A few months ago, I was one of five Musica Contexta singers ranged around a microphone in St. Jude’s on the Hill, recording a motet by Andreas De Silva. The first half-hour of the session was a one of those rather tense protractor and slide-rule negotiations between singers and producer: the angles and positions in which the singers could best hear each other were not ideal for the producer to hear us. And vice-versa. At the time I thought there was nothing unusual about our positioning – we were just five singers, each with our own copy on a stand. Eventually we found a happy compromise into which we could relax, and on we went.
Fast forward a month, and I am back home reading an article, in which is an illustration of eight late-15th century singers grouped cheek-by-jowl around a lectern. As my wife brought a coffee to my desk, she glanced at the picture and asked “Wouldn’t you be able to hear each other better if you sang like that?” Now, Caroline is not a musician, so there was a genuine naivety to her question. Sometimes, though, someone thinking outside the cloister (to put it in early business jargon) is precisely what we need. It certainly set me thinking, and the upshot of this innocent enquiry is that when Musica Contexta next perform in public, in London in October, we will be singing from a single choirbook. Our venue is the Conventual Church of Saint John of Jerusalem in St John's Wood which, for those who do not know it, is an ideal space for Renaissance polyphony – intimate but with a warm acoustic glow.
Now, I am aware that a number of other modern groups have made the choirbook experiment before, so I make no grand claims of originality here. A recent weekend rehearsal experiment with the format, though, threw up so many fascinating questions that I want to give them a wider airing.
The fundamental question I have been forced to ask myself, having now experienced the benefits, is why, if the group I direct is really interested in performance practice, we had never experimented with the single copy (or partbooks, come to that) beforehand? The best answer I can give to this is that, as a modern performer, I have always been very wary of anything that might be seen as no more than a period gimmick. We have never sung in robes, or from candlelight, or taken the tonsure, and I had always imagined that the single choirbook fitted into this bracket: that it was primarily a parchment-saving device – just another old practice with no obvious advantage in the modern world.
So, since my instinct is against re-inventing the wheel, for our first trial with the format I opted for the layout of the choirbook but with the clarity of modern printing. What we did was print out individual parts from our own editions, and cut and paste these onto A4. For an SATB piece, each part was in its own corner of the two-page layout. We then enlarged these originals to A3. The first good news is that the music was easily readable, and by as many as eleven singers. Ironically, we may have made the music too easy to read. By this I mean that we had used two co-ordinating devices which Renaissance singers would not have recognised: firstly, by turning off the ‘multi-measure rest’ option, the parts were printed out so that line-endings were always aligned; and secondly, we included the bar number counter on each part. In practice, this meant that singers could glance around the score and see what other parts were doing. In other words, to a certain extent singers could still co-ordinate themselves visually, as they would have with a full score. Obviously this would not have been such an easy option for the Renaissance singer, with the parts irregularly lined up, and no bar number prompts. The implication here is that the Renaissance singer would have used his aural sense much more than we need to, particularly when we take candlelight and handwritten music into account. By the simple expedient of two computer key-strokes in our own computer-generated editions we can, of course, remove the temptation for modern singers to rely on their eyes. But the logical extension of this is that we might as well use facsimiles. And, come to that, candles.
The visual element was also an issue on the other side of the score. I wandered down the church for an audience view, and frankly it was mildly comical: believe me, a black A3 ring-binder is a big thing – big enough to hide the faces of quite a number of singers when they are huddling close together. Singers are often accused of hiding behind their music, and here we had that effect in spades. In concert, we can remove the music from the folder, which will significantly diminish the sightscreen effect. But in an original context none of this would have been an issue, since singers were meant to be heard and not seen. Actually, even as a modern audience member I don’t have a problem with being unable to see the faces of singers: I know some early-music choirs make a play of visual communication with their listeners, but if anyone can tell me how a soprano’s fluttering eyebrows help aid a deeper appreciation of a Marian motet, I am all ears. That said, I realise that the Renaissance listener would have had the spectacle of the liturgy to view, so we need to offer some kind of visual compensation. Our answer, then, may be to sing more centrally in the building, with the audience around us on three sides. (The cupola of the Conventual Church meaning that the acoustic barely alters for listeners wherever they are seated.) In other words, we will aim to offer the audience a visual involvement with the corporate act, more than with the individuals themselves. I like the sound of this.
Now let me touch on some musical matters which have arisen from the process. One of the great precepts of modern choral practice is unity. For instance, in a homophonic passage, it is usual for a director to specify when a unanimous phrase ending is to be cleared for a breath, and by how much – normally a quaver a crotchet. Of course, when one is reading from an individual part, there is no visual clue as to when such a breath is likely to be common to all the parts. In theory, then, the choirbook process should make unity harder at such a moment. And yet in practice, the proximity of the individuals, and the unity arrived at by having our focus on the same copy, made such moments easy to sense – without anachronistic directorial edicts about crotchet rests. Likewise, starts (and indeed continuations) were done without me raising a finger. Indeed, the role of the director seemed far-less important, since everyone could hear – and respond – to everyone else. This removed any necessity for other anachronistic directorial practices, such as formally adding dynamics. A simple discussion of the text and its possible implications and we were away. It was a revelation to be part of a group that was flying on the wing. It began to make sense of why Renaissance singers evidently did not rehearse – or at least in the way a modern singer would understand the term.
Finally, two musicological matters – underlay and ficta. It is common practice for these elements to be added editorially, so that singers can agree on what would appear to be the absolute basics – words and notes. Are we sure that this modern practice does not betray an anachronistic philosophy? Since Hegel, each of us has been educated to assume that a single rational solution can be found to each ‘problem’. Renaissance humanist education stressed the autonomy of the individual within received (classical or religious) precepts. Now let us think about ficta in the light of this conflict between objectivity and subjectivity. Consider, for instance, Morley’s remark that to his pupil that, although he has added an accidental to a note, ‘if any man like the other way better let him use his discretion’. We may baulk at the notion that two people singing the same line might disagree about the occasional accidental, yet we are quite happy to hear a very similar effect – false relations between different parts at the same pitch level. And in other musical contexts (modern and Eastern) such heterophony is commonplace. I am not suggesting that this practice was considered desirable, merely that it would have been a reality. How else, practically, could the Renaissance singer have operated? Is there any known historical justification for the practice modern singers use (with varying degrees of success) of indicating with a hand gesture when they plan to add an accidental? At best, the practice strikes me as a tacit acknowledgement of the subjectivity of ficta. (If solmization theory gives empirical answers to all practical ficta issues, then no negotiation between educated singers should be required.) Certainly it has always struck me as a fanciful conceit that, simply because they understood hexachord theory, every singer would have arrived at the same (objective) interpretation of ficta. Evidently this is fanciful because in our own day, even those who presume to understand the code (editors or well-versed singers) will rarely agree precisely about the ficta in, say, a Gombert motet. Yet why should we expect them to? After all, there may be a single original code, but through early musical history there are infinite musical contexts to which it must be applied: by definition, the more original the music, the more the composer will have been pushing the boundaries of existing theories, and therefore the less-straightforward will be the application of any code.
The critical difference between original and modern performing contexts lies in the invention of the microphone. It is not just that when we buy a cd nowadays we expect ‘right’ notes and ‘perfect’ ensemble: listening to recorded music has also conditioned us to expect the same qualities in live performances. I suspect that in the ephemeral music-making of the Renaissance (a world without the microphone or its influence) what we regard as flaws in performance would barely have registered with listeners: if this sounds akin to early jazz then perhaps that is no coincidence. In both idioms rehearsal (if any) was less to do with closing in on one ideal performance than opening up a number of possibilities. Yet, of course, we cannot remove the microphone or its influence, so as with many aspects of presenting early music in our own age we end up with the inevitability of compromise (not necessarily an unhappy prospect). So we shall rehearse before our next concert, but hopefully with an open-ended approach. We shall sing from a copy without editorial ficta or underlay. And we shall sing without dynamics written in. And then what? Well, I would not dare make presumptions of how successful all this will be in concert. But I can relate my wife’s opinion on our extended rehearsal experiment – that she had never heard us sing better.
Simon Ravens is the director of Musica Contexta and writes for Early Music Review.