Technique & Terminology (The Cremona papers: John McKean)

This is the first in a series of posts responding to papers given at the 18th Biennial International Conference on Baroque Music in Cremona, 10-15 July 2018. I offer my personal summary of the paper, some commentary, and links to related articles.

 

John McKean of the Longy School of Music speculated whether we can find evidence of ‘schools of technique’, as opposed to the various period and national styles which tend to set boundaries in historically informed performance practice. He began by problematising the word ‘technique’ in the context of Early Music, showing that the term first appears in English in 1817, and in French and German only slightly earlier, towards the end of the 18th century. Measuring appearances in print, the word comes into frequent use only in the 20th century, peaking sharply in the 1960s and dropping off noticeably towards the year 2000.

The period word that comes closest to our modern understanding of technique is Art. But McKean noted that the ‘conceptual packaging’ of the historical meaning of Art both overlaps and differs from our modern understanding of Technique.

In 1755 Samuel Johnson’s definition contrasted Art with Nature: to walk is natural, to dance is an art. Art is compared to science, a trade, artfulness, skill and dexterity. [I would point out that this is quite a late source, in which science has taken on much of its modern meaning of ‘knowledge’, the earlier meaning is different.]

COMMENTS

It’s long been a tenet of Early Music that the mainstream binary of Technique & Interpretation does not fit the discourse and ‘conceptual packaging’ of the 16th and 17th centuries. Here is a possible framework of mainstream concepts, contrasted with period terms. Right from the start, it’s noticeable that historical concepts are more inter-connected, the period framework functions more holistically.

Modern

 

 

Technique – Interpretation – Inspiration – Freedom – Expression – Physical Health – Mental Health

The question of ‘Inspiration’ is little discussed in conservatoire teaching, though Performance Studies projects sometimes document processes that seek to facilitate inspirational moments. Freedom and Expression are often equated with rubato by listeners and performers alike. Academic theory of musical communication of emotions usually adopts a Romantic model that privileges the performer’s search for their own emotional response.

Physical Health is receiving more attention in music education, as teachers realise that it is wiser to prevent injuries in advance than try to repair the damage afterwards. Alexander Technique is available in many conservatoires, Feldenkrais Method (which has the advantage of being less judgemental and can studied in group sessions, or from freely available mp3 downloads) in some. Mental Health similarly requires preventitive strategies: the link between creativity and Depression, the pressures on early career musicians of the Facebook generation, recent studies of alcoholism amongst older professionals – all these factors indicate the need for Mental Health to be a significant consideration in music education and practice. Tai Chi, Mindfulness and similar practices can facilitate both physical and mental well-being.

Historical

 

Art – Science  – Use – Improvisation – Music of the Spheres – Pneuma – Enargeia – Musica Humana

Around the year 1600, writers on swordsmanship were anxious to define their expertise as an art. Such treatises as Capo Ferro’s Gran Simulacro dell’ Arte e dell’ Uso della Scherma (1610) read more here provide clear definitions of historical terms.

Art is a system of organised principles or rules. Science is the study of divine or occult matters, beyond everyday experience. Use is the nitty-gritty of what is actually done in practice, to satisfy the demands of the artistic rules. Those rules take Nature and refine it systematically into something Artifical (meaning, done with artifice or expertise, the word is utterly positive).

Understanding these three key concepts in their historical meanings helps defuse many modern-day arguments about ‘the true artist who breaks the rules’, whether HIP ‘limits artistic expression’ etc. Freedom in Early Music is not so much a licence to break rules, but an invitation to improvise (e.g. diminutions, variations over a ground, or free preludes) within the style boundaries of a particular repertoire.

The doctrine of the Music of the Spheres connects our human music-making with the perfect music made by the movement of the stars and other heavenly bodies, linking sound to cosmic, divine power to influence the most profound part of our being. As La Musica sings in the Prologue to Monteverdi’s Orfeo: “Singing to a golden continuo-instrument as usual, I can titillate mortal ears; but like this, with the sonorous harmony of the heavenly lyre, I can influence souls.”

Inspiration is the divine breath, the original creative force, literally “breathing into” our human frames, into our everyday music-making. This mystic breath was called Pneuma, and it is also identified as the mysterious energy that conveys emotions from performer to listener. This Energia is powered by the force of poetry and rhetorical texts, named Enargeia – the emotional power of detailed visual description. Through words, gesture and music, the poetic image is brought into the spectators’ minds, as if they were seeing with their own eyes whatever is being described. Pneuma (again) mediates between each individual’s mind and body, so that poetic images set off physiological reactions.

Musica Humana links the perfect heavenly music (‘inspiration’) to the harmonious (i.e. healthy) nature of the human body-mind holism. Dissonance must be resolved, just as illness will be cured. Pneuma is also a networked energy within the body, rather like oriental Chi, that facilitates health, active movement, strength and vigour.

Even from this brief description, it is obvious that there are many interactions between these various concepts, and that the historical framework prefers linked threefold manifestations to binary contrasts.

Other period concepts, notably Time, also show a threefold framework, linking heavenly perfection, human nature, and everyday actions.

LINKS

This careful defining of terms in their period meanings was fundamental to my research 2010-2015 for the Australian Centre for the History of Emotions, and was outlined in my first blog posts in 2013. My paper to the World Harp Congress in 2014 looks at the different meanings of similar terms in mainstream and period usage, and a 2017 post relates all these concepts to my current work at OPERA OMNIA, Academy for Early Opera & Dance.

Following on from the Text, Rhythm, Action! project for Australia, my research continued with Enargeia: Visions in Performance leading up to the re-make of Monteverdi’s lost masterpiece Arianna in 2017.

Emotions in Early Opera (2017) 

How did it feel? (2014)

What is Music? (2013)

Terms of Expression (2013)

Music expresses Emotions? (2013) 

Enargeia: Visions in Performance

 

The investigation of Enargeia (the emotional power of visual description) follows on from our previous project of Text, Rhythm, Action! That study of the first ‘operas’ redefined the practical processes of performance and revealed the fundamental importance of Visions. Now, in the investigation of Enargeia we look beyond the act of performance to examine pre-performance processes of libretto-writing and musical composition (processes which in this repertoire are nevertheless shared with improvising performers), real-time synthesis of vision and performance, and post-performance outcomes, the effect of enargetic Visions on audiences.

A HIP musician today might well play baroque violin with period technique and style, but within a 19th-century framework of emotional performance, in which the audience is expected to admire the performer’s ‘expressiveness’. Can we frame a historical understanding of Performance, that can be taught to musicians and put into practice in front of modern audiences?

From a multi-disciplinary approach that unites Historical Performance Practice with Music & Consciousness studies, the study of Enargeia views a period context within which the composer’s Music and performer’s Action serve the poet’s Text and inspire the listener’s Visions.

 

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