly self-consistent. And we can choose whether to begin with historical data, with individual pieces of the puzzle, and see what big picture emerges; or we can start with a grand artistic scheme, and force the pieces to fit our pre-determined ideas.
And yes, even though I’m trying to be even-handed, I imagine my personal preferences show through quite clearly here!
But what about those pieces of the jigsaw puzzle that we choose to ignore, or even reject? Robins’ criticism, as I read it, is not that today’s HIP performers do not know the difference between a French and an Italian baroque violin, or between 17th- and 18th-century orchestral forces. Rather, he is dismayed that these differences have been (apparently deliberately) ignored, by ensembles who position themselves as ‘historically informed’.
I don’t believe that this concern shows a dinosaur-like mentality, or a return to the bad old days of the 1970s and dusty old debates about “Authenticity”. Certainly, we can quickly agree nowadays that total historical authenticity is impossible, but that some level of historical information can be a valuable aid to almost any performance. The questions then become:
Which elements of historical practice would you like to use in a certain performance?
How will you put them into effect?
How will you present them to your audience?
Each performer, each ensemble, each project is free to determine their own answers to these questions. Most of us develop a set of answers that we apply broadly to many projects, with some variations for specific repertoires.
In this 21st century, it is easy to argue that there are elements of historical practice which we do not wish to revisit.
See also Baroque violinist gets off without vibrator here, for another irreverent spoof of this subject.
For example, many HIP musicians choose not to perform in period costume, unless they are part of a complete stage-production using historical dress. That is a choice I would support, but I can also appreciate the position of ensembles who make a different choice. Whilst not performing regularly in period dress, I do value the learning experience of experiments with historical costume – the physicality of music-making is greatly altered.
Many directors take the decision to conduct performances of music before 1800. For most repertoires, this is a glaring anachronism, even though it is widely accepted in today’s Early Music scene. I believe that this is an important choice, that significantly effects the audience’s experience: my own choice is not to conduct. That one choice leads to many other artistic decisions: this is a single piece of the jigsaw puzzle that will have a large-scale effect on the ‘big picture’.
Like any modern-day HIP performer, I cannot pretend that everything I do is 100% historical. I have to make choices, and I must be ready to defend any decision I make that presents the audience with a significant anachronism. And, if I wish to position myself as a historically informed performer, I should not present my anachronisms to the audience as if they were ‘authentic’: rather, I should admit to them, and be open about why they are necessary and/or desirable.
But – and here, I suggest, is the deep value of Robins’ article and the debate it has provoked – I believe that we HIP musicians should regularly re-visit our deliberately ‘in-authentic’ choices and review our decisions. Perhaps some small piece of the puzzle that we previously considered unimportant might have deep significance in today’s context. Perhaps a stone that most builders rejected might become the chief corner-stone of a new approach to a certain historical repertoire.
Standard operating procedure in the modern Early Music scene need not dictate bad choices for any individual performer. And – ideally – we should all try to become aware of those choices which we have not even noticed ourselves making, those decisions that seem to be “instinctive musicality”.
There is more than one way to play well.
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Opera, orchestra, vocal & ensemble director and early harpist, Andrew Lawrence-King is director of The Harp Consort and of Il Corago. From 2011 to 2015 he was Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the Australian Research Council Centre for the History of Emotions. He is now preparing a translation of Bonifacio’s (1616) Art of Gesture and a book on The Theatre of Dreams: The Science of Historical Action.