Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Going for it

Theoretically speaking, on this blog I usually give you something to listen to on Mondays, and spend Wednesday talking shop about making music. Fridays then get to be about church and/or organ music, Theoretically I also break those rules every once in a while. However, this post gets to lie at the intersection of Monday and Friday, since I have a recording for you, it happens to be organ music for church, AND I want to talk about music making issues. So if you're having a busy week you can get all three installments in one!

It all started, as the best kinds of accidents do, with a change of plans. This past Saturday afternoon I went over to church, set up the recording equipment, and began to record a beautiful little piano piece by Liszt for Christmas. It's very quiet and tender, and so naturally about 3/4 of the way through the first take, when the music was really starting to fade away, some [insert unflattering name for fellow human being here] across the street started his full-bore riding mower to take care of his leaves in his little 5 x 8 1/2 yard. I went outside to see what was making all that noise and from the catatonically slow speed he was driving it was clear it would take him at least an hour to do his little yard.

That's not, unfortunately, rare around here. My neighbor across the street also mows his postage stamp-sized yard with a deluxe riding mower, only he rips around like he's in the Indianapolis 500 which means it only takes him five minutes (which is good because I have to close my windows so my ears don't bleed from the sound; he wears huge noise-cancelling headphones, I've noticed--with tall radio antennae. I assume there is a blinking light on top for the airplanes).

While I waited for this fellow to finish riding around in the below freezing temperature, I needed to do something else. And I decided that that something else would be to record a piece I'm playing for Sunday, which happens to be the first Sunday of Advent. Advent, mind you, not Christmas. If it was Christmas I would be preempting the day before Thanksgiving on this blog to play Christmas music which is something I will leave for merchants and other people who Absolutely Cannot Wait to Buy and Sell Stuff. Advent is the period leading up to Christmas and it actually starts in four days, so I'm not getting ahead of myself much. Besides, any half-decent church organist has been playing Advent music for at least a week, maybe two or three, to get ready. If you work with choral organizations you've probably been playing it for months (Christmas music, in that case).

Whatever the strange combination of peevishness, nervous energy, and boldness in my system at that point, I just decided to flip on the microphone and go for it. Besides finding out that I could still make a decent recording even though the microphones were on the wrong end of the church (and thus really close to the pipe room), here's what I learned:

I had been previously playing Mr. Praetorius straight: that is, only the notes I saw on the page. A youtube video I heard a few days early had some ornamentation, particularly on the first notes when little is going on. It always seems to take a few measures for a late Renaissance organ piece to get going and I thought the ornamentation really helped. But I didn't stop there. As if I'd just been given permission (which can be dangerous if you improvise all the time) I started throwing what I hoped were stylistically appropriate ornaments all over the place. That included plenty of "notes inegales" which is the Renaissance equivalent of swung eight notes, and plenty of anticipations, trills, and mordents. I tired to let those ornaments grow on their own, that is, not to worry so much about whether I was getting to the next downbeat on time. Because:

There was a time when people didn't have timepieces in their pockets and on their wrists and referred to them constantly. I suspect that a bit more rhythmic freedom could have been on the musical front as well. My playing of early music seems to have gotten very metronomic and that lack of freedom was bugging me. Besides, I made a discovery in the middle of the recording. Which was, that if you take a measure or so to be very free, almost cadenza-like, you can snap back into strict tempo very easily by employing notes inegales. The hypnotic strength of the dance rhythm is enough to make up for any freedom of tempo employed previously. Not having such an overpowering awareness of the clock and the next metric deadline is pretty liberating. And I didn't find the results to be lacking in precision, either.

As for the ornaments, I recall thinking during the recording that maybe I was being excessive. But, I thought, there are a lot of complaints from contemporaries, mostly priests, it seems, that the musicians were being entirely too fancy with the music--breaking the hymn tunes up, and making everything confusing. Now it could perhaps be that that was entirely the fault of the non-musicians, the ones who, to borrow from a completely different era on a different continent, wouldn't even be able to recognize Yankee Doodle if it had some sort of accompaniment with it. On the other hand, is it possible that these critics had a point? Maybe an authentically creative performance of the music of earlier eras would offend our ears as well as theirs. We seem to be pretty stringy with our ornamentation these days, and I have a suspicion that's because most performers aren't very capable of doing any. The once you are about to hear were all improvised. I probably have a lot to learn about how and when, but I am also not going to assume that the method of any one composer of the time should be given total authority. Folks tended to violently disagree with each other back then, too. Still, it will be interesting to learn more about the time and the practice of performance in whatever way I can in the years to come. It is fascinating what you can learn from people trained in areas in which you are not, even, it seems, from videos on the internet.

Veni, Redemptor Gentium by Hieronymus Praetorius

(Come, Savior of the Gentiles, verse 1)

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