Rhetoric, Rhythm & Passions: Monteverdi’s Orfeo in 2019

This article is posted in connection with the production of Orfeo in Vaasa and Helsinki, October 2019.

With the golden harp I charm mortal ears,
With the powerful harmony of the cosmos I touch your soul.

La Musica, Prologue to L’Orfeo

More about the Philosophy of La Musica here…

The Theatre of Dreams: La Musica hypnotises the Heroes here…

Monteverdi’s music is Rhetoric that tells a story, delights the senses and stirs your emotions. Although it is one of the earliest music-dramas to be presented in today’s Opera Houses, L’Orfeo was not the ‘first opera’. The designation in Striggio’s (1607)  libretto here… as favella in musica… (a story in music) …rappresentata ( a theatrical show) in Mantua, associates this music-drama with Cavalieri’s (1600) Rappresentatione di Anima e di Corpo in Rome, and with Peri and Caccini’s Euridice,  performed in Florence later that same year.

 

 

Monteverdi’s Score was printed in 1609 here…, not to facilitate future performances, but as a souvenir of the original production, with many details of instrumentation and staging not often found in early baroque sources. There were three groups of instruments distributed around the stage: strings and flutes, cornetti and sackbuts, and the Basso Continuo who ‘supported and guided the whole ensemble of voices and instruments’ (Agazzari, 1607). There was no conductor: rhythmic precision was based on the steady pulse of Baroque Tactus more about Monteverdi’s rhythm here…; rehearsals were led by the Corago (opera director) more about Il Corago here… 

For this new genre of music-drama, the performers were not theatre actors but court singers, with star tenor Francesco Rasi in the title-role. And the first performance was not in a purpose-built theatre, but in a small hall inside the Ducal Palace, without the grandiose stage-machinery used in the 1589 Florentine Intermedi. Nevertheless, the show was a great success, and the following year the spirit of this music led to the birth of the Tragedy, Arianna, Monteverdi’s  lost masterpiece (reconstructed by Lawrence-King in 2017 from the surviving Lamento). More about Arianna a la Recherche here…

Libretto and Score offer alternative endings, in which Orpheus either encounters a gang of Bacchus’ followers, or is rescued by Apollo. In the 2019 staging in Finland, you must wait and see who triumphs in the end: Apollo (Monteverdi’s original setting) or Bacchus (in Lawrence-King’s reconstruction for this production)?

 

 

Whilst we might today view L ‘Orfeo as a symbolic journey, 17th-century audiences appreciated it as an allegory of music-drama’s power ‘move the passions’. They experienced the emotional impact of hearing the story narrated by La Musica and the Messaggiera, watching the same story dramatised  by actors on stage, whilst both seeing and hearing how Orpheus himself reacts to each new  event. As courtiers, the Mantuan spectators were accustomed to watching their Duke, in order to gauge his reaction to any happening. On stage, Orpheus’ Shepherds represent a pastoral ‘court’ surrounding the semi-divine singer.

 

A stage court, a dramatised wedding more about the Ballo for Orpheus’ wedding here…, and a mythical singer as protagonist all serve to make music ‘realistic’ within this story. The Muses themselves appear from Parnassus, and baroque audiences were thrilled by the horrors of Hell. Striggio’s inferno is deliberately modelled on Dante. Ordinary speech is represented not by the Recitative more about Recitative here… that we know from Handel and Vivaldi, but by earlier modulatione, Monody, in which Monteverdi’s precisely notated rhythms and pitch-contours imitate the rhetorical delivery of a fine actor in the spoken theatre (Peri, 1600, Il Corago c1630). More about Peri’s monody here…

Tim Carter’s survey of Monteverdi’s Musical Theatre here…

 

Caccini defines this ‘new music’ (1601) as “words and rhythm, with sound last of all, and not the other way around”.  More about Caccini here…  Monteverdi, Caccini and Jazz here… Cavalieri (1600) alerts us to abrupt contrasts in emotion. More about Cavalieri here… Monteverdi declares (1638) that his purpose was to bring narration, action and music together into ‘a unified representation’. In this Gesamtkunstwerk, centuries before Nietzsche and Wagner, Apollo and Bacchus contend to charm your ears and touch your soul.

The Orfeo page by Il Corago here…

 

 

 

Time & Free Will – Historical & Psychological Time

Musical Rhythm connects our human, Psychological Experience of the Duration of Time to the Quality of Emotions, going beyond the scientific precision of Quantitative Clock-Time, con-fusing or permeating our perception of the spacious Present with an awareness of the Past.

 

 

Persuasive though this view might be for today’s performers, it is not an aesthetic absolute. It’s just my summary of Bergson, whose views dominated the philosophy of culture in the early 20th century. It’s easy to see how Tempo Rubato fits neatly into this view, and why Bergson’s fusing together of Time and Free Will still resonates for modern-day musicians.

 

Henri Bergson (1859-1941)

 

A Philosophy of its Time

My point is that Bergson’s philosophy was part of the aesthetic of his period, the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His ideas were opposed (though Bergson himself might have said, complementary) to Einstein’s concepts of Relativisitic & Quantum Time, and depended on (as a limited, out-dated concept, to be argued against) Newtonian Absolute Time, the ‘ever-rolling stream’ that had come to be the dominant view during the late 18th century. (This was long after the publication of ‘Principia”: Newton’s radical new concept met with heavy resistance from late-baroque philosophers).

The Aristotelian Time of The 16th and 17th centuries (and earlier) was utterly different… Monteverdi’s operas & Vespers, Frescobaldi’s Toccatas, Mersenne’s Harmonie Universelle,  even Mace’s Practical Music are

Music of an Earlier Time.

 

Is Rubato an Absolute? Or is it one of many performance variables that are subject to changing performance practices over the centuries? Read more…

Water has no taste?

 

As Historically Informed Performers and Researchers, we must try to separate our intuitive sympathy for persuasive philosophies of the recent past … even if they seem to speak to us as “absolutes” (because we imbibed them uncritically at an early stage in our cultural education)… from historical, source-based evidence of chronological changes in the aesthetics of performance.

 

 

There’s very little History of Philosophy on the early 20th century, surprisingly little.

Now… there’s sufficient distance between ‘now’ and ‘then’, it’s as if Bergson has finally and properly entered the canon of the History of Philosophy and we are now treating the beginning of the 20th century as an object of historical enquiries in philosophy.

Quotes from the May 2019 BBC Radio Four “In our Time” discussion on Bergson & Time here.

We think that water has no taste, because we were born with it in our mouths.

Can anyone help me identify this last quote? I read it, I didn’t make it up myself, but it perfectly sums up the Early Music dilemma, in which our present-day investigation of Historical Practice is itself embedded in the aesthetic of the recent past.

The eye sees only what the mind is prepared to comprehend – Bergson

 

The Philosophy of La Musica

THE PHILOSOPHY OF LA MUSICA

 

 

Monteverdi’s setting of the Prologue to Striggio’s (1607) Orfeo is justly popular, not only as the opening of that famous favola in musica [story in music], but also as a concert-piece and as an introduction for student singers and continuo-players to the art of monody.

Documentary film and other articles about Orfeo on The Orfeo Page by IL Corago, here.

The music is just what we expect a baroque Prologue to be: a ground-bass, subtly varied from strophe to strophe according to the words; the vocal line a simple reciting-formula, but also varied from strophe to strophe. Whilst Cavalieri, Viadana, Peri, Caccini, the anonymous Il Corago, and Monteverdi himself (in the Preface to Combattimento) agree that neither singers nor continuo-players should make divisions in the ‘new music’ of the early 17th-century, Prologues and the entrances of allegorical personifications are an exception. Indeed, the repeating harmonic structure of Monteverdi’s music defines this Prologue as an Aria, and passeggi as well as ornaments on a single note (gruppetto – two-note trill with turn, zimbalo – restriking from the upper note, trillo – on one note, accelerating) would be appropriate, though they are seldom heard in modern-day performances. Nevertheless, the emotional effect comes first from the words, then from the steady rhythm, and finally from crescendos, diminuendos or exclamationi (sforzando, subito piano, crescendo) on single notes, as described by Caccini (1601). Caccini’s priorities, here.

Striggio’s five short stanzas summarise some of the most important philosophical concepts that guide baroque music in general and (what we now call) ‘early opera’ in particular. Perhaps we have been so charmed by the surface detail of La Musica’s song that we have missed her deeper message: but in the central stanza, all is revealed. And right from the start, Striggio proclaims two essential tenets of seicento aesthetics.

  1. Dal mio Permesso amato a voi ne vegno

Incliti Eroi, sangue gentil di Regi

Di cui narra la fama eccelsi pregi

Ne giunge al ver, perch’è tropp’ alto il segno.

 

From my beloved Permesso I come to you

Great heroes, noble blood of kings

Of whom Fame tells heavenly praises

Yet does not reach the truth, for the sign is too high.

 

Music comes from somewhere far-off,  from a beautiful pastoral landscape associated with the lost golden age of classical antiquity and with the divine inspiration and cultural melody of the Muses. With her opening line, La Musica evokes a mythological location, ‘A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away’. Listen to a fascinating discussion on BBC Radio on the Muses as guardians of the Arts and of Memory, here. 

 

The performance is offered to the audience: they (not the performers!) are the ‘great heroes’ whose fame is beyond telling. This is the reverse of the Romantic idea of ‘the great artistic genius in the temple of culture, receiving the worship of ordinary mortals’. Baroque music privileges the listeners: we performers come to tell them a story, to delight them with music, and to move their emotions.

 

In 1607, some of the audience (not all!) were indeed noble aristocrats. But today, anyone can be a king or a princess for the evening: this exquisite culture and the work of elite performers are on offer to everyone, at ticket prices that compare favourably to professional football!

The first baroque opera, here.

  1. Io la Musica son, ch’ai dolci accenti

So far tranquillo ogni turbato core

Et hor di nobil ira et hor d’Amore

Poss’ infiammar le piu gelate menti.

 

I am Music, who with sweet accents

Can calm every troubled heart,

And now with noble anger, now with Love,

Can enflame the most frozen minds.

 

Music can ‘soothe the savage breast’, but the special feature of seicento performance is the rapid change between contrasting, even opposing emotions. Cavalieri also draws attention to this, in the Preface to Anima & Corpo (1600), here. This differs from the Romantic tendency to intensify a single emotion more and more, in the search for catharsis.

 

Period Science classified the Passions according to the Four Humours: Sanguine (love, courage, hope), Choleric (anger, desire), Melancholic (sad, unlucky in love, sleepless, over-intellectual) Phlegmatic (unmoved by anything, a ‘wet blanket’).  Anger is Choleric, Love is Sanguine and the frozen minds are Phlegmatic. The Melancholy Humour, so typical in English period culture, in Dowland’s music and Shakespeare’s dramas, is absent from this Italian Musica, though it emerges in Striggio’s Act II. Emotions in Early Opera, here.

  1. Io su Cetera d’or cantando soglio

Mortal orrecchio lusingar tal’hora

E in questa guisa a l’armonia sonora

De la lira del ciel piu l’alme invoglio

 

Singing to the golden cetra as usual

I charm mortal ears for a while

And in this way with the sonorous harmony

Of the lyre of heaven I can even influence souls.

The strange and beautiful musical instruments of the early 17th-century, the large triple-harp, the long-necked theorbo and the bowed lirone, were all real-life imitations of the mythical cetra, the ancient and magical lyre of Apollo. With such instruments, baroque music can titillate the listener’s ears. But when this charming sound is coupled with music’s mysterious, cosmic power, the effect is far more profound.

 

This is the doctrine of the Music of the Spheres, a medieval concept that remained current until the end of the 18th century. Music, as we play and sing it every day, is an earthly imitation of that perfect music created by the movement of the stars, moon and planets in their orbits. The link is made by the harmonious nature of the human body, a microcosm with ears to hear, a tongue to sing, hands to play instruments, and a mind that senses the ineffable perfection and otherworldly power that our everyday music-making seeks to evoke.

This three-fold nature (cosmic, human and actual) is also characteristic of period Dance, which imitates the perfect movement of the heavenly bodies. In the early 17th-century (before Newton), Time itself was similarly understood to be set by the cosmological clock, observed in the human pulse and heartbeat, and shown by the steady down-up movsement of the hand, beating the (approximately one-per-second) Tactus that structures 17th-century music.

Period medical science modelled a mystic breath, something like oriental chi, networked through the mind-body holism (akin to the ‘meridians’ of Chinese traditional medicine) to facilitate proprioception, motor-control, psychological and physiological reactions. This pneuma was the same mysterious energy that transferred emotions from performer to listener, and was also the spiritual breath of life, activating each human being with the divine inspiration of the breath of creation.

Significantly, all this philosophy of heaven and humanity plays out at the practical level of historical performance. Musical rhythm imitates the steadiness and reliability of astronomical movement, driven by the slowest beat, the innermost sphere, the primum mobile. The Tactus-hand embodies the Hand of God, not wilful or capricious, but all-powerful and eternally constant. If musical time were to falter, the heavens might collapse, and your body rhythms would fail. If the pulse stops, the music also dies.

Getting back to Monteverdi’s Time, here.

 

The communication of emotions is linked to the healthy posture and elegant movements of Baroque Gesture, and to the invocation of the mysterious power of pneuma. Something like the Star Wars ‘Force’, pneuma can be with you, strong in someone, and you can use its power. Just as in oriental martial arts, the performance power of pneuma is associated with inner calm and precise timing, with a profound slow, steady control, even if surface movements are fast.

  1. Quinci a dirvi d’Orfeo desio mi sprona

D’Orfeo che trasse al suo cantar le fere

E servo fe l’Inferno a sue preghiere

Gloria immortal di Pindo e d’Elicona

 

Therefore to tell you about Orfeo is the desire that spurs me

Orfeo who tamed wild beasts with his singing

And made Hell a servant by his prayers

The immortal glory of Pindus and Helicon.

With this stanza, Striggio introduces the subject of his music-drama, a super-hero whose powers are wielded through the medium of song. Music has power over Nature, and can melt the hardest hearts. If battle-heroes go to Valhalla, then poets and musicians have the eternal glory of the homes of Epic verse and the Lyrical arts.

The sequence of ideas continues from the previous strophe into these lines, as signalled by the rhetorical link-word, quinci. Music is not just ear-tickling noise, it has cosmic power, and (in the current strophe) power over nature, power to persuade. Aristotle defined rhetoric itself as the Art of Persuasion, and Striggio’s Musica is, therefore, a rhetorical art.

 

Music is also storytelling – Monteverdi’s opera is designated favola, a fable. And it is desire that spurs us on tell such tales, to make such music. The Italian urge to sing, play, dance, act, recite poetry and tell stories is not English Melancholy but the Choleric Humour: a hunger, a thirst, a passionate desire.

 

  1. Hor mentre i canti alterno, hor lieti, hor mesti,

Non si mova Augellin fra queste piante

Ne s’oda in queste rive onda sonante

Et ogni auretta in suo camin s’arresti.

 

Now, while I alternate my songs, now happy, now sad,

Not even a bird will move amongst these plants

Nor will there be heard in these rivers the sound of waves

And every little breeze will stop in its tracks.

The traditional function of a theatrical Prologue is to command the audience’s attention and call for silence. Striggio’s choice of imagery reinforces the Orphic connection between music and nature, and emphasises changes between contrasting emotions. As her song ends, La Musica holds the spectators spell-bound for 9 minim-beats, 9 seconds of musical rests, 9 seconds of dramatic silence (on-stage, this feels like eternity!). If the performer can command the moment, this both creates and demonstrates the power of music to influence the listeners’ most profound spiritual experience.

If the audience are willing to suspend their disbelief, the staged drama that follows can be deeply moving. La Musica’s Prologue, in particular the hypnotic effect of drifting half-sentences and dreamy silences in this final strophe, gets the audience into the right state of mind for attentive listening and passionate response. Indeed, Striggio’s introduction to the opera can be analysed as an induction into hypnotic trance, an altered state of consciousness in which the conventional limits of reality are blurred and emotional responses are heightened, lulled into dream-world by the slow, steady beat of Tactus. The Theatre of Dreams: La Musica hypnotises the heroes, here.

So now, be still, and hear the Philosophy of La Musica:

 

  1. Music comes from an ancient, distant, golden, pastoral otherworld.
  2. Music pleasantly alters your state of mind.
  3. Music is more than sound, it uses the Power of the Force.
  4. Music is storytelling, and the Rhetorical Art of Persuasion.
  5. As Music sings, your mind flows… you relax… concentrate… in deep silence…

 

 

 

 

 

 

OPERA OMNIA – Music of the Past for Audiences of the Future

Celebrating the European Day of Early Music and the first anniversary of OPERA OMNIA, Academy for Early Opera & Dance, Institute at Moscow State Theatre ‘Natalya Sats’, here is my article presented by Katerina Antonenko at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama’s Reflective Conservatoire conference, which has become perhaps the most significant forum of its kind, for discussing new developments in tertiary music education.

 

OPERA OMNIA offers a new model for Early Music: linking Research, Training and Performance; connecting Music and Drama; and hosted not by a conservatoire, but by an opera house. We believe this model can be more historical, more accessible, more practical, and more relevant to the 21st century than the standard approach of trying to squeeze historical aesthetics into 19th-cent performance ideals and previous millenium educational structures!

 

 

A year ago we founded OPERA OMNIA, creating a formal institution and unified branding for a variety of collaborative projects developed during the previous five years. We link Research, Training and Performance of Early Music, in an evolving model adapted for the opportunities and constraints of cultural life in 21st-century Russia.

 

 

Natalya Sats was founder and director of the Moscow State Children’s Theatre, pioneering Synthesised Theatre, a combination of music and other media. In 1936, she commissioned Prokofiev to write Peter and the Wolf. Statues of characters and instruments from that story adorn the entrance to the present Theatre, built in 1979. Nowadays, her daughter, Roksana continues the Sats tradition of speaking to young audiences before each performance.

 

 

The present Artistic Director, Georgiy Isaakyan has extended the programming for young adults and multi-generational audiences: not only family favourites, but also challenging work, including new and early music.

There are two Early Opera productions, both rarely staged today. Celos, the first Spanish opera, is now in its third season. And the very first opera, Anima & Corpo, which won Russia’s highest music-theatrical award, The Golden Mask, has had 55 performances so far.

 

 

These two 17th-century operas required collaborations between the Theatre’s resident performers and guests from Moscow’s nascent early music scene. Over the last five years, the Theatre obtained specialist instruments – more are on order and planned for – and in training workshops and performance projects, teams of players acquired the necessary skills.

In cooperation with other institutions, those projects included the first performance in Russia of Monteverdi’s Vespers. More about Vespers here. Each performance was linked to public lectures, advanced masterclasses, academic seminars etc. Continuing performances of Anima & Corpo at Theatre Sats are also a training ground, with new company members each season.

 

 

17th-century music requires singers to have both solo and ensemble skills. Polyphonic vocal consorts, 2 or 3 to a part, were a new challenge to singing-actors schooled in the grand Russian tradition. Vocal ensembles in Anima & Corpo are now shared between the Small Choir (a consort of soloists who do most of the dramatic commentary) and members of the Theatre Chorus (who represent a Choir of Angels and swell the numbers to about 80 in the finale.)

 

 

As in Rome in 1600, so in 21st-century OPERA OMNIA: no conductor! Instead, there are multiple Tactus-beaters, relaying a consistent beat between separate groups of performers, so-called cori spezzati. More about Tactus here, and about how to do it here.

Anima & Corpo also provided an opportunity for final-year students from the Russian Institute of Theatrical Arts, who took part in workshops with Lawrence-King and Isaakyan, rehearsed with OPERA OMNIA continuo-players, and performed selected roles alongside professional colleagues in public performances at Theatre Sats. The best graduates were amongst September’s new intake into the professional company.

These performances involving students helped the Theatre reach out to new audience members in their late teens and twenties. But one of the delights of working at Theatre Sats is that we regularly have children, teenagers, and young adults in the audience. The Theatre has front of house staff dedicated to meeting and greeting young visitors, offering informal guidance for individuals, or a short introductory talk for groups.

 

 

Theatre Sats is also the administrative centre for the annual ВИДЕТЬ МУЗЫКУ (Seeing Music) Festival of the Association of Russian Theatres, which invites to Moscow directors and performers from all around the Russian Federation, uniting an artistic community that spans nine time-zones! The opening ceremonies last September featured an experimental production with historical staging by the young professionals and advanced students of OPERA OMNIA’s International Baroque Opera Studio: Andrew Lawrence-King’s re-make of Monteverdi’s lost masterpiece, Arianna (1608), composed around the surviving Lamento. More about Arianna here.

 

 

The astounding visual contrast between the famous Lament scene and the tumultuous arrival of Bacchus immediately afterwards is made audible in Lawrence-King’s work, as the ‘violins and viols’ of the Lament are blown away by ‘hundreds of trumpets, timpani and the raucous cry of horns’. More about how Arianna was re-made, here.

Although most professional ensembles in Europe substitute sackbuts for mid-range and low baroque trumpets, we were able to train up a full consort of natural trumpets, led by guest coach, Mark Bennett.

 

 

To close the Festival a month later, OPERA OMNIA provided the orchestra for a gala concert of baroque music at the Bolshoy Theatre, bringing together soloists from Sats, other Moscow theatres, and opera houses throughout Russia. This event provided a fascinating snapshot of the state of Baroque Music in mainstream institutions across the nation.

Alongside Moscow’s offering of Handel arias and the Triumph of Bacchus from Arianna, the choices from regional theatres were strongly influenced by mid-20th-century Russian anthologies of baroque favourites: Lascia ch’io pianga of course, but also arias mis-attributed to Pergolesi and Caccini.

We re-edited these, and made a clean ending with the Sauna scene from Lawrence-King’s Kalevala opera.

 

 

 

OPERA OMNIA enjoys close relations with the Moscow Conservatoire, for whom we provide conference speakers and master-classes. We also coach keyboard teachers within the Tchaikovsky School’s program of Continuing Professional Development.

Some of our best Early Music singers were initially trained at the Moscow Choir Academy ‘Papov’, emerging with a good mix of vocal, musical and ensemble skills. Our master-classes also welcome visitors from Stanislavsky, Bolshoy and other mainstream opera houses, singers with excellent voices and rich stage experience, for whom Historically Informed Performance is new territory.

Our production of Celos has led to close collaboration with the Instituto Cervantes, the Spanish embassy and theatres in Spain. We also contribute musically to charitable concerts given by the ensemble of Singing Diplomats at the German embassy.

 

 

The rhythmic energy and visual appeal of Spanish baroque has attracted considerable TV and radio exposure, and internet streaming of selected performances.

 

 

What remains of the former State education system continues to produce instrumentalists and singers with dazzling virtuosity and rich knowledge of mainstream repertoire. Some baroque aficionados have managed to educate themselves in Early Music with help from visiting teachers, achieving high levels of performance and refreshingly independent academic perspectives. Others studied in Europe, returning to found independent festivals and ensembles in Russia.

With public funding, ensemble Madrigal at the Moscow Philharmonic preserves the style of communist-era Early Music, and Musica Aeterna in Perm brings in most of its players from abroad to play period instruments under a post-modernist baton, but Insula Magica does sterling work in far-off Novo Sibirsk.

 

 

In 2012, Theorbo was almost unknown in Moscow. We guided the first generation of theorbists as they transitioned from other instruments.

 

Video clip of the 2012 premiere of Anima & Corpo here

 

We are now victims of our own success, in that our theorbists are greatly in demand with other ensembles, so we have had to find a second generation of continuo-players to train up… and this is just how it should be!

 

 

Russian theatres have a traditional working practice in which members of the company or orchestra learn repertoire, by sitting-in and observing. We combine that Russian tradition with the baroque concept of apprenticeship.

New-entrant continuo-players begin their studies in a relaxed environment at open workshops. When they reach intermediate standard, they are invited to sit-in and play alongside the professionals at Theatre rehearsals, offering them real-world experience and advanced training on a show which will soon provide them with paid employment.

In the wider arena of the Russian Early Music scene, we measure success not only by absolute standards achieved by young professionals, but also by value added for keen baroque musicians at any level.

 

Authenti-City: Abandon hope all ye who enter here!

 

The much-debated question of “What is Authenticity?” requires fresh answers in the post-communist oligarchy of modern-day Russia.

In Europe, Performance Practice theories are often circulated by a system of ‘Chinese whispers’, teacher to student, director to musician, CD to listener, and in heated (rather than illuminating) debates on social media. Some performers believe it’s impossible to assimilate enough historical information. Others feel that period practice has been thoroughly worked out, and it’s time to invent something new.

 

 

OPERA OMNIA’s message to Russia (and to the wider world) is that HIP is not what some famous person says, nor is it what you hear on your favourite CD! We encourage everyone to check primary sources for themselves – most of the crucial treatises and many original scores are freely available online.

 

 

Our take on HIP focuses on practicalities. But before we look for answers, we interrogate period documents for the right questions to ask. Caccini’s (1601) priorities –

Text and Rhythm, with Sound last of all, and not the other way around!

encourage us to look beyond modern-day obsessions with pitch, temperament and vibrato, and far beyond the old-fashioned notion of ‘on period instruments’. More about the Text, Rhythm, Action! project here. The Sats orchestra mixes Early and modern instruments, the training Studio is Baroque only.

 

Whilst the training Studio works in original languages, the professional Theatre productions of Anima & Corpo and Celos are sung in Russian. Supertitles and printed translations are little used in Russia, and the gain in direct communication between our singing actors and young people in the audience far outweighs the loss of the sound of a foreign language.

We worked very carefully to unite Russian text and Mediterranean music, seeking to achieve natural language, appropriate rhythmic fit, and a perfect match of the word-painting that is so characteristic of this period.

 

 

We rehearse the interplay of Text, Rhythm and Meaning with simple but effective hand-exercises, that are themselves fundamental elements of period pedagogy.

In Early Music, Rhythm is directed by Tactus, a slow steady beat symbolically linked to the hand of God turning the cosmos, and to the human pulse.

In an exercise for Text, the hand (now palm up, in the default gesture called ‘how to act’) moves with each accented syllable – Good syllables, in period terminology. More about How to Act here.

We ask singers to think of the meaning of the word, each time they move their hand. Leading questions can then draw out more specific gestures. “Where is that?” prompts singers to connect their gesture to a specific – imagined – location. More about pointing gestures here.

Fixing singers’ attention on the particular word they are singing right now, is also a Mindfulness exercise, which – like the steady beat of Tactus – encourages a state of Flow. More about Flow here. It’s how Monteverdi composed, word by word, and it sits well within the Stanislavsky tradition of Russian theatrical education.

The famous challenge from director to actor

I don’t believe you!

cannot be answered by exaggerated histrionics, by a gesture that is more historical, or by wider vibrato! It demands profound interior work from the actor. Caccini characterised the new, 17th-century style of singing as ‘like speaking in harmony’. Too much singerly attention on The Voice must be challenged immediately with “I don’t believe you”.

 

More about Emotions in Early Opera here.

 

Daily Schedule of Performances at Theatre Sats in Moscow, in the same week that this paper was delivered at GSMD in London.

 

At Theatre Sats, permanent members of the resident company perform all the different shows in a vast repertoire, and each of these shows comes around again every month or so. Singers and musicians have an immense daily work-load, often with two or more performances on the same day, plus rehearsals to revive old shows and yet more rehearsals to prepare new productions.

A typical day might begin with rehearsals for Rimsky-Korsakov, continue with a performance of Puccini and end with 17th-century baroque. To ensure continuity and provide a reserve for any eventuality, every show is double- or triple-cast: similarly for the orchestra.

Our first rehearsal for the violin band in Anima & Corpo was a delicate moment, introducing highly-experienced modern players to an utterly different aesthetic – straight tone, open strings and first position, slow bow-strokes. By lunchtime, we’d got through most of the material, and the musicians began to feel convinced by the unfamiliar sounds they were being asked to make. The afternoon rehearsal would go smoothly, we thought… until we saw a completely different group of string-players sit down for the second session!

A subtle feeling for a different kind of music-making is not something that can be marked into the parts – it has to be acquired through patient coaching and shared ensemble experience. It takes time. But once instilled in the whole company, it can be “absorbed” by new recruits more quickly, thanks to the ‘sitting-in’ tradition mentioned earlier.

Learning new material goes very slowly at the beginning, and then the final days of stage and technical rehearsal pass all too quickly: there is almost no time available in the middle for ‘artistic’ work.

It’s therefore crucial to engage with preliminary rehearsals, assisting repetiteurs as they drill notes into the singers’ heads. What is taught in these sessions tends to become up hard-wired, so mistakes must be ruthlessly eliminated. But this is also an opportunity to build-in fundamental elements of style, so a wise director will not be too proud to do a lot of the donkey-work themselves.

 

More about learning Monteverdi’s operatic roles here.

 

 

With limited time, and performers who spend most of their time working in quite a different style, our rehearsals focus on training general principles which can be re-applied in many different situations. Teaching principles, rather than imposing the director’s personal interpretation, leaves each individual with space to add their own artistic touches, and fits well with the historical concept of Art as a organised set of rules.

Of course, 17th-century aesthetics were also acutely concerned with the beauty and mysterious power of music: this is historical Science. We teach this in workshops, but for daily rehearsals we have to encapsulate complex ideas in punchy catch-phrase1s.

Sometimes it’s helpful to contrast 19th- or 20th-century practice with earlier styles, showing respect for musicians’ normal approach and for the coaching they receive from the Theatre’s mainstream conductors, whilst empowering them to do something very different with us, in the historical context.

The long legato lines of Romantic opera are contrasted with our mnemonic,

Breathe as often as you can!

 

Long notes long, short notes short!

brings rhythmic clarity, and encourages varied articulations. Subtleties of Tactus rhythm here.

Good & bad

does the same job for text syllables. More on Good & Bad here.

Ornamentation is not always relevant, and it’s certainly not a priority. Some visiting early musicians add ornaments, or ask about them; some resident musicians are keen to try for themselves. They all receive encouragement and advice. We will be more proactive as we come to French and later operas, for which ornamentation is an essential ingredient, like spices in cooking.

 

 

There is more time available at weekend workshops, where we explore links between period philosophy and the nitty-gritty of what one actually does in performance. Workshops also offer a ‘safe space’, a chance to try something utterly new. It’s a ‘safe space’ in the sense that we don’t have to demand instant success, and suitably-cushioned failure is accepted as an inevitable part of the learning process.

This training space is essential, not only for beginners acquiring fundamental skills, but– perhaps even more so – for professionals learning a new approach. These workshops are also the experimental laboratory that complements our academic research by providing a test-bed for new ideas.

Supposedly, Early Music is always trying out new performance practice ideas, but in the real world, there is a strong tendency to stay within everyone’s comfort-zone. It is much easier for a director to implement even quite radical decisions, than to change individual musicians’ deeply-ingrained habits.

New research findings demand new skills; new skills require new training methodologies; new methods have to be optimised and applied. All of this has to happen before new research can be applied in rehearsal, and polished for performance.

 

 

Our workshop formats vary. Our teaching style is to expound fundamental historical principles, and then guide participants towards making their own choices, within the style-boundaries. We usually have a wide range of abilities. Our motto is

Everyone has something to contribute, everyone has something to learn

– and that includes the tutors!

 

More about baroque gesture and historical acting here.

 

 

Many European conservatoires host a Historical Performance department, and most of those departments have partnerships with professional HIP ensembles. But we are working the other way around. We are hosted by a Theatre, so involvement with professional productions is a powerful, built-in “pull-factor” that sets our educational priorities. The complementary “push-factor” is new academic research, which drives our training agenda.

This is quite a different, and more integrated relationship between research, training and performance than one finds in most conservatoires.

Our Early Music focus on chamber-music skills, rhythmic accuracy and empowering individual performers is also beneficial to the Theatre’s mainstream work.

 

 

In today’s Russia, public funding comes from the State of Russia, or the City of Moscow. The City is richer than the State. Our host Theatre is State funded, and we do not expect additional public funding for this new venture against the current background of annual cuts in arts budgets, international sanctions etc.

Commercial sponsorship is focussed entirely on the highest slice of elite mainstream activity: there is no tradition of small or medium businesses supporting regional or local culture. But we have found some private support from enthusiastic individuals, and there are State and City funds available for specific activities, such as travelling productions.

The funding gap is covered by informal cross-subsidies that in Europe would be managed by assigning itemised costs to specific budgets, with cross-payments between departments. Performance fees, whilst smaller than European expectations, encourage directors to spend time on blue-skies research, and encourage musicians to invest in their own continued professional training.

Theatre Sats supports the Academy by providing resources off-budget. In return, OPERA OMNIA’s activities support the Theatre’s artistic, educational and outreach aims. We are blessed with senior management who take the long and wide view of this. We are also blessed with good team spirit, powerful ‘start-up’ energy, and a strong sense of involvement from all participants.

When money does change hands, it is rigorously controlled. But we devote less time to formal meetings and paperwork than in Europe. We can get things done quickly when there is a need or an opportunity.

 

 

We don’t pretend to be a full-time educational institution, rather we try to complement the work of conservatoires with our specialist focus on cutting-edge research, new training methods, new skill-sets and professional performance. We take a pragmatic approach, trying to fill gaps in knowledge and experience for each individual, leading towards specific performances.

Our concept of training as a ‘safe space’ and an experimental lab encourages us to respond continuously to new research findings. If there is a tendency for some conservatoires to educate for the past, for the world in which teachers themselves grew up, we are training for the demands of performances now and in the future, creating skill-sets beyond the limits of today’s Early Music habits.

 

 

Making baroque music in modern-day Moscow is often challenging. But the vibrant cultural scene, the energy and talent of Russian performers, enthusiasm from young audiences, and the Theatre’s support, create unique opportunities.

Last year, Theatre Sats was honoured with the European Opera prize for Education and Outreach. We at OPERA OMNIA are excited about our plans for the next few years. And we are proud to be developing performers and audiences for the Early Music of the future.

The Shape of Time: Advanced Tactus skills for Early Music

 

Mid-20th-century Early Musicians faced a grim choice of rhythmic styles: Maelzel’s (1815) metronome, or Paderewski’s (1909) tempo rubato. Neither are historically appropriate for baroque music – Rameau and Quantz tell us that musicians simply didn’t use Loulie’s (1696) chronomètre , and Monteverdi’s notation suggests that Caccini’s senza misura was similar to Chopin’s rubato, a timeless melody over a timed bass.

Happily, there is rhythmic hope for Early Music, beyond that miserable modern binary of metronomic rigidity or vacillating rhythm: that hope is Tactus. Historically appropriate Tactus offers both structure and freedom, using which musicians can shape Time itself. For Monteverdi’s period, the structure is stabilised around a steady beat, minim = ~ 1 second, shown by the movement of the Tactus-hand: down for one second, up for the next second.  My previous post, The Practice of Tactus has links to articles on history, theory and philosophy; it also provides practical exercises for training yourself (and your ensemble) to work with Tactus. This post looks at advanced skills within that steady beat.

Further articles will introduce dance metres, even more subtle skills around the beat, and the difficult subject of tweaking the Tactus.

Warm-up

As a warm-up, repeat the Tactus Skills Maintenance exercises described in The Practice of Tactus:

Exercise One (Beat Tactus, eyes open/shut) 2 minutes

Exercise Two (Proportions version) 1 minute

Exercise Three (Whichever piece you are working on) 2 minutes

If there is any feeling of agitation or stress, extending Exercise One will help you find calm and focus.

You’ll find all the details you need to make sense of these cryptic reminders here.

 

Advanced Tactus Exercises

Exercise 1

This exercise introduces and strengthens a crucial, but subtle, Tactus-skill. The rhythms are taken from the setting by Morelli in Samuel Pepys’ music-book; the well-known words are from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, which Pepys heard Thomas Betterton perform, in the declamatory style of the period.

 

 

 

Beat Tactus down/up with your hand (or use a 1-metre pendulum, but do NOT use a metronome), and say the words.

In modern, additive rhythmic practice, you would count from the beginning of the bar and sub-divide – “one two and” – in order to find the moment for the first word To. If you didn’t bother counting, you might well be early on the entry.  But the Tactus skills you acquired from the previous article (go on, you know you want to read it!) give you another option. Because you have steady Tactus, you know when the next beat will come, so you can place the word To just before Be on that next beat.

Tactus allows you to link phrases into the future.

And of course, in this example, the mini-phrase [or in CPE Bach’s terminology, ‘Thought’] To be belongs together. Similarly, the three-syllable Thought or not to be can be linked together, and placed so that this next be is also on the beat. And also with the four-syllable Thought that’s the Question: this is linked together, and placed so that Ques… comes on the beat.

Linking forwards to the next Tactus beat, rather than counting from the previous beat has many benefits: it allows you to keep your focus on the Tactus (without subdividing), it makes sure you don’t shorten the rests, it helps you keep the phrase linked together, and it gives you subtle freedom in where to place the little notes, as long as the main note is on the Tactus beat. You could make the upbeat on To short (‘overdot’) or very short (‘double dot’), not by counting, but by feeling what corresponds to speech-rhythm, aligning your freedom with the accompaniment by arriving at the main Tactus beat be on time. Try different versions of the short syllables in or not to be: there is a wealth of subtlety in the length you give to or.  But none of this subtlety disturbs the underlying beat, which remains

regular, stable, solid, firm… clear, fearless and without any pertubation

(Zacconi 1592)

 

Exercise Two

Staying with the Bard of Avon, here is a very structured line of blank verse:

When I do count the clock that tells the Time

Syllables in bold are on the strong beat of the iambic pentameter: syllables in red are accented. In this line, Shakespeare characterises the regularity of clockwork time by having every strong syllable coincide with the beat.

But in this line (formerly attributed to Shakespeare, now know to be by Richard Barnfield), the word-accents are not always on the beat, and the beat is not always accented.

If Music and sweet Poetry agree

The secret of good poetry, and of historical Tactus, is that word-accent and regular beat often, but not always, coincide. The interest and the beauty lies in the places where they diverge.

Shakespeare wrote plenty of blank verse. Try your favourite passage, and notice how the beats and the word-accents meet or diverge: that’s where meaning and beauty emerges from dee-dum dee-dum dee-dum.

Exercise Three

The next level of subtlety is to move beyond the crude binary accented/un-accented for each beat, and to investigate how each Good (i.e. accented) syllable sounds. Is it long or short? Slow developing or crisp? What is initial consonant? What is the vowel colour? What is the emotional flavour?

Now each of your Tactus beats can be regular yet subtly differentiated. You can find the extent and limit of these freedoms by working with a pendulum, which gives a subtle stillness at the beginning of each movement, rather than the sharp click of a metronome. Explore the particular flavour of each Tactus beat (as suggested by the sound and meaning of the words), in some more Shakespeare, as declaimed by Betterton and notated by Morelli for Pepys.

To ↓be; ↑_or not to ↓be; ↑_that’s the ↓Question. 

↓Whether ‘t be ↑nobler in the ↓mind; to ↑suffer
The ↓slings and ↑arrows ↓of outragious ↑fortune;
↓Or to take ↑arms a↓gainst a sea of ↑trouble,
↓And by op↑posing, ↓end them? 

To ↓die; ↑ _ to ↓sleep; ↑_
↓Noe ↑more. ↓ _ ↑And by a ↓sleep to ↑say we end
The ↓Heart-ake, ↑_and the ↓thousand nat’rall ↑shocks
That ↓flesh is ↑heir to, ↓is a consum-↑mation
De↓voutly *↑to be ↓wish’d. 

Notice, for example, the truly outrageous placement of the word-accents in ↓of outragious ↑fortune, and the unaccented down-beat of ↓And by op↑posing, in contrast to the sharp accent on ↓end themor the slow accents on ↓Noe ↑more.

This is what Tactus is all about – regular rhythm, with beautiful, subtle phrasing. And notice also that, in my text-only transcription, I haven’t notated anything at all inside the Tactus: this is an area where the soloist can suit the fine detail of syllabic timing to the sound and meaning of the words, without disturbing the regular pulse.

Exercise Four

The previous exercises were all syllabic, note-for-note. But where a single syllable is sustained as a melisma over several short notes, period sources give examples of how to vary the notated rhythms to create subtle beauty, within the steady beat of the Tactus. The following examples are from Caccini: the first of each pair shows how it would be notated, the second, how it could be sung, more beautifully.

 

 

Practise these examples with the Tactus-hand.

 

The Shape of Time

 

 

In the previous post, we already practised the subtle difference between the down- and up-strokes of the Tactus Hand (arsis & thesis). The downstroke is (almost imperceptibly) longer – notice in the illustration (above) that the down-curve is slightly longer than the up-curve. You can practice this by saying “L..O..N..G   / short” as you move your hand D..O..W..N / up.

The characteristically slow start to each pendulum movement also creates a kind of funnel-shape in Time, where the movement is slow at the beginning of the stroke and then accelerates. The regularity of the structure is maintained by the Tactus skill of linking to the next beat, and (with arsis and thesis) those two beats have a subtle LONG/short pattern: tick is not quite the same as tock. Notice in the next illustration that the down-funnel is subtly broader than the up-funnel.

This fits beautifully with the typical syllabic patterns of the Italian language. Simple two-syllable words have the pattern Good-Bad:  for-te, pia-no, piz-za, vi-no, dol-ce. This encourages a long-short shape in Time, whether on two minims (arsis and thesis on two successive Tactus beats) or on two crotchets (funnel-shape of Time within the Tactus beat). Some writers, for example Caccini, even refer to Good/Bad as Long/Short.

Further confirmation comes from Caccini’s fundamental exercise for learning the trillo, which he describes as the basis for all other ornamentation: in contrast to the tendency of many modern performances, Caccini insists that the trillo begins slowly, and accelerates all the way into the next beat.

 

Diminution treatises around the year 1600 show a general tendency for ornaments to accelerate from slow to fast, as Caccini teaches. See Bruce Dickey’s excellent introductory article in A Performers Guide to 17th-century Music.

 

Here are two simple exercises for practising the “funnel-shape” of 17th-century Time. You can tap your feet, or use a pendulum, to externalise your sense of Tactus, but – Rule 1 – do not use a metronome. We are now in a world of subtlety that Maelzel never dreamt of!

 

In the first exercise, experiment with different amounts of “funnel effect” – a strong effect gives strong forward energy towards the last note, but be careful not to arrive early, and not to accent the last note, which will be a Bad.

In modern performances, we often hear the opposite: a fast start to the ornament, a long delay before the final note whilst everyone waits for the conductor and each other, and then a catastrophic false accent on the last note. I’m sure you’ve all been there, got the T-shirt!

 

 

But now, this exercise will hone your skill in shaping Time together with the regular Tactus playing of the other (non-ornamenting) musicians. Nobody needs to wait, nobody needs to push, nobody should accent the last note: you just arrive there, beautifully in Time. As your ability to create balanced Shapes in Time increases, you will find that you do not need rallentando. Just let your awareness of Tactus continue, whilst you stop playing: now you can pass Time back to the Celestial Spheres, to continue in perfection and silence.

In the second exercise, you should breathe after each quaver, and be careful not to wait just before a quaver. The Shape of Time creates extra space for you to breathe, with the quaver following the Last-Note-Short rule to be a “short note in a long space”. The Funnel of Time helps the fast notes flow all the way into the unaccented final note, just as Caccini taught his pupils.

A breath just after the beat is a characteristic of baroque phrasing, so the Shape of Tactus Time has miraculous benefits for all musicians in giving extra space to show phrasing, and especially to wind-players and singers, in giving extra space to breathe. Any continuo-player who learns this skill will be much appreciated by their soloists – the soloist might not realise why, but with this way of accompanying, it just feels more comfortable, there is more breathing-space!

This article is perhaps the most important in the current series. Please take the time to read and practise it carefully. This is the subtle but essential skill-set that transforms rhythm from mechanically metronomic rigidity or flaccidly unstructured mush into something beautifully regular yet subtly structured. Each Tactus beat is like a snow-flake: symmetrically and regularly formed, yet unique in the exquisite detail of its realisation. This is the perfection of the Music of the Spheres, imitated by human hands, through the mystery of music.

 

 

P.S.  You can throw away your metronome now, I don’t think you’ll be wanting it again.

The Practice of Tactus – Owners Workshop Manual

 

A Practical Guide – Part 1

There are many posts on this blog about Tactus, a key concept in Early Music. For an introduction, try Rhythm, what really counts; for technical details, Monteverdi’s Time; for inspiration, The Power of Tactus. This post is different – it is the first in a series of practical guides to help you do Tactus for yourself and with your ensembles. So I start from the assumption that you know what Tactus is, and that you are keen to put it into practice.

 

Science, Art & Use

In mainstream music, there is a conventional distinction between Technique and Interpretation. In Early Music, we avoid that binary, because many aspects of historical techniques are designed to produce specific elements of style, and because the word Interpretation is itself problematic. We prefer to talk about Style, style boundaries, and Choices within those boundaries. The historical categories are different again – Science, Art & Use – and each of these terms has a period significance that differs from our modern understanding.

Renaissance Science is the study of mysteries beyond the everyday worldly experience: according to the Science of the Music of the Spheres, our earthly music-making is connected to mysterious cosmic forces that influence our souls and bodies. That same  connection operates also within the phenemenon of Time itself. This historical Science covers some of the territory that we would nowadays call Art, the mysterious beauty of music, the power of the arts to take us beyond ourselves into some higher realm. There are many posts in this blog dealing with the Science of Tactus, e.g. Emotions in Early Opera.

Renaissance Art refines Nature according to a set of organised principles. This concept is hard for some modern-day musicians to accept, since it lays down a set of rules that guide creativity within the boundaries of a specific style. We might compare such musical ‘rules’ to the rules of grammar: they do not dictate what you want to say, but they do guide how you say it. Specifically, they offer choices between different pathways you might follow, from a given starting point. In music, these principles include concepts of Rhetoric & Poetics, as well as Harmony & Counterpoint, Articulation (i.e. short-term phrasing), Melody and Rhythm. The Art of musical Rhythm is guided by the principles of Tactus. Again, there are many posts in this blog on those principles, e.g. Tactus & Proportions in Monteverdi’s Orfeo.

Period Use is the ‘down & dirty’ of what one actually does, putting the principles of Art into practice, in order to realise the beauties of Science. This post is about the Use of Tactus.

To become proficient in the Use of Tactus, it’s not enough to read Zacconi & my blog-posts, any more than reading Bassano and articles by Bruce Dickey is enough to make you an expert cornetto-player, unless you also put in many hours of focussed individual practice and ensemble experience. The 10,000 hour rule and beyond. To read about Tactus and then perform Early Music with modern conducting is comparable to researching cornetto and then performing the Monteverdi Vespers with soprano saxophones: the input is no doubt informative, but the output is not the real thing.

Like proprioception and postural balance, awareness and management of Tactus is more than a technique that you learn and practice: ultimately it becomes a quality that you have. But to have Tactus, you have to do Tactus a lot. And to do Tactus, you have to practise Tactus first. The decision to play in Tactus is similar to the decision to play in a historical temperament, say quarter-comma meantone; or for a modern string orchestra to adopt baroque bows. Ensemble members have to acquire new skills, both individually and as a group, and some rehearsal time will have to be devoted to specific training.  You have to build skills, deepen experience with progressive drills, and trouble-shoot problems in rehearsal, so as to have confidence in performance.

This post suggests a practical approach and training exercises, to get you started.

 

 

Share the Power of Tactus

This “start here” article is divided into four sections: Prerequisites; Development exercises; Maintenance exercises; Rehearsal techniques. Remember, it’s not enough to read this advice: you need to do it, if you want to make progress.

1. Prerequisites

Each member of the ensemble has to understand the fundamentals of Tactus, and be ready and willing to base their music-making on Tactus (at least, for the duration of the experiment!).

Those fundamentals are:

  1. Early Music is directed by Tactus, a slow steady beat, around one pulse per second.
  2. Tactus is practised with a slow steady movement of the hand, down for one second, up for the next second.
  3. It is the responsibility of every individual to maintain the Tactus steadily, and to coordinate it with everyone else: there is no conductor who takes precedence, no-one is allowed to change the Tactus.
  4. Shorter notes and complex rhythms have to conform to the Tactus.

Each member of the ensemble also has to agree that a certain amount of rehearsal time will be devoted to Tactus exercises: say half an hour initially, and five minutes at the beginning of the next few rehearsals. And that the following rehearsal will be run on Tactus principles.

Just like learning to play in mean-tone, you need every individual member to ‘buy into’ the experiment. You can give it a try, and review the outcome after several rehearsals. But you do need everyone’s support. By the way, it’s an infallible rule that the people who most resist doing the hand-exercises are the people who most need to do them.

2. Development exercises.

 

 

Rule 1: do NOT use a metronome.

It is helpful to have an objective reference, so that group sessions don’t degenerate into “I’m right, you’re wrong” arguments. But the sharp click of a metronome gives the wrong kind of information (this is the first practical illustration of the fact that playing Tactus is not ‘metronomic’). Instead…

Rule 2: make a simple 1 metre pendulum (a piece of string with something tied to the end to make a weight). This will “tick” at one beat per second (Mersenne Harmonie Universelle 1636)

Rule 3: do NOT use a metronome.

I hope you will find that the following exercises are not difficult. As in Feldenkrais Method’s Awareness through Movement exercises, these drills are intended to be easy, so that you can manage them without effort. But doing these simple drills, whilst keeping your concentration strongly on the Tactus, will gradually change the way your body/mind/hands/ears manage rhythm, installing Tactus awareness and Tactus skills at a deep level.

Exercise One

Give the pendulum to a person in the group who tends not to be a ‘leader’. Pass the pendulum to another person every five minutes or so. (This will encourage the ‘leaders’ to follow more, and the ‘followers’ to lead more, counter-balancing out any inherent tendencies within the group).

Set the pendulum going, and using it as a reference, everyone waves their arms down/up, with the hand palm outwards/downwards, mostly flexing at the elbow, but using the whole arm. Synchronise to the pendulum and maintain the Tactus movement. Imitate the movement of the pendulum, coming gently to momentary rest at the end of each movement, then moving smoothly away again.

The concept of arsis and thesis describes a subtle difference between down and up. Imagine that you are in a swimming-pool, holding a beachball under the water. As you push the beachball downwards, you have to give some extra effort against the buoyancy provided by the water; it comes up again by itself. Think about this, as you maintain the Tactus movement.

After a while, ask everyone in the group to close their eyes. Keep the eyes closed for ten seconds, and then ask everyone to open the eyes again. Calmly re-synchronise with each other and with the pendulum, and repeat. 10 seconds eyes closed, 10 seconds eyes open. Continue for a minute or two.

Stop and rest. Notice the atmosphere in the room. Typically, the feeling will have subtly changed. The room is quieter, people are calmer and more concentrated. You might be more aware of small background noises. This is one of the hidden benefits of Tactus – it has an almost hypnotic effect, giving you calm, concentration and heightened awareness of small acoustic signals: what a perfect set-up for making music!

Enjoy the feeling for a moment, and then repeat Exercise One, with a new pendulum operator. Give a reminder about the subtle difference between down/up.

When you feel that the whole group is ready, repeat Exercise One again without pendulum, synchronising with eachother.

Most trained musicians find this exercise easy. Nevertheless, it sweetens the atmosphere if you give some appreciative comments along the way: “Good! Well done! That went better!” etc. If people are having difficulty staying together, shorten the time with the eyes closed. If some people still don’t get it, try mentioning that one of the ‘secrets’ is that as everyone moves their arms, there are tiny sounds, and you can synchronise with those.

Exercise Two

Now you are going to use your new-found awareness of Tactus to guide the creation of different rhythms, dividing the slow Tactus beat to find the shorter note-lengths. This is crucially different from the modern practice of adding up the various note-lengths in your part to see what results as a bar-length. In mathematical theory, you would come out with the same answer, but in practical music-making, there is a crucial difference between dividing the Tactus and adding up the little notes. So this exercise practises dividing the Tactus.

Use the pendulum as a reference. Everyone beats Tactus together. Synchronising to the Tactus, say the following rhythms together, repeating each one perhaps three times.

We meet syllables on semiquavers (sixteenth notes) in Monteverdi’s Combattimento, for example. The text can be tricky to pronounce at such speed, but I hope you find the underlying concept easy to understand and practise. Here you are dividing the slow beat of a complete Tactus (down and up again) into 2, 3, 4, 6, 8, 12 and 16. This is closely related to the concept of Diminutions as a way of ornamenting a slow melody: there you divide a long note into many smaller notes. In both cases, it is the slow beat that guides, and the short notes that must fit in.

Once the exercise is going well, do this variant: The whole group maintains Tactus continuously with the hand and by saying “Tea”. Each individual takes a turn to speak a divided rhythm. Enjoy changing unexpectedly from one division to a contrasting one.

The concept of Divisions is closely related to the principle of Proportional Notation. Academics disagree on precisely how the notation of Monteverdi’s period should be de-coded, but the underlying principle is clear: the Tactus remains constant across each change. However, in the slow ternary rhythm of Sesquialtera, the movement of the hand is ‘unequal’: you spend longer on the Down than on the Up, whilst the complete Down/Up cycle takes the same time as before (about 2 secs). Try these Proportional changes, at first with the whole group, and then individually, as with the previous exercise.

Once you have the feeling for these changes in your Tactus Hand, and listening ears, try the same exercise again, reading from period notation. To keep things simple, my transcription has a complete Tactus movement (down-up) for each bar. This Tactus (and my bars) remain constant. In real 17th-century notation, the bar lengths may vary, or there might not be any bar-lines at all: it is the Tactus (not any arbitrary bar-length) that remains constant.

You can download Exercise Two as a pdf here: Tactus: Divisions & Proportions.

 

You can also make up your own words and rhythms. As the text changes, the phrasing will change too, within the steady beat of the constant Tactus. In my first example, notice the difference between Pour me a large cuppa and Pour it out steadily. That’s what it’s all about – this is how Tactus is ‘not metronomic’, how we can observe subtle Rhetorical (i.e. text-based) freedoms within the steady Tactus beat.

 

Exercise Three

Take a short polyphonic piece from your repertoire, something you already know, not too difficult, but with rhythmic differences between the parts. Ideally, a short movement or section of vocal polyphony.

Everyone beats Tactus, with the pendulum as a reference if required. Part by part, beginning with the bass and working upwards, the whole group speaks the rhythms of each individual part, guided by Tactus. If the music has text, speak those words; otherwise use doo-bee-doo, like Frank Sinatra. [Doo-bee-doo has Good and Bad syllables, so it produces text-like articulations, whereas Dah Dah Dah does not]

Then repeat the exercise, with the whole group maintaining Tactus, and each individual speaking their part in turn, beginning with the bass and working upwards.

Finally, repeat the exercise, with the whole group still maintaining Tactus, combining the individual parts: first bass alone, then bass and the next part up, then a trio of the three lowest parts, and so on until everyone is speaking.

Exercise Three with music

If your ensemble is a vocal consort, now repeat Exercise Three (in unison, individually, building up the polyphony from the bass) singing, whilst maintaining Tactus with your hands.

For instrumentalists, it’s rather more difficult, because you need your hands to play. Experiment with pushing your foot into the floor (down) and releasing (up) – not a light tap, but a slow throb. As you become accustomed to this, you can minimise and internalise the movement, into a sense of sinking into the floor (down) and floating free (up). Choosing a specific, small, subtle, and somewhat unusual movement helps your subconscious mind focus on those physical sensations, and link them to the focus on Tactus. Ultimately, your sense of Tactus is fully internalised, but can be instantly externalised into a foot-tap or hand-movement or a nod of the head, whenever needed (for example, to communicate with other ensemble members, or during rests).

Once instrumentalists have found and practised their “Look, no hands!” Tactus, then repeat Exercise Three (in unison, individually, building up the polyphony from the bass) playing, whilst maintaining Tactus internally, and with the pendulum.

In your first Tactus Training session, spend about 10 minutes on each exercise, half an hour in total. If you are properly focussed, that will be demanding (and rewarding) enough. Try to run the rehearsal that follows according to Tactus principles (see #4 below).

3. Maintenance exercises

You might need to repeat the Development Exercises over two or thee sessions. After that, you can incorporate a brief moment of Tactus work into your warm-up (just as you take a moment to tune together carefully at the start of the rehearsal).

Exercise One (Beat Tactus, eyes open/shut) 2 minutes

Exercise Two (Proportions version) 1 minute

Exercise Three (Whichever piece you are working on) 2 minutes

If there is any feeling of agitation or stress, extending Exercise One will help you find calm and focus.

Run the rehearsal according to Tactus principles (see below).

4. Rehearsal techniques

The exercises above help you practise Tactus. But if you are going to have Tactus in your performance, you have to do Tactus throughout your rehearsals.

  • Use the pendulum as a reference. If you need a different tempo for a particular section, adjust the pendulum accordingly. However, the strong theory of Tactus suggests that (approximately) the same tempo should work for an entire piece, even for the entire repertoire, in this period.

 

  • Give frequent reminders to yourself and colleagues to ‘think in Tactus’. To begin with, it’s tempting to return to the modern habit of controlling each note-length as it comes along. Use some external movement, and/or the pendulum to reinforce your awareness of Tactus.

 

  • Word-accents (or musical accents) often, but not always, coincide with Tactus beats. The period terminology is not ‘accent’ (which has other meanings) but Good (for an accented syllable/note) and Bad (for an unaccented one). The Good, the Bad, and the Early Music phraseWhere you have a Good note, avoid a sharp ‘hammer-blow’ accent – rather look for a slow intensification: singers can be coached to intensify the vowel (not the intial consonant); string players can be asked to use a slow bow; anyone can be asked to make the note “slow developing” or “late blooming”.

 

  • Good/Bad should not be loud/soft. But they can be (subtly) long/short: Caccini’s terms for Good/Bad are Long/Short. More about Caccini.

 

  • The down-stroke of the Tactus will often (but not always) be associated with a slow-developing Good note.

 

  • If something is not together, resist the temptation to micro-analyse. Don’t get everyone’s minds focussed on tiny note-values. Rather check the Good/Bad notes, and then rehearse the difficult moment with everyone focussed on synchronising to the Tactus.

 

The two coaching hints that I repeat most often combine the Tactus principle (constant, steady Tactus) with the Rhetorical (i.e. text-based) concept of Good/Bad notes. In 17th-century poetry, the last syllable is nearly always Bad. Thus in 17th-century music, the last note is nearly always Bad.

Last note short! 

Hanging on to the last note results in a late entry on the new phrase, and shows the audience that the singer has lost touch with the words. After all, when you are speaking, you would not sustain the last, weak sylla-BLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLE…

17th-century composers will set a Good syllable onto a Good note. Just as observance of Good/Bad syllables brings poetry to life, so observance of Good/Bad notes creates fascinating articulation patterns, in contrast to the constant legato (or consistent mezzo-staccato) of mainstream playing.

Long notes long, short notes short!

 

In the next post in this series, we’ll work on Advanced Tactus Skills, using the subtle freedoms of the Tactus principle to create the Shape of Time.

Meanwhile, this video shows a vocal consort working with Tactus principles and the Good/Bad concept. They are using two different hand-techniques: some are using a simple gesture on the Good syllable; others are maintaining steady Tactus. At the time of this project, we had not fully realised the significance of the particular movement of historical Tactus (down/up, palm outwards): some singers are beating Tactus side-to-side, or palm up. And ultimately, all this movement should be internalised, with only one singer per choir actually beating Tactus with the hand. Nevertheless, I hope you will enjoy watching their work in progress, and listening to the result.  Video: Monteverdi in Tactus.

Praetorius (1620): three choirs, each with its own Tactus beater. The three Tactus-beaters face inwards, watching each other to synchronise the Tactus.

The next article in this series introduces Advanced Tactus Skills, with which you can create the Shape of Aristotelean Time.

Emotions in Early Opera

As a student in London in the early 1980s, I was told by some tutors (who should have known better) that there was no place for emotion in early music. But nowadays, in a development that owes more to changes in current social norms than to improved historical awareness, emotion has become a buzz-word amongst academics and performers aiike. Nevertheless, even amongst Early Music practitioners, the search for emotional intensity is often neither historical, nor informed.

Many directors and teachers do not work directly with performers’ emotional engagement. But handling emotions is a performance skill that must be taught, learnt, rehearsed and practised, like any other element of a well-rounded delivery. And, like every other aspect of musical and dramatic presentation, the performance practice of emotions changed over time, and between one location and another.

Most conservatoires, even those with a Historical Performance department, teach emotions (if at all) within a late romantic framework, focussing on the intensity of the performer’s emotional engagement, and modelled on the concept of the performer “expressing” their emotions through the medium of the composed score. But we have plenty of easily accessible and self-consistent period evidence as the basis for a more historically-informed approach.

In some debates amongst singers, an argument is sometimes advanced that seems dangerously close to saying: “just use more vibrato”! I am all in favour of historically informed use of vibrato, but let’s all agree that there is more to the rich inner world of human emotions than a wobble in the voice! Singing louder is also not the answer: in Cavalieri’s preface to the very first baroque music-drama, Anima & Corpo, he warns against forcing the voice, which would be detrimental to emotional communication. Rather, he (and many other sources) ask for frequent changes between forte and piano, and between contrasting emotions. Act with the heart, act with the hand: Motion and E-motion in  Cavalieri’s preface

In the urge to convey baroque passions, many performers reach for the Romantic tool of rubato. Nearly all of us were taught this in our initial training, but in earlier periods, Rhetorical emotions were framed within the structure of measured rhythm, guided by the slow, steady beat of Tactus. Yes, this tactus could be tweaked according to changing emotions, but if you are not using Tactus in the first place, then you have no idea what you are tweaking! Frescobaldi Rules, OK? Caccini’s much-cited sprezzatura is even more misunderstood and mis-applied. The truth about Caccini’s sprezzatura. It’s certainly not the secret of emotional vocals (read below what Cacinni says that secret actually is).

In this post, I offer a brief introduction to the vast topic of Historically Informed Performance of Emotions. The post is dedicated to participants in Opera Omnia’s remake of Monteverdi’s lost masterpiece, Arianna (1608) from which only the famously emotional Lamento survives. But I hope the information will be useful to anyone working in early opera, indeed in any genre of baroque music.

 

 

There is ample historical evidence that emotions were highly significant in 17th-century music. The principal aim of Rhetoric is

 

muovere gli affetti – to move the Passions

 

From this well-known phrase, we should note two all-important points. Firstly, the historical discourse is not about “emotion” (singular), but about “Passions” (plural) and about “moving” from one Passion to another. All too often, modern-day coaches will ask for “more emotion!”. The performer might well ask in reply: “Which one?”. Emotion is not an all-purpose sauce that can be poured over any performance! In the historical context, we need to study various emotions, and practice moving between them.

Also, the concept of ‘moving the Passions’ begs the question: whose emotions are we trying to change? As soon as we ask the question, the answer is obvious: the audience’s. Here is the vital difference between Rhetorical (say, pre-1800) and Romantic concepts of emotional performance. In baroque opera, the purpose is to move emotions from the text and music into the hearts and minds of the audience; we do not really care about the performer’s own feelings. This is a world apart from the romantic cliché of the ‘genius performer, expressing emotions beyond those of the ordinary folk in the audience’!

Which Emotion?

Modern studies of emotions, facial expressions etc,  attempt various classifications, based on 6 or more principal emotions. In the Rhetorical age, emotions were understood within the concept of the Four Humours. Although this model does not entirely match modern medical science, psychologically it works very well and can be used very effectively in modern-day performance of early music, just as singers use suggestive imagery (alongside hard science) to guide vocal technique. Of course, the vast array of human emotions cannot be mapped onto just four types. But the Four Humours provide general directions for moving the Passions, just as the four cardinal points (North, South, East, West) provide general directions for travel.

The Four Humours are at work in poetry, music and visual arts; in personality traits, moods and emotional impulses; in performance; and in psychological and physiological responses. The four well-known types are Sanguine (love, courage, hope: a warm, moist, outward passion associated with generosity, enjoyment of music, good food and red wine); Choleric (anger, desire: a hot, dry, outward passion associated with violence and strong drink); Melancholy (thinking too much, unlucky in love, sleepless: a cold, dry inward passion associated with what we would today call ‘the blues’); Phlegmatic (passive acceptance: a cold, moist inward passion, the feeling one has when influenza seems to have filled the entire head and body with green phlegm).

 

Character roles and individual lines of text often combine subtle mixtures of Humours. Dramatic speeches and operatic scenes often move from one Humour to another. But in this style, there are often frequent changes from one Humour to its contrary, word by word: this was considered to be the most powerful way to ‘move’ the audience’s passions.

 

How to move the Passions

 

I use simple exercises to help performers experience and convey each of the Four Humours, spending time on exploring each Humour individually by words, postures and movements. Then we practise moving from one Humour to another: slowly at first, and then faster, so that we can snap from one Passion to its contrary.

Working with a specific text (dramatic speech, poem, opera libretto, song-text etc), we identify which Humour (or which blend of Humours) is at play, word by word. It’s very important to bring this analysis right down to the word-by-word level at which baroque emotions operate. The first exercise is to determine how to perform each word: what colour of voice, what facial expression, what physical posture etc? All of this goes far beyond ‘changes in dynamics’, the simple contrast of forte, piano etc. Rather, each individual word gives a wealth of nuanced information, making it unnecessary for the composer to indicate such ‘dynamic markings’, which would in any case be facile and shallow.

To optimise the delivery of each word, we have to match the precise meaning of each specific word. At first, students tend to suggest approximations: “let’s sing this word loud, warmly, with more vibrato, brightly etc.” But there is a better way, what I call

the  -LY principle

If the word is dolce ‘sweet’, sing it sweet-ly! If the word is amore ‘love’, sing it loving-ly! If the word is crudel ‘cruel’, sing it cruel-ly! And so on. The idea is simple, but powerful, and utterly historical. Try it! Experimental-ly!

 

Baroque Gesture is not merely a hand-ballet, though it should look elegant. Gesture is Rhetorical, i.e. based on the structure and passion of the words. And it’s always painfully apparent, when an actor puts their hand precisely where the director instructed, in the perfect historical position: it comes over to the audience academical-ly! Rather, each well-chosen and historically appropriate gesture has to be connected to, motivated (literally, set in motion) by the text, passionate-ly!

All this intense focus  – on the specific word being sung at the particular time  – results in increased Mindfulness, being ‘in the moment’. You don’t need to plan ahead or review backwards what you have just performed: stay intently in the present moment, and trust the librettist and composer to have done their job with (that previous element of Rhetoric), long-term structural planning.

 

 

The renaissance concept of the Music of the Spheres linked cosmic energy to the harmony of the human body and to practical  music-making. In parallel, period Science considered that emotions were communicated from performer to audience by Pneuma (the mystic spirit of creation, also the mystical energy of the body – like oriental chi – the mystical spirit of dramatic communication), transmitted as Enargeaia (the emotional power of detailed verbal description, poetic imagery, word-painting in baroque music), and carried by Energia (emotional energy) emitted from the actor’s eyes. You can practise believing this, whilst you perform: it will change what you are doing, in subtle, hard-to-describe, but powerful ways.

How to sing the Passions

The secret is not rubato, nor ornamentation (discouraged in the reciting style, according to Cavalieri, Peri, Monteverdi, Il Corago and many other early 17th-century sources), and certainly not vibrato. So what is it? How can we use the voice in this repertoire, passionately, appropriately, effectively?

 

Caccini’s preface to Le Nuove Musiche (1601) (here’s the link again) encapsulates the priorities, the method, and the technique, if you want to move your audience’s passions, in this repertoire. The priorities are Text and Rhythm: focus on the text, stay in the steady rhythm of Tactus. The method is a vocal production that is ‘between singing and speaking’ – see also Peri’s preface to Euridice (1600): you are not there to sing, your task is to help the audience understand every single word.

 

Don’t sing at me, speak to me!

 

By the way, the quickest way to destroy the illusion that you are ‘speaking’ in song, is to sustain the weak final syllable of the line. Amarilli, mia bel-LAAAAAA. So a very useful general rule is

 

Last note short!

Caccini’s recommended technique when there is a sustained note on a Good syllable, is to use crescendo/diminuendo on that single note. Caccini repeats this advice many times within his Preface, and he gives detailed examples of how to apply messa di voce (starting a long note softly, with crescendo) and exclamatione (starting a word like Ahi! or Deh! loud, then going immediately soft, and then crescendo). The standard way to present a long note is what I call

 

The Long Note Kit

 

Start softly and wait – then add crescendo – at the peak of the crescendo, relax and allow vibrato. Time this carefully with the Tactus, and with the typical process of Preparation-Dissonance-Resolution in a suspension. See How to study Monteverdi’s operatic roles for more detail.

 

And that’s it. The crucial concepts are not academically complex, just remember SSS:

  • Speak each word according to its meaning
  • Stay in tactus
  • Shape long notes.

 

The challenge is that these simple ideas demand constant Mindfulness and intense concentration on Caccini’s priorities of Text and Rhythm. So of course, it’s much easier just to add vibrato and mess up the rhythm with rubato, and to create a false pretence of generalised emotion, without any particular link to what you are talking about. But the audience will see through that pretence, just as easily as we spot the insincerity of a fake politician!  So let your Passions be strong, your Tactus stable: don’t rely on weak rubato and wobbly vibrato!

 

 

For further reading, I highly recommend Joseph Roach The Player’s Passion, which analyses theories of acting in light of the history of science, examining acting styles from the seventeenth to the twentieth century and measuring them against prevailing conceptions of the human body. The author explores how dominant theories of emotion, from the Galenic humor to the Pavlovian reflex, have shaped the critic’s changing standards of the natural order of life and the actor’s physical embodiment of it. The Player’s Passion has become a classic among theater historians and students of acting, and received the prestigious Barnard Hewitt Award for outstanding research in theater history.

For an analysis of the use of 17th-century Rhetoric to ‘move the passions’  in terms of modern medical science, try The Theatre of Dreams, which takes the Prologue for La Musica, in Monteverdi’s Orfeo, as a case-study.

The Power of Tactus: A hands-on approach

Hand of God supernova

 

Tactus is the slow, steady beat that guides Early Music, shown by a down-up movement of the hand, approximately one second each way. In previous posts, I’ve introduced the concept Rhythm – what really counts?, explored the philosophical background Quality Time: how does it feel?and summarised the implications for Historically Informed Performance Tempus Putationis: getting back to Monteverdi’s Time

 

In this article the focus is on the Tactus Hand itself, on the practicalities of embodying a mystic concept that links everyday music-making with the divine power of the cosmos. And we should not underestimate that power, since, for renaissance and baroque musicians, the Tactus Hand was the Hand of God made visible in microcosm.

 

Hand as cosmos

 

Tactus in the 1980s

 

Since the 1980s, as co-director of ensemble Tragicomedia and in my own teaching and directing, I have frequently used a simple arm-waving exercise to give participants a practical experience of Tactus. I emphasise the significance of a two-way motion with a sense of ‘swing’, as opposed to the hammering effect of a one-way beat. I recommend using the entire arm, a long pendulum for a slow swing. And already in those days, I noticed that this kind of Tactus work brought to the group a special atmosphere of calm and concentration. After just a minute or so of beating Tactus, the room seems quieter, each of us  more aware of small sounds and as a group, better able to find a united sense of rhythm and timing.

 

In my own playing, I notice that keeping my mind on the Tactus allows me to stay calm, even in demanding fast passage-work. No matter how fast my fingers need to move, my inner focus is on that slow swing: even the fast bits still feel slow and steady. Working with singers, I encourage them to feel the embodied power of the Tactus, to realise that they could hold the entire ensemble in their own hands, and to feel (like a physical weight) the responsibility that this entails.  The Tactus-movement can’t be a trivial flip of the wrist, it needs the gravity of a long, weighty pendulum.

 

Foucault pendulum 1851

 

George Houle’s most useful survey of Metre in Music: 1600-1800 was published in 1987, though I didn’t come across it until many years later. Houle wondered what a tactus-directed ensemble would sound like: my work ever since has been devoted to answering that question.

 

Since the 1990s, with my own ensemble, The Harp Consort, we continue to apply Tactus to many different repertoires, to Spanish dances in Luz y Norte, to German high baroque in Italian Concerto, to the medieval Ludus Danielis and the first South American opera, La púpura de la rosa, to folk-music from Guernsey, Les Travailleurs de la Mer, to Purcell’s theatrical and chamber music in Musick’s Hand-Maid, to medieval popular songs Les Miracles de Notre Dame and Latin-American religious music, Missa Mexicana. In these and many other projects, Tactus is the organising principle that unites the whole ensemble in music, dance and improvisation.

Tactus in the 2010s

 

In this current decade, with my renewed focus on early opera, Tactus has been a key concept in the award-winning Text, Rhythm, Action! program of international research, experiment, training and performance. I’ve re-opened the investigation of Tactus in the context of the Historical Science of Time itself, and applied the latest research findings to my work on Baroque Gesture and Historical Action. Fascinating connections have emerged: the 18th-century love of fermata and cadenza seems to match the contemporaneous fashion for striking Attitudes on the theatrical stage.

 

(c) The Holburne Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

David Garrick as Richard III in 1759

 

Some findings would seem glaringly obvious, but have previously escaped attention. Monteverdi, Shakespeare and their contemporaries circa 1600 did not share our present-day intuitive understanding of Absolute Time: that idea was introduced in Newton’s Principia (1687). The seicento concept of Time was Aristotelian, depending on movement to define ‘before’ and ‘after’. In music, that movement is embodied in the Tactus Hand.

 

 

What is Time

 

Gradually, I’ve been able to reach a more refined understanding of Tactus as Time, Tactus as Movement, with the goal of applying all that pre-Newtonian philosophy to down-to-earth practicalities. How do we move our hands to create Tactus, and what does it mean?

 

For Italian music around the year 1600, the Tactus hand is indeed like a pendulum, swinging for about one second each way (i.e. two seconds for the complete there-and-back-again). The complete (reciprocal) movement corresponds to a semibreve, so each individual (one-way) beat corresponds to a minim, at approximately minim = 60. Of course, in Monteverdi’s day, although there were clocks that ticked approximate seconds accurate to about 15 minutes per day, clocks were not capable of defining those seconds accurately. So Tactus Time is only as accurate as you can humanly make it.

 

The precise Quantity of Time therefore can’t be defined: rather Tactus relies on each musician to remember how it feels, to recall the Quality of Time.  So try these tests: can you remember the sound of a ticking clock? How fast does it tick (according to your memory)? Can you recall the speed of some particular piece of music that you’ve often performed with the same team? How accurately can you estimate a one-second pulse? If you hear a church clock strike noon, how good is your estimate of 1215?

 

Of course, nowadays, you can check your estimates against Absolute Time (well, at least against a digital stopwatch!). But the point of these experiments is to get used to the idea that

 

You are trying to feel the right Time

 

This is very different from the modern musical practice of performers choosing their own time. Seicento tempo is not a matter of personal choice!. You would not get much sympathy if you turned up late for rehearsal, saying “Although most people take it faster, in my interpretation, it is not yet 10 o’clock.” Toby Belch, in Shakespeare’s As you like it (1603) makes a similar connection between good time-keeping in everyday life (‘to go to bed betimes’) and keeping time in music. In reply to Malvolio’s accusation that he shows no respect of time, he retorts that ‘we did keep time, sir, in our catches’ (witty part-songs).

 

Keep Time

 

Your estimate of time will naturally be influenced by your surroundings and your own state of mind: if you are in a hectic mood, you might err on the fast side; if you are feeling particularly relaxed, you might err on the slow side. If you play a piece of music in a generous acoustic, you might play it slower; in a dry acoustic, you might play it faster to get the same feeling.

 

The precise Quantity cannot be defined – you are trying to find the right Quality

 

Fixing Tactus at the order of magnitude of one second (for C time in Italian seicento: in other repertoires, there are significant pulse-rates somewhat faster at approx 80 beats per minute or somewhat slower at around 45 bpm) does not imply a ‘metronomic’ performance. There is room inside that slow, steady minim beat for the subtle difference between Good and Bad syllables (in crotchets) or the dance-like swing of French inegalite (in quavers). There are also symmetries on longer time-scales, and good musicians will be sensitive to these too. Nevertheless, Tactus provides a particular time-scale, a calibration that synchronises musical notation with real-world time, with physical movement, and with the human body. That time-scale is approximately one second, corresponding to a pendulum-length of approximately one metre, which is approximately the length of an outstretched arm (measured to the centre of the body).

 

Narrowing down the historical sense of musical time to an order of magnitude might not seem like much progress towards the question of “what is the historical tempo for Monteverdi’s Orfeo?”. But even this very approximate measure can help unify an ensemble, by ensuring that everyone is feeling the same beat (as opposed to some counting in crotchets, others counting in minims). There has been some discussion along the lines that if a slow Tactus beat is good, then feeling a super-slow pulse (say 30, or even just 15 beats per minute) might be even better. But whilst there is evidence for very slow pulse in some medieval music, around the year 1600 ensemble unity was definitely organised on the Tactus time-scale at around 60 bpm.

 

Establishing an approximate calibration of real-world time to the speed of a minim in common time is also a vital first step towards understanding seicento Proportions. Whether or not a certain interpretation of the relationship between common and triple time is plausible, depends crucially on the starting tempo in common time. Somewhat illogically, current debate on Proportions recognises that historical notation was intended to fix the speed of triple metres (even if we do not yet have a consensus agreement about how to understand that notation), but resists the idea that the speed of common time was also fixed (as precisely as humanly possible). But Roger Mathew Grant’s Beating Time and Measuring Music shows how the entire system of Proportional notation depends crucially on common-time Tactus. The various Proportions are linked, like cog-wheels in a 17th-century clock, and calibrated to real-world time by setting common-time Tactus at the rate of one minim = one second (as precisely as humanly possible).

 

Galileo Pendulum

 

 

The pendulum effect, discovered by Galileo in the late 16-century but not built into a clock until 1656, was used to measure musical time by means of Loulié’s chronomètre (1696) and as late as 1840, in Bunting’s transcriptions of ancient Irish harp-music. With students from the Historical Harp Society of Ireland, we tried playing to a pendulum beat at Scoil na gClairseach: the experience is nothing like playing to a metronome click. Try it for yourself, and you’ll immediately appreciate the differences.

 

The movement of a pendulum, pausing momentarily at the end of each swing, leaves musicians a certain margin for subtle choice of where to ‘place’ the beat. To use the vocabulary of jazz, you can be ‘on the front of the beat’ or ‘laid back’. In this sense, a pendulum feels more ‘human’, less ‘mechanical’. However, the pendulum does not allow those subtle choices to pile up cumulatively: it checks any general tendency to rush or drag. Meanwhile, the strong but gentle movement of a pendulum has the same mesmeric effect of inducing relaxed concentration that we notice with the Tactus hand itself.

 

Down & Up

 

Re-reading seicento treatises reminded me that the Tactus movement is always described as down-up. So when using the Tactus hand as a rehearsal exercise, or in performances of Cavalieri’s (1600) Anima e Corpo at the Theatre Natalya Sats in Moscow, we abandoned the side-to-side swing in favour of the historical, vertical movement. This creates a subtle distinction between the two directions of movement, with Down having added significance, and facilitates awareness of the complete Tactus cycle, from Down to Down.

 

From my studies of historical swordsmanship, modern Feldenkrais Method and ancient Tai Chi, I can now appreciate that the sensation of ‘soft strength’ appropriate to beating musical time can be found by connecting the Tactus Hand down through the whole body. This requires a body-posture that maintains structural integrity with minimal tension. We can see such postures in period paintings and sculptures: a good posture for Tactus is also the starting point for Baroque Gesture, and for historically informed instrumental playing.

 

My training as a Hypnotist provides an explanation for the special sense of relaxation and concentration that focus on the Tactus can evoke. Following the lead of Milton H. Erickson (the father of modern hypnotism) and of Joe Griffin (theorist of the Origin of Dreams), it is now recognised that any experience of calm concentration can induce a particular state of mind. We can call this an Altered State of Consciousness, we can call it Flow or being in the Zone, we can call it Mindfulness or Meditatation: the labels don’t really matter. This phenomenon of heightened awareness is the key to optimal performance not only in music, but also in many other creative and sporting activities.

 

The Flow Zone mashup 2015

 

Preparing for the first performance in Russia of Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers, we encountered many instances of slow triple-metre, notated as 3 Sesquialtera semibreves in the time of the 2 common-time minims. This can be a tricky Proportional change, but Tactus helps us manage it, especially with a vertical motion of the hand. The duration of the complete cycle from Down to Down continues unchanged: the only adjustment is that Down now lasts longer than Up.

 

Sesquialtera: Down – Up becomes Down – 2 – Up

 

In Spanish baroque music, the same adjustment happens even more frequently, whenever we find the cross-rhythm of Hemiola amongst a regular metre of Tripla. A well-known modern example is I wanna live in America: two units of Tripla, I wanna / live in A- / (Down Up) have the same duration as one unit of Hemiola me-ri-ca (Down – 2- Up).

 

One way to negotiate such shifts is to de-emphasise the Up stroke so that it simply doesn’t matter whether it is equal (Down Up) or unequal (Down – 2- Up). Instead, the focus is on preserving the equality of measure in the complete cycle, a consistent time between Down strokes. This focus on the complete Tactus-cycle, on the common-time semibreve rather than on the minim of each stroke, is mentioned in some period treatises, and works well for us in practice.

 

Divided Choirs

Towards the end of last year, working with multiple Tactus-beaters for polychoral music, I suddenly noticed a small detail of Tactus-beating that had previously escaped my attention. In the three-choir piece illustrated on the frontispiece of Praetorius’  Theatrum Instrumentorum, the Tactus Hands are shown palm outwards.

 

Praetorius Theatrum Instrumentorum

 

I immediately searched through other period images and consulted with colleagues. Though no-one else had noticed it before either, it became apparent that Tactus-beating was usually, perhaps always, palm-outwards. (Do let me know if you find evidence to the contrary, or if you would like to add to the mountain of evidence in favour of palm-out).

 

Rhythm

 

The historical movement of the Tactus Hand, down-up with the palm outwards, feels different, and subtly alters the relationship between the two strokes. And the connections to Baroque Gesture are highly significant. The starting position of Tactus (hand high, palm outwards) corresponds to the orator’s preparatory gesture, commanding the audience to be silent and listen. The powerful Down movement of the Tactus stroke corresponds to a gesture of authority, quelling and directing subordinates.

 

Silentium postulo

 

The period philosophy of the Music of the Spheres connects the perfect movement of the cosmos with the harmonious nature of the human body and with practical music-making. Similarly, heavenly Time directed by the Hand of God is reflected in the microcosm of the Human hand beating Tactus and in the perfection (to the limits of human ability) of musical rhythm. That rhythm is found by dividing the slow Tactus beat in various Proportions, just as the movement of the stars and planets are derived from the Primum Mobile. This concept is beautifully described in Dante’s Paradiso, Canto XXVII. Here is the classic Longfellow translation:

 

The nature of the universe, which holds
the center still and moves all else around it,
begins here as if from its turning-post.

This heaven has no other where than this:
the mind of God, in which are kindled both
the love that turns it and the force it rains.

No other heaven measures this sphere’s motion,
but it serves as the measure for the rest,
even as half and fifth determine ten;

and now it can be evident to you
how time has roots within this vessel and,
within the other vessels, has its leaves.

 

Primum Mobile

 

The Tactus Hand embodies the divine Hand of God; maintaining Tactus symbolises the turning of the cosmos; the movements of the Tactus Hand embody earthly authority and command listeners’ attention. However, the authority of Tactus is not located in the whims and fancies of an individual Tactus-beater: Tactus-beating is utterly different from modern conducting. The responsibility of a Tactus-beater is to recall and preserve the perfection of heavenly time, not to make personal choices. So it is that multiple Tactus-beaters can collaborate simultaneously, as Praetorius showed.

 

No-one is trying to make a personal interpretation of Time: everyone is trying to unite in finding the right time.

 

Some musicians feel a deep sense of responsibility to arrive at rehearsal on time. This is part of the respect we owe to the beauty and ineffable nature of Music itself. If you can understand such respect, then you might begin to understand the sense of high duty and precise timeliness that renaissance musicians felt about rhythm.

 

Dowland Above all things original

 

Music and other arts offer us earth-born creatures a glimpse of a world beyond the everyday. In period philosophy, the Tactus Hand allows musicians to touch the stars. We all know that Early Music was directed not by conductors, but by Tactus beaters. So why not try the Power of Tactus for yourself! I’m sure you’ll have a Good Time.

 

Hand touching the stars

 

 

Please join me on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/andrew.lawrenceking.9 and visit our websites:

http://www.TheHarpConsort.com [the ensemble, early harps & Early Music]

http://www.IlCorago.com [the production company & Historical Action]

http://www.TheFlow.Zone [Flow for optimal creativity, The Zone for elite performance]

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.

 

Look Bach on 2015

ALK & Peri

 

Bach’s Prelude & Sarabande performed on baroque triple harp, against the background of a year of research, training and performance; publications, research findings; operas and concerts around the world.

Thanks to all co-researchers and musicians, friends, colleagues, participants and audiences!

 

 

Looking forward to seeing you in 2016!

 

Peri Euridice Preface vale

 

Please join me on Facebookhttps://www.facebook.com/andrew.lawrenceking.9 and visit our websites:

http://www.TheHarpConsort.com [the ensemble, early harps & Early Music]

http://www.IlCorago.com [the production company & Historical Action]

http://www.TheFlow.Zone [Flow for optimal creativity, The Zone for elite performance]

 

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.

 

 

Keep calm & concentrate: may the Force be with you!

In a paper I presented earlier this year at the 2nd Oxford Conference on Music & Consciousness (the first part of that paper is written up here), I identified remarkable similarities in mind/body/spirit processes across many skilled and creative disciplines. There seems to be a special state of relaxed concentration that is found in the best music-making, drama, sports play, martial arts, Feldenkrais Method, creative writing, painting and many other creative activities. It is sometimes labelled as Flow or the Zone, and it has the double function of optimising learning during training/rehearsal/experiment as well as facilitating top-quality performance/execution in crucial situations.

 

Keep Calm and Concentrate

 

My Oxford paper offered a structured study of these similarities according to a well-known scientific model. There is an extensive academic literature on the subject, with evidence-based research on experiential, neurological, psychological, physiological and social aspects of the phenomenon. But, for reasons that will soon become apparent, I won’t use its scientific name in this article. For now, let’s just call it ‘the Force’.

 

Experts in Force-ology, let’s call them Jedi, recognise the Power of the Force at work wherever there is focused concentration. This Force has its Dark Side, where concentration without accompanying relaxation leads to increased nervousness or a sense of being under threat, described in different contexts as ‘performance anxiety’, ‘writer’s block’ or ‘choking’. Anxiety, trying too hard or an over-aggressive attitude towards fellow competitors can all lead to this dark side.

 

Fear is the path to the dark side

 

Less frequently, a strange and inappropriate excess of relaxation leads to dreamy contemplation, when focused action is needed. A friend of mine just watched, frozen to the spot, as her young baby fell into a swimming pool. Her only conscious thought was: how beautiful he is! In contrast, her husband experienced that Time Distortion which is a feature of the Force: it seemed that time itself slowed down as he dived into the pool and rescued the child. Effective use of the Power of the Force requires a fine balance between concentration and relaxation.

 

In his classic descriptions of Flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi identifies a balance between high levels of Skill and Challenge as a defining characteristic.

 

 

If the Challenge exceeds your Skill, you are frustrated. If your Skill exceeds the Challenge, you are bored. If Challenge and Skill are balanced, at a high level, you can enjoy the experience of Flow, the Force is with you.

 

Flow diagram transit of Venus

 

My own Jedi-research shows that the various characteristics of Flow (and of other similar manifestations of the Force), first identified by Csikszentmihalyi, operate as apparently opposing pairs, balanced at high level. Challenge & Skill, Concentration & Relaxation, Control & Unselfconsciousness, Goals & Feedback, Awareness & Action, Delayed Gratification & Time Distortion. See Csikszentmihalyi’s Classic Flow & Lawrence-King’s Flow Pairs here.

 

I also identify a new Flow-pair, also apparently opposing and balanced at high-level: Spontaneity and Precision. The Power of the Force allows musicians and actors to improvise elegantly; sports players and martial artists to react quickly, flexibly and accurately; writers and speakers to frame a new idea in just the right words. Indeed, ‘precise spontaneity’ captures the very essence of a performer in full Flow.

 

Pele

 

Csikszentmihalyi associates the ability to use Flow with a basic personality trait, autotelism. Read more about the Autotelic personality here. But what if you were not born autotelic? Are you excluded from Flow? Csikszentmihalyi’s viewpoint seems close to the (now exploded) Talent myth, the mistaken idea that great performers are born, not made. See Matthew Syed’s Bounce: the myth of talent and the power of practice here, in support of the idea that even the highest-level skills can be learned.

 

The Jedi recognise that, whilst some people might be born with abundant midichlorians, about 10,000 hours of concentrated & relaxed training is required to learn to use the Force. (See Malcolm Gladwell Outliers here & Daniel Coyle The Talent Code here for more on long-term learning through ‘deliberate practice’.) Whatever the application, wielding a light-sabre or piloting a space-ship, the Jedi are experts in training would-be knights to know the Force itself.

 

Of course, that long Jedi training is not just something you do, it is something you become (I borrow this idea from Sifu John Ding’s introduction to Tai Chi, here.) So, as you continue learning, you may well acquire many of the traits of Csikszentmihalyi’s autotelic personality. One part of the autotelic outlook is that learning is continuous and never-ending.

 

Skill is not a destination, but a journey.

 

The Shakespeare Rose

The Shakespeare Rose

 

What is in a name?

 

Since the same Force is at work in so many applications, in one way it doesn’t matter what you call it. Flow, the Zone, Altered State of Conscious, Mindfulness, Awareness through Movement, whatever. But Jedi practitioners are acutely aware of the power of language, and of the fact that each knight is an individual. Particular vocabulary resonates with some people and not with others; certain words evoke strong resistance from some individuals. Some are repelled by the idea that there could be some mystic or spiritual mumbo-jumbo involved in their craft, others react against dry scientific terms for such holistic mind/body/spirit processes.

 

One colleague of mine, an internationally renowned expert in music-pedagogy and a Flow-researcher, draws attention to ancient practices of Shamanism which use the power of the Force. It is therefore important to him that the word ‘Magic’ is linked to the concept of Flow. I am sure that this will work for some people, and I support his enthusiasm for the nomenclature that is meaningful for him and the groups he works with. But I’m not surprised that some of his academic colleagues are appalled by references to Magic in his formal papers and publications.

 

Since people react strongly for or against particular names, it matters very much what name you choose. That is why I’m trying to maintain a light touch of humour, even in this discussion of profoundly serious matters, by using ‘the Force’. Nevertheless, even this name offends some: there are dedicated Star Wars fans who heartily object to the whole notion of the Force.

 

All this controversy over names is hardly surprising. When you start to alter your state of consciousness, you are delving deep into your innermost self, into that area of mind/body/spirit interactions that is outside your normal awareness. In order to do this, you have to relax and ‘let go’; you have to relinquish conscious control and let the magic happen.  ‘Invest in loss’ is the Tai Chi version of this idea. This can be scary.

 

We have to learn to trust the Force. When we are nervous or threatened – the big concert, a world-championship – there is strong pressure to cling onto control, with the disastrous results of choking. So it’s no wonder that we are suspicious of any name that appears to threaten our most profound personal equilibrium, or that it takes time to learn to let go, to allow ourselves to enter that special zone.

 

Yoda let go

 

Meanwhile, scientific research into what I’m calling ‘the Force’ shows that the precise choice of language has great effect on our holistic, mind/body/spirit processes. Powered by the Force, a tiny change of wording results in utterly different neurological and physiological responses and startlingly diverse physical results in the outer, real world. In this sense too, names matter very much. Each application of the Force – performing arts, sports, Tai Chi, Feldenkrais, Mindfulness etc – has developed its own specialised vocabulary, optimised for the particular needs of that application.

 

Words matter in another way, too. The mental focus required to consider the complex, holistic meaning – mind/body/spirit – of unusual technical terms is itself conducive to this balance of relaxation and concentration that we seek. In this way, what appears to be insider jargon within particular applications (Chinese language for Tai Chi, antique language for Early Music, individual coach’s pet made-up words in any sport) is actually a mantra, a magic spell for calling down the Force.

 

So if scientific terms can be off-putting, and the specific vocabulary of particular applications can be useful, do we even need the Jedi and their specialised knowledge of the Force? One might as well ask if we need Mathematicians, as well as experts in Physics, Astronomy, Chemistry, Biology, Geography and all the many other disciplines that depend on Mathematics. Masters of each application are experts in that application, whilst the Jedi are experts in harnessing the power of the Force itself. But you too can learn the Jedi secrets, how to find the Force within yourself: it’s then up to you how you want to use it.

 

Inducting a Knight into the Order

Inducting a Knight into the Order

 

So how do you perform an Induction into the order of the Force, how can you transform yourself into a Jedi knight? Experts in the Force describe countless methods, but I suggest that they all share a common feature. You deliberately (one could almost say, artificially) create some outward Jedi symptoms, and the Force itself will then reverse-engineer the altered state of consciousness required to produce those symptoms for real. In short,

 

Fake it till you make it.

 

But what we are faking here is not a specific application, though this can also be a useful exercise: pretend to perform as a master, as a way of reaching your personal best. Rather we are ‘faking’ the experience of the Force itself, so that (once the real magic kicks in) we can then apply that Force to our chosen application.

 

Thus across all disciplines, many warm-up routines aim to produce focused relaxation, as well as rehearsing particular skills and actions relevant to the particular application. Start-up rituals, established in training and then invoked again at the crucial moment, are vital for another reason too.

 

In the Star Wars films, Jedi knights can activate their light-sabres at the flick of a switch. For our individual applications, we all need a short-cut to the Force, that will work effectively just when we need it most. This might also be the critical juncture when we need to beware the power of the Dark Side, not allowing fear to divert us into disastrous over-control. Like everything else, the short-cut must also be trained, by linking a specific action (perhaps a standard opening move in your particular application) to the experience of feeling the flow of the Force.

 

A musician can link relaxed concentration on rhythm itself (the rock beat, the jazz groove, Tactus in Early Music) to previous experience of Flow. Performers of all kinds can create a chain of trusted actions (putting on special clothes, a warm-up routine, walking into the magic space) that anchor their state of mind securely to the bed-rock of focused calm, so that they can access the learned skills required to meet the challenge at hand. If you create these links in advance, and build their strength with many positive repetitions in training, the anchor will hold you safe, when you most need it.

 

Anchor

 

To reach a high level of performance, you need acquired skills, long experience and plenty of serious training in your chosen application. But whatever your level, the Force will help you perform at your best in any application. The Force also helps make your training, all that ‘deliberate practice’ optimally effective. And the links you forge in training can anchor you to the source of the Force, so that fear cannot sweep you away to the Dark Side.

 

Paradoxical Pairs & Short-Cut

 

Of course, each application of ‘the Force’ uses the power in subtly different ways. In particular, Flow (the optimal state for learning and creative work over a long period) is similar to, but different from the Zone (optimised for high performance in a limited time-frame, i.e. ‘against the clock’). Read more at www.TheFlow.Zone

 

Read about applying the Force to Shakespearian theatre and Baroque Opera in The Theatre of Dreams here.

 

 

The Flow Zone mashup 2015

 

 

If you haven’t already guessed, the proper scientific name for what I’ve called ‘the Force’ in the article above is Hypnosis. For an accessible, authoritative and multi-perspective survey see Michael R. Nash Amanda J. Barnier, The Oxford Handbook of Hypnosis: Theory, Research and Practice (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008). For a more practical approach aimed at clinical applications see Michael D. Yapko, Trancework: An Introduction to the Practice of Clinical Hypnosis 4th edition (Hove: Routledge, 2012). For a ‘friendly and brief guide to the essentials’ see Bill O’Hanlon, A Guide to Trance Land: A Practical Handbook of Ericksonian and Solution-Oriented Hypnosis (New York: Norton, 2009).

 

The art of persuasive language, using the power of words to activate the Force, is the study of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP). This is a name that many react against very strongly: some believe it is the Dark Side of Hypnosis. I see it simply as the Force of words, which can be used for good or ill, with scientific caution or to wild excess. In many ways, NLP resembles 17th-century Rhetoric. Read more from the Yoda of NLP, Richard Bandler, in Guide to Trance-Formation: How to Harness the Power of Hypnosis (Deerfield Beach, Florida: Health Communications, 2008).

 

Please join me on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/andrew.lawrenceking.9 and visit our websites:

http://www.TheHarpConsort.com [the ensemble, early harps & Early Music]

http://www.IlCorago.com [the production company & Historical Action]

http://www.TheFlow.Zone [Flow for optimal creativity, The Zone for elite performance]

 

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.

 

Lord of the Strings