Continuo

Photo: Early WindsRehearsals of Early Music vary more than those unfamiliar with the stuff would guess. Explaining to others why I, a non-musician, love sitting in music rehearsals of any sort is an iffy enough proposition in itself, but at least I can condense my main reasons enough that they may appreciate how much watching and listening in on the preparatory process—hearing what the musicians are working on, how, and why, not to mention any backstory of the pieces in question that gets shared en route—informs and enriches my experiences in concert performances. Tell them I love sitting in on rehearsals for early music, and I can get quizzical stares as though I’d said I love the temperate climate of Seattle. Isn’t that where it rains all the time? Well, the Pacific Northwest gets a fair quantity of rain, or it might be hard pressed to maintain its evergreen status, but in addition to lots of other notable and varied climatic features of the region, it gets truly spectacular sunshine as well.

Rehearsals of early music, too, are far more varied and nuanced and, at times, downright surprising than you’d guess if all you’ve ever heard of the entire body of work leading up to the Baroque period is that 30-second clip of background music advertising the local Renaissance Faire.  It can range from the most tender, measured votive chant to the rollicking, rowdy, and bawdy; from plaintive solos through angel-choir harmonies and right on to shockingly modern sounding rhythms and dissonances, early music is an incredibly rich tapestry of sounds.

One thing that does remain consistent in a great deal of accompanied or instrumentally supported vocal music from early Western sources is the use of continuo. To a layman or amateur listener like me, this means that while there will be portions or movements of larger musical works when either the choir sings a cappella (unaccompanied by instruments) for a while or, conversely, together with the majority of the orchestra ‘singing along’ in accompaniment, there are often sections where one or more of the singers, or the entire chorus, is supported by a small group or individual’s continuo playing, too. Continuo is not an instrument, or at least not a specific one; rather, it is the practice of supporting sung music with a continuing and enhancing undercurrent of instrumental accompaniment.

The result, at its best, is that the sounds blend so seamlessly that listeners might well forget that they’re not hearing human voices exclusively, and the instrumental strains seem to disappear into the sound. Yet when the continuo is not played in the same passages, as may be the case in rehearsal, the phrases can sound strangely pale or incomplete.

A great continuo player, like a great accompanist, is a species of artist quite distinct from the great solo instrumentalist or even orchestral player. It is, in very rare instances, possible for one player to excel in all of these roles, but such magical creatures are truly few and far between. What distinguishes the fine continuo artist, and to some extent accompanist, is not only sheer musicality but an extrasensory ability to think in sync with the other artists in the performance—the other players, the singers, the conductor—and a remarkable degree of prescience in always giving just the help or polish needed at just the right instant without either being asked or demanding the spotlight for it. The best so seamlessly enhance the work of those around them that they raise the level of the whole performance in ways that a self-aggrandizing soloist cannot. There’s an element of generosity in the skill set that not only shows true mastery but also the confidence of knowing that such excellence is its own reward and the beauty and pleasures of the concert are great enough to cast their golden glow over everyone.Photo: Lute's Heart

There’s a good lesson in there for all of us, musicians or not, isn’t there.

All Together Now

Another day, another rehearsal. More study, more practicing. And for all but the most independent and reclusive researchers or out-and-out hermits, this means work done in company. We need each other. The best progress is usually possible only with the support and aid of collaborators and fellow workers in all kinds of related tasks. We build on the work of our predecessors and colleagues; we stand on the shoulders of others.digital illustration from a photo

Nowhere is the necessity of such mutuality, of working very literally in concert, truer than in choirs and orchestras. I have written here plenty of times about the privileges and joys of my life in being able to attend not only so many wonderful concerts but the rehearsals where they are prepared. Beyond that, though, I feel fortunate to have the example and reminder constantly before me of an approach that can be tremendously beneficial in all kinds of life’s activities: surrounding myself with all of the resources that smart and able and collegial, supportive fellow laborers can bring to the task.digital illustration from a photo

Time alone is valuable. It offers all sorts of useful room for quiet reasoning and planning, uninterrupted cogitation and problem-solving, and the mental and emotional space to put all of those aspects to work for me. But there would be little in the way of material with which I can do any of that if it weren’t for the rich stores of fact and imagination prepared by all of those who have preceded me in any task I choose, and there can be only the kind of progress that my own limited stores of wisdom and experience, skill and talent and imagination can cobble together if I don’t work in tandem with others. So I am happy to enlist all of the company I can, and aim for working in harmony toward whatever purposes we can dream and achieve. Then, perhaps, my projects will have a chance of culminating in choruses of satisfied approbation.

Under the Arches

I walk into the room after the rehearsal has begun, and the men are working on a slow passage of Handel. Choirs I and II sing the same tenor, baritone and bass parts at this part of the piece, and they have unified their pitch and the round warmth of their Latin vowels so that despite having only ten of them singing a relatively soft phrase, the sonority is beautifully intense and sweeps me into the room on an almost ecstatic wave.photoI sit and finally have a look around. The doctoral student assistant is conducting, and one of the voices raised is my husband’s, from where he’s joined Choir II. I close my eyes for just a moment to listen to the lilt and roll of the men’s voices.

When the women rejoin and the full ensemble begins to move forward, picking up speed and volume as the text becomes more buoyant, I feel myself lifted further on the waves, transported far from this concrete box of a room and its cold fluorescent lights.photoSuddenly I am under the morning light pouring through a cathedral’s oculus, gazing up into the curves of the arched nave and dome. I am pacing sedately through the arcade of a cloister, the afternoon sun warming my heels as it peers into the intervals between the pillars. I am in the garden, watching the sun set on the curled canes of the roses climbing there,the bows of the water leaping in the fountain, the draped arms of the willow as it leans out to embrace the day’s last rays of light.

This is the sweetness of music, and in this wash of light and dark, cool and warmth, joy and meditation I can gladly lie for a thousand years.photo

If the Muse Should Come to Visit

Our summer road trip afforded me a few good opportunities for one of my favorite activities: listening during great music rehearsals while drawing and writing. Part of me is fully engaged in the music-making, wanting not to miss a single note or nuance even when it’s truly a working bash through sort of session for the musicians. I learn so much about the pieces in hand, their histories, contexts, technical challenges and all that sort of thing as well as what to expect and what might happen in performance that I always enjoy concerts more deeply after hearing them being developed for the performances. At the same time, if the work in hand is sans text or in a language so unknown to me that I can’t get wrapped up in that aspect beyond whether the ensembles’ vowels and consonants, attacks and diminuendos and cutoffs are, well, ensemble, then I can focus my language centers on writing, sometimes blog post essays and sometimes poetry.

When the text is too enthralling or at least too present in my attentions, I can still indulge in drawing. Either way, it’s not so much dividing my attention as letting one kind of artistry inspire and guide another one. One enriches the other. Especially when the music rolling around me is as rich as, say, that being prepared for performances at the Vancouver Early Music Festival in August. I only wish that the products of my sessions were always as inspired as the music undergirding their inception. But my only chance of getting any better is to keep practicing, isn’t it. And I’m lucky that I like the process more and more as I go along, and yes, the better the music is, the more I enjoy my learning curve. That’s inspiring enough.graphite drawing