The limits of literalism
Nuno Atalaia Rodrigues

Dear Seconda Practica,

thank you for this essay, it was interesting to read and I agree with some of the points you bring up, specifically the importance of negotiating the hierarchy of textual fields.

Let me start by congratulating you on your efforts to bringing something new and fresh to the Early Music scene. I admire your devotion and wish you success both with your music making and your social media project, I know this can be tiresome work but if you keep it up you’ll surely see a result, bit by bit (literally?).

Perhaps I can add to the discussion by providing one of the ways in which I try to explain the importance and principles of HIP to friends and colleagues who not always have something to do with Early Music. Over the last 5 years of studying at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis and of following discussions between musicians from all over the world both online and round a table with a beer in hand I came across a multitude of different viewpoints and approaches. Also many heated discussions which were not seldom more polemical than constructive. I try to steer clear of getting into verbal brawls with other musicians, thus my contribution is a little outside the regular old arguments and topics.

To me, the correspondence between visual arts and music is very important and I think of it as a good tool to (literally!) illustrate the many abstract aspects of music to both friends, collegues and myself. Especially when making direct historical, and biographical connections between specific paintings/sculptures and musical works, between artists and musicians. To me, there is really a synaesthesia there, on the level of taste, style and aesthetics. For my senses, an Ockeghem motet really sounds like a Van Eyck altar piece, a Dufay chanson like a Petrus Christus portrait, a Bernini sculpture like a Frescobaldi or Kapsperger Toccata, a Caravaggio scene like a Gesualdo madrigal, 1990s NYC graffiti like a Tribe Called Quest track etc. etc. down to the use of color, line, perspective, of course symbols, general composition. There is a wealth of quotes and writings from the past centuries by people such as Michelangelo, Ganassi, Bellori and many others testifying that I’m not alone with this “aesthetic synaesthesia” between music and art.

Thus, from this strong connection it is that I derive both the justification for my way of understanding HIP and my methods for answering questions as a performer — concrete questions which are arguably beyond any textual level given in the written sources and up to the musician’s own judgement, taste.
The justification-part: it’s important to note that there is a need for a whole movement of “Early Music” and HIP — while art never required that. There is no “Historically Informed Painting” movement to speak of and one can easily guess why. When we go to a museum and look at a work by Dürer, we see the actual, literal work by Dürer. That is (apart from the aging process and more or less successful restauration) the literal thing that Dürer draw and we see it with our own eyes, there is nothing in between the artists work and our senses to take away from the inital force of that artist’s expression. And thus we have that “curious” case of so many people knowing and appreciating Da Vinci, Caravaggio, Dürer and many such old masters while names like Josquin or Lassus are known to only a “select few”, even among professional musicians! And we know that such composers’ reputations and fame during their lifetimes was very much comparable to those of similarily influential painters, maybe even greater. I think, there is an explanation for that. The works of those great musicians were lost the minute their last note rang out. Unlike paintings music vanishes the moment it is created. Even a relatively literal score of a piece is not “the work” but only a vague description of how to recreate a music comparing to a painting. The painting is could be understood as a recording of the painting process, comparable to how a tape is the recording of a music making process. A technology unfortunately invented a handful of centuries too late. Imagine how many ridiculously large holes of incertainty in HIP we could immediately close if we had only one or two simple recordings of, say, Frescobaldi accompanying a singer on a harpsichord. I like to illustrate this with a thought experiment: imagine our world didnt know any permanent way of painting. All colors vanish only minutes after they are put on the canvas, like vanishing ink, just as sounds vanish the moment they ring out. Thus every act of painting is a performance. The only way to record a painting is to write down a more-or-less literal description of how to recreate the painting process. So Da Vincis Mona Lisa would be something like “Draw a young woman, 3/4, green dress, dark blonde locks in shoulder length, behind her a landscape and on her lips a smile. But not too much. You know… just… this special smile…” I am of course exaggerating and my analogy has some “plot holes” but you get my point. This kind of description is the equivalent of a written score. So while Leonardo painted this:

an artist who never saw the original work some centuries later, arguably less skilled than Leonardo himself might, following his instructions literally, paint something like this

or… this:

And viewers some centuries later might think “really… this is the famous Leonardo da Vinci? well, its old and primitive, no wonder its not as convincing as what people come up with today” or, even worse, they get so used to something like example nr.3 that they wouldn’t approve of a painter’s work who actually manages to recreate the essence of Da Vinci’s initial work more successfully. “She looks boring. Da Vinci’s amazing speciality was giving his figures really nice boobs.”
From here comes my personal justification for wanting to recreate the historical sound of any given music as faithfully as my limits allow. Gustav Leonhardt said: “Historical is that which is convincing.” In the end it is about making music, the best sounding music we can make. We see those great, and obviously very “convincing” paintings of the old masters and we make the (quite founded) assumption that their contemporary musician’s music making sounded just as amazing as the paintings look amazing. Thus we can assume that the way to make such amazing music is to somehow find a way to recreate the inital sound from those “instructions to a music making process” (that is: scores) as well as we can and it seems like an obvious route to search for any information we can find regarding the tools and practices of the artist who left us those vague instructions. If we decide to willingly stray from that route, its absolutely fine, but then one must know that still following the instructions (the notes) literally will result in a work of only limited potential to “be convincing”. We can assume Monteverdi would have written the little black dots on his staffs in a different order and arrangement in a world where singers had belcanto-voices and lutes sounded like 20th guitars. He would have written them in a way which was the most convincing. If one sticks with his taste for screaming with vibrato and strumming on an acoustic guitar while still sticking to Monteverdis little dots on the staffs the result might be charming, if done somehow musically, but one sort of stumbles over one’s own feet. I respect someone who makes really, really convincing music in her/his own way much more than someone who sticks to some interpretation of old scores and does it boringly. But if one thinks that a loud steel string guitar sounds nicer than a gut strung theorbo and a saxophone sounds nicer than a cornetto, than perhaps there is more potential in just writing the music oneself and not sticking to the little dots written by someone who was used to utilising completely different sounds. Only trying to be as convincing with putting dots on paper as Monteverdi might prove difficult because a.) he was a pretty amazing guy and, more importantly, b.) he has hundreds of years of traditions shaped by pretty amazing guys in his back. If one abandons that its just a bit of a hard task to attempt to equal him in convingness. Noble, and not impossible, but really, really hard. In my opinion, the HIP movement is complete on the day we become so good that our interpretation of the old sources is as convincing as the work we see on the paintings of the old masters. I think we are not even halfway “there” yet. (And, in a way, never will completely.) So far, no lute player’s playing sounds as great as Caravaggio’s portrait of the lute player looks great.

Lukas Henning, lutenist, Basel 28 November 2015


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